Blog : Lifestyle

Peace

Peace

In the stillness of an anywhere field, there’s a stream that babbles and weaves and spills. The stream is loud.  There are birds both quiet and noisy, some fiddling about to themselves and others calling in friends, mates, or warning others to steer well clear. A deer in the distance makes no sound, slowly chewing the most tender blades of fresh spring grass.  Two rabbits hop as rabbits do, barely crunching the dried winter leaves they bound over. There’s a soft quiet hum to this distant field, a peaceful way in which every noisemaker plays their part in this unintentional orchestra. The sounds of this field on this day are the sounds that anyone can hear in the background of whatever their noisy present might be.

The lake on that July Sunday is so blue. The waves are pushed by so much wind, starting in the southwest and blowing to the northeast, breaking all the way. These winds are steady, eight or nine knots, the sailors would guess. The steady crash of the waves against the shore provide the unexpected percussion.  The trees sway, so many maples and oaks and walnuts rocking back and forth. The white noise of the day, some others would say. Something you can hear but easily ignore.  There’s a quiet bass of a distant Streblow, or is it a Shepard?  Children splashing at the pier two doors down, the soft squeals of city children as they find confidence in jumping off the outer horse post.   Fishermen ply the waters, flipping their silly jigs towards the piers and under the buoy tied boats. Those boats, they click and they clack when their buoy chain bumps the clasp of their bow. A couple walk the shore path, no words are spoken.   The day wears on, the boats change, the shore path leads the way, and the wind slowly falls as the sun dips low.

Is one of these two scenes more peaceful than the other? Is the sound of a stream in a wildflower field any more serene than a steady parade of waves marching from one end of this big lake to the other?  Does a breeze blown tree in a lakefront lawn make for a different background than a breeze blown tree in the middle of the darkest, loneliest woods? Is a stream-side lunch any different than a lakeside lunch, eaten over wicker table in the cool porch shade? Is there any difference in quality between peaceful solitude and peaceful company? Is the sound of a distant car making its way down a gravel road somehow preferable to the sound of a Cobalt heading West towards the setting sun?

I love Lake Geneva, but good luck finding any peace and quiet. I love Lake Geneva, but there’s no solitude. I love Lake Geneva, but there’s no place to just rest.  These are the comments of those who visit our lake but have not yet found the time to understand our lake.  The magic of this place is not in its tourist-centric downtown, nor in the way boats can clog the outer ring of the lake on any given weekend. No, the magic of this place is in its ability to make a lakeside porch,  pier, or patio, complete with the background noise of lapping waves, rumbling boats, and children splashing in the shallows, one of the most peaceful places to read a book. To nap. To eat a summer lunch. To be still.  There’s no trick to making a place void of people peaceful. Even Michigan can do that.  The real trick is making a place so full of company a place where solitude is simple to find. Where rest comes easily. Where peace comes not with complete silence, but with the lovely hum of an unmistakable summer soundtrack.

Lake Geneva Construction

Lake Geneva Construction

During times of relative boom, mistakes are made. Mistakes are made during times of relative bust as well, but those mistakes can be more easily forgiven because of the toxic guidance from fear and panic. During the good times, which we are certainly experiencing of late, mistakes are made not out of fear, but out of confidence.

Today, we have a number of factors causing increased construction, both of the renovating and of the new build variety. We have extremely limited inventory on the lake and in our lake access markets, and that alone is enough of a condition to cause a building boom. If you own a $500k house with a slip and you like your slip and you like your location, you still might be tempted to find a $1MM house that offers you something that you don’t currently have. But with the $1MM house not available, and you content in your location and amenity package, you could easily decide to tear down your existing house (in this pricing scenario that’s a terrible idea, by the way) and build a new house for $500k. You like your association enough to stay, so you build a new house.

On the lakefront, the same principle applies. Limited inventory means your dream home is likely unavailable. In this case, you should be wise and set out to find the best land you can afford and demolish whatever terrible house is currently squatting where your dream home would be built. This has happened at an alarming rate over the recent market cycle, and today there are no fewer than 15 new lakefront builds either underway or about to commence. The construction business is booming, and the combination of low interest rates, low inventory, and the wealth effect stemming from the stock market indices has created the perfect storm.

With this in mind, there are mistakes being made, and if you ask my wife, I’m nothing if not a capable mistake-pointer-outer-guy. First mistake being made: An abundance of new construction in locations that simply do not warrant the investment. This is the case often with off-water homes being built in associations that lack boatslips. If I’m in Knollwood, in the back, not near the water, should I buy a cottage for $300k and tear it down? If I do this, I build new for $450k, and I’m $750k into an association home with no view, no slip, and no chance at recovering my investment. This is a mistake. Owners make this mistake because they tell themselves it doesn’t matter, that they’ll never sell. Then I’m in the position of playing bad guy when I tell them their $750k house is worth $550k. Don’t make me be the bad guy. Be smart.

The next mistake is made by failing to build to the standard of your market. If you’re off water and you have a slip, let’s say you tear down a $450k home and build a new home for $500k. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this math, but let’s say you’re stubborn. You’re cost conscious as well, so you build your new home for $450k. In meeting that number, you skip on the nice appliances ($10,000 saved), install terrible direct-vent gas fireplaces, the ones with those glass fronts that fog over time ($10,000 saved), you opt for cheap Schlage hardware ($1000 saved), and you dumb down your trim package ($15,000 saved). You’re shrewd, so you just saved $36k on your new build. Look at you!

But what you’ve actually done is cut your own nose off. The house you’re building is already too expensive for the neighborhood, but instead of making it so nice that a buyer might be tempted to make a similar mistake and buy your overpriced house, you’ve dumbed it down to the point where it is now just a new cheap house that’s way too expensive. The same theory applies to the lakefront, and it’s always that lost bit of cost savings that blows the whole idea. You buy an entry level lot for $1.2MM, and you’re not an entry level sort of owner, so you tear the cottage down. You build new, knowing that you need to stay reasonably priced if you’re ever going to recoup your investment. So you build a brand new house for $600k. You cut the things I mentioned above, and you build a house that’s ugly, because architectural style would have cost you $20k in architectural fees and another $30k in framing intricacies. You saved $100k, and delivered an ugly, boring, middle of the road house. When you call me to list it someday, I’m going to pretend to like it but I’m actually going to hate it. Schlage, in your lakefront house? Really?

Beware these simple concepts. Don’t build new if your basis is too high to warrant the project, and if you do, build it right so you might convince a buyer that your house is worthy of a premium. I guess I really wrote this because I don’t want to see any more of those direct vent gas fireplaces. Let’s stop doing that.

Lake Geneva News

Lake Geneva News

I try my best to avoid involving myself with the municipal governments in this area. I care deeply about what happens here, about the future, about the way the whole thing seems to be turning out. That’s why I fight development, because it’s unnecessary and it’s evil and I wish Chicago developers would worry more about Chicago developments than rural ones. I shy away from fighting with the municipalities over things I feel are wrong, because the fight here is skewed and largely unfair. That’s because the tax base is large, owing that entirely to the vacation home set and their weekend homes, and yet the voting and decisions are carried out solely by those who live here full time.  The residents vote to spend the tax money of their neighbors who don’t have a say in the matter. That irritates me, and so I generally let sleeping, bloated, tax ladened dogs lie.

But sometimes it’s all too much, and I need to say a few words about the local happenings. And so here it goes. First up, more rumors and innuendo and hushed threats over the Geneva Inn. This is the old hotel on the southeast corner of the lake that used to be known as the Shore Club. This restaurant/hotel is in Linn Township, but the city of Lake Geneva covets it, and the development groups who eye it routinely wish to annex it to the city of Lake Geneva so that they can obtain city water and sewer. There’s much to discuss here, but there’s only one thing that matters. Development in this corner of the lake would be bad for the area. We do not need more development here, no matter what shape it takes, and we certainly don’t need some circus on that end of the lake. If you care about the lake and you like things the way they are, email the City of Lake Geneva and tell them to deny any annexation requests or development requests for the Geneva Inn.

Speaking of the city, there’s a new restaurant being built next to Popeye’s. Oak Fire Pizza, it might be two words not three, bought their building a few years ago. They renovated the building. They opened and they served me pizza that was decent, but soggy in the middle. Then they tore the building down and now they’re erecting a new building, to serve pizza. It’s a big gamble, a huge expense, but this is a good thing for the area. I don’t like development, this is obvious, but re-development of existing things should be encouraged, always. Lake Geneva is at a bit of an intersection these days. On one hand, rents are too high and certain marquee locations are sitting empty, an obvious sign of landlord/tennant disputes over reasonable rental rates. On the other hand, renovation and expansion is occurring, which cannot be anything but good so long as that expansion is simply replacing the tattered with the shiny, and not inventing new locations to cram the shiny.

Williams Bay likes money. They like it a lot. That’s why they several years ago approved an auto repair shop to be built on their main drag, just a few hundred feet from the lake. Any reasonable town with a reasonable eye towards the future would have denied this request, but Williams Bay is eager to play with the big boys like Fontana and Williams Bay and so they approve things that shouldn’t be approved. Like when the Williams Bay School Board pulled a fast one on the town and was allowed to collect tax dollars to fund the demolition of the old school building but then decided, instead, to sell the school building and pocket the dedicated funds. Williams Bay now wants to build a fire house. A new, shiny fire house. The fire house will cost a couple million because why not? We need a new fire house because the old one is too small for $500k fire trucks, and there aren’t even sleeping rooms in the old fire house. I can’t figure out why a volunteer fire department who battles fires on such an infrequent basis would need to sleep at their fire house. Baby, don’t treat me bad, indeed. Tell the Village of Williams Bay to knock it off, fire houses are for cities, silly.  On the heels of building a $20MM grade school, it takes a significant amount of gall to expect tax payers to fund a new firehouse of such royal proportions.

Speaking of easy tax dollars, a massive TIF grant was awarded to the new owner of the Geneva Theatre. Geneva 4, it’s called. I watched Hot Shots there from the front row, my neck crooked skyward, because it was 1991 and we rode our bikes there and we were late. The theatre has been in disrepair for ages, and so a new buyer surfaced last year and the city handed out bushels of tax dollars to aid in the renovations. The theatre now looks interesting,  art deco ish, but interesting. It was supposed to open on March 1st, but it didn’t. It’s supposed to open today, but who knows if it will. I asked the theatre manager for a tour of the property this week but was ignored, so perhaps they don’t want me to write nice things about their efforts.  I can’t tell you if they’re opening or not, but judging by the number of construction trucks outside the theatre yesterday it appears as though they’re giving max effort. The theatre will be open by summer, that we can be sure of, and it would be nice of you to visit it. I’m happy something was done here, and I’m happy the theatre remains a theatre and not a handful of t-shirt shops.

The biggest threat to the Lake Geneva market is not from outside forces. It’s not from greedy developers. The biggest threat is from within. It’s from the boards that run these small towns, the board members who so badly wish to matter. They want to make a splash, for the children they say, for the future. For this and for that, but the efforts are almost always guided by cliche and misunderstood standards that are rarely, if ever, challenged. Development does not make a community better.  Fire houses with sleeping quarters are not necessary. Hotels should be hotels, not water parks with carnivals surrounding them. The county and municipalities need to protect this lake, to protect the interests of those who make their living here at the same time as they protect those who fund all of this with their generous tax dollars. The best path forward is always one of caution, and when markets get hot caution is the narrowest of paths.

March

March

There’s a thing about March. It is, without any question, the worst month of the year. If you disagree, that’s fine, but I know deep down inside that I’m right. This is the key to winning arguments.  It’ll probably snow in March. It might snow today. It’ll probably be 65 in March, maybe 70. There is no ice left, that’s true of this March but not a typical March. What’s typical? March doesn’t know. March has no idea what it is, just that it came in like a lion and so it must go out like a lamb. March has no choice but to be the in between. Not winter, not spring, just something. A month, a space filler, a void. Ugliness, it will be at home here in March.

