I was a teenage orienteer. I know some people say, "I was such a dork!" because they spent their teenage years alphabetizing anime collections or writing Commodore 64 programs instead of banging cheerleaders; but I was a dork because I spent my free time searching for control points in the forest with nothing but a topographical map and a thumb compass. Orienteering is a sport that combines the cool factor of cross country running with competitive map reading. Oh yeah, ladies.

This background has led to two unfortunate side effects: the first being epic bouts of frustration with a wife who loses her car in parking lots and gets tripped up over the difference between left and right (don't even think of asking her where she's headed in relation to one of the four cardinal directions). The second side effect is the inevitable indoctrination of my children into adults who won't need to call me on their cell phones to talk them out of the IKEA marketplace after they switched back to look at the textiles and then got hopelessly turned around. In order to fight against their mother's disorientating genes, I do a lot of drilling and shouting, spinning them around and then barking, "Point East. . .Not South, EAST GODDAMN IT!" Sometimes we walk somewhere random and I force the 4-year old to lead us home. "Landmarks!" I shout as she marches in the wrong direction. "Pay attention to landmarks!"

I'm afraid all these skills are set to become useless, however. Before we left for our recent vacation my wife bought a GPS. I generally don't believe in newfangled technology. You mean to tell me there's a satellite up in outer space tracking this here gewgaw you bought at Office Depot for $69.99? Sure, dude. Next you'll tell me you've got some kind of telephone that fits in your pocket and allows you to listen to music and send your friends brief messages in mangled English. But GPS, it turns out, is a useful luxury for a woman who once spent over an hour driving around looking for a store she'd been to twenty times.

Still, I couldn't help but feel that skill set I spent years developing being supplanted by a Swedish robot voice named Sven who methodically led us through the bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic of San Juan's environs to the house we were renting inside El Yunque National Forest. Once there, a ghostly troupe of stevedores, elevator operators, scriveners, lamp lighters, rag pickers, and piano tuners offered me a consolatory piƱa colada.

Our rental was on a road that used to go through the heavily-visited rainforest, and we were on the quiet, southern side near the economically-depressed town of Naguabo. In the late 1970s, the southern half of the road was closed permanently after four major landslides, with damage later exacerbated by Hurricane Hugo. We decided to do a full-day hike along the old road and see if we could reach the peaks on the other side. We figured it was a road once: how tough could it be? At first it was a road, and we wondered if this was going to be a boring hike. "We could have brought a stroller," I groaned with the weight of my daughter on my shoulders. My wife reminded me that we hadn't brought a stroller with us to Puerto Rico.

About half a mile past the padlocked gate, nature had begun obliterating the road that had been there since the 1930s. You could hardly see it as flowers grew over the old asphalt.

Soon enough we were crossing the landslides. My wife had our son in a sling on her back, and I had never been so thankful that our daughter is as tiny as she is. In certain spots I had to take her down from my shoulders and carefully help her climb through the spots where the road had been swept away long ago. Where low vines or tree limbs threatened her head, she ducked down low and with her breath on my cheek whispered, "Careful, pops."

[Click that photo to see it bigger] I should note that my wife and I have a long and storied history of back country hikes where we bite off far more than we can chew. We're the opposite of boy scouts: we never come prepared. We get weirdly competitive with each other and push ourselves until we're both exhausted and hungry then we realize we still have to turn around and go back, like the time we climbed Half Dome at Yosemite without water when she was five-months pregnant. Hiking with the kids just makes this whole phenomenon worse. The few snacks we did bring? Those little freeloaders ate them all up. With every mile that passed my daughter grew heavier in my arms. I don't know why we do this. Somewhere along the line we made the mistake of thinking self-imposed martyrdom made us better parents, that our suffering would one day be repaid tenfold. What a crock of shit. All we get for it is back aches.

The landslides destroyed the rainforest canopy, granting opportunistic vines and the ubiquitous yagrumo trees a chance to thrive in the sun. I could tell from the foliage along parts of the trail that someone had recently been through with a machete. As we climbed the ridge towards the castle-like towers on the summits of the more popular side of the park, I doubted that we'd be able to hike the full length of the closed road, where my wife envisioned someone selling bottled water and fried snacks. The kids, when we put them down to walk themselves, were slow as hell.

