Blog : Musings

Seasons

Seasons

In the northern reaches of this state, where monuments to large men and larger fish draw worshippers and summer starts and ends in the span of barely more than a month, there are two seasons. Sugaring season, and the other season. If you’re of the persuasion, that is. Maple trees freely offer their sap for a couple of weeks each early spring,  causing the men and women to take to the woods and spend their days and nights in their sugaring shacks.  They’ll collect and boil, collect and boil, and soon enough they’ll have have enough maple syrup to last a few days, maybe more. It depends on the season.

In those same woods, but farther north, there’s another season. This one overlapping with the sugaring, and running both in the fall and the spring. It’s still one season, mind you, no matter if it comes around twice in the same calendar.  For a while at the start of winter and the end, and at least a bit of the in between, the rainbow trout run out of these great lakes and into so many little streams. They charge in on the first heavy fall rain, and again on the first early spring melt, intent on fulfilling their reproducing responsibilities. The men of the area go out to catch them, the better men throwing flies of varying sizes and intentions, the lesser men reeling back in large spoons or worse, soaking sacks of spawn on the bottom down line from a heavy hunk of lead.

A bit after the steelhead start, the whitetail rut, another season for another group.   Cautious animals abandon that deep seated instinct to chase a more meaningful goal. A doe scatters and bucks chase, while the men who aren’t fishing paint themselves with markers and drizzle urine on their clothes before scaling trees to sit so very still for so very long. Maybe a buck will snort and scratch its way down that path, the one that the hunter cut in August for that very purpose. Maybe the buck will come close enough so the arrow or the slug will find its fleshy target. Maybe it won’t. I’ll cheer for the hunter in theory and out loud, while I quietly but fervently root for the buck.

Down south, another season for another set. Morel season comes and morel season goes, and most of the world is blissfully, but ignorantly, unaware. If a morel is harvested, then ten thousand more wither in their place. This haunts the morel hunter, and the need to capture as many mushrooms as possible in such a short, temperamental window dictates swift and decisive action. This is no prey, in the sense that the hunter and the fisher aim, but it is as confounding of an opponent as the most wary buck or skittish steelhead. This season lasts but two weeks, maybe three, and as soon as it starts, it’s over.  The hunter must prepare, the hunter must pounce, and the hunter must endure the threat of ticks and the anguish that can come from pretending to be unaware of private property boundaries.

Here, too, there’s a season. Just one, really. Off of Geneva Street, just east of the beach, there’s a small road that runs from the north and towards the south from the start of Cedar Point Park and just barely into it. It’s a short road, stubby. An unnecessary road, one that everyone could do without. In preparation of summer time, the village drops a gate there, for some reason or another, to keep passersby from wandering down that little road.  There is no celebrity residing there, no special or unique house worthy of protection. It’s just a road. And in the summer, it’s blocked off. But after Labor Day, the gate is removed, and the thoroughfare of Bayview Road is once again connected to Geneva Street.  In Williams Bay, there are only two seasons. It’s either Bayview closed or Bayview opened, and I don’t have a particular preference.

 

 

One Last Summer

One Last Summer

Somewhere, sometime, there was a decision made. It was a decision based on indecision, really. This would be it. A lifetime here, in this place, but the times had changed. Someone had died. Someone had graduated. Someone had moved. Their fishing hat, with lures he’d never used, still sitting on the mantle. The sailing shirts, accumulated over years of school, still stacked on the closet shelf.  The place looked the same, but something was amiss. A change would be needed, no matter how badly everyone wished that wasn’t true.

Life brings change, no matter fervently how we root against it. There are times I wish for change as well. I live in the country now, content with it all. Content with the chickens and the bees and the dogs running free. But at times, like last night when the air was soaked with moisture and my expansive lawn needed cutting for the third time in a week, I thought maybe it was all too much. Maybe a house by the lake would be nice, with neighbors and a pier and a lawn that wouldn’t need so much tending. Maybe something simpler, something different. Maybe that’s what I need.

