Egg crates, that’s what you want. But not the egg crate itself, just the material. Whatever they make egg crates out of, that’s what the worm factory wanted. They searched high and then they searched low, and they found the company in Indiana. Central Indiana, to be more precise. The business of egg crate material isn’t exact at all. A few pounds of finely milled saw dust, a few dashes of coloring- gray, sometimes blue, and a bit of glue. How much glue depends on the humidity, with great variations possible depending on the time of year in this part of Indiana.
The factory was originally only capable of producing these egg crates. 12 eggs to a crate, maybe 18, with a folding lid. There’s a factory in Kentucky that can do the larger quantities, vast sheets of egg crate material capable of holding 12 dozen eggs. They stack and they layer and the cartons filled with eggs find their way to the muffin company upstate. But this factory only does the smaller variety, and that’s why they were perfect to recruit for the business of making egg crate worm cartons. The plan was flawless. The sawdust cheap, the glue practically free. And fishermen wouldn’t care if their worms came in gray or blue cartons, which was good, because everyone knew the blue was more expensive.
A mold was made, the batter was poured, and 7-10 business days later the worm company received their first shipment of cartons. The engineer, or at least the man whose work shirt claimed he was, had improvised the worm filling machine to accept these new sized cartons, and the first run was an astonishing success. The cartons would be fed as sheets, 12 containers wide and 100 deep, where the worms and their newspaper-laced dirt would drop from the hopper into each individual dozen-sized serving. Farther down the conveyor track, the cartons would separate, like pulling apart a delicate monkey bread muffin, and the worm filled cartons would whiz towards the inspection station.
This station was messy. As you’d expect. The station was originally intended for three inspectors, each with a swiveling chair, but rarely would there be more than one. Bill showed up on time each day, ready to inspect. His job was simple- to pull out the worms that were cut into unfortunate pieces by the hopper dispenser. The carton comes, the half-worm is identified and picked out quickly. Bill had a five gallon bucket on the concrete floor next to his chair, and after some months in that chair the motion of picking the wounded worm and dropping it into his bucket was so fluid that sometimes the engineer would drift away from his desk just to watch Bill in action. A poetry, of sorts, Bill the poet and his prose the movement, or so the engineer often thought.
Bill didn’t mind. He knew the bass under the Highway 67 bridge happily accepted his wounded worms just as greedily as they would his whole worms.
After several decades of turning out the finest egg-carton worm containers, the factory turned out its last sheet and closed the doors forever. Plastics were where it was at, and plastics were an entirely different game that the company wasn’t capable of playing. Worse yet, the company knew these new containers would blow out of the fishermen’s boats and float across the lake, washing up on shore in a tangle of seaweed and trash.
It’s that season again, and with that season, we’ll require a reminder that Mayflies cannot kill you. They can’t give you Zika. They can’t do anything but annoy, and that’s okay. A post from the past…
I do not know what a June bug is. I don’t know what sort of bug it is, but I think it’s a beetle. I also don’t know if it’s a June bug, as the month would suggest, or if it’s a Joon bug, which is how I think the spelling is of that movie alongside Benny, which also might be Bennie, but who knows. I know certain things about June bugs. I know that they are bugs, and I know that while they likely arrive sometime in June they most certainly do not only exist during the month that I assume to be their namesake. My daughter’s name is May, but she exists the same in May as she does in June, which is to say that she exists solely for the purpose of torturing her brother and making him feel as though she gets special treatment. She does, but not just in May because her name is May.
Mayflies–I know more about these than I do the bugs that may or may not be beetles that come after the flies. Mayflies aren’t really flies at all. They do fly, but they do not buzz against windows and spoil picnics and touch everything in the way that garbage flies do. Perhaps calling them garbage flies is inappropriate, like calling field corn horse corn, but as I recall fruit flies are more like small bugs, or gnats, than they are like flies, so I’ll assume that fruit flies are like gnats and garbage flies are the flies that we think of when we think of flies. Which is often, in summer. Mayflies, they’re a summer bug too, which is back to our point about those flies existing, at least sometimes, outside of May.
