Posted by jdg | Thursday, July 30, 2009

They drag the kids to dinner parties because they don't have a sitter, a small grace that normally saves them from the obligations of smoky bars and bands they'd rather not stand around waiting for until midnight. "I'd be a hermit if it weren't for you," he tells his wife as they stroll up to the elaborately carved door. Both of them know that it is true. This is their usual routine: dinner; baths; books and poems; a bottle for the boy and a song for the girl. A television program or the Tigers after the kids are down. An hour or so wading into the quagmire waiting online before their eyes just give out. He's never snorted cocaine, but he might be willing to try if it could give him the productivity of a childless 25-year old again.

At a dinner party they juggle kids until the food is served at half past nine. "We're dining at the continental hour," he hears someone say. "We usually dine at The Boca Raton hour," he says to no one in particular, and the 4-year-old girl on his lap pushes back the half-empty plate in front of him for a place to rest her head. He carries her out of the dining room, through the halls of this castle built for an auto baron, to find a quiet place under frescoes of seraphim to sing a folk song soft against her ear.

There should be myths of this, he thinks, her head tossing on his left shoulder, her body balanced in the crook of his elbow, legs dangling over the precipice of sleep. The hero, fleeing from the ruined city, the approaching army, the dinner party, his child sleeping safe on his shoulder. The hero: a moving bed. We all do this as it was done for us, he thinks. We were all safe once in the arms of giants, deposited with care in our beds. Someday she'll be too big to carry, but so long as he can he will. His toddler son, wide awake, makes his exhaustion known in other ways: the boy becomes a supervillain to any hostess who collects Murano glass. And at ten, dessert is still eleven turns of conversation away.

Their mother finds another ride home; their father puts them in the car. The girl sleeps all seven miles down Woodward, not a single red light to jolt her. The boy's eyes are wide with the world at night, the jaywalking trannies and drunks on church steps, a kaleidoscope of streetlights and headlights all new to someone always in his bed when this darkness hits (and a little bit of chaos never hurts). But without a routine, chaos becomes routine. Children crave routine as much as they create chaos. It is their job to be a burden, and ours to shoulder it. We owe them this: a warm bed to nestle into every night, milk in the kitchen for breakfast. Eyes even when they don't think we're watching. The quiet, simple peace of always knowing they are loved.

But sometimes it is good to break routine, to stay when the clock is staring at you; to accept that second glass of wine. Because later, in a dark castle room where the din of the party is distant, and you sing her to sleep in your arms like you did when she was newly born, all limbs now, her hair in your nose all summer highlights, all sun and sand, you will remember this.

(photo credit Romain Blanquart/DFP)

This photo was on the cover of the Detroit Free Press business section yesterday, accompanying an article about locally grown food.
The kid was riding in the Reference Library tote bag (we only needed to pick up a few things). All the way home, she laughed about the people at the market who asked how much she cost (I said 50 cents).

At least the photographer managed to capture my best side.

I've shared plenty here about feral dogs; I have heard people here use the word "feral" because so many of Detroit's strays learn to survive long-term on their own. Feral, used in this sense, means they have reverted to a wild state, as from domestication. Our word feral comes from the Latin root fera, or "wild beast," but it also has a connection to another Latin word, feralis, literally: belonging to the dead.

I've seen "feral" used to describe dogs, cats, even goats. But I have wondered if it couldn't also be used to describe certain houses in Detroit. Abandoned houses are really no big deal here. Some estimate that there are as many as 10,000 abandoned structures at any given time, and that seems conservative. But for a few beautiful months during the summer, some of these houses become "feral" in every sense: they disappear behind ivy or the untended shrubs and trees planted generations ago to decorate their yards. The wood that framed the rooms gets crushed by trees rooted still in the earth. The burnt lime, sand, gravel, and plaster slowly erode into dust, encouraged by ivy spreading tentacles in its endless search for more sunlight.