We’re all probably the same in this way, and that brings us to the family that decided in January, or last November over a great meal, or in May on that weekend when we remember, that it was time to make a change. The house had been a good house. A capable host. The catalyst for so many things, so many great times, so many memories, some good and others bad. But life changed, and when life changes, houses are often the casualty. The family made the choice back then, to spend one last summer at the lake.

It’s September now. Still summer, sure, but different summer. Old summer. Summer in the present addressed like it’s in the past. Summer, ish. For those families that made the decision, that last summer has run out. The bell has tolled. The clock has struck. The time is now.  If you’ve ever sold a house in this manner, you know this feeling. Regret. Indecision. Resignation.  But time wears on, and movement is inevitable. We’d all like to keep things as they are forever, to feel the permanence and comfort of what’s already known. But sometimes, there has to be a last summer. To those families grasping for one more day of that last summer, we salute you.

 

Gone

Gone

This week wasn’t like the other weeks. It wasn’t like the one before it, or the two before that one. It’s been a week unlike any since this week last year.  No amount of sun can coax the summertime swimmers back to the shallow beaches. No particular special, even the all-time favorites, can tempt the diners back to those summery patios. There’s nothing that can be done now to slow this week down. The next week will come, soon enough. Summer is still here, but it’s mostly just a memory.

And we’re fine with that. Sure, some aren’t. Some are making their travel plans even this morning, as they sense the morning chill of September and wish it weren’t so. It’s too cold to golf today, someone will say. The club in Naples has their annual Welcome Back outing October 21st, and what an event that will be. It’ll be warm and sunny, so long as no hurricanes see fit to disrupt that ideal. What a life it would be, to leave summer and find your way to another summer. So much summer, all summer. All the time, summer.

With age, this is supposed to be what we crave. Summer, only. I had a good friend once tell me that it’s not good for kids to be raised in a climate where half of the year they have to stay inside. I agreed, thinking that Arizona would indeed be a terrible place to raise a family, what with the summer heat. I have other friends tell me they dream of days where they can transition from our summer to another summer, from our blue water to the bluer gulf water. From one summer utopia to a winter utopia that stays dressed as summer each day of the year.  I say this is all foolishness.

We here count our perfect weather days on one hand. Maybe two. This past week was just fine for me, I liked it rather a lot. But it stormed on Monday and it blew on Tuesday and only Wednesday and Thursday were nice days. Today it’s Friday and it’s cool again, cloudy and sprinkly. Like a warm day in late October, except it’s August and some still crave summer. I don’t. The two days this week were plenty for me. I loved them very much, and yet in spite of this affection I feel no particular need to dwell in them. They’re too perfect to expect too often.

It isn’t just late August that has me in this mood. I felt this way earlier in summer, too. A stretch in July where it was hot and sunny, then sunny and hot. A week, maybe more. Steady and unwavering, sweaty and persistent. Then, one day, I woke up to clouds and a wet sidewalk. Rain. My eyes rejoiced in the relief. I needed that day, because who am I if not a Wisconsin creation through and through? I was not made for intense summer, for the constant pressure that it brings. Yes, I know I should go down for a swim because it’s so nice out, but what if I just want to rest once in a while?

Yet here we are. The end of a summer. The kids are back in school, and those that aren’t won’t be able to escape it forever. The forecast still promises summer, and it will for quite some time yet, but the mood has been lost. If you’re sad for that, and you’re ready to escape this place in favor of another place where the summer never stops, I wish you well. I’ll abide your irrational mistake.

But if you’re like me, then you’re reasonably disappointed that summer is over but you’re more than ready for what comes next. You’re ready for cool mornings and still afternoon waters. For a town set free from its summertime rush. You’re ready for all of the joys of a Midwestern fall, and in case you weren’t aware, our kind of fall is glorious in a way that few places can comprehend. But so is what comes after, the cold rain of late October and the transition of color from red and yellow to the dull calm of November. From November to Thanksgiving, to that great feast, and into the first snow. The firewood is idle now, but its time will come.  I, for one, cannot wait.

