The Ring-Necked Pheasant (Halloween 2012, Post 2)

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 31, 2012 |

When my daughter told me that she wanted to be a ring-necked pheasant for Halloween, I said, "Let's do it." Her love of the strange, beautiful birds we encounter so often here in downtown Detroit goes back many years. She chose to have a ring-necked pheasant-themed birthday party when she turned five (complete with a ring-necked pheasant cake). I knew this was what she really wanted for her Halloween costume, so it just became a matter if how to get it done.

A few years ago at a parent-conference a teacher wondered if my daughter might have some motor skills issue because of how she ran. I questioned her further, and she described my daughter running with a sort of gallop rather than a fluid motion. I knew immediately what she meant: for years my daughter galloped rather than ran because she was always pretending to be a horse. I guess her teacher hadn't noticed all the whinnying and neighing, or maybe the child had the good sense not to do those things in front of her classmates. But it was the sort of thing she used to do that made me swell up inside with the agony of knowing that one day she would outgrow such wonderful things, that the world would chew her up and when it spit her out none of that magic would be left. So when I set out to make her a pheasant costume, I didn't want her to feel like a kid in a bird costume. I wanted her to feel like an actual pheasant.

If Rob Lowe's character from Parks and Recreation lived in our neighborhood, I wanted him to say, "Wow, you are literally. . .a pheasant," when we came to his door trick-or-treating (even though he'd probably give her an organic wheatgrass bar or something). She started practicing her pheasant walk and her pheasant call and I got to work.

I made the head from a piece of veg-tanned leather I had left over from other projects. I stamped it, sewed it together, and dyed it the proper colors. The eyes are the only thing on the costume that I had to buy (they are carousel horse eyes that I ordered from a taxidermy wholesaler). She can see through a slit built in right above the beak. The breast and shoulder feathers are all leftover leather remnants as well, and the body is made from a piece of upholstery foam I covered with brown fabric cut into feathers. She helped me with that part, and she also painted and put together the tail. The tail "feathers" are linen strengthened with dowels.

Our German Short-haired Pointer didn't know what to make of a four-foot-tall ring-necked pheasant. I think he felt that was beyond his pay grade. 

The feet might be my favorite part. I just sewed together some long scraps of veg-tanned leather I had in my throwaway bin, then soaked them and cooked them into shape. I was going to dye them white like her tights (and real pheasant feet) but I really just liked the natural color. They attach above her feet with elastic sewed to the back.

We took these pictures while out testing the costume so I could make some adjustments before the big night, but she had no complaints. At least none I could understand (I don't speak pheasant).

Now, Voyageur (Halloween 2012, Part 1)

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 30, 2012 |

My son has known he wanted to be a voyageur for Halloween since July when he met a "real" voyageur at Fort Michilimackinac and saw a musket-firing demonstration that must have made a major impression. I have been telling him and his sister stories about the French voyageurs and coureur de bois who first came to Detroit and explored and traded throughout the Great Lakes region in the seventeenth century for years, and I think the idea of exploring his hometown back when it was wilderness really appealed to his imagination. Sure, I had a few ideas for costumes that would probably have been more popular online (a la Lil' Robocop and Kid Rocketeer), but this holiday isn't about me and my stupid pageviews. It's about my kids becoming whatever they want for one night and helping then get there as best I can. Nearly everything about this costume is handmade.

My son loves his accessories, and I think that's part of why he wanted to be a voyageur: those guys got to carry around a lot of cool stuff. The first things we made were the knife with its buckskin sheath and the tomahawk, figuring that the voyageur would have traded for such essentials during one of his long journeys. The costume making turned out to be a real family affair: my wife knit him the beautiful red hat (and awesome beard) and she sewed the tunic and pants. My daughter made the moccasins from real buckskin and she also made him the pouches (and she wove the little beaded bracelet on her little loom---she says it's "a gift for his wife that he bought from an Indian." I made him the buckskin vest, the paddle, the pipe, and the musket. He really fell in love with the Natty Bumppo character from Last of the Mohicans over the summer (the book and 1936 film version, not the sexy Daniel Day Lewis version), and he desperately wanted a long rifle like Hawkeye. So I made him a flintlock-style musket out of a piece of 1/2-inch steel conduit and some old pieces of walnut I had lying around. For the flintlock mechanism and trigger I just dug around in the back of our neighborhood hardware store and found some pieces that I thought would work.

For the canot du Nord, I made the structure out of really thin plywood and then covered it with birchbark found on the ground in a northern Michigan forest this summer. I put some old rabbit skins inside to look like he had a load of furs to bring back to the rendezvous. The canoe doesn't have a bottom, so he can "wear it" using the leather straps attached to it.

He was kind of mad at me for forgetting the paddle when we went out for this photo adventure along the Detroit river (he likes to walk along in the canoe while pretending to paddle). Along the way we experienced what the voyageurs called a dégradé (poor weather conditions that forced canoes onto shore), so there was little to do but warm up in a point blanket and smoke a pipe.

