Sweet Juniper If you've ever seen an intricate, fanciful, mythical, handmade kid's costume on the internet, there's a good chance it came from Jim Griffioen. His handiwork in making these ensembles for his two young kids knows no bounds; he works in leather, fabric, plastic, cardboard, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. But for Jim, blogging at Sweet Juniper is about more than making fun get-ups. His insights into fatherhood, urban living, and American childhood are funny, shrewd, and thought-provoking. While Sweet Juniper started as a co-blogging experiment between Jim and his wife, as the stay-at-home-dad (his wife still works as a lawyer), he has largely carried on the torch of recording domestic moments through the blog. He writes insightfully about parenting, and in particular parenting in Detroit, sometimes comparing it to early family experiences in an upwardly-mobile area of San Francisco. Perhaps most visually stunning are the records of the outrageous costumes he creates for his kids. We are so intrigued with Sweet Juniper that we decided to ask Jim a little about his blogging life.
When did you start blogging and why? Back in 2005 when our first child was born, my wife and I were young practicing lawyers out in San Francisco, and none of our friends were married (let alone ready to have children). Most of the people we did meet with kids were at least ten years older than us. During her pregnancy, my wife drew a lot of comfort from reading other women's stories on the small but vibrant community of "mom blogs" that existed back then, and this virtual community became a place for us to write about and discuss what we were going through in a way we couldn't in our everyday lives. For me it became a creative outlet where I discovered how much more I enjoyed writing stories than legal briefs, and the support I received from readers and other bloggers helped ease my transition away from full-time work to a career as a stay-at-home dad. Tell us a little about your blog and your favorite topics to post on. My blog is not updated daily nor are my stories told in anything close to real time. I'm not on Twitter. I'm pretty guarded about the things I share about my kids' lives. I usually spend a few weeks (or even months) on a post before I publish it. I think the immediacy of some blogs is great, but there's also something to be said about taking a step back and really working on something before you hit publish. My favorite topic has probably been how magical it is to raise two kids in such a fantastically weird place as downtown Detroit. In Detroit I don't have to worry about some rigorous orthodoxy of clucking suburban mothers or judgmental yuppies telling me what I can or cannot do with my kids. I can lead them around town in the mini Conestoga wagon I built to be pulled by our energetic dog. We can go fox hunting in an abandoned railway line or search for pheasants on the urban prairie from our three-seater bicycle. And yet we can also walk to professional baseball games and mom and pop stores that have been open since the 19th century where everyone knows my kids by name. Our life in Detroit is a huge part of my blog, but I think that's only part of the larger story, which is how I escaped the rat race and rebooted my life, and how lucky I am to spend every day with my kids learning how to rediscover the world through their imaginations.
You are wonderfully creative and fiercely dedicated when it comes to making costumes for your kids. How did that become such an obsession? Was it kid-driven, or did you introduce the idea? I'm one of those insufferable blowhard parents who doesn't permit television. Disney is anathema in our household. I hate Walt Disney with the sort of intensity most people reserve for dead despots and Fox News commentators. Mostly I hate the idea of passively standing by while this giant corporation grooms my children into docile little consumers, with their imaginations harnessed by all the toys and toothbrushes and sippy cups and band-aids and anal suppositories decorated with the latest characters churned out by Pixar. I guess the costumes started with Halloween a few years ago, in reaction to all the licensed character garbage you see. It's the one day of the year when kids can be absolutely whatever or whoever they want, and watching my kids turn into mythical creatures or beloved animals and heroes sort of led me to encourage this kind of imaginative play all the time. My dedication to it is a result of their enthusiasm. Rare is the day that my 4-year-old son wakes up and says, "I'm going to dress up as an ordinary boy today." More often he's a pirate, or a Greek hoplite, or an American Indian, a superhero, a lumberjack, a knight, a fireman, a cowboy, etc. etc. When they make up their own characters and stories using these sort of archetypal roles, I really feel it gets to the essence of what it means to be a kid. If you think about it, indignity and injustice are such a part of childhood. You don't get to do much for yourself, and you're constantly being told not to do something. Yet you also possess this unbridled imagination and innocence, and really, freedom from all the judgment and self-consciousness that plagues us later in life. You really can become whatever you are capable of imagining, and you have such a short window before the world crushes that feeling. What's your favorite costume? (Or can you not play favorites?) My favorites are actually the ones my kids come up with on their own. They have a big enough costume box now (actually, three costume tubs) that they are constantly rearranging things and adapting pieces to create new identities. But if I had to choose one that I made, I'd have to say the full suit of leather armor I made for my son so he could be "the dragon knight." It was just so much fun to create. We're going to Italy this summer so I'm also pretty excited about the Roman Legionary armor we're making while we study ancient Rome in preparation for this trip.
Has blogging, or more generally the internet community, changed the way you parent or the way you think about parenting? Because I have a blog to collect and share my thoughts, experiences, and creations, I do believe I have been able to live with more positivity and joy than if it wasn't all so public. When writing publicly about your life, I think there's a natural tendency to try to live a better one. You do fun things you might not ordinarily do because you have the privilege of sharing those things with others. You find whatever inspiration there is in an ordinary day and you share it with strangers. And you are better for it. So I think blogging has definitely allowed me to enjoy parenting much more than if I didn't have the opportunity to write about the experience. I also don't know if I could handle the negative societal pressure of being a stay at home dad if I didn't have this creative outlet. What do you find most challenging about being a stay at home dad? I don't like to complain about the challenges, which are probably not all that different than those of being a stay at home mom. I worry that complaining about this life I chose with my kids would be like spitting in the face of all the fathers who must work away from home to support their families; the mothers whose hearts break every morning when they leave the daycare center; the men and women who would gladly trade places with me, but cannot. Because when I encounter other men who think I'm weird or when I think about how I'll probably never be able to find a job in my former field because of my "weird" decision, I remind myself of the e-mails I've received from men whose children are grown who've written about how they worked through their kids' childhoods and how they would give up all they'd achieved to go back and have that time with them. In the end, I am exceptionally fortunate.
Where do you go on the internet for inspiration or a good laugh? I don't read as many blogs as I used to, mostly because it's starting to feel like everyone is always trying to sell me something. I am really inspired by bloggers who've been doing this a long time and have somehow retained the integrity this community of writers had back when we were all just doing it for fun. I still love Angela at Fluid Pudding's voice. And Alice Bradley at Finslippy. I really admire the energy and conviction of Ryan Marshall of Pacing the Panic Room as he works so damn hard to create the life he wants without compromises. I love to lurk at blogs that some might consider "smaller," I enjoy seeing that sense of community thriving and I love reading people who blog for the pure pleasure of writing and sharing their lives. I lurked at Hi Happy Panda for a while but fell in love with her drawings so much I asked Rachel to draw my banner. She's amazing. With Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr sucking up so much air over the last few years, I still love a good old-fashioned blog. One my absolute favorites is I've Had Dreams Like That, which is simply a great collection of found images with short commentary. It's not always safe for work, but it's always pretty awesome. What's one great piece of parenting advice that someone has shared with you? The only advice I ever listened to was when older strangers saw me in elevators or on the street with my kids and said, "Enjoy your time with them, it goes so fast." Okay, I said. I will. Thanks, Jim! Readers, keep up with all of Jim's adventures at Sweet Juniper. (Images: Jim Griffioen/Sweet Juniper)