This is the time for these bugs. In fact, it might be past the time for these bugs. They were buzzing while I was working, buzzing in great dark clouds over piers and in front lawns and buzzing next to lilacs as they bloomed and made all the world smell like the pages of Glamour magazine. They were in these large schools, roaming about without moving much at all, hovering, really, hanging out in front lawns and near bushes and over piers and over expanses of calm spring waters. These bugs can, at first, seem daunting. There are many of them, but the swarm doesn’t instill fear like a swarm of bees would. And they don’t instill disgust in the way that a mass swarm of flies would, be those flies garbage flies or fruit flies, it doesn’t matter much. They’re still flies, and a whole mess of them would be just miserable.
I’m sure I saw some of these dark schools of Mayflies during their namesake month, but I can’t remember them this year because I didn’t take any time to smell any roses, or to pick any dandelions, or to walk along the shore path near the water where these bugs like to hang out. I haven’t done these things because I haven’t had the time, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see some Mayflies this year. I did. I saw plenty of them, just not the huge swarms of them that I remember seeing during other Mays from other years. I remember one year when they were particularly impressive. I fished off the Loch Vista pier, casting thin line with small hooks looped through the faces of small minnows. I don’t feel good about doing that to those minnows, but I do feel good about watching a small red and white bobber slip under the still surface, and I feel equally as good about reeling in a smallmouth bass before gently unhooking it and releasing it back to its watery home, so the minnow part is unfortunate but I find that its end justifies its means.
I remember one late afternoon, late enough where the sky was dark but the light hadn’t yet faded enough to be considered night, and I was doing that casting and standing and reeling. The buzz from the Mayflies was pronounced–loud even–and I felt great privilege being on that pier in that scene, watching my bobbers. I’d look away at times, just for long enough to see the cloud of Mayflies dip too close to the water so that the wings of the lowest members would dimple the surface and stick together. The bugs that met the water in this way would stay there, glued to the surface of the calm lake, where they’d lay without hope until a small bluegill would ascend from the depths and sip them, implying politeness while still being ruthless. I watched the scene play out, the falling to the water to become a meal, the bobbers dipping under the surface, the smallmouth pulling away as best they could, the night sky growing dim, the Mayflies abuzz.
This is May, and we’re at the lake. The flies are not flies at all, just Mayflies in some quantity. They won’t bite, they won’t bother, and soon enough they’ll be dead and stuck to spiderwebs under the eaves of our homes and the canopies of our piers. They aren’t anything to fear, no more than we’d fear a Joon bug, or a June bug, or the dreaded Juhn bug.
Above, my Lake Geneva Club listing, freshly under contract.
My son had a school writing assignment due this week. I read it and thought it was entertaining. He shares some characteristics with his father. Also, I don’t feel like writing anything this morning.
A Great Big Trout
by Thomas Curry
Theres no other way to put it. I’m lazy. That’s why whenever my dad says we’re going to Viroqua, I cringe. I cringe at the fact that I have to get out of bed and drive a total of six hours in a car all in one day. But on every one of those special days that are set apart to go fishing and check up on our cabin thats being built near Viroqua, I eventually muster enough energy and will to get out of bed. I go because of my love of fishing and our soon-to-be-finished-cabin.
By the time we even get to Viroqua, my dad and I have heard every Blink-182 song there is, contemplated whether or not to get the flavor of the day from at least five Culver’s, and we have also already devoured at least one twelve pack of tacos from Taco Bell. But one of the most satisfying parts of going to Viroqua is just looking out the window and watching the topography of Williams Bay slowly turn into the rolling hills of the Driftless. Our first stop in Viroqua is the Food Co-op. There are chocolate covered peanuts at the Co-op. There are also dried mangos and a bunch of healthy food and hippies. This is always our first stop, and usually our last stop as well. The Co-op is mainly where we eat in Viroqua, but there is another place, The Driftless Cafe. My favorite thing to get from there was the Barbecue Panini until one tragic day when they took it off the menu. That was a sad day. After we go to the Co-op, we usually go to our cabin and do some work there. Our cabin is black with a metal roof.
After work at the cabin, it is time to fish. But we are not normal, middle of the road, spin fisherman; we are fly fisherman. We pull up our waders, put on our boots, and “gear up” by putting on our fishing pack full of flies, hemostats, and other cool things. Shortly after driving around and making fun of the out of state fisherman, we find the perfect stream to fish. The stream that my dad and I fished last week was a beautiful, winding stream full of waterfalls formed by springs. There was a pasture next to the stream, filled with cows. Around the stream was tall grass. Although beautiful, at first this stream was not giving us what we wanted- fish.
