This week's selection is from the Vision Impairment Sensitivity shelf of our home library, where it usually rests right next to Jennifer Jean, the Cross-Eyed Queen. It took me a half dozen readings before I realized it was published in 1990 and not 1974. I know that technically makes this a Terrifying Bush I-era Children's Book, but for Sally Hobart Alexander's sake I'm just going to go ahead and assume these photos were taken in 1974. Those sunglasses, at the very least, were manufactured during the Nixon administration. Like most disability-sensitivity non-fiction of its day, Mom Can't See Me actually a sweet little book that I enjoy reading to my kid. It's written from the perspective of the daughter of a blind woman explaining all the things she can do. But there's still something a little terrifying about it, mostly because of the spooky title. And some of the photos inside are just weird:

"I love my blind mother, but she's a really lousy baseball player."

"I hate going to foreign movies with my mom."

"For Christmas I'm going to buy mom a Roomba with a broom handle duct-taped to it."

"Our tap dance teacher calls my mom 'The Tripod.'"

"Now that you mention it, I think it's probably a good thing mom can't see dad."

"My mom's new computer is radical. It says, 'Three of your children died of Cholera,' just like a robot when we play Oregon Trail."

"It's a good thing mom takes me with her when we go shopping; the last time she went by herself a saleswoman convinced her to buy a Parisian night suit."

"Oh shit: Mom's up on the Ropes Course again!"

Night of the Living Bed

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, January 28, 2009 | , ,

At six o'clock the other morning my daughter starts pounding on my chest and asking me over and over to tell her about Night of the Living Bed. I moan and turn away, wrapping a pillow around my ears.

Hours later, I ask my wife why I dreamed about my daughter interrogating me about some zombie porno movie. "She woke up excited and all she could talk about was zombies," Wood said. "I told her you liked zombie movies. I guess she misheard one of the names."

"This is not cool," I say. "I never should have bought her that stupid zombie finger puppet."

* * * * *

She is always asking about monsters and ghosts and strange creatures, and she seems less scared by these things than the idea of losing a meatball. She loved stories of ghosts last fall, and now zombies seem cool because they take the whole idea of ghosts a step further: they're not just dead people, they're dead people in dirty clothes who want to slurp down your medulla oblongata like a jumbo shrimp. Plus they try to get into your house and aggressively recruit you to join their ranks. Like Mormons.

I would describe my daughter's interest in zombies more as fascination than fear. She actually begged me to buy her the zombie finger puppet---a female one holding a brain---but when we got it home she told me to hide it in her closet. A few days later she whispered to my wife, "I know that zombie girl is in the closet." So I brought it downstairs. Even with the puppet exiled among boxed Christmas decorations and piles of ill-fitting clothes, I still have to field random questions concerning zombie lore throughout the day. Why do zombies only want to eat brains? Why do they shamble so? Are there child zombies?1 What about zombie fairies? What happens in Night of the Living Bed? I recently made the mistake of showing her the Thriller video, which BLEW HER MIND because she had no idea that ZOMBIES CAN DANCE. "Do zombies take dance classes?" she asked. Then, as if we were Filipino prisoners with nothing better to do with our time, we had to practice zombie choreography in the living room. I didn't sign on for this.2

Watching the Thriller video, all I could think was God that looks just like Detroit. The Hollywood fog looks just like the smoke drifting from steam tunnels you see everywhere. The shambling hordes of walking dead, not so different from the slightly less-animated crowds of drunks, crackheads, and whores shuffling around 3rd Street just south of MLK. I made a mental note to avoid that particular block in the future, lest I face extreme disappointment from the backseat when all the guys with the facial fungal infections and tattered clothes reaching slowly towards our car won't dance without financial or pharmaceutical compensation. Local hipsters recently staged one of those zombie walks, but they had to do it in the suburbs because if they'd tried it in the city I don't think anyone would have noticed. Detroit always kind of feels like the zombie apocalypse, but with more wheelchairs. Our lepers make Molokai look like Club Med. Here haggard souls bang on the boarded-up windows of old houses looking for copper pipes instead of brains. But they probably wouldn't turn down brains if a local hospital paid $3.00 a pound for them.