Like some of the dogs I've seen using these houses as shelter (I followed a whole pack into #9 last week), these houses are reverting to a wild state, as from domestication, a word derived itself from domesticus (the Latin for belonging to the domus, or house). Now these houses are feralis. They belong only to the dead.

This is just a handful of the photos I have of such places. I have dozens more (the lighting conditions were fairly similar in this selection taken over the course of three summers). Among the abandoned houses of Detroit, the lucky ones aren't burned completely or bulldozed, but allowed to be consumed by the foliage once meant to beautify them. This is something that has obviously been fascinating me lately. We might see ghosts of lives lived well within these walls, sentimentalize the structures and feel sad that they have been allowed to go wild. . .

But to borrow from Whitman: ". . .as to you [House] I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,/I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing, I reach to the leafy lips,/ I reach to the polish'd breasts of melons."

* * * * *

These images come from the period of 2006-2009, and most of these structures are now gone. Visit this post to see more images of feral houses that were taken in late 2009-2010. To see the full gallery of 100+ feral houses I've documented, visit my portfolio site here.

Buy affordable limited prints of Feral House #7 and Feral House #13 at 20x200.

Confession: I never buy my children new books. I was once a man who purchased half a shelf of new picture books for my future children well before my wife and I started making babies. But these days I can't even bring myself to walk into a big-box bookstore and pay retail for a book that only takes a couple minutes to read. In the back of my brain I know that somewhere that same book is just sitting in a pile at a thrift store. Sure, will be sticky from another kid's jelly-smeared fingers or smell like the ceiling of a dive bar, but I CAN BUY A HUNDRED BOOKS AT VALUE WORLD FOR THE COST OF ONE AT BORDERS. Seriously: I was there the other day and kid's books were 10 for a dollar. I bought a garbage bag full of them. That's one of my favorite things about Value World: after you hand over your cash, they hand over your purchases in a generic Hefty Bag, as if to say, Stop trying to kid yourself, dude, you just bought garbage. I found a lot of my Terrifying Nixon-Era Children's Books this way, along with some depressingly-illustrated biblical texts and some awful books from small presses that could only have entered the stream of commerce as pity purchases made by the author's friends.

What the thrift store does not provide, we often make. It's so easy these days to make professional-looking books for your kids. Even if you can't draw, you can always use photos from the internet (as long as you don't try to sell it there's no harm in writing whatever twisted, copyright-infringing book you want: epic, gruesome photoshopped battles between the Backyardigans and The Wonder Pets; the secret diaries of David the Gnome; Or you could even make boardbooks out of classic Beastie Boys or Metallica songs. You really are limited only by your imagination (and photoshop skills)).

I've made alphabet books in the past using photos of graffiti (this was the first, and this was the second). The challenge was finding characters for each letter of the alphabet, but it was also kind of fun. A few months ago, I decided to do another mythological alphabet. I wanted to try to find as many letters as we could in a single outing, so we drove up to the beautiful campus of the Cranbrook Educational Community where we wandered around looking for statues to photograph. The prolific Swedish sculptor Carl Milles worked in residence there for two decades and covered the grounds with his work, many with mythological themes. In the 40 acres of terraced gardens surrounding the 1908 Arts and Crafts-style mansion there are also many traditional sculptures of classical subjects. We had an awesome morning of beautiful weather, and when we got home, I put together a book to teach the Greek alphabet. This will prove important some day in the distant future: if one of my children ever finds themselves wandering around Hanover or New Haven searching for a poetry reading at the Phi Beta Kappa house, they won't accidentally wander into a keg party at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house and follow the inevitable path of debauchery and date rape that a little knowledge of the Greek alphabet could have helped them avoid. See, I did it for the children!

I knew that some of the statues represented different figures than the ones I would assign them, such as Flapper Eve here who makes a fine Aphrodite. The story of the judgment of Paris is way less terrifying than the expulsion from Eden. Added bonus: no fig leafs.

This one is Milles' Rape of Europa. I'm telling you, it's important to start associating Epsilon with rape at an early age.

