Blog : Musings

Lilacs

Lilacs

There was an old Lilac outside my childhood bedroom window. It wasn’t a great bush, or tree. Whichever it was, it wasn’t the finest specimen. It was just a bush around the corner from an old garage, wedged in between that old garage and older house, down around the cracked concrete driveway that later would be paved. When the pavers came they found an old brick cistern under the driveway that no one knew was there. Well, I suppose someone knew, but that someone was dead. He might have been the one who planted the lilac.

Down the road, around the corner, up a ways and over just a bit, there was another man. An older man, a shorter man. Just a man, really.  I met him on the pier, his fishing rods stuck into PVC holders that he affixed to the outside horses on that long association pier.  The lilacs were in bloom. His bucket was full of bloody water. Rock bass twitched their fins, bluegills rested, belly up, their eyes blank and wondering. Lower still a crappie, maybe two. Large and white with black dashes. Papermouths, the men called them. A smallmouth bass, wedged in the bottom of that bucket of death and dying, not longer than 12 inches.

It’s a rock bass, the old man told me, his tone proving his lie.  I knew better. I knew it was a smallmouth and I knew it wasn’t legal. I knew it was too small. It bothered me something terrible. Later, as the years wore on and both of us grew older, I’d sneak down in the morning and release the fish that the old man had caught and tethered to the pier with an old sailing rope. Other times there would be no fish to release, so I’d open his minnow bucket and let the minnows swim free. If he didn’t have any minnows then he couldn’t skewer them with a hook. If he couldn’t thread that hook through their eyes then he couldn’t cast that old frail monofilament out and set the worn rods into those homemade holders. If I could stop the first part of this cycle, the death could be spared.  My desired end more than justified those particular means.

He’d give me advice, once in a while. Sometimes, the water was too cold. It’s early yet, he’d say. The water needed to be 50 degrees, or maybe 55. His old thermometer would dangle from the swim ladder, close enough to where he’d store those fish that I’d later release. I wondered if he knew what I was doing. I assumed he didn’t, but now as I think about it he must have known. There was no one else but me.  Without the thermometer, he told me, it wasn’t hard to know when the bass would be biting. When the lilacs bloom, that’s when they’ll be biting.

There was another large lilac on my way to and from school, and in April and then May I’d walk by that bush with anxious anticipation.  That lilac, and the one by my window, took forever to bloom. Cold, late spring would cling for so long. Every day, nothing. Then, something. Tiny sprouts at first, but then within days, maybe just hours,  I’d witness the unfurling and pushing of all those leaves. Bright green, young green, then, when the blossoms were near, deep and lovely green. Every day, a little more. And then, like magic, the flowers. Those flowers with their purple petals and overwhelming perfume, they told me it was time. Time to grab by rod and reel and cast those chartreuse jigs as far as I could, sometimes towards shore and sometimes towards the depths. Smallmouth bass would eat, greedily, angrily, their red eyes filled with malice towards that little collection of feathers.

These days, I don’t fish in the lake very often. I want to, but I don’t. There are times when the pull is greater than others, like late into a summer evening when the southwest wind falls flat and I see the bass chasing minnows to the surface.  Or in the fall when the boating traffic has left and the lake is clear and the water cools. I know the big fish are in shallow. I know the lake trout and the brown trout are spawning, and I know the musky and the pike are binging before a long dark winter. But the strongest of pulls is right now. In the spring, when the grass is green and the lilacs are purple. I haven’t fished in the lake for a few years, but I know the bass are biting. The lilacs told me so.

Photograph courtesy Kristen Westlake
Forty

Forty

This weekend, I’ll turn 40. It’s no big deal, really. No feat, nothing particularly impressive about passively allowing time to be measured. I’m probably an old 40, if there’s such a thing.  I’ve spent every day for 22 years at this desk, typing these things, working for business, hoping for someone to call and buy this or sell that. In those 22 years I built several homes and sold several more, I built a family, I built a business that should continue at least for a bit longer.  It’s easy to look back and assume that what has been accomplished is rare and special, but I’m not entirely sure that it is. It’s just some years, thrown together all in this little town, through no special effort of my own.

I have a good friend who has told me we all have an exaggerated sense of our own importance. He reminds me that we’re all replaceable, no matter what we do. You’re a hedge fund guy who writes Java? There are likely tens of thousands of others who write the same code, and thousands who write it better. You’re a founder of a company that sells widgets? There’s another guy, or another gal, in some other town, who sells widgets like yours but they’re better widgets, shinier and smarter, and her company makes more money, more easily, more quickly.   You’re a Realtor in small-town Wisconsin and you sell lots of houses some years? The guys in Los Angeles would be overwhelmed with shame if they ever had a down year that beats your best year.

There’s something quietly odd about turning 40. I’ve never done it before, so I don’t know if it’s supposed to feel like unique. Perhaps it’s finally some notice that time is working against you, and more than working, it’s winning.  Time is short. I spend my days stressing and wishing for the days when my days can be different. If I can just get this deal closed, then things will be better. And the next one, too. If this deal in November works, things will be fine.  Real estate, like all sales, is a terrible unfulfilled cycle. Sell something today, great. Now go sell something tomorrow. I enjoy the race, I enjoy the effort. I enjoy the game. I enjoy trying to solve problems. I enjoy struggling against larger, legacy competition. But at some point it starts to become tedious and mundane. It starts to feel like there should be something greater than just a hope for a Saturday call and a Sunday offer. Maybe that point is 40. Maybe it isn’t.

This week, I’m taking a few days off and traveling with my wife to a country far away. It should be a nice trip. I’m taking the trip, in part, because I don’t want to turn into my parents, to work and wait for the time to do something fun or rare and then someday have no energy or desire to actually do it.  What’s the point of sacrifice if you’ll never reap those stored rewards? Why waste years crippled over fear of failure when there’s already some success begging to be celebrated?   Next week,  I’ll return home having missed out on some deals, I’m sure of it, and my absence will be marked by cell phone conversations and emails sent while standing near pretty sights. Pray for my wife’s patience.

Today, I’m grateful for this life that I get to live. For my little house down the road from this little office, and that big blue lake around the corner. I’m grateful for my clients who trust me and count on me, and in turn, provide for me and my family.  I’m grateful for this life that I’ve been blessed with.  Here’s to another 40, hopefully as good as the last.

Along The Way

Along The Way

I love my kids. I really do. Of the few things in this life of which I’m certain, that condition is firmly assured. But I can’t stand driving anywhere with them. Short trips, long trips, it’s all the same, and it’s all awful. Social Media, this week and the last, has been full of road tripping families, heading to some awful place in Northern Florida, the kids crammed into the backseat with pillows and blankets and iPads and earbuds. The images are supposed to evoke feelings of good old fashioned family fun, but to me, they are the stuff of nightmares. Loving my kids is one thing, loving spending time in cars with them is an entirely other thing.

During the summers of my youth, in between bouts of rag tag, lawn mowing and, well, rag tag and lawn mowing, my family would take to the interstates and spend two weeks in another place. We did this for many reasons, but mostly so my dad could rent out his house to raise money to help pay his property taxes.  We packed our station wagon, whichever one it was at the time, hitched up the trailered Boston Whaler, and proceeded to pack the Whaler full of everything we thought we might need for two weeks in the north woods of Minnesota. The preparation for the trip was remarkably stressful, and to this day, I cannot pack for a trip anywhere without falling into my father’s pattern of yelling and stressing over every detail of the chaos.

Most years, we’d cram into the back of that station wagon, first a blue one and then a red one, three brothers in the back, parents in the front, and we’d drive through the night without much excitement. The drive was long, perhaps eight hours worth, and exceedingly boring. There were no iPads to distract. No iPhones to amuse. Just the road and the night and three sweaty boys, packed like sardines in a can lined with red upholstery.

One year, a wheel bearing gave out in Minneapolis sometime around midnight. I don’t remember the details of that night, but it was similar to when Clark fell asleep and took that exit to the wrong part of Saint Louis.  In spite of the hiccup, we arrived the next morning in those northwoods, the washboard rumble of the camp driveway serving as our only notice.  Once we arrived, we’d spend our time swimming and following girls and attending more church services in two weeks than most fit into a year.  After two weeks we’d pack up and drive through the summer night. We’d be home by morning, because there were lawns to mow.

The summer trips we took were never about the journey. They were only about the destination. We didn’t stop to see the World’s Largest Ball Of Twine. We didn’t stop to take pictures at overpasses. We just drove because we knew the destination was worth the effort.  The journey, well that was just the price we had to pay.

There’s a new Pure Michigan commercial disrupting my television commercials of late, and it’s a commercial that praises the journey.  Along the way, Tim Allen insists, is where we have the most fun.  Along the way, he says, is the place we’ve been longing for. I’ve always been trained to endure the journey to embrace the destination. Suffer through the trip, because it’ll be worthwhile when you get to where you’re going. This is why I fly Frontier to Denver.  Tim Allen says otherwise. He’s told us that the journey is where it’s at. But, like always, he’s wrong. This is what people say when the destination isn’t very good. This is what people say when the journey is long and the travelers are weary.  Drive to Michigan if you must, just remember the commercial asks you to enjoy the trip because the destination isn’t all that great.

Image by Matt Mason Photography
Walk This Way

Walk This Way

Somehow,  someway, someone once decided that walking was a nice thing to do.  Let’s go for a walk, someone once said. Others joined in. Those weary of walking likely declined, but the rest followed.  Scan any sidewalk today in any city and you’ll see them. Walkers. If you’re on the beach this morning, like everyone else from the Midwest, take a look at what’s happening around you. It’s a bunch of people walking, getting those ankle pains from walking on that sideways, shifty earth. Oh look, a special shell! Out of trillions and trillions of shells, I can assure you that your shell is not particularly special.  This is the sort of thing of which walkers have convinced us.

Let’s put our shoes on and go for a walk, they say. Walk to the store, walk to get coffee. Is it walking distance?  There are websites with algorithms that score the walkability of a particular property. Congratulations, your house scored an 8 on the Walkability Scale!  This is where we’ve all been tricked. Walkability? I can walk anywhere. I can lace up my shoes and walk to New York City. Is New York City walking distance from here? You bet it is!  Walking knows no bounds. Walking can be done anywhere. Is there a difference between Wisconsin walking and San Diego walking? Excepting the syringes stuck into your walking shoes, it’s exactly the same.

Walking, this institution of travel, is overrated.  I can walk and walk and walk and someday I’ll get somewhere. This is true of anywhere, any place, at any time.  Walking is out, strolling is in. There’s a distinct and meaningful difference between these two verbs. If I’m going for a walk, it implies I have some purpose. I’m walking. I’m starting here and going there. I’m lacing my up shoes, checking my callouses, hydrating, and pushing off on my walk. Like a ship leaving harbor, I’m on my way. Strolling? Now that’s a movement I can get behind.

To stroll is to walk, sure, but only under the loosest definition of the word. To stroll is more likely to saunter, to wander, to casually shuffle from one place to another. There’s no timeline for a stroll. You don’t ask how long the stroll took. When you walk from your house to the coffee shop, you check your watch. How long did that take? No stroller has ever asked how long something took. No stroller ever promised to meet someone anywhere at a specific time. Strolling doesn’t allow for such rigidity.

