Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 28, 2009

You were worried that the hardest part of having a boy would be the mudpuddles and mischief, but it turns out those are some of the best parts. Sometimes we share a secret masculine delight in smashing things. We pound on pots, and chairs, and the floor. We are loud. Don't tell the liberals, but there will be battles and war. Toy guns, even. For now he's content with dolls, and fairies, and flying horses (though sometimes they fly down the stairs). Our daily adventures will change, no doubt, as he puts more weight against the tiller.

We were a trio and he was our Harpo, but now that's all changed. Everything, now, has its word. And new words are meant to shouted. There was a dam that cracked with the letter B, and through it rushed Ds and Ps and Ms. Everything that was true then, is true again. Only now, his sister is here to share in the delight of every new word, every parroted proclamation from this formerly silent sidekick.

* * * * *

We stand around in the meadow and I watch my son watch his mother turn cartwheels. The joy of it overwhelms him; he puffs out his chest to contain it all but it escapes in shrieks and giggles. I see her beauty in his face and think, Good: high school won't be as tough for him. He reaches up his hands in imitation of her and plants them on the ground as if to do a cartwheel himself. Falling short, he scurries forward on his hands and feet. Her hand goes to her heart from the cuteness of it.

* * * * *

When you have an older sister, you can't learn to run quick enough. She might have a toy. Or ice cream. And YOU WANT IT TOO. As your walk edges closer to a run, the way you move your arms might remind your father of The Bushwackers making their way to the squared circle:

There's more than a minor resemblance, son. But we'll save the wrestling for when you're older. For now you wrestle with words; you've realized the world is full of them.

And you know now that you can make them, too.

One More Summer

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My son was in the kitchen, digging through the cupboards for his beloved pots and pans, when I heard him dump a giant bin of spices on the ground. Upon investigation, I saw that one of the canisters had spilled all over his feet and the floor, giving his white socks an ocher hue and the familiar smell of Doug’s cooking filled the air. Doug was an amazing cook: a man willing to rise every morning before my wife went off to high school to make her pancakes, a man who patiently waited for her (and me) to shed our fickle, teenage palates and expose us to real food. Real cooking with real ingredients that we in our provincial lives had never experienced. From fois gras to phở, Doug was our link to a world of food that involved more than sandwiches wrapped in paper or casseroles that stuck like spackle to your ribs. He was an epicure who once opened his own restaurant. Before he got sick, Doug printed and bound a book of his own recipes and gave it to us with a huge supply of his homemade seasoning, a secret concoction of his favorite spices that we used on potatoes and grilled meat and fish. And then there it was: dumped unceremoniously on the kitchen floor. I stared at it as my child wandered away leaving a trail of dust, a comet of cayenne.

It’s been over a year, I thought. How can we still have his spice---cook with it even---but he is gone? I wanted to scoop it up with my hands, but instead I vacuumed up the secret seasoning, acutely feeling the loss of him, the emptiness now occupying the space he’d held in our lives, disappearing like the dust at my feet. In my mother-in-law’s freezer there are still a dozen or so Tupperware containers packed tight with meals he cooked, the frozen slivers of onions he chopped with his own hands mingling with tomatoes he gently inspected in his palm at the market. How can this food still be here, when we’ve been without him for so long? She will not eat this food, even if it means letting it all go to waste. She still needs it in there, taking up that space. His closet is still full of his clothes on their hangers. He died while we were on our way to visit him, and I had to borrow a pair of his nice shoes for the funeral.

* * * * *

Initially they told him it was probably nothing; heartburn, perhaps, a diagnosis the bumbling staff at the small hospital probably makes by default at the tail end of the holidays. When the pain in his leg persisted they thought it might be a blood clot. They still sent him home. Days later, when the pain moved to his right arm a battery of tests showed it to be the unwelcome diagnosis that sent everyone scurrying to google adult leukemia, disbelieving that a man who'd been so healthy and robust for the holidays a week earlier could suddenly be associated with that word.