Hebe was the goddess who brought all the other gods ambrosia. Have you ever explained the concept of ambrosia to a 4-year-old? You will drink it from empty cups at tea parties for weeks.

Cross-eyed Zeus here is the coolest statue at Cranbrook because he CRIES when you step on a certain ground tile. My daughter hates it when anyone cries (but especially all-powerful deities), so seeing Zeus piss water out of his eyeballs sends her into hysterics. We always have to visit Zeus last because she's pretty useless after I've made her watch this:

After Zeus we did manage to head over to the school grounds to see the iron Pegasus gates, after which I fantasized about someday sending the kids to school there (even though, as my friend puts it, "the tuition cost is the same as financing a million-dollar car").

I reminded myself that kids are more likely to become drug addicts at Cranbrook than they are on the streets of Detroit, and we moved on to the Centaurs:

Man, I am totally going to get blacklisted at Cranbrook for letting the kid ride the Centaurs.

And don't get me started about the Sphinxes.

Here's a riddle: how do you get two kids off the sphinxes? Answer: promise to let them ride the centaurs.

I don't know who the following statue was supposed to be, but when I saw this photo there was no way she could be anything but Medusa for the purposes of my alphabet book:

The girl is getting into stories from the Odyssey right now, so this was easy:

I managed to represent every letter of the Greek alphabet except for Xi and Omega (some were a stretch---I used carvings on the helmet in the photo above to represent the Phoenix for Phi and the Lapith for Lambda). What I really loved about making this book was that the kids and I had an adventure making it together. You can't go for a walk like this without stories, and I know the girl already associates the book with the good memory of that morning.

We've done other books (that I won't share here) to help Gram remember the names and faces of his family and friends; my mother has made the kids books that tell stories from my childhood and her own. Next I think we're going to take a hike around the neighborhood and take photos of the different plants the kids find, identify them and make a book to give names to the nature that surrounds them. In the future, someone might scavenge through the detritus of our lives in some thrift store somewhere and find the books we've made and wonder what the hell we were thinking. If there's any justice in this world, he'll have whatever the equivalent of a blog is in 2036 and use it to totally make fun of me for these books: Pretentious Abecedaries from the Turn of the Millennium.

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The on-demand book publisher Shutterfly has bought advertising here on Sweet Juniper, and they let me use their new picture book service to print this one:

She may have been brown-nosing for a Popsicle, but I swear she turned to me and said, "I love this book, pops."

Shutterfly has also given me the codes to let twelve Sweet Juniper readers print their own books for free. All you have to do to enter this random drawing is leave a comment on this post. I'd love to hear any ideas you might have for DIY books. I'm a firm believer in taking the things you're passionate about and sharing them with kids. Even if they don't end up passionate about the same things, I believe the passion itself is contagious. Too often the things that make us excited get sidelined in life. I long ago decided against a career in academia because I knew my interest in the classics would become a life of reading esoteric French journal articles and a constant fear of budget cuts. Like most people, what I really loved were the stories, and having kids has given me every reason to rekindle those old joys. So what are you passionate about that you'd like to share with your kids (or nieces/nephews, etc.) one day? Obscure early 80s hardcore bands? Ectoparasite entomology? Do you have a PhD in Post-romantic French Literature (A is for Absinthe. . .B is for Baudelaire)? Do you want to help a kid differentiate between the hood ornaments of classic American cars? What passions did your parents pass on to you? Leave a comment on those post to win an opportunity to create something for yourself or your kids to help make your passion contagious.

The contest will run through Friday, July 24 at 3:00 p.m. EST, at which point I will immediately announce the winners. I'm not sure the random date/time thing is the most fair, so I will be choosing the winners randomly some other way. Good luck!

Last winter I wrote a photo essay on the abandoned Belle Isle Zoo. Apparently the idea of an abandoned zoo captured a lot of readers' imaginations, and over the months I have seen a lot of traffic from people searching for photos of it.