February, that’s winter all the way. Except this last February, where it was only a bit of winter but really none at all. It was spring. February showers bring May flowers, because in March, what could grow? February showers do nothing but wash some of the grit from the road and leave us wondering if we should rake out the fall leaves that accumulated behind our summer bushes, or if we should just put the rake away and prepare the shovel. It must snow again, right? It has to. It will. March, that’s when it’ll snow.

But this is the commentary of the weather obsessed, a troop I once belonged to, a long, long time ago. I broke free from those chains, from the chains that held my poor grandmother hostage for so long, in fact, right up to the moment of her death. I no longer live and die on weather, and when I see others proclaiming their misery simply based on the color of the sky I have to wonder why they, too, haven’t yet sought the salvation that comes from skyward ambivalence. I won’t care today that it’s gray and raining, and so I won’t care that March will be lots of that, with a bit of snow, or a lot of snow, who could say?

See, I don’t care about the weather anymore, not one bit. And it has led me to a place where things are much better. Wintery weather is just a reason to own skis. Rain is just a reason to own a house with a sturdy roof. And the summer sun is just a reason I must visit the dermatologist with increasing frequency. See, completely and entirely unconcerned about the weather. That’s why I can look to March not as an ugly month of the in-between, but rather as a month to prepare.   March isn’t spring, but the month sounds like spring, and when spring comes then summer follows. This is how it all works.  March is for preparing.

And what better time to prepare than when the skies are gray and the temperatures not cold enough to snow sport and not warm enough to do anything productive under the sun? There is no better time to prepare, and that’s why those who own lake houses shouldn’t sit around and wait for March to be over. They shouldn’t rest, contented in knowing that summer is still months away. I’m continually amazed by the lack of March motivation amongst the lake set. May, now that’s when they feel the burden of preparedness. But in March they don’t care. Must I remind you that last May we had summer that began as  early as the 20th of that month? How on earth can you enjoy instant and immediate summer if you spent March in the malls and on your couch?

If you’re a lake home owner, March is for getting ready. March is for buying a new grill because we all know your old grill is terrible. And why are you buying a Weber when we all know you can do better? March is for cleaning the gear room, where the life vests and the fishing poles and the paddle boards were hastily crammed last October. March is for doing the things that will make May so much better. But what about for those who don’t yet own lake homes? What about those who sit in the city or lounge in the suburbs, wondering what week long road trip they might take to pretend they enjoyed their summer? Well, March is a forgiving month for those people. March is a month for shopping. March is a month for buying. Yes, you should have been thinking about this last October, but you didn’t, because the Cubs were on their way to the World Series and you are forgiven for being obsessed. But now, this March, you’re running out of time but you still have plenty.

March is for getting ready. March is for looking. March is for contract writing, and then April is for closing.  Then May is for preparing and June is for enjoying your weekends in an entirely different way. If you haven’t even begun your search, that’s fine. Let’s get together this month. Let’s drive around and find something perfect. Let’s do this now because it’s March and there’s really nothing else to do.

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

This article, perhaps originally from Thrillist.com, whatever that might be, has been making the rounds lately.  The piece outlines 12 of the most luxurious lake towns in the world, and by now you’ve already guessed it: Lake Geneva is on the list. Because of course it is. It’s not a surprise that it’s on the list. It would be a surprise if it weren’t. The article is on Facebook and other various bits online, and local resorts and businesses are sending out emails to the tune of “Come Do This With Us Because We’re On A List Compiled By A Website That No One Has Ever Heard Of”. It’s nice of the Thrillist to tell us this, but it’s sort of like telling your favorite kid that they’re the favorite. It’s unnecessary, because their birthday BMW hasn’t even had its first oil change yet.

So thank you, Thrillist, for including our town, as if you ever had a choice. The thing is, this article doesn’t appear to be new. In fact, it looks like it’s almost two years old. Someone just found it and posted it to some social media and then it once again pushed around the circle of Lake Geneva influencers and influenced.  The article doesn’t mention anything important, just that we have some terrific mansions and some terrific water. Again, these are the things we already know. So let’s not take this article for what it says, and let’s not be shocked for our inclusion, rather, let’s use this article as a very important reminder.

There’s a particular agent in the Chicago market who has made a bit of a late career in selling large properties and larger homes in Wisconsin. These homes are usually oversized, like mega-oversized. Like 20,000 square feet, or built as an exact scale of Some Castle in Ireland, or built with 32 bedrooms, one for each of the dreams the owner had the year before he built this towering ode to an overactive dream cycle. The homes are rare. The 12,000 square foot replica of a replica of a Frank Lloyd Wright student’s parents’ home. This is what this Realtor has been tasked with selling. On paper and online, the properties look like a most impressive collection, but they are, as a point of absolute fact, disasters.

The homes might be large, they might be fancy, they might even be nice, but one thing they are not: built in the right place. They are creations that were spawned by ego, where the cry of the building mantra was, “I can do this, and I will do this”. The doing this part doesn’t make sense, even while we can understand the can. These are the homes in Oak Brook, the ones built to 20,000 square feet to resemble something other than a Midwestern house. These are the palaces built in Door County, made to be the biggest and the best. These are the sprawling estates built in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, an 18,000 square foot modern built on 100 acres in a community where 15 acres and a cabin are the desired property. These are the mistakes that plague every region in every state. These are the misfits, born of a desire to put something where it doesn’t belong.

And that brings us back to perhaps the most unique aspect of Lake Geneva. There are buyers who wish to build things, to build rare levels of sophistication, to build and build, up and out, to make something memorable. This has happened at Lake Geneva, and it’s happening more now than it has at any point since the early 1900s when barons and magnates took to these shores to build the testaments to their wealth. The thing is, at Lake Geneva it all makes sense. The market here supports mostly whatever you can build. The market here is strong, capable, and it’s not just because our waters are so clear and our shoreline so dynamic. It’s because there are other homes like those, lots of them, big mansions along every stretch of shore. Old estates giving support to new estates. The lake isn’t just a lake that’s on some website’s best of list, it’s a lake that can play host to whatever fancy you might crave. Lots of lakes can do that, but if you ever tire of our wonderful scene, Lake Geneva can give you something that these other Midwestern locations cannot: liquidity. And that’s the actual rare bit.

Lake Geneva’s Winterfest

Lake Geneva’s Winterfest

I admit when it comes to events that I lack enthusiasm when compared to some of my enthusiastic competitors. Chili Cook Off Dinner This Friday Night! I can’t bring myself to care about that. Elkhorn Rotary Club 23rd Annual Pot Luck Dinner This Sunday!  That means nothing to me.  I can’t even feign interest or enthusiasm or concern.  That’s part of what makes this blog somewhat difficult at times. I don’t really want to write about things I don’t care about just for the sake of being an involved member of this community. That’s because the community, as I see it, is different from the way it looks on Facebook, because that’s a particular lens that I don’t own. Not everything is fun, not everything is interesting, and not everything is something you should attend.  SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY MOVIE NIGHT AT SHOWBOAT IS “JUMANJI”!!!!

It’s because of this that I have shied away from telling you about every little goings on in this market. I don’t really tell you about things in the way that I used to, because it seems insincere to me if I tell you to do something that I don’t want to do myself.  Do you care that this Sunday you can go to Pier 290 and watch the Super Bowl? Neither do I, because I can watch that game at home and since I write this to my Illinois clients I’m guessing that very few of you (none) want to stay at Pier 290 until late Sunday night when you likely have to work on Monday morning. So I’m not going to tell you to watch the Super Bowl there, because I don’t really need the content and I’m aware that such an invitation is likely to be ignored anyway. That said, there is something worthwhile this weekend.

Lake Geneva’s Winterfest is this weekend, and it’s important not because of what it is, but because of what it represents. Yes, there will be snow sculpting on display and those displays are worthy of your attention. The competitors are skilled and they slave away to create something that is only valued until it melts, which, according to our forecast, should be sometime around Tuesday of next week. This work is akin to a famous chef making the best of meals, the fanciest of meals, the most expensive of meals, and you’re lucky enough to score an invite to the dinner table. But like a fine meal that won’t hold up well to microwave re-heating, the snow sculptures are best enjoyed fresh, before the dolphin’s nose melts and renders the once vibrant animal a lowly manatee.

The sculptures are one thing, perhaps the main thing, but there’s the ice bar at the Baker House, helicopter rides for those uncertain they care about making it to Monday, and other fun things as well. There’s a scene here, and it matters because the scene plays out during the first week in February. We all know what the scene looks like in July, because it’s a summer scene that has likely been seared, pleasantly, into each of our minds. That scene is so very lovely. But this is a winter scene, and it matters because Lake Geneva isn’t just a place for summer. It’s a place that thrives in all seasons, in the spring and summer and in the fall, yes, but also in the dead of winter. The scene is alive, this town in action, never taking time off, always here, open, ready.

And that’s why it matters. Many resort towns, especially in the Midwest, fail at one season or another. The Northwoods will gladly allow you to be mosquito bitten in the summer and frostbitten in the winter. This is what the Northwoods does.  Door County will sell you ice-cream in the summer and show you their roof-goats with great pleasure. But in the winter Door County is closed, the lights dimmed, the scene on hold until June. Michigan, well, I’m not sure about Michigan in the winter because I visited Harbor Country once in late June and their season hadn’t yet started, so I cannot be certain exactly how terrible that place might be in February. But Lake Geneva is the same in summer as it is in the winter, it’s thriving, it’s bright, and it’s ready for you.

This weekend, come up for a visit. Walk the downtown. Take pictures next to the snow dolphins. Have a drink in an ice bar. And then come over and visit me at N1561 East Lakeside Lane in the South Shore Club. I’ll be holding that new listing open from 1-4 pm on Saturday, and it would be a shame for me to have to sit there all by my lonesome. See you at the lake this weekend,  when the scene will be on full display even while our Midwestern “competitors” hibernate.

 

Photo courtesy Lake Geneva Country Meats
Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

I heard a radio commercial this morning. “The Holidays are for making memories with friends and family”.  I believe the commercial was for AT&T, but I wasn’t really paying attention after I heard that initial statement. That’s because that statement that most would take as being acceptable and perhaps even warm, is objectively false.  I may have been the only person to hear that message and take offense to it, but that’s because I live in a world where we have plenty of opportunity to make memories with friends and family, and the Holidays isn’t one of them.

Am I supposed to fondly remember my grandfather stumbling into a support pole in my uncle’s basement? Ah, Christmas! Or do I need to remember my father falling asleep in his chair while reruns of A Christmas Story play on TNT? Or do I cast my memory back to sitting on my Grandma May’s green patterned carpet while watching the Bulls play the Lakers on Christmas Day? These are not the memories I will hold dear.

I’d rather remember my Grandpa Curry holding up a largemouth bass on the front lawn of my parent’s house. Smiling with his catch, holding the bass high for all to see, even though through this memory I now see that the bass was merely 14″ and was hardly a trophy at all, let alone a legal fish to keep and eat. I’d rather remember the rare occasion when my Grandma May would sit on the pier with her large sunglasses and marvel at the scenery. How different it was for her than the farm in Princeton, and how rare it was for me to see her in a place that was at once so familiar to me and unfamiliar to her.  That’s where I differ from the ad writers for AT&T. I don’t make memories on Christmas, I recount the memories that were made at the lake.

For now, a most Merry Christmas to you and your family. A Happy Hanukkah if that’s the applicable celebration. I’m supremely grateful that you read this gibberish as often as you do, and even more grateful to those buyers and sellers who trust me with their Lake Geneva real estate decisions. This weekend you can try to make memories with your friends and family, and if you don’t have a lake house, I suppose that’s really your only option. But if you have a lake house, then use this weekend to remember the fantastic times you had last summer, and anxiously anticipate the better lake times that are yet to come. I’ll be off Friday and Monday, back next Wednesday. Starting in January, I’ll recap each individual market segment with a year end review, so we both have that to look forward to. Have a wonderful weekend.

