Old Time Religion

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The neighbor girl goes to church every Sunday. We never do. The very idea of church is as mysterious and fascinating to my five-year-old daughter as the reality of Sunday services were tedious and agonizing to me as a kid. I woke up every Sunday morning as a child and went to a Baptist church downtown with my mom; my dad, still scarred from a Dutch Christian Reformed upbringing, refused to set foot in any church unless someone was getting married or buried. As my sister and I grew older, mom seemed to grow less devout, and I began to suspect it was always more about fellowship and ritual than salvation. I grew grateful for the ritual; it gave me an opportunity to sneak away each Sunday morning to worship in a different sort of sanctuary: the newsstand across Main Street. It was open every Sunday, and there I grew to love the the feel of glossy magazine pages, the covers of the Bantam Classics, the smell of freshly-inked newsprint and unsmoked cigars. I discovered the world in there. Faygo and Necco Wafers may not make for much of a Eucharist, but there is nonetheless something holy in a small town newsstand.

All of this curiosity about where the neighbor girl goes on Sunday morning has inspired the sort of questions that should belong to the philosophers and theologians who've been wrestling with them for millennia, not five-year olds who demand actual answers. The wrong kind of church is the one that has all your answers, I would tell her. On the radio I hear some woman plugging her book to Diane Rehm all about the importance of taking children to church, if only to give them ritual, to give them something to wrestle with when they're old enough to question belief. I nodded. I do not want to raise her in the Church of Smug Secular Humanism, to think she already has all the answers. We never go to church, true, but we do not want her to think people who do are silly. Some people, we explain, believe in Buddha. Other people believe in Muhammad and Allah. Some believe in many Gods, while others only believe in one. Lots of people believe in Jesus. We tell her that as she grows up she can study everything and decide for herself what she believes.

She pauses and nods, as if she understands. "I believe in Pegasus," she says earnestly. "Don't you?"

A Detroit Jam

Posted by jdg | Friday, June 25, 2010 | , ,

It's not hard to find a good mulberry tree in a city; the challenge comes in finding a good place where you can go and safely harvest them with your kids without worrying about little pickers wandering off into a road or something. I knew of plenty of perfectly good mulberry trees along sidewalks near our house from the stains the berries leave on the soles of my boots, but it took a bit of investigating to find enough of them in safe, out-of-the-way places to do some proper gleaning in the city with the kids.

Our not-so-secret apple-picking spots are safe (they're well off any road). But we only knew of a few mulberry trees in desolate spots where we could hop out of the car and pick a few at kid height.


The real score came when we discovered that the parking lot of an abandoned hospital near downtown was full of mulberry trees. The parking lot has only one way in and out, so I was able to park the car sideways to block it and ensure that we would have the entire parking lot to ourselves. The only other person we saw was an old trainspotter watching and recording the cars that passed along the nearby tracks from Canada. 

Several of the trees had branches that were perfect for kids to reach. We brought a ladder, but didn't even need it. The trees were full of fruit and it didn't take long to fill our pails. Mulberries are delicious: sweeter and less tart than blackberries but similar in appearance. Also: no briers. With a rich, dark juice, mulberries are full of antioxidants. Their skins are very delicate so they do not transport well, and outside of the Middle East I think they're rarely sold commercially. Gleaning is the only way to get mulberries around here (they don't have u-pick mulberry farms, obviously), and we were happy we only have to drive a couple miles to do some serious picking.

Read More

Nothing I have ever done has resonated as much as the photos of what I called "feral houses" last summer. A quickly dashed-off blog post written while children tugged at my sleeves ended up capturing the attention of hundreds of thousands of people around the world and I still get hundreds of hits to that post every day. Even Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, e-mailed me about them. With a new summer here, I am tempted to add to the typology. Here we even have a feral church:

Living in Detroit, you can easily grow numb to the things that seem remarkable to people who live elsewhere. With so many journalists and photographers parachuting in over the past few years, we have allowed outsiders to document these things and define them. Detroiters are, after all, used to all the abandoned shit. We drive past the grand ruins without a second thought. It can also be easy to avoid the parts of the city where these "feral houses" are because there is little reason to go there: nature is taking them over because nothing else wants to be there. It is often easier to just travel the web of depressed freeways than it is to drive through depressing neighborhoods. But I'll always prefer a side road I've never seen to a rut I've been in a thousand times. Seeing these feral houses is a part of our daily life in this city, and I feel compelled to document them.

