I swear I've never cried watching Field of Dreams

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My wife's two young cousins came to town this past weekend. We panicked and looked around the house for anything to entertain two 11-year-old boys. We live in a decidedly Wii-free zone. Most people nowadays have those flat-screen jumbotrons on their living room walls; we have a 15-inch television we bought thinking it would make us watch less television. Instead, we just squint when we watch television. I do think my wife likes that I watch far fewer old samurai movies when the subtitles are in 8-point font, but it's not so easy to sell the merits of a 15-inch television to an 11-year-old boy.

One of these cousins is a Vienna-raised White Sox fan whose father can no longer enter the country legally because of certain. . .well, warrants. Apparently they watch American baseball via satellite in Austria. The other cousin is a Shanghai-raised Tigers fan whose father is allowed to enter the country but isn't talking to the other one's father (his own brother) because of certain. . . well, business disputes. It's all very complicated, but thank God for baseball. The Tigers were hosting the White Sox and the stars aligned for a convergence of cousins from opposing points on the globe in the grand old city of Detroit, Michigan. I went with them to Sunday's sold-out game.

Despite the shriveled gherkin present at every diaper change, I haven't thought that much about how my son is going to turn into an actual boy. He can't yet scuttle away to kick the neighbor girl in the shin or light things on fire or turn every inanimate object into an imaginary pistol, so I haven't considered how different my relationship will be with him because of his gender. But as we dealt with how unprepared we were to host two boys at our house, I realized that in a decade or so one of those things was going to be living under my roof. I was terrified. "Do you think they like samurai movies?" I shouted at my wife from the basement.

"Just get out those sixteen crates of baseball cards your dad brought over the day after we moved into this house."

Back when I was working, I lived with a certain amount of constant anxiety. There was always some CFO's deposition to take or some hearing on a motion in federal court. Since I quit, I have come to accept that anxiety is just a natural part of life; now I get nervous about things like grocery shopping with two kids or being forced to talk to two 11-year-old boys. But I needn't have worried. I'd forgotten entirely that at one time I myself was an 11-year-old boy. The look on their faces when they saw the baseball card collection stored under our stairs was the same that graced Howard Carter's when he first gazed into the burial chamber of Tutankhamun's tomb. Then my wife told them I went to high school with Derek Jeter:

You would have thought I was Derek Jeter.

When I told them, "No, Derek and I weren't friends, he was three years older than me," I saw their disappointment. But you knew him, right? I could see in their eyes that they wanted Derek to have been a hero even then, raising his fist menacingly at the bullies who called me pizza face and then helping me pick up the books they knocked out of my arms. "We never actually spoke. I played against him in little league once." What was he like, then? "He was smart. A hard worker. He used to copy my best friend's brother's Latin homework, though." Their faces sunk. "But his girlfriend was really pretty." They brightened.

The boys are the first fans to arrive at the ballpark at 10:45 in the morning. They haven't even started warming up the hot dog water. They wait around the Tigers' dugout. Curtis Granderson signs their ball. Carlos Guillen signs a card. These heroes in polyester emerge from underground, close enough to touch. The fingers of the boys brush those of their idols, encased in batter's gloves, during the exchange of memorabilia now glossy with scrawled names. I did all this once. The real work of these men comes long before the stadium is filled, I think, long before they step into the batter's box.

The cynic in me sees the sport as a bunch of 'roided up Venezuelan street urchins making CEO salaries to entertain 40,000 drunk meatheads and sluts in halter tops clutching $15 long-necked novelty strawberry daiquiris in stadiums bursting with advertising. But I don't see any of that sitting next to two 11-year-old boys. Instead I am steeped in the memory of what it was like to be one. The statistics. The arcana. I tell them secrets a friend on the inside told me: the Tigers manager slept in a cot in the clubhouse when they first hired him, until the general manager finally got him a hotel room. At the end of every inning, they rush from their seats down to the dugout, pleading with Miguel Cabrera to toss them the ball. One of their young comrades catches it, and they come back to their seats, disappointed but excitedly talking about where they'll stand to plead at the end of the next inning. It doesn't even matter to them that the Tigers are winning.

I would challenge you to find me anything more wholesome than an 11-year-old boy at a baseball game. I sit back in my seat.

"Did I forget to tell you guys about the time Derek Jeter rescued an injured puppy that wandered out onto the high school field and how he nursed her back to health? It's true."

A fickle aquifer in our path

Posted by jdg | Thursday, July 24, 2008

I am trying to spend more time with my grandfather these days. He's turning ninety soon. Yesterday afternoon he was holding his great-grandson while I stared at his penny loafers wondering how a man who claims not to be as mentally or physically fit as he once was still manages to put on slacks and dress socks for a ninety degree day. I admire the generation that endured the depression: even back when they had to tie their pants up with rope and stand in bread lines they dressed better than most of us do now. Aside from the polyester sweat-suit crowd in Boca, most of them still do. I consider my closet full of t-shirts and blue jeans and bemoan the fact that most turn-of-the-century hobos dressed with more dignity than I do. I am basically an overgrown toddler. If they made onesies for adults, I'd probably wear them.