At some point we'd been carrying our children through the jungle for nearly six miles without seeing another soul when we heard a vehicle approaching on a road that barely existed. Soon a ragged truck passed full of young men searching for an elusive cell phone tower. They said it was three miles to the point where was road open. My wife said, "Three miles, that's nothing! We can get there in an hour." I reminded her that would mean twelve more miles beyond the six we'd already carried our increasingly whiny children who were only being placated by the lie that silence would increase the chance of seeing monkeys. "I want to turn around," I said. The victorious look in her eyes said it all: Wuss.

If I had a topographic map I could have explained the difficulty of it all perfectly, how we wouldn't make it back before the sun set over the mountain and how we'd probably have to kill a mongoose or a boa to feed the children. Still, I had an even better option: I turned on the GPS. I showed her how far we'd gone and how far we still had to go, and then asked it to calculate a route to where she hoped to reach.

"When possible, turn around," Sven said.

And that was all she needed to hear.

"Oh, if a robot says it," I grumbled as we tramped back. We stopped only to swim in a natural pool at the top of a waterfall. As we dried in the sun it was like we'd never sweated. Back at the house, packmules at the end of a long day's work, nearly broken, we threw off our boots, put the kids to bed and rubbed each other's aching backs. "Not too old for this shit yet," I said.

"Nope," she replied. "Not yet."

So I always thought the wild dogs of Detroit were kind of crazy; roving in packs, many of them part Pit Bull or Rottweiler or German Shepherd. Sure, I've encountered a few truly scary former fighting dogs that seem to have been dumped due to their injuries and a few mutts that seemed rabid, but after a week in Puerto Rico I no longer think having stray dogs all over the place is that big of a deal. I've been to countries before where a few well-fed hounds lounged around in the sun, but I couldn't believe the sheer number of strays we saw in Puerto Rico. I didn't have my Polaroid with me but I still couldn't help taking a picture of this tiny thing we encountered heading up into the mountains near Utuado:

Someone had dumped her some time ago at an isolated scenic overlook that wasn't very scenic. We gave it all the food we had and my wife almost couldn't handle leaving it there. I just didn't have the Spanish to explain to some indifferent veterinarian or dogcatcher-equivalent in the next town that my wife gets very sentimental about tiny, frail creatures that are clearly dying. "Besides," I said to her as the pup mournfully watched us drive away. "You lived in Cambodia. Remember that French restaurant in Phnom Penh where you felt those tiny hands reaching through the wall behind your back begging for scraps? In parts of the world, creatures like that dog are human beings."

There comes a point where you have to accept that there's a tolerable level of cruelty to the universe, or else you just wouldn't be able live with yourself, I thought, considering my gut as I drove up into the mountains and our $135 a night hotel.

The next day we drove all over Puerto Rican coffee country between Utuado and Jayuya, the area where ancient Taino culture was best preserved due to the relative isolation from the coast. It was beautiful country. These were towns where a horse or two was tied up in front of every roadside bar or, in this case, Texaco station:

The roads up there were built about one-and-a-half cars wide, so around every harrowing curve you either meet your doom or another car still just far enough away to cause only a mild jolt of panic. To make matters worse, Puerto Ricans achieve maximum speed up and down the mountains by driving directly in the center of the road. They make Italian drivers look like lost Grandpas navigating 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88s around a church parking lot.

In Jayuya we ate a traditional meal of roast pork, greasy flank steak, pigeon peas, and some fried things, some of which were plantains. Twice-fried plantains (tostones) seem to always come served with this disgusting sauce called "mayoketchup" in which my daughter dipped everything she consumed. About halfway up the mountain she started complaining from the backseat that her stomach hurt. "Keep coloring," we said, busy trying to figure out where we were headed among the endless twists and turns. In the rearview mirror I noticed a car tailgating me with one of those massive roof-mounted dual-bullhorns that seem to be popular among Puerto Rican lunatics who feel compelled to share their apocalyptic visions and salsa music with everyone within a quarter-mile of their vehicle. At a wide spot in the road I pulled over to let him pass, and then went on our way only to find him parked in the middle of the road a mile up, out of his car and waving at us frantically. For all I know he was just making sure I was going to VOTE FOR GOMEZ but I didn't stop, narrowly missing him with half the tires skimming along a slate ridge.