Ski Towns

Ski Towns

When you grow up in the Midwest, you are taught certain things. You are taught that the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings or the Detroit Lions are your team. They’re your team through the bad and the good, whether you want them to be or not. If your son comes home one day and tells you that he likes the Seahawks, no matter if their quarterback went to Wisconsin or not, this is a terrible, awful day in the history of your family. You’re taught these things and you’re also taught one other thing that’s less blatant but nonetheless present. The Midwest is not as good as the other places.

The other places can be the coasts or they can be, as they tend to be, the mountains. It doesn’t matter which mountains, because they’re all better. See, in the mountains it snows and then it’s sunny and sometimes it’s sunny and then it snows. It’s not cloudy there. It’s not cold, either. It’s snowy and warm and sunny and still, super snowy. Wisconsin children cannot fathom how it can be all of those things at once, and so the desire to experience it grows. Should we all move to the mountains? It’s better there. This is what we grow up thinking, and then, one by one, the children of Wisconsin grow and leave this place, they leave to be bartenders and lifelong ski rental fitters, but none of that matters because oh, the snow.

This week, I worked in Lake Geneva on Monday and then I hung out at a fancy hotel in a little mountain town on Tuesday. I stayed there with my wife until Thursday, and now I’m back in Lake Geneva, working. The town I visited was less a town and more a resort, a shiny log hotel in a little draw called Bachelor Gulch. It was nice, this place, except when we had to evacuate because the hotel was on fire. It was burning slowly, they assured us. No need to panic. Throw this vintage wool blanket over your shoulders and sip this hot chocolate near this outdoor fire, it’ll be fine. The hotel was nice, the time spent worthwhile, the mountains as tall as I remembered them.

But this isn’t about these mountains. It’s about the parallels drawn from some time in the mountains and the rest of my time here. It’s about Lake Geneva, as it should always be, and it’s about the Chicago families I spoke with who were wearing the same patterned wool blankets and drinking the same ritzy hot chocolate. It’s about the search for something that can interject some excitement into an otherwise pattern plagued existence. That, after all, is why people board planes and fly to that place. For something different. There are no mountains in the Midwest, though I’ll happily substitute the Wisconsin Driftless for the Colorado Rockies, but that’s just me.

Because I’m me, and I’m fascinated by the real estate markets in unique locations, I had to ask about condos and houses and condotels and terrible, awful, embarrassing fractional ownerships. I asked a Realtor, a friendly enough fella who seemed to know what was what. I asked about this hotel and that condominium, about this small mountain town and that small mountain town. I asked about appreciation and decline, about the number of sales here and why such an astounding absence of sales there. I asked the things I know to ask. Because that’s what you do when you go somewhere and like that somewhere- you seek to own some of it.

After some time at that resort we left to ski out of another resort. Then we went to town in another town to shop, then to another place. This place looked like that place, except this place had a Starbucks in a house and not in a strip mall. The other places were similar to the place we started. Then to Breckenridge and Frisco and Edwards and Avon. Eagle and Vail and Copper Mountain. To all of them to look, to explore, to see what they have to offer.  Places to buy ski boots? Check. Places to buy hats and gloves? Check. Places to get a coffee? Check. Places to buy marijuana? Check. Places to buy those communist inspired Colorado logo t-shirts and hats and stickers? Check. A ski hill somewhere looming over it all? Check.

These were just some of the towns we visited, and with that exploration the pattern was revealed. The towns, each unique, sure, but each the same. The mountains all tall, the snow all white, the sky, contrary to what the brochures and my childhood told me, gray and heavy. To be a buyer in one of these towns is to be a buyer in each of these towns. To seek real estate in one is to seek real estate in them all. And I hadn’t driven north or south or particularly far west. I was just on a highway making stops and detours along the way. If I were a Chicago buyer seeking something in this place, how do I choose which place when the places are all the same?

This is the same way I felt when exploring the gulf coast beach towns 20 years ago. If Anna Maria Island was okay, would Longboat be better? Why buy in Longboat when Siesta Key is close? What about Port this or Royal that? And if those are fine, what about Captiva? Sanibel is the same, so there? Fort Meyers seems okay, along the beach anyway, but Naples is so close. Marco is close, too. All of these towns possessing similar things- shops to buy shells and shops to buy t-shirts and sunscreen. The ingredients are all the same, so how to choose which place?  How can I buy in one when another one that I haven’t  yet seen might be better? This was my coastal problem and this was my mountain problem. Vail is nice, sure, but it feels too fake for me. Frisco, now that’s more like a real town, but my wife made us eat Himalayan food there and it wasn’t any good.

The way I feel when I go to these places is likely the way Chicago families feel when they visit this place, Lake Geneva. Why buy in Lake Geneva when Delavan is close? If Delavan is in contention, Lauderdale should be, too. Beulah isn’t far, neither is Mary, and if Mary is being considered then Browns should be, too. After all, each town has some places to buy t-shirts and cheese and you can get summer sausage at the gas stations in every one of these lake towns. This is why buyers here can find themselves confused, and as someone who visits other regions and feels that confusion, I’m here to help clear up any Lake Geneva confusion.

Lake Geneva is better than all of the other lakes. Plain and simple. It’s way, way better. Like a trillion times better. So don’t be confused here. Don’t look around as thought there might be a better lake around the corner. Don’t think you’re going to find something that we haven’t already bested. Lake Geneva wins, so stop your search. Just buy here. And if you think a mountain town is a better option, you’ll be shocked to learn that I don’t disagree. As long as you can jump in the car on a Friday afternoon and drive to that mountain town in 90 minutes, go for it. Otherwise, don’t be silly.

Winter Rules

Winter Rules

It was fall on Saturday and winter on Sunday. It’s winter today, and it’ll be winter tomorrow. In fact, the odds are stacked heavily in favor of it being winter for most of the days between now and spring. When the spring does arrive it’ll be nice, but it won’t be here until it’s been winter for so long that we’ll start to wonder if it’ll ever be. Spring.  For now, it’s winter and it just started and so there are things that need reminding.

If you bought a lake house this year then that would make this your first winter. You should do some things to make sure you don’t ruin your first winter at the lake. Those things are the things that I’ve learned, even though most of the things aren’t something anyone would actually need to learn. They’re things we should all know but in the hustle and the bustle of a Holiday season we tend to forget. The lake house is for summer, that’s what some people think, and so when the winter comes they think of malls and of Zika Beaches and of other things. What they should be thinking about is the lake. Frozen or not.

That brings us to your exceptionally short to-do-list:

Don’t turn the heat down and leave. This is a common mistake. Buy a many million dollar lake house and then turn the heat to 55 and leave it for a month or two. This is a bad idea. It’s noble that you want to save the planet by consuming less natural gas, but let’s really consider what’s happening here. In Wisconsin it gets cold. It gets cold on a Tuesday and then it’s warmer by Thursday, and all the while you were at work doing the work things that we accomplish in winter. Your house is not a constant temperature in all of its various rooms and levels. It fluctuates, somewhat wildly. A thermostat set at 55 degrees will indeed keep the air around the thermostat at 55 degrees, but the air in the basement by that bathroom on the outside wall? 31. Don’t risk frozen pipes, just keep your heat at 62 or 65 and deal with the burden of an extra $50 on your monthly gas bill. It’s cheap insurance.

Along those lines, why haven’t you installed a Nest or Ecobee or anyone of the dozen wifi thermostats? Do that. Monitor your lake house when you’re not there. Keep an eye on things with a wifi security camera. Not because we have high crime, because we don’t, but because it feels good to sit at your desk and look in on the things that you work hard to own. Buy the thermostat, the camera, and maybe a wifi water sensor or two to install in the basement. Just do it and be smart about things. No matter how diligent your house check person may be, they can’t be at the house all the time, but your technology can be.

Buy some bird feeders. Put the bird feeders outside your house. Watch the birds. Winter birds are the real champions, unlike migratory birds that turn tail and leave when the going gets rough. It’s the winter birds that deserve our affection. Beat it Sandhill Cranes, you’re too soft for a Lake Geneva winter. Beat it, Bald Eagles that come and eat our small birds and then head south when our soft water turns hard.  Love the local birds, feed them.

You don’t like coming up to the lake as often in the winter because there’s nothing to do? Are you serious? What, exactly, is there to do in the suburbs during winter that somehow trumps the Lake Geneva things to do? You have movie theaters? Big deal, so do we. You have a mall? So what? We have some shops.  What you don’t have is a handful of ski hills, a giant frozen lake to skate on and snowshoe over and cross country ski atop. You also don’t have all of these bald eagles. Come to the lake this winter. Make a fire. Burn it all day. Make some soup. Be domestic. Stop needing something to do so often. Just be, and be at the lake. The meter is running on your lake house expenses, whether you’re here or not. It’s running a bit faster now, too, now that you’re not going to leave your heat at 55.

Go Kart Track

Go Kart Track

You’ve likely already read the article. Lake Geneva Mansions Are Having A Year Crain’s likes to talk about Lake Geneva, but only sometimes. That’s because the Crain family is from Michigan, and so they love Michigan, in the way that some people love their dog even though the dog smells and has bad teeth and fur that’s coarse and smeared with whatever that is it rolled around in last night. Michigan is the favorite, and so I appreciated the time that Dennis Rodkin spent with me discussing the state of the Lake Geneva market. Dennis is the real estate writer for Crain’s, and he couldn’t help but take notice of our robust upper bracket market.  Our market that printed three sales over $5MM this month. Our market that printed six sales over $3.9MM since June. And if he was going to write about this market, he was going to talk to the agent who sold five of those six lakefronts. That’s why we spoke, that’s why the story was written.

But the strength of the market and the three heavy sales this month were just the fluff in the article. The real buried lede was this: If you want future liquidity in your high end Midwestern vacation home, you better buy it in Lake Geneva. That’s all the story needed to say.  Because when Dennis asked an agent from Michigan how their market was doing, he wasn’t regaled with stories of high prints and hefty price tags. He was, instead, met with silence. It seems that Harbor Country doesn’t do so well over $3.5MM. The agent who was questioned found it astounding that Michigan, for all its wonderful somethingness, could fall so far short of Lake Geneva.   When faced with the startling reality that Lake Geneva attracts the wealthy in a way that Michigan can only dream of, she resorted to name calling. But, but, their lake looks like a go-kart-track! This was all she could muster.

And so today, I bring you some snapshots of our go-kart track operations.  For instance, here is a picture of two of our karts.   These are the upper end models that you can only rent if you’re a scion of Chicago business, with a giant building and stadiums named after you, or if you’re a entrepreneur with a go-kart-track-record of immeasurable success:

hinckley

 

Here is a picture of one of our go-kart-track-clubhouses. Coincidentally, I sold this one in September for $9,950,000. In Harbor Country, that number is better known as “four or five of our nicest homes, combined”.

 

Lake Geneva Lakefront Estate

 

Our go-kart-track is unique because we get to observe sunset,  but we also get to observe something else that’s super rare in Harbor Country. Sunrises over water. This picture was snapped on our track during a morning ski session:

 

Geneva Ski

 

The pic below I took after a sunset track run aboard a sailboat. The interesting thing to note here is that we allow our karts to be stored on site, not in a harbor. Want to race right from your own pier? Our track allows this.

 

2016-sail

 

Speaking of piers, this is what they look like. They aren’t docks. When you join our track, you get your own pier. To stand on. To tie karts to. To sunbathe on. To swim from. No sand in your hair here, no dunes to swallow you alive.

 

2016-piers

 

In summary, our track is nice. It’s great for swimming in and racing over. It’s great for sailing and for fishing and for boating and for swimming without fear of a riptide. It’s also wonderful if you ever want liquidity in your vacation home purchase, because unlike Harbor Country, we can actually sell homes for more than $3.5MM. Here’s an aerial view of a small section of track, in case you were considering a whip around the course.

Matt Mason Photography

Aerial Photo courtesy Matt Mason Photography.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving

I’ve written it often. So often, in fact, that it probably doesn’t seem like I’ve written it at all. It’s about perspective, this life of ours. It’s about perspective gained and lost, both usually on the same day, in the same moment, the same circumstance. I admit I lose perspective on a daily basis, and that admission might be the most important admission anyone could ever make. Aside from repentance, I suppose. But perception is the thing that matters most, and the problem with a Lake Geneva real estate focused life is that perspective is easily and often lost.