Many of the photos in that essay were taken over a year ago; last week I went back inside to see the zoo at the height of a new summer, seven years after it officially closed its gates. Please click on any of the images below to get a higher-resolution, more detailed view of each scene:

I kept gagging on the husks of dead insects: enormous spider webs stretched everywhere and the zoo is visited so little these days the spiders have no reason not to build their webs across doorways or the extensive boardwalk. Disgust commingled with guilt. Who was I to destroy so much hard work?

After glancing at the giant photo hanging in the old arachnid display, I envisioned a horror movie where a group of exotic spiders escaped when the zoo was closed, breeding into some terrible mutated species native only to these overgrown acres; around the corner I would discover the dessicated corpses of a dozen suburban teenagers, scrappers, and douchebags like me with DSLRs still hanging from their necks, all suspended on webs near the monkey cages. By then it would be too late: I would find my own arms stuck, and the last thing I would see are the staggered eyes and quivering tusks of the tapir-sized tarantula scuttling over to suck the juices right out of me.

Of course, there would also be forgotten lions lingering on the overgrown savanna for that last shock in the horror dénouement, beasts in dire need of meat:

I wrote of the "plants growing inside each enclosure, non-native species probably chosen carefully long ago to resemble the flora of wherever the animal was from but not to tempt them into nibbling. Even a simulacrum of wildness, abandoned, will become truly wild given enough time."

There is the bitter irony of this place. Zookeepers consulted with botanists; certain species of plants were ordered specifically and planted to their instructions. These enclosures designed to pen captive wildlife and captivate humanity were carefully planned to resemble wilderness down to every excruciating detail.

And every year that passes, abandonment allows that design to become more fully realized than any of its designers could have imagined. Seven years of a silent Darwinian struggle have taken place here among the flora. Sunlight. Water. Autumn. Spring.

There is a certain comfort here. The earth is fine. Nature is patient. The plants are just waiting. It is the monuments we build, the paths we tread that are endangered.

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We've returned from the other side of the state where we said hello to my sister's beautiful baby and goodbye to my wife's beloved grandmother. Birth, death, I know, I know: it all sounds like that song by the bald guy with the braided rat tail. That's not what this post is about.

At some point my wife and the kids decided to stay with her family while I returned to Detroit to get some work done. During the 48 hours I have alone I go grocery shopping without children for the first time in years. Remember that moment in Spiderman where Peter Parker discovers his superpowers? Or that point where Neo stops the bullets and starts seeing the green text inside the Matrix? Yeah, that's some weak shit compared to how you feel in a grocery store without children. Standing behind a childfree cart you swear you have eight arms. You are dancing Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, flinging a perfect avocado, a can of coconut milk, and coffee beans into the cart before the downward stroke of the butcher's knife slams through the bone, before the bubble gum bursts on the lips of the girl pricing bags of black beans, before the fly buzzing on the potato salad flaps his wings a second time. . .

At home, you are stunned by the silence: hour after hour of silence. Where is the incessant whining, that droning didgeridoo of discontent, that soundtrack of your life as a stay-at-home dad? You turn the volume up on the stereo. Music sounds good again. That Dirty Projectors song is good, after all. But you crave the silence. Where are the filthy-faced urchins whose petty needs always come before your own? You sit in the silence as one might sit in a steam bath. Your mind reboots. You have thoughts that last more than two minutes without getting interrupted. This, you realize, is why so few of your old friends want children. This state of decadent self-centeredness feels so foreign, though you spent 27 years in it. Childlessness is wasted on the childfree.

It is their bedtime, but unlike any ordinary day your body does not feel drained of blood, like a limp sacrificial offering slumped on the couch wishing there were no obligations to guilt you away from blacking out. You are exhilarated by the silence.

Then you hear crying from the computer across the room. 200 miles away your wife is requesting a video chat with your daughter on her lap, sobbing. "She's inconsolable," she says. "She misses you." And then, just like that, you would give anything to have her tears drying in the fabric on your shoulder.

Man, these two stewbums really need their mid-morning cigarette. Either that, or this photo was taken just before they had the four drams of rotgut they need to get through a day of replacing bobbins down at the mill. Don't worry lads, you'll be as stiff as a ring-bolt 'ere midday.