When we get together I often try to ask my grandfather what it was like to see Chaplin movies in the twenties or the fighting at Guadalcanal, but all he wants to talk about is the future: the peak oil crisis or the coming Chinese hegemony. Most old people won't shut up about the past, but getting my grandfather to talk about his history takes work, like priming an old-fashioned hand pump: raising the handle, pouring an old coffee tin of water down the spout, and pumping till that cold water trapped deep underground flows up to the surface.

I have managed to turn my grandfather around on the old family homestead. All my sentimental talk of family history and the area where he and his wife grew up and raised my mother seems to have actually moved him. Yesterday he explained he would love to see us buy it, but just doesn't want the project to devour our savings. To him, I think, the house was a gloomy place he visited in those prewar days before it had plumbing or reliable electricity. The farm must have seemed stuck in a past not worthy of sentimentality. "I want you to understand the potential pitfalls," he told me. "Starting with the water."

My grandfather was the longtime head of his city's water department. Prime him with water and he'll speak of his past. He describes the difficulty of drilling wells in the area where the homestead sits, the fickleness of the aquifer in that part of the county. The quality of the water is bad, he says, and just a few miles to the south underground salt deposits from the edge of an ancient sea could potentially make the water brackish and non potable. He starts talking about childhood memories of the farm, the elaborate chain pump that drew water from the ground before modern plumbing was installed and how even then good water was so scarce he was forbidden to flush after urinating.

Before I know it we are discussing the future again: elaborate plans for rainwater harvesting cisterns and filtration systems. I tell him next time I come to town we will go there together and discuss possibilities, but really, I am hoping the touch of those thick old tulipwood floor planks will jog memories of more than water. If not, I'll still looking forward to the drive out there together through the country to that land our ancestors cleared back in the 1830s.

While driving there alone I might pay attention to a particularly picturesque curve of road or a stately Victorian mansion under the shade of ancient trees. I always look for the history of a place, of the buildings I see driving through the country. What was that four-story brick beauty before it became a real estate office? A dancehall? A fraternal lodge? What stories could it tell? I never really think much about the role of water in shaping the landscape. I remember the cistern at Mycenae, climbing alone into the 3,000-year-old pointed arch a hundred steps down with just one book of matches. The water at the bottom had dried up just like the bones in Agamemnon's tomb. But it felt like the belly of Greece.

My grandfather's landscape is informed by a bureaucrat's working knowledge of hydrogeology. A road might twist the way it does because it once followed a creek that dried up after they built that dam in Saline. There are memories of meetings: the sting still of heated exchanges with county drain commissioners. Three men once worked for him, he says, scouring the townships for undiscovered deposits of fresh water. For decades he ensured that his fellow citizens had quality water to drink. A genius of the local, my grandfather tells me about the landscape in a way I could never appreciate without him as we drive or walk through a park with a playground for the kids. Another road might follow a small river not visible beyond that mound of earth and trees. He'll tell me where it drains. The lakes, ponds, and swamps we drive past are just windows to that underground world only he knows is there, remembered through strange maps only he could read. Underground he knows where there are rivers no one will ever see, lakes of permeable rock, a whole history and future right there under our feet.

Just a blog

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 23, 2008

This makes me sick.

You see this website as a way to write whatever you want to write, without pressure from agents or editors or marketers. One day you're writing about your kid's relationship with her dog and the next you're writing about stolen manhole covers and ancient Rome and your readers forgive you for that, and stay with you through it (possibly even enjoying it). You love this freedom. You love that this medium tolerates everyone from teenaged diarists to tech-obsessed nerds to pretentious pricks. Occasionally you find people using websites like this for the kind of writing you can't find even in the best magazines anymore; writing that's raw and uncalculated. Immediate. True.

Then you come home from a few days at the lake, the feeling of milfoil and clay still on your toes, to read that just such a person has had her work serially plagiarized, photos of her husband and children used to concoct some other life. One of the great virtues of this medium---its pure democracy---also makes such anonymous plagiarism and co-option of identity a danger. People with inscrutable motives will say, "You put it out there. You asked for it." But those people are just plain wrong. Writers like Kate have helped legitimize blogging as a medium for good writing.

We all need to work together to protect her. And all our writing.

One of the perks of working at the cigar factory: when you turn ten, you get to smoke as many cigars as you want.


Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | , ,

Every time I turn on the radio, someone is talking about the housing crisis, the price of crude oil, the auto industry in peril, or the general downturn in the economy. I know things aren't great right now, but with the media's perseveration on all this doom and gloom, I can't help but wonder if we aren't talking ourselves into an actual depression instead of just letting the United States slide slowly towards Europe where it belongs on the less relevant part of the world stage. I just saw Ted Koppel interview a Chinese peasant working three jobs to send his son to college, where the bespectacled moppet studies 10-12 hours a day so as not to dishonor his parents. I pictured the whooping and hollering kids I went to college with and moaned, "Oh we are so fucked." I have been teaching my daughter Mandarin so that one day she might properly welcome her new Chinese overlords.

And yet despite the barrage of bad news, I can't help but feel buoyed by what's going on in our neighborhood. More and more people our age are moving in. There are several more babies now than when we first arrived. In a month or so a full-service grocery store is set to open a block from our front door---we won't even have to cross a street to get there. Our family has survived two years now in the Motor City with one compact car, and soon we won't even need to drive it to get groceries. And perhaps the most exciting development of all is the opening of the Dequindre Cut, a new below-grade biking/walking/jogging path that bisects our neighborhood and connects Eastern Market with Detroit's jewel of a riverfront. I've been taking the kids running 3-6 miles every weekday since my wife returned to work, and I am so excited about this new jogging path. For the last few weeks, all the news on the radio has been bad news, particularly here in Michigan. But everywhere I look around me all I see is this myopic vision of hope.

So here I've been, humming along with the hubris of optimism in a city where humming and optimism are more offensive than perjury. It was only a matter of time before the gods punished me. I was with the dog about to cross Gratiot. I went to push the button to activate the walk signal at the crosswalk and realized the metal pole that held the button and the traffic signal was missing. Someone had simply ripped it out of the ground. Goddamn scrappers.

After crossing the street, I took the dog on our normal walk across the highway from the Brewster Projects, the nondescript mid-century towers where Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson grew up. I could have sworn at least two of the buildings were still occupied a few weeks ago, but halfway across the pedestrian bridge over the highway I could hear scrappers pounding the aluminum frames from the windows and tossing them several stories to the ground below. All four buildings were already in ruins:

I poked around a little inside the buildings and considered how different life was here compared to my own neighborhood across the highway. When I got home, I read in the paper that a few weeks earlier, police on patrol took fire from one of the high rises. Probably scrappers.

I heard on the news yesterday morning that Flint has more than 200 missing manhole covers. Scrappers get about $20 for the heavy iron discs, but the city must spend $200 to replace them. A month or so ago, scrappers stole an 8-foot statue of Jesus from a Detroit church. The plaster statue had just been painted green to resemble tarnished copper. So they dumped Jesus in an alley. With China's voracious demand for raw materials and the shocking increase in value of recyclable metals over the past few years, increased scrapping and theft are no surprise. But in places like Detroit the problem is so vast, fighting it seems almost futile, like those farm workers beating away the locusts in Days of Heaven. Occasionally a scrapper will die cutting a live wire, but six more step forward to take his place.

You see scrappers all the time in their beat-down old cars and trucks filled with metal: aluminum siding, radiators, steel fixtures, copper piping. I often see them inside Detroit's wide-open and abandoned historic structures. Most artifacts of architectural significance have long been pillaged (for example, the terracotta lions from Lee Plaza that passed through the Ann Arbor antique market before being incorporated into new condo developments in Chicago). But there is still some rusty metal to be ripped away from the walls in most of these buildings. While showing that BBC documentary crew around a few weeks ago, we came across a mini van filled with metal driving around inside the old Fisher Body 21 plant. They are like maggots feeding on wounds; parasites devouring the viscera of this dying city.

While parasites, they are undeniably intrepid and hardworking parasites. They climb up on skyscraper rooftops to rip off sheaths of copper. It is not easy or particularly lucrative work. Still, it is almost impossible not to wonder what all these men working independently could accomplish if you replaced their sledgehammers with clawhammers and paid them to build something together rather than destroy everything piecemeal.

* * * * *

The great cities of Europe, like the great city of Detroit, were all built when labor was cheap. Put a hammer or a trowel in a man's hand today, and you have to pay him a union wage. Thus, a new world of steel, glass, and concrete. The first time I saw London I said, "Big deal." I'd been studying post-colonial theory in the comparatively dirty, depressing little hamlet of Dublin and when I looked at those big impressive buildings in London all I saw were the fruits of empire and the blood from the backs of those who'd been whipped into submission. Everywhere I went in Europe I had this chip on my shoulder when facing criticism of contemporary American policies paired with the expectation that I kowtow to the historical and cultural supremacy of the locale. Europe was the bitter old man touting the accomplishments of a bygone era, dismissing the morals of today's youth. "Your time has come and gone," I wanted to say. "Just as ours now is passing."

In Rome, one of the greatest pleasures is discovering the stones of the classical city incorporated into the fabric of the modern metropolis: the wall of a lost temple to a lesser goddess supporting a sixteenth-century apartment building; ancient masonry relegated to new use in a medieval bakery, now a shoe store. The abandoned buildings of that once great empire served as the quarries of states that emerged centuries later.