A cancer diagnosis isn’t what it used to be. There are so many survivors, both high-profile people and those you know in your every day life. When we heard the word cancer our minds started whirring with thoughts of everyone we’ve known who had fought that battle. I thought of my college roommate who’d lost his father to inoperable brain cancer during our junior year and then, years later, watched his own wife fight and defeat breast cancer while still in her twenties. Doug’s diagnosis seemed as grim as could be, at least according to the merciless bedside manner of Dr. Google. Doug had Acute Myelogeneous Leukemia. There was no surgery that could be performed, no cancerous growth to be removed and compared to something you’d find in the produce aisle. This was an enemy hiding in his bone marrow and blood. We were told up front that things were really bad and that he probably only had a couple of weeks. Just like that, it went from a blood clot to two weeks to live. Everything we found on the web reaffirmed that hopes were dim. Even with the most aggressive treatments, less than 15 percent of those diagnosed with this brutal cancer survive more than five years, and we speculated about where he fit in the spectrum of more risky prognostic markers, grasping for anything that sounded remotely positive and secretly despairing at everything else.

Doug refused to believe he would only live for a couple weeks. He immediately agreed to pursue the most aggressive treatment and he was in chemotherapy within a matter of hours after the diagnosis.

For every story of stunning triumph, there are still plenty of staggering loss. That Doug did not survive his battle does not mean his story contains no hope. When you think someone you love only has two weeks left, every day beyond that is another day you didn’t think you’d have with them; as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, despite the ravages of chemotherapy, the doctors were able to give him time. Time to read his granddaughter book after book in the crook of his arm on his hospital bed, on his couch at home. They gave him time to learn that he had a grandson who would be born the following winter, time to see him swell in my wife's belly. They gave him many hours to visit and laugh with good friends. They gave him one more summer with the woman he loved most in the world. There was time to peel back the cellophane on some terrible meals, and time in his own kitchen to cook a few great ones. There was time to think about his life, time to sit with travel books and dream of a trip to Italy with his wife, a trip that never worked out because of the aggressive chemotherapy schedule, but it was a vision that helped get him through the hardest days.

The doctors who led Doug through this battle were warriors who’d seen it time and time again, though they never gave the impression that this disease wasn’t something they could destroy in him. Doug was an electrical engineer and a unabashed computer nerd who found great comfort in charting his own progress with spreadsheets and graphs, rising and falling counts of white blood cells, hemoglobin, and platelets all of which resembled the emotional roller coaster that he and his wife described in those precarious days of treatment that followed fevers and infections but led to the possibility of a bone marrow transplant. His own scientific background helped lead Doug to a dizzying understanding of the drugs that were killing the leukemic blast cells in his bone marrow. Instead of having a patient's eyes glaze over while they described a new "gemtuzumab ozogamicin" and how it might affect "basal metabolic organ functions," the oncologists and hematologists found Doug to be a fascinated patient who held as much hope and confidence in the science as they did, often following up by reading the latest research on his laptop from the hospital bed during treatment.

To the doctors and the patient, this fight was always worth it. Hope was never fruitless. The chemo tore him down time and time again, but he fought on. Every night was another to spend with his wife at his side, while the night nurses looked the other way when she climbed up into the bed to hold him. Every day brought new messages of support and love from all around the country on his CarePage. Even at the peak of chemo side effects, Doug wrote about how wonderful a particular summer day felt on his skin.

There was a brief remission. There was the discovery of a perfect bone marrow match and a willing donor. But as preparations for the bone marrow aspiration progressed in Ann Arbor, even when hope was strongest, everything suddenly took a turn for the worse. Doug suffered a stroke and died just days before his 62nd birthday: ten grueling, blessed months after they first told us he might only have two weeks to live.

* * * * *

It's not my place to talk about grief. My mother-in-law still cries every day. She walks the Relay for Life, still keeps in touch with the doctors and the nurses who tended her husband through those months, and attends gatherings of survivors and those who lost loved ones on the same floor where her husband died.

I'll go whole days where I don't think about those months, days filled with petty worries and trivialities. Then, in the kitchen, I'll see his cookbook on the shelf, and remember all the time he'd spend on food, all the meals we ate with him. I'll remember the advice he gave during those final months. Go outside if it's warm. Hug your loved ones. Enjoy a good meal.