This summer, you can stay at home. You can. It’s your right. And when you’re at home, you can cinch tight your laces, stretch in your driveway, and walk on a sidewalk into Whatever Town. This is up to you. Entirely and totally up to you. You can spend the summer walking, as your cardiologist advised. Or you can come here.  To this place where you can leave your shoes at home. To this shore and this path, and you can join us on a stroll. When are we leaving? We don’t know. Where are we going? No idea.

Selling Season!

Selling Season!

It’s here. The time of year Any Lake, Wisconsin has been waiting for. This is their time. It’s all Any Lake, all the time. At least it is for now. The ice came and the ice went, it’s melting season, sure. But it’s their season. The time when these lakes shine bright.  This is the time of year when Geneva must sit on the sidelines, biding its time, trying not to smirk, trying to appear humble, watching the spectacle unfold. It’s late March in the Midwest and Any Lake is looking to pull an upset.

Think Any Lake might be a bit murky, a bit cloudy, a bit unclear? Not right now it isn’t! Think Any Lake has a weed problem? Think again!  Just take a drive up this weekend, take a walk down to the shore, and give Any Lake a look. A good, hard look. Any Lake is clear. Any Lake is clean!  Any Lake has no weeds, no silt, no issues. Why buy on Geneva when Any Lake is this clean and this cheap??   No algae blooms here, at least not on Any Lake. No silty muck lake floor. Look, it’s shimmery!

Sure, when the wind blows and the water warms and the boats stir, of course then Any Lake won’t look so good. Of course Any Lake will look dirty and cloudy and awful. Of course the weeds will grow and grow until they reach the surface where they’ll wrap and tangle and grope your legs.  But this isn’t about then, it’s about now. Look how clear these lakes are. Gin Clear!  The selling season is here, and like a Christmas Tree farm, there’s not a lot of time left on the calendar to make that annual quota.  If you’re a buyer on Any Lake, now’s the time. You must rush. You have no choice. To wait is to make a fatal, murky mistake.  Want to see what Any Lake looks like in July? Don’t be silly!

Any Lake is ready for you. The metal piers are pulled onto the lawns. The boats are tarped in the driveways. And the water is clear. If you’re a buyer at Any Lake, Wisconsin, now’s the time. Don’t delay. If you delay, you might have to see how awful the water looks in the middle of summer, and what’s the fun in that?

 

 

Winter

Winter

I entered February with a heavy heart. Things were happening that were beyond my control. These things were beyond your control.   They weren’t even things, really. It was just one thing, one quiet thing, marching slowly but obviously, out of my control. It was January and it turned to February, and soon it’ll turn to March. Marching through March, like the meme or the poster or like nothing at all. April comes next. Rainy April, with showers and following flowers, May. Soon they’ll all be here and the piers will be in and the sun will be on my face, on yours. It’ll be summer and we’ll laugh and splash and things will be different. They won’t be better.

That’s because it’s winter in Wisconsin, and it’s winter that I’m worried about missing. January turned to February and I couldn’t do a single thing about it. I stacked my oak high and I turned my thermostat higher, to 68 sometimes when I’m feeling a chill. The Facebook is full of summertime wishes, of warm tropical beaches. Did you know a palm tree saw its shadow and now there will be six more weeks of paradise? How proposterous.  I don’t even know what the woodchuck, or the hedgehog or the badger saw. A shadow? I saw mine, does that count? Do I get to decide this thing called winter and the leaking towards spring? If it was my choice I’d vote winter. In my old age I’m not wishing for summer, I’m relishing winter.

And why wouldn’t I? My house is warm and my car prepared. My jackets have liners, cotton or down. A bald eagle just flew over my office on his way to the lake where the arctic birds flock. Dinner, it’s calling. And so is my house and the firewood and the fireplace and a college basketball game, the outcome of which I couldn’t care less. It’s dark now, but it’s lighter than it once was. Soon I’ll be driving home in the sunshine, and soon I’ll have to tend to my lawn and edge the beds where my summer flowers now lie deceivingly still. They’ll be alive soon, sprouting and shooting and thriving. How I wish they’d lie still just a bit longer.

Rush through winter if you must. Hurry up for the summer sun if you cannot find your wintery peace. As for me, I delight in these days. In the chill on my toes and the fire in my hearth. I soak in the low dim sun, wishing for a few more weeks of it. The snow piles, finally, and I welcome it. Pile higher, please snow. There will be time enough for summer. Time for the sun and time for the water. Time to fish and time to lounge under a shade tree while the waves lap. But for now, it’s time to be still. Time to enjoy the scene. To appreciate the snow and the crisp and the calm. It’s winter, still, and I’m glad.

2018 State Of The Market

2018 State Of The Market

(Lake Geneva lovers to the left of the podium, smiling and clapping, standing. Michigan lovers to the right of my podium, scowling, sitting, glaring. Me, walking, shaking, waving. My hair tall, my grip firm, my smile electric. Scene.)

 

My fellow Americans, those prized long tenured lake lovers, those recent converts to our religion of lake living, and those new buyers who hail from Winnetka and beyond, today in Lake Geneva some snow sculptors put on one extra layer of long underwear before heading out of their hotel room door. Today it is a good day to be us. Today, we are the American dream.

An architect put his pencil to paper, intent on designing another great vacation home for another discerning buyer, and we shall count this work as a job saved by the bustling Lake Geneva economy. A city worker plowed and pushed so much snow, up over the median and onto the lawn, so that it might be trampled on and later today carved into a swan, or Shrek, or a dragon, and he did this without complaining. Later today, a mother from Buffalo Grove will log on to her computer, and she’ll stumble upon this website and her eyes will be opened to the possibility of a Lake Geneva vacation home. This is the promise of America, yes, but it’s the further promise of Lake Geneva. And when this mother searches and strives and brings her family to the lake this summer, and oh so many summers after, this is when the dream of my father, and of her father will have been realized. Of course, that assumes her father dreamt of this in the way that my father did, but still. It’s in these people, the city worker and the snow sculptor and the mother from Buffalo Grove and my father and her father that combine to make the state of the Lake Geneva market strong.

The results of this work, of the street plower dutifully fulfilling his pledge, and of the mother looking and then buying the most perfect lake house, is that our market has never been stronger. We have never been stronger.  We own the Midwest vacation home market, and it is all but assured that the coming year will be as bright as the years that preceded it. No, brighter.  We do not shut off our lights, or turn away any weary travelers just because we are content in our own strength. Instead we offer benevolence to the lake weary, to those who toil and labor in cities and in suburbs, and we offer them shelter because that is what we do and this is who we are.  How can we call ourselves Americans if we do not encourage those with the means to lay down roots near our shores?

The question for us today is actually only for you. It is not for you if you’re content with your vacation home ownership here. If you splash your way through every summer, this is not a charge that you need to consider because you have already passed this greatest test. The question today is for those who sit at their computers, who sit on their couches, who spend Saturday wondering what Sunday will bring even though you know it just brings a long line and then brunch.  Maybe a stroller ride through an insufferable park.  The question is what, exactly, are you doing? Why are you allowing a most un-American complacency to drag down your weekends, when you know that we’re here- the city worker, polishing the streets that we’d like you to drive over, and the mother, picking up corn at the farmer’s market in the morning to cook it lakeside in the evening. We are here, working and playing and living in a most amazing fashion, even while you sit there in that same new chair, obstructing your own path in life simply because you’re scared to venture into the unknown.  Do you not dream our same watery dreams?

But this isn’t the unknown, my friends, this is America, yes, the most pure version of it. This is America, if the entirety of it would be washed in clean water, surrounded by a lush green shore, where every family gets not just an organic chicken from Yuppie Hill Poultry, but also a boat in every slip and some gas in that boat and a few hours of leisure. This is what we offer, and in the coming months you must make a decision to join us or forever get out of our way. In God We Trust, yes but do we not also trust in blue water and soft summer skies?  We can make progress this year, together, but we cannot do this without your cooperation. We can lead you to the water but we cannot make you swim. We cannot simply urge you to join us if you will not make even a modest effort. This isn’t what it is to be an American, to lie and lounge in city apartments and in suburban backyards, this isn’t the sense of adventure that our fore-bearers wished for us. Do you not aspire to join us in our greatness?

But today is for the laborer. The partner and the founder. The director and the vice president.  They rise and they work, and they rise and they work. They wake on Saturday and they pretend that this day is somehow different. They rise and think that a Lake Geneva vacation home isn’t for them, because it hasn’t ever been for them. That this dream is unattainable. They huddle in their darkest corners, holding tight to their money that they’ve worked so hard to earn, and they fear the things that might happen if they let some of it go. They live as though their pedigree is in question, as though they cannot consider Lake Geneva because of its long enduring reputation as a place for the societal elites. I assure you today, as I will assure you again tomorrow, that Lake Geneva is for everyone, for every make and model, for anyone who wakes on a Saturday and says, “I’m bored here, let’s go to the lake”.

And so I make this decree, by executive order I hereby demand every vacation home seeker of some means to at least consider a Lake Geneva vacation home.  Your complacency cannot thrive under this bright lakeside sun, and so this command today by me, your dictat- err- President, shall be followed otherwise the willing dissenters risk being labeled enemy combatants.  We may disagree on the course of value, or on the benefits of one shore over the other, or on which restaurant is worthy of our breakfasting intentions and which restaurants are not, but we can agree that Lake Geneva is the place to be. In fact, it always has been, and it always will be. If we can summon the courage to live in a way that finds our weekends at the lake, then we can overcome anything. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless Lake Geneva and no place else.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

If you’re reading this, we made it. You made it. I made it. We’re the lucky ones. It’s freezing cold today at the lake, temperatures below zero today just like yesterday. Tomorrow, probably. The lake is icing up. The bays gave in first, Geneva Bay leading the surrender. Fontana or Williams Bay will tap out next. There’s ice off Black Point. Ice in the Narrows. It’s icing and it’s cold but we’re here and we made it. Welcome to 2018, just like 2017 but hopefully better. Or the same. Anything but worse would be absolutely fine with me.

Because what a year it was. My kids are healthy, my wife still tolerates me, I’m healthy and kicking. My business was a success, and that’s something that causes me pause. I’ve had eight straight years that now represent the best eight years that any agent has ever had in this market. No one has had a better eight years. $236,000,000 worth of sales over those eight years. I don’t quite know how to react to that. When I started this blog, I did so because I felt like my typical agent efforts weren’t working. An ad in the paper here. A cold call there. A stupid business card and a stupid shirt with a stupid tie. Those things were awful and kept me from explaining the market the way I knew I could explain it. How could I tell someone what house they should buy if they would’t call me? How could I tell them the market was hot or the market was terrible if they didn’t know who I was? So almost ten years ago this blog was born, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that it has changed my life. I write it out of duty, often, sometimes it’s glib and sometimes it’s dark. Sometimes I hope you can’t tell that I don’t really have much to say, but usually I know that you know. It’s okay that way.

For the year just ended, I finished with over $45,000,000 in closed volume. That number was, far and away, the highest individual agent sales total in Walworth County.  I spent most of my adult (working) life behind this desk hating the agents who sold more than me. Wondering how they did it. Wishing for their success.  I looked to them in the only way I knew to look at my competition; up. But now, on the heels of this run, I don’t really know what to say.  The $45MM is added to the 2016 volume of $62MM- the volume that put me as the top agent in the whole state for 2016.  That’s $107,000,000 worth of Lake Geneva sales in 24 months. I didn’t close those totals by changing my aim, either. I didn’t sign on to rep a commercial project in Kenosha. Or list restaurants or density-loving developments in Elkhorn. I did it by remaining true to the only market in this world that interests me, the Lake Geneva vacation home market.  Since 2010, I’ve been the listing or selling agent (or both) in seven of the top nine sales this market has closed, including the three most expensive sales.  Those sales are sales that I previously could have never imagined facilitating.

