Gratitude in third person

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 26, 2008 | ,

1. His child's best friend fell on the way into preschool yesterday, cutting his little head open against the concrete, requiring him to be shuttled away to a doctor. Since then, if he even mentions the the words "injury" or "blood" around his daughter, she shrieks with an uncontrollable rage of terror. She sits on his lap and draws pictures of herself wondering where her friend is and "hoping he is okay."

2. Her father broke his toe yesterday. He feels stupid and doesn't even want to reveal how it happened, but goddamn it's ugly. If this were a war movie he'd gruffly order some private to sniff it and tell him if it smells like cheese. It hurts like hell whenever he wears shoes. But at least it's only a toe.

3. There are few things more pathetic than a stay-at-home dad with a freshly-broken toe trying to run errands with his kids all around town. You should see him: dragging one foot behind wherever they go with a squirmy 9-month-old under his arm while trying to keep the other one out of the path of fast-moving motorized wheelchairs and cars. Little old ladies open doors for him and offer their assistance. "Can I carry that for you?" they ask. "Yes, thank you." And here he thought this life hadn't left him with a shred of masculinity to lose.

3. He takes his kids into a store that advertises itself as the "Doll Hospital and Toy Soldier Shop" though it contains no recovery wards full of morose infants with third-degree vinyl burns nor enough recruits for a new legion to reinforce the troops reenacting the Second Battle of Capua on his living room floor. But it's still an incredible mom & pop toy store. His daughter is there to select a few things she'd like from the obese, red-clad Nunavutian sweatshop owner who terrifies her so much. He picks up a Santa puppet and uses a ho-ho-ho voice and she screams while clutching his legs as if he were talking about her bloody best friend. His nine-month-old son stares at rows and rows of baby dolls his own size, and then looks at his father with concern and confusion. Who are these silent, unmoving colleagues? Why are they in glass cages, boxes? You're not going to put me in there with them, are you?

5. He picks a crusty yellow booger from under the left nostril of his son and stares at it on his fingertip. What should he do with it? Flick or wipe? Where? It has only been a few years that he's had the good sense to do the right thing with his own boogers, and now he is responsible for the boogers from not just one but two constantly-leaking noses that aren't his own? Sometimes the awkward responsibilities of parenthood threaten to overwhelm him completely.

6. They figure as long as they're up in the tony suburbs, they should stop at the best French bakery in the area to buy some buttery treats. Afterwards, he hands his daughter a fresh croissant that silences her in the backseat. He sees gasoline selling for $1.55 and stops to fill up the tank for less than $20.00. While pumping, he watches his children in the backseat though they cannot see him. She is picking tiny, soft bits from inside the croissant and handing them over to her brother, who fumbles for each morsel in her outstretched hand while she patiently waits for him to get it. He watches their hands together, the baby boy smiling at this small generosity, and when the tank is full he opens his daughter's door just to kiss her on the cheek.

7. His favorite time during the day is when he gets to put his son down for a nap, sing to him and feed the boy his mother's milk from a bottle and watch him ebb from the inquisitive, mobile boy he's become back to the stillness of what he once was and so rarely still is: this baby, this sweet sleeping baby.

The boy fights it more this morning, laughing through the bottle with his hand outstretched, touching his father's mouth, grabbing and twisting the fat on his father's neck, his chin. Laughing. What is this Mummenschanz shit? Sleep baby. Please sleep. Your pops needs to write something for the internet.

So that post I wrote last week on the auto industry meltdown has been bouncing around some political blogs and generally the discussion has been very civil and interesting. But I have received a few nasty e-mails and there are a couple things I still want to say.


I have been surprised by the anger and disgust expressed by so many at the workers (and their unions) for their role in the current state of the American auto industry. I cannot deny I have a certain sentimental appreciation for organized labor and what it has done for the working people of this country over the years, but nor can I deny that the role they've played in the weird, insular business culture of the domestic auto industry has contributed to some of its current problems (the JOBS bank, etc.). What has surprised me is how all kinds of people---conservatives and liberals---have such a visceral, angry response to the idea of the lazy union worker. In the comments I said it reminded me of the way people were so up in arms about Reagan's "welfare queen" mythology in the 1980s (you know: the black welfare mom driving all those kids around in a Cadillac and buying caviar with her food stamps). Now we have the lazy, do-nothing UAW member sitting in a room doing cross word puzzles instead of working on the line, collecting $70 an hour salaries with better health and retirement benefits than the CEOs of the company. I have no doubt that in the 1980s there were a few women on the welfare rolls driving around in Cadillacs. And I have no doubt that it wouldn't be a huge challenge to find a lazy UAW member getting paid more than he's worth. But does anyone really believe that all union members are that way---that this industry is currently crippled because lazy people without college degrees had the audacity to believe they deserved to join the middle class?