And then sometimes I'll take his cookbook down from the shelf, and start thumbing through the pages.

[The American Cancer Society recently asked my wife and I to write about how cancer has affected our lives in conjunction with a campaign to raise awareness about the good that this organization has been doing for 96 years. Although anyone reading this site for a while knows about the loss of my wife's beloved stepfather over a year ago, we haven't written about it much here. We are taking this opportunity to do so, knowing that so many others have similar stories, with hope that one day even the battles that were lost will be remembered for helping us get to a place where many more are won.]

Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's so strange having a normal-sized child. I pull a shirt over his head and can't believe he's outgrown it. Your sister was still wearing this shirt last November, I tell him. Soon I'm going to start giving her your hand-me-downs. My wife breastfeeds him in the morning and at night, and we still go through three gallons of whole milk each week.

I see my daughter among her colleagues at the playground and kids a year younger tower over her. I toss her half a mile towards the sky and catch her with ease. One of her playmates will beg for the same treatment and I have to say, "Sorry bud, I'm not sure I can." When I pick up other children I am sure they are made of fruitcake.

For dinner I roast asparagus and reduce two pounds of kale, turnip and mustard greens to a few scattered, soggy lumps and scoop one onto her plate. Even her mother just twirls hers around with her fork. I eat my own with feigned gusto, pretending to be a rabbit who can suddenly hear all her neighborhood friends eating their own dinners. She takes a bite and claims to hear the same, then smartly refuses another. I take another huge bite and I am Popeye. I can move mountains. I can hold up the sky.

But I can't budge her lips open for another bite. I am five seconds away from telling her there are children starving five blocks down the road.

This is food that makes you grow, I say to a tiny girl who very much believes in magic. She takes a bite and her mother and I fall off our chairs in shock. You grew! Her brother watches and reaches for her fork, which she wrests back and uses to scoop up another bite. The whole scene repeats until her plate is nearly clean.

She makes me measure her up against the back of the closet door, and after all that pretending, the shock is real when I see she has grown more than three inches this year. I look deep into my daughter's eyes, certain that I see the desperate longing to measure up to her classmates, the poignant melancholy of being The Short Kid.

So will I be able to go on the good rides this summer, or not? She asks.

I've received quite a few e-mails expressing curiosity (and incredulity) about the new family bike, so I decided to post some pictures. It's a 1964 Schwinn Racer (3-speed) that was all original but missing the lamp and generator setup. It had been stored in a shed for at least twenty years, and after an evening of scrubbing it looked pretty good.

I brought the bike down to the good people at the Wheelhouse (a full-service bike shop on the Detroit Riverfront that also rents bikes and gives bike tours of the city) for a tune up and to make sure the bike was in good enough condition to push its ridership capacity a bit. I also had them install a cheap temporary child seat in the back.

Juniper and I took daily rides while we waited for the handlebar bike seat I'd ordered from the Netherlands to arrive. The inspirational Sarah Gilbert in Portland bought a Bobike seat for her amazing mamacycle, and seeing all those photos of Monroe sleeping on it convinced me to use the same brand.

I love riding with him on the handlebars. It's like a 15mph hug. I don't mean to disparage those who use bike trailers, but there's just something really special about being able to point to things and talk to him and hear what he's saying while we're on the bike. The Bobike seat was simple to install myself. I do occasionally find my knees brushing the back of it while we ride, but it doesn't really impede pedaling or steering. I also removed the original kick stand, installing a heavy-duty one to prevent tipping over.

I wasn't happy with the big, clunky contemporary child seat installed on the back of the bike. Juniper complained about not being able to see things to the side and my back blocks most of her forward view. So I looked to eBay for what other options there were, and found a deadstock 1965 Leco child seat that I won for $9.99 ($12.99 shipping). It arrived in its original box still stapled shut:

This seat was easy to install, but it didn't have a seat belt so I had to sew one on myself (it's actually much nicer than anything that comes on a store-bought bike seat).

She tells me she likes this seat so much more than the other one, and occasionally I feel her arms wrap around me and her head rest against the small of my back.