Try telling a man whose children are starving that the damage to the building he's ripping copper from far outweighs the value of the metal in his arms. You can't assume any scrapper has such a noble heart: perhaps he is just looking for that next hit of crack, or the payment for last month's cell phone bill. These men have minds like locusts. They see a city abandoned, with cash just sitting there, waiting to be harvested.

Myopia is not just a luxury of the privileged.

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, July 15, 2008 | ,

We're not going to BlogHer 2008. As tempting as it would have been to rent out the Fatty Arbuckle suite at the St. Francis and throw a raucous party with plenty of champagne bottles, the chances of it ruining my blogging career would have been too great. Don't rupture any bladders without us, girls.

I think the very idea of traveling with these two kids to a city where I used to enjoy unfettered childlessness was too much to even consider. I can't imagine going there with them until they're old enough to be bored while I drag them around town saying, ". . .and this is where daddy saw his first drag show." I think it's great that the event is being held at a historic hotel in the heart of San Francisco. For those attending who hope to get out of Union Square (and I do recommend getting out of Union Square), I wrote up a top nine list of our favorite things to do in San Francisco right before we left two years ago [number ten? walk around our old neighborhood]. I'm sure some things on there have changed, although Clement Street undoubtedly still smells like fish guts and dried-Chinese fungi. But if you're headed there this weekend or anytime in the future, nothing could make me happier than internet strangers seeing any of these parts of that beautiful old city. Well, I suppose I would be happier if it was me seeing them again. Without two kids.

Team Wendell

Posted by jdg | Friday, July 11, 2008 |

Our dog and eldest have put aside their differences, signed several important treaties, and formed an alliance. There was never any question that the kid loved this dog, but until recently her relationship with him was as one-sided as any of my disastrous high school crushes. The dog has always tolerated her, and shown some dignity in not biting off those little fingers probing his nasal cavities or pulling out fistfuls of his hair. Again, not so different from those girls I had crushes on in high school.

But with the significant decrease in attention he gets from me naturally resulting from the increased attention I must give my infant son, all that previously-unrequited toddler love doesn't seem so bad to old Wendell. I have caught him licking her face tenderly. When she cries in the middle of the night he goes to her door. She has stopped sticking things in his ears. They cuddle together and look out the window. He even lets her ride him around the house now like that rodeo monkey. So I taught her to yell, "Ride, Bucephalus, ride!" just like Colin Farrell.

Watching the two of them play together is everything you hope for when you decide to introduce a dog into your family: he runs around; she chases him until she's exhausted; I sip lemonade. Recently, my daughter has been telling me that that Wendell is her "big brother." She calls out as she chases him: "Big brother! Come back here (I'm not done dumping this water on your head.")

Toddler logic dictates that if one's big brother is a German Shorthaired Pointer, then, of course, one must therefore be a dog herself. Toddler logic also dictates that if one's canine big brother is entitled to do something, than his canine little sister should also be given every opportunity to do the same. That includes urinating out-of-doors with one leg raised, gnawing on rawhide, catching a frisbee, and sleeping in a cage. I have tried to talk her out of the back of the dog's kennel several times, with negotiations usually falling flat against a series of high-pitched barks. Don't tell CPS. Melissa once expressed her concerns about a certain child of hers pretending to be a dog (mostly requests along the lines of Punish me, I've been a very bad dog). Jealous of Wendell's leash and collar, Juniper recently asked me tie a long ribbon around one of those pink elastic headbands they make for bald, androgynous newborns so everyone knows they are girls. This became her "leash" and "collar." I've led her around the neighborhood by this contraption while she pants and growls at squirrels, cringing and wondering if it will be my fault in twenty years if she lets herself be led around the Folsom Street Fair by a chain attached to her nipples. Cue Iggy Pop.

This emulation took a difficult turn a couple weeks ago, when an organization known as Ultimate Air Dogs (The U.A.D.) came to the Detroit riverfront by our house. U.A.D. is a competitive sport invented by former Detroit Tiger's righthander Milt Wilcox involving dogs that jump as far as they can into a pool filled with water. When I first saw Milt down at the riverfront, I had to give it to him: if I was a former major league ballplayer who'd squirreled away some money over the years, I'd probably invent a competitive sport involving dogs that jump as far as they can into a pool filled with water, too. The U.A.D. set up its facilities a few days before a festival and every day the kids and I went down to watch the dogs practice. I decided then and there I wanted my dog to be an Ultimate Air Dog, and in doing so I unwittingly made my daughter want to be an Ultimate Air Dog, too.