It's no secret that Americans don't like to confront real issues of class. But I'm going to do it anyway. I think this ugly response to a mythology perpetuated about blue-collar workers is particularly shameful because so many American white-collar workers in both the public and private sectors are incredibly lazy themselves. God forbid a factory worker should step away from her job twisting the tops on the toothpaste tubes for a minute, but just because someone has a Bachelor's degree that apparently entitles them to dick around on the internet all day with impunity. I once wrote (somewhat in jest), "Thank goodness almost every office worker in America has virtually unfettered access to the internet. Imagine what would happen to our economy if employers started taking away internet privileges and people were forced to actually work. The sound of crickets would reign at fark, digg, and reddit. Entire fantasy football teams would stand around on their virtual sidelines with nothing to do. Projects would get done way earlier than they needed to be. Soon there wouldn't be enough work to go around. Bureaucracies would actually become efficient. Massive layoffs would follow. The entire American economy is balanced precariously on the fact that the average American office worker spends only about 20 percent of his or her time actually working." This is corporate America's dirty little secret. Anyone who's ever worked in an office environment knows that it is at least somewhat true. Add to all that internet time the Sisyphusian piles of meaningless paperwork, unproductive conversations with coworkers, endless meetings, pointless conferences and worthless training seminars, and I think there's enough fodder for a stereotype of the lazy, do-nothing middle-class white-collar office worker who may not have a union to protect him, but who hardly deserves his salary. Where is the animus towards this mythical being?

The thing is, he's not a myth. He is real, and right now he is spitting on the men and women who still make things in America because they dared to believe they could be just like him.


To all the liberals who are so eager to see the Big Three "lie down in the graves they've made for themselves" by catering to the tastes of the majority of Americans who desired those big, gas-guzzling SUVs instead of developing small, fuel-efficient vehicles, I ask this: when is the last time you visited a car dealership for one of the Big Three? A lot of those SUVs now come in hybrid versions that significantly reduce their gas guzzling. One of the best-reviewed and (in my opinion) attractive cars produced by any auto company is the Chevy Malibu, which gets 30 mpg on the highway and also comes in a hybrid version. And I know I perseverated on this in the comments on the last post, but no one acknowledged it. How many Big Three-hating liberals are even aware of the Chevy Volt, an attractive, full-sized electric car that has been in development for many years and is set to be released in 2010? They scream about Detroit's lack of innovation and failure to develop hybrids, but GM has been working on the Chevy Volt for a long time (at GREAT expense) and this vehicle is poised to revolutionize the industry. It will get 100+ mpg, and travel all but the most extreme commute distances without a drop of fuel. In other words, it will kick your Prius's ass. This isn't just a concept car, it is a car that is set to be built in Detroit and sold to American consumers in about a year if this company is still in business.

So why do crunchy Detroit-hating liberals refuse to acknowledge GM's innovation? Why is it so much easier just to follow these common memes of hatred and loathing rather consider that these companies might be worth saving not just for the jobs and the economy of the Rust Belt, but for the innovation that our American engineers and designers might bring to the table?

[I'm closing comments here because I'd like to keep the discussion going in the comments to the last post. If you have something to add, I'd love to hear from you there]

[I took the photo at the top of this post yesterday on top of a 4-foot pile of books in what was formerly a library at a recently-closed school in Detroit. The book was published in 1963, when your options for such a career in Detroit were considerably better]

I drove across the state yesterday to give the kids a few hours with their grandparents and all the way there and all the way back all I heard on the radio was talk of how the US automakers were poised for failure. From across the country people called in with their outrage over a potential bailout. They did this to themselves with their gas-guzzling environmentally-unfriendly inferior products. Let them die!. . .It's the unions' fault! Let them fail! This is what all types of people from all across America were saying on the radio.