Not The Same

Not The Same

I don’t really know exactly how Hamburger Helper works. I assume it’s just a powder mix, with some starch to bind and some salt to flavor. Maybe a dash of onion and garlic powder for good measure. I’m guessing you brown some meat, strain off most of the fat, and then stir in this powder. Give it a bit of time on some heat and it thickens and becomes Hamburger Helper. Maybe you add in macaroni or other noodles, I can’t be sure. But whatever you’d made you can eat it, and if you’re not a snob you can recognize that in spite of its name it tastes ok. It’ll satisfy your hunger, much in the way that a fine Porterhouse steak cooked on the dying embers of a wood fire will accomplish the same. Both are food, both come from a cow, and both will allow you to push away your pangs of hunger. In this, they are the same.

When I eat fish fry and tell the world about it, I get mixed reviews on my reviews. Some people like them. Good one, Dave. Other people shake their head because I just insulted their favorite restaurant. Others still tell me that fried fish isn’t good at all. That it’s not really food.  Unless you’re grilling a fine piece of line caught Tuna or a fat sliver of a Swordfish steak that you’re not really eating fish at all.  But that’s where they’re wrong, because I am eating fish, and it did taste fine, and my hunger was satiated. Would a nicely seasoned, seared piece of fresh Tuna be a finer option? Of course it would, but I was just looking to eat an easy dinner with $14.

This market of ours is causing buyers significant pain, as you know. It’s causing strife and anguish and terrible, terrible bouts of regret. Should you have listened to me and bought that lakefront home in 2013? Obviously. Increasingly, as buyers find little to pick over in this Lake Geneva market of ours, they’re turning to other ideas. To other lakes. Other places. Other states (shudder).  Michigan is better they say. Michigan has antique stores! Michigan has more nuclear power plants and more beach syringes!, they plead.  Do you know what Michstakegan also has? Inventory at lower prices. No one will admit this, but inventory and price drive decisions, and if water is water and a tree is a tree, then some water and a tree anywhere will do.

Maybe it’s not in Michigan, maybe it’s here. Another lake, perhaps. Farther away where the dollar stretches a bit.  Beaver Lake, that’s a nice place. Look how clear the water is! Yes, it’s clear and you just might have two or three feet of it off the end of your brown wooden pier. Maybe Pine Lake, where the water is clear and the shoreline green, where you can sit on your dock (they don’t get piers there, these are ours) and watch nothing go by.  If you’d like to sit in the woods by yourself, Pine Lake is fantastic. If you’re hungry and you want to go to dinner but you’re a recluse now and you’ve forgotten to renew your driver’s license you could shoot a deer and eat it. No one will notice.

There are other options. Lots of them. Anywhere you want to go, options.  If your standard for a lake house involves just a house and a lake, this can be accomplished anywhere. Want to save some money? Go to Tennessee, there are loads of lakes there and wonderful, plucked banjos to provide the soundtrack of your float. Or drive to the Northwoods, like so many do. It’s nice up there. Just plan to leave by 5 pm so you can roll in around midnight. Rainy on Saturday, oh well! You can go take your picture next to a giant wooden fish.

As I stood on a pier last night with the last few bits of sun peaking out around the Observatory’s iconic dome, I breathed the scene in. Soft waves, a gentle breeze, a boat or two slowly plying past heading to their nighttime piers. In the shallows, a Huron plucked around the rocks looking for the minnows that couldn’t escape his beak. In the distance, a sailor sitting stationary, hoping for a few last gasps of wind to bring him back to the pier. There’s something about this place that the uninitiated cannot fully grasp. Something rare. A blend of action and solitude, of peace and motion.  Something unique that other lakes simply cannot attain. You could leave this place in search of a lake that will more generously offer you inventory. They’ll give you nice homes for much less money. They’ll give you some water to swim in, no matter if your bathing suit will slowly turn green from the exposure. You could go to these places. But please don’t you ever mistake their Hamburger Helper for our Porterhouse.

Today

Today

It’s another nice day here. The sky is calm and the birds are chirping.  Some water from the sky would be nice, but that’s an opinion only shared by the farmers, me, and those birds.  My Hydrangeas are nearly in bloom. I’m excited to see them again. I planted a few Hydrangeas at my office and they’ve already found the time to bloom and be eaten by the deer that stalk these mean Williams Bay streets under the cover of dark. Come to Nantucket, they say, we have all of the Hydrangeas! Look, some shingles and Hydrangeas and beaten up old shingles. I’ve been looking around here, and we’ve got all of those things. Big deal, Nantucket.

