Posted by jdg | Friday, February 18, 2011

She turned six years old a couple weeks ago. The baby she was is all gone now, all gone from her cheeks and arms. She is so skinny. I find a pair of cotton pants I bought her in San Francisco five years ago and they re-enter her wardrobe as leggings. I can pick her up one-handed by her ankle and lift her till we're eye-to-eye. The marks on the closet door say she is getting taller, but it is a slow, spurtless growth. She is the smallest child in her class. Strangers have confused her for her brother's twin three times now.

She is concerned that some of her friends don't believe in the magical things she is still so certain are real. Her classmates spend schooldays thumbwrestling loose teeth; they appear the next morning without them. "Why does the tooth fairy want teeth?' she wonders, and I tell her that baby teeth are filled with imagination, and fairies need it to survive. "What about adult teeth? Do they have imagination?" Not as much, I say. I know the awkward days are coming, when her face will try to find space for the teeth that will chew her into old age, but for now she hasn't lost a single tooth. I suddenly recognize the trap I've set: but you won't lose your imagination when you lose your teeth. That happens other ways.

A boy in her class tells her girls don't have muscles. I tell her to show him her tongue.

I just saw her face in the sunlight, noticing freckles on her cheeks for the first time. This summer I know they'll arrive in earnest, and then she will look even more like her mother. For years we've been convinced she could not roll her tongue, that I'd cursed her with the flat-tongue gene while her mother rolled hers at both of us. But yesterday she came home from school all excited with a rolled tongue between her teeth. See, I said. Sometimes you just need to keep practicing to get something right.

She can turn any word into a whine. She takes forever to put on her shoes. Her teacher says this age is like a portal to adolescence: this is a glimpse of our future. Whenever we disagree, she says, "You don't know because you're not me." And she's right. Every day I see the strengthening influence of her peers, and yet also find more faith in what I've instilled in her. I am her father. The steady compass leg. And she believes in magic still.

* * * * *

He turns three today. The weather here is the same as the day he was born, with the full, grim glory of a winter warm spell: all the wet, lonely mittens lost along sidewalks and thawed dogshit sunk back to the ground.

I remember the day my wife went back to work and I was first left alone with him all day, a 3-month-old and a father with nothing but his meager wits and a freezer full of frozen milk. We got through those terrifying days somehow, or rather we survived each one in turn, and so on and so on until somehow years had passed. The baby is not gone yet from his cheeks, or his needs. He still needs hugs, and a hand to hold when we're walking. He needs to be close during scary parts in books even though he frequently tells me how powerful he is: he is, after all, a superhero. A superhero who sometimes needs his mama.

He is as honest as a founding father. He has no guile. A few days before his birthday a box came from the toy store where I order all their plastic horses and cowboys and Romans and such. I briefly left the box unattended and at some point in the afternoon one of his superhero toys fell inside, so (he tells me) he had to go looking for him. He couldn't help it. Wide-eyed, he tells me what he saw inside the box, and though he knows he should not have looked and I know I should be angry, I let it go.

My whiskers leave his neck red and irritated, but I can't help it: you should hear how he giggles when I nuzzle him. He grits his teeth and talks almost silently through a clenched jaw when he feels shy or nervous. He growls at strangers and authority figures. Though he has been a painless sleeper, the other night he woke up well before dawn and called out to us. My wife crawled into his bed and he told her about a nightmare. She stayed in there cuddling him, hoping soft fingertip caresses across his temple would lead him to gentler dreams. At some point he turned over, reached out to touch her nose with his fingertip, and whispered: "I want you to get out of my bed."


Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 16, 2011 | , ,

Well, it looks like Detroit is going to get its $50,000 Robocop statue. After a week of getting tons of e-mails about it, I'm ready to break my silence: I don't really have much of an opinion. I'm somewhere between the humbugs and the hipsters, I guess. But I am glad I'll be able to take my son to see the statue, if only so he can deliver the hipster equivalent of Sub-Zero's spine rip fatality from Mortal Kombat: Yeah, I was into Robocop when I was two like a year ago, but now that I'm three years old. . .

