Looks Like Someone Won't Be Banished So Easily

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 30, 2011 |

My daughter's deep and earnest love of the Nain Rouge---the red imp who supposedly has brought bad luck to our town for three centuries---has only grown over the past year. Part of this is my fault, due to the purchase of (and frequent reading from) a physical copy of Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin's 1883 book Legends of Le Detroit, full of tough-as-nails coureurs de bois, phantom horsemen and French werewolves all living here in Detroit. That book led to digging up stories of other French "lutins," who are simply mischievous and magical hobgoblins that might tie your hair in knots during the night, but are certainly incapable of bringing an industrial powerhouse to its knees. According to my daughter, the Nain Rouge lives in cozy caverns under our neighborhood connected by tunnels where he keeps the neighborhood pheasants and rabbits safe from his troublesome pet foxes (who also pull his chariot). The steam that you see rising from grates is smoke from his fireplace (he must be cooking something). She grew indignant when she learned that the people who tried to banish the Nain Rouge with a costume parade last year were planning a second parade in 2011. "Again?" She asked. "We have to stop them."

We tried. Unfortunately there were hundreds of marchers, nearly all of them in costumes. She was very disheartened to see some her classmates and friends marching against her beloved dwarf. But she stood by her convictions. Deeply impressed by our friend Dessa's Nain Rouge costume last year, we painted a mask and found a little hat and adapted some our old red clothes into a little frock coat and cloak for her to wear. It turns out she looked EXACTLY like the real Nain Rouge. Be warned, he's pretty creepy:

When the march started, we zipped through the marchers with the dog wagon, holding a sign she made that said, "I AM NICE." Then we met up with the rest of the gallant and noble protesters and this little Nain Rouge stood her ground against a swarming mass of costumed revelers chanting for her to go away. Maybe once or twice she might have needed her dad to hold her after she saw a couple of guys wearing scary masks:

[photo courtesy of the talented Vanessa Miller]
My son, who will use any excuse he can to dig last year's Halloween costume out of the basement, proved to the marchers that their beloved crimefighting cyborg actually cares deeply for the imp they were foolishly banishing:

I think she feels it was a successful protest. After all, it's been nearly a week and we have totally spotted the Nain Rouge happily going about his regular business in our neighborhood:

Here he is plotting his next scheme:

Oh yeah, and he was so unperturbed by the march and the banishment ceremony that he actually had the gall to start dancing right in front of us:

We actually caught about a minute of his dance on video; luckily we also happened to have an accordion and a fiddle with us, and combined with our deep knowledge of his favorite nineteenth-century Quebecois reels (this one is "Par vaux et par monts") it became quite a festive moment:

Take that marchers: You will never banish the Nain Rouge, long live the dwarf!

An Attempt to Explain Why I Smell Like George Brett's Gym Bag

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 23, 2011

This is my good friend Ryan a few days ago. As you can see, he's wearing a red union suit (complete with ass-flap) and a hillbilly beard doing a jug dance on top of a pile of rocks, letting me take pictures of him that he can't be sure aren't going to end up on the internet. That is the price of being close to me.

I got an e-mail from someone the other day accusing me of treating my children like dolls, and that's when I first realized my kids have been appearing in costume here quite a bit lately, partly because I'm a little more comfortable sharing images where their identity is obscured but mostly because my kids are almost always wearing costumes. Not long ago when I went into my son's room in the morning I found him in bed, wearing his complete Robocop costume under the covers. His grandfather bought him a Boba Fett helmet for his birthday a few weeks ago and I don't think I've seen his actual face in weeks. He also keeps telling me there's a bounty on my head and there's nowhere for me to hide. If things keep going like this, he's going to end up like his Uncle Ryan. When we were much younger, Ryan let me dress him up as a leprechaun for our St. Patrick's party:

For a college party with a "Life in the Future" theme he arrived wearing nothing but a pair of tin-foil underwear that didn't nearly cover his ass cheeks. When I was visited him in Athens, Georgia in 2003, I found he had grown a porn mustache and was dressing like a gay biker:

Although it doesn't even need to be said, we love Ryan a lot. We've missed him since he moved from Detroit to rejoin his people up north. Fortunately, he still comes by from time to time for a visit, and one of the great things about Ryan is that he never shows up without a gift. Now, ordinarily I hate gifts. They make me feel guilty because there's nothing in the world that I need and very few things that I actually want. But I love Ryan's gifts, possibly because they are always far too inconsequential to inspire much guilt. Ryan might bring you, say, a can of beans he bought in Alabama because he liked the design on the label, an LP he bought at Goodwill because he thought the singer looks like you, or a bottle of Mexican shampoo with a grizzly bear, a unicorn, and a tomato on it. Once he even brought me a stainless-steel beer koozie from Things Remembered with his name engraved on it. Come to think of it, I think he just left that here on accident (there was a half-empty can of Dr. Pepper in it). But recently Ryan brought me his best gift yet. The other day he showed up at my house bearing the gift of a single bar of soap:

"I found this in my mom's garage," he tells me. "I don't know how long it was there, but it made me think of you."

Ryan knows well that I am all about anything Old-Timey. We used to go to Old-Timey baseball games at Greenfield Village. We occasionally unscrew a bottle of medicinal wine and put our feet up on the cracker barrel to discuss the good old days. After spending a few days in the woods listening to me bitch about his plastic tubs and extolling the virtues of waxed canvas, he has come around to respect my decision to dress like Ed from those Bartles & Jaymes commercials.

And wouldn't you know it: I fucking love this soap. 

In case you're wondering what "pine tar soap" smells like, I think the following quotes from actual Amazon reviews sum it up pretty well:
  • "It smells like a lumber yard."

  • "Seriously smells like beef jerky."

  • "It smells like a burning pile of garbage."
  • "This stuff smells like wet railroad ties."
  • "Kind of like a tire factory on fire."
  • "Imagine submerging your body into a giant vat filled with liquid wood and rubber and you’re pretty close."
  • "I'll bet this is what the Brawny paper towel guy smells like."

  • "When I used it in the past, before going to work, my coworkers started to tell me that I smell and that I need a shower. Many thought it was BO. Now I theorize that these comments were made because my co-workers are idiots."

  • "The soap itself is mild and lathers well, so I can only assume that scale-removing qualities are from the fumes literally searing off layers of flesh. In short, Grandpa started a Fight Club and the soap is its cover. I recommend this to anyone who just wants to feel alive. You'll know when you find other members. Everyone around you will be asking where the fire is, but you'll just wipe the blood away from your nose and keep walking."

  • "The smell is too strong for some but I love it. I enjoy nature and this soap acts as a cover scent allowing me to gain close proximity to wildlife without being noticed."

  • "I picked up 183 of these Pine Tar Soaps (4.25 Ounces) at a going out of business sale. I thought I was getting a good deal. Turns out the Soap smells horrendous and caused me to gag and itch all over when I used it on my [blank]. I had to toss all of them out."
For those of you reading this who might be all, "Ewww, I don't want to read the blog of a guy who smells like a pile of burning tires. . ." please relax. Here: sniff my arm. I think we can both agree that's not the smell of burning tires. There are certain places on the east side of Detroit I need to take you to if you think that's what a pile of burning tires smells like. To me, the smell is more like an old toolbox. Or a cabin up north with knotty pine walls and a fireplace that you only use a few times a year. Or a pair of leather gloves you find under a kerosene lantern in the back of an old barn. Okay, and maybe a little bit like any of those things thrown on a campfire. A campfire made from wet railroad ties.