One of Wendell's most impressive skills---other than climbing trees (I'm not kidding)---is his ability to jump and reach a treat held about eight feet in the air. I got out the ladder and practiced his jumping in the backyard. Juniper told me that she, too, could jump and reach a treat, but her efforts fell far short. I'd hesitate to even call what she did jumping. That damn Nursery School Olympics really boosted her self-confidence to an intolerable level. I need to find some mean little rich girls from Grosse Pointe to make fun of her clothes, stat.

After a few days of practice, Saturday came and with it the Ultimate Air Dog Championships. "Are you gonna be an Ultimate Air Dog?" I said to Wendell in my best talking-to-dogs voice.

"Me, too!" shouted Juniper. I rolled my eyes.

When we got there, I realized most of the other participants were far more serious than we were. They all had t-shirts made with their dogs' names on them: "Team Kelsi" and "Air Waffles." Some of the dogs were wearing special aerodynamic outfits and several of the humans were inexplicably wearing spandex. It was kind of like hanging out with the parents at a gymnastics meet, except their kids were, you know, dogs.

But then again, so was mine.

During a jump, the human would stand at the end of a long elevated dock while a partner held their straining, anxious dog at the other end. They bashed the dog's favorite toy against the dock or twirled it around, taunting the dog with it, calling its name until the partner let go, then they tossed the toy high into the pool just as the dog had reached the end of the dock. The dog would leap magnificently fifteen or twenty feet out into the water. A crowd of onlookers had gathered and would clap for each leaping participant. The dog parents all knew each other already and enthusiastically congratulated each other's dogs after each jump. Milt Wilcox announced the events through one of those mini PA systems. It was very serious business. I was nervous.

When our turn came, I had to hand the kid and the baby off to my wife as I mounted the dock. I didn't have anyone to hold Wendell at one end, and none of the other competitors volunteered. "Sit," I said to him up on the dock while hundreds of people waited. "Stay." I could hear my child screaming hysterically as my wife dragged her over to the viewing area, "BUT I'M AN ULTIMATE AIR DOG TOO! I'M AN ULTIMATE AIR DOG, MAMA!"

I walked backwards towards the water while Wendell sat confused at the other end. Eventually I mimicked the earlier participants and bashed his favorite chew toy against the dock, and he sprinted towards it. When I tossed the toy into the water he threw his haunches against the astroturf and slid to a halt. When I gestured for him to jump he gave me a look that said, "What, are you fucking crazy?" We tried again, and the next time when I threw the toy up in the air, he jumped tenderly into the water a foot or so from the end of the dock and swam out to get it. Subsequent attempts went the same. My heart sank. My dog was no Ultimate Air Dog. The next competitor was another German Shorthaired Pointer who easily leaped seventeen feet and caught his toy mid-air. "See Wendell: why can't you be more like Champ there?"

After slinking away to find my wife and children, Wendell went up to his little sister and shook all the water off himself, as if to say, "Here Juney, I'll share some of my Ultimate Air Dog water with you."

He needn't have bothered. A few minutes later, it started to downpour, and we were stuck in it. At some point on the walk home, that moment arrived when everyone's underwear was completely wet and there was nothing more the rain could do to us: you get as defiant as Job and decide it's no longer worth running or avoiding giant puddles, and you start to almost have fun. A Detroit cop saw my wife with her stroller and stopped his cruiser to offer us a ride home. "We're almost there," she said. "But thank you!" I was barefoot. Juniper was ankle-deep in a puddle. When we got home, we all stripped and I threw Wendell in the bathtub. He shook himself off a few dozen times, splattering the tub and the shower curtain with mud.

I wrapped Juniper in a towel, held her with that cool, delicious kiss of rain still soft on our skin. I showed her Wendell in the filthy tub. "Your big brother wasn't a very good Ultimate Air Dog was he?" She shook her head. "Do you want to go in there with him?" She shook her head again. "But I thought you were a dog, too, and wet dogs always go in the bathtub."

She took a long, hard look at the inside of the tub, with its two inches of coffee-colored water, the drain clogged by clumps of trapped dog hair. "You know Pops," she said. "I was only pretending to be a dog."

"Really?" I said, and brought her downstairs to make some hot chocolate.

[thanks again go to Xenos Mesa at Xenos Designs and Graphic Vectors for the amazing illustration on this post. Also, see the handmade clothes at the etsy store he runs with his wife]

The Homestead, postscript

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Thanks for the comments, encouragements (and warnings). We definitely appreciate all the different perspectives. But just to clarify a few things, my mother originally told me the property sold for $12,500, but later she learned it actually sold for around $17,000. So it's still a Hyundai, just one with heated seats and an integrated-GPS system, rather than hand-cranked windows and an AM radio. Also, the new owner has apparently done some work on the roof and will likely demand more than what he paid. The quickness with which the property returned to the market is probably a sign he's eager to get rid of it, which could mean a reasonable price but probably also means the project was more trouble than he expected. Nothing auspicious about that.