"My stomach really hurts," I heard from the backseat, but I paid no attention because suddenly I was James Fucking Bond in a rented Nissan Sentra, actually living out that fantasy with both hands on the wheel handling those mountain curves at nearly twice the recommended speed. Suck it, Steve McQueen, I thought once I put enough distance between our car and crazy car-roof-mounted dual-bullhorn guy.

That's when the pack of dogs started chasing us.

I've been chased by wild dogs before, but we were going almost 25 mph around those curves and those dogs were still right on our tail. I couldn't shake them. Juniper quit complaining about her stomach long enough to get a laugh or two at the stupid mutts, and I begged my wife to take a picture while I drove. This is what she captured during the confusion:

After a while they got tired, and I looked at my wife: "Are we dragging a dead goat carcass?" We continued down the mountain, but the constant switchbacks and swerves finally took their toll: from the backseat we heard the unmistakable sound of vomit and smelled the pungent stew of sugary orange drink, mayoketchup, and stomach acid. Then we heard the sound again.

A few seconds later we pulled into the roadside parking spot at some old woman's hovel and my daughter was crying on a rock in her underwear, the two of us bathing her with handiwipes when crazy car-roof-mounted dual-bullhorn guy finally pulled up and started shouting at us through his dual bullhorns. I fantasized about the electric sizzle those bullhorns would make if I threw a fistful of vomit into one of them, but the kindly old woman (onto whose parking spot we were squeegeeing what looked like thousand island dressing from our daughter's body) yelled at him to go away and he did, just as two of her neighbors came over to stand around speculating. It was probably the most exciting thing to happen in that parking spot all week.

Eventually we cleaned everything up and drove away, and even though the car had a new smell there was a softness in the air, the softness that comes whenever your child is truly sick and all the whining and complaining is lost and forgotten, and all you can think is how brave she is and how much you love her. I thought back to my own childhood, remembering my father standing at an edge of road on Pike's Peak with a hose in his hand, washing out a car he'd rented that I'd filled with the sludge of pancakes consumed that morning, a story I heard time and time again whenever we spoke of our first big vacation.

I looked at her face in the rearview mirror, redcheeked, recovering. "You'll remember this, kid. I promise."

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, March 24, 2009 |

Any Canadian readers who might be interested should turn their radios to their local CBC stations this morning for the show Q (10:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. EDT); at some point Jian Ghomeshi is going to interview me about my photography and our apparently insane decision to move from San Francisco to Detroit. I don't know if my bit is before the GORDON LIGHTFOOT interview or after it, but if you're anything like me you never pass up an opportunity to hear Gordon Lightfoot. Warning: I'm way too nervous to be funny. If you want to hear funny on the radio, listen to Terry Gross interview Jason Segel. Terry really perseverates on his penis.

If you're visiting for the first time after hearing me on the radio, this is my photography portfolio. And you can read some of the things I've written about Detroit here.

The stories about the building with all the books on the floor are here and here (of particular interest to Canadian readers: the building is owned by the same man who owns the Ambassador Bridge, largely to prevent the nearby Detroit-Windsor train tunnel from becoming competition to his private border crossing).

The story of Detroit's abandoned Belle Isle Zoo is here.

The photos of Detroit schools that appeared in Vice Magazine are here (this post describes more recent adventures in trespassing).

And if you're looking for hope, you might find some here.

Posted by jdg | Friday, March 20, 2009 |

I wake up in an airport. Like automobiles, inside they all have the same instinctive design: my first thought is which one is this? It has been more than two years since I've flown but the Old Life comes back to me: document review in Tucson; depositions in Minneapolis; trainings in Manhattan. I have woken up in airports before, but never with one of these on the floor next to me:

I blink. For a second the janitor pushing his cart through the lonely concourse is the piragua man, his spray bottles of green disinfectants and red germicides and purple window cleaners exotic syrups waiting for cups of hand-shaved ice; before I add chemical hallucination to that provided by sheer exhaustion, my wife hands me a squirming baby, saying "your turn," as her eyes shut.