I take pictures of the sad state of Detroit partly because I know there are people out there who can hardly believe places like this exist in their own country. From our greatest, most unique cities to our blandest, most generic suburbs, things have been pretty nice for a long time. It is easy to forget how our once-great economy was built (or what happened to the places that built it). Now it has been pointed out that this robust economic juggernaut we've believed we were for the last several years hasn't actually been wearing any clothes. And winter is here.

Some of the people saying let them fail about Detroit's automakers are very the same people who had no problem with the $700 billion bailout of the very "industries" responsible for the sudden evaporation of so many billions of dollars in equity and credit. I would like to show them the state of this city and ask them to think about how much worse it (and hundreds of other cities reliant on the auto industry) will get if any of these three employers were suddenly unable to pay their employees or suppliers. This isn't Manhattan. We're not talking about Goldman Sachs associates suddenly not being able to pay the mortgages on their $350,000 parking spaces in Tribeca for the Ferraris they bought with their 2006 bonuses. We are talking about the lifeblood of a region that has already suffered so deeply, and I can't believe how many people are speaking so flippantly about allowing this great American industry to die.

I'm no apologist for the Big Three or their ridiculous missteps and lapses of judgment. But I do care about the regular people who work for these companies and who played no role in those poor decisions. Where is the compassion? Consider the charities that receive donations from both corporations and individuals connected to the auto industry and the people those charities help. Some of the moments when I was most proud of my fellow Americans were when people stepped up in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Asian Tsunami and gave what they could to help fellow human beings who were suffering. Three years after Katrina, New Orleans is starting again to look like New Orleans again.

It hardly looks like Detroit at all anymore.

* * * * *

One thing I do like about GM, Ford, and Chrysler is that they are companies that still make something. What do the vast majority of the Fortune 500 companies even do? What does Goldman Sachs do? What do all those companies in Silicon Valley make? They shuffle paper, sure, transmit blips of binary code, attend important meetings, and make "deals." Maybe brown people somewhere across an ocean will make whatever it is they're selling or shuffling on paper or e-mailing each other about. But in Detroit, and in plenty of other industrial cities across this country there are still people making things without exploited labor, and believe it or not that still means something.

On Saturday we attended an "urban craft fair" held here in Detroit, sort of a church bazaar for hipsters. We generally like this stuff and buy many of our Christmas presents at such events (last year we drove to Chicago just to attend the Renegade Craft Fair). There was nothing being sold that anyone really needed; there were a lot of ornithologically-themed shoulder bags and tiny buttons and silkscreened American Apparel t-shirts. But despite the superfluousness of these products, I do like the fact that there's a movement afoot of people actually making something themselves and selling it at a fair price. Christ, look at the popularity of craft and knitting blogs. My own wife has recently found great satisfaction sitting at the sewing machine making things. I, too, love to make things. It is a powerful human urge tied to creativity and pride. It's just so cool to be able to say, "I made this" rather than just, "I bought it."

When researching my family's history when we were considering buying the old homestead, I found the story of when my ancestors moved from upstate New York to eastern Michigan. There were pages of details describing the difficulties of the journey and the work of building the farm once they arrived, long lists of the things they built with their hands. When I read that, I thought, God, I can't even install ceramic tile. I can't help but believe that if most of our ancestors could see us whining about "these tough economic times" they'd say, "Forsooth, what a bunch of pussies."

Still, I have a hard time believing we are a nation that will continue to sit content while the Chinese make everything for us in this now-bolstered (yet exposed) sham economy of credit and lies. We may have forked over a good chunk of our pride just to walk out of Wal-Mart with cheap 42-inch plasma screen televisions, but I don't believe that all of our pride is gone.

* * * * *

On Sunday morning I walked right into another abandoned school. This one had several vocational education classrooms full of machine tools that hadn't yet been scrapped (although the scrappers had broken a huge hole in the third-floor wall and were gradually pushing the massive pieces of equipment down onto the sidewalk below one by one). When my dad was my age (before he quit to pursue his passion of repairing antique cars) he worked in the belly of some high school as an auto body shop instructor. One of his favorite topics still is the decline of vocational education in our public schools. "We'll have generations of pencil pushers who'll have forgotten the quadratic equation by the time they get their diplomas but who don't know how to build or fix anything. They won't be qualified to do anything except make hamburgers." It's one of the few topics we agree on. As I stared at room after room of heavy machinery once used to prepare already-disadvantaged Detroit kids for jobs in the manufacturing sector, all I could think about was my dad, and wonder if the jobs these machines were preparing them for even exist in this hemisphere anymore .

