Obama Oil Corp.

Posted by jdg | Thursday, April 28, 2011

Now that Republican front-runner Donald Trump has finally put to rest the important issue of whether or not our beleagured president was born on American soil, I think it's high time that The Donald turn his attention to the little-known but highly important matter of the rise of the Obama Oil Corporation and its expanding presence here in the city of Detroit, where the total lack of a right-wing population has allowed this private presidential enterprise to go unnoticed by even our most beloved conservative commentators. A third "Obama Oil" petroleum station recently celebrated its Grand Opening along Joy Road here in Detroit with a week of socialist death panels, gift certificates for UAW members, and free handouts of loaves and fishes to welfare mothers driving Cadillacs:

Now, some left-wing conspiracy theorists might mouth off about how this is just local entrepreneur (and gas station owner) Sam Bazzi's probably-illegal effort to use Obama's name and image to pander to an urban population particularly proud of their president, but isn't it far more likely that a powerful cabal of Kenyan Islamists have granted their cousin (our president) a lucrative monopoly on imported Kenyan oil and that our secret-Muslim president has also been tapping the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to keep gas prices down at his own socialist stations while the prices at the pumps of stations owned by those poor, multinational corporations subject to the free market are forced above $4 in order to reap billions in annual profit? I mean, come on, when is the last time you saw gas for $3.859/10 at your local Shell or Exxon station?

Come on Donald, now is not the time to start questioning what grades Barack Obama received in eleventh-grade gym class. If you want to be our next president, I say you've got to force our current one to provide notarized evidence that he's not operating a series of gas stations on the west side of Detroit on behalf of the fundamentalist Islamic hegemony that secretly bankrolled his 2008 campaign.

Dad Rule #146

Posted by jdg | Friday, April 22, 2011

"Never underestimate what a few sheets of sandpaper, a little elbow grease, and a can of spraypaint can do."

So long, Disney Princess Bike. We agreed that riding a pink bike decorated with pictures of Sleeping Beauty was about as princessy as buying a $19.99 cubic-zirconium version of Kate Middleton's engagement ring advertised during the second hour of a Lifetime Original Movie. I let her pick out whatever color she wanted at the hardware store, and she chose gold. Nothing but the best for her royal highness, I said.

New Orleans: Seen

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 19, 2011 |

When I arrived in New Orleans for a conference last Thursday, the first thing I did was rent a bike to see a city I'd never visited.  New Orleans is so lush and colorful and beautiful it makes San Francisco look like a bunch of yuppies shat pastel over Pittsburgh. Renting a bike is a perfect way to experience a new city, and not just because everything passes by much slower than the blur you see from a car or a tour bus. It allows you to actually talk to people. And I found almost all the people I talked to pretty fascinating, and inspiring, and hopeful. Not surprisingly, people are really very nice when you tell them how beautiful you think their homes and neighborhoods are.

I took some pictures, but it's hard to capture with pictures just how inspired I was by this visit. [There's some weird compression artifacts with these photos I'm trying to fix, but if you click on any of them you will see a bigger version].

When I was taking that picture of the Swoon piece, I told two guys standing there that I was just a tourist from Detroit and that she'd put the same piece up on a burned-out house back home, then one of them asked if I knew one of his former students who turned out to be a friend of mine. His name was David Gregor, and he invited me into the studio he'd built in this building, introducing me to the many Katrina cats he'd adopted, and sharing some of the projects he's been working on:

Then I biked over to the Lower Ninth Ward just to check out what it looked like five years after the storm. I was pretty shocked to see how high the water was against the levee, and how much higher it was than the roofs of the neighborhood:

Still, even down there I heard the ever-present hammers and power saws which (with the mockingbirds) were like a soundtrack to biking around New Orleans.

I know opinions vary, but I thought the Brad Pitt/Make it Right houses were pretty cool:

It was weird to see the sheer number of tour buses and vans filled with old white ladies rolling through the Lower Ninth Ward. I wasn't sure if they were there to see the devastation or the celebrity-subsidized rebirth. I guess there was a good mix of both.

Does anyone have Brad Pitt's cell number? I did pass through some pretty rough spots out there and in Gentilly. And yeah, poverty is as rampant in some parts of New Orleans as it is back home. But I was inspired to return to that corner of the city several times to see what all the young people and artists were doing. The homes out in Bywater are so eclectic and cool.

I stumbled across more Swoon wheatpastes and ended up in a conversation with the paper-bag-beer dude lounging across the street and he said she was coming back to put up an actual gallery on this spot:

The artist girls living next door came out and when I said I was from Detroit they rattled off a bunch of names of people I knew. I think they were a little bugged out by my styrofoam helmet and rental cruiser with three unfixed gears.

I stopped in the Habitat for Humanity architectural salvage store and was so inspired by some of the folks I talked to in there who were rebuilding their city, and it was tough to think about how little is salvaged from the thousands of homes demolished every year back home.