In a way, these sales totals scare me. They set a bar so high that I don’t hope to clear it, I just hope to sniff it. Maybe touch it, barely, like I did the rim during 9th grade gym class. I don’t know how to get back to those levels, nor do I know how to beat them. I know I’m replaceable. I know I’m disposable. I know you can find someone else to show you houses. You can find someone who’s better at answering the phone than I am.  Now, you can’t find someone else to show you houses in the same way that I show you houses, and I know you can’t find someone to work with that’s as fun or effective as I am, but I still know I’m only here because of you. My success does not hinge on me, insofar as I cannot singularly declare success and then achieve it. My success depends on you, and on my ability to not fail you. I can’t promise that won’t ever happen, but I can promise I’ll be here, at this desk, in this place, serving this market, for as long as you’ll have me.  I’m grateful that you’ve made my effort matter.

Here’s to you. To me. To Lake Geneva and to this new year. May we all keep our health and find our peace. See you at the lake.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

While watching a movie, I think it’s common to live vicariously through the lead character.  This probably isn’t true for some movies, as there’s no dedicated star to wish to be.  When I watch the Bourne movies I feel as though I should take some fighting classes. Not self defense classes, just fighting classes. I’m jealous of all the fighting skill. When I watch Top Gun I wish to be at those controls, in that cockpit, shooting down the enemy.  But when I watch Ace Ventura I don’t wish to be Ace.  I don’t want to have all of those animals in my room. I don’t want that hair. I can’t relate.  I watched It’s A Wonderful Life again last weekend.

Imagining being George Bailey isn’t really very difficult for me. George never left his home town, and neither did I.  George went to work at a family business, and in a looser way, so did I.  I feel, in the way that any small town kid might, that George Bailey is me and I am he.  I have an old man Potter in my life.  I feel his pain when he wonders what might have been. Had he been able to go off to see the world. Had he invested in the plastics business. Had he been a bit more shrewd in the lending business.  The only difference between the two of us is that I never lost the hearing in my left ear, because neither of my brothers were dumb enough to slide on a shovel into open water.

Besides these obvious similarities, the stronger connection in this movie is not between small town boys. It’s not the connection between angels and their wings. It’s the connection between business and stress. That’s really what this movie is about, after all. It’s about anxiety.   George is faced with a problem. His sloppy uncle inadvertently sticks $8000 into Potter’s newspaper, and on the same day that the bank examiner happens to be in town for a visit. George panics. He begs Potter to bail him out. Potter only turns up the heat. Law enforcement is coming. George is going to jail. Except, is he?  He doesn’t think he is, because he tells his Uncle that one of the two of them are going to jail and it isn’t going to be him. No, George isn’t going to jail. But he screams at his wife and kids and overturns the Golden Gate Bridge and slips out for a night of drunken despair.

In the end, George’s wife goes out and begs the town for some help, and help they do. No man who has friends is poor. Or something like that. That’s the moral in the cinema. But the real takeaway is back to the anxiety. The stress. The feeling as though it is all on your singular shoulders.  George should have sat down with the bank examiner and explained what happened. If the bank examiner didn’t buy the story, George should have gone out and called everyone he knew. He called Sam Wainwright, but Sam was busy or something. Later, when the townspeople are giving George their last $5, Wainwright sends a telegram. He’s directing his bank to wire $25,000 to George Bailey immediate.  George was only upside down $8k. Why did he need $25k from Hee Haw? If he got the $25k that easily, and quickly, why did the maid have to give George the money she had earmarked to pay for her future divorce? Once the $25k wire was announced, I would have quietly pulled my ten dollar bill out of the pile.  The whole story is a sham.

Because the crisis in this movie isn’t ever really a crisis. In the way that a deal going south on a Thursday isn’t really a crisis. In business, and in real estate, we tend to forget what actually matters. Deals do not matter.  If I live another 20 years and die, will the Johnson deal on First Street ever matter to me? Or will the way I treated my son when he left his light on this morning for the millionth time be the thing I regret? These deals consume me, and they make me into a person that I don’t particularly like.  They needn’t do that. This year has been a stressful year for me. Successful, sure, but at a cost. When surrounded by customers who routinely fail to keep perspective it’s easy to fall prey to anxiety.  After all, that’s all that really happened to George. He wasn’t going to jail. His crisis lasted all of a few hours. He woke up that day feeling fine and he went to bed that night feeling fine. It was the in between overreaction that nearly killed him.

I’m going to take a few days off to celebrate Christmas. My wife is home with the flu, so I’ll mostly be tiptoeing around my house trying not to touch any doorknobs or faucet handles.  But whether you’re on the heels of a Hanukkah celebrations or just about to begin your Christmas joy, I wish you a most peaceful Holiday season.

 

Gifts

Gifts

A man in a sweater.  He’s sitting on the couch. The sweater isn’t very nice, implying it’s not his dinner-sweater. It’s his Christmas morning sweater. He fumbles with batteries. The plastic container is too difficult to open with bare hands, too inconvenient to open after walking to the kitchen for a knife. Or a scissors. A child plays in the background. The room is bright. It’s Christmas morning. In Arizona, maybe. It can’t be here, because there’s a child in the room and there’s no way he’d have waited for the light to grow to brighten the room before opening his presents. Kids open presents in the dim dark of dawn. But here we are, in the light, in this room, with the batteries and the sweater and a kid in the distance. The Christmas tree is there, too. There is no wife. Not yet, anyway.

But wait, here she comes. Rushing into the scene, full of joy and beauty and optimism. She jumps on her husband, pushing him down on the couch in one excited tackle. She’s beaming.  She says nothing, but everything, her eyes dancing.  The husband, his batteries cast aside, says, “so you like it“. It’s not a question, he knows the answer. She looks at him longingly and says yes. But we, like our sweatered battery-fumbling friend, already know she likes it. She jumped on him to say it. What is this gift? What made this wife so filled with wonder and amazement at the finely honed gift giving skills of her otherwise normal husband? Why, it’s an intertwined necklace made of the fine diamond shavings that are swept up after the real diamond jewelry is made. This one is in the shape of a swan, with a duck in the middle, a swan and a duck. Both with bills, caressing each other, necking with their necks ablaze in tiny shards of diamond dust. The message is simple. Ducks and geese can be friends, and if them, why not us? Ducks and Geese, forever at last. Be the duck, be the goose, Forever, the commercial says. The woman ponders her husband’s face with suggestive intent, wondering how he could be so perfect. He, yes he, that man, thought enough of this woman to buy that $169 collection of diamond dust,  and she has never, ever been happier.

Cut to scene. A bow. Huge, red. Draped over the car. It’s in the garage. No, it’s outside. The snow has fallen. Fresh snow, but the car is perfect. Shiny and bright like a showroom model. It’s outside their house. They live in the mountains. The house is made of stone and hewn lumber. Spruce trees dappled with snow, everywhere.  The man, inside, near the fireplace, shaking his present. With one pull of the bouncing red ribbon the box is opened. It’s a key.  He knows that that means. He opens the door, his children near him, his wife excited. There it is. That car. It’s white, like the snow, and the bow is red, like the ribbon. The husband is so happy. I’ve never seen him happier.  Never mind that he would have never bought himself a white car on purpose, he’s still thrilled. The wife knows he’s thrilled. He deserves this car. He’s suffered for too long in that mountain house of hand cut granite and scraped cedar. He’s lived, cooped up in that low-key existence for too long. This is his chance. At age 42, it’s the first good thing that has ever happened to him. No-one deserves this car, and the eight-hundred and thirty-seven dollar monthly payment more.

This week, I have presents to buy. Thankfully, television has taught me everything I need to know in order to be a most effective, loved, admired, wanted gift-giver. I’ve erred in my gift giving previously, but no longer. I want in on the starstruck wife on Christmas morning thing.   If you happen to see my wife this week, don’t mention any of this to her. I’m off to Kay Jewelers, or Zales, or whichever one is in the closest mall,  and I cannot wait to see the look on her face when she sees that I not only opted for the Duck/Goose/Intertwined Neck/Heart Pendant, but I added the gift wrapping AND the 12 month warranty.  This is going to be the best Christmas ever.

Fire

Fire

The living room was too hot.  The outside temperature barely registered 19 degrees, and the windows were open with the thermostat set at 68, but the living room was hot. Too hot, really. Sweaters made their wearers into them. Blankets, arranged to encourage a winter time wrap, were thrown far from sight. Who could need a blanket on a night so cold, in a room so hot? The fire blazed. Faint hints of woodsmoke flavored the air. The hearth was warm, no, the hearth was hot. Those stones, so many of them, cut from some other state and hauled here, stacked into place by a skilled mason. Each one radiating heat out and up.  The reflection of flames dancing on the thin windows that separated so much heat from so much cold.

Such a scene, such a night, could not be possible under the faked glow of a gas fireplace. A gas log set, the preferred source of sterilized winter fire, is indeed a fire. It’s a fire in the way that a pool is a lake. In the way that a football game played in a dome on top of plastic grass with rubber dirt is still a football game.  The gas log set was patented in 1911 in the state of New Jersey. New Jersey! That it to say that before 1911, from the year when it all started until that year in the last century, no such log existed. A fire was made of wood, or coal, burned for the heat but also for the ambiance. Ambiance from a gas log set?  If you paint a window in your daughter’s bedroom with a view of the mountains beyond, the sun just about to set and a few deer in the meadow, are you really in the mountains?

It’s no wonder people in the Midwest bemoan the winter. How could you enjoy winter with the faint flicker of a fake fire? How can you chase away a heat with flame that burns so cold? You have a blower on your fireplace? I have a rubber duck that I throw into my pool, but this doesn’t mean there’s a duck on the lake, anymore than your blower means your fire is real. A fire that doesn’t consume anything isn’t really a fire. Yes, it’ll burn. Yes, those synthetic logs you think look real will, indeed, heat up. But that doesn’t mean your room will glow and it doesn’t mean your guests will feel the heat of a live fire, lapping over the room and chasing winter away.  Take back your fireplace. Throw the gas log set in the garbage. Order some oak. Split it if you must.  Stack it. Load it into the fireplace. Crumple up yesterday’s newspaper and arrange the kindling. Light it. Bask in the glow and wonder about those poor gas log owners who think winter is somehow so difficult.

Preparations

Preparations

I have so many hoses. They’re the best hoses. Except the ones that have been cut by lawn mower blades. And the ones that had their metal bits crushed to an oval under car tires.  One of the problems of owning a large property is that watering isn’t so easy. I don’t have an irrigation system, I just have these hoses. Connect three or four together and I can reach some distance out to my lawn. Not the whole lawn, of course. The hoses can reach the garden but we only water that for a few weeks until the weeds crowd out whatever seeds we planted. The squash are in the far corner, we think.

When fall turns to winter, the hoses have to be put away. Disconnected from their spigots, drained of their water, and wound in a hoop. I should put that hoop in my shed, but my shed is only half sided, because it’s a four year project and I still have a few months left. So I put the hoses on the ground near the tiller attachment for my tractor, on a path of gravel I made with with the tractor, some time ago. I planted fifty or so small evergreen trees on my property last November, and I’m pleased to report that all but one is still living. The one that isn’t living died in a fire when I burned off the remnants of last year’s weed garden to make way for this year’s weed garden. It was a good tree, but it wasn’t fire hardy as I had hoped.