This morning I woke within the high-thread-count sheets of a five-star hotel built in 1646, and eighteen hours later I'm trying to keep my eyes open in the misery Dulles Airport. We've spent an incredible week with the beautiful people and landscapes of Puerto Rico, and now through some mangled English the United Airlines gatekeeper communicates that it's 30 degrees in Detroit. I don't want to believe her. I've never been a blogger who gives the play-by-play of every day; I like a few days to reflect on the currents of life, so I'll probably have something to say about it next week. But today I'll just say we had the best time, thanks in part to readers' wonderful advice.

I did take some pictures. If you stick around, I'm sure I'll play the annoying neighbor: dimming the lights and forcing you to sit through them until the carousel projector clicks to white air and you can finally escape the dank shag carpet of our den.

This one doesn't even need commentary. In my opinion, I Wish Daddy Didn't Drink So Much is the magnum opus of Judith Vigna, the Joyce Carol Oates of deeply-traumatized child/ dysfunctional-family literature, and the author of (I'm not shitting you): My Big Sister Takes Drugs, My Two Uncles, Mommy and Me By Ourselves Again, She's Not My Real Mother, and Nobody Wants a Nuclear War. I Wish Daddy Didn't Drink So Much is the heartwarming tale of a young girl given a sled by a VERY merry Santa, and how her daddy won't enjoy it with her until he can get to the store to pick up another 12-pack of Steel Reserve. He has to walk, though, because mommy hid his car keys.

I get that books like these are written to supposedly ease the pain of kids already going through this kind of nightmare ("You're not alone!"). But do these kids really want to read books about some other kid's surly drunk father? Wouldn't it be better if those kids just read books about happy unicorns carrying princesses away from evil trolls on their way to gumdrop castles? What's next, Judith Vigna, I Wish Daddy Would Stop Visiting Me at Night or Who Are All these Men Sleeping With Mommy?

The Hole

Posted by jdg | Friday, March 13, 2009 | ,

During our most recent trip to Cincinnati, I had a few hours to myself and walked from our downtown hotel up towards the hills and ended up stumbling across one of the strangest places I have ever seen. It was an entire abandoned neighborhood, Baltimore-style row houses built on tricky terrain: Hamsterdom from The Wire surrounded by hills.

Detroit, it seems, is far from the only city to boast gut-wrenching displays of urban decay.
One of the buildings was different from the others, built of limestone instead of brick with the word "Glencoe" carved above the door. Back at the hotel I googled that to find what this place was. The Glencoe building was once a hotel/boarding house. Over the years, this neighborhood tucked into a hidden valley was known as Little Bethlehem, the Standish Apartments, and the Glencoe Place Redevelopment Project. When I asked a nearby mailman about it he'd called it “The Hole” and said it was "a real bad place awhile back." I found confirmation of that nickname online. The half dozen blocks were built in the late nineteenth century by a developer who was angry that the wealthy citizens of nearby Mt. Auburn wouldn't let him build a hotel there, so out of spite he built low-income housing on their doorstep. Preservationists hoping for potential redevelopment struggled to gain historic designation (and its tax benefits) because they couldn't identify a single famous former resident or even identify an architect. After it was built the neighborhood soon became a slum, and was redeveloped under an urban renewal project in the 1960s (providing the strange plazas and incongruous midcentury streetlights). The rowhouses once again fell into major disrepair in the 1990s and have been vacant ever since, despite recent plans to turn them into condominiums (stalled indefinitely due to the economy).

This was spraypainted on nearly every door. I figured there was a 20 percent chance some guy with a sniper rifle was up on a roof watching me the whole time just waiting to be able to say, "Well, he can't say I didn't warn him." Highly effective.

It was eerie, how quiet it was. I didn't see another soul for the hour or so I spent strolling around in here until a young mother holding her child's hand silently cut through the neighborhood heading uphill.