You see, trout are not like other fish, they can not be caught with ease. Other fish will eat anything you put in front of them. For example, the bluegill. A worm? The bluegill already ate it. A jig? The bluegill already swallowed that. Trash? The bluegill ate that, of course. But try to harass a trout with a jig? The trout is spooked. Other fish are also dumb. The trout is the perfect mix of brain and brawn.
One of the worst parts of fishing to me is when my dad is catching all of the fish and I am catching none. That’s what was happening to me last week for a majority of the time. The turning point of our fishing trip was when we approached a wooded section of the stream. When you are fly fishing trees are actually one of the biggest concerns. Nothing is worse than losing a fly to the clutches of a tree. My dad told me to go up further ahead of him to fish a section of the stream. This section had a tree branch hanging just above the spot where I needed to cast in order to catch a big trout. I cast in that spot over and over until finally I was about to give up. My dad was calling me and telling me to follow him further up stream. “One last cast”, I told him. I placed the final cast right below the hanging branch. The fly drifted for a long time and I was about to move on with my dad when I felt a huge tug on my line, as if I had caught a rock. It was a fish! It was fighting hard as I yelled for my dad to come over. He told me to keep my rod tip up. The fish was extremely energetic, it whizzed all around the stream, back and forth, up and down the stream. Finally the fish was worn out. I picked up the fish and took a picture. It was a brown trout. The biggest of the day.
Every time I go to Viroqua I realize the reason I get out of my bed on those mornings. I get out of bed because of days like these. Days where I catch big fish, add on some calories, and spend time with my dad. Not every kid has fishing days like this. Some kids use spin reels. Some dads make their kids only fish with worms.
By now, we all know that things haven’t been going our way. We started out with that winter, so intent on enjoying it and skiing it and sledding it, scraping and shoveling it, too. But what happened wasn’t anything like that. We skied, a bit. Shoveled, a bit. Scraped, some. But the winter had come and the winter has left and nothing really happened. It was a winter without. We knew what would come next, and we waited and we waited and in February it came. Bright spring. Sunny spring. Warm and soft, spring.
That was a few days, maybe four, and it was February and no one thought it was really spring. Winter returned, but it was easy winter, annoying winter, just enough winter to ward off spring. That winter relapse was quickly forgotten and there have been days of spring, days of warm, soft sun, and days of wicked wind, biting cold. Then the rains came, so many rains with so much water, sheets and sheets and buckets and buckets. No one thought it could last, but it did, and it washed our streets and soaked our lawns and filled our lakes. The season isn’t so much spring, it’s just a rainy winter.
There are barns between my house and this desk. Many barns. Most are clad in metal, some form of sheet paneling either vertical or horizontal, typically in fleshy tones of white, gray, or brown. In the winter landscape, these barns blend in, offering no excitement, no allure, just utilitarian usefullness. But there is one barn painted the brightest of reds, and in the winter it is a beacon on my drive, a visual reminder that color exists even in the dullest of dark winters. In the spring, too, when the ground is gray and what isn’t is brown, and the tans of the cut corn stalks and the dull olive of the roadside grass means everything is quiet and stark, that barn shines bright and vivid, a reminder of color in an otherwise colorless world.
But these rains and this sky and this gray and this brown, it’s not all bad. My eyes can rest under this sky. There’s no strain here, no squint to see beyond the glow, because there is no glow. It’s just March in Wisconsin and things are easy on the eyes. The north side of Geneva Street is greening this morning. The grass is greening and the bulbs are shooting and the crocus is blooming. The dull wrens of winter are being crowded out by the orange breasted robins of spring, and soon, the elusive Orioles will coast in on a southerly breeze in search of our fresh cut oranges and our purple grape jelly. The piers are falling into place, now dulled and chipped by the winter but soon scraped and painted and bright again. The water is warming, slowly, but it’s warming and it’s still blue, even in the face of so much gray it is still blue. The grass is greening and the flowers are awakening and the sky is brightening and soon it’ll be the spring we’ve seen in our minds all winter. Prepare your eyes, the color is coming.
