A Year of Fun Things

Posted by jdg | Friday, December 31, 2010

Yep, another blogger has made an end-of-year slide show of family pictures with an indie rock soundtrack that he narcissistically imagines will somehow interest a few passing strangers. Still, it was a damn fun year in which we did a lot of fun things. Some of these photos have appeared on the site this year, many have not. The song is "This Bed" from the excellent 2010 album Thistled Spring by Portland's Horse Feathers.

Happy New Year everyone, we'll be back to posting regular on Monday.

2010 Sweet Juniper Holiday Card

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last year we decided to start a tradition where each fall we'd commission an artist we admire to create a family portrait for our annual holiday card. Thanks to the wonderfully talented Yelena Bryksenkova for making our card this year [I wrote about Yelena in more detail here; she also has her own blog and an etsy store filled with lovely prints]. In addition to the portrait, Yelena hand-lettered the message inside:

I know it's not the same as receiving a physical card, but we just wanted to share this with all our readers and wish you happiness over the next few days as your enjoy your holiday traditions, whatever they might be.

Buy. Nothing. More.

Posted by jdg | Friday, December 17, 2010

If I could go two months back in time and show myself a video of what an effort it is to get my kids goretexed and in the car in all this snow and cold here on December 17, 2010, I might ask myself why anyone would live here, why anyone would ever go through this, why we do. But we do. Those of you fully acclimated to warmer climes might ask the same questions should you see what our roads look like, or our car mottled by salt with its undercarriage crusted with frozen stalactites of slate-colored backsplash. The other day I had to scrape an inch of ice off the windshield so my wife could get to work, while cars fishtailed down our road to avoid the old woman driving her motorized wheelchair the wrong way down the middle of the street through one of the two vehicle tracks in the snow where pavement was visible. You might certainly wonder how we put up with this for three or four months of every year. Just somehow we always do.

I am often amazed by the human capacity for overcoming adversity---what we'll put up with before we give up---and yet I am equally amazed by our overwhelming aversion to the challenges that make us great. As much as we can put up with, we often have to put up with very little, and what little we do put with often leads to the sort of complaining that makes me wonder if a medium-sized zombie apocalypse wouldn't actually be a good thing to help put our out-of-wack priorities back on track. I agree the parking situation at the mall is unacceptable, honey; perhaps we should tweet something about it but oh shit look: ZOMBIES!

I am an unapologetic consumer of war stories and disaster porn. I am humbled by old stories of pluck and mettle. I would rather read a lousy novel about the hardships of turn-of-the-century immigrants than a lauded novel about the first-world problems of some dysfunctional modern Manhattan family. It is all about context. I am always seeking reminders that I have it better than I realize. Sure, it may be miserable outside, but at least I'm not a Russian infantryman at the Battle of Stalingrad, warming my hands in the guts of a dead comrade like he's a tauntaun. I have a wife who pays the heating bill and a graying union suit I look for any possible excuse to wear. All I need to do is think about that old union suit and a jug of corn whiskey and any concerns about the weather drift to pleasant thoughts of  belligerently asserting to my wife that it would certainly be worse with zombies, and then ultimately passing out to hibernate for the night. 

* * * * *

The passages of Hemingway novels I savor most are those where he describes those tiny culinary joys in the midst of hardship: the crust of bread, that bit of cheese, a taste of wine. I can't imagine any morsel in my kitchen tasting as good as he described those bites taken while hiding from Franco's armies. In this season of ludicrous excess and temptation, I try to remind myself of that.

When I was a child, I remember my mother driving us to church and telling us some impossible fabrication about a poor family she knew when she was growing up. This family was so poor, at Christmas time the people in her town would donate rags and the mother would embroider the initials of each one of her fifteen children under the age of ten on a single rag and this "new" handkerchief would be their sole gift (unless you considered that lone orange on their mantle, from which each child was given a single membranous segment). This was, of course, a cockamamie admonition towards respect and gratitude in prelude to the orgy of giftwrap and gewgaws that marked the beginning of the last week of December. Still, part of that lesson stayed with me all those years: no matter what you get in life, don't forget you are one of the lucky ones.

We're trying to make the kids almost all their gifts this year. I have still found myself buying a thing or two here and there; it's a parental urge almost impossible to ignore, to imagine them deeply satisfied at noon on Christmas. There are times during the day I find myself thinking, But what about stocking stuffers? And then I repeat to myself: Buy. Nothing. More.

But of course I will.

Today, in the car, on the way home from preschool: Let me tell you a story about this family I knew when I was growing up. . .

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Now I don't normally use this space to draw attention to the site sponsors FM lines up for us, but today I just wanted to announce that we're honored once again to participate in the More Birthdays campaign from the American Cancer Society. Too many of our lives have been touched by cancer (my wife and I previously wrote posts for the ACS here and here) and this year the ACS has gathered together a diverse roster of artists and musicians (and bloggers) to celebrate the "more birthdays" enjoyed by countless men, women, and children thanks in part to the 97-years of research, support, prevention, and education funded by the American Cancer Society. This is a cause and organization we truly believe in, and we look forward to the opportunity over the next few months write a bit more about this campaign and what it means to us.

Thanks for indulging me, and now I've got to get back to figuring out how to attach these cross country skies I found in the garbage to that old jogging stroller.

You had to know this was coming. . .

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, December 14, 2010

. . .but we didn't expect the snow to come this heavy and this soon, so the plastic sled is only a makeshift solution while I ponder constructing a more gallant conveyance. It may be eleven degrees outside, but I'll be damned if several times a day that dog doesn't drag his harness up to me expressing a desire to pull. Snow between the toes does irritate him so I've already ordered some sled dog booties.