In spite of this delightful sky and these big, white blooms, I can’t help but look forward. It’ll be football season soon, someone just said. 55 days until College Football, written so boldly over a picture of a running back from some school diving into the end zone. I want to resist this. I want to think that football is a silly sport that I don’t even like, and fall is a time that I know will come at some point so why long for it now? Why, under these bright skies and with so much summer still in the tank, do I think about how lovely that first winter fire will be?

It’s July now. My son turned 15 last week. My dad will turn 74 next month. Or maybe it’s 73. Who could know? My uncle turned 60 recently, I think. My cousin got married in May and another cousin announced his engagement in June. I saw a license plate in town the other day, a recognizable plate that I’ve seen in this little town for the entirely of my life. I hadn’t seen the plate for a few years, so when I did notice it I focused on the driver to see if I recognized her. Sure enough, it was the lady who owned that plate when I was a kid, except she wasn’t the woman I remember. She was old and gray, weak in a way. If she’s that old now, so much so that she looked like maybe driving a car wasn’t the best idea, then what does that make me?

Half of the cars driving past my office this morning aren’t even cars. They’re trucks, big ones with trailers toting lawn mowers and weed whips and blowers and gas cans. It’s Wednesday and they’re mowing lawns. They mowed yesterday, too. Last weekend I showed a house in a neighborhood where I used to mow lawns. I looked at one house in particular and remember the owner coming out while I was mowing. He came out to yell. The lawn mower, he insisted, while leaving behind nice striped lines that I was rather proud of, was also pushing the grass down before it cut it. The grass was matted, sort of swept in the direction I was mowing but not entirely cut. As I drove past that house last weekend I stopped and stared at the exact spot that this old man violently raked his leg against the grain of that grass. He was pushing the grass up to show me what I wasn’t doing right.  He was right. I had been doing a less than perfect job. But that old man is dead now and his lawn is being mowed by someone else.

My wife said that her days pass slowly. That summer lasts too long. That time doesn’t march nearly as militantly as those fancy-pants neighbors. But I beg to differ. This morning I was scrolling through the photos on my phone, and found myself looking at 2015. What a year that was. My children were little, still children. We had pictures from vacations to the beach, trips to the ski hills, and afternoons spent splashing under this bright Wisconsin sun.  I looked much younger in those pictures than only three years should look. But I thought about the pictures from this year that I’ll be looking at in three more. How much younger I’ll look today. How much less gray. My son will have graduated high school by then and my daughter will be begging for her first car. Things will be different then, and then is right around the corner.

That’s why today I’m just going to be. I’m going to work and I’m going to play. I’m going to sand down the patio chairs that my wife decided to buy from the resale shop up the road a bit. I’ve been painting them green, like a Paris Patina, apparently.  Later, I’ll swim or maybe I’ll fish. I might see the old lady with the license plate or talk to my dad about what it’s like to get old.  I’ll drop my daughter off at sailing school, and I’ll bring my son with me to the gym and afterwards we’ll all stop at the lake for a swim. He benched 135 for the first time last week.  There’s nothing I can do to stop this fast progression of time, but I can stop to enjoy the unimportant moments once in a while. The moment isn’t some far away vacation. Some dreamt of goal. Some day far into an uncertain future that we’re foolishly counting on.  It’s just today, and it’s another sunny summer day  and we should be swimming.

Scarred

Scarred

It’s still not clear to me whether or not the air conditioning worked. I remember a serviceman arriving in his rusted Suburban, the smell of his cigarettes, the sound of wrenches and hammers coming from the basement. But in spite of those visits,  who could know if the air ever, actually worked?

The excuses were many. It’s an old house, my dad would say. My mom, wiping sweaty bangs from her face, would echo the same. But her words were less certain.  Like she was reciting a line rehearsed in private. In private, from that room at the end of the hall, that larger lakefront room with so many windows, that’s where they hatched the plan. I’ll tell them the house is old, my dad would say. My mom would nod.  They disagreed often, but on this they could agree. No one thought of the children. My dad thought only of the $8 he would save that month from keeping the air conditioning at bay.