[this post has a lot of pictures, click here to see the whole thing, and if you click on individual pictures you can see them much bigger]

Nature Boy

Posted by jdg | Friday, June 11, 2010

I never went camping as a kid.  My dad had a saying: "Until somebody can explain to me why I would want to pay a fee to sleep on the ground, get bit by mosquitoes all night, pee in the dark, and eat lousy food in front of a fire when I could get a hotel room for $40 and eat dinner in a booth at an actual restaurant, we're not going camping." The thing is, you never could explain it to him, because halfway through any paean to the simple joys of a campfire and a can of beans or the stars above and the sounds of the forest in the middle of the night, his mind was already wandering to what was on HBO at the nearest Red Roof Inn and what the nightly special was at the Sizzler.

When I got to college, I'd still never been camping so I signed up for a one-credit recreation class that required a weekend backpacking trip to a remote Lake Michigan island. Most college freshmen quickly find some novel infatuation fueled by new-found freedom. For some it's extravagant skull-shaped bongs. For others it's that expanding collection of empty Goldschl├Ąger bottles on the dorm windowsill. For me it was paying a fee to sleep on the ground, get bit by mosquitoes all night, pee in the dark, and eat lousy food in front of a fire. When my class arrived at that remote Lake Michigan island we hiked until we reached a tree-lined bluff that overlooked the rusty hulk of a shipwrecked ore freighter and there we pitched our tents. I found myself sharing a tent with two experienced campers: one a bona fide hippie who currently lives in a log cabin built by the Amish; the other a former Eagle Scout who currently lives in the Pacific Northwest catching owls and other birds of prey with his bare hands for the U.S. Forestry Service. Spending your first night in a tent between those two was kind of like losing your virginity to Ron Jeremy and Peter North. They were both consummate professionals and very gentle with me.

In time, I became an insufferable environmentalist. I memorized long passages of Whitman and recited them to myself on long hikes. I began learning the names and uses of all the plants I encountered. I practiced building survival shelters and making fire without matches and reading books about how to turn piss into safe drinking water. I was making up for missing all those years in the Boy Scouts because mom yanked me out of Tiger Cubs after I told her our den leader was a secret Nazi with a shrine to Hitler in his basement. I think I could have put up with one fascist role model if it meant I would get to spend my freshman year getting laid and wasted like everybody else instead of cooking wild edible stew and sleeping in a mud-covered hogan I'd built at a nearby nature preserve.

Now that's surely an exaggeration, because later that year I was able to meet the girl I'd one day marry and make a few babies with. When I eventually met the woman who would become my mother-in-law, she asked me a bunch of pointed questions she must have asked all her daughter's suitors, and the one I remember most was, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" and I said something like, I'll be living in a cabin I built myself off the grid somewhere in the mountains as far as I can get from this unsustainable society built on unnecessary consumption and waste. Then I popped the collar on my Schott Perfecto, ordered her daughter on the back of my Triumph Thunderbird and left her aghast in a cloud of petrol smoke. If only the poor woman could have gazed into a crystal ball and seen my domesticated ass sherpa-ing her grandchildren around; we might not have even had to deal with that unreasonable curfew all summer.

That June I took a job as a counselor at a nature center day camp; at the end of each week, the underprivileged inner-city kids in my charge were supposed to spend their last night of camp in tents somewhere on the property. It was my duty to make this as painless and fun for them as possible. One week, we camped not far from where I'd shown them how to filter rainwater (or urine!) using a bottle, a tarp, and some sand. I built myself a nice little shelter on top of an overgrown knoll the middle of my kids' tents. "Aren't ya gonna set up a tent, Mister?" one of the grubby little urchins asked.

"Tent?" I asked. "Why, tents are for amateurs who can't build a primitive shelter that would blow even Tom Brown Jr.'s wool socks off!"

I woke up itching everywhere. Some fat kid in a basketball jersey stood between me and the rising sun. "You built your primitive shelter in the middle of a patch of poison ivy, dumbass," he said. And he was totally right.