Last week during all the hubbub, we decided it would be fun to make our own Robocop statue whose prime directive would be to melt before he could cause too much local controversy. Thus, Sno-bocop entered Detroit on Saturday, February 12 and left it a few hours later:

During his brief existence, Sno-bocop may have received a visit from a little crime fighter who was more than happy to put on his costume for the fifth or sixth time since Halloween:

I don't know how much more playing that costume can take: it's starting to look like he's gone a few rounds with Clarence Boddicker and his men. 

As for the real statue, I'm sure he's going to love it. I know it annoys a lot of people and totally understand the reasons, but for this little native-born Detroiter and the thousands of other kids in Detroit, I guess we can only hope that the city they inherit will be better than the one we know and remember. I have that hope, and I have a hard time getting too upset over a silly statue.

It sure was brave of Han Solo to go back out into that blizzard to look for Luke, especially once we learn from R2 that the odds of surviving are 725 to one. But, you know: never tell Han the odds. . .

When I was a kid I never gave any thought to how Han must have had to cuddle up against Luke in that shelter all night. I guess I was so distracted by the idea of warming oneself in stinky, slithering Tauntaun guts that I never thought about what happened a few minutes later when those Tauntaun guts cooled down. I mean, anybody with a modicum of survival training knows that the best way to stay warm in a frigid tent is to cuddle up against somebody. I went on a camping trip in Shenandoah once where this girl started acting like she had hypothermia and this one guy started stripping off all his clothes to jump into a sleeping bag with her. Awkward!

Don't get me wrong, I don't think Han and Luke had some kind of Brokeback moment in that shelter (not that there would be anything wrong with that--- it would still be less weird than a few scenes later when Leia frenches Luke). If anything, the smell of Tauntaun all over Luke like truck stop Drakkar Noir would have precluded any hanky panky. But that's not to say they didn't still share a certain level of intimacy in that tent. I can just picture Luke: shivering, still muttering incoherently about the Dagobah system, spooned ever so gently by Solo's rugged torso and manly thighs while the harsh Hoth winds howl against the thin shell of their standard issue Rebel Alliance emergency shelter. Is that your blaster, Han?

You bet it is, kid. And that had better be your light saber. . .

There I go again, writing homoerotic Star Wars fan fiction. I really ought to keep that hobby to myself. It's just that when they show the shelter the next morning it doesn't look very big. There are no trees nearby and it doesn't look like Han built any kind of fire. Still, the bitterly cold hours spent during that long Hoth night have clearly not chilled Han's trademark sarcasm. "Good morning." he says to the dude in the speeder. "Nice of you guys to drop by. . ." Jeez, has he already made coffee, too? Something kept Han warm that night. I'm going to go with snuggles.

Ever notice how quick Han is to assert his manliness when they get back to Echo base and Luke finally gets out of that diaper in the chamber filled with goo? As soon as Leia enters the room he ramps up the machismo as if to remind Chewy or the droids just how masculine he is despite how many hours he's just spent cuddling a Jedi. "You didn't see us alone in the south passage," he says about Leia, and Luke looks jealous. But who does he really envy?

If I write about this, some nerds are probably going to e-mail me all kinds of malarkey about how Han probably rigged the power cell in Luke's lightsaber for warmth or how Hoth rotates faster than earth, making night last only a few hours. But I prefer to think about Han and Luke awkwardly spooning through an entire night, Han gently taking Luke's core temperature from time to time and keeping him awake with stories of his early days as a cabin boy with the Corellian pirates or his adventures smuggling spice for the Huts. Is this where Luke first learned how Han met Chewbacca, or heard the hilarious story of how he won the Millenium Falcon from Lando? Did Han muss the boy's hair, tell him not to worry, tell him he'd make it to the Dagobah system? The odds of this turning into a lasting friendship are good, Mr. Solo. Sometimes, I guess, the bonds of the warmest friendships are born in the coldest tents.

[the kids recently discovered a stash of my old Star Wars toys and it has been like, Wampa this, Wampa that for at least two weeks]

Reckoning with my inner food snob

Posted by jdg | Monday, February 07, 2011

I've been thinking a lot about food for weeks (and not just how I ordinarily think about food. . .me want. . .more). Because of the piece I wrote about Detroit grocery stores (and some of the pushback it received), I have had to recognize and confront some of my biases. By all accounts, I definitely seem to view certain food-related choices as a measure of sophistication. Some people say they enjoy experimental jazz or claim they can tell the difference between a $20 and a $200 bottle of wine. I certainly can't, but I sure can get all smug about never buying processed packaged food at Wal-Mart. In fact, I refuse to even set foot in a Wal-Mart. When I see the synthetic orange powder in a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese I emit an effeminate gasp of horror. I would not be caught dead in an Applebees. The clown Ronald McDonald is an anathema in our household. I read food blogs and find myself mildly aroused by their photographs. I may have once even called the smell of fresh arugula "sexy." I like my fruits and vegetables seasonal, local, and preferably organic. And I can't escape the feeling that all of this totally makes me an asshole.