Posted by jdg | Thursday, March 12, 2009

The television in the living room hangs on the wall opposite the floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the backyard. All evening the dog sits alert in his usual place by window, watching the security-lit backyard with far greater intensity than his owner ever watches Jon Stewart on the opposite wall. Several times every hour, the dog tenses and points and they turn away from the television to see who it is this time: the rabbits again? That old raccoon? A possum? Or is it that pair of red foxes we all watched without breathing that one winter night?

The possum loves to pass right under his nose, and the dog barks savagely. Are they out there just to taunt his instinct? Is this a show for him, a soap opera of courtship and hunger? Or is this just what happens every night, everywhere?

All day long, the squirrels alone taunt the neighborhood dogs. But every night there is a Disney movie in our backyard.


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On the drive home from preschool: the cue from the Old Spice whistle, the smell of Brylcream in the air. I look down and my hoodie is a thin cardigan and in a 1950s sitcom dad voice I say, "So, what did you do in school today, kiddo?"

Then, the stock 1950s sitcom kid answer: "Nothing."

Over lunch, unprompted, she'll open up. I'll listen, hoping to pluck a piece of juicy playground gossip from the rambling narrative: who shoved who, who wouldn't share, who got in trouble with the teacher. All I get is some convoluted tale about kids pretending to be monkeys or some shit. Already, I fear she's keeping secrets.

I've read here and there that today's preschools are presided over by cliques of evil, pint-sized mean girls. They ostracize; they torment; they exclude. I'm always on the lookout for these reported "mean girls" whenever we go to a playground or a birthday party or anywhere else that random kids get tossed together to practice their ad hoc social skills. I don't want to tell them off or steer my child away, I just want to find one of these mythical creatures and maybe snap a picture, because, frankly, like the Chupacabra or Mothman, I don't believe such a thing as a purely mean preschooler really exists.

That's not to say I haven't seen mean behavior. I've seen plenty of it, some of it directed at my daughter and some of it from her. But I guess I just don't think there's anything all that crazy about a kid being mean. It's as natural as breathing. And I certainly wouldn't try to paint any of those kids with a broad brush because of one act of cruelty. This isn't some new trend or sign of our culture's moral degradation. Kids were cruel to each other in Zhou Dynasty China. Indigenous Bolivian preschoolers used to ostracize each other in the 12th century. And a few hundred years from now some five-year old isn't going to invite some other five-year old to her birthday party because she's not the right type of clone. Kids are awesome but they can also be mean. Is it really all that surprising?

Sure, we can lecture them and train them to be mean to each other when our backs are turned. And our own children eventually learn to hide from us the hurt they've been dealt. Then they themselves will pick on someone else in due time. Lord knows I spent my own childhood getting the shit beat out of me and being made fun of and then turning around and doing the same to others. Isn't that what childhood really is? Any kid who emerges from a childhood any different will find the real world quite a shock.

There's that smell of Brylcream again; maybe this is a little too "Boy Named Sue," but I generally make my daughter deal with the hurtful behavior of other kids on her own. I wouldn't be doing her any favors by getting all self-righteous about other kids doing what it is kids do. When she comes tattling to me I just shrug. I might remind her that the feeling of being hurt is why we do our best to not to hurt others. I'm far less concerned about her fragility than I am her being a perpetrator of hurt. I can only hope to teach her that hurting others has its consequences.

There will come a time when this will all be more serious, and I'm going to sit the kids down and drop some knowledge. I'll give them a few pearls I've learned over the years like, "Don't go into a tattoo parlor unless you already know exactly what you want"; and, "Never get your hair cut in China." Just like Skull & Bones sitting a new class of Bonesmen and divulging their ancient secrets---such as Jesus's real dad being that Hittite snake charmer Mary met at her bachelorette party and all the details of maintaining the New World Order---I will also divulge one important ancient secret to my kids: That feeling you get when someone teases you is called insecurity, and it is directly caused by the insecurity of the one trying to hurt you. Like water, insecurity seeks itself to find the quickest path downhill. You can try to dam it up or divert it but it is part of life. Just try not to drown in it, or drown any others.