I’ve owned plenty of older homes in my life. All of them had air conditioning. I paid to have it installed, because without it there could be no peace. In these older homes, some older than my parents’ home, the same man with the rusted Suburban would take his hammers and wrenches down to the basement. But when he had finished his clamoring there was some obvious sign of his success. Cool, dry, life sustaining air would pump from the registers in these old homes, bringing relief to the residents.

During that sweaty childhood there was an ongoing debate. If the outside, nighttime air temperature was 80 degrees, would it be better to shut the windows and wait for that slow, slight trickle of coolish air to pulse from the scant registers in my room, with the hope that the system would be able to cool the room to at least 79 degrees? Or was it wiser still to leave the window open, with the sounds of the fighting raccoons and the passing nighttime boats, and the slight chance that the air would cool on its own and settle, in the depth of a dark summer night, to 78? This was my arbitrage, a degree or two would make the difference, and the debate raged.  Decision making skills wane during an 80 degree summer night under that blanket of intense humidity and a sheet of still, suffocating air.

Today, I’m want to turn on my air conditioning at the slightest hint of warmth.  Some choose to leave their windows open during soft spring days. I say no, because I have no choice.  On hot summer days when the night cools and the humidity falls, many will open their windows and rejoice in those cool summer nights. Not me. I can’t. I set my air conditioning to 70 in the spring and leave it there until it’s time to switch the cool to heat. I cannot consider another night in a sweaty bed.

It’s been noticed that the thing most of the tortured souls who have been lost adrift at sea crave is ice. Ice cubes. Not water, not food, but ice. The sound of it in their teeth, the sharp sting of cold in their throat. The numbing of their cheeks and tongue.  Lost at sea once, forever in search of ice. I, too, was lost at sea, and I, too, crave the comfort of cold. It’s just that my sea was a childhood bedroom, and it was hotter, and more humid, and my chances of survival, less.

This weekend, it’s going to be hot. You should be at the lake.

Above, my Clear Sky Lodge listing in Fontana. Air Conditioning, included.
Municipal Musings

Municipal Musings

Last weekend, it was hot. You know that. I know that. It was super hot. Smoking hot. Summer hot. If you were here, then you were less hot than the other people who chose to stay there. But still, hot. Williams Bay had a big pile of rocks on its lakefront, with some earth moving equipment stacked next to a small stream that I’d like to have moved. If I do anything in this life, it should be that I’ll have that stream moved.  On Memorial Day, Williams Bay had a nice little Memorial Day Parade. The dandelions noticed. The earth moving equipment, sitting idle for the weekend out of respect, noticed. The trees in the beach park, with weeds growing up around them, noticed. Williams Bay was not ready for prime time.

It was Memorial Day Weekend in Fontana, too. The beach was combed, the large pile of sand pushed up to that child-friendly mound. The boulevards were mowed and trimmed. The baseball diamond that has withstood lakefront re-development was mowed, its infield dragged. Someone might have dusted off the bases, I can’t be sure. The Harbor is new now, shiny and better. No matter that the floating piers are awkward still and they slope unnaturally from shore, and there might be a few too many lights, LED or not. But the Harbor was spiffed and the boats were waxed and the infield was dragged. In the boulevards, flowers bloomed.

In Lake Geneva, the road project near the lakefront was completed. The giant potholes that plagued that lakeside stretch of Main Street have been fixed, and just in time. But the yards that were torn to complete this work were only seeded, not sodded. So the dandelions pushed and the grass stalled. The glistening blacktop flanked by messy stretches of straw and netting. Sod would have been nice, considering it would have required such a modest amount. My friend had a sod farm once.  He closed it down and planted corn, because no one wanted to pay him for his fine sod.