I have always been interested in shipyards, those massive polychromatic piles of shipping containers and the Jurassic cranes used to hoist them. I read that in some cases it is cheaper to manufacture new shipping containers in Dalian or Tianjin than it is to ship them back empty. In my wanderings I once came across a former auto factory on the east side of Detroit that I thought was abandoned, but instead it was busy retooling and refurbishing heavy machinery formerly used in the domestic manufacturing process for export to China, something to fill a few of those empty shipping containers. I have read that the fabrics in the clothes many of us wear were made in China using the same machines that American workers might once have used in North Carolina. I once investigated for this blog if any of those factories where Mr. Rogers once showed kids how things were made were still in business. The results were just too depressing to share.

* * * * *

They say a sustainable model for future economies will trend away from globalization and be based more on localization. The yuppies and hippies have sort of turned that into "I am better than the white trash at Wal-Mart because I buy my eggs from Farmer Brown the next town over," but that doesn't mean a movement towards more local economies is without merit. For Detroiters, of course, it is hard to separate all this talk of "buy local" economics from the misery of the auto industry, and not be frustrated with those Prius-driving yuppies in the Pacific Northwest calling for the death of this massive American industry while patting themselves on the back for buying butter made from the milk of organically-fed Oregon cows. It's not a simple matter, and hopefully if there is some sort of "bailout" there will be plenty of strings attached: perhaps this could be an opportunity to start transforming manufacturing in the United States to a sustainable model that strengthens our economy and provides jobs here rather than just strengthening the portfolios of a privileged few at the expense of so many. But calling for the death of this American industry is callous and shortsighted, and I would add that slowly turning into a nation where no one knows how to make anything but hamburgers and silkscreened t-shirts can't be good for national security.

* * * * *

My parents always taught me respect for people who make things. My mother is extremely artistic and she is always making things (instead of buying things) for her grandkids. My dad built his own machines to bend steel and create automobile parts that are needed but no longer exist. From an ancient photo he can use those machines he built himself to craft a fender or a door for a 1913 Oldsmobile. He is a one-man vintage assembly line. Our family has never been wealthy, but I I've always felt a wealth of pride in what we do.

I do see this economic climate as an opportunity for change. It is a chance for us all to step back and think about where the things we buy are made, and all of what that means. It is a chance to accept that much of what we consider wealth isn't even real. If we're going to spend $700 billion to bail out those greedy firms who successfully used chicanery for years to manufacture an economy built of lies, shouldn't we also spend $25 billion to save one of the few remaining industries that actually design, engineer, and manufacture something real and necessary in this country?

It's been too long since we've had some urchins from good old Mr. Lewis Hine.

So I would like to pretend that establishing this storyline was difficult, but it practically wrote itself. I have never seen such a homoerotic coloring book. There were hundreds of pages of highly-suggestive gymnastics poses, bulging crotches, and plenty of cameltoe. Also, it helped that I am incredibly immature. The only images I edited here were the thought bubbles with the girls thinking about each other---everything else is exactly how it was in the original coloring book.

This just might be the most epic mid-1980s coloring book with its captions changed to increase self-confidence among teenage homosexual gymnasts ever produced by an unemployed douchebag.

If you're going to take any of these images for your website/tumblr or whatever, I'd appreciate a link back to the full coloring book in all its glory. 

I went back to the neighborhood surrounding Jane Cooper School the other day at dusk to get some pictures of just how barren it is.

That's someone's weave dangling mournfully in the brush.

Remember that every one of those blocks would, at one time, have been filled with homes. Here is an aerial photo from 1961, followed by the current satellite image of the same general area. A few years ago there were still several houses scattered throughout these streets, but the city spent almost $15 million to clear the people out and prepare the land for industrial development that still hasn't taken place. To the north and west of this area, there are several operating (and even bustling) industrial sites, as seen in the second photo. Still, the transition is shocking:

I was with the dog, and we roused about a dozen pheasants walking through those old blocks and even encountered a two-member dog pack (a BIG rottweiler---I got a distant shot of him for my "wild dogs whom I have known" series even though my hand was trembling like crazy---and a BIG German shepherd). I picked up a stick but they turned out not to be much of a threat, retreating to hide in the brush and bark at us. My German Shorthaired Pointer got so excited every time we roused a pheasant, he sounded like those snakehandling Pentecostals.