Sometimes, after a lot of her silly zombie talk, the kid needs some reassurance: "You've been around for 31 years and you've never seen a real zombie, right?" Right, I tell her.

Just don't look out the window, kid. Ever. This bed doesn't need another squirmy little person in it every night.

1I swear if she asks me to tell her "The Story of Zombies Go to the Mall" one more time I am going to order this.

2I know zombies rank right up there with pirates and ninjas and robots in the hipster pantheon of beloved ironic personages (has Dave Eggers opened a zombie store yet?), but I swear other than buying that stupid puppet and playing that video and answering her questions I have not encouraged this in any way. But now that I've put it that way, I guess this is all my fault.

Seen November 24, 2008 through January 24, 2009.

The dream the kid told my wife about this morning:

"I was about six and in the abandoned zoo with Pops. There were lots of rusty nails and broken glass but we had steel-toed boots on so it was okay. We saw a tiger and he tumbled down. And Pops said, 'hello' very quietly and I said 'hello' very quietly. It was a nice tiger. Then suddenly we heard an 'aye-yi-aa' above us---it was a monkey! Then suddenly I heard a flap of wings above me. It was the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle---a griffin! I wore pink steel-toed boots. Pops wore the black ones and he stepped on a rusty nail!"

New WoodCraft post up, over there in left column.

Please, Nobody Sneeze

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, January 21, 2009 |

Our baby boy is walking; at least, he's doing that ten-step creaky-mummy-emerging-from-the-tomb toddle from mom to dad and dad to mom and sometimes dad to sister or sister to dog. With this new mobility comes a new sense of dread: just when I had grown comfortable thwarting him and his ground-slapping crawl from causing too much damage around the house, he's working on this stealthy bipedal ambulation. Next it will be the grappling hook and the throwing star. I'm screwed.

The kids and I spent part of the afternoon yesterday going through the old DV tapes looking for footage of Juniper's first steps. We didn't find it, but we watched a lot of tape of me ordering my daughter to dance in this desperate and slightly-effeminate voice. I half expect her to turn towards the camera each time and say, "Dude, I am NOT your monkey. Stop telling me to dance." But what comes out of her mouth instead is complete and total gibberish. Somehow, though, the dude with the slightly-effeminate voice is conversing with her and actually responding to all that jibber-jabber. It was like watching a younger version of yourself deftly haggling over the price of red bell peppers with a street vendor in Budapest, except you don't remember knowing any Hungarian. To put it even more simply, it was like watching Han Solo have a conversation with Chewbacca.

I look at my toddling son, not yet having uttered a single word. We still have to go through all that with him, I think. I'd better brush up on my Wookiee.

I remember being so excited watching her language skills evolve into something tangible. I go back and read old posts on this site and sometimes cringe at the things I've put between quotation marks for her. Did she really talk like an Indian sidekick in an old cowboy movie? The video confirms it. As awesome as it was watching her learn to speak, I can't help but appreciate this articulate nearly-four-year-old creature we have now who can communicate in more than yawps and exaggerated groans.

For dinner yesterday I made her spaghetti and meatballs from scratch. She told me she didn't want spaghetti and meatballs but I made it for her anyways and let her help with the sauce. When I finally brought the plate over to the table, I sat down with her and started singing "On Top of Spaghetti." The line "I lost my poor meatball" threw her into hysterics. Between sobs, actual plump tears coursed down her reddened cheeks. "What?" I asked. "What is wrong?"

"I don't like that song, pops!" She yelled. I stopped singing.

After she was about half done with her meal, I started humming it again. I don't know what's wrong with me: sometimes I just can't help myself. She immediately commenced with the wailing and blubbering again. I looked at my wife. I think this is hilarious, too, her eyes and clenched jaw told me. When Wood pretended to sneeze on her meatballs, Juniper practically went into convulsions. "Why don't you like the song, kiddo?" I asked.