There may be no good sledding hills in our neighborhood, but a dog sprinting through the snow provides a thrill as satisfying as any downward slope.

More to come. [previously: The Dog Wagon]

On Dwarf Shakespeare and Random Encounters

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, December 08, 2010

So I'm watching that Will Ferrell movie where he's an elf and Peter Dinklage (forever known to me as the dwarf from The Station Agent) comes on playing a bad-ass children's book author who tells Will Ferrell how much "action" he gets. And then he beats up Will Ferrell and I think, Bravo, dwarf from The Station Agent. Later I flip the channel and one of those Lord of the Rings movies is on about that Scottish wizard school that four muggle children stumble into through a wardrobe and meet the polar bear who talks just like Gandalf and it's no wonder I'm confused when I see the dwarf from the The Station Agent made up like Gimli's half-brother with a wee sword and I think, Oh no, dwarf from The Station Agent! I thought your dignity knew no price.

I'm drifting off to sleep, you see. I'm nursing a miserable cold and I've consumed more NyQuil than a Mormon teenager on a Friday night and I'm imagining Peter Dinklage in a big off-broadway production of Hamlet. Or maybe MacBeth. No, Hamlet. He'd be great, I think. But then I'm wondering if people would only buy tickets because they'd want to see a little Hamlet. No, I tell myself, They wouldn't market it that way. But then shouldn't everyone in the cast be small? A pint-sized Polonius. A tiny Ophelia. It could be redemption, I think, for all the Leprechaun 2s and the Vern Troyer sex tape and half of the programming on TLC. I'm trying to come up with something to write about for this blog about my crazy short trip to New York and I'm falling asleep picturing a crowded theater, everyone admiring Peter Dinklage soliloquizing to a normal-sized skull. . .

* * * * *

I was in a New York book store over the summer and saw the normal-sized guy who wrote and directed The Station Agent. I didn't recognize him, but Zan had just seen 2012, so she knew he was a celebrity but it wasn't until later that we had any idea who he actually was. I'm not accustomed to seeing some guy in a store or on the street and thinking I might know him from The Wire or one of those Focker movies. They say it's the anonymity of New York that makes celebrities so comfortable there, the daily barrage of faces that means nobody gives a fuck who you are, snowflake. But if that is true, I wonder, what's so great about being special in the first place? And why is it we admire actors, anyway, when all they're really good at is being someone else?

I found myself at that bookstore again last Thursday, buying a book that just won the National Book Award written by my former teacher. I did not see Peter Dinklage there. The next morning I found myself in a Brooklyn studio with two hip New York-types to do my hair, two hip New York-types to dress me, two hip New York-types to put on makeup and what looked like a half dozen hip New York-types there to take my picture for a magazine article I'd already written (to think I'd offered to set up a tripod and do all this in Detroit). They put me under lights in front of all of these hip New York-types and then told me to "act natural." When they were done with me they brought in a live zebra. Now I don't know what any of this has to do with dwarfs. This is how blog posts work sometimes, a stream of barely-consciousness. I could probably try to tie all this back to dwarf Shakespeare, but that would strain your faith in me and today I'd prefer to leave you with a mess. It is the ability to be messy that I love about this work. I do not have an editor. No one to tell me not to write about midgets, not to half-brag about being photographed in New York for some magazine in some half-assed post that doesn't make any sense. I do not have a team of stylists. Or good lighting. This is raw me.

And this is true: I walked away from that Greenpoint studio, feeling blessedly invisible across Hasidic Williamsburg, across half the borough through Prospect Park. I walked for seven hours that day, e-mailing various friends to see if they were around, not committed enough to break into their routines with a phone call. Later, still with time to kill I stood on one of the staircases overlooking Grand Central Station at rush hour, calmed by all that scurrying anonymity. Outside it was just starting to snow in New York, and I made my way down Madison, arbitrarily picking a street to take over to Penn Station to catch a train to Newark. There on 34th street I passed a short man with long brown hair in a Yale cap and I instantly recognized him in that half a second you get with any face on the street in New York. He was a friend from high school I hadn't spoken to in over twelve years.

We could have closed a bar with memories, but he was in a hurry and I did not call out his name.

New Subsite: Vintage Kids Books

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, December 01, 2010

I know content has been a little light here in the main column lately, but I'm constantly updating the content behind through those six small square images at the top of the right column. I still have so many Terrifying Nixon-Era Children's Books to share, along with many other treasured, out-of-print books that I've found at thrift stores or in schools that were being demolished. In my opinion, the current state of picture book publishing is pretty dismal, with a market driven more by what grandma will buy than what will actually capture a kid's imagination. Keeping a steady supply of "new" vintage books has made reading time such a pleasure in our household. I have collected hundreds of cool old books since the kids were born and I've always wanted to share some of the best we've found with you. So I decided to create a space on this site to do that, and maybe rescue a few of these treasures from obscurity.

I expect to add a new book at least once a week. I know I could be more savvy and figure out a way to put all those updates in the main RSS feed, but if you are interested and want to know whenever any of the subsites are updated, I created a feed that incorporates all of them (here).

I'm starting today with one of the coolest children's books I've ever stumbled across, Thomas Minehan's The Lonesome Road (The Way of Life of a Hobo), a book so vivid in its accounting of the daily habits and adventures of a depression-era hobo, I can't help but wonder if it inspired more kids to take to the rails than it discouraged. Be sure to keep an eye out for a new book every week.