Everywhere I bring that dog in Detroit, older black people approach me and say in a Southern drawl, "He's a birddog, huh?" We get to talking and it turns out that decades ago they moved up here from rural North Carolina or someplace like that. They have stories of hunting birds back there with tick-coated dogs like mine, and they all have stories of moving up to Detroit because of the promise of a good job with a decent wage and then they inevitably have stories about how many years they worked on the line before they were laid off. Sometimes these old timers even tell me about children who've moved to Charlotte or Atlanta for jobs. But all we need to do is look around us to know where their own story will end: a place not so different from where it began, a quasi-rural landscape of poverty and hopelessness, where birddogs trill at the stacatto of a pheasant's wings echoing off the ruins.


Posted by jdg | Friday, November 07, 2008

Sometime after seven this morning my daughter is startled awake by a bird crashing into the window of her bedroom. After the routine of morning we leave for preschool and she sees it on the stoop, a tiny Pine Siskin circling slowly on its side against the concrete, its left wing and foot twisted and mangled. I put a hand on her back and gently nudge her towards the car. From the back seat, she implores me to bring it to the bird hospital. I tell her that I will.

When I return, the bird is still alive, about one foot from where we left it. The neighbors' cat watches, tortured behind a window. I crouch, and it flutters pathetically against my touch. Turning it to its other side, I see the extent of the damage: this little bird will never fly again. My mind turns to violence: the shovel; the hammer in the closet downstairs. Not like that, I decide. I go inside and reach for a small rag, returning to the porch to sit down next to the injured bird. I just sit there for a minute and finally slip the rag over its head and hold its beak closed, gentle but firm. I keep this grip the beak and sternum steady for twenty seconds through several bouts of urgent fluttering. Thirty seconds now, just twitches and frail scrambling. Forty seconds or more and it stops, finally as still as all the others I've buried in the garden.

Found this one a few weeks ago, and immediately knew it would be perfect reading for those days when my daughter runs to me sobbing asking why "Mama had to go to work." See, I'll say, Some women have jobs. And these are the seven jobs that women have.
The Table of Contents is preceded by an acknowledgments page, which reads, "For every page of Women at Work, the author is indebted to many individuals who furnished the necessary details of the occupations described. She wishes to thank these persons for their help, their interest, and their encouragement." Well, Ruth Shaw Radlauer, you totally forgot several positions that could have been held by a woman in 1959, such as secretaries, elevator girls, movie stars, seamstresses, cosmetic saleswomen, chambermaids, switchboard operators, bank tellers, and stay-at-home mothers. That last one doesn't count as a "job" of course (it's more like a duty). You also forgot the oldest profession in the world, which may not be the most appropriate for a children's book, but you could have called it something vague like "courtesan" or something biblical like "harlot." I would have really liked to have seen the illustrations old Jaroslav Gebr would have come up for that one.

What, no sexy glasses? Maybe sexy librarians have a different uniform in Prague or wherever it was Jaroslav came from.

This chapter is so great because there are so many openings every year in the local ballet company, it really gives all those tutu-clad little girls hope for the future.

Um, okay stewardesses blah blah blah the real question here is how badly do you think the bullies will beat up my son when I dress him in clothes like that dandy little chap's outfit EVERY DAY?

So I was thinking the "PRACTICAL NURSE" chapter would be all about nurses helping surgeons perform appendectomies, but a practical nurse is apparently just some sturdy old lady whose kids are all grown up so someone else pays her to take care of their kids. Nice.

This chapter is my daughter's favorite, because "the walls in the shop are pink. The chairs are pink. The curtains are pink. The beautician wears a pink dress. The shop even smells like pink perfume." I think if my daughter had any concept of heaven, that is exactly how she would describe it.

That piano teacher looks like she's thinking, "If I'm going to listen to another one of these suburban brats play a shitty version of Au Clair de la Lune this afternoon I'm really going to need a Nembutal and half a glass of wine."

Oh Ruth Shaw Radlauer, author of this book, I hope you lived long enough to see the revised edition of your book published with a few thousand more chapters.

[I am working on a new Mr. T coloring book, should have it ready tomorrow, soon (maybe Monday?). Turned out to be more work than I thought.]