I was staying in the warehouse district and thought that area was pretty great as well, especially the yuppie farmer's market where I bought a pint of beet lemonade and some Louisiana muscadine jelly.

On Saturday morning, I rented bikes with Jon and Heather (failing to convince them to rent a tandem) and we rode out to the Garden District where everything was so clean and beautiful in the mid-day sun I didn't take any pictures. I did get a sunburn. We didn't get inside that cemetery where Ashley Judd shoots her way out of that dead lady's coffin in my fourth-favorite Tommy-Lee-Jones-in-relentless-pursuit movie. We didn't get in because it took Jon at least twenty minutes to figure out how to lock up his massive powder-blue rental bike, and by the time he figured it out a skinny gravedigger-looking fellow was already locking up the gate. So we walked around the outside and then over to Magazine Street.

I left them to get the bike back, and on my way through the lower garden district I met this guy Sam in front of his house:

Sam is a guitar player who built that sweet canopy for his scooter and that trailer to haul his guitars and amps to jobs. I told him about the dog wagon and we bonded over how much fun it is to build something that draws attention on the road. A couple blocks away I met Eric who lives in a nice old home next to a vacant feral house:

I talked to him for so long I almost missed my flight, but it was great to get some perspective from a local businessman and homeowner who told me he wanted to buy the feral house in order to fix it up (but the owner wouldn't sell). We talked a lot about New Orleans, its recovery, its struggles, and I told him quite a bit about Detroit and what we're going through. I also told him how much hope and inspiration I'd found in the people of New Orleans, and what a beautiful city it is. I do hope he gets a chance to buy that house and do something with it.

I between all this I attended a conference and reconnected with some other grizzled old veterans still in the trenches and met a lot of nice new people and gave the stink eye to a few hundred marketers. New Orleans wasn't at all what I expected, probably because I went to bed fairly early each night and avoided setting foot on Bourbon Street or any other street that needs to get hosed down each morning. I can't wait to get back down there---with my wife and kids---to see even more of this beautiful city.

New Look

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, April 13, 2011

As you can see I've got a new header up there. I didn't draw it; Rachel Fannin from Hi Happy Panda did. A month or so ago I stumbled across her blog and started enjoying her stories and photos of her adventures with her two kids around New Orleans. I e-mailed to tell her how much I loved her blog (and her hand-drawn header), and when she said she planned to change it when her family moved back to Los Angeles, I hired her to draw one for me. I've been wanting something a little more whimsical and representative of our daily adventures here in Detroit and I knew after seeing Rachel's illustrations that she could pull off something this beautiful. My favorite parts? The sneaky fox:

And the dog wagon, flushing a couple pheasants:

Posting is a bit light this week. For some reason I've been leaving my camera at home lately and I've been working on getting some big plans off the ground that I won't be able to share here for a few weeks.

The vintage kids book I'm sharing today (Margaret Wise Brown's forgotten Three Little Animals) is pretty extraordinary and I hope you'll take a look.

Oh, and check out this story about my dad in the local paper.

Letting Go

Posted by jdg | Friday, April 08, 2011

This morning my daughter made her own scrambled eggs even though I had no idea she could. One moment I'm helping her drag her Swedish stool contraption into the kitchen and the next she's expertly cracking two eggs in a metal bowl and whisking them. "When did you learn to whisk?" She just shrugged, and poured the airy mixture into a buttered pan. It's not like she whipped together a roasted leek and gruyère soufflé from the wilted winter dregs in our crisper, but I was still impressed (it really doesn't take much to impress me before I've emptied two mugs of coffee). We were sitting at the dining room table eating scrambled eggs when my daughter claimed a robin was building a nest in a tree just a few feet from the window.  At first I thought this was wishful thinking, but sure enough the bird kept returning to the main cleft from its darting sorties with scraps of straw and twigs.

The winter cold lingers. Yesterday my wife claimed she saw huge flakes of snow falling outside her office, but where we were twelve stories below it hit us like rain. Walking the dog last night I saw earthworms that had come out for that rain, lying there frozen along the sidewalks. The robin building its nest instills in me a confidence the thermometer doesn't; the earth will awaken even if it seems like it won't. The Greeks believed the wonders of spring were not just triggered by Persephone's annual release, but that the buds on the trees and the singing birds and the wildflowers in the meadow all sprouted from Demeter's joy itself: the joy of a mother's long-anticipated reunion with her daughter. That such a joy could be responsible for all this is not so hard to believe.

We sat there spellbound this morning, watching the nestbuilding, imagining eggs the color of Aegean skies and talking about how baby robins are cute even if really they aren't so cute. Plans were made to keep an eye on them when their mother heads off to get food, to collect their eggshells for the treasure box, and finally to watch their mother beak them to the edge, jerk her neck and let them go. "That one's not the mama," my daughter said, referring to the bird depositing a plastic straw wrapper in the nest. "The mama is over there, you can tell because she's so fat. She's eating food for her babies." Sure enough, the fat robin hopped into the nest to stomp and tussle the scraps. "That other one is the dad." I didn't have total confidence in her pronouncements, but I wanted so badly to believe they were true.