The other trees need tending to, so my daughter and I drove our slow Gator down the road to the corner where they sell bales of straw. Straw and hay are different things, or so the sign said. We loaded four bales, two for my wife’s chickens, and two for the trees. We drove around the property, finding the small evergreens that had been covered in the weeds that I call flowers, and placed some straw around the tiny trunks of these tiny trees. I don’t know why I do this. In my mind, it’ll help the trees last the winter. I have not googled this, nor do I plan to. I believe it’ll help, and so it must. We put the straw around the trees and we put the chicken straw in the unfinished shed.

Then we had some hydrangeas with roots exposed. This is not an acceptable condition heading into winter, so I shoveled mulch up and around these hydrangeas, to protect the roots from the coming cold. I scraped shovel fulls of gravel from the gravel pile into the Gator, and from the Gator into the potholes that had formed during the fall rains. I fill the holes now so the gravel freezes, and the bumps go away for a few months, until they return with an unholy vengeance next spring. Gravel driveways are fine in the summer. Fine in the winter. Pretty terrible during the transitions. The potholes filled, I pulled the outdoor furniture cushions and brought them to the basement. While down there, two furnaces needed new filters, and that’s exactly what I gave them.

The day before I had chopped wood and reaffirmed the strength of my porch-stack, but in doing so I dropped bits of bark and dirt all over the stoop. The blower had a sip of 2017 gas left, so I blew off the patios and the drive, cleaning as best I could before the rain and the cold.  The bird feeders needed filling, a nice generous top off of the large and varied feeders that grace the backside of my house. I like the winter Bluejays, even though the other birds don’t. My wife prefers the subtlety of the female cardinal.  There were three pumpkins on the back steps, molding and sagging and sad. I threw them into the weed garden, where they exploded with a soft pop. Something will eat that, I figured. I felt good for taking such good care of the animals.

The work done, I surveyed the property one last time. The firewood stack was strong, but it’ll need adding to over this month. The driveway and patio, clean as a whistle. The hoses, disconnected, drained, and wound. The lawn mower tucked inside the shed. Two bails of hay, waiting for the chickens. The driveway holes patched, for now. The lawn, mowed in its winter stripes. The tiny trees, tucked into their straw beds, that may or may not help. Some people complain about the work of owning real estate. The work of preparing for a harsh change in seasons, much like preparing for a violent intruder to break through your city gate. I relish the work. I enjoy the preparation.  There’s nothing uniquely hard about it, and now I feel content in knowing I’ve prepared my house, and my family, for what comes next.

Cool White

Cool White

It takes a while for a tradition to become a tradition. An act, repeated once or twice on an annual or bi-annnual basis, does not constitute a tradition. In the same way, if you go out to eat at a particular restaurant every Sunday morning, this is also less a tradition and more a habit. If you visit that restaurant every year on your birthday, then the visit becomes a tradition, but only after several years.  Young, newer families struggle to break from the larger family traditions, those bestowed over years and years by the parents of the new parents.   New families think of the things that they’d like to become their traditions, and they do them over and over again until some stick, and others fall off. Traditions take work, time, and commitment. That’s why my family purchases our Christmas Tree over the weekend that follows Thanksgiving.

The problem with this tradition is that it’s based, at least somewhat, on emotion. On feelings.  Which is why I told my daughter on Friday morning that we would not be cutting down our tree that day. Who could think about cutting a tree down under that blistering sun?  Only a fool would cut down a winter tree on such a warm day. My daughter was distraught by the news, even as we spent some of that morning skiing the melting slush at Alpine Valley. Saturday was colder, but still warm. Sunday was chilly in the morning, and knowing I was running out of time to continue this tradition, we loaded up the Gator and drove down the road to pick, cut, and haul the tree that would become our 2017 Christmas Tree.

Fast forward. I sawed the tree down, we hauled it back on the roof of our UTV, my daughter beamed. I trimmed the trunk, crammed it into the heavy iron base, and in spite of five watchful eyes, the final adjustments to plumb and level left us with a tilting fir. The tote of 2016 lights was pulled from the corner of the basement, and the light checking process began. First strand. Works! At least a few of them did. The first half didn’t, the second half did. The next strand, nothing. And the third and fourth, nothing. A few more half strands, a few more duds. When the lights were all checked there were three sections in the working pile and ten in the garbage pile. The lights that I bought last year, carefully unwound and stored in my lidded tote, were duds.

Walmart could save us from the darkness, but when I stood in the light aisle, jostling for position and staring at the bounty of different lighting options, I felt uneasy. I know not to buy colored lights. I know not to buy flashing lights. The strobe effect is dizzying.  There were LED and green wires and white wires, and larger bulbs and smaller bulbs. Bulbs shaped like teardrops and others shaped like gum balls. Some smooth and others rough like a cheese grater.  I’ve erred before while buying lights, falling victim to the white wire strand when I clearly wanted the green wire. I surveyed the wall of lights. My daughter stood back, silent, knowing this was a decision for a father. For a man.

My wife had mentioned some lights she liked in the RH catalog. But this was Walmart, and so I’d have to match the fancy style with whatever lights were available in Delavan on that day. I settled on some LED lights that promised 25,000 hours of lighting.  The bulbs were shaped, the glass etched, they were fancy. Expensive, considering the other lights on those shelves.  I felt like I was doing the right thing, right by my daughter, right by my wife, right by the planet, on account of the LED.

I’m a big fan of the big reveal, which meant I wouldn’t turn on one section of lights before the entire tree was lit. The six boxes were enough, if a bit light, as I should have bought seven. Maybe eight. But the tree was lit and the ladder was needed to get close enough to the top of the 15′ Fir.  Now all we needed was an extension cord. After scouring the Christmas Totes, we had none, but we did have those left over strands of lights from last year, so we used that twinkly section to connect the outlet to our new, beautiful LED lights.  There was no hurrah, no particular fanfare.  No Griswold moment of delayed satisfaction.  But when I plugged in those lights something awful happened. The LED bulbs turned on. Their eery, cold light pushed through the pine needles, barely. The late afternoon sun was fading by then, but the now lit tree somehow made the room darker.  The lights weren’t white, not really. They looked white on the box. They looked white when we put them up. But now electrified, they were blue. I checked the remnant boxes that were scattered on the floor. Cool White. I bought Cool White LEDs, which are cleverly named because no one in their right mind would buy blue Christmas lights.

The greatest trick the devil ever played was not making people believe he doesn’t exist. No, the his greatest trick was in labeling blue lights Cool White. Tonight, there’s no need to ask me what I’ll be doing. I’ll be taking down Christmas lights and replacing them with ultra cheap, warm, glowing, green wired Christmas lights. And next year, I’ll throw those new lights into the garbage, because that’s our tradition.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

Halloween is a stupid, fake holiday. There, I said it. It’s absolutely the worst fake holiday there is. I’ll take Sweetest Day over it, and I don’t even know when said day occurs.  Easter is a great holiday, even if my wife tells me it has pagan roots, just like Christmas. Both of those Holidays are not universally adored, because both are Christian holidays heavily connected in tradition and procedure to the aforementioned pagan celebrations.  Labor Day is nice, but is it? Memorial Day is something everyone can get behind, but this isn’t a Holiday with a season so much as a long weekend. Holidays, they’re confusing, and they’re different for each of us. Well, except one Holiday. The King of Holidays, Thanksgiving.

There is no one alive who wishes for Thanksgiving to go away.  Try to even imagine such a person.  Even Ebenezer Scrooge was well known to enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey, even while he displayed open disdain for the Christmas Goose. See, everyone likes Thanksgiving. Even Canadians and people who willingly vacation in Michigan.  Thanksgiving is the one weekend when everyone is in disagreement over something said at the table, or over the way something was prepared (my mom shouldn’t cook her turkey in an oversized crock pot), but when everyone is also in agreement. Thanksgiving is the best. That’s undisputed.

But what is thanksgiving? Not the capital T holiday, but the lower case t act? If we’re thankful, which we know we should be, to whom are we to be thankful? I admit I struggle with being thankful. I have a very hard time balancing being content and striving for more. I don’t know where the balance is. If I’m grateful and thankful, does this mean I’m content? It should, I think. But I admit that I am not. Ask my wife. I’m not predisposed to contentment, even if I am predisposed to be thankful. Indeed, shouldn’t one require the other? This is my personal struggle, the feeling of a unique form of driven anxiety coupled with an understanding that my life, while far from perfect,  has been pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Today, my children are healthy. My son is addicted to some Starwars video game, and my daughter hates homework, but things are, on balance, good. My wife is struggling with an unfortunate deer hunting incident from last weekend, wherein she was an unwilling accomplice to Buck murder,  but that’s a story for another time once the wound isn’t so fresh. Her figurative wound, not the Buck’s mortal wound. That wound isn’t fresh anymore. But still, my wife is well and my kids are well and I love them all dearly. I almost wrote deerly, in reference to the murdered Buck, but I didn’t think you’d get the joke.

This week, like every week, I’m going to try to be more thankful. To be more understanding. To be less frustrated and more content. This week, like every week, I’ll fail. But I adore Thanksgiving, and the way it brings a family together to give thanks for the many blessings that have been dropped squarely into our unworthy laps.  The thing is, while my family will have disagreements and spats this weekend (like every week), we know to whom we are thankful.  And that’s really what this Holiday is all about.  We’ll enjoy this week and keep with us an attitude of thankfulness to the bestower of these blessings.

 

Photo Courtesy Matt Mason Photography.
In Praise Of November

In Praise Of November

Writing hasn’t been easy lately. It’s not that I don’t want to write, because I do. I want to write. If I write that enough I might believe it. If I believe it then I might act on it. If I act on it, well, then it’ll be true. But it’s not just the writing that has proven more difficult these days. It’s everything. It’s the typing and the talking and the sleeping. A poll would be helpful, something to find out when sleep no longer comes softly and easily. I’m at the point now, just a few months shy of forty, or a few months into 39, depending. I want to be productive. I want to keep this business moving forward at this pace. I want to do lots of things, but it’s November, and how many times can I beg you to hire me?

But the afternoon yesterday was gray and dark. It wasn’t ominous, no, ominous is something that happens in June, or April. Something that happens in July, when the clouds are low and the lightening strikes. They say November is the clash of seasons, of warm air and cold air battling over this town. But there’s no battle really. The warm air has already lost. These are just the last puffs of life, the last hints of warmth on our cool skin. It won’t be warm again for quite some time. The cold air has won. Winter will be here soon.

This is the in between. There is cold rain in April, but no song was ever written about it.  We should give thanks in June, but no one gets Thursday off in June. We harvest in May, that first sweet crop of hay, of rye and clover, but no one counts the harvest then. A year is not made in June and it is not lost then, either. But it’s November now, and it’s time for all of those things. It’s time for dark skies and faded leaves. It’s time for one last mow of the season. For me, this week will be my third last mow of the year.

There is great mourning now. Long pauses about how awful things are now, and how great they were then. Summery things are memories now, and those who found time to make some have a greater sense of what is now lost. I’d rather be boating, the bumper sticker says. It’s true in November, for most. But it’s calm out now and it’s gray and when people text me about how depressing this weather is I tend to take offense. What is so awful about it?  Is there not equal beauty in that field with the low sun peaking through on the western horizon, lighting the stalks of just harvested horse corn? Field Corn, my  Grandma May would chide.