"Because my brain doesn't like it when things are 'poor' or when things get lost."

We tried logic. We tried reason. It was just a meatball. It didn't matter. She's a kid. Even if she's able to make a perfect sentence, that doesn't mean she has to make any sense.

A quantum of solace

Posted by jdg | Friday, January 16, 2009 | , , ,

At a wedding long ago I met my wife's second cousin and his wife, both former CIA agents. They weren't analysts or Langley office drones but straight-up field operatives who spoke every Asian language and had spent their thirties in the deep jungles of Indonesia trying to dredge up support for cooperative right-wing military juntas or something. That's what I assumed: they wouldn't say a word about what it was they actually did there. Wood's cousin wore pressed khakis and a bowtie that marked him as unquestionably Republican. His wife was a quiet woman without makeup who was self-effacing to the point of near-invisibility. This was a perfect cover, I thought, for the deadly assassin or provocateur she probably was, with a checkered history of black ops in leftist guerrilla camps or rooftop-fisticuffs with Bakin double agents. Every time one of them picked up a toothpick or looked at their wristwatches I half expected to spot the secret detonators or tranquilizer darts they were ready to wield at a moment's notice.

But these were not spies in the way I had always thought of spies, though they were probably a lot like most actual CIA assets: incredibly smart, unassuming people who know how to keep a secret. When I was a kid, I always thought I wanted to be a spy. I imagined a life spent with an attache full of dossiers and passports representing multiple identities that I could slip in and out of like differently-cut bespoke suits. I checked books out of the library like The Encyclopedia of Espionage and An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets. I read le Carré and Clancy. I was pretty sure I'd be great at reading microdots and intercepting defectors while in deep cover. I kept spy notebooks (in code) detailing neighborhood surveillance: license plate numbers of unrecognized cars; suspicious dogs. I would practice stealth at night by sneaking downstairs to spy on my parents while they watched television. Fortunately my interest in espionage waned before I spied anything too traumatizing.

Lately, though, I've been watching a lot of spy movies again. The new Bond movies are good entertainment, and my wife will watch them with me for the obligatory Daniel-Craig-in-a-swimsuit shots (same with those Matt Damon punching-bag-amnesiac movies). These movies would have you believe all spies are both dreamy and tough, and only spend time in the most tastefully-decorated locations in the beautiful places of the world. The spy is never a tourist. He always belongs wherever he is.

Perhaps because of this, sometimes during the day I find my mind wandering towards dreams of cinematic espionage: I might be at a red light with two whining kids in carseats behind me and I'll close my eyes and picture myself driving up to some beaux-arts hotel on the French Riviera, leaving a clean Aston Martin with the valet and subsisting for weeks on nothing but cocktail olives and the smell of expensive perfume. Do you remember that scene in Election, where Matthew Broderick's character imagines himself driving a convertible along an Italian clifftop?

That is what I see when I close my eyes to shut out the relentless whining from the two pint-sized slobs crammed into the back seat of our economy car. A sophisticated escape. I doubt that any stay-at-home parent hasn't wished, at least for a second, that he or she had a passport for a secret identity and an account number for a bank in Geneva.

When we checked out of the Westin Cincinnati the other day I had baby roadie duty, carrying the bag of clean diapers and the bag of unwashed shit-filled diapers and all the baby blankets, toys, and suitcases down to the car. When I got there, the fucking key BROKE IN THE LOCK and I couldn't open the trunk. I spent twenty minutes trying to remove the key and detach the kids' carseats so that I could crawl through the backseat to get to the trunk. The backseat smelled like week-old cantaloupe. The trunk somehow smelled worse. While messing with the lock, I closed my eyes and imagined myself under pressure to escape from the clutches of a double agent with a mind bent towards torture.

At some point in this struggle I stepped on the cheap Playskool keyboard that my mother-in-law bought Gram that plays instrumental versions of dimly familiar Steve Winwood and Huey Lewis songs from the eighties. The batteries were dying and the stupid toy starts playing a dirge-like version of Europe's "The Final Countdown."