Well, today it happened. I’ve officially ran out of things to say. Specifically, of things to write. There’s nothing left. After nine years of doing this, the well has run dry. To be honest, it ran dry a long time ago. The problem is I can only write about the shore path once, maybe twice. I can’t tell you about how great white piers are but perhaps twice per year. I haven’t written about how great white piers are lately, because they’re mostly all stacked on lawns right now. There’s nothing romantic about a pile of pier on a brown lawn.
I could write about the foreclosure market, as I had intended to, but I realized that I’d just write the things I’ve written so many times before. There are a few foreclosures. None are exciting. There aren’t enough to damage the market in any way, and so on and so forth. I was thinking about writing about luxury markets, how some are slowing, but the ones that are slowing are largely doing so because of a glut of overpriced inventory, or new buildings and developments coming online. Then I was going to say that none of that really matters to Lake Geneva because our luxury market is pretty much devoid of speculation. I was going to write that until it felt tired and played, so I didn’t.
I thought about telling you how the lakefront condo market is doing, and when I looked at the market this morning I did see a couple of pending transactions at Geneva Towers and Bay Colony. But what could I say about the condo market that I haven’t already said? The market is okay but not great, maybe it’s the inventory or maybe it’s the demographics or maybe I don’t really know? I’ve already written that, multiple times.
I could go the way of most real estate blogs and write today about some happening or event somewhere that I don’t really care about. I can’t get excited about things that are lame. Free Movie Friday! That’s what some blog somewhere says, and the agent is smiling and there are exclamation markets galore. But I don’t care about that, and I don’t care about exclamation points because I respect your intelligence.
That’s why I didn’t want to write about the lakefront market again. It’s hot, you know that. I know that. Everyone knows that. The new listings that come to market this spring are going to be devoured by the market if they’re priced even remotely right. This is a problem for buyers because competition based on speed is difficult for most. My buyers tend to be deliberate and smart, which are two attributes that don’t go far in a market based on action not contemplation.
I guess I have to apologize for not having anything to say. It’s just one of those days where I don’t feel particularly introspective and I don’t see anything around me that needs discussion. It’s windy, there’s that. Super windy. Like amazingly windy, but who cares? Not me. So I’m not going to write about it.
I’m hearing that this warm up is an all-time high. It’s the highest it’s ever been, so high, so early. The men said they’ve never seen this before, this early and this high. The birds fly north in their patterns. The plows hang to the front of the trucks, dry. The television women say it’s never been done before. It’s never been this high. She delivers the news with a hint of worry in her eye, but the kids get to go to school and take off their jackets during recess, and there’s no ice shelf on the side of the road anymore. The news says nothing like this has ever happened, and an old man sipping his diner coffee says he hasn’t ever seen this, either. He’s old, he’s seen it all. Except this.
The ice is gone now. It’s still there, mind you, but it’s as good as gone. It’s clinging and it’s shifting and it’s melting from the top and melting from the bottom. Soon, it’ll be dark, gray and wet, rotting. It’s rotting and the robins are flittering and the birds at my feeder and wondering what everyone is so upset about. The ice fishermen haul their sleds onto smaller lakes now, on to flooded byways of the Wisconsin river, those areas where soft ice might mean wet legs but certainly not death. The bluegills are eating wax worms, sometimes on teardrop jigs. The Northern Pike are ready to spawn. The men on their buckets say they can’t imagine anything worse, that it wasn’t like this before, when they were kids and the ice was thick and it stayed, sometimes, until June. We’d play baseball and then icefish after the game, they’d say.
Mark Zuckerberg said Artificial Intelligence is surveilling us. Jeff Bezos is selling the rest of our information to the CIA. Elon Musk said we should adapt so our species isn’t killed off by the Terminators. Join them, become them, then they won’t kill us, he said. Things are bad. The liberals say the world is coming to an end. That everything is terrible, worse than ever. Nothing like this has ever happened. Dan Rather is ashamed of it all. Of us all. Brian Williams has seen worse, he says, but he can barely remember those times because of the gunfire and explosions.