* * * * *

My daughter isn't that much younger than the kids I once introduced to camping, but we still have never taken her into the backcountry. We tell ourselves when they're a little older, but every time we find ourselves in a position to pitch a tent, my father's stubborn wisdom prevails. Still, I'm considering going on a week-long camping trip with some college friends later this summer and I'm taking the kids hiking at least once a week. The other day we were at a state park and I was showing them all the plants and talking about why they grow where they do, summoning what I could of that inner-19-year-old nature boy. At some point along the trail I touched my lips and soon after felt them burning. I've been nursing the most serious case of poison ivy I've had since that summer fifteen years ago, and this time it's all over my face. I look like W.C. Fields with leprosy. I look like Edgar Allen Poe's bloated, syphilitic corpse. I've been spending my days in seclusion like a mysterious character in an ancient novel, receiving visitors only in our velvet-curtained parlor, wearing a long hooded cloak.

I don't remember touching any suspicious three-leafed plants; I suspect the dog ran through a patch and transferred the oil to my hands. Still, I have no doubt that nature gave me exactly what I deserved.

I left my darkened sanctuary of shame briefly to take the kids strawberry picking. You should read about it here

I've really backed myself into a corner with these Terrifying Nixon-era Children's Books, given all my phony captions and snarky commentary. Occasionally now I'll come across a book produced during this era and parts of it will be so strange I'm sure you'll think I made it up, and John Holland's The Way It Is (Fifteen boys describe life in their neglected urban neighborhood) is just such a book. On its surface, the book isn't all that different from any of the recent "kids with cameras" experiments or even the idea I'm trying to execute by giving cameras to a bunch of kids on the east side of Detroit. Back in the mid-1960s, a Brooklyn high school teacher gave his students cameras through a grant from Eastman Kodak and they went about photographing their lives in a Williamsburg neighborhood that today only exists in the distant memories of the Puerto Ricans who once lived there. The photographs show street life in a Williamsburg neighborhood just as Johnson's Great Society was taking effect and urban renewal housing projects were replacing the historic slums. The text in the book is supposed to be from the students' perspective, explaining what they captured on film.

I'm sharing this book with you not just because some parts of it are unintentionally funny today (even though they are), but because it remains such a quaint little piece of evidence of how strange the world of children's publishing was in 1969. All of these books show how new psychological and social attitudes filtered down to the media that was being created for kids, where showing them "the truth" (usually through black-and-white documentary photography) was far more important than telling a good story. These books are all earnest and heartfelt and almost universally dull (which I why I have so often made up the captions).

The world this book portrays is as terrifying on the page as it probably was in real life. Junkies attack school kids and push them off rooftops to die after the ambulance doesn't come in time. Feral dogs roam the neighborhood. The streets are filled with bums and drunks. But despite this subject matter, it was clearly intended for a very young audience. Inside my copy I found a stamp from the library of a suburban Detroit elementary school. Who was the book's intended audience? Surely other slum kids didn't need a book like this to show them what was wrong in their neighborhoods. I can only assume the book was intended to show sheltered middle-American kids how terrible life was in the ghetto, perhaps with the intent of spurring them to some sort of activism. Some of the contemporary reactions to the books are telling. Senator Jacob Javits of New York said, "This book will do both---inspire better-positioned boys and girls of all ages to serve and help in the slums and ghettoes---and testify to how unbelievably bad it is but how much can be done!"; Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine said, "If children can get to know each other through this kind of communication, their generation stands an excellent chance of avoiding the fear, mistrust, and lack of understanding that has afflicted our own."

There were similar books published in this era that I also really like (Herb Goro's The Block; Clifford McElroy's house with 100 lights) but what makes this one so strange is its intended audience of very young children. I'm going to ignore a large chunk of the book that shows kids skipping class and drinking and sniffing glue in public parks or tenement rooftops, sharing instead a few pages that focus on some of the neighborhood characters the kids encounter, like good old Buck Teeth Joe Junior:

Or good old Uncle Tio. He really likes to play with kids:

[This post has a lot more pictures from the book, so I'm going to break it up. If you'd like to see the rest of the post, click here]