There is no such thing

Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 26, 2011

I was sitting on the couch the other day when a wave of panic rolled over me. It occurred to me---as it has several times over the past year---that as fun as this blog has been to write and as awesome as it is to make a living from it, Sweet Juniper (at least in its current incarnation) is kind of like a tub of yogurt at the back of your fridge that has reached its expiration date. Sure, it's yogurt: it smelled kind of weird the day you brought it home and it will probably be fine for a few more days or even weeks, but in the end the contents have to go. Maybe you can re-use the container to store granola or something, but how much longer can this dad go writing about the stuff he loves doing with his kids? Besides, it's only a matter of time before some younger dad with younger, cuter kids moves to downtown Gary, Indiana and builds a working model of the Space Shuttle Discovery out of dumped tires and smelly mattresses, training a dozen former prostitutes to be his ground control while he live tweets the inaugural launch with an HD webcam showing the kids hitting zero-gravity in their awesome flight suits that he sewed for them, and when I cough everyone's gonna be like, oh yeah, Griffioen, that guy. He's so 2009.

But you know, there's still a bit of blood in this turnip. This isn't one of those tortured posts where the blogger snivels on and on about how I'm done with this while secretly hoping his readers will beg him to stay. We started this site back in 2005 because we didn't know anyone with kids and we were lonely. That was back before blogs had advertisements and most of us didn't have anything close to the number of readers to justify them. I kept doing this because I enjoyed writing, and later when the opportunity arose to do it professionally it was nothing more than a happy accident. What sent me into a panic the other day was the realization that though I've had the good fortune to spend years telling stories about my transition into parenthood, the narrative is naturally shifting to something else (something I don't quite understand yet). This is sort of uncharted territory, and as with ads and almost everything else, Heather is out there with the machete taking on the brunt of the mosquitoes. When you've spent years of your life out of a conventional workplace devoted to a website that you still don't know quite how to explain to strangers, what do you do as your children move out the sphere of your story and into their own? As a man who's spent the last five years as a stay-at-home dad, resuming a traditional career is one of the very few areas where I am disadvantaged by convention. Mothers have always found it hard to transition back into the workplace, but try to imagine explaining it as a man. A man with a website documenting his jam-making endeavors.

My wife recently started her "dream job" and is happier with her career than ever before, and having helped nurture that career by taking care of our kids, I can't help but feel great pride and happiness in her success. But she has also been wonderfully supportive of me. When I expressed some of the self-doubt that followed my moment of panic and lame bourgeois anxiety, she said, "Why the hell would you want to return to a real job in an office somewhere? Don't you remember how much you hated it?" And of course she was right. I remember a workday in San Francisco when I took the MUNI to a client's office in one of the neighborhoods and I remembered seeing people hanging out in coffee shops in the afternoon and wondering WHO ARE ALL THESE LUCKY JERKS? Now I am one of those lucky jerks!

I tried to think of anything I missed about spending all my daylight hours in a climate-controlled office tower, and the only thing I could really come up with were the free lunches. Whoever said there's no such thing probably never worked in a big office with lots of meetings. I'm not talking about all the interview lunches at trendy restaurants with the James Beard-winning chefs (an hour of lying about how great it is to be a corporate lawyer does not equal "free"). I'm talking about the leftovers from the various meetings and trainings that took place in our conference rooms every day. If I left the building for lunch, that was one less hour I could bill. If I ate at my desk I could leave an hour earlier. Of all the skills I developed at that job, I'd say my greatest proficiency was sneaking in on a meeting right when it was breaking up when there were still plenty of good sandwiches, salads, cold sodas, and (often) fresh-baked macadamia-nut cookies right there for the taking. I did lots of "research" from the books on shelves with good vantage points over certain conference rooms. I befriended strategically-located secretaries and convinced them to call me when they saw a lunch meeting breaking up. I organized a secretive coterie of like-minded filing clerks, paralegals, and mailroom employees and we would send each other coded e-mails on days whenever a culinary bounty presented itself. There was plenty of intrigue. We circled like vultures during meetings of the Women's Associate Committee (women associates hardly touch their food). We fought like wolves over the scraps after partner meetings. We would sit in the kitchen and reminisce about the best meals we ever glommed. I really miss those guys.