The Tribune yesterday was filled with skiing. Snow, mountains, West. Buy skis now, before they’re all sold. Buy your Epic Pass by November 19th, the ads and my son warn. It’s urgent really, this warning. Do This or you’ll miss out.  Do This or be stuck. People are fleeing to the islands now. To warmer weather, of any sort. Desert, with purple horizons. Mountains, capped with increasing snow. Beaches, dazzling turquoise. Warmth and sand, sweat and TSA. Travel Now, the Tribune said. Make Plans Now, an admonition. If you don’t, you know what will happen. Winter is coming. Run while you still can.

But why would I run? Why wouldn’t I want to see that field, bright and yet dull, vibrant in a shade of browns and grays that no beach could ever, ever match. Why does everyone hate November? Why is the harvest not magic? The granaries overflowing with corn and beans, the tractors slowly plodding down a two  lane country road, throwing mud into the air and slowing the scant rural traffic, the scene decidedly and undoubtedly perfect. Our fields now are as beautiful as any beach. Any mountain. Any desert sky, no matter how faded purple and pink it may be.  November isn’t the in between, not at all. November isn’t a fight between winter and fall. It isn’t something to run from. It’s just a month, deserving of your admiration, requiring nothing but your presence.

Wreath Sale

Wreath Sale

I should have started a cooking blog.  My first post would have been about chocolate chip cookies. That’s SEO gold. I’d sprinkle in mentions of famous chefs’ names, and then, by now, after so many years I’d have a tremendous following. I would write a cook book. People would buy it. I’d be a guest on some cooking shows. Probably Ellen would also have me on.  Things would be better then. I’d have a publicist and an agent. Then I’d have my television show. My blog would be somewhat dormant by that time, but then every once in a while I’d write something. DAVE’S BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES. The likes and shares would be uncountable.

But instead I write about real estate, and no one really cares. Some people care, but they cared more when they felt the market needed a steadier hand. Now it’s just a frenzy, and careful contemplation is out of style. That’s why I’m going to write about wreaths today. My wife has been bugging me to write about these wreaths for a month. I told her I would. I wasn’t sure if I actually would.  It didn’t feel appropriate to write about wintery things in the heart of fall. It would be like writing about fall in July. No one wants to hear that nonsense.  This morning it’s cold, it’s dark, and anyone who isn’t aware of the pressing nature of the winter season simply hasn’t been paying any sort of attention. Today, wreaths.

My kids are selling the wreaths. They aren’t selling them because they particularly want to sell them. They’re selling these wreaths because they go to a small private school, and as is the nature with small private schools in rural areas, there’s nothing easy about making payroll. There’s nothing easy about keeping the lights on. There’s nothing easy about any of it, and so fundraisers are not so much a means to buy neato wiz bang technologies for the school, they’re a way to keep the doors open.  I don’t often appeal to this group for fundraising efforts, but since it’s a Monday and my wife is mad at me, here’s the information. Besides, I don’t even have a terrific chocolate chip cookie recipe.

If you’d like a wreath, or a bunch of wreaths, or some garland or maybe some other bits of greenery, here are your options. You could just shoot me an email and tell me what you’d like and I’ll put in the order. I believe the wreaths arrive something around Thanksgiving, so I’ll be heading out at that time with my kids and we’ll deliver your order.  Maybe my wife is right. Maybe you’re going to buy some wreaths anyway so you might as well buy them from someone who will bring them right to your doorstep?

 

The Fall Of It All

The Fall Of It All

I already know the sort of fall you like. I know the sort of fall everyone likes. It’s the fall we had last Saturday. Sunshine, 70 degrees, bright leaves and a deep blue lake.  A cloudless sky, excepting a few puffers pushed from the South and out to the East by a weekend wind. Boots and leaves, orchards and pumpkins. Walks along the shore path with dogs. Happy dogs. Happy people. Happy skies and happy days. This is nice that you’re so positive all the time, so nice that fall can behave like this, much to the delight of the fall enthusiast. Fall, it generously gives the soft people the fall they so badly desire.

But fall isn’t just like this. Fall gives to people like me, too. It’s not that I don’t love the above fall, I do. When I spent a few hours boating last Saturday with clients and friends, I wasn’t mad about this. The kids flopped around on the tube as we whipped from shore to shore, basking in the waning warm rays of 2017. I enjoyed it as much as anyone, but not more than anyone. I just enjoyed it, enough. But the time for that has past. The time for the soft fall is nearly over.  The opportunities for the casual fall enthusiast to stroll over bright, crisped leaves have just about expired. It’s still fall, mind you, still delicious, wonderful fall, but it’s about to be fall for the serious. Fall for the brooding. Fall for the hardened.

This fall comes with little warning.  Fall might blow bright on a Saturday and dull on a Sunday. When the crisp leaves no longer crunch and instead cling, gummed to the bottom of a nearly soaked boot, this is the fall that the masses dislike. It’s so wet, they’ll say. It’s so dark, my wife will say. It’s so muddy, someone else says.  It’s raw. The temperature might not break 50. If it does, it’ll settle at 51. The wind will blow. The leaves will strip. The gutters will clog. When we drive by the pumpkin patch we won’t hear laughter. No children searching for the perfect, orange gourd. We’ll just drive past without slowing and see the withering, muddied field, wondering why the farmer planted 10,000 pumpkins when he knew he’d only sell 600.  Real fall is full of second guessing.

This is the fall I love. The fall that’s dark. The fall that’s cold. The fall that might be wet and windy on Tuesday and dry and cloudy on a Wednesday. I don’t need the sun like you do. I need the comfort of a low sky. I crave the familiar of a late afternoon that already feels like evening, when the only lights visible are the window lamps, warming a room and reaffirming the distinct difference between inside and outside. In summer and in soft fall, the distinction is blurred. Windows are opened, doors left cracked open, wedged there by a fall boot that has no summer use. In the fall, the boundaries are once again established. Inside it’s warm and it’s soft and it’s comforting, the fire slowly consuming. Outside, the woodsmoke hangs just under that low sky and the deer walk quietly through the tall faded grass.

This is the fall I love. It might still be bright, some days. Peak leaves will be peaking this weekend, assuming they all haven’t been forced to the ground by the wind and the rain. It’s going to be cold this weekend. It’s cold now.  Some will run for the warmth of southern Florida. Others will wish they could escape the drear. The happy fall lovers will find this unsettling, while I’ll try to hide my enthusiasm. Because fall isn’t just for you. It’s for me, too.

 

 

Construction Sadness

Construction Sadness

I’ve decided, in the wake of the Cubs miserable, awful, embarrassing performance this week, to make every post a sad one. Monday, Multiple Offer Sadness. Today, Construction Sadness. Friday, likely, NLCS Sweep Sadness.  For those not paying close attention, I have been building a small fishing cabin not too terribly far from Walworth County. It’s not super far, but it’s still far. It’s far enough that it breaks my own rule for vacation home proximity, which is similar to last week when I broke my own rule about not burning fires until such and such. The rain was a cold rain!  And in the case of this proximity breaker, the trout fishing was just not good enough closer to home.

My relationship with construction is complicated. Extremely complicated. On one hand, I crave it. I enjoy the creativity the process allows. I enjoy the implementation of a vision. Sometimes, it’s a vision that only I can see, and so I take great pride in delivering what no one else expected. Earlier in  my life, this took the form of remodeling projects. When visitors would stop during various stages of the disaster that is a gut remodel, they’d shake their heads. They’d tell me they don’t think it’s going to work. I paid too much. I improved too much. I was always disheartened by those words, but they fueled my desire to deliver a product that would defy their negativity. In the end, the projects all resulted in success.

The last few construction projects have been new builds, from the ground up. This process is different but still the same. It requires a vision, but mostly it requires dedication to the process. The last house I built is the house I live in now. I finished that home in 2013, and it’s been a dandy of a house for me and my family. The construction process at that house was unique, in that I built the home when the market was poor which meant plenty of tradespeople were willing to work for reasonable wages. Further, those who weren’t affordable were available, and the project started in September and finished the next May. The current project is a handful of highway hours away, in a county where no one knows me and I know no one, in a region where work is a nice suggestion but not really something toward which anyone feels a particular fondness.

Once the land was purchased (that took two full years of searching), the project began. It was a modest project. 1200 square feet, give or take. A rectangle of a house with a tall gable and some cedar shingles. Much to the horror of this Lake Geneva market, I stained the shingles black. Like the night (my wife did much of the staining).  The bathrooms were lined with marble, or are, at least in theory, in the process of being lined with marble. My tile guy hasn’t reported for duty for a few months, but I’m sure he has a terrific reason.

When ground was first torn up by the rusted dozer that cut a twisty path up the side of that hill, the goal was to have the house finished in four months.  Maybe four and a half. Maybe less.  The dozer cut that path 16 months ago. The house is not yet finished. In fact, the house is not even close to being finished. I tell my wife that it’s almost done, and then I look over the list of things remaining. Trim, paint, floors, tile, bathrooms, plumbing, kitchen cabinets, countertops, appliances. It’s really not much of a list, or so go the unconvincing lies I repeatedly tell myself. The project, once a chorus of so much enthusiasm and light, has turned into a dirge.

The process has, however, afforded me many lessons. I sympathize on a deeper level with my Illinois clients who have a hard time getting contractors to do work here. I understand customers who are embroiled in multi-month, multi-year construction projects. How can something take so long? It just can. And I understand that better now.  In spite of the deep construction based depression that has consumed me, this project has given me an opportunity to practice what I preach. Give the market what it doesn’t expect. If the market expects carpet give it hardwood. Make it wide plank. If the market expects vinyl, give it cedar. If ceramic bathrooms with one piece plastic showers are good, then line the bathroom in marble. If Home Depot light fixtures light the neighboring comps, send all of your money to Restoration Hardware and use their lights instead. Markets give clues as to what construction standard is acceptable. If the market is nuanced and there’s an opportunity to create value by creating a superior product, then create it.

Ban

Ban

It’s late and I’m here and I should be wondering why. But I’m not wondering at all. I know why. It’s because I was meant to be here.  Something prompted me to stop here. Something beyond my control. Something urged me to stop at this office so late into the night, when there was nothing really that I needed to do. I checked Twitter. I checked the Cubs score. I checked Facebook to see if I missed any cat memes. I checked the MLS. I made the mistake of checking an investment account. I did the things I thought I should do. And then I saw something that I had recently thought I had long ago forgotten.

The picture was innocent enough. A pier. That’s all it really was. A pier on the lake. The pier was white, as it should be. The water was clear, as it should be. The pier and the water were unavoidably Geneva. I know this when I see it, without context or tip. I know it because I’ve spent all of my years here, never wandering away for any reason good or bad. Never chasing something I wrongly thought was better. The pier was fine. But on the right side of the image, tethered to the pier, protruding down into the water and deeper still into my consciousness: A metal ladder.

It’s been some time since I’ve been so offended. Stand or kneel, it’s up to you. But the only time I’ll kneel is on a white wooden pier with a drill in my hand as I unscrew the unholy connection between wood pier and steel ladder. It might be aluminum, that wouldn’t matter. If it’s staunchly upright and it’s metal colored and I know it isn’t made of wood, then it’s not something that I can abide. It’s not something any of us should abide. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand here and watch metal piers take over my beloved lake. What’s next, synthetic lawns?