We're not going to rush into any decision. I'm going back in a few weeks to investigate the area a little better. In my flight of whimsy I also failed to mention that an acre over from the house sits one of those newfangled IKEA mansions, you know: the fiberboard ones that come flatpacked and get assembled with Allen wrenches and only last a few years before falling apart? Its residents were blasting Bollywood techno and then Mariachi techno from their Great Room, so I can only assume they are world music techno aficionados. With two Escalades.

If we were to take on this project, our goal would not be a complete gut or rehab, but a minimal effort to make the place sound and habitable as an occasional weekend getaway. Nothing like leaving the peace and quiet of Detroit for techno-filled nights in the sticks. But if anything comes of this opportunity, I will certainly post about it.

Meanwhile, back to the babies.

The Homestead

Posted by jdg | Monday, July 07, 2008 | ,

We're on the highway and we pass a funeral procession doing sixty-five miles an hour. My wife tells me she got caught behind one near Eight Mile the other day, with DPD directing traffic and a horse-drawn hearse at the head of a mile-long orange-flagged convoy. "Now I'm normally all for the crematorium or a cardboard box," she says, "But I have to say that was pretty classy. Like having Aretha Franklin sing at the service."

"Seems a bit contrived, though," I added.

"Yeah? I still think it's classy."

"Well I think it'd be classy to dress like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, but that ain't ever happening."

I hate even silly conversations like this. I don't ever want to put her in the ground.

* * * * *

My mother called a few weeks ago to tell me she's writing and illustrating a book for the kid. It's all about her ancestors here in Michigan: she received some genealogy research and an old journal from a relative who's since moved on to California. She tells me that the farmhouse built by my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather (or something like that) in 1837 from bricks he made himself sold recently to someone outside the family for the first time. The price? $12,500. "Man," I say. "That's a Hyundai."

"It's in pretty bad shape," she tells me. "Grandpa has no sentimentality at all for the place. He says someone should just tear it down."

* * * * *

We leave the funeral procession far behind and the highway turns blue and soon enough we're driving through the town where my mother was born and raised, an hour or so southwest of Detroit. We hit an area that was countryside when she was a child, but now it's strip malls and sprawl and my child looks out the window at the same chain restaurants and big box stores they built in the countryside outside the town where I was born and raised. I try to remember the directions my mom gave me, turning onto a smaller road with stop signs at intersections where all you see are green corn stalks and the silhouettes of red barns. We pass a township cemetery where my grandfather's people are buried, an aunt or grandmother, I think, some woman whose grave he still keeps neat and flowered. A mile down the road and there's another cemetery, this one older with limestone gravemarkers worn smooth and nameless. I hastily search the headstones for the name of the man who came here in the 1830s while my kids wait impatiently in the car. As we drive away I think again of that first cemetery. My grandfather is in his eighties. He is my last connection to this town. When he is gone, who will put flowers on the grave of this woman? Who will even remember her name?

* * * * *

Hardly a block from the second cemetery and I recognize the farmhouse from the etching in the nineteenth-century county gazetteer and the photographs my mom has collected. Built in a Greek revival or federal style, the farmhouse looks exactly like what it was: a home built by a farmer, a man without architectural training but with a talent for craft and handiwork lost today except among highly-trained specialists. How do you even make a brick? How do you lay a fieldstone foundation? My ancestor must have done something right: poorly-built houses don't stand for 171 years. The front has imbalanced fenestration but a nice doorway with columns and a simple pediment. When we arrive the sun is setting through the trees.

Aside from the doorway, the only significant architectural feature on the exterior is a simple cornice.

A knock on the front door goes unanswered. A peek in the windows reveals that no one is living there. Around back, the rear screen door has swing wide and stands open. My mother told me some mentally unhinged distant cousin lived here without running water or electricity until last November. His things (or the things that had been in the house when he moved in) are piled in the old kitchen.

I consider the hundreds of abandoned buildings I have entered over the years. I have never opened a door that was closed or gone through a window that wasn't already opened. I have never taken anything other than photographs. I walk so softly inside them my heels hardly touch the floor. Of all those buildings, this is the first I've entered that has had any connection to me.

Abandonment always betrays a home with a particular odor of stagnancy. A house needs a moving body inside it to be a home. This abandoned house smells no different than any other. I half expected the blood in my veins to imbue this trespass with more meaning, as though it would allow me to smell an ancestor's soda bread in the stove or hear a strain of some ancient melody in the stillness. Instead giant spiders continue to roll out their cobwebs. They are the only ones who live here now. Unless there are other vermin in hiding.

I continue through the kitchen. On an old cabinet rests a still life of detritus: a pipe, a hacksaw, a broken showerhead. The new owner has already done some work on the place. I shout a greeting from the wooden addition into the brick portion, so as not to startle anyone who might be inside. I expect an answer, or at least an echo, but instead my voice dies as though my mouth were covered in felt. I wander into the main part of the house to find my relation's insane ramblings about medical appointments scrawled in felt pen on the wall of the dining room.