I saw a young child yesterday, handicapped in a most horrific way. I couldn’t tell how old the girl was, perhaps four, maybe six, but she was handicapped and unable to enjoy anything. Something happened when she was a baby, something terrible, and the consequences of whatever that was have become her life. She will never be dropped off for school, she will never be yelled at for fighting with her brother. Her parents will never feel immeasurable pride when she makes a winning shot in a basketball game she’ll never play.  By her side was her mother, but not her birth mother. The mother who adopted her, the mother who knew full well what she was signing up for. A lifetime as a caregiver to a child who could never repay the favor.

I bought a new chainsaw yesterday. It’s a really great chainsaw. I bought it because my old chainsaw broke, and who could live for so long without a properly functioning, high CC chainsaw? I bought the saw and drove it home and placed it inside the cargo bed of my new Gator. I looked at the set up with tremendous pride. That’s my life. That’s my pathetic, insignificant life. A shiny plastic chainsaw brought me joy, and I hadn’t even yet pulled it to a roaring start.

Today, there’s another closing. Another event to spoil me with rewards that I don’t feel I’ve really earned. Another day where I can focus on the whims of the wealthy, and then buy myself a toy as a treat. What a terrible cycle to be caught up in. What a terrible thing to not see the immeasurable blessings in a life that has been more full than empty. A life that has every chance to be whatever I’d like it to be. A life that finds my wife and children contented and safe, a life where the sacrifices are measured in CCs on a chainsaw. Today, let’s be thankful. Tomorrow, too. Let’s be thankful that we live charmed lives, even when we think they’re anything but. Let’s be thankful that real people, people better than us, adopt children who wouldn’t otherwise be loved. Let’s be thankful for our particular brand of trouble, knowing it’s really nothing at all.

Small

Small

When I first drove to the Driftless, I didn’t know what it was, or where it was, or anything else about it. I knew only what I had been told, which was little, except there were streams and in those streams there were trout. I didn’t know how to catch those trout, how to tie tippet to leader, how to swing a streamer or high stick a nymph or splash a hopper. I didn’t know the names of the roads or the names of the streams. I would diligently mark my map to show where I had fished, upstream from X bridge, or downstream “past the pasture fence”. I was so innocent then, so unaware, everything was new. The towns were different; I hadn’t yet figured out they were mostly all the same. The valleys each individual, now one is as the other, except a few, those are still different, somehow.

The region first seemed so large, so present, so varied and so full. There were valleys to explore, hillsides that I hadn’t seen, towns and villages and old tobacco barns that hadn’t yet fallen over, pushed that way by the wind and the rain.  I would follow the map to one stream, fish it, and return home, content but unaware that the next valley over had a stream just like it. I would follow the map to the new spot, fish it, drive home. Each space was new, each valley found me as an explorer, plotting my course, making my notes.  Discovering things that I never knew to look for.

As time passed, the valleys became familiar. The unknown was known. I learned that Jimtown Road was different from Jimtown. I found the streams I like, the ones with rocks and gradient,  as I moved away from the streams filled with sand. I found that 11 inch dark trout with bright orange bellies from the rocky headwaters are superior to their silvery brethren who live downstream, down where the water slows and the sand chokes. I taught myself how to cast the fly, how to slink under barbed wire fences, how to never look a bull in the eye.  I became familiar with those things that were once new. The excitement of the discovery has worn off, and as I drove home the other day I thought of how small the Driftless really is. How each stream is different but the same. How one barn is like another barn, and one small town is the same as all of the others. The region, once a vast wilderness waiting to be explored, has been reduced to a few streams and a few valleys and a few places. The mystery is gone.

My jetski spent September on the shore station and in the water, October on the shore station and only once in the water, and November only on the shore station. The weather has been mild, delicious, yet the jetski sat idle. Winter could be coming soon, but how soon? How can we put away warmer weather things when the weather is still warm? How can we quit when the clock hasn’t even run out? And so the jetski waited, ignored, but with some hope that it might take one last whip. Tuesday was warm,  fifties warm. That’s not warm enough for a wet-suit-less jetski run for most, but for me it was. I had to take the ski out of the water, after all, and if not Tuesday, when?  I hatched a plan to drive the jetski from the shore station to the launch, where a waiting friend would help chauffeur my prized toy to its winter storage spot on the north wall of my attached garage.

The water wasn’t as cold as I expected it to be. My legs tingled only a bit as I stood knee deep and coaxed that two stroke engine to life. The key now was to stay upright, to not fall. This isn’t a waverunner that can be passively captained, this is a Superjet that requires balance and throttle. I set out, satisfied that the engine didn’t stall when I applied the gas, and skittered across the still waters of Williams Bay. The sun was up, the time 3:30 pm, the water cold and calm under my water sled.

A few fishermen were out soaking whatever they had tied to the end of their liens. I rode past them, content in my decision.  I circled to Cedar Point and back to the launch, weaving in and out of the buoys that mark summertime rules.  I zipped over the submerged milk jugs that have been tied to the buoy chains. The signs of winter were everywhere even as I let summer have one last fling. The lake, it seemed to me, is the thing that I have known for the longest. I’ve known it since birth, I’ve been on it and in it and around it nearly every day for my entire life. And yet, on that jetski in the middle of November, I realized I never tire of it. I never find it too familiar. I never think I know it enough to make it feel small. It’s a big lake, after all, bigger than an entire region, bigger than anything else I’ve ever known.

W

W

My older brother had, and likely has to this day, the largest Mark Grace baseball card collection ever assembled. I believed the Cubs when they said Jerome Walton was the next greatest thing.  That Shawon Dunston was everything. That Ryne Sandberg was the best second baseman, ever.  That Vance Law needed those glasses. I was too young to know the defeat of 1984. I was too naive to know the playoffs of 1998 weren’t going anywhere. I was too excitable in 2003 and bitter in 2007 and 2008.

I met Harry Caray in the parking lot of Harpoon Willies. He autographed my egg roll receipt from Doc’s and then I promptly lost it. I went to some Cubs games as a kid, but perhaps two, because my dad only took us when someone gave him the tickets. He acted like tickets were only available to the people who knew how to get them, that the tickets were more expensive than anything else. That the tickets were unobtainable for people from Williams Bay. It turns out, the tickets were about $12 and as a huge surprise, the only thing that kept us from summer Cubs games was my fathers unwavering devotion to cheapness, the condition that plagues him to this day and is, at this point, terminal.

I took my son to Cubs games, lots of them. But he was too young to care, to fidgety to watch. We’d leave by the 7th and listen to Santo and Hughes call the win, or more likely, call the loss. I sat in the bleachers, dejected, as the Dodgers swept us from the 2008 playoffs. I sat in the upper deck box feeling similarly defected, while the Dodgers whipped us in game two of the NLCS. I stayed away from the World Series because I couldn’t take the stress, especially given the added stress of the financial commitment. I stayed home and watched.

Game 7, I presume, followed a similar path for most fans. I felt terrific up 5-1, feeling that this was indeed inevitable. Feeling as though I might be let down by a win. Feeling as though I’ve spent 38 years waiting for this, and it would feel strange to wait no longer. At 6-3, I felt less secure, less sure, but still confident. At 6-6 I figured it wasn’t a big deal to lose, because I was still young and this team would be back. It would feel good to languish for a while longer since that’s what I’ve known the longest.  There’s something about waiting till next year, because it’s constant and steady, it’s always there, always something to think about and look forward to.  There was comfort in all that failure. At 8-6 I felt certain again, and at 8-7 I thought of the crushing defeat that was brewing and determined that I was already over it. Next year would be fine. I hadn’t really waited that long, after all.

I can’t say that I cried when they won, because I didn’t. I didn’t think about my dead grandpa who famously was in line at the trough when Andre Dawson hit the only homer during that game we were given free tickets to sometime in the late 1980s. I didn’t regret turning my back on this team when after they tore my heart out in 2003/7/8, I just smiled and decided that it was time. Time, indeed.

 

Gloom

Gloom

Both of my grandmothers are now dead. They’ve both been dead for a while. My Grandma May didn’t complain about much, or if she did she didn’t see fit to complain to her grandson. My Grandma Curry on the other hand, she’d complain about anything to anyone. No friend or stranger was safe.  She’d complain about her diverticulitis, often. If something served for dinner looked good but she couldn’t eat it, the diverticulitis was to blame. She was feeling fine, except the diverticulitis. She had a swollen arm as a result of a long ago mastectomy, for which she wore a compression sleeve, like Allen Iverson.  She would complain about her arm as she swiped at the hanging excess. Her fat arm, she’d say. Everything is fine except for this fat arm and the diverticulitis. And the clouds.

She was also pleasant, happy often, happy for several things but mostly, and most audibly, happy for the sunshine. She loved the sunshine. Her diverticulitis could be acting afoul and her fat arm could be swollen and her compression sleeve pinching, but if the sun were shining then things were just fine. Winter days as cold as they can be were never a concern if the sun was shining. Summer days, no matter how hot, no matter how humid, if sunny they were enthusiastically embraced. On the other hand, if the diverticulitis was in momentary remission and her fat arm wasn’t swollen and her compression sleeve was resting comfortably on the dresser top, and these conditions were accompanied by cloudy skies, then a “how are you, grandma?” was met with a routine and orchestrated, “well, I’m okay, I just wish the sun would come out”. You cannot fault an old woman for liking the sun.

Which means I will give my dead grandmother a pass for hanging her mood on the condition of the sky, but I will not give anyone else a pass. Sunday was a mostly gloomy day at the lake. It was gloomy in the morning and it was misting a bit in the afternoon, and later, after it cracked a tease of sun for a few moments , it was gloomy again. The sun set mostly gloomy, without show or reflection. Night fell and late into the night while we hoped the Cubs would find some conviction, it was gloomy even as our moods lifted. Yes, Sunday was like that, as were days earlier in the week, and days the week before, and this week, though it looks as though it might be sunny more than not, it’ll be gloomy at times and I, for one, love it.

I don’t love the gloom much in July, as July is for sun and for blues and for pastel clothing and deep green trees. But now, at this late date, the fields have gone from green to gold and now to brown and tan, gray and silver.  Life is fading from these fields and from these trees, and while the show will go on for several more weeks, I don’t feel the need to cling to the brightness of mid summer or the intrigue of mid fall. Now I only wish for the quiet gloom of November. I recognize I’m relatively alone in this opinion.

But why should I be? Why should we be as my grandmother and live only for the sunny days? What’s so wrong about a gloomy Sunday where the fire is flickering and the curtains are drawn? What’s so difficult about the gray skies and the brown fields and the way an 8 point buck cruises through the tall, dull grass? Why must we complain so much about the transition? After all, it’s the transition that keeps us sharp. It’s the in between days filled with clouds and drizzle that harden us to the coming cold. It’s the gloom of November that makes the light of summer matter.  So this week and next month,  when the gloom returns, just embrace it and be thankful that your fat arm hasn’t swelled and your diverticulitis isn’t acting up.

 

Habits

Habits

The magazines are stacked in my den, stacked in my living room, stacked in my office. Some, still, are pushed under the back seats of my cars, those magazines that never made it from mailbox to the inside stacks. These aren’t just fly fishing magazines. Those are there, of course, the ones that I’ve written for and the ones that I haven’t, but it’s not only sporting magazines. It’s the Atlantic and the New Yorker,  it’s home magazines like Dwell and Veranda. It’s any magazine that I thought I might like, because the regular price was $99 but my Preferred Saver’s Rate was just $10.99. $18.99 for two years. And so I fill out the card and the magazines come and then I stack them so that I might read them sometime. I rarely do, but at one point I did, and so now I accumulate for that time the feeling returns.

I bought a white boat with an outboard engine that was never able to shake its drinking and smoking habits. It was a fine boat, it is a fine boat, and for those first few summers I spent so much time on that boat. I would take my son out and we’d fish together, to this day his eyes never shining brighter than when his rod is bent over with a fish tugging at the other end of the line. My daughter and I would go for rides, and she’d hang from the side of the t-top and sign along to the radio, the setting sun reflecting softly off of her smiling face. What a great boat that was, and what great times those were. The boat didn’t make it out of my driveway this year, because my schedule has been too busy, my interests elsewhere. Though today I am filled with regret after thinking of how my children loved those days.