Of course, they probably won't listen to any of that bullshit. They'll just have to figure it out for themselves.

This morning I looked at this photo and said to my wife, "Let's not be those hipster parents who let their son's hair grow all long and shaggy so that old ladies confuse him for a little girl. . .let's shave him!"

She said, "No."

Vol. One here.


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, March 03, 2009 | , ,

Our compact car has been feeling a little small. Every time I do something the kid doesn't like (such as drive past a McDonalds playscape) she can totally wrap her legs around my neck and start choking me from her carseat. Pretty soon the pruno distillery in the backseat will be brewing its odiferous sludge again as the various victuals and foodstuffs hidden within the depths of their carseats thaw with the coming spring. We're starting to think maybe we need to light this one on fire somewhere and just find a new car.

Naturally, many families our size consider the purchase of a minivan, despite the fact that there is no surer sign of lameness other than, perhaps, pleated khakis. I never would have believed there could be such a thing as an awesome minivan, but the other day we were driving home from a wholesome family outing when we actually found a minivan for sale that we could all agree on:

Wood: Think of all the space!

Juniper: It has a pink stripe!

Me: We could drive over ANYTHING!

Gram: As long as it's all mine when I turn sixteen!

I can't imagine a cooler way to escape Detroit with a family when the coming apocalypse hits. I am totally calling the number on the 'for sale' sign.

So over the weekend I went back into that elementary school currently being scrapped, headed straight for the library and recovered another pile of books. Shining my flashlight on the shelves I realized that though I'd said the library was intact, in fact someone had gone through and removed most of the newer books. What remained on the shelves were books from the first 6o of the school's 80+ year history. Now I regularly scour thrift stores and used book stores for rare treasures like these; in my zeal I failed to notice the lack of newer books. So either the budget did not allow new books over the past 20 years, or someone moved the newer books to a different school four years ago when the school closed, or someone like me had already gone through and removed the newer books. I dislike the vast majority of kids' books published these days, so to me it felt like they left all the best ones. Others would certainly disagree. You can click on this image to get a big version to see just some of the books I salvaged:

There are enough terrifying Nixon-era children's books in there to sustain that blog feature for another year. I only took picture books that my four-year old would enjoy; there are still hundreds---maybe thousands---of books on the shelves of the library. I also took a set a wooden blocks from a classroom with an exterior window being used as an entrance/exit by the scrappers. I am concerned that the elements will quickly ruin everything in that classroom. But I made the mistake of letting the kid see them:

Also on this trip I took stock of what else remained. Since the last post I have located a non-profit community organization that would love and appreciate some of the items inside, particularly the high-quality Community Playthings wooden kitchen sets (stoves, sinks, refrigerators, washer/dryers), art supplies, books, furniture and computers. I hope to organize an effort to recover some of these items before they get ruined or scrapped. I've already received several e-mails and comments from some folks who went out and done a bit of this themselves over the weekend. If anyone in the area still wants to help, e-mail me (sweetjuniper@gmail.com). I may also put some of the better books on eBay or etsy and donate ALL proceeds to the Georgia Street Community Garden. Mark just e-mailed me to say that due in part to the unsolicited generosity of Sweet Juniper readers, the garden was able to pay the fee to file the paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which will allow greater access to grants and allow donations to be tax-deductible.

I really appreciated all the nice things said in the comments to the last post, but I want to emphasize that I'm just an old vulture in this whole mess. Every day better people than me are working with the kids in this school district: teachers, social workers, volunteers, and even responsible administrators. But they too are victims of the overall system. I am of the same cynical belief of The Wire creator David Simon, who compares institutions like the public school system in Baltimore to Olympian gods in a Greek drama: unstoppable, unquestionable purveyors of tragedy. In Detroit, our institutions are more like a pantheon of even-crueler Scandinavian deities bent wholly towards the destruction of the human spirit, the limitless potential in each child. But even within these institutions, there is always some room for small human triumphs, and I want to commend those working within the system to do good. In the future, I hope to write more about the small triumphs amid all this tragedy.

Look at me. You people are going to turn me into some kind of community activist. Please stop me before I buy a pair of Birkenstocks.