We were late for school but still did not want to open the front door for fear the birds would be startled and abandon their construction. How finicky are robins? How much labor are they willing to abandon? My daughter wanted to help them. She cut tiny lengths of yarn from her mother's knitting bag, and planned to drop them one by one outside. "Okay," I said. "Go now. Go quietly."

* * * * *

I admit I don't entirely understand dormancy. What is it inside a tulip bulb that tells it to sit tight while we hunker down for the winter, and then wake up with the spring? They say that for certain plants, messing with vernalization by granting extended summer-like weather can actually be fatal.

I think about my twenties in California.

I wonder what the Greeks would think of this science: the idea that flowers only bloom in spring because they've taken cues from the cold, that Persephone needs her time in Hades for the vines to bloom, and that Demeter must part ways with her daughter for their reunion to be this magnificent. As with all good myths, they somehow knew all this, and just found a better way of saying it.

Every year here in Michigan, the spring brings more than just familiar external signs. It brings the reminder of how much we've changed over the winter. We cast off our coats and remember what it feels like to go outside and not immediately regret it. Our kids hit the streets and amaze us with all the new things they can climb. Get off that fire escape! What are you doing up in that tree? While we've felt dormant, they've been growing. How many winters do I have left with them like this? How many springs?

"All the girls in my class have boyfriends," she reveals casually, and with a hint of scandal she lists off classmates in pairs.

"What about you?"

You would have thought I asked if she likes turd-flavored ice cream. "I'm way too young to have a boyfriend," she tells me. But a week later, at a meeting with her teacher, it's revealed there is a boy in her life. It's all innocent, we're assured. He likes to tease her and say that the things she believes in aren't real. She calls him Mr. No Believe because he says fairies, and imps, and Pegasus, and all the other things we talk about all the time do not exist in the real world.

So here we are at the divergence. With me she still believes. I give her stories of Pegasus ranches and tooth fairies. And I think part of me wants her to be five forever. Without me there are all sorts of wonderful truths she's yet to discover. And as magical as I've tried to make her childhood, I know it can't go on like this forever.

* * * * *

This afternoon it's still cold but the sun is out, and my daughter tells me that she thinks she's ready to ride a two-wheel bike. I think we have three or four such bikes that she's never been able to ride (her grandfather finds them at garage sales and brings one whenever he visits). I pull the smallest one out. It's the princess bike.

She pretends to wrinkle her nose at it for my sake, and I offer to repaint it for her, or maybe draw a goatee on Sleeping Beauty.

"No, it's cool."

Where did she learn to talk like this?

I know that when she's with her friends she submits to the princess stuff, but she's clever enough to pretend it's all as odious as having a boyfriend when she's around me. We find her elbow pads, knee pads, and fingerless gloves. I prepare her for failure. "You will fall," I tell her. "You will get frustrated. But I know you will learn to do it."

This a rite of every childhood. Also, a cliche. Sorry. This is the stuff of horrible, weepy television commercials. But it's not easy. She falls. She can't get her bike started without help. Over half an hour of practicing and she doesn't want me to let go. But then, this:

Return to the Book Depository

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Last week I went back inside the Roosevelt Warehouse (often called the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository) for the first time in three years. I previously wrote about it here and here. The building was properly boarded up for the first time after that dead man was found frozen in the ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft, but at least one man still lives inside the building. I was showing someone the second floor and a deep voice started speaking to us from what seemed like nowhere. We looked around in every direction before realizing he was inside one of the large ventilation shafts above our heads, speaking to us through a hole where the metal had rusted through.

I brought my camera with me, mostly because I didn't have my 10mm wide angle lens the last time and this is the sort of place where you can never capture the scope of it all with any angle from any camera. I also had one of those flip video cameras and took a slow pan of the second floor, mostly to capture what it's like to actually be inside and also to show how eerie it is with all those books and papers constantly flapping in the wind. It was so windy that it really blew out the audio, so I replaced it with Rachel's "Handwriting." I know it's exceptionally moody, but was I supposed to use something pleasant? 

Other than worsening water damage, there's not much that has changed about this building or what I have to say about it. The billionaire who owns it has been attempting to rehabilitate his image lately. He's even hired Dick Morris as a PR shill. I can't pinpoint for you exactly what's wrong with our property laws or municipal government that allows suburban slumlords---including this billionaire---to hold on to such large tracts of city land and historical buildings and do nothing but neglect them. But it's a big problem we've got to face before we become a city where the top industry is serving the needs of coastal photographers with Arca-Swiss 8x10 cameras (note to such photographers: No, I won't show you how to get into the building).