Before you get all judgey, let's consider the state of contemporary men's soap fragrance, shall we? When I find myself in the soap/body wash aisle of a typical chain drug store I feel very confused about my sexuality. Am I supposed to want to smell like Axe Shower Gel? I take one whiff of that stuff and think, Well, now I know what date rape smells like. Axe Shower Gel really only belongs on the kind of guy whose gaze lingers over his own body a little too long in the mirror before getting in the shower, maybe with pursed lips and a little nod of confidence. You know: chest waxers; the towel-snappers from high school. The guys who don't find out what true love is until they get over all their hangups and finally hit the dance floor on tighty-whitey night at the Manhole. The smell of Axe Shower Gel is all fine and good for those guys, but I feel much more comfortable smelling like a pile of burning tires. I don't know what happened to men to make us think we need to smell like a bunch of perfumed, hairless go-go dancers. Grandpa's Pine Tar Soap makes you smell like George Brett's gym bag. It makes you smell like Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug. The only cologne that can possibly accompany it must be purchased at a Walgreen's right before Father's Day, preferably one with horses or a schooner on the box and a free bottle of aftershave.

The soaps and deoderants marketed to men can't just be ordinary soap anymore. It all has to be "sporty blast!" or "arctic lightning!" whatever that smells like. Don't try to tell me about that creepy castille soap bottled by the scientologists, I am a Grandpa's man now. How can you not trust Grandpa? Look at him, notice how much he resembles Kenny Rogers before all the plastic surgery:

What kind of man doesn't want to smell like The Gambler (before all the plastic surgery)? I never accept free products from companies, but if, say, someone from the Grandpa's Brands Company were to read this and, say, send me a gift basket full of pine tar soap, I'd certainly put up a badge that says, Grandpa makes me smell like wet railroad ties and my wife hasn't left me yet. I'm down to this tiny precious sliver of your smokey amber wonder soap and I can't find it for sale anywhere in Detroit. Don't make me contact that final Amazon reviewer to find out where he dumped all 183 bars of your amazing pine tar soap.

Oooh, I just went to the website and realized they also make shampoo. Now I can smell like I just got home from camping all the time. . .


Posted by jdg | Sunday, March 20, 2011 |

My child is unquestionably a genius. This was apparent even in the womb. From the very date of his conception, we hired out the Stadtpfeifer nightly to play Le Quattro Stagioni directly into my wife's uterus (to preserve his mother's dignity, I will refrain from describing in too much detail the manner by which we ingeniously used a large ear horn to amplify the concerto for the wombling's budding ears).

Several months into his gestation, this embryonic prodigy had already composed several minuets simply by plucking, scraping, and hammering upon his taut umbilical cord. A group of notable critics, including the Kappellmeister of the local parish, gathered for an intimate performance between my wife's thighs and all remarked that the harmonics the lad achieved---despite the embyonic fluid---were nothing less than sublime. Of course, they were also highly complimentary towards my wife's excellent acoustics.

On the day of his birth, the child emerged, quill in hand, with a newly-completed operetta written on the placental wall. Titled Ihr Tanz Herz, he dedicated the piece to his mother. It has been said that Joseph Haydn, upon first hearing it, declared he was done composing. Forever. 

When he was just eighteen-months-old, he composed a 483-line satirical poem directed towards a jealous 17-year-old Count in Bratislava who dared suggest that the adagio of his first symphony was derived from a sonata by Johann Joachim Quantz. The poem, Die Zuhälter der Petržalka ("The Pimp of Petržalka"), was published widely throughout the Empire (and beyond); both Goethe and Schiller traveled to our village to hear his thoughts on blank verse.   

When he was two-years old, the Empress herself invited him to the Schloss Schönbrunn, where he delighted her entire court with his original Ode to Summer (composed for the occasion) playing the violin with his hands and a tiny harpsichord with his toes (while blindfolded and with wax in his ears). At the end of his performance, he burst through the gauntlet of applauding admirers and leaped into the arms of the Empress, who, when asked if she considered the performance as good as the one young Mozart had given years earlier, simply replied, "Mozart who?"

And now, at the ripe old age of three, the child has declared that he is bored with being a famous composer. What, pray tell, is next for our budding polymath? Astronomy? Sculpture? Classical languages? Golf? After observing the little cretins prattling about in the gifted and talented program at the local public school, we are looking for a suitable tutor. Such a shame Sir Isaac Newton is dead. We may send away to the Orient for one of those Mandarin Tiger mothers.