I wander over to the front windows and try to picture what this area was like when the bricks were set into mortar back in 1837. All I see is a Currier & Ives lithograph: a bunch of men with Andrew Jackson haircuts or Horace Greeley sideburns wearing waistcoats and inhaling snuff while grumbling about Martin Van Buren and the Coinage Act; a troupe of women with milk pails herding children through waist-high grass. This vision is interrupted by 2008: our dog jumps out of the window of our Volkswagen in the driveway and my daughter chases him around the yard and my wife chases her around with our baby in her arms. Their laughter and shouting sounds good inside these walls.

This is the front room: the parlor, the room where the caskets of my ancestors would have been set out for wakes before that carriage ride down the road to that final home, that cornice of mound they rest under to this day. I remember the old sampler my mom cherishes that some relative embroidered in a room like this, maybe this very room. It's dated around the time this place was built. I try to picture time being spent here: the kerosene ambiance, the workdays beginning with the sun still on the horizon. I try to picture the room filled with all that mourning, the laughter, all the hardships and pleasures of life. But now it's just an empty room.

Up a narrow set of stairs I find three bedrooms. No closets. No bathrooms, of course: none in the house at all. My mom remembers a working outhouse there. One bedroom has yellow paint peeling on its walls. It is almost cheerful. These are the rooms where babies were made and babies were born and where some babies probably died. These rooms were the lifeblood of this house.

I look out a window. Juniper is out there by the old corncrib with the bug box her grandparents gave her, catching fireflies. My wife is anxious I think. She doesn't think I should be in here and she's probably right. Here am I, a wannabe Walker Evans, photographing the poetry of bare wooden floors; a wannabe James Agee, communing with spirits who've long since departed, these hardscrabble forebears I romanticize but could never know or even understand.

* * * * *

My grandfather has the soul of an economist. He knows a money pit when he sees one. And who's to say when you're approaching ninety that you aren't entitled to a bit of pragmatism in the face of sentiment over stones and wood and bones. When I saw him this past weekend and mentioned that the stranger who bought the old homestead has already put it back on the market, he warns me against doing something foolish: "It's too far gone, Jim."

* * * * *

Horace wrote, "Romae rus optas; absentem rusticus urbem tollis ad astra levis." Roughly: in Rome you long for the countryside; in the country you sing to the stars of the distant city. I have always romanticized a country life, though I have accepted that my wife's career requires a city. We cannot stop thinking or talking about buying this farmhouse that an ancestor of mine built from bricks he made of clay found in the earth he settled. A hobby farm. A country estate. A vanity of the privileged. My wife pictures a big rustic butcher-block dining table, a quilt draped over the foot of a wrought-iron bed, a wildflower garden. I envision a place to take the kids away from the city to experience the countryside, even just to see stars in the sky. And I am filled with the sentiment of not wanting this family place to become just another ruin. Watching my daughter run freely through that lawn some girl her own age ran through over a century and a half ago, some girl whose blood flows still in her: it made my heart soar to the point where I could almost forget the vision of contractor's bills.

We talk about possibilities on the drive home. "It's nice to dream," I say. In the backseat, sweet Juniper watches the fireflies flit about her little box, and falls asleep.

Posted by jdg | Friday, July 04, 2008

There came an echoing crash from the dining room. What had she done now? There on the ground was my vintage cocktail shaker, its various pieces scattered, a guilty look on my child's face. My thoughts immediately went to the bottles of booze, but thankfully all were safe.

"I cannot tell a lie," she said. "I did knock it down. Don't be mad."

I knew that oft-repeated George Washington story would finally pay off. Thank you, founding fathers. Now I can only hope that my stories about lightning-seducing kites and cold air baths, the brewing of the first batch of Boston Lager, and the Burr-Hamilton duel will prove equally lucrative.

Next stop: Beijing

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, July 01, 2008 | ,

[art work by our friend Xenos at Xenos Designs and Graphic Vectors]

One of the highlights of my week
is scouring the newspaper's weekly calendar of local events for activities to break up the monotony. Estonian folk dancing at the public library! Burlesque costuming workshop at Studio 601! One of the Wayans brothers is coming to town! I circle events and file them away inside the Trapper Keeper full of appointments in my mind. We rarely do any of it, but at least I know we can go to a Tyler Perry film festival or a spaghetti dinner at St. Jude's if we get bored.