This, I mourned, was the closest I would get to Europe anytime soon.

How is it you never see James Bond with so much as a garment bag, yet he always manages to have a Brioni tuxedo on hand? I closed my eyes again, and instead of descending the steps of the Vienna opera house with a beautiful redhead on one arm, I pictured myself holed up in a Jakarta slum during monsoon season with a mousy former National Merit Scholar eating rice balls and analyzing satellite data. Most true CIA assets, I told myself, spend most of their time in places where you only drink martinis because you can't drink the water.

Eventually I got the lock cleared and the luggage tetrised into the trunk. When I showed my wife the broken key that certainly wouldn't be starting any ignition, she gasped: "What will we do? Are we trapped here in Cincinnati with a bag of poopy diapers?" I lifted my chin and brandished the spare valet key that I always pack when we leave town, just in case something like this happens. "We'll make it," I said, and after snapping the kids into their carseats, I led the beautiful redhead on my arm over to the passenger side of our stinky economy car parked in an underground parking garage and opened the door for her.

In this car, with her and these two kids, and no job. Apparently this is where I belong.

When you are almost four years old, apparently you don't need anything more from a vacation than a swimming pool and a hotel room with a bed that's good for jumping. To make it a super-cool vacation, apparently that hotel bed only needs a mirror in front of it to watch yourself jumping. And if you want to have the best vacation ever, maybe one night, while you're totally staying up late and swimming with your dad in a pool on the seventeenth-floor of a tall, tall building, your mom will order a room service fudge brownie sundae and it will get there right after you return to your room still smelling of chlorine and your dad will set up a picnic on the floor by the door because your baby brother is sleeping across the room and all three of you will peel back the plastic wrap and sit around whispering while eating this sundae with fancy napkins on your laps.

* * * * *

My wife goes to Cincinnati every month for business, and sometimes we drive down and stay with her at the fancy hotel. I know why some people build swimming pools in their backyards or buy trampolines: they love their kids and want them to be happy. And (for the same reason) when some people go on vacation, they go to places like Hawaii or Florida. But that's just not our style. We parent on the theory of lowered expectations: if they don't know what they're missing, they won't get upset about it until they're already old enough to resent us for a whole host of other reasons. Disneyworld is, I'm sure, a totally magical pain in the ass. But when your kid has never seen a Disney movie and doesn't know Florida even exists, places like Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati will do in a pinch.

* * * * *

After the last trip to Cincinnati, our daughter's preschool teacher told us about a game she invented that the whole class plays called "going to Cincinnati." I don't know any of the details, but apparently the kids just love the sound of that word: Cincinnati. They sit around saying it over and over. The game has taken on a life of its own.

But I like to think they sing it as LL Cool J might.

* * * * *

When I was a child, I remember my parents taking us on a car ferry across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. I don't know why, but I built up heavy expectations for this journey. On the way to the port, I imagined a gleaming white cruise ship, perhaps helmed by a white-suited Ricardo Montalban* and his diminutive Filipino first mate (I thought Fantasy Island was just the second hour of The Love Boat) and filled with minor celebrities such as Nipsey Russell and Robert Goulet feasting at huge spreads of jumbo shrimp cocktail and tropical fruit. Instead, we pulled up to a dingy utilitarian vessel with nothing but a hot dog counter and a broken Burgertime game. I cried. This is the danger of heightened expectations.

But later, that same trip, we stayed at a Holidome by a highway somewhere in suburban Green Bay and I swam constantly and marveled at how every day someone came to clean up the mess we made in our room. This, I thought, was paradise. When we left this hotel, I cried. When my parents tell this story, they say I kissed the dirty carpet in the lobby before we left. I like to pretend they're exaggerating, but the thing is, I totally remember doing it.

* * * * *

Yesterday, when we're packing up our bags to leave Cincinnati, my daughter starts crying (these days my wife is fond of looking at me with eyes that say, "You and your damn genes"). By the time we get down to the lobby, she is in full-on hysterics. The business-casual brigade gives us dirty looks for disrupting their free wi-fi frenzy. "I don't want to leave Cincinnati," she hollers.