I traded the boat interest for a fly fishing interest, and spent more time wading up skinny Wisconsin creeks than captaining that center console. I fished and I fished,  bragging about the catch, the size and the quantity, reliving the way a trout makes you feel when it sips a seam-riding Caddis.  This is the hobby that led me to buy land, to build new, to attempt to find a place that would be solely mine. Not somewhere I have to share with work,  somewhere I can live uninterrupted by the less important things.  This summer, I didn’t fly fish very much. I wanted to, but I didn’t. And when I did,  my heart wasn’t in it.

My interests tend to run in this pattern. The introduction is a challenge where adequacy is the only initial goal. Then, proficiency and practice, the latter begetting the former, but the pattern continuing, pacing, moving this hobby along from something new to something familiar. The problem is, once this new thing becomes familiar, I find the challenge of success less motivating, and I find that there  must be something else I should try instead. I worry about this pattern in my life. I worry that the things I enjoy now will become the things I put away tomorrow.

But there is, in spite of all of these examples to the contrary, one thing that I continue to look forward to, that continues to delight. It’s a fire on an October night, with the sun lighting up the adjacent corn field and the trees beyond, the first few rolls of smoke from an oak fire. I will never get tired of that, no matter what else I move into and from. I’m careful to not light that fire too early, not on the first cool night of September, and not at the first cool night of October. The first fire is best left for a night that brings with it the chance of frost, because to start a fire too early in the fall is to cheapen it, to steal from it. So the fire is now lit, the ashes this morning smoldering, the first step outside so crisp, so still, with the smell of one of my favorite things still hanging in the air.

 

Photo by Matt Mason Photography, Lake Geneva. 
Lake Geneva Fall Colors

Lake Geneva Fall Colors

I visited Chicago on Sunday to watch the Cubs do what the Cubs have done best for the entirety of my life: lose.  But before they lost and before I drove home and before I found my bed at 1 am, I drove down a Lincoln Park street to meet up with the client who witnessed the inept bats with me. The street was unlike other streets, as it was barely fall on the route I took to his house. But when I turned onto his street it was instant fall. Leaves littered the sidewalk and the covered the curb. The storm drains were clogged with yellow and orange leaves. It was fall, immediately and undeniably, fall.  This morning, I drove to Stone Manor as I prepare to close on that large sale next month, and I was struck by fall. It’s not becoming fall, it’s not going to be fall, it didn’t used to be fall, it’s just fall, and it’s right now and it’s glorious.

Early fall is easily mistaken for summer. Late fall  looks like winter, because winter is just late fall with some snow. But the middle of fall in Wisconsin is something that can’t be missed. It shouldn’t be missed. And it can’t be taken in on one street in Lincoln Park, or by gazing up to three maple trees in Oz Park as they turn brilliant and bright.  It isn’t even all of Wisconsin where this spectacle can be measured. I’m building that fishing cabin in the Western part of this state, and while the hills are nice the fall there is no spectacle at all. It’s just a dulling and a browning that follows a brief yellowing. They have lots of trees there, all sorts and sizes and densities, but Maples are not as common there as they are here. It’s the Maple that makes fall in Lake Geneva.  That’s because I hate to break it to you, but we have all the Maples.

I write today to pull away the mystery of fall. When should you visit? When is peak fall? Is it coming soon? Is it later, like next Thursday? Or is it right smack exactly tomorrow?  Of course it’s tomorrow. Tomorrow is the peak. Not early tomorrow, but late tomorrow, say, 3:30 pm. That’s peak fall at Lake Geneva, and you should be here for it.  I generally dislike the tour boats on Geneva. I dislike the Lady of Lake, because that stupid paddle wheel doesn’t turn at the same rate as the boat is traveling. The wheel is paddling at 3 miles per hour while the boat cruises at 10. I’m no engineer, but this strikes me as something amiss. And that boat is only outdone in its foolishness by that Mississippi river boat looking thing that looks as though it might tip over at any time. The wheel on that boat moves even slower, looking even more ridiculous, as that wheel pushes at 1 MPH while that awkward boat shoves through the water at 10 MPH. I dislike those boats immensely. But if there’s a time to jump aboard and play tourist, it’s during peak fall, because your boat might already be put away in its winter home on account of you being a quitter.

If you can’t come up this Thursday at 3:30 pm for the peak of fall, then come up this weekend. It’ll be the next best thing. The winds have calmed, and hopefully they’ll stay calm for a few more days so that we might enjoy this fall spectacle. Don’t bother driving to some other place, like  Michigan (Michstakegan), or Galena (absurd), or Door County (they’re closed), just drive here. Because we’re going to peak this weekend and we have all the maples. We also have incredible houses to look at and buy, and we have espresso and pumpkins and apples.   Please don’t sit in the city this weekend and pretend everything is okay. It isn’t. It’s never okay. Come to Wisconsin, specifically to Lake Geneva, because the fall we wait all year for is happening this weekend. If you stay home, you’re going to miss it, and that’s unacceptable.

Temptation

Temptation

As I understand it, Door County is a place where you go because you want to eat cherries while spending the better part of a full day searching for a place that will serve you a proper espresso.  Door County is also a place where lake access doesn’t mean the same thing that it means here. That’s because the lake isn’t really a lake at all, rather it’s an inland ocean, which is beautiful to look at but also mostly unusable for the typical weekend warrior. The lake is different, the market is different, the cherries are good, the espresso absent. This is all you need to know about Door County.  You’re welcome.

The market here is very unique, as lake access or lake rights really means something. For years I’ve heard sellers explain to me the reasons that lake rights don’t matter. Coincidentally, the only sellers that undertake this attempted explanation are those that own homes that lack the attribute. They’ll opine how lake access isn’t important because of beaches, and because of launches, and because of parks and restaurants. They’ll work to convince me that they’re right, all the while we both know they’re wrong.

That’s because no amount of dialogue, no matter how impassioned, can change generations of market behavior. The market expects lake access, it wants lake access, and when someone emails me this week and wants to buy a vacation home at Lake Geneva, they’re probably going to ask me about lake access. Once they ask me, I’m going to tell them that they need it. In doing so, I’m furthering the generational standard, leaving very little room for wavering. If you’re looking Lake Geneva, you should be looking lake access.

When the market was hot, buyers moved away from this standard. They’d buy homes on Anystreet, Williams Bay, because of the beach and the launch and the restaurants. They’d buy a home on Oakwood Street because it’s a nice enough street, and they could pay $180k for a house that would have cost $319k in Cedar Point Park. I understand the economics of a non-lake access purchase, I really do, which is why there should be a discount paid for homes that are in otherwise boring locations that lack lake access. If you’re contemplating a vacation home purchase here, your vacation home should be surrounded by other vacation homes. It’s really that simple.

Now that the market is warmer again, buyers are returning to their old discount-seeking ways. The house in Cedar Point is $289k now, and the house on Oakwood is still $180k, so Oakwood wins. If that’s all your budget will allow, I completely and entirely understand the reason you’d entertain Oakwood. I honestly do. But if the budget allows for the $289k, please go that route. Not because I want your Realtor, who should actually be me, to make more money, but because I want your future appreciation tied to the vacation home market, not to the primary market.

There are exceptions to this rule of mine. Unique homes in special locations, those get a pass. Unique lots- oversized or featuring some sort of special view- I’ll let those slide as well. But if we’re buying a normal house on a normal in-town street, let’s first exhaust our lake access options.  Because once you buy that non-lake access house in town you’re pretty much going to spend every day from then on wishing you had a private association pier to hang out at. And if you’re not going to have a private association pier to hang out at, you might as well keep driving for another day and end up in Door County. It’s BYOEspresso, just so you know.

 

PS. I was at the Cub game last night, which means it is likely my fault that they lost. 

Steady

Steady

Anxiety is a common affliction in the real estate world. Those not living in this world cannot fathom what might be so difficult about making buckets full of money while doing very little actual work. Those in the industry, and those who were driven from the industry from the anxiety, know this business to be different. My brother works in a factory of sorts. He sits somewhere and punches in some orders onto a computer screen, and then a robot does those things that he’s told it to do. It’s a nice thing to have the robot do that work, and when he drives home at night be doesn’t wonder about what might happen if the robot doesn’t work tomorrow. He doesn’t worry that the CFO just found out the new orders from that large new company have been canceled. He just gets up early and goes to work the next morning and sits on his chair and punches in the commands that the robot will follow. The anxiety of real estate is different, and it’s more intense and more troubling than anyone who hasn’t sat in my particular chair could understand.

But this particular chair does not own me, and so I sit in it for a while in the morning and then again for a bit in the afternoon. I drive around the lake, I drive down this road and down your road. I look at houses and I look at land and I look at views and I look for what it is that you’re hoping I might find. That traveling seat is far more interesting than this creaky seat that I pull up to this long desk in the morning. That moving seat helps with the stress of a day, and that seat gives me a glimpse of the lake that I’ve seen nearly every day for the entirety of my life.

Admittedly, there are views of this lake that I prefer over others. A fall view from the tip of Cedar Point, where Circle Parkway makes its most pronounced curve, that view to the West through the fall trees as they drop a storm of yellow and orange leaves; now that’s a view. It’s different up there. The lake looks different from that height, like something you can see but can’t touch, like something on a horizon that you’ll never catch. You can chase it from up there, and watch the waves from above, where the rise and fall isn’t visible but for the foamy white of the break.

Downtown Lake Geneva on an October Tuesday must look different in the minds and imaginations of the summer visitors, those who fill up on summer over a few weekends and then look back to their desks and not to the water again until the next June. But I see downtown on a Tuesday in October I know it looks like it should, I know it looks like July with a brighter leaves. I know the breeze blows the same off the lake but it’s cooling now, not warming, and I know the outdoor diners are still dining and they’re still toasting to this place, to this scene, to that view.

In the summer when it storms, I can’t know the severity or the angle of the storm until I see it from the shore, over that lake. I know then where it’s coming from, where the wind is blowing, and how bad it might be. I know the clouds and the way they twist and push and form those summer shelves. I can see rain and clouds from these office windows, and from the windows of my house, but I can’t see the detail until I’m looking over the water. It’s impossible to tell just what’s going on without that view.

Today, I see the leaves on the trees across the street, and I see the leaves yellowing and falling, more and more each day.  Because of this I know it’s fall, and I know the colors are starting, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I won’t be able to know just how widespread these colors are until I’m driving through Williams Bay, past that launch and I look to the south and the east and the west.  Fall can sneak up on you, but not when you’re watching the colors change across the lake. It’s obvious then, and when I saw the Snake Road foliage from Big Foot Beach yesterday I knew that fall was no longer waiting. It’s here, and it’s bright and the colors are orange and yellow and red. I know this now because I saw it across that lake. In a life filled with twists and turns and the anxiety that this morning chair brings, that lake and those views are always there and they’re always steady and they will always catch my eye.

Car Shopping

Car Shopping

I need a new car. My car is older now, though if you saw it just after a washing and you were standing some slight distance from it you’d be forgiven for thinking that I have a very nice car. It looks nice in photos, that’s for sure. But when I turn the wheel the car clicks, which is a sound that I haven’t had a car make since I was 17 and my car was that gray Saab. That car clicked around corners as well, but things were different then so the clicking didn’t matter because when I turned the radio up the clicking stopped. My car clicks and I could have the click fixed, but it seems like the car is prepared to let something else start clicking or thumping or chirping once I fix the current click. That lake house you looked at has an ugly kitchen and the guest bedrooms are so small.