I wanted the bike to have some cargo capacity for my camera or any shopping we do during the day. The way the seat attaches to the frame made it impossible to install a rear rack or any panniers currently on the market, so after flirting with the idea of installing a CETMA front rack, I decided just to hack some wicker baskets onto the seat and fender struts, choosing a couple of fishing creels ($12.60 each). I connected each of them to the struts using hose clamps wrapped in electrical tape as well as some wire, and they are on there TIGHT. We tested the creels after our weekly trip to the cheesemongers with a gallon of milk in one and five pounds of cheese in the other and later with a couple 2-liters of soda. They work great! The creels also serve as a comfortable footrest for the kid in the back.

So at this point I think I have put almost $200 into this bike, but the pleasure we've already gotten out of it has far surpassed any cost. With the new bike trail in our neighborhood we can get to the riverfront without crossing any busy streets, and from there we can ride for miles on trails (and easily get to Belle Isle). In picking the kid up from school, I've been amazed at how different the experience of the city is from the car. You see things differently, and better. People are friendlier. We've seen a lot of rubbernecking smiles.

"Pops, Last summer was the summer of the jogging stroller," Juniper announced to me on the way home from school yesterday. "This summer will be the summer of the bike."


I've always sort of had a thing for that whole Bavarian-Biergarten-Girl look. What's not to love about pigtailed Alpine maidens with powerful forearms popeyed from lugging liters of Pilsner, short twirling skirts, and breasts wedged into a corset? A scantily-clad Fräulein bringing you beer? Add some meat roasting on a spit and you're all set. Welcome to Walhalla.

Last October we took a day trip up to the German village/eternal Christmasland of Frankenmuth, Michigan. On the drive there I said to my wife, "All I want from today is for a girl in a dirndl to bring me a beer in a giant glass shaped like a boot." Another boot filled with Franziskaner, Heidi? Well, if you insist! Unfortunately, wherever we went, the middle-aged and modestly-costumed schnitzel schleppers explained in thick Michigan accents that they didn't have boot glasses. "I guess you'll have to wait for Ye Olde Renaissance Faire to see corseted bosoms," my wife said, patting the back of my hand. I glared at her and put "dirndl pattern" on my mental list of things to google.

This past weekend we traveled across the state to western Michigan, the omphalos of New World Calvinism and the place to where my reformist Dutch forebears followed their Indian guides and finally said, "Eh, dit is goed enough." We were there once again for the annual Tulip Time Festival, arriving just in time for the big high school Klompen Kompetition. Nubile teens from Holland and the surrounding communities of Drenth, Overisel, New Holland, Vriesland, Zeeland, and Zutphen converge costumed in wooden shoes for a klomp off in the city streets. I think it must have something to do with meeting Title IX requirements, because no boys participate. Instead, the tallest girls with the broadest shoulders wear boy costumes. And fortunately, the sturdy Dutch-peasant gene pool of the region provides for an ample number of tall, broad-shouldered girls up for the task.

As the high school girls klomped on, my mother-in-law explained that the local reformed Christian high school didn't have a Klompen team for years because dancing was verboden. The administration eventually relented and the team quickly rose to become a local Klompen powerhouse. Still, it made me wonder: was there really anything sexy about Klompen?

Dutch dancing is somewhat bewildering to witness. The dancers line up for blocks and dance around in wooden shoes to music piped into the streets by a speaker stolen from an Arby's drive-thru back in 1985. The girl costumes are like a fundamentalist-Mormon take on traditional low country dress. Some even wear lace hats with wire springs called "kissers" that extend outward from the face. These were, of course, designed to prevent kissing (sort of Calvinist chastity hats). The dances have no actual basis in Dutch folk tradition, but were invented by a high school gym teacher during the Great Depression. While some dances encourage same sex hand holding (sexy), others include finger-wagging choreography that seems to discourage taking it to the next level (bummer):

When the high school dancing ended, the girls wandered off with friends wearing 21st-century American Teenager costumes of short shorts and sweatshirts with the word Hollister printed across their chests.

Then a few hundred middle-aged women started synchronized klomping all the way down Eighth Street:

At that point the verdict was in. Those parochial school elders were correct to permit this exception to their general prohibition on dancing. They should rehabilitate sex offenders by making them watch this in prison, I whispered to my wife.