To this day, whenever my wife tells me she had a training or a big lunch meeting in a conference room, the first thing I ask her is how was the food while thinking fondly of all the room-temperature tuna salad sandwiches I consumed for what I thought was free. 

Yeah, that's what I miss most about confining myself to an office every day.

Every Sunday, I check my sitemeter and laugh at how many searches I get for "how to quit law firm." There's always several dozen on Sundays, and the oracle leads these poor office-bound souls here, as if I have any answers. I try to remind myself of how lucky I am when my anxiety rises, that I would be even more anxious and unhappy if I'd stayed in that life. It makes the reality that I can never get hired back into that world much easier to swallow.

* * * * *

Here is the small kinship with mothers throughout time. Where do we find ourselves when we have spent so long defining ourselves through the mirror of our growing children? Where do we go? The fearfulness in my empty belly, the panic: over ordinary complacency these are actually good things. These are nutrients. This is the fertile soil where new opportunities sprout.

Epic Fun

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 17, 2011 |

Sing to us Muse, of the boy who loves masks, the veils and veneers of heroes;
Tell us not of his many now-familiar deceptions, that garbage-heap iron constable,
The caped superkid, or that light-sword wielding warrior from a distant star.
No, sing of a father's weariness of Lucasfilm gewgaws,
     his fear of the inevitable JarJar encounter.

He remembered his honeymoon: the family villa in Tuscany, the six-year-old cousin
Taking fencing lessons. Fencing lessons! He battled with the boy
For hours on that Etruscan lawn. Errant sticks, empty water bottles were their swords.
Just days married, he already wanted a son. 

He soon got one: a boy eager for masks and battles, but happy in any costume.
He went searching for this child once, found him with his daughter and her friends
Next to her upturned dress-up box, draped in costume pearls and pink chiffon.
Wits about him, the father held out a toy sword, and the boy reached for it impulsively.

Feminists: chill. That didn't really happen. He spent years dressing his daughter
Purely in pink at her request. Let him enjoy this. He merely seeks to meld the things
His son enjoys with the stories that caught his own imagination as a boy (This poor lad,
To have been born with such an incredible dork for a dad).

Honey-tongued Goddess, tell us how this tiny hero gained his shield!
(Not a shield, but an antique metal sled, discovered under a discarded Thighmaster
At the Value World in Dearborn Heights). Like Athena bursting
Fully-armored from her father's skull, the vision of a Hoplite Son was born.

A can of paint would turn that steel to burnished bronze. A dozen belts of bridle leather,
Hammered by smiths in distant Seres, joined the thrift store trove.
The Value World cashier (surely the gray-eyed goddess herself) gave him
     a 50% off coupon (score).
This modern Hephaestus blew on his crucibles, gathered his tools, and
Promised the immortal gods armor to match this shield they gave him.

And so he crafted a skirt like the one brave Achilles wore to his grim destiny,
A muscle curaiss of upholstery leather (boiled and shaped on a mold he made himself),
The spear a broom handle from his neighbors' garbage (foam-tipped),
A rubber helmet he found on eBay (by the gods the only bidder, no reserve),
His daughter's old gladiator sandals (shhhh). Diadora greaves. Behold, the hero:

The father taught the boy to wield his spear, to lift his shield and protect himself
From feigned, slow-motion blows in their backyard. He spoke of the phalanx,
Thracian peltasts, Persian hordes, Alcibiades and Epaminondas,
Bellerophon and Perseus. But true heroes hunger for real adventures.

Over potholed streets they sailed, past burnedout houses and landscapes of devastation.
Surely a Chimera caused all this, or an ancient battle between Titans?
They traveled far beyond their ravaged realm, crossing over the dreaded 8 Mile Road,
A distant fortification, past 696, a second gate they guessed, built by powerful Troy,

(Michigan) its mighty walls still strong before invading Southern hordes.
They tried to sack a Saks 5th Ave, but the Somerset security pushed them
Back to their ship. "No photography!" The heroes shouted back:
"You'll be a carrion feast for dogs and birds before we're through!"