What exactly are these lakeside communities? What do they aspire to be? I contend that only one town here knows the answer to that question. Fontana knows what it is, what it wants to be, where it wants to go. It makes the effort. It sees the vision. It understands the market, the clientele, and the visual that they demand. Williams Bay hasn’t a clue. Not a single, tiny clue. There’s an auto-repair shop with constant torque wrenches and a view of the lake. There are three ice cream shops within a 150 yard radius. Most of the shop spaces are for rent, and those that aren’t will be some day. There’s a piece of vacant dirt in the downtown with a FOR SALE sign. For Rent signs litter the surrounding corners.  Williams Bay is a sleepy hamlet, but it’s only sleepy because it doesn’t have a plan.  Without a plan, why get out of bed?

In spite of Fontana’s confidence and Williams Bay’s awkward adolescence, Lake Geneva is the town that truly isn’t sure of itself. On one hand, a dynamic, rare lakefront. Parks, walkways, grass and water. The new walkway over the beach is smart and shows awareness.  The downtown remains idyllic, even if the rents are too damn high and the result is too many vacancies. The downtown is truly the only thing that needs to remain a draw, and there’s no danger of that status changing. But around that special downtown, what exactly is the City of Lake Geneva doing?

A five story chain hotel adjacent its major thoroughfare? Big Box stores of all makes and models littering its primary entrance? Increased revenue from every angle but no decrease in taxes?  Why is it so had to understand what it is that the residents and visitors want? The Wisconsin Dells is a nice enough place, I suppose. If you get married on a Friday and have no time for anything but a two day weekend, then the Dells is nice. Honeymooning at a waterpark, that’s something. But absent that shot-gun wedding, or a carload of 12 year olds headed for a birthday party, who really wants to go to the Dells? Not me. And not the people who call Lake Geneva home, whether that’s a permanent home or a seasonal one.

These lakeside municipalities have made strides in the last decade, but only one has identified its highest and best use. Fontana, thank you for being what you are. Thank you for understanding yourself. Williams Bay, please, please figure it out. Million dollar bike paths are fine, but are they? Invest in your lakefront. Invest in your downtown. Offer incentives to develop and redevelop your commercial buildings and residential properties that line your main streets. It’s so great that you’ve spent untold millions on your school buildings. Terrific. Now focus on the reason your tax base is so high and your expenses are so low: the lakefront and your general business district. And lastly, to the City of Lake Geneva. Stop it. Be a high end resort town. Every time a new proposal for some new nonsense comes your way just ask yourself: Does anyone like the Dells?

Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day Weekend

To all of the soft people who complain about winter and whine about spring, you’ve made it. I mean, I’ve made it to, to this place, to this time, to this summer. But it’s really about you, the soft-weather-whiner. It’s 80 something and the leaves are green and the shrubs are flowering and the lake is as deep and clear as you remembered it. If you cannot be happy now, will you ever be? Are you not entertained?

This weekend, I wish you a most pleasant time at the lake. This is the weekend to immerse yourself in this scene, in this place, in this thing that we have that’s so very hard to describe. The key to a long summer is to get a head start, to squeeze a few extra weekends early and a few extra weekends late. No matter what happens from here on out, we already have this weekend. Sure, it might rain. Sure, it might get cloudy for a bit. But on balance it’s nice out, and for that, we can all be thankful.

You’ll start seeing my new issue of Summer Homes For City People around town this weekend, and I do hope you enjoy it. I know I don’t really enjoy creating it, mostly because I’m overwhelmed with anxiety when I think about what I might have missed, or what errors slipped past multiple proof-readers. If I make an error on this blog, which I tend to do, it’s not really a big deal. It’s just a bunch of words thrown onto a screen. But in print, it feels so much more important. The magazine is out, with design help from Flair Studio and a new cover by Neal Aspinall.  You’ll find it around the lake wherever cool things are found.

This Memorial Day Weekend, be sure to apply sunscreen. Boat safely. But above all be thankful for the sacrifices made by others so that we can argue over the petty. Today, I’m worried about some deals and about some smudges on a few of my magazine covers. I’m not worried about invading forces from the north, or artillery fire landing near by home. I’m just worried about silly things. It’s the superfluous things for which men sweat (Seneca), but we’re only able to do so because the truly brave have made that possible. My thanks to the veterans, to the active military, to everyone who has given more than I’ll ever be asked to give.

Now, let’s strike the grills and gas the boat. There’s summer to be had.

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.