The stock market is high, all time high. It’s never been higher. But it’s perfect and scary, because when something gets this high it has no choice but to come down. Will it come down, soon? No one can say. But some are saying it must come down, the same who said it would go lower a year ago, back when things were low but the Liberals said things were perfect and the Conservatives squirreled away food and water and ammunition. Nothing could be worse than last February, until this February when the market is high and the Terminators are coming for us and there’s really nothing we can do about it. Concrete bunkers are fine, but without proper ventilation they’re nothing but elaborate tombs filled with dehydrated food.
No, nothing could be worse than this time. Everything is at an all time high. Panic, high. Markets, high. Temperatures, soaring. So high that the water is rising, the water is everywhere and there’s more of it and that’s terrible. California was in a drought, which was awful. Now it’s flooding there and the dam is giving way and nothing could be more terrible than so much water. It’s everywhere, and the great lakes are being drained by thirsty westerners. The pipe line might run through some town, and the people will put up signs that say NOT OUR WATER. Things for them couldn’t be worse. Times, they’re terrible, nothing has ever been more terrible. The old men at the diner wonder aloud if they’ve ever seen things worse.
The ice is melting. The birds are chirping. The skies are blue, so blue that there might be something wrong. Has anyone ever seen a sky more blue? Should we be worried about this, too? Faith Christian beat Williams Bay in basketball the other night. We’re just a little school down the road from that bigger little school. The score was 80 something to 70 something and when our kids shot free throws the other kids stomped their feet and hissed and booed and clamored. When we won, the boys were going to take their girls to Pizza Hut in Delavan but the pizza hut is gone and there’s just a sign that says BUY CARS NOW. Things couldn’t be any worse.
What, exactly, are we supposed to do with this? We wake to the dim light, not because it beckons us but because we must, we sleep with the pitter and the patter of ice and water against our window sills. We slip over the day, uncertain if the next step will be slushed or wet or frozen, and we return to our homes in the fog of evening, waiting until we can sleep and repeat the day again. Is it Wednesday or Tuesday? It doesn’t matter. Not now, anyway.
I hurt my back the other day doing nothing in particular. It hurts today and it hurt yesterday, and without something changing it’s going to hurt tomorrow. But I’m used to it, like I’m used to this suffocating gray, like I’m used to the days blending and the night coming early. I’m used to all of this, and none of it bothers me anymore. There is nothing important to do today, but there are important days to come, and it’s so easy to prepare under this gray. The gray days are important days because they want nothing from us. They urge us to do nothing. They don’t distract, they don’t consume, they don’t ask. They just are and they leave us alone.
But we need the prodding of a sunny day, and we expect to be rushed and to be hurried and when we are we complain that we have too much to do. There are too many places to be, too many people to see, too many bills to pay. Too much of this and too much of that, and we want to rest. We need to rest. Under the brightest sky we have things to do and those places to find, and when we wish we could just rest. We wish we could find our house in the early evening with nothing to do and no where to go, to build a kindling fire and watch it burn. To eat a slowly prepared meal slowly because there’s no where to rush to, nothing to hurry about, no where calling. We hurry and we race and we wish we could slow down until we can, and then we don’t.
I wish it would be colder and sunnier and I wish the snow would build and the ice would skim and the fishermen would auger and the sailers would affix blades to their boats. I wish these things would happen in this season, but today they won’t. Tomorrow, nothing. Later in the month something might happen, the ice might return, the snow might fall, the men might reel in their tiny fishing poles and boast to the passersby of their pile of flopping food. But none of that is happening today, because today we get to move more slowly. We get to make that fire and eat that dinner and watch that game. We get to do these things and we shouldn’t complain, because these gray days are a gift that expect nothing in return.
The Eagles don’t belong to us. They fly here, they fly around, and then they fly away. They don’t visit while we boat, and they don’t visit while we swim. They never get to see the green shore and the smallmouth when they crash through the surface feeding on Emerald Shiners. They never see the carp splash in the shallows while they spawn against the rocky shore. They miss the fields turning from green to gold, from gold to tan, from tan to gray. They miss the sweetcorn sending out their tassels, and they miss the harvest. The planting, missed, too.