There are very few rules here. Hardly any, really. Don’t send money to fire departments so they can buy cartoonish fireboats with it. That’s one rule. Don’t buy a pontoon boat. Yes I know it’s so comfortable and I know you can sit on it like it’s your living room, but just don’t. That’s another rule. Paint your pier white, even if you’re a Wrigley.  Don’t let your children wear floaties if they’re over 10 years of age. But these rules pale when stacked against the one unbreakable rule. Metal ladders are for metal piers. Metal piers are for other lakes. Wood ladders are for wood piers. Our piers are made of wood. Douglas Fir, to be exact. Respect the pier. Respect your feet. Respect my eyes. Ban the metal ladder.

Bored

Bored

The West is burning. It’s been burning for quite some time. From Los Angeles to British Columbia, it’s all ablaze.  Their smoke bothered our Labor Day Weekend skies, casting a silver shade over our otherwise perfect sun. The forests are burning and the grasslands, too. Animals are hiding in swimming pools. The smoke chokes. The residents lie fitfully in their smoky beds, gasping through the thick air. I’ve been told for ages that mountain air is crisp and delightful, clean and pure. This is the other sort of mountain air, and it’s no good, not for the animals, not for the fish, and not for the residents.

The South is flooding. Palm trees swaying, ripped from their shallow, sandy home. Street signs twist in the wind. Garbage from one house blows to another, from one county to the next, up the coast and around and around. The storm was coming for a while, so slow it seemed as though it might never arrive. But it did, and the storm surged and the houses flooded and the people blamed the government.  Weathermen braced against the wind in displays of strength and hubris, delightfully unaware of the mockery their spectacle encourages.

In Texas, the stench of drying flood waters fills the air. It’s hot. And wet. Too hot and too wet, and the air is still and it smells and there’s no where to go. Wait, they must. The waters have receded, or they are receded, how could I know for sure? The flood waters are terrible and the wildfires are burning and the smoke follows its stream to the other parts of this country and the one above. An earthquake shook Mexico, shook it something terrible.  But the news has no time for the earthquake and the fires and the other hurricane. There is a storm in Florida and it’s blowing and it’s flooding and some would say it looks like the worst thing they’ve ever seen. Others say it’s nothing but a summer storm. Either way, it’s all terrible and it’s all bad.

And here I am. I’m looking out my window like I do every morning. The sky is blue. Powder blue to be precise. The trees are fading but they’re still very green. The grasses in my office garden look beautiful, even the coneflowers with their dark, dried seeds and leaves look delightful. It’s crisp this morning, like it has been for the past dozen or more.  There’s no reason to think today will be unlike those other days, with mostly sun and some thin, wispy clouds. Are those clouds or just the remnants of the western fire? No one knows. We don’t really care. It’s just another Monday and the temperature is perfect and the grass is green and later the lake will fill with some September activity. Not too much, just enough. That’s the thing about the Midwest.  The coasts call it boring. The mountains call it flat. New York doesn’t know where it is. But on this morning, with so much to worry about in the world and so much remembering to be done, there’s a place where life happily marches along. It’s called the Midwest.

Home

Home

My wife has adopted a particular driving habit. No, not the way her car crowds mine in the garage. They just want to be together, she says.  And not the way her foot lacks the ability to slowly and responsibly adjust the pressure to the gas pedal. It’s a road trip habit, but really whenever we’re driving, anywhere. A license plate from Manitoba. She spots them from miles away. Then she accelerates (see earlier note) to catch a glimpse of the truck, or car. Does she know the driver? She must, or so she thinks. She’ll wait outside restaurants for the plate owners to finish their meals so she can find out if, by some chance, she knows them.

The truck had a Manitoba license plate. It was southbound, as most plates from Manitoba tend to be, on that wide interstate. Traffic was hustling, but alternating between the hustle and a crawl with a complete stop thrown in now and then for good measure. The plate was affixed to a truck, a big truck, but not a semi. It was a dually, not unlike the truck my friend Eric’s dad drove in the early 1990s, but this one was newer, bigger, with dirt dried onto the paint around the wheels, up the tailgate, on the hood. The driver was going somewhere in a hurry. I sped up to see if I recognized the driver. I didn’t.

A horse trailer had 11 stickers of horses on the back of it. Five on one door and six on the other. The sticker horses were bucking, jumping, kicking.  11. I figured there must have been 11 horses in the horse trailer. Who would put 11 stickers on if there were only two horses in the trailer? The number seemed arbitrary, which means it must have been specific. The trailer was from Oklahoma, presumably as was the truck towing it. I couldn’t catch a glimpse. Just as I intended to accelerate the traffic turned to a crawl. All four lanes in either direction, crawling on a road meant for supreme and uninterrupted speed.

Feet on the dash. This isn’t something I’ve ever done. I’m too tall, I think. I did sit in the passenger seat once with my feet out the window, but that was when driving to a new fishing spot from an old fishing spot. My waders leaked something awful.  My socks were tucked into the outside of the backseat windows, flapping in the wind to dry. My feet outside the front window felt rare, like some sort of treat, born of necessity but also pleasant and curious.  After the interstate drive, I felt less special, less unique. Everyone drives with their feet on the dash, even if the truly brave (like me) go fully out the window.

The plates were mostly from Illinois. Trucks, cars, SUVs, campers even. Lots of trucks towing things. Bikes, both the motorized and regular kind. Fishing boats, some small, mostly smaller. But also four wheelers, loaded with mud, empty gas cans strapped to the front of the trailer. The various automobiles whipped past me, as I screeched along in the left lane, my rear calipers recently having decided that they had had enough of the squeezing and releasing.

But where were all these people going? I knew were I was going, but that was the only puzzle I could solve. Some answers were easy to guess. Arlington Lexus, the license plate holder said. Perhaps that driver with his wife blabbing in the front seat and his children glued to their individual screens in the back; perhaps he was headed to Arlington Heights. White Oak and Vail, maybe, somewhere near where my grandma lived for all of her best years. Other plates weren’t so easy to guess. Ah, but there’s a Cayenne with The Exchange written on it. North shore, for sure.

Traffic stopped again. Why would it stop now? Out of nowhere, with no construction tonight, as the flashing signs clearly stated Monday-Friday Road Work. It wasn’t one of those days, so why now? I thought of my brakes and imagined smoke pouring from the metal on metal grind. It was a truck, Illinois plates, pulled over on the shoulder, which wasn’t very wide, to re-position two kayaks on his roof.  Probably a weekend trip to the Wisconsin river, I guessed. Maybe the Kickapoo, but the Kickapoo is still high and dirty from the two weeks ago storm.

My exit. A couple of roundabouts and I found my way back onto a two lane county road, the sort that leads from the wide road and to my narrow gravel driveway. Turn right at the gas station, left twice and one more right.  Corn fields and soybean fields as far as the eye can see, or at least until the next tree line of Mulberry and Boxelder. The last turn onto my slow driveway, chickens on the lawn, eating whatever it is the chickens eat. I was home.

But where were the other drivers headed? Where were those Illinois plates going? John Kass told me most are leaving, most unable to accept a tax increase that puts them in an elevated tax bracket still far below mine in Wisconsin. If this mass exodus required the last carload to turn the lights out, where were these Illinois plates traveling in those southbound lanes so late into the fading Sunday sky?  The were going to the same place I was.  Home to the place where the roads are familiar. Home where the sporting team wears our favorite logo. Home, just past the school where their son bench sits with the football team and their daughter starts volleyball soon. On a road filled with travelers, only a few were weary. Most were just on their way home.

My Son’s First Job

My Son’s First Job

My first job was a job that I now think I’d rather not have had. I mowed lawns. Lots of them. Every week I mowed. Twenty weeks, sometimes more. If an August drought persisted, maybe less. I had an orange lawn tractor and a matching trailer and I’d drive around town and mow. I never really wanted to mow, of course. My dad made me. I remember dreading his heavy morning footsteps on the stairs. I’d hear them, and I’d know it was time to work. It was always time to work. They were coming to wake me up, to tell me it was going to rain, and the lawns had to be mowed.  I was just a kid, and while my friends rode their bikes around town and flirted with the red-suited beach girls, I drove my little tractor across the road, stopping only for a few quarters worth of gas from Herb’s and an egg roll and Sprite from Doc’s.

I guess I used to be proud of that work ethic. I used to remind myself of an old saying, “in order to make a success of old age you have to start young”. What a terrible thing that is to say.  I look back at my childhood now, thinking about all the time I spent working, and I wonder why.  Do I get to retire early because I mowed lawns when I was 13? Do I have some inordinate amount of money because I mowed 31 lawns a week at age 16?  The obvious answer to both questions is a resounding no. Did I learn to work? Sure. I learned to work, but some days that doesn’t feel like such a feat. Everyone works. Some work harder and some work less. But we all work, we all work, and when we’re done working we die. Why speed it all up and make a kid burn his lungs while washing out buckets of bleach for the guy who sold the contents of those buckets to restaurants? Did I really need that job, too? Why work at Doc’s on Saturday mornings in the winter, when that’s when the best cartoons were on? Why place such a burden on a kid when he’s just that, a kid?

My son started his first real job last week. It’s at a restaurant, bussing tables and washing dishes. It’s doing the things I did for Charley O. My son wanted the job because he felt like he needed some money. His friends buy shoes for hundreds of dollars. They have iPhones and iPads and iMacs. They have everything that he doesn’t. And they have these luxuries because they work.  And so it went, a desire for money and the just requirement of work to obtain it. He was beaming after his first day. He made $55. Or was it $70? I don’t know. I don’t really care. He opened a new bank account, this one near the restaurant, so he could walk from work to the bank. Depositing his money, like a real grown up. Saving for this and saving for that, and spending on this and spending on that. He has to work four days this week.  After his last shift his feet hurt and his back ached, but he’s happy about it.

I want to be happy for him. I want to be proud of him. But why should I be? Why does work have to define us? Why does he need to hurry to work when he just turned 14?  The answer, we tell ourselves, is that he needs to learn a work ethic. He needs to learn how to take instruction. To be berated for failure. To be praised for success. I understand these things. I used to work so hard for the same results. I wanted the money. I wanted the responsibility. I wanted the acknowledgement. I wanted to be told I was doing a great job, and at such a young age. Looking back, I just wish I had spent more time at the beach with my friends. I wish just once I went to a summer matinee at the downtown theater.  I wish I hadn’t grown up fearing the sound of my dad’s footsteps on the stairs.

But so it goes, my son, the worker. I’m proud of him. But I’m sad at the same time. The cycle of work only ends when we’ve won the game or the game beats us. There is no other way out. The working life is always there, always waiting for us, always expecting us to join in, always making us feel like someone else is working harder, achieving what we want. Must we do this at age 14?  I’ve done okay, I don’t need his help buying groceries. He’s starting his work life, and sadly, unless he can break a couple generations of an unhealthy emphasis on work and a narrow fixation on money that only seems to intensify as we age, it just might ruin him. I hope that it doesn’t.  I don’t want him to fear the sound of my footsteps outside his door. I don’t want him to always think it’s going to rain. I’d rather he just live, and enjoy his young life before the time for work is unavoidable.

Maybe Jackson Browne was right. Maybe we just should say a prayer for the Pretender. Who started out so young and strong. Only to surrender.