I told him that the only time real voyagers ever got to stop paddling was for a pipe-smoking break every few hours. It was a hard life, but voyageurs were adventurous free spirits who loved to sing. I hummed some voyageur songs for him and spoke in a horribly stereotypical French accent while he practiced a few words in French in the wind and rain. Allons! C'est miserable!

Finally, the little voyageur made it to the rendezvous at his old fort where he could kick back next to the fire in his cabin and read the two-month-old papers from Quebec that told about what happened in France last winter (actually, those are new printings of a 1777 gazette a friend who works at Colonial Williamsburg just sent me).

It will be some time before the poor little fellow learns that beaver hats are no longer all that fashionable back in Paris.

The 2012 Belle Isle Toy Yacht Regatta

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 18, 2012

In San Francisco we lived close enough to the Golden Gate Bridge that we could hear the foghorns and the prolonged, echoey blasts of container ships signaling to each other as they passed in and out of the bay. What once startled us soon sank into the din of everyday life on our street: the homeless man in the top hat ("Ace") who fought with his girlfriend every morning at dawn, the zing of the MUNI buses sparking along their wires, the old Chinese ladies digging through our recyclables. I wish I could say I miss it, but we're fortunate enough to live just a few blocks from the Detroit River (still a busy waterway for shipping vessels) and we still hear our share of signal blasts, rumbling and distant and mysterious as Triton on his conch, a constant reminder that we live where we live because of the sea. 

When we were up north this summer I saw my daughter standing on the shore of Lake Michigan with a string in her hand. The other end was attached to a cheap plastic catamaran she was guiding into the wind to let it drift further out into the lake until finally she lost it. It was the sort of thing you might find in a dollar store, but she was pretty bummed out so I promised her when we got home we would make one that was much better. Once back in Detroit she kept pestering me to make good on my promise. To be quite honest, I don't know shit about boats. Many years ago a lawyer mentor took me out on his sailboat and it was so beautiful out there on the open water I went right home and looked up sailboats on craigslist and with a gasp at how much they cost to store and maintain I never even thought about sailing again. At least not until my daughter asked me to make her a sailboat. After initially shaping the boat I made her sand it smooth and then we cut up dowels and old napkins to make the sails.

I let my daughter do most of the work on her own little sloop, but for the ship I made my son I might have nerded out a bit to make a brig just like the Pilgrim from one of my favorite old books, Two Years Before the Mast. 

After the first boat flopped on one side and circled like a one-legged duck during its maiden bathtub voyage I looked up "ballast" on Wikipedia and then clicked on "keel" before bashing forehead with palm heel. Not knowing much about most things has never really stopped me from doing much, which can be both a blessing and a curse. So a made a couple of keels (filling them with random steel hardware and concrete patch) and attached them with dowel rods and wood glue. It worked!

I let the kids each paint their own ships, and once they were dry they were eager to get them into local waters. For years I've noticed the unused Belle Isle Model Yacht Basin and did some research and quickly learned that for more than 70 years local schoolchildren held an annual Regatta there with the boats they built (rather than fill this post with the lengthy history of model yachting on Belle Isle, I decided to do that over here, with lots of pictures).

Today the Belle Isle Model Boat Basin is long-neglected, overgrown and full of garbage.

Despite my embarrassment at the shoddy quality of our "yachts" after looking at all the beautiful boats built by the talented kids in those pictures, a few weeks ago we decided to let them have their maiden voyages in those hallowed waters:

The edges of the yacht basin were so degraded and the water was so mucky and thick with aquatic plant life it was a real challenge to get the ships out to deeper water where the keels wouldn't drag and the sails could catch the wind.

But you should have heard her excitement when they did.

Frustrated with our inability to guide the boats by the string, we decided to untie the Pilgrim and let her sail across the water on her own. We could hardly believe it when the wind pushed her free from the reeds and the muck on the western edge and she sailed east past us in a straight line. She was riding a little low in the water, but she was moving. We stood in silence and for a second she was the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria; Hudson's Discovery; La Salle's Griffon.

Just a dozen feet from the far shore she stopped, stuck in the reeds. I looked down apologetically at my boots and blue jeans, accepting that they would likely soon be soaked with that filthy water. I could already hear my feet squelching back to the car and just prayed I wouldn't come across a poorly-disposed-of dead body. Just as I was ready to go in, I looked around at the ample supply of garbage for something I might throw to loosen her. Among the many choices, an empty bottle of Amstel Light seemed to have just the right amount of heft, so I chucked it sidearm and somehow managed to dislodge the ship and watched in wonder as it floated right into my daughter's waiting arms.

People in cars stopped to stare at us and see what we were doing. They were cooking Canadian whiskey over in Walkerville. That wind blowing the sails brought air like bread and the kids had to swallow that they wouldn't be leading their ships along like kites, that their expectations for the day wouldn't match the reality. But at least no one got wet, which is always a sign of a successful day at sea.

