"There are more than 400 liquor stores in Detroit. But if you want to buy food, good luck. In the entire 140 square miles of the city, there are no Krogers, no Safeways, only eight supermarkets, and they’re discount stores."  ---Chris Hansen, Dateline NBC, April 20, 2010.

This post is part of my ongoing response to lazy journalists like Mr. Hansen who love to echo silly hyperbole because it's so shocking (whether or not it's actually true). This is just a humble post about how we manage not to starve to death here in the city of Detroit despite a lack of national chains. "But where do you shop?!" is a question I get all the time when people find out we're raising a family in Detroit. It's a question I remember asking myself back in the late 90s when I first started coming here to visit a house full of artists, musicians, and urban gardeners that my friend knew well. I remembered mentioning some hand-wringing magazine article I'd read about "food deserts." But of course what I really wondered was, How far do you have to drive to get to the Kroger? This presumes, of course, that national chains are the best place to buy groceries. Over the last few years I've learned that's not at all true, and sometimes it's a good thing that Detroit doesn't have any large chain supermarkets. Honey Bee Market La Colmena is a good example why.

A few days after we moved into our current house, some kindly neighbors brought over a 64 oz container of fresh salsa and bag of house-made tortilla chips from Honey Bee Market La Colmena. From the first bite, we were hooked. I sat down the other day with Ken Koehler and his wife Tammy Alfaro-Koehler outside their Detroit grocery store, and they cracked open a tub of the same fresh salsa and a bag of their chips while we chatted about the history of the store. It felt just right.

 [This is a long post with a lot of photos, so click to continue reading on a separate page]

Ten things my son has asked me to draw pooping

Posted by jdg | Monday, May 24, 2010

Has it really been three years since the last time I pottytrained a kid using inappropriate pictures of beloved characters pooping? My artistic abilities almost certainly peaked in the seventh grade, but it seems that has not stopped me from sharing them with you once again:

1. A Robot
2. A Unicorn
3. Caillou
4. A Zombie
5. Wendell
6. Frankenstein
7. Muno (from Yo Gabba Gabba)
8. A pheasant
9. Mickey (from Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen)
10. A Mummy


The Mummy Hunters, Part 1

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, May 19, 2010

As I approach that difficult time in every man's life after he's extended a liberal arts education into some expensive yet practical professional degree, worked for a few years in said profession to pay off the debt, quit abruptly, and spent almost half a decade taking care of two small children, I'm realizing it won't be long before both kids will be off at school and I'll soon have to figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. It's like that day in college that I finally recognized no one was ever going to pay me for bad translations of ancient Greek histories. If we had an extra bedroom I might be able to convince my wife to fill it and grant me a reprieve from re-entering the real world, but sadly there's no room at the inn and granting a lazy man clemency from labor is apparently not a good enough reason to force a hardworking woman to go through it again.

So, as long as this lasts I swear I'm going to enjoy it. The day camp we've sent the girl to the last two summers isn't operating this year, so I get her every day all summer and the truth is I couldn't be happier about that. She starts kindergarten in the fall and I'm going to miss that kid like you wouldn't believe. Right now I look forward to the two days a week she's not in play school, so we can leave the city and go on the adventures we plan for those days. My son and I can still have adventures, true, but he has so much more fun when his sister is with him. The days loom when we'll lose her to teachers, to her friends and Justin Bieber or brooding pubescent vampires and all the other things we won't understand. What I love about being with my kids at this age is how nonresistant they are to whatever it is the people around them find exciting. Bertrand Russell famously said that "fear is exceedingly infectious; children catch it from their elders" but I've been thrilled to see how equally infectious excitement has been between me and my kids.  

* * * * *

Of course, the girl has already learned to manipulate that excitement into more toys. Her recent obsession with all things ancient Egypt somehow resulted in me ordering just about every Egyptian-themed toy available on the market, and even making a few that weren't. If she's this clever when she's nineteen, she's going to tell me she met a nice "archaeology major" and she's thinking about switching herself but needs some cash to go to Rome so they can excavate some late emperor's villa in the Sabine countryside and I'll be fumbling for my check book before she even finishes her sentence. For now, we read books about archaeology and ancient Egypt and talk and talk and talk about it. All winter, this was fueled by frequent visits to the small Egyptian collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

We know the collection at our museum so well now that for our weekly non-school-day adventures, we recently decided to hunt down every mummy within 200 miles and visit it. Eventually we'll make the trek to the Field Museum in Chicago to see its 23 mummies and full-size tomb, but I'll admit there's just something special about driving to a smaller city and visiting a local museum where the ragged mummy of some lesser priestess or servant is usually the highlight of the entire collection. There are always plenty of other treasured Egyptian artifacts that the smaller museum has obtained to supplement the mummy display. We like to pour over the details of the entire collection without being overwhelmed by it, and the rust-belt mummies we've hunted down have provided a lot of fun. 

The weirdest thing about our annual pilgrimage to the town where my wife grew up was the realization that we weren't just going back to make fun of the Dutch people (like we always used to); No, we were going back because we enjoy the festival. I mean, we had actually been looking forward to it this year. My wife spent a week curled over her sewing machine preparing the kids new outfits. Meanwhile, I scoured Dutch eBay for depression-era wooden clogs and traditional hats. After an unusually warm Spring, we worried out loud that most of the six million tulips would be long gone before we got there. Just a few years ago I secretly cheered for the teenagers who turned their passenger-side car doors into 35 MPH guillotines, lopping off the heads of an entire block of flowers, risking hefty fines and the clucking of the village elders. Now why did I ever think that was funny? I wondered this year, admiring a row of flaming Keizerskroons along Central Ave. These flowers are beautiful! Then one of the motor-coaches that takes tourists down the tulip lanes passed by, its windows filled with Wilford Brimley lookalikes sharing my affection for brightly-colored tunicate bulbs, and I sat back down on the davenport with an afghan draped over my lap, wondering whether there's a cheaper way to get testing supplies for my diabetus.