A few weeks ago, I read about one event that I knew we couldn't miss: The Detroit Nursery School Olympics: "Hosted for tomorrow's champions, events include Marshmallow Shot Put, Big Wheel Grand Prix, Paper Plate Discus, Diaper Derby, Toddler Trot and more!" Hot damn, I thought, that will burn at least an hour of daylight! My only regret was the lack of a crawling tot to participate in the diaper derby. It has always been my dream to sire a diaper derby champion. When the morning of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics arrived, the kid put on her wristbands, headband, and her striped tube socks. I gave her a pep talk, thinking of all those other parents out there training their kids for weeks in the Paper Plate Discus or the Big Wheel Grand Prix, and I told her that even if she didn't win a gold medal, I'd still love her. In the car, already late for the opening ceremonies, we found ourselves following a flatbed truck loaded with port-a-johns down Jefferson Avenue. "Look Juney," I said. "A truck full of potties!"

"A truck full of potties?" she screamed, "Where?"

"Right in front of us." Cue uproarious laughter from the back seat.

We followed that truck full of potties all the way to the site of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics, where it turned and lurched across the green lawn. "I think those potties are going to the Olympics, too," I said.

And there stood Detroit's Nursery School Olympic Village, awaiting a half dozen self-contained shit boxes. It was a gorgeous day. Tents had been erected to shelter the forty or so volunteers and three security guards from the sun. There were a dozen different sporting events set out, from a tiny basketball court to a bean bag toss to a mini golf course. There were gym mats for the diaper derby; cones positioned in a slalom for the Big Wheel Grand Prix. At each station two or three volunteers stood around ready to assist the pint-sized competitors. There were coolers full of dew-dripping Capri Suns and boxes of Goldfish crackers. There were medals and ribbons laid out, waiting to be awarded.

There just weren't any kids.

Yep: my daughter was the only kid at the 2008 Detroit Nursery School Olympics.

Remember that scene in John Huston's Annie where the titular urchin and Miss Farrell first enter the Warbucks mansion and hundreds of servants gather in the great entrance hall to greet them with a Busby Berkeley song-and-dance number, you know, with the leggy chambermaids and the gay gardener who pirouettes his way over to the trellis which he then climbs to deliver Annie a single rose? Well that's kind of what it was like to walk up to the empty Detroit Nursery School Olympics holding a 3-year-old by the hand. But unlike a plucky, attention-starved orphan, my child did not burst into song about how she thought she was going to like it there. As more than forty volunteers crowded around to welcome an actual living, breathing child, she screamed and hid behind my legs, burying her face in the back of my knee. A few of them did back handsprings and clapped while a few others scooted backwards doing jazz hands, and I said, "We'll just wait over here a few minutes for some more kids to show up." As we stood there, I looked over the flier they'd handed me when we'd arrived:

Welcome to the 2008 Detroit Nursery School Olympics!

10:30 Opening Ceremonies
10:45 Children Compete in events
11:45 Awards Presentation
12:00 Closing Ceremonies

It was nearly 11:00, and still no other kids. I'd told her there would be lots of other kids there, and she kept asking me where they all were. I signed in, guessing how many jelly beans were in the jar for a big prize and sliding the bent slip of paper containing my guess into an empty fishbowl. A woman who seemed to be in charge asked how old my kid was and then told me she had a daughter the same age. Where was this daughter? One kid was pathetic, but two would have made a competition with odds I could support. I offered to borrow one of their vans and go round up a few dozen rugrats on Belle Isle but they warned that would probably constitute kidnapping.

After a few more minutes we headed over to the first event. The woman whose own daughter was MIA enthusiastically escorted us, explaining each event in detail despite the presence of eager volunteers at each station. "After you throw a marshmallow," she said, "We'll let you eat another one. I think we have enough for that." She said all this as though she'd spent the previous evening practicing how to warn gaggles of feisty urban children not to eat the marshmallows. Unfortunately, my child is really bad at throwing things. I don't think any item she's ever thrown has gone in the direction she intended. The key was having her stand backwards and telling her to throw it as far in front of her as she could. The marshmallow landed a respectable distance behind her. So the Marshmallow Shot Put? Gold medal. Paper Plate Discus? Gold medal. Toddler Trot? Gold medal. By the time she'd completed all the events, she had so much gold around her neck you could have slapped on a feather earring and called her B.A. Baracus.

* * * * *

I'm the guy who purposefully dines in empty restaurants. I'm a glutton for this particular type of heartbreak. I figure I should spend my money where it's actually appreciated. But the surly waitress always looks like she wants me to leave so she can go hang out with her friends; how's one sawbuck left on the table going to solve any of her problems? What's the price of our whole meal against the owner's rising tide of obligations? I sit there in an empty restaurant and say to my wife, "What if we hadn't come in here tonight? Would some other fools have taken pity on this place?"

If you hold a Nursery School Olympics and no one comes, does it even count? What if one kid shows up: does it really make any difference? A week or so later, and I sit down to a hot cup of coffee and the Saturday morning newspaper. What's going on this week, kiddo? Urban Oasis Nature Walk. Free. I undo the velcro and pencil that one in, fully prepared for a private tour full of roused pheasants, fleeting foxes, and abandoned tires.