 

 

Author’s note:

 

This post generated quite a bit of commentary. I should probably clear up a few things. This was not an “anti-work” post. It was simply a post about the attitude towards work when we’re young. Work is good and necessary, but an attitude that values work over everything else is not good. The post was also written with some sadness as I watch my little boy grow up lightening speed.

Patterns

Patterns

There’s a pattern to these roads. Not the roads down here, but the roads over there. The roads that lead to the places where people need to be. The road from this town to that town. The road itself, the two track, lines optional. There is no shoulder here, and what was left has been washed out routinely over the past months. The farmers rake and sweep to make the shoulder whole again, but it’s of no use. The shoulder is gone. They only do the work because farmers follow forecasts and habits,  little else.  But the road wanders and it weaves and soon enough it delivers its cargo from the first town to the second town. There are houses here, the houses in-between. Belonging to neither town, to no particular group. The in-towners have their football team with the shiny helmets and their washed cars. The out of towners, if there could be such a group,  drive dusty-road trucks that are only washed on a clear sky Sunday.

There has always been a jealous pitch in this relationship between these two. The in-towners with their delivered water and their tidy sewer, with their beach passes and their curbs. Their gutters. Sidewalks, aplenty. There are bike lanes and parks and places to walk.  The out-of-towners deride the in-towners for their easy way of living, for the convenience of it all, calling them soft or pampered, or worse. The children walk to school in sandals. Others ride bikes, weaving across the lanes of slow city traffic, without care or obstacle. Weaving like that in the country would get you killed. The out-towners drive to town to pick up their milk and their eggs, their bread.  Oh the irony of those who produce the goods driving into town to pay the city tax when they buy back the items that were born from their part of their non-town.

But the in-towners, intent on raising their own chickens and owning their own bees, they’re equally envious.  Hicks, they’d call the others, hayseeds, sure. They are. But they can have a chicken or twenty and as many hives as they wish without first checking to see if the local ordinance will allow it. The building inspector would tell you that there are too many illegal hives in town, while his inbox overflows with anonymous emails containing links to stories that claim the honey bees are nearly extinct.  That freedom is enticing, but not so enticing that the in-towners would give up their short walk to the corner store and those red beach tags, sewn onto the suits of the bike-riding, shiny helmet wearing town children. The uneasy tension between the two groups is easy enough to feel but easier to ignore.

The bigger issue now is that the bees from the town hives have made their way to the flowers on the outskirts of town, which has led to claims from the out-of-towners that the in-towner’s honey is just as the eggs and wheat and cannot be really and truly their own.

Worms

Worms

Egg crates, that’s what you want. But not the egg crate itself, just the material. Whatever they make egg crates out of, that’s what the worm factory wanted.  They searched high and then they searched low, and they found the company in Indiana. Central Indiana, to be more precise. The business of egg crate material isn’t exact at all. A few pounds of finely milled saw dust, a few dashes of coloring- gray, sometimes blue, and a bit of glue. How much glue depends on the humidity, with great variations possible depending on the time of year in this part of Indiana.

The factory was originally only capable of producing these egg crates. 12 eggs to a crate, maybe 18, with a folding lid.  There’s a factory in Kentucky that can do the larger quantities, vast sheets of egg crate material capable of holding 12 dozen eggs. They stack and they layer and the cartons filled with eggs find their way to the muffin company upstate. But this factory only does the smaller variety, and that’s why they were perfect to recruit for the business of making egg crate worm cartons. The plan was flawless. The sawdust cheap, the glue practically free. And fishermen wouldn’t care if their worms came in gray or blue cartons, which was good, because everyone knew the blue was more expensive.

A mold was made, the batter was poured, and 7-10 business days later the worm company received their first shipment of cartons. The engineer, or at least the man whose work shirt claimed he was, had improvised the worm filling machine to accept these new sized cartons, and the first run was an astonishing success.  The cartons would be fed as sheets, 12 containers wide and 100 deep, where the worms and their newspaper-laced dirt would drop from the hopper into each individual dozen-sized serving.  Farther down the conveyor track, the cartons would separate, like pulling apart a delicate monkey bread muffin, and the worm filled cartons would whiz towards the inspection station.

This station was messy. As you’d expect. The station was originally intended for three inspectors, each with a swiveling chair, but rarely would there be more than one.  Bill showed up on time each day, ready to inspect. His job was simple- to pull out the worms that were cut into unfortunate pieces by the hopper dispenser.  The carton comes, the half-worm is identified and picked out quickly. Bill had a five gallon bucket on the concrete floor next to his chair, and after some months in that chair the motion of picking the wounded worm and dropping it into his bucket was so fluid that sometimes the engineer would drift away from his desk just to watch Bill in action. A poetry, of sorts, Bill the poet and his prose the movement, or so the engineer often thought.

Bill didn’t mind. He knew the bass under the Highway 67 bridge happily accepted his wounded worms just as greedily as they would his whole worms.

After several decades of turning out the finest egg-carton worm containers, the factory turned out its last sheet and closed the doors forever. Plastics were where it was at, and plastics were an entirely different game that the company wasn’t capable of playing.  Worse yet, the company knew these new containers would blow out of the fishermen’s boats and float across the lake, washing up on shore in a tangle of seaweed and trash.

Mayfly

Mayfly

It’s that season again, and with that season, we’ll require a reminder that Mayflies cannot kill you. They can’t give you Zika. They can’t do anything but annoy, and that’s okay. A post from the past…

 

I do not know what a June bug is. I don’t know what sort of bug it is, but I think it’s a beetle. I also don’t know if it’s a June bug, as the month would suggest, or if it’s a Joon bug, which is how I think the spelling is of that movie alongside Benny, which also might be Bennie, but who knows. I know certain things about June bugs. I know that they are bugs, and I know that while they likely arrive sometime in June they most certainly do not only exist during the month that I assume to be their namesake. My daughter’s name is May, but she exists the same in May as she does in June, which is to say that she exists solely for the purpose of torturing her brother and making him feel as though she gets special treatment. She does, but not just in May because her name is May.

Mayflies–I know more about these than I do the bugs that may or may not be beetles that come after the flies. Mayflies aren’t really flies at all. They do fly, but they do not buzz against windows and spoil picnics and touch everything in the way that garbage flies do. Perhaps calling them garbage flies is inappropriate, like calling field corn horse corn, but as I recall fruit flies are more like small bugs, or gnats, than they are like flies, so I’ll assume that fruit flies are like gnats and garbage flies are the flies that we think of when we think of flies. Which is often, in summer. Mayflies, they’re a summer bug too, which is back to our point about those flies existing, at least sometimes, outside of May.

This is the time for these bugs. In fact, it might be past the time for these bugs. They were buzzing while I was working, buzzing in great dark clouds over piers and in front lawns and buzzing next to lilacs as they bloomed and made all the world smell like the pages of Glamour magazine. They were in these large schools, roaming about without moving much at all, hovering, really, hanging out in front lawns and near bushes and over piers and over expanses of calm spring waters. These bugs can, at first, seem daunting. There are many of them, but the swarm doesn’t instill fear like a swarm of bees would. And they don’t instill disgust in the way that a mass swarm of flies would, be those flies garbage flies or fruit flies, it doesn’t matter much. They’re still flies, and a whole mess of them would be just miserable.

I’m sure I saw some of these dark schools of Mayflies during their namesake month, but I can’t remember them this year because I didn’t take any time to smell any roses, or to pick any dandelions, or to walk along the shore path near the water where these bugs like to hang out. I haven’t done these things because I haven’t had the time, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see some Mayflies this year. I did. I saw plenty of them, just not the huge swarms of them that I remember seeing during other Mays from other years. I remember one year when they were particularly impressive. I fished off the Loch Vista pier, casting thin line with small hooks looped through the faces of small minnows. I don’t feel good about doing that to those minnows, but I do feel good about watching a small red and white bobber slip under the still surface, and I feel equally as good about reeling in a smallmouth bass before gently unhooking it and releasing it back to its watery home, so the minnow part is unfortunate but I find that its end justifies its means.

I remember one late afternoon, late enough where the sky was dark but the light hadn’t yet faded enough to be considered night, and I was doing that casting and standing and reeling. The buzz from the Mayflies was pronounced–loud even–and I felt great privilege being on that pier in that scene, watching my bobbers. I’d look away at times, just for long enough to see the cloud of Mayflies dip too close to the water so that the wings of the lowest members would dimple the surface and stick together. The bugs that met the water in this way would stay there, glued to the surface of the calm lake, where they’d lay without hope until a small bluegill would ascend from the depths and sip them, implying politeness while still being ruthless. I watched the scene play out, the falling to the water to become a meal, the bobbers dipping under the surface, the smallmouth pulling away as best they could, the night sky growing dim, the Mayflies abuzz.

This is May, and we’re at the lake. The flies are not flies at all, just Mayflies in some quantity. They won’t bite, they won’t bother, and soon enough they’ll be dead and stuck to spiderwebs under the eaves of our homes and the canopies of our piers. They aren’t anything to fear, no more than we’d fear a Joon bug, or a June bug, or the dreaded Juhn bug.

 

Above, my Lake Geneva Club listing, freshly under contract.
Guest Post

Guest Post

My son had a school writing assignment due this week. I read it and thought it was entertaining. He shares some characteristics with his father. Also, I don’t feel like writing anything this morning.

 

A Great Big Trout

by Thomas Curry
Theres no other way to put it. I’m lazy. That’s why whenever my dad says we’re going to Viroqua, I cringe. I cringe at the fact that I have to get out of bed and drive a total of six hours in a car all in one day. But on every one of those special days that are set apart to go fishing and check up on our cabin thats being built near Viroqua, I eventually muster enough energy and will to get out of bed. I go because of my love of fishing and our soon-to-be-finished-cabin.

By the time we even get to Viroqua, my dad and I have heard every Blink-182 song there is, contemplated whether or not to get the flavor of the day from at least five Culver’s, and we have also already devoured at least one twelve pack of tacos from Taco Bell. But one of the most satisfying parts of going to Viroqua is just looking out the window and watching the topography of Williams Bay slowly turn into the rolling hills of the Driftless. Our first stop in Viroqua is the Food Co-op. There are chocolate covered peanuts at the Co-op. There are also dried mangos and a bunch of healthy food and hippies. This is always our first stop, and usually our last stop as well. The Co-op is mainly where we eat in Viroqua, but there is another place, The Driftless Cafe. My favorite thing to get from there was the Barbecue Panini until one tragic day when they took it off the menu. That was a sad day. After we go to the Co-op, we usually go to our cabin and do some work there. Our cabin is black with a metal roof.

After work at the cabin, it is time to fish. But we are not normal, middle of the road, spin fisherman; we are fly fisherman. We pull up our waders, put on our boots, and “gear up” by putting on our fishing pack full of flies, hemostats, and other cool things. Shortly after driving around and making fun of the out of state fisherman, we find the perfect stream to fish. The stream that my dad and I fished last week was a beautiful, winding stream full of waterfalls formed by springs. There was a pasture next to the stream, filled with cows. Around the stream was tall grass. Although beautiful, at first this stream was not giving us what we wanted- fish.

You see, trout are not like other fish, they can not be caught with ease. Other fish will eat anything you put in front of them. For example, the bluegill. A worm? The bluegill already ate it. A jig? The bluegill already swallowed that. Trash? The bluegill ate that, of course. But try to harass a trout with a jig? The trout is spooked. Other fish are also dumb. The trout is the perfect mix of brain and brawn.