So Tulip Time is no Oktoberfest. The Dutchigan equivalent of Oktoberfest is sitting in an empty auditorium while asking an elderly woman in a lace hat to bring you a second ice water and then leaving her a 15 cent tip. This guy provides the music:

Some day, I hope to travel to the real Netherlands and ride around on a sweet bike soaking up the gratitude from the general populace that my conservative ancestors and their ilk left those levee'd shores so that marijuana could be decriminalized and hookers permitted to slowly sway in storefront windows. But until then I have Tulip Time, which I enjoy for more than just the opportunity to make fun of my own people. I also enjoy the FATBALLS:

Oh, and Tulip Time is fun for the kids:

This year both of mine appeared in full costume. This was done solely so that we might one day expose their love interests to these photos. My son's little blond mullet poking out from under his cap might be the Dutchest thing I saw all weekend.

I spent part of Friday morning scouring the racks at Bibles for Belgium (my favorite Holland thrift store). Just before leaving empty handed, I spotted a 1970s Volendam costume on a rack near the cash register. The size looked just right for my wife, and I would have totally been willing to spend several nickels more than the $15 asking price. It took some convincing, but she was a good sport and agreed to wear it for a photo:

Afterward, I whispered in her ear: Can we maybe take this up a bit, and add a corset?

Why stop there, she said, When I could also serve you a Heineken in a wooden shoe.

Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 07, 2009

My wife's earliest memories are from Pennsylvania, from her time with her dad after the divorce. She would go there for months every summer, staying in rentals in North Braddock or spending his working hours with a strange uncle who slept on a cot in the back of his barber shop, where she swept up human hair.

"Strange, isn't it, that I spent so much more time with my mom but my strongest memories are of being taken out of the routine she built for me."

"You remember the unusual. Everything else became the fabric of who you are."

Still, the unfairness of all this haunts my every day. I watch my daughter from across the room while she invents stories and I wonder what trauma that's yet to occur will define her past, what strange and unexpected turn of events will overshadow our calm, uneventful days together. For one thing is certain: not all of life can be this good.

The seat arrives from the Netherlands while she is still in school, and he watches while I install it on the handlebars of the bike. I feed him a bottle and then fit him into the contoured plastic and snap the helmet under his chin. As soon as the bike starts moving, the squealing begins. Wheeee-oooooooh. I whisper words he knows through the helmet's ventilation holes: tree; dog; car; dada. He looks back at me and smiles. His sister's empty helmet clunks in her rugged seat behind us every time the sidewalk meets a driveway.

Her eyes on the playground when she sees us approach on the bike: that is something I will never forget. I feel like an embarrassing dork, but she feels differently: I'll bet everyone else was so jealous that I got picked up on a bike. School's not done but she wants to leave. She wants to ride. On the way home, it's just the three of us and the wind, and all the things we see. Look: a pheasant! she shouts, laughing at how he walks away. The city, the air, the laughter when her toes nudge the small of my back or when his fingers brush my knee: they may not remember any of these things.

But I have to believe these things become a part of who they are.

We have always only had a single car, but this past week after feeling stranded while my wife was out in the suburbs buying godknowswhat I knew it was time to get another vehicle. The minivanasaurus didn't work out (too expensive). So I decided to trade in some empty beer bottles and buy a new ride.

Let me back up. Since we moved into this house, my wife has usually enjoyed a single 12oz bottle of beer every evening. Sometimes I even join her. Because I haven't found a store in Detroit that accepts glass bottle returns, we have been piling the empties in our basement. A few weeks ago I got lost in the dense labyrinth of brown bottles emitting a soft stench of Sierra Nevada pale ale. I couldn't find my way back to the washing machine without a ball of yarn.

I have wanted a bike for awhile now, but felt concerned that we didn't have anywhere to keep one. Recently I got an idea: I would bring back the beer bottles (worth ten cents each under Michigan's generous deposit law), buy whatever bike I could get with the money, and then park the bike where the bottles had been. There was a such a beautiful symmetry to it that I started bringing the bottles out to the car right away.