[Who packs a Size 3 frock coat and breeches with a colonial-era wig on vacation? We do, that's who. Our costume-loving son had a blast exploring the Schönbrunn's rooms and grounds, bringing all that stuffy old history to life]

Nostalgia, another name for Europe

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 16, 2011

There is a teenager sleeping in the room where we once slept. He towers over both of us, though he was only five-years old the last time we were in Vienna. He's nineteen now and that's exactly how old we were then. His door is always shut with only muted German phone conversations and video game bleeps to let us know he's in there. It occurs to me how far on the other side of that disquieting gulf between youth and adulthood we are; in looking at this teenager we no longer recognize anything of ourselves, our own pasts. We aren't his cool American cousins. He invites me to a soccer match and I am sure I embarrass him into regretting it. We are further from this part of our past than we are from it as our future. Teenagers. The last time we were here he was younger than our kids are now. It was March then, too. I have never seen this city green.

Back then, my girlfriend and I were living together in Dublin. She went off to visit family in Austria for a holiday. On their invitation, I grabbed a last-minute flight with an unavoidable eight-hour layover at Heathrow and left Dublin to join her as soon as I could. Whatever trouble Ireland is in today, it will take a long time for its capitol to slide back into the pit it was in when we lived there. That city was dirty and everything was old in a way that didn't impress. The streets were full of urchins in tracksuits and the Celtic Tiger was still a mewling kitten. The only truly grand buildings in Dublin were unscrubbed relics of colonial rule. I grew to love it that way. When I got to Heathrow for my layover, I took the train into the heart of London and emerged to gawk at the pomp and grandeur of so many piles of Portland stone. For six hours I walked around looking for all the things you're supposed to see in London if to say, "I've seen London. . ."

When you're a nineteen-year-old traveler it's hard not to be a superficial collector of sights. I had friends who did the whole backpacking thing: Eurail grand tours with Let's Go checklists and reports of Swedish girls in every hostel. It seemed important then, to be able to say you'd seen something important. Why do we value so highly the experience of being herded through these places with others just like ourselves? Every time I saw something important, rather than feeling exhilarated I felt dead inside. Yep, there that is. This was a London that ordinary Londoners had little occasion for, one where the past stood in your way everywhere you turned, where history itself blocked out the sun. It was hard not to be pummeled into fatigue by relentless grandeur. I looked at all those Regency buildings and steeled myself against their splendor. The mortar of all this is the blood of empire. And at 4:30 GMT I hopped onto a plane to another capitol of a dead empire, one I knew virtually nothing about.  

Over the next few days in Vienna, we did our tourist duty. We saw what we were supposed to see on canvases covering the walls of palaces built for princes whose names we'd never heard. I saw paintings of battles between countries I never knew were enemies. "Wait," I said to my girlfriend in the Belvedere: "When did Sweden invade Austria?" Christ, these people have been fighting each other forever, I thought. More battles, more Christs on crosses. She yawned. "Museums are exhausting."

Her Austrian relatives left to go skiing somewhere deep in the Alps; for the rest of the week we were on our own. We were two teenagers who hadn't even been dating for a year with a 300-year-old house to ourselves a short walk from the subway in a city we never imagined could be so beautiful. Vienna won us over with its undeniable charms. We stood in front of The Kiss and agreed it looked better in person than it does on dorm room walls. We learned all about Egon Schiele. Maria Theresa. We drank beers where Sigmund Freud smoked cigars and ordered hot chocolate where Leon Trotsky wrote newspapers. We saw Mozart performed at the Staatsoper. We struggled to order dinners and mastered the subway and streetcars. But mostly we just walked around, seeing a beautiful city together. 

This would become part of our history, the mortar of shared experiences that help hold us together, impenetrable to everything but time. 