That may be harsh. At the very least, I can't help but feel what it really means is that I'm just another brand of consumer, and that any sense of smug superiority I have is just the product of good marketing. Meanwhile, a secretive cabal of Germans in Monrovia, California are laughing at me and counting all my money.

I guess part of the problem is that I can't fully commit. I may not be able to set food in a Wal-Mart, but I can't go into a Whole Foods either. I don't seem capable of pulling the trigger on a $4 organic apple. And don't get me started about fine dining. The first time I went to a highbrow restaurant I was being recruited by a law firm in Seattle and I found myself staring at the prices on the menu in total disbelief. For the price of one entree I could have paid a family's weekly grocery bill. And I thought that was obscene. It seems I can't accept the full trappings of yuppiedom without a healthy dose of self-loathing. The gentleman opening a grocery store in our neighborhood recently asked our neighbors to e-mail him suggestions for products we'd like to see there that the previous store there did not have, and after I read my response over I just shook my head. "It would be great if you had rBGH-free organic milk, Greek-style yogurt, non-irradiated (local) produce, cage-free eggs, and whole-grain bread that doesn't list high-fructose corn syrup as a major ingredient . . ." Who the fuck have I become?

I guess I have the excuse of wanting to provide healthy food for my children. When most us were growing up, there was no backlash against agribusiness or the big food conglomerates. PepsiCo. Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg Co., and Sara Lee had only begun consolidating every food label in North America. To most of our parents, the biggest choice in the grocery aisle was between a name-brand and a generic. To buy a name-brand product was to show they loved us, and had the money. My working mother did not have the time or the resources to always shop for fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, so at home we ate a lot of meals that started with frozen or processed ingredients. It's not that she didn't love us, it's that she didn't have tons of time and (unless you were on a commune) there wasn't a whole lot of cultural pressure to do otherwise. 

Growing up, I also ate a fair amount of fast food. Before Fast Food Nation and Carlo Petrini and that guy with the relief-pitcher mustache who made the movie about eating McDonalds for a month ruined it, fast food was an honest pleasure in my life. We usually tried to order from the healthier options, but it never occurred to us that Wendy was evil. . .(I guess I've always had a thing for redheads and orphans). Back then the enemy du jour wasn't pesticides or high-fructose corn syrup or industrial-raised livestock. It was saturated fat. The answer was margarine, always, over butter. No bacon. Skim milk. We bought fat-free mayo. They even made low fat Twinkies that almost tasted like a Twinkie. I knew a girl in college so convinced that fat was her enemy that she ate nothing but Kellogg's Corn Flakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She may have been following some trendy 1923 diet established by John Harvey Kellogg himself (if she followed his advice for daily yogurt enemas, she kept that to herself). Of course a few years later everything flipped and fat became our lovable, greasy friend while carbohydrates learned what it meant to be scorned by diners everywhere. It felt like only a matter of weeks before I wanted to punch half a dozen people in the face for talking about how much they loved bacon as though that admission made them some kind of rebel. So-called "foodies" popped the collars on their Perfecto jackets and butter was back on the menu, baby. Locally-churned butter, of course. No trans fats.

I guess because the way we eat is so inherently tied to our health, and these trends are so fickle and short-lived, I can't help but wonder what's next. When patron saint Anthony Bourdain keels over from a massive local-organic-free-range-grass-fed-pork-belly-induced heart attack, what will the foodies do? Will they cut back on the foie gras and organic duck-fat french fries? I can't help but examine my own history and question whether I will someday look back on these current trends and see that I fell for them hook, line, and sinker like the good little consumer I am.