My car has been my car for several years, for long enough that it seems like I could use a newer one. I can’t buy a new one, because I don’t have that in me. I don’t have the stomach for new car prices, for the stickers in the windows, for the salesmen that think there’s nothing difficult about buying a new car for elevated sums of money. I don’t like the snack bars, the magazines, the modern coffee tables. I don’t like the way the deal doesn’t really start until you sit at the little formica desk and the salesman starts punching in the numbers, picking through the keyboard with his index fingers until he finds the right combination of numbers and letters. I don’t like it when he turns the screen to face me and the numbers look nothing like they did in the window. That lake house is expensive, because taxes and dues and sprinkler systems.

There are lots of cars on that lot, not just the ones in the showroom that look so wonderfully shiny. Years ago, I had a customer drive to a showing in a very white luxury sedan. The car was beautiful, but it was extremely white, and it had rained earlier that day and so his car was white with scatters of road dirt, like an abstract painting that I wouldn’t understand. We talked for a while about his white car, and after some time he admitted that he shouldn’t have bought a white sedan. In fact, he didn’t know why he’d ever buy a white sedan, except that he then resigned himself to the reason. It just looked stunning under those showroom lights. Indeed it must have, but in that driveway on that day that it had rained it just looked like a white car that needed to be washed. The lake house on a sunny summer afternoon when the water shimmered blue and the hydrangeas bloomed white couldn’t have looked more perfect if it tried.

There are cars to buy, but the car must be heavy because I’d like to gain the tax advantage from that heavier car. Needing a heavy car means the choices are limited, because a lighter car might be nice and it will treat tires with more respect but it won’t get me that deduction. Heavy cars are numerous, but I’ve been down the road of a fancy car and I see how the fancy cars wear after some time. That is to say they wear terribly, no matter what engineers we claim to be the best, no matter which country of origin has the finest craftsman, cars are cars and they break. When the expensive ones break because your warranty recently ran out, it no longer matters how nice the car looks after a wash, when the sun is low and the lights are on. So I’m on the hunt for a reasonably nice car that’s heavy, but not one that’s so nice that it’s going to break down and leave me on the side of some country road wishing for a car that favored function over form. You can find a lake house of superior style a long ways from the lake, or you can find one that’s sturdy and near, even if it isn’t all that sexy.

I’m looking for something that will get me from A to B, and won’t break somewhere between the span. But as I look I realize I don’t like cars anymore, or rather I have the same problem that I’ve always had of not liking the cars that I can afford, or liking cars that know I shouldn’t own. I should buy something, and soon, because winter is coming and the clicking won’t stop just because it’s cold. The clicking might even get worse, since it could progress from a click to a dreaded thump. Today I’ll think a bit about this process and about what I should do, and I’ll think about how my car search is like your lake house search, and how we’re both just trying to accomplish something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.

October Drive

October Drive

The Saab 900 was gunmetal gray. The roads were straight, the path clear. North. That’s all I needed to do, bearing East when possible, but mostly just North. The Saab had a top speed that I never discovered. The rattle and wobble at 70 made sure that the higher numbers on the speedometer wouldn’t be touched. The roads were gray, the sky gray, the trees browned and grayed, the clouds gray. The lights dim, everywhere dim. The lake, that big lake to the East was gray, the water and the shore and the clouds and the space between, gray. It was late fall, I was 18 and I drove into the night.

On a typical trip to some other place, the route is dark and confusing and the turns many  but the destination, once it comes into view, is clear and bright, welcoming a weary traveler to the place where he intended to be. The traveler finds his destination and the troubles of the trip are forgotten, the wrong turns now merely a laughable memory because the journey is complete and the place he finds himself is perfect.  Instead, I drove the tired hatchback down slippery roads, soaked with rain and trampled leaves that had been ground into a paste on these county roads. I drove not knowing where I was going, not knowing what I was searching for.  The Pinkerton album my misfitted soundtrack.

A Vacancy sign was all I needed to see, and after some time I had been seeing nothing but. Vacancy, they’d all say, the NO distinctly quiet and dark, like the woods on these roads and the rain that fell and the paste that clung to my balding tires. The I didn’t want to commit to any particular lodging option until I had driven past many of them, each one darker and dimmer and more unwelcoming than the last. After some time of this I decided that one was as good as another, and I pulled in to a small cabin that looked like a house, with a car out front and a lamp lighting the window. The pull chain light flashed Vacancy.

The older woman was kind enough, and I exchanged some money for a key and a map to the cabin that would be home for as long as I decided it should be. If it was dark on the road, and dark in front of the cabin office, then it was positively pitch but the time I found my way down the leaf soaked path to the cabin. I don’t remember if the cabin had a name, like the  Chipmunk House, or if it just had a number, like Cabin 3, or a letter, like B. I found the cabin and went inside, the rain intensifying, the darkness finding its way darker still.

It wasn’t scary in the cabin, but it wasn’t not scary, either.  It smelled like wet dust, like any cabin would smell after the first rain of spring, after a long time of sitting empty over a long, cold winter. But this was fall, not winter, and so it smelled anyway and I left my bag on the bed and drove towards town to find something to eat. The town greeted me in the same manner as the county did, in the same way as the cabin office did, in the same way that the cabin did. It was dark in town,  a few cars offering the only movement, the only thing open a small gas station with two pumps, pay inside, cash only. I bought a cardboard wrapped pizza, first estimating its size to determine if it would fit inside the narrow oven at the cabin. A two liter of pop rounded out the order. The man at the register looked at me like any man at any register has ever looked at a single traveler who appears lost and confused, whose clothes and hair were soaked from the dark rain, who looked as though he didn’t belong there.

I couldn’t just drive back to the cabin at this point, because the TV was small and the pizza would only offer a few minutes of distraction, and so I drove down to the shore to look at the water. That’s why I was there, after all, to fish for the salmon that should have been running in such great numbers that even me, a kid from another place who drove there only on a whim, with some cash and a new CD and a wobbly gunmetal gray car. I pulled up to the harbor, to look out between the swipes of the wipers, to see the water whipped and the waves crashing. There were no fishermen there. Just me, in my car with my pizza and a fishing pole. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but this wasn’t it. This looked intimidating, unappealing, difficult. I ate the pizza on my bed and tried to ignore the wind that felt like it might knock the cabin down and bury me in a pile of dusty rubble in a county where I shouldn’t have been.

The next day, the water was high, the sky gray, the town as empty as it was the night before. I kicked some leaves down the sidewalk in town, looking like a lost tourist who showed up the day after everyone else left. The restaurants had signs, THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT YEAR, even though I knew they didn’t mean it.  If the year was so great there would have been some money left over to fix the awning that was tearing at both ends, mildewing so heavily that I wasn’t sure what color, exactly, the fabric was supposed to be. The river that I wanted to fish was wide and muddy. Even if there had been fish in it I wouldn’t have been able to catch them, and since I didn’t see them it didn’t make any sense to me to fish for something I wasn’t sure existed. I had missed the run and I had missed their fall, I figured, and that’s why no one was here. I shuffled through town for the remainder of that day and drove home before the night fell.  It was October and I had missed what I had driven so far to find.

Today, it’s bright and the leaves are green, except the few that are yellowing and the others that are turning to red. Mostly, it’s still summer here, even though the temperature disagrees. It’s early enough that you still have time. You won’t miss fall here if you visit this month, but if you show up later in the month I assure you the lights will still be on. We’ll still be here, because it’s Lake Geneva and we don’t look at October as the end of anything. It’s just the start of another season, and like all of the other seasons, it’s one that should find you here.

Geneva Lakes Antique Boat Show

Geneva Lakes Antique Boat Show

The thing about September is that it can rain a lot. When it rains in September that’s not welcome, no matter who you are. Had I planted those new trees in my back yard I’d be happy for the rain. But I didn’t plant those new trees because I am waiting for October, for the month when the weather should be changing and with the change, rain. The farmers are happy for rain in June even when the lakeside revelers are unhappy with it. The corn needs rain, beans, too, and so the farmers wish for and the revelers wish against. In September, the farmers crave dry weather so their crops can be harvested, and the revelers crave those last few dry days of summer so that they might swim once more. Today it’s raining and yesterday it rained and this weekend it might rain. No matter, it’s boat show weekend and shows, as we know, must go on.

Here’s the thing about the Geneva Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Show: It’s something you should do, but it’s not something you’ll necessarily love doing. It’s a cool show because it’s here and we’re here and you’ll like the boats and the scene is fun, but it really is a show about old wood boats. I love old wood boats. I always have and I always will. But old wood boats are sort of like shoes. It’s neat to have a few pairs, but if you have 200 pairs and you look at them all at once they just start to look like a bunch of shoes. There are newer shoes that look like old shoes, and there are old shoes, and there will be some shoes that you’ve never seen before. But at the end of that day, and at the end of this weekend, these shoes are our boats, and our boats are your shoes.

That’s not to say this isn’t a good weekend to be at the lake, because every weekend is a good weekend to be at the lake, but it is to say I don’t want you coming to the boat show and expecting to be remarkably entertained. There will be some music, some food, lots of boats, and trinkets of boat-related interest offered for sale. Some old guy will sit by his boat, the one that you don’t care much for, and you’ll feel somewhat obliged to walk down his small pier wing and take a look at his boat. By then you’ll have already seen a hundred or so boats, but you won’t be able to ignore this man’s boat because you know he entered the boat in the show because he loves his boat. You feel like you should too, so walk down the pier and look at his boat and nod like you appreciate what it is that he has there. This is proper boat show etiquette.

I always feel sad for certain boats in the show, those boats that travel from Minnesota or Michigan or Iowa or Ohio to be here. Those boats spend their lives toiling in some dirty-water-lake in some other state and for just one weekend a year they get to ply our waters. They get to see how the other half lives, and for these boats this weekend is everything. They’ll arrive today and some tomorrow and they’ll push into our water and they’ll frolic for a few days. They’ll float and their hull will soak in the goodness that is Geneva Lake and then, without much ado, they’ll be dragged from the lake, kicking and screaming, snorting and huffing, and they’ll be towed, against their will, back to the lake from whence they came. It’s a good weekend for us, but a sad weekend for these out of state boats.

Come up this weekend, indulge the boats and the scene. If the weather cooperates it will be a perfect lakeside weekend. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, as the forecast threatens, it’ll still be a nice weekend. What would you be doing instead, hanging out at a mall or standing in line for brunch?  Hopefully I’ll see you at the lake this weekend.

Walworth County Fair

There are very few reasons to ever go to Elkhorn. Even Elkhorn knows this. As a child, I never went to Elkhorn. As an adult, I go even less. It’s a town I usually skirt around, whether it’s when traveling from Williams Bay to the Milwaukee area, or if I’m traveling from Williams Bay to the Kettle Moraine area. No matter the cost, I tend to make a path that avoids Elkhorn. I have nothing against Elkhorn, it’s just that it’s Elkhorn and I’m from Williams Bay and if you grew up in Williams Bay you’d feel the same way. Elkhorn, mostly good for absolutely nothing.

But this is unfair, because there are a few reasons to visit Elkhorn. One of those reasons starts today: The Walworth County Fair. I went to this fair a few times when I was a kid, but a few times might be too generous. Maybe twice. As a full blown adult, I’ve gone approximately the same number of times. The fair smells of farm animals and it’s usually hot and always humid and when farm animals are doused in heat and washed in humidity, things smell less than ideal. They smell like your favorite inland lake, assuming your favorite inland lake is not Geneva Lake, which, if that were the case, it seems odd that you’d be reading this blog, unless you thrive on public scorn.

The fair starts today and it’s a good thing. It might smell a bit, and I might not go, but it’s still fun and it’s still a fair and if you’ve ever felt fondness towards any fair in any town, then this fair in this town will be worth attending. The fair organizers have high hopes that this year will be the first year since 2010 that the effort breaks even, but that’s not going to be the case if you stay at home like I will. So you should go to the fair this weekend, this Labor Day Weekend, and enjoy it. Eat some fried things and enjoy yourself. Let me know how it goes.