Too Young to Die for Glory

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 03, 2012

My son was a bit obsessed with the Colosseum for a long time before we went to Italy. Last Christmas my sister bought him this book with its huge pop-up of the Colosseum and a pack of trading cards that depict the various kinds of gladiators who fought there. He really loved it, and would sit in his bed thumbing through the pictures and cards before falling asleep. He really focused on the gladiator and Colosseum stuff in the books I picked up to get the kids excited about Italy (particularly the heavily-illustrated Eyewitness book). In Rome we spent a Sunday morning in the Capitoline museums and then headed down to the Via dei Fori Imperiali to find it closed to traffic. We walked down the middle of the usually-chaotic road right past all the statues of the various Caesars and I was behind him when he first looked to the end of the road and saw the actual Colosseum. He started jumping up and down with excitement and I was ready to retire from parenthood because I didn't think I could get any prouder.

For many years now groups of filthy, grizzled criminals have dressed as Roman soldiers who stand around the Colosseum extorting euros out of unsuspecting Euros who pose for pictures with them. A few years ago the police went undercover and busted a bunch of them for fighting each other in pitched battles over territory, which is possibly the most awesome thing ever. When my son saw these guys his jaw dropped, and I surprised him by opening my bag to reveal that I'd been lugging most of his beloved Roman soldier costume around all day. We buckled him in and he went right up to the "real" Romans and stared them down with his toughest look.

The legionaries were too busy mugging for the camera with a busload of Chinese tourists and talking on the phone to notice my son, much to his disappointment. "I don't think they were real Romans," he said a few minutes later. "Romans don't have phones." So we marched around the entire Colosseum and he just stared up at it and I wondered what he was thinking.

I had never been inside the building before (I was always too cheap and too annoyed with the idea of the crowds I could see puttering about inside). But how could I not bring him in? While my wife and daughter cooled off in a cafe, we waited in the line and all the Italian ladies working the crowd cooed at him and called him "Gladiatore!" (which is how he still pronounces it). Inside he was a tiny spectacle but loved every minute of it. Here he is, I believe, shouting, "Those who are about to die salute you!" I just shrugged as if I had no idea where he picked up such things.

I had to drag him out of there. I'm pretty sure he thought he was going to get to go down in the pits and meet the real gladiators. I couldn't tell him that they had all been gone for more than a thousand years. I might as well have told him I was Santa Claus, too. So I just told him they were all in an important meeting with the lions.

* * * * *

A handful of plastic gladiators we picked up at a tourist shop and this amazing book kept him entertained for most of the the flight home. He learned the names for all of the different styles of gladiators and it wasn't long before he told me he wanted to be a gladiator for Halloween and I warned him that gladiators never wear shirts and Halloween is always cold so he just reasoned that I could just make him a gladiator costume before Halloween and I agreed that it sounded like something I might do.

Yeah, I should just go ahead and change the name of this blog to Nurturing Strange Obsessions. Back home, I bought three board feet of walnut and set to making my son a little amphitheater for his mini gladiator battles. Fighting on that fold-down airplane tray was rather sad and I felt they needed a fancier place to die for glory. Instead of a full Colosseum I just made half so he could actually play with his guys inside it. I cut the wood into six equal pieces and then did the cutouts for the archways on the scroll saw. Then I cut the edges at an angle so they would curve when fit together.

I sanded it for several days and added some embellishments while the kids played at the playground then finished it with linseed oil that really brought out the beauty of the walnut, which I chose because I thought that particular wood would be kind of reminiscent of the grimy patina on the actual Colosseum.

He always throws sand onto the plywood base. I like how he puts Caesar up on the walls so that all the gladiators can do their customary salute before butchering each other, and so he can give a thumbs up or thumbs down when they're done. There are few feelings as good as your kid telling you how much he loves something you've made for him.

The plastic lions and tigers sometimes like to get in on the action. I'd like to say I took this opportunity to teach my children about the horrific history of slavery in the ancient world, or the cruelty of Roman class structure, or even suggest that the Roman arena was like the historical precedent for the squared circle of the World Wrestling Federation, with what Roland Barthes called the same "the spectacle of excess." But, you know, I just jump in with my own gladiator dude and groan a glorious death to the cheering of the crowd.

He decided that his favorite kind of gladiator was the Thracian, with his elaborate griffin-topped helmet and bent sword. I had to admit that was the best one. After all, Spartacus was a Thracian. So I got to tell him the story of Spartacus and his army of gladiators and slaves beating back the Romans. I would have shown him clips from the Kirk Douglas movie but I was afraid he'd yell at the computer like Ralphie in The Sopranos: "They didn't have flattops in ancient Rome!" Here's a real Thracian helmet they found in Pompeii on display at the Louvre:

How cool is that helmet? Now imagine how cool it is to a 4-year-old boy. There's evidence to suggest that this helmet was decorated even further with huge feather plumes. I had to see if I could make one. Shut up. My wife was in Texas for work and there was no one around to tell me not to. So first I made a pattern out of cardboard and duct tape:

Then I cut it out of leather and sewed all the pieces together and he tried it on.

The face mask didn't look quite right, so I redid it with a piece of softer leather. We dyed it with a coat of black and then a coat of silver and then one more really light coat of black.

Then we added the pheasant feathers. When it was done, he didn't take that thing off for two full hours. My neighbors must think we're nuts. I also made him a bent wooden sword, of course, but that only took a few minutes.

So now all we need is a net man. Anybody out there have a four-year-old net man?