There's still a little time to enter the contest of for the new Sandisk slotRadio. Leave a comment here before noon EST today and I'll update this post to announce the winner after noon.


Random date/time generator result: 09-Jul-2009 13:20:51


Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Even though there are so many new books I want to read, lately I've been picking up old ones. As I scan the pages, trying to decipher the notes made by my 19-year-old hand, I realize that I never really understood as much D.H. Lawrence or James Joyce as I liked to think then. Ulysses hasn't changed since 1996, but I certainly have. And how many stanzas of Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens had I read without discerning any meaning? Still I refuse to believe I did not take something of value from the words themselves.

I think about this often at bedtime, right at that cusp of freedom that sleeping children provide. Before I can sit down with a book of my own, I often read both of them books way above their heads. In my daughter's case, it's now stories with fewer pictures, more new words and concepts that challenge my ability to explain without doing so recursively. A year later we have nearly worked our way through The Rattle Bag, and have moved on to selections from the Oxford Book of English Verse. I find I have a lot more patience for poetry now. Some of it is knowing my daughter is grasping for any meaning among the words, while I emphasize only their sounds. My son sits silently on my lap alongside his sister for picture books he cannot understand. This patience for lovely nonsense is, I think, a sort of skill, not unlike fearlessly sounding foolish in a foreign tongue. It is one way we learn.

Sometimes I go back and read cringe-inducing things I wrote over a decade ago, occasionally encountering a particularly delicate line and wondering where it came from. Did that come from me? I wonder. The same dope who wore his pants at his knees and listened only to the Wu Tang Clan? Have you forgotten how powerful it feels to stand in awe of what hasn't yet been written, that limitless universe of language in front of you. Have you forgotten how fun it was to be bold and reckless with words? As one ages there are few things as annoying as precociousness. But sometimes knowing too much is a disadvantage.

* * * * *

We are riding in the car and talking about her beloved friend; her teacher describes them together as "like an old married couple." She tells him what to do; occasionally he kicks her in the shin. But mostly there is mutual devotion. He wakes up in the night and tells his mother he misses her. She chatters on and on about their friendship in the backseat: "I do not think he will ever lose his love for me," she says with such earnestness I cannot laugh.

Then: "You can lose your balance. . ." she says. "But you can never lose your love."

* * * * *

If only that were true, I think. But then again what do I know.

Posted by jdg | Thursday, July 02, 2009 |

The mother of one of my daughter's friends asks, "Is she not supposed to play princess?"

I have never told my daughter she couldn't play princesses. We may have had a few conversations about how princesses aren't good role models, but I've NEVER said she couldn't pretend to be one. Apparently while playing at her friend's house, my daughter whispered, "My dad doesn't like princesses. He says they're lazy goodfornothings." Then she proceeded to pull one of those prefabricated princess gowns over her torso and said, "I'll just tell him I was being a fairy." This pleases me, because it shows she is beginning to understand that her highly-opinionated father can be quite difficult, though easily appeased by doing whatever it is he doesn't approve of once well out of sight. This will prove a useful skill as the years go on.

When told this happened, I felt a tinge of guilt. Then the other little girl stood up and said to my daughter, "I AM THE BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS. You must do my bidding. Go and fetch me the finest flower in the land." My daughter reacted with a look of incredulity that could only be translated as, "Fuck that, dude." Or, perhaps less crudely, "My father was right: princesses are bossy and not very nice." She refused the quest, and the princess sulked.

I looked down at them in their ill-fitting polyester costumes, stained with mulberry juice and globs of yoghurt. I could have delivered the coup de grâce right then: I could have pointed out that their threadbare, shoddily-made dresses of imitation satin and tulle made them look more like Courtney Love at the tail end of an Oxycontin binge than any representative of The Crown. But I didn't. As Benjamin Disraeli once said, Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.

"Worry not, your Highness," I said, winking at my daughter. "I shall fetch my steed and deliver thee the loveliest dandelion in all Detroit."