"If you keep this up, we'll never come back."

Then, all of a sudden: silence. Not returning to Cincinnati, it seems, is a fate this screaming preschooler can't even imagine.

*8:54 p.m. I just learned that Montalban died today. May he rest forever in the thickly cushioned luxury of Corinthian leather.

A let out a audible gasp when I found this one. "Albert Schafer, eight year old newsboy who usually begins at 8:00 A.M. Sundays. Sells some on week-days. Is a cripple. Makes one to two dollars a day. Location: Austin, Texas." Lewis Hine, October 1913.

[click on the image to get a better view]

It was raining on the interstate a week ago, and even the five-foot snowpiles lining the median were melting into greasy, gunpowder-colored sludge. Every few miles the snowmelt revealed a secret: a dead deer emerging from the melt like a tundra-bound mastodon, released to rot in the 60 degree weather. I never give much thought to dead deer on the side of the road; maybe a brief lament for the animal's awkward death or perhaps a thought to the human lives inconvenienced by it. But these deer were different, sitting as they were in the worsening gloop of winter, their once-brown hides now mottled gray yet still perfectly preserved as if they all had been killed that very day.

More than once I've walked into an abandoned building only to find the rotting carcass of a dead dog not far from the door. The feral animals, seeking some dignity at the end of lives that afforded little of it, seem to prefer to die indoors. I have also found dead dogs in vacant lots, and even the most dessicated of these corpses reveals some hint of a breed (such as a tuft of Rottweiler hair). The breeds of dogs whose bodies you find in fields or alleys usually tell you they were dumped there after losing an organized fight. Life in this town isn't easy for its people. You can imagine how hard it is on dogs.

Last night I was out walking our own former Detroit street dog (saved one day before his date with the needle), when we happened on a stray. Pinch-faced and skinny, the wild dog was only-slightly skittish. I ordered Wendell to sit by a tree while I approached: calming and petting it while looking for any sign of ownership. I brought it back to our porch where I fed it and then told it to get lost. I glanced out the window twenty minutes later and the stray was still sitting there, looking at me. The temperature dove into the low twenties last night. I begged my wife to close the blinds. "If it's still out there in the morning, I'll bring it to the shelter." But this morning it was gone.

On one of my first house scouting trips to Detroit, a friend gave me a tour of Belle Isle, the massive island park in the river between the city and Canada. He drove me past a barbed-wire fence enclosing overgrown foliage with a dozen albino deer huddled together. "European fallow deer," he said. "They've lived here for generations. They used to run wild on the island but now they're penned off in the abandoned zoo."

"Abandoned zoo?" I was intrigued.

Detroit does still have an operating zoo. A good one, in fact, built on an island of city-owned land two miles north of the city border, within wealthy Oakland County. But for over a century the city operated a separate facility first known as the Belle Isle Zoo (which opened in 1895---the same year the European deer were introduced to the island) and then the Children's Zoo (starting in 1947). In 2002, disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick closed the Belle Isle Children's Zoo despite opposition from the City Council, claiming the pressure of the city's $75 million budget deficit. City council overrode his veto and freed up $700,000 to reopen the zoo. In that year's November election 88 percent of Detroit voters approved a nonbinding ballot initiative to reopen it. Kilpatrick ignored both and shuttered the zoo, shipping off the animals and calling the move temporary. "We need to really figure out what we want there," Kilpatrick said. Of course the "temporary" closure became permanent. Kilpatrick used money appropriated for the reopening of the zoo to fund a "Nature Center" on the most remote and unvisited part of the 982-acre island, including $1 million for a brand new enclosure for the island's dwindling herd of 20 fallow deer.