Later in September you’ll find another reason to visit Elkhorn, so if you miss this weekend don’t feel too terrible about it. Four times a year the fairgrounds host a massive flea market. It’s not just sort of a huge flea market, it’s the world’s largest flea market (not really). It’s huge and it’s fun and the people from Camp Wandawega will be there before you and they’ll buy all the cool stuffed raccoons and wool blankets, but still, there will be some items for you to buy. Like old water skis made of wood, people love those. Also there will be old brackets from old houses, people also love those. And there will be miscellaneous bits of old fishing equipment, and someone will have a Zebco rod and reel combo, purchased from Prange Way in 1987 and it’ll be in the original packaging.

This flea market is September 25th, and you should seriously go. I might be there, but only if my wife makes me go. If she goes without me, I’ll ask her politely to only spend $100, or maybe I’ll say $60, I can’t be sure. Then she’ll scoff as if you can buy anything at an antique flea market for less than that, even though I’ve been there and I know the Zebco set is only $15, OBO.

I Know What You Did Last Summer

I Know What You Did Last Summer

I think we know each other well enough that we can cut through all the nuance. It’s time we had an honest discussion about me, about you, and about what it is that we’re doing here. I’m here because I get to be, because I have to be, but because I want to be. I’m here for those reasons, and many more. I’m here because it’s what I know, it’s what I love, and it’s what I prefer. I like this place more than the other places. I’m here because I’ve always been here. But this isn’t about me, so in that, I’ve lied to you. This isn’t the first time I’ve lied to you, I’ve lied before. Like once when I said I was going on vacation for a week but I was really only gone for 48 hours because I’m a slave to this keyboard, to this desk, indeed to this place.  I apologize for the lies.

But why should I? Because this isn’t, as I’ve already mentioned, about me, it’s about you. It’s about August 26th and how late this is. It’s about the end of summer, because we all know what I’ve said a trillion times: September is still summer. Ah, but that’s another lie, because it isn’t. September is fall because when kids go back to school and the first fallen leaves get ground into the city sidewalks, that’s fall. It might feel like summer if you let it, but that’s the sensory part of September, not the emotional part. In fact, summer isn’t going to last through September, it isn’t going to appear sometime in October, for some of it or most of it or maybe none of it, because summer is already over. It’s August 26th and it’s not summer anymore. Anything I’ve ever said to the contrary is a lie.

I can tell it isn’t summer because my kids went swimming yesterday and so did my wife, with her ridiculous goggles, and then I played golf and I was sweating because it was still hot.  The sun was high, the haze summer-like, and when it was all said and done I thought that it was a nice summer day. But it isn’t summer anymore. The town was busy and the cars were everywhere, but they weren’t everywhere like they were two weeks ago, they were just some of the places that they were before. The lake was busy, but no it wasn’t, not at all. There were some boats, but hardly any. Lots, sure, but few when compared with before. The lake was quiet the town was empty and the sun was high and the water was warm but it was fall and not summer.

The leaves are green, which looks like summer, just like summer. Except now the leaves are dull, they’re dying. They look fine but they’re dying. Like me and like you, we might look fine, but we’re dying. All of us, dying. Just like the leaves and just like the empty stalls in front of the ice cream shops and just like the clothes rack at your local back-to-school-shopping-place, withering and emptying because it’s not at all summer, it’s fall. The dull leaves are dropping, they’re dropping because they’re dying and they’re dying because it’s not the middle of summer, it’s fall.  My cone flowers in front of this office window are beautiful, but that’s only if you look quickly. Look more closely and some are already dead, drying and offering up their seeds to the wrens and the other yellow birds that pick and pluck and leave the seed casings on my sidewalk. The squirrels are running across that sidewalk now, cheeks stuffed full to overflowing, because they know it’s fall and winter comes next and if they don’t pack enough nuts into their nests they’ll be like us and our leaves, dying.

So here we are, on this day when I finally admit to you what I know to be true. It’s August and it’s already fall. It feels of summer on my skin, but I’m far past the point in my life where I judge things based solely on how they feel. I imagine a skunk has soft fur. Delightfully soft fur. But I know that I won’t ever pet one, because my brain is smarter than my fingers. It feels like summer and I’m going to sweat today like it’s summer, but my brain knows what my eyes have seen. It’s fall, and it’s too late. If you were planning on doing something meaningful this summer you’ve already blown it. But Labor Day Weekend! Labor Day Weekend is for rookies.

It feels good to admit my lies to you. I no longer feel bound by them, I know longer feel that I need to tell you it’s still summer because we’re already agreed that it isn’t. The kids are in school and the ones that aren’t will soon be. You can swim off a pier this weekend and it’ll feel like summer, but when you dry off and sit on the pier you’ll look around and no longer view summer as something that’s happening around you, you’ll view it as something you were happy to have participated in. Unless you spent the summer in the city or the suburbs, busily tending to a summer of pools and shopping malls, then we all know the biggest lie today is the one you keep telling yourself: You had a great summer. No you didn’t, you blew it, and now it’s too late to fix your mistake.

Normalcy

Normalcy

The vacation is over. It wasn’t all week, it was just two days. Maybe three, if you count the last day. There were fish caught and steaks eaten. Devoured, really. When you fish all day and then you grill steaks at 11 pm over an open flame, there’s little decorum left once the temperature reaches medium. The weekend was for celebrating, 50 years of tolerable marriage between my mother and father, which is nice. And now, Monday morning, the guests have left and life has returned to normal. I love my normal life.

My children are young, but they’re becoming less so. My son is 13 and my daughter is 10, and they are growing and aging,  but it’s different from the way that I’m growing and aging. This morning, over the last breakfast, there was mention of my children and how they should be traveling. They should come to Colorado, the guests said, where there are mountains. There is fly fishing in those mountains, rocky creeks with huge trout. My son should experience that, because he needs to. He should travel, see the world, gain experiences. He should go to that place where my daughter can shop with her aunt, and my son can fish with his uncle. If only they’d go there, then they’d know just how great that other place really is.

But now that talk is over, because now they’re gone and we’re still here. We’re here because we love it here, because Wisconsin isn’t a place you end up on accident. It’s a place you get live if you’re lucky.

To Vacation

To Vacation

I have now, rather unfortunately, decided that I don’t know what it would be like to take a vacation. I don’t understand the concept, not in the least. In the other world, the corporate world with secretaries and board rooms and parking garages, I wonder what a vacation from that is like. Is it fun? Does it even exist? Or is it as I suspect, a constant juggle of work obligations and family pressures, even though the email response is set to vacation mode. I’m on vacation, it’ll say, but it won’t mean that. Because people have already sent the email by the time they receive the response, and then you’ve already read the email while pretending to be on vacation. Your response to their inquiry is unavoidable. This is vacation today, and it’s downright terrible.

Vacation from real estate business would be easy if one had no business to worry about. If an agent who seldom sells wishes to go away, that’s no big deal. Go away, and no one will care. But when you’re in the middle of deals at all times of all months, of all years, how does a vacation occur? Is it a vacation if you just take work and do it from another location? If that location has unreliable cell service and only a bit of internet access, is the vacation truly a vacation or is it a place where you have to struggle more even while accomplishing less? Why must we always be accomplishing something? When do we get to go somewhere for a bit and ignore all the rest?

I don’t think there is such a thing as a vacation anymore. I think there are moments, brief windows where we can rest, but in real estate that doesn’t mean a Sunday night and it doesn’t mean a Monday morning and so I’m left wondering what it does mean. Or do we just work and work and then when we’ve decided that we can’t work anymore, either through fatigue of a mental or a physical nature, we then just give up and retire. We don’t have enough money to do that, but do that we must. This is why people move to Alaska and build log cabins with their bare hands and then end up eaten by a hungry grizzly bear. At least they died doing what they loved, not working.

There is no vacation anymore, but a friend of mine was in California last week and he sent photos of hipster coffee shops and of a big red suspension bridge. How was he on this vacation? Does he know something I don’t know? He seemed to be enjoying himself, but if I were driving in that car on that big red bridge I’d be texting and driving and my wife would yell at me for that and then what difference would it make if I were on that bridge or on Highway 50 passing Pesche’s? Another friend is off to another state this week, his whole family in tow. I don’t think he’ll get to ignore his work responsibilities while he’s there, but he has people who work for him so he can tell those people what to do and hopefully they’ll do it. If I’m going away, there’s no one to tell things to. There’s no one who can do these things I do, and it’s not because they’re hard. It’s just because the explanation of the status and of the process is more difficult than taking phone calls all day while in some other place. It’s just easier to keep working.

So this week, I’ll be gone for two days. 48 hours, give or take. It’ll be a vacation, but it won’t be. I’ll just be somewhere else with a phone and a computer and I’ll be trying to do something else but I’ll just be there working. In that, I suppose is the value of a lake house. Grind out the work week and then try to recharge during the weekend. It’s just that in real estate there is no grind during the week and rest on the weekend, there’s mostly grind during the week and grind on the weekend, but sometimes you get to go superjetting at 3 on a Tuesday afternoon because the sun is high and the water 80, and I suppose in that there is a rare reward. Summer is fleeting, take off work. Come up here, do your work from a white pier or a floating boat. Just do something different because we deserve it. We work too much, and it’s only getting worse.  I think I deserve it, and so I’ll see you in a few days,  after I’m done fishing small streams with a Helios in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

Boat Lake Michigan?

Boat Lake Michigan?

I often wonder what the connection is between the Chicago Tribune and the state of Michigan. Is it simply that the Tribune is a newspaper in Chicago and Michigan is nearby? If so, that’s nice, because it’s good to be neighborly. But what if it’s deeper than that? What if the state of Michigan is in cahoots with the Chicago Tribune, and they conspire to inflate the status of Michigan because the two states are wildly, overwhelmingly, insanely jealous of the greater state that lies to the north of Illinois? What if this whole thing is a ploy to somehow derail the popularity of Wisconsin? What if this whole orchestrated ruse goes to the highest office? What if Rahm meets quarterly with officials in Michigan and they sit around conspiring? This is likely what happens, because there’s no other way to explain the Tribune’s high level of affection for some place as terrible as Michigan.

Today let’s not worry about the conspiracy, let’s just deal with the latest advertisement disguised as a general interest article and consider what falsehoods we must rebut. The glowing piece by Andrea Guthmann graced the Travel section of the last Sunday Tribune. The article included phrases like, “In the heart of what savvy tourism strategists branded “Harbor Country”, New Buffalo lures city dwellers with its casual beach vibe and proximity. Roughly 40 nautical miles from Chicago, it’s reachable by motorboat in an hour or two”.    What I know is what you don’t, unless you’ve visited this obscure place.  All fawning aside, New Buffalo is so boring it’s almost unbearable. And those short 40 nautical miles are meaningless unless you’re the sort that jumps on a boat in Chicago and motors across the lake. Some people do that, but it’s far from a great idea.

Great Lake Escape. Visiting Michigan’s Harbor Towns? Don’t Miss The Boat.

This is the title of the article.  The concept  here is that if you’re a city bound Chicagoan and you’d like to find your way to some water, you should go to Michigan. It’s a state full of water, surrounded by water, lots and lots of water. But beyond that, the pitch here is that this is about boats. If you like boating, you’re going to love Michigan. If you like boating, come to Michigan. If you’re an author who was awarded a journalism fellowship from the University of Michigan, write about Michigan!  To read this as a boating novice, you’d think Michigan is the place to go. After all, this is a great lake, and who wouldn’t want to boat on a great lake?

But don’t you see? This is the scam. This article tells us to go to Lake Michigan to boat but then it tells us how we might go about actually boating. There are ferries, you can ride one of those.  There’s even one that’s hand cranked, which sounds like the worst possible boat ride ever.  Then there are the harbors. Lots of harbors! Some harbors have rental boats, and if you’re 21 and love danger you can rent a boat. There are also fishing charters, which are terrific fun if you like sitting in a boat texting your friends while you wait for the rod to bend. Once it bends you should stand up and reel the fish in. Congratulations you’re a fisherman! Or you can rent a pontoon boat and float down the Kalamazoo River.  It’s easy to float down the river, because the river is super slick.