I suppose I would have been a bit more fired up if we'd made it to Holland a day earlier, when favorite son Erik Prince received a standing ovation at a sold-out Tulip Time luncheon. Prince's father started an auto parts supplier in Holland that made the lighted vanity mirrors in your mom's 1982 Pontiac Bonneville. The younger Prince started Blackwater, the company whose goons running amok in Iraq gave bloodthirsty mercenaries a bad name. With the fortune he inherited from Papa Vanity Mirrors and his own war profits, Prince has become important member of the secretive cabal of conservative Christian billionaires from Western Michigan who have their fingers on the strings of all the right political puppets. To have a divisive figure like Erik Prince greeted so warmly at Tulip Time says a lot about how deep the conservative roots of the community run, all the way back to those original Calvinist separatist founders who chose Holland, Michigan as the place where they could prosper far away from Jews, Papists, and Belgians. There is no doubt that this town is still full of their progeny, and the Tulip Time advertisers know who they're primarily marketing to:

But Holland is also a town where a lot of good manufacturing jobs were available over the past quarter century. The agricultural industry in the region long ago brought Hispanic immigration (now 22 percent of the population) but the factory jobs have brought all kinds of other people to Holland who want to do crazy things like spend the money they earn and drink alcohol occasionally, you know: people who don't just assume Erik Prince's vast wealth is a sign of God's love for him. With all these new factory workers, engineers, retirees, and others coming to this town, some of the Dutch people are even learning to lighten up. Last year an ancient blue law was repealed and stores and restaurants were allowed to sell and serve alcohol on Sunday for the first time in anyone's memory. Some stores are even open downtown on Sunday now. If this keeps up, by 2072 there will be a gay pride parade down Eighth Street. This is your future, Dutchies. If you don't like it, move to Drenthe.

(Drenthe, Michigan's civic motto: "No gay pride parades, ever")

[this is a long post with a lot of pictures, so I'm breaking it up. If you want to read the whole thing and see pictures of the kids in their Dutch outfits, click here]

Never clean anything

Posted by jdg | Monday, May 10, 2010

So let me tell you about last week.

On Monday I decided to clean out the car. Not ordinarily something I'd bother to tell you about, but it is relevant to something that happened the next day and the act of cleaning was pretty epic as far as acts in my life go these days. We have been operating for a number of years under the principle that the shittier we let our car get inside, the less likely it will be that anyone will ever want to steal it.  In addition to the sort of food mess and smell I've written about before, on this occasion there was so much dog hair caked to every surface it looked we'd paid for the deluxe Wampa-hide seat package. Last week the dog rolled around in something (hopefully not somebody) dead while we were hiking on Belle Isle and the stink of it filled the car on the way home and I was like, "Wow, that smell of death really covers up the fermenting Cheerio mash under the car seats!"

I spent more than two hours vacuuming the car out. We do not have a garage so I had to pester half our neighbors to borrow enough extension cords to get our vac to reach our parking spot. I even used a string of Christmas lights. It was very festive. When I finally picked up the kid from playschool that day she climbed into her (freshly laundered) car seat and asked, disgusted, "What happened to our car?" On the way home, I went through a car wash for the first time in years and quickly remembered why I hadn't: both children screamed like we were being slowly propelled through the digestive tract of a compact-sedan-eating squid. But the car looked nice for the first time in years.

The next morning my wife totaled it.

Now I don't believe in jinxes. But a week before I'd been grumbling about how our insurance rates hadn't decreased despite more than a decade without incident. This, combined with the overzealous cleaning and washing, seems to have tempted the fates to micromanage such a display of hubris. Of course, my first reaction was to feel incredibly lucky: both children had been in the car and nobody was hurt. Because we have only this one car, my wife had to call a neighbor to come pick up the kids and bring them to me. She had been so busy avoiding me by talking to the police, our insurer, and the rental car guy that I heard narration of the accident itself first from my children, ages five and two:

"There was a big crash and then there was lots of smoke."

"White smoke! Lotsa police guys!"

"Part of the car fell off."

"It was scary!"

"They took our car away on a truck. . ."

"A big truck!"

They continued to describe what sounded like the climactic scene of a Michael Bay film; all that was missing was our car turning into an intergalactic robot and destroying an entire SWAT team with a wrist-mounted particle blaster. It turns out my wife was parking and a valet whipped around a corner and tore off the fender, deploying the airbags and doing just enough damage to make repair costs exceed the 10-year-old vehicle's value. I called my dad, an auto-body repairman across the state, to complain about the cost of repairing a single fender. He replied, "Hey, we gotta eat too, just like lawyers." Touche.

* * * * *

My wife finally returned with a rented Chevy and a hangdog look. Inside the Chevy I detected the gossamer threads of old menthol smoke and found a hoary little Flamin' Hot Cheeto Puff in the cup holder. We spent the rest of the week going over our finances and preparing to drive the stinky Chevy to the 2010 Tulip Time Festival (more on that later this week). The moral of this story, if there even is one, is never clean anything. The guys at the junk yard won't even notice how you removed all the dog hairs from the seats with masking tape as they tear your car apart for spare parts.