Seven companies submitted bids to build it, and the city building authority (run by the mayor's cousin), selected a company that had never before built an animal enclosure against the bids of several experienced zoo contractors. The first act of the winning bidder was to subcontract the construction to a company owned by the former mayor's longtime best friend (and fellow convicted felon) Bobby Ferguson [source], a man who has benefited from an untold number of similar schemes over the years (to the tune of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars). That is how business is done in the city of Detroit. And these are some of the results:

Miles and miles of perfectly adequate chain link animal enclosures abandoned so the former mayor's friend could pocket $1 million to build one on the opposite side of the island for 20 inbred European deer.

The Belle Isle Zoo has been closed now for over six years. Many people from this area have fond memories of visiting it as children. There were elephants here. Bears. Monkeys. Tigers. Some of the zoo's big cats were rumored to have been rescued from lives guarding Detroit crackhouses. In 1980, the zoo was completely rebuilt to adhere to more modern ideas of natural habitats with a lengthy elevated boardwalk and African-style architectural elements throughout. 22 years later it would all be left to rot:

Kilpatrick lied about this zoo as effortlessly as he lied about nearly everything during his tenure. He once put forth some cockamamie idea about turning the zoo into an X-Games style park with skateboarding and "zip lines." But that will never happen. It will sit like this until the scrappers find their way in, followed by the graffiti artists and the drunks and vandals, though the place is a block from the island's main police station and not easy to enter (it's a maze of 10-foot barbed-wire fencing) .

I did not go there with any intention to trespass. I often take the dog for hikes in the woods on Belle Isle. Inside of him a wild hunter sits dormant, and it is necessary to occasionally make him feel useful. Earlier this year a pack of wild dogs were harassing us, keeping their distance. They were smaller dogs than the ones that attacked us at the playground years ago, and once we started chasing them they led us right into the abandoned zoo. Inside the zoo, we followed their tracks through a maze of fences and walls. I could see that everything remained much as it had been left. The felid cages still had trees nailed to the walls for the scratching of giant claws. The monkey house sat silent, still smelling slightly of its occupation.

The dog loved the smells of the old zoo, rooting around every corner of the cages or the big cat enclosure. He was the Teddy Roosevelt of German Shorthaired Pointers, the Hemingway of birddogs: a big game hunter, sniffing at ghosts.

It was strange to stand inside the enclosures and look up to where countless people would have watched whatever animal dwelt there.

Even stranger were 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.

Every building and every enclosure chokes with overgrown plants in the summer. Dead trees have fallen to crush the boardwalk in places. The buildings are mostly intact, filled with snake and spider exhibits, educational displays. Scrapping damage seems light, though I do think the copper is gone. Signs inside the once-heated felid cages still warn KEEPER IN THE YARD.

A brush in a big cat cage sits next to an empty 40oz.

An animal transport trailer slowly rots into the ground.

From their earliest days, we teach our children about wild things. Even as more and more of them grow up in cities or suburbs, seemingly isolated from anything truly wild, we tell them stories and read them books about elephants and bears, monkeys and tigers. When you're a kid, almost all the good books are about these wild things, most anthropomorphized and friendly. To those of us reading these stories, this obsession with the wild might seem pointless or silly. But to a kid these pages are an introduction to our world and its amazing capacity for strangeness and beauty. We take our kids to the zoo---even ignore the unnerving vacant glaze in the eyes of penned polar bears---because we know there is nothing quite so magical to those tiny minds as seeing what was fiction become suddenly so real.

But in time, of course, every child will see a zoo for what it is: a place where nothing is real, a place where wild animals cannot be wild, where every instinct is curbed by confinement or scheduled feedings.

This place will never be a zoo again. It is home to a pack of wild dogs now. A reclusive badger or two. Red foxes and red squirrels. A bluejay and a cardinal. A mile away, the fallow deer sit in their million-dollar home, but within the zoo I still find a broad-tined antler shed by a buck during his temporary stay. Half buried in the ground, it is already starting to rot.

We take our kids to the zoo and think we're teaching them about wildness, but really we're teaching them about dominion. A lesson in the power of fences. While all the time, along our highways, outside our very windows, wild things are there. Waiting.