With hands on his spear, quivering tense for battle, the hero listened to his father
Speak of a playground not far from there, the tale of how Ulysses brought down the walls
Of Troy by hiding silently in the belly of a wooden horse. Even tiny heroes may pose
Imponderables, like, "What did brave Ulysses do when he needed to pee in there?"

The winding road home brought them to the enchanted island of Cranbrook,
With so many statues they wondered if perhaps a Gorgon lingered on its grounds.


And then to Hades, where the dead speak only through the stones they leave,
(And even without one's cape, the photo ops are pretty great).

And when their wandering day is done, the father and son return home
To fight one final backyard battle; and the boy sits quietly in the grass while his sister
Gets some attention after school (a game of Crazy 8s outside, perhaps).
Sometimes even the bravest heroes need to take a nap.

* * * * *

[This probably won't be the last you see of our hero; his sister has requested an Athena/Urania costume and I'm already working on it. Medusa and Pegasus may also join in on the fun. It promises to be an epic summer. I'm disabling comments for a lot of boring reasons, but would love to hear from you over at the new facebook page]

Wife: You must be getting pretty good at doing the morning routine all by yourself.

Me: They got up at 6:30, but I didn't remember until 8:12 that I'd promised her teacher I'd make seed bombs with her class today.

Wife: How did it go?

Me: The kids had fun.

Wife: You are a total rock star.

Me: Rock stars sleep late, do drugs, have sex, work for like two hours a day, and get other people to carry all their things.

Wife: Point taken.

Men Without Women

Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 05, 2011

My wife's job has lured her away for two weeks, leaving our entire tribe in my care 24/7. In consolation, the other day I went out and bought myself a new vacuum cleaner. Then I hung my head in shame when I realized how excited I was to get home to use it.

When I was a child my dad would disappear for a week every October with a bunch of his buddies packed in an RV on pilgrimage to the massive old car swap meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He would always return with epic tales of flatulence and overflowing Porta-Johns, and we never inquired whether the next year we might tag along. After he would leave, my mother would always take me and my sister to Mr. Steak and then buy us each a toy at Meijer's Thrifty Acres. In keeping with this tradition, after dropping my wife off at the airport the other day we stopped at the Target built atop Henry Ford's old clay quarry/landfill. My son wanted a new Jedi thing and my daughter has been asking for a basket to fit her golden bike. I had never been in the bike aisle of a Target. There were no baskets, but still the three of us stood in awe of the offerings. Barbie! Lightning McQueen! Disney Princesses! Bikes with those two guys my son calls "Tim Finity and Beyond." Everything was so shiny and new. The fluorescent lights were so bright. I wanted the earth to crack open and swallow it all whole.

I. Memory of Childhood Stirred Standing in Target Bike Aisle

I am seven or eight and my dad is driving me across town to buy my first real bike. We turn on Harrison Street and in late spring the industrial neighborhood is already starting to take on the jungly look it wears half the year, with weeping willows along the river reaching towards cars up on blocks in the front yards of houses that don't belong here. This is a pilgrimage that generations of people in our town have taken to buy a bike from the Kalamazoo Bike Shop, owned and operated by the septuagenarian O'Byrne brothers (Johnny and Earl). It is the kind of place that makes an impression on every kid who sets foot inside. There are piles of newspapers everywhere, tied up haphazardly in piles taller than me. There are ready-to-ride bikes set up so densely the showroom is almost impossible to navigate, with dozens more bikes in various stages of assembly here and there, and so many tubes, tires, and wheels hanging from the ceiling I see my dad stoop just to get around. The only way to tell the new bikes from the used is how they sit in groups of clones that have lingered long enough in the grime to gain a patina that belies their newness under low-watt bulbs flickering in their ancient metal Holophane shades. These are all American bikes: Schwinns and GTs and AMF Roadmasters. Earl wanders over to sell us one and he looks like he's been selling them since before the boneshakers and penny farthings gave way to safety bicycles during the Garfield Administration. He's skinny in his mechanic's shirt with half a dozen pens in the pockets and a giveaway ballcap on his head. His brother Johnny is in the back, behind a hoarder's wall. In this memory he has a long white Rip Van Winkle beard and is dressed the same as his brother, sitting in a lumpy old rocking chair, eating from a gallon container of ice cream. Earl has left a spoon stuck in a gallon at the foot of his own rocking chair. There are coffee cans full of nuts and bolts and unlabeled drawers full of mysterious odds and ends. There are stacks of wheel racks and unopened boxes of ancient bike horns, papers piled on space heaters and notes handwritten on the back of cardboard boxes warning would-be customers about store policies. It smells like they sleep somewhere back there, somewhere among all that stuff. My dad and Earl settle on a used Murray with no frills, but it's black and I do think it looks so cool.