* * * * *

As someone who grew to a respectable height on non-local, heavily-processed (and often fast) food and who has always been relatively healthy, how did I end up on the side of the food snobs? My parents still eat like they always did. I can almost certainly trace my rebellion to the moment I stepped into my South Indian friend's home for the first time. The spices from hundreds of home-cooked Indian meals had coalesced with the paint on her walls. My father---one of the world's great curmudgeons against ethnic food---would have gagged. As I grew closer to this friend, I began eating there almost daily. This wasn't restaurant Indian food with no peppers and all that extra ghee and cream. It challenged my delicate palate. It burned. And the strange pleasure of it developed into a lifetime of adventurous eating. Today I will eat almost anything. That whole meal at Pankot Palace in Temple of Doom? Yum. 

The more I think about this, the more I think it does have something to do with my dad. The more that man feigned vomiting at any mention of the word sushi, the more I wanted to try it. I'd spent my life in the shadow of his strength, watching him fix cars and build things, and here was one area where he was a major wimp. His idea of Chinese cuisine began and ended with La Choy Chop Suey and take-out Sweet & Sour Pork. Italian was a jar of Prego or the Olive Garden. Mexican was Chi Chi's. Instead of doing drugs, I brought home hummus. A year in Europe upped the ante. I remember sitting at a dirt-cheap restaurant in Crete and ordering a salad. I watched an old woman walk past our table, out into her garden to pick a pepper, a cucumber, a few tomatoes, and a minute later they appeared cut up on my plate with some feta and olive oil. This was a revelation. All you hear about fresh, local food today is really just a recognition of what's ancient. It is nostalgic; anti-modern. When I returned home from Europe and tried to share some of the foods I had been exposed to with my family, instead of getting upset when they mocked me, I secretly enjoyed it. Here was proof that I had left the nest and grown more sophisticated. I might have come from culinary Philistines content to stuff their maws with soylent green, but I was no longer one myself. 

My sister went through the same sort of rebellion, but for some reason she's not nearly the snob I am. She doesn't hide the happy meal toys around her house when we visit. I guess this is why I'm writing today: I am a bit tormented by the hypocrisy of it all. A lot of the "ethnic" food I crave and (frequently enjoy) is the gastronomical equivalent of the fast food I have vilified in my own culture. Someone like me who looks down his nose at KFC or McDonalds will still eat extremely unhealthy meals at a Thai or Dim Sum joint with no regard to whether the food is mostly fried starches. The Burger King is evil, but In & Out Burger is awesome. I have seen the same sort of progressive white hipsters who rend their garments over "food deserts" and the lack of fresh produce in poor areas get in arguments about which trendy Brooklyn restaurant has the best local free-range fried chicken. In the foodie world, it seems, it's tough to be highbrow without the middlebrow to make fun of, or a lowbrow to pity (and slum around in once in awhile). 

After writing the piece about the Detroit grocery stores, I stopped in one of the rougher-looking supermarkets where I would never ordinarily shop just to see if it was as bad as everyone was telling me. It's true that the produce selection was rather limited and some of the fresh offerings unappetizing. When checking out what Michael Symon refers to as the "evil lurking in the center aisles" I did find a decent selection of name-brand processed foods. It all seemed overpriced, and in the end that seemed like a bigger deal to me than how unhealthy it was. It occurred to me that this was the food I grew up on. This was the food that nourished me through childhood. And yet here I am today, almost as bad as one of these out-of-touch 21st-century Marie Antoinettes in Berkeley shouting, "Let them eat kale!" from gilded balconies with platters of local halibut tartare and Belgian endives.  

* * * * *

As I look back at the paragraphs above, I'm struggling with whether or not to publish this. What is my point? What do I want you to glean from this rambling post? We all have our own histories and experiences that form how we think about food. Whatever those experiences might be, I personally am going to work harder at not passing judgment on the tastes and choices of others (even fellow snobs). I'm going to try to just enjoy what I enjoy and stop worrying what it says about me. And try to eat healthier across the board. I must remember that as elitist as current trends might be, as they become more and more widespread there are positive effects that will have benefits on local economies and the health of all consumers, as stores like Wal-Mart have begun to stock organic and local produce that beat the offerings at Whole Foods in blind tests. And I even think I've finally convinced my mom to use olive oil (and she started her own garden last year). 

But convincing my dad to try sushi? Yeah, that's never going to happen. It's more likely that I'd start listening to experimental jazz.