One of the worst parts of fishing to me is when my dad is catching all of the fish and I am catching none. That’s what was happening to me last week for a majority of the time. The turning point of our fishing trip was when we approached a wooded section of the stream. When you are fly fishing trees are actually one of the biggest concerns. Nothing is worse than losing a fly to the clutches of a tree. My dad told me to go up further ahead of him to fish a section of the stream. This section had a tree branch hanging just above the spot where I needed to cast in order to catch a big trout. I cast in that spot over and over until finally I was about to give up. My dad was calling me and telling me to follow him further up stream. “One last cast”, I told him. I placed the final cast right below the hanging branch. The fly drifted for a long time and I was about to move on with my dad when I felt a huge tug on my line, as if I had caught a rock. It was a fish! It was fighting hard as I yelled for my dad to come over. He told me to keep my rod tip up. The fish was extremely energetic, it whizzed all around the stream, back and forth, up and down the stream. Finally the fish was worn out. I picked up the fish and took a picture. It was a brown trout. The biggest of the day.

Every time I go to Viroqua I realize the reason I get out of my bed on those mornings. I get out of bed because of days like these. Days where I catch big fish, add on some calories, and spend time with my dad. Not every kid has fishing days like this. Some kids use spin reels. Some dads make their kids only fish with worms.

The End

Colors

Colors

By now, we all know that things haven’t been going our way. We started out with that winter, so intent on enjoying it and skiing it and sledding it, scraping and shoveling it, too. But what happened wasn’t anything like that. We skied, a bit. Shoveled, a bit. Scraped, some. But the winter had come and the winter has left and nothing really happened. It was a winter without. We knew what would come next, and we waited and we waited and in February it came. Bright spring. Sunny spring. Warm and soft, spring.

That was a few days, maybe four, and it was February and no one thought it was really spring. Winter returned, but it was easy winter, annoying winter, just enough winter to ward off spring.  That winter relapse was quickly forgotten and there have been days of spring, days of warm, soft sun, and days of wicked wind, biting cold. Then the rains came, so many rains with so much water, sheets and sheets and buckets and buckets. No one thought it could last, but it did, and it washed our streets and soaked our lawns and filled our lakes.  The season isn’t so much spring, it’s just a rainy winter.

There are barns between my house and this desk. Many barns. Most are clad in metal, some form of sheet paneling either vertical or horizontal, typically in fleshy tones of white, gray, or brown. In the winter landscape, these barns blend in, offering no excitement, no allure, just utilitarian usefullness. But there is one barn painted the brightest of reds, and in the winter it is a beacon on my drive, a visual reminder that color exists even in the dullest of dark winters. In the spring, too, when the ground is gray and what isn’t is brown, and the tans of the cut corn stalks and the dull olive of the roadside grass means everything is quiet and stark, that barn shines bright and vivid, a reminder of color in an otherwise colorless world.

But these rains and this sky and this gray and this brown, it’s not all bad. My eyes can rest under this sky. There’s no strain here, no squint to see beyond the glow, because there is no glow. It’s just March in Wisconsin and things are easy on the eyes. The north side of Geneva Street is greening this morning.  The grass is greening and the bulbs are shooting and the crocus is blooming. The dull wrens of winter are being crowded out by the orange breasted robins of spring, and soon, the elusive Orioles will coast in on a southerly breeze in search of our fresh cut oranges and our purple grape jelly.  The piers are falling into place, now dulled and chipped by the winter but soon scraped and painted and bright again. The water is warming, slowly, but it’s warming and it’s still blue, even in the face of so much gray it is still blue. The grass is greening and the flowers are awakening and the sky is brightening and soon it’ll be the spring we’ve seen in our minds all winter. Prepare your eyes, the color is coming.

 

Photo courtesy Kirsten Westlake

 

Tired

Tired

Well, today it happened. I’ve officially ran out of things to say. Specifically, of things to write. There’s nothing left. After nine years of doing this, the well has run dry. To be honest, it ran dry a long time ago.  The problem is I can only write about the shore path once, maybe twice. I can’t tell you about how great white piers are but perhaps twice per year. I haven’t written about how great white piers are lately, because they’re mostly all stacked on lawns right now. There’s nothing romantic about a pile of pier on a brown lawn.

I could write about the foreclosure market, as I had intended to, but I realized that I’d just write the things I’ve written so many times before. There are a few foreclosures. None are exciting. There aren’t enough to damage the market in any way, and so on and so forth. I was thinking about writing about luxury markets, how some are slowing, but the ones that are slowing are largely doing so because of a glut of overpriced inventory, or new buildings and developments coming online. Then I was going to say that none of that really matters to Lake Geneva because our luxury market is pretty much devoid of speculation. I was going to write that until it felt tired and played, so I didn’t.

I thought about telling you how the lakefront condo market is doing, and when I looked at the market this morning I did see a couple of pending transactions at Geneva Towers and Bay Colony. But what could I say about the condo market that I haven’t already said? The market is okay but not great, maybe it’s the inventory or maybe it’s the demographics or maybe I don’t really know? I’ve already written that, multiple times.

I could go the way of most real estate blogs and write today about some happening or event somewhere that I don’t really care about. I can’t get excited about things that are lame. Free Movie Friday! That’s what some blog somewhere says, and the agent is smiling and there are exclamation markets galore. But I don’t care about that, and I don’t care about exclamation points because I respect your intelligence.

That’s why I didn’t want to write about the lakefront market again. It’s hot, you know that. I know that. Everyone knows that. The new listings that come to market this spring are going to be devoured by the market if they’re priced even remotely right. This is a problem for buyers because competition based on speed is difficult for most. My buyers tend to be deliberate and smart, which are two attributes that don’t go far in a market based on action not contemplation.

I guess I have to apologize for not having anything to say. It’s just one of those days where I don’t feel particularly introspective and I don’t see anything around me that needs discussion. It’s windy, there’s that. Super windy. Like amazingly windy, but who cares? Not me. So I’m not going to write about it.

All Time

All Time

I’m hearing that this warm up is an all-time high. It’s the highest it’s ever been, so high, so early.  The men said they’ve never seen this before, this early and this high.  The birds fly north in their patterns. The plows hang to the front of the trucks, dry. The television women say it’s never been done before. It’s never been this high.  She delivers the news with a hint of worry in her eye, but the kids get to go to school and take off their jackets during recess, and there’s no ice shelf on the side of the road anymore. The news says nothing like this has ever happened, and an old man sipping his diner coffee says he hasn’t ever seen this, either. He’s old, he’s seen it all. Except this.

The ice is gone now. It’s still there, mind you, but it’s as good as gone.  It’s clinging and it’s shifting and it’s melting from the top and melting from the bottom. Soon, it’ll be dark, gray and wet, rotting. It’s rotting and the robins are flittering and the birds at my feeder and wondering what everyone is so upset about. The ice fishermen haul their sleds onto smaller lakes now, on to flooded byways of the Wisconsin river, those areas where soft ice might mean wet legs but certainly not death. The bluegills are eating wax worms, sometimes on teardrop jigs. The Northern Pike are ready to spawn. The men on their buckets say they can’t imagine anything worse, that it wasn’t like this before, when they were kids and the ice was thick and it stayed, sometimes, until June. We’d play baseball and then icefish after the game, they’d say.

Mark Zuckerberg said Artificial Intelligence is surveilling us. Jeff Bezos is selling the rest of our information to the CIA. Elon Musk said we should adapt so our species isn’t killed off by the Terminators. Join them, become them, then they won’t kill us, he said.  Things are bad. The liberals say the world is coming to an end. That everything is terrible, worse than ever. Nothing like this has ever happened. Dan Rather is ashamed of it all. Of us all.  Brian Williams has seen worse, he says, but he can barely remember those times because of the gunfire and explosions.

The stock market is high, all time high. It’s never been higher. But it’s perfect and scary, because when something gets this high it has no choice but to come down. Will it come down, soon? No one can say. But some are saying it must come down, the same who said it would go lower a year ago, back when things were low but the Liberals said things were perfect and the Conservatives squirreled away food and water and ammunition.  Nothing could be worse than last February, until this February when the market is high and the Terminators are coming for us and there’s really nothing we can do about it. Concrete bunkers are fine, but without proper ventilation they’re nothing but elaborate tombs filled with dehydrated food.

No, nothing could be worse than this time.   Everything is at an all time high. Panic, high. Markets, high. Temperatures, soaring. So high that the water is rising, the water is everywhere and there’s more of it and that’s terrible. California was in a drought, which was awful. Now it’s flooding there and the dam is giving way and nothing could be more terrible than so much water. It’s everywhere, and the great lakes are being drained by thirsty westerners. The pipe line might run through some town, and the people will put up signs that say NOT OUR WATER.  Things for them couldn’t be worse. Times, they’re terrible, nothing has ever been more terrible. The old men at the diner wonder aloud if they’ve ever seen things worse.

The ice is melting. The birds are chirping. The skies are blue, so blue that there might be something wrong. Has anyone ever seen a sky more blue? Should we be worried about this, too? Faith Christian beat Williams Bay in basketball the other night. We’re just a little school down the road from that bigger little school. The score was 80 something to 70 something and when our kids shot free throws the other kids stomped their feet and hissed and booed and clamored.  When we won, the boys were going to take their girls to Pizza Hut in Delavan but the pizza hut is gone and there’s just a sign that says BUY CARS NOW. Things couldn’t be any worse.

Gray Again

Gray Again

What, exactly, are we supposed to do with this?  We wake to the dim light, not because it beckons us but because we must, we sleep with the pitter and the patter of ice and water against our window sills.  We slip over the day, uncertain if the next step will be slushed or wet or frozen, and we return to our homes in the fog of evening, waiting until we can sleep and repeat the day again. Is it Wednesday or Tuesday? It doesn’t matter. Not now, anyway.

I hurt my back the other day doing nothing in particular. It hurts today and it hurt yesterday, and without something changing it’s going to hurt tomorrow. But I’m used to it, like I’m used to this suffocating gray, like I’m used to the days blending and the night coming early. I’m used to all of this, and none of it bothers me anymore. There is nothing important to do today, but there are important days to come, and it’s so easy to prepare under this gray. The gray days are important days because they want nothing from us. They urge us to do nothing. They don’t distract, they don’t consume, they don’t ask. They just are and they leave us alone.

But we need the prodding of a sunny day, and we expect to be rushed and to be hurried and when we are we complain that we have too much to do. There are too many places to be, too many people to see, too many bills to pay. Too much of this and too much of that, and we want to rest. We need to rest. Under the brightest sky we have things to do and those places to find, and when we wish we could just rest. We wish we could find our house in the early evening with nothing to do and no where to go, to build a kindling fire and watch it burn. To eat a slowly prepared meal slowly because there’s no where to rush to, nothing to hurry about, no where calling. We hurry and we race and we wish we could slow down until we can, and then we don’t.

I wish it would be colder and sunnier and I wish the snow would build and the ice would skim and the fishermen would auger and the sailers would affix blades to their boats. I wish these things would happen in this season, but today they won’t. Tomorrow, nothing. Later in the month something might happen, the ice might return, the snow might fall, the men might reel in their tiny fishing poles and boast to the passersby of their pile of flopping food. But none of that is happening today, because today we get to move more slowly. We get to make that fire and eat that dinner and watch that game. We get to do these things and we shouldn’t complain, because these gray days are a gift that expect nothing in return.