This is the kind of shop where you go in for a bike basket and they'll dig around for one and charge you the same price it was tagged in 1972. If you need a replacement generator for your 1966 Schwinn headlamp, they'll probably have one still new in its box. A few years later, I go back with my dad for my sister's first bike: white and pink with a banana seat, and a little orange flag on a pole that Earl says will help cars see her on the road. Johnny is dead now, his rocking chair empty. But Earl's carrying on like he doesn't know how to do much else. When my dad pays, Earl pulls out a wad of bills so thick in his lanky fingers he has to thumb through a dozen or more twenties just to get to the change. A few years later, one of his employees will show up for work in the morning to find Earl bludgeoned to death in the back of his shop. He was 83.

II. Memory of Late Adolescence Stirred By Memory of Eccentric Newspaper-Hoarding Murder Victim

I have just graduated from high school and I am newly befriended by a classmate I would have otherwise thought far too cool to hang out with me. He invites me to his house, an inconspicuous bungalow where he lives with his father, a man I see on this and all subsequent visits stationed in front of a television, beer in hand. This kid calls his dad by his first name and I never see him wearing anything other than a pair of generously-cut denim overalls, sort of a cross between Hillbilly Jim and Captain Lou Albano. The kitchen is a labyrinth of piled newspapers that span decades, dirty dishes, and enough pizza boxes to explain treating clean tableware like a lavish exorbitance. But the kitchen is also a necessary passage to the basement, a dimly-lit expanse completely colonized by my new friend and apparently never cleaned by anyone. I am deeply impressed. "You can do whatever you want down here," I say, and he nods. Skateboards. Video games. Porno mags out in the open. Paintball. Anything goes. I don't ask what happened to his mother, or how his sister (who graduated a few years earlier) lived among all this. I suspect that this is just how things are here now, an equilibrium reached between father and son.

Even better than this subterranean squalor is his car: a mile-long 1985 Ford Country Squire station wagon with simulated-wood paneled doors, a car that probably drove him and a million other kids to soccer practice in its heyday. He's installed two ten-inch Rockford Fosgate speakers in the backseat and in the wagon bed he unveils one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen: a horizontal eighteen-inch RF subwoofer and amps with enough wattage to drown out any helicopter that might use the roof of this Country Squire as a landing pad. It occurs to me that newspaper hoarding must be more lucrative than I imagined, or else all this might be the fruits of a well-executed bank robbery. I don't care. I just want to ride in this station wagon.

He flips a switch to turn on the amps powering that big subwoofer, and my skin turns inside out. You could mix a can of paint by putting it on the roof. It reaches frequencies so low that earthworms and centipedes wriggle free from the earth, fleeing us wherever we drive. I imagine this kid on awkward first dates, gallantly opening the wood-paneled passenger door of what is essentially a three-ton Hitachi Magic Wand. This isn't just some trunk-rattling hooptie setup. He's done his homework, dropped some serious money, and it all sounds amazing. It is perhaps the coolest I've ever felt, riding on top of all that glorious noise. At a stoplight we pull up next to a guy in a purple Dodge Neon; he's listening to a pair of cheap headphones, the kind you get free with a Walkman. We look at each other across the front seat, and all we can do is bust out laughing. 

* * * * *

I keep vacuuming the house, even though it will be many days before my wife comes home. Without her coming home every day to appreciate it, and with these messy kids, vacuuming becomes an unrewarding, sisyphean enterprise. If a man vacuums his house, but no wife comes home to appreciate it before it's soiled with child crumbs and dog hair again, is it ever actually clean? I don't know. But I've got all this time on my hands, and a sudden, overwhelming urge to put on the new Beastie Boys record and clean out the basement.