Do you see what’s happening here, boating friends from Chicago? What’s really happening is that you’re being told to go somewhere to boat and then when you get there the boats are all rentals. The boats are charters. The boats are there, but they aren’t yours. Lake Michigan might be a great lake for boating your personal Edmund Fitzgerald, but why go to a place where you have to work so terribly hard to boat? Lake Geneva has boats, plenty of boats. We have big boats and small boats. Wood boats and and sailboats. We have all of the boats. And when you come to Lake Geneva we don’t make you drive some remarkable distance and then present your driver’s license and insurance information to go for a drive. We just let you have your boat down at your pier, and we put your pier down at the end of your lawn, and your lawn is the grass that stretches from your home to the water. This is how we boat.

Harbor Country is just that- it’s for harbors. If you want to go to boating country, you want to be at Lake Geneva. Lake Michigan is nice to look at, like when you’re driving north to Lake Geneva on Lakeshore Drive, but it’s a lake best left to the lookers. It’s a lake for the passive people who wish to watch the water and not engage it.  Lake Geneva is the lake for watersports, for fishing and sailing and swimming and skiing. It’s a lake that’s terrific to look at, and in that there are similarities to Lake Michigan. But beyond that it’s a lake that wants to be used. It’s a lake for a family that wants to wake up in the morning and walk down their dewy lawn and step onto their private pier where there boat rests in its cradle. It’s a lake for the active user, not for the passive viewer. And best of all, when you go for a boat ride in Lake Geneva it always ends back at your pier.

Lake Geneva Concerts

Lake Geneva Concerts

Last month, I went with my wife and two friends to see Zac Brown. The act is called The Zac Brown Band, but that would have been similar to Elvis Presley calling his act The Elvis Presley Band. We know it’s just about the star, sorry Commodores. We went to see the show at Alpine Valley on an intolerably hot evening, the sort of sultry evening we’ve grown accustomed to during this hot and sunny summer. I was not initially interested in going to this concert, and only brought it up in conversation as a way to brag about the incredible hotel demand during summer months around Lake Geneva.  But go I did, and on that evening when we filed into our seats at Alpine I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Having lived all 38 of my years within 5 miles of Williams Bay I had never been to Alpine for a concert, ever.

When the show began it was obvious this was to be like few other shows. The sound was perfect. The stage close, the singer in tune and his band on point. The venue was beautiful, the evening sky casting pastels, the crowd up beat but not too boisterous.  When the show was over there was order as thousands of revelers made their way through the constricted thoroughfares and into their cars. The exit line was smooth, well orchestrated, and within 30 minutes of the last note dying out we had dropped our friends off at their lake house and headed home. It was an accidental concert for me, but one that I thoroughly and utterly enjoyed. Alpine Valley was all class, and as someone who prides himself of not being impressed by much, I was impressed. Alpine Valley the music venue had won a supporter for life.

Last night, on an evening that managed to be hotter and more humid than the Zac Brown evening in June, my wife and I picked up two friends and drove to another concert. Instead of turning north towards East Troy, we turned south towards Twin Lakes.  Eric Church was playing at Country Thunder, and we had tickets.  Just as I had never been to a concert at Alpine Valley, I had never attended Country Thunder. I had long heard of it, and marveled at the caliber of acts that the venue was able to attract, but I had never even considered going. Last night, as the sun faded and the lightening lit up the southern sky, we drove into the parking lot and nothing seemed amiss. The parking was orderly, and we were able to walk in a path that dodged the muddy ruts that were left after the Saturday rain.

Upon entering, it was obvious that at age 38 I was nearly the oldest person there. Sure, there were some other old people like me, but for ever person over the age of 35 there were 500 people under the age of 25. This was a scene that I had only seen in movies, and as I waded through it to buy some waters, I was pleased to find that I was the only person in the water line. The first encounter with spontaneous puking would not occur until later, as we stood nearish the stage and waited for Eric Church to play.

I was wearing shorts and a shirt. This shouldn’t be a big detail to mention, but I was one of few wearing a shirt. My wife wore a shirt and shorts, which made her one of the few women to be wearing a shirt. We were shirted adults in a sea of shirtless youth. When Eric Church strummed his first chord, it was exciting, but not really. The sound was terrible, not loud enough for a concert, not clear enough to hear the skill.  The mass of humanity that gyrated and vomited around us didn’t seem to notice that the songs had started, and they carried on whooping and hollering and vomiting and dancing and trying, desperately, to remain upright. Some people sat on the ground, the ground that on day four of this concert had been defiled by all sorts of horrible things. Girls sat in it as though they had no choice.

After some time, the show ended. We sat in the car for nearly an hour as the parking lot slowly shuffled towards the exit. I valiantly fought off a panic attack, as traffic is far from being my thing.  My three hundred dollars would have been better spent if I bought lottery tickets with the money, but we decided that at the end of the night there was some value in this evening. I will, from this time forward and for the remainder of my life, never go to Country Thunder again. Further, and more importantly, my children, and their children, will never go to Country Thunder as long as they live. Am I a square? Absolutely.  Do I ever want to stand next to someone while they spontaneously vomit? Don’t be silly.

Summer

Summer

I remember the days when I would travel to the country to our north and engage my distant relatives-in-law in debate. I argued once against their odd brand of socialism by using the example of a dozen eggs. I was Milton and the eggs were my pencil.  Without knowing the exact numbers, let’s say at the time a dozen eggs in the United States cost $1.69. At the same time, a dozen eggs in Canada cost $4.19. The US has 320MM people, give or take, while Canada has 35MM people, give or take. Canada, though it seems larger because of the precarious way it looms above us, is roughly the same size as the US. They have lots of chickens. Loads of chickens. The best chickens! But for all their land, all their chickens, and so few people, their eggs were 250% more expensive than ours. I explained to my young cousins-in-law that they were foolish socialists, and their government is the reason they are both taxed to death (single payer isn’t free, FYI) and also have to overpay for eggs. It’s the government in their way. But that night, no matter how hard I tried, I could not spark a revolution.

That’s because the in-laws were tired. They were weary. It had been a hot day around that backyard deck, and the sun baked and the mosquitos sucked and the teriyaki steak was overcooked. The lethargy from a summer day had dulled the conversation, and so the revolution could not take hold. Looking back, I can’t blame them. A sultry summer day spent without a backyard oasis of fresh, cool water, is a summer day that would leave me unwilling to overthrow my oppressive, sneakily socialist government that forces higher the prices of my eggs, too.

On Wednesday, I took my family to the Cubs game.  I’ve mentioned this before, but as a child I was able to attend a game or two, only if my dad had a chance to get tickets (free, likely) from a neighbor up the road. The tickets were treated as gold, but much more rare. We would load into the car, pick up my grandpa in Arlington Heights, and head to the game. I’m not sure, but I’ll bet we packed a brown bag lunch. Because money was tight, except that it wasn’t, and so we attended games perhaps twice, on the barest of budgets. When I now take my family to a game, I feel as though we are no less of a spectacle. We are most obviously a family from Wisconsin driving down to the big city to watch a game. We are tourists in that city. And when I took the waitress’s advice and ordered the macaroni and cheese pizza, I felt as though I had already been exposed. No local would ever consider such  ludicrous order. The waitress had obviously been told to up-sell that pizza because the macaroni and cheese had been sitting in the walk-in for a week or longer, and it needed to go. Oh look, a family from Wisconsin!

The game was delightful. Tom Ricketts was all class as he walked the aisles and handed baseballs to the kids, my daughter being one of the lucky ones. The stadium felt better, the grass just as green as it always is, my son curious how they make the lines so straight. Practice, I told him. But the game wore on and the heat suffocated. The breeze was blocked by the grandstands, the smell of spoiled, spilled beer filling the air, the vendors hawking hotdogs and lemon ice. We ordered two of the latter, only to find out we had inadvertently ordered the Extra Tart variety. It was refreshing, nonetheless. Sweat slowly soaked through our clothes. The women next to us drank all of the beer, and by the seventh inning we were ready to stretch. The singer was Some Guy From Espn That No One Watches Anymore, and so after that we left, secure in our 6-0 lead. When we took the photo below the marquee, it was obvious some of my father’s less annoying habits have seeped into my subconscious. I listened to the last two innings of the game I had tickets for on the radio.

The fishing truck, as I’m want to call it, doesn’t have air conditioning. It was built with it, but sometime between 2003 and 2016 the air ceased to blow cold.  In that north bound lane, with the sun lowering to the West, I baked in my driver’s seat. The sweat that found me when I left the house at 7:30 was still with me. The humidity unbearable. In traffic we were approached by a man who looked to be high on most of the drugs, and he asked for a ride in our canoe. I explained to him that we hadn’t a canoe, but we had a boat, if only he’d ride with us 80 or so miles and then we’d go for a ride. I joke, because I’m from Wisconsin and so I pulled out in front of a bus and strained all eight cylinders of our fishing canoe.

Even though no one said it, we were all thinking it. We were thinking it from the moment we jumped in the truck that morning. We thought it when we nibbled on the pizza. We thought it again when the snow cones melted into my children’s hands and stained their shorts. We thought it every time the women next to us had to leave the aisle, presumably to grab three more beers ($26.75) and use whatever the women’s version of the trough is. We thought it when we stood under the marquee when that stranger took our photo. We thought it when we were asked for a ride in our canoe. We thought it again on the interstate. We thought it in Skokie. We thought it in Kenosha. We thought it when first saw the lake. We thought it when we felt the temperature drop when that lake breeze blew through our open truck windows. We knew what what we had to do, and so we drove to the lake and we jumped in the water and we found our salvation. We washed the city sins off of us, and with it the stains from our melted snow cones and the stickiness on my arm from when the women sloshed her beer on me.

In the summer, in this intolerable heat, there’s just one thing to do. You must get to the lake. You must. A hot summer day that doesn’t end in a swim in crystal clear water might as well be a summer day that didn’t happen. If you don’t want to curl your toes over the edge of a sturdy white pier, you might as well live in Steinbach, Manitoba and pay $4.19 for a dozen eggs.

Sunday Shoppers

Sunday Shoppers

The grocery store on a Friday night is busy. It’s always busy then. The parking lot filled to capacity, the shopping carts all in use. The carts with the wobbly wheels, usually tucked into the abandoned corner of the foyer, in the space between the outside door and the inside door,  shoppers are filling those with bread and brats and beer and chips and those little cracked wheat crackers that are terrific with cheese but dreadful on their own. The aisles are busy, the stocking boys that want to impress the managers are busily stacking and arranging, refilling and reorganizing. The stocking boys who don’t care are texting their girlfriends, emojis and abbreviations mostly, or entirely. Cardboard boxes, so many of them, piling up in the warehouse space. And the carts are overflowing and the half and half needs replenishing. Chips? Good luck finding the crispy variety made from red beans now.

It’s like this on Saturday, too. The late arrivers, the ones who thought they might be able to make the weekend count if they could get to the lake before Saturday evening. The ones who shopped on Friday and by Saturday needed more.  Thursday, now that’s the day the store might be as busy as Friday, but only now. Only in the middle of this summer. The summer we dream about in the winter and we pine for in the spring, that’s the summer that makes us take a Friday off, or all of them off, and we shop on a Thursday night because we made it to the lake and we’re buying the provisions that must last through Sunday.

The morning was rainy on that Sunday. Stormy, even.  During a summer with few clouds and fewer rain drops, that morning was unexpected. The forecast called for it, but still, no one believed it. When the storm pushed through and dropped its payload before heading to the east and a ways to the south, the sun peaked out and the wind whipped. By mid-afternon it seemed as though everyone had left for home. The lake was busy with wind but absent the revelers. The roads were clear. The yacht club, nearly empty. The people had gone home to brace for another work week, leaving because they must, only to return when they can.

But by Sunday night the grocery store was busy. The wobbly wheeled carts were in use. The stocking boys were stocking.  The checkout girls, by this time this late into the weekend, were weary, smiling weak, forced smiles. The bean chips were running low, the carts burdened with the beer and brats and the buns and the steaks. It was a Sunday night, the Thursday and Friday and Saturday shoppers had gone home. This was the new round of shoppers, the group whose week was just starting at the grocery store and would last through the forecast sunshine. It’s summer after all, mid-summer to be exact, and if there ever was a time to take a break from the work week it’s right now.