* * * * *

The teenager sleeps late and when we reveal where we're going he says he's never been there. Some days we don't see him at all before heading out to revisit the places we saw when we were his age, our kids seeing them for the first time. I expect my daughter to be excited by the architecture, impressed by the baroque buildings or at least giggle at the bare-chested caryatids and topless telamones holding up pediments everywhere. But she is more worried about where we're going and whether there will be snacks. Our midday adventures become exercises in nostalgia, memories whispered over their chattering: The Naschmarkt. . . remember when we bought a watermelon because we hadn't seen one in six months? Of course, the kids are more interested in creating new memories than reliving ours. We do things today we never would have done then: We enter zoos. We linger at playgrounds, and buy souvenirs at toy stores. We attend dancing horse performances. And every afternoon, we abandon the tourist stuff and return to our family, to the kids' seven-year-old cousin who has come home from school. Playing with her is what my kids look forward to most about each day in Vienna. They disappear to a room full of toys while we try to come up with something from this foreign cuisine that they'll actually eat. Do you think we can can convince them that käsespaetzle is mac&cheese? Instead of hitting the town once they're asleep, we stay in to drink beers and catch up with family, telling stories. Much has changed since the last time we were here.

This is what I find most interesting about nostalgia; not just the cunning gloss of hindsight, but the actual act of returning to a place. For all the value of going somewhere you have never been, I also find value in being reminded of who you were once and and how far you've come. Without this type of nostalgia, you can lose perspective on how much you've grown, or changed. Of course places change, always, and yet they don't change it all. And maybe too you've changed less than you think. Your wife still yawns in art museums. You still hold her hand along the Ringstrasse, even if your other one is already taken. 

* * * * *

A good friend from my wife's stint in China now lives in Cologne, and they travel to Vienna to see us. Her one-year-old daughter looks just like her. While they relive decade-old memories of sipping horse milk in Mongolia, her German husband says to me, "I love coming to Vienna. It is like what German cities might have looked like if they hadn't all been destroyed." He says this without blame. It sticks with me, the idea of a transplanted nostalgia for a baroque past obliterated by bombs. A place where you can almost forget it ever happened. There is a gap to the history here, like a chapter torn out of a book. We pass a bomb crater in the Schönbrunn Tiergarten with our strollers, only a sign to tell us what it is in both German and English.

"Cologne was rebuilt," he says. "But it's not the same."

We pass the Ruin of Carthage, built in 1778 to resemble a classical ruin, statues and inscribed bricks stacked up against each other, artfully. "Your mother and I stood here fourteen years ago," I say to my daughter. "It was cold just like today." My eyes scan the ruins and it is like I am seeing it for the first time. I remember none of it, only being there.

Soon my daughter is crying. She doesn't want to leave Vienna. She doesn't want to say goodbye to her cousin. I know then, that despite all the complaining, this has meant something to her after all.

"Don't worry," I say. "We'll come back."

A few brief announcements

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 09, 2011

We're back from Austria. I will probably have a lot to say about the ups and downs of traveling in Europe with two small children, but right now we are struggling with some serious jet lag so I'm just going to share a few upcoming engagements:

I hate using this space for these kinds of announcements. I probably should just suck it up and start one of those damn facebook or twitter things. I'll have a real post up tomorrow or Friday.

Wien: Seen

Posted by jdg | Monday, March 07, 2011 | ,


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, March 01, 2011 |

What's up Vienna. We are all up in your fancy coffee shops, crayolas on the floor, kids crawling under tables all loud and sh**. Star Wars guys flying everywhere. ObiKenobi in your Sachertorte. Jawas in your java.

We are eating Wienerschnitzel every night, son. Beers the size of Big Gulps up in here.


We are all up in your palaces with grubby fingers and snot fangs. Shhh. . . don't tell the guards: I'm breaking all the rules just to take this pic. Stop touching the walls, son. They're made of gold yo. 

Never should have let the petite bourgeoisie up in here. Only dudes named Leopold and Ferdinand should be allowed up in here.  We are running past your statues all: whodaf*** is that? How many bronze Franzes can there be?

(We are in Vienna visiting family and seeing the sights; I'll write a less annoying post about it soon. But for now I'm on vacation, son).