It turns out I could only return a fraction of the bottles, because under Michigan law, a store only has to provide a return for the brands it carries. I wanted to bring the bottles back to Meijer (sort of a Dutch version of Wal-Mart), because their bottle return area is right by the front door and I didn't want to face the disapproving looks from old ladies while hauling two children and a few hundred empty beer bottles through a big box store. But that meant all those bottles of lager from former Soviet-controlled nations where they still believe in vampires and bottles of India Pale Ale from obscure microbreweries had to stay in the basement, which is fine because we still may need a place to secret away any half-bovine offspring.

Once the car's trunk was full, I put bags of empties inside the car in the passenger seat and on the floor in front of and in between the kids' car seats, which Gram deftly dumped out on the ride to the store. The kids effectively turned the backseat into Scrooge McDuck's money pit if Scrooge McDuck was actually Barney from The Simpsons. You'd think the smell would have been unbearable but I actually preferred the smell of flat, ancient beer to our car's every day odor. With the view out the passenger-door window partially obscured by a giant bag of beer bottles, I half expected to be pulled over by the cops, and I looked forward to explaining why my son was sucking on an empty bottle of Corona. CPS would have totally been deluged by an avalanche of empties had they tried to extricate my children.

We made it to the Meijer in Dearborn and pulled into a parking spot right next to one of those cart corrals, where I proceeded to fill two giant carts, leaving room for Gram to sit in the basket of one while I loaded several 12-pack boxes under each. Did I mention it was raining? Yeah. Hard. So I'm pushing a cart loaded down with 200 beer bottles and my son while pulling another one filled with 250 bottles as my daughter clung to my legs between the carts screaming about her wet feet. We looked like a tribe of schizophrenic Bedouins who'd wandered into a monsoon. It took us almost half an hour just to get through the parking lot.

If you want a clear illustration of how the economy is in the shitter, spend some time in the bottle return area at Meijer in Dearborn on a rainy day. There are like twelve of those fully-automated bottle-devouring-conveyer-belt-UPC-scanning machines working in 24-hour shifts to swallow every bottle some desperate laid-off auto worker and his family bring in to exchange for some kielbasa or whatever. There were puddles of rainwater and whatever was left at the bottom of ten thousand bottles of soda or beer on the floor and everything was sticky. Naturally, my son wanted to get out of the shopping cart and I had nearly 500 bottles to feed into a machine so naturally I let him wander around picking up bottle caps and gazing upon them with awe. I figured whatever he caught would just toughen him up for the Swine Flu. Juniper and I worked in tandem; she stood in the main part of the cart putting bottles into the machine and staring into it while asking me a million questions:

"What is this robot going to do with all these bottles?"

"Why is this robot going to give us money for these bottles?"

"Who lives back there?"

Meanwhile, people were lining up behind us because there was only one glass bottle machine and they all had a 4-pack of Mike's Hard Lemonade or a sixer of MGD so I started negotiating with them to let me buy their empties if they'd just stop breathing down our necks. One old fellow wasn't selling or didn't speak English or something so I doubled our efforts as he huffed and puffed until the machine filled up and stopped accepting bottles. We had to hunt down the developmentally-disabled guy who empties the machines and then we kept going until it filled up again.

Ultimately, we ended up with $46.30. Totally worth the six hours or so spent on the effort, don't you think? On the way home, I called a lady in Southwest Detroit about a bike I'd seen advertised on craigslist, and she gave me her address. We ended up driving around the most desolate part of Detroit I'd ever seen, all junkyards and traintracks until I called her again to get more directions. "Are you the scrapyard with the big red sign?" I asked her.

"No, we're the scrapyard with the big yellow building."

Once there, she unlocked four padlocks on an outbuilding and rolled out a beautiful, all-original 1964 Schwinn Racer that was just rusty enough that no one will ever bother stealing it. I like fancy bikes as much as the next guy in tapered pants, but where we live if you buy a fancy bike there's a very good chance you won't have it very long. "How much are you asking for it?" I said.

"Fifty bucks," came her reply.

"All I have is $46.30," I said, which she accepted unhappily.

If only she knew what we'd gone through to get it.