The Eagles come with the cold, riding down from the north, from those lakes where they fish and those rivers that they watch. They fly in on the cold currents and they circle overhead for most of a season. They circle my office, they circle your house, they circle the water and they wait. They’re cold and they’re ruthless and it’s minus ten this morning and they don’t even care. They’re waiting for the ice and they’re hoping it hurries. They don’t want to stay here for long, though if they were more discerning they’d wait to see what the piers look like and what the boats do and how the sun rises and sets on a summer day.
But they won’t be here and they don’t care, because they’re here to eat and they’re not our friends. The Coots visit now, too, and like so many arctic birds that stop here for a spell, they stay longer than they probably should. We can’t blame them, these small running-on-water-birds, because they stay longer when they like a place. Just like us. And so the Coots stay and the lake freezes and the Coots huddle into tighter and tighter circles. It’s when they huddle and the Eagles know the timing is right, that they’ve finally found what they’ve been waiting for. That the ice has formed and the Coots have huddled and the air is cold and the piers are stacked, each on their lawn, waiting.
The Eagles see the birds and they see the ice and they know it’s time, and so they circle overhead and they dive down like fighter pilots on a strafing run and they eat and they eat. They rip the Coots from the water, one by one, plucking them off like me milling around the waiter with the chilled shrimp tray at a party where no one feels comfortable enough to eat too many. No one but me, and the Eagles. They grab a small arctic bird and fly to the nearest Oak, or Walnut, or Maple, and they rip it to pieces in a hurry. Then, once the feathers and the bones have fallen to the ground the Eagle goes again, circling and circling before diving. The feast will last as long as the Coots huddle in whatever open spot of water might be left.
It’s that time again, and the Eagles are here. The Coots came first, but the Eagles will be the last to leave. And then it’ll just be us, the sturdy ones who don’t mind the winter, the ones who know that after winter we’ll get to put our piers back in and then everything will be alright.
In the 1980s, Christmas trees were not especially easy to find. They had trees at the wood boat shop on Highway 50, and then some more trees a ways down that same road, near the cemetery. But we couldn’t go there because those trees were too expensive. The trees were from the north, maybe Canada, and they were pricey. Thirty-five dollars or more. When my friends would put their Christmas trees up just after Thanksgiving we were not always so fortunate. The trees were too expensive then, my dad knew that. Why buy a tree when they’re in demand when the real deal only comes to those who wait out mostly all of the season?
And so often we’d wait, wait for the prices to fall. Wait until November 1st to carve a pumpkin, wait till Thanksgiving morning to buy that turkey, and wait until Christmas was nearly here to buy that tree. The tree sellers would know, after the fifteenth of December, that the regular folks who valued trees and tradition would have already chopped, hauled, and decorated their trees. After the fifteenth, the trees must be discounted, because when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, those thirty-five dollar trees are nothing but firewood. But worse, they’re the sort of firewood that you have to haul away before burning.
Some years, we’d get that tree early. Twenty dollars for the six footer from the Boy Scouts, but rarely from them because that was retail and retail wasn’t our thing. Mostly we’d wait, and we’d wait, and when it was nearly Christmas we’d go get that tree. A thirty-five dollar tree for fifteen, now that’s the way to make a Christmas cheery and bright. Some years, a twenty-fiver for free. My mother would decorate the tree and my father would put his expensive German train around the base of his nearly free tree, and my brothers and I would feel the relief of a Christmas saved.
This year, I bought my tree where I have for the past three. The tree farm down the road from my North Walworth house. This year, I drove my Gator into the field, surveyed the live inventory, selected the finest Frasier Fir I could find, and unceremoniously sawed it down. My son and I loaded the tree into the undersized Gator bed, and drove it down the road, the top of the tree brushing against the pavement, the base of the tree narrowly missing the streetside mailboxes. $105.50 for that fine specimen, and just a week after Thanksgiving.
I started to write about how it was 93 and sunny, and how it was always 93 and sunny. It’s 93 and sunny, I was going to say, but it’s going to be the same tomorrow. I was going to write how that would be boring, but I caught myself because I’ve written that bit many times over the last eight years. I’ve written how it would be boring to live in a place where the days were the same, even if the days were perfect. Perfection is tiresome, I was going to say. But I’m not going to say that because I’ve already said it, and how many times can I say that October is fall and November is fall but December is winter, except when it’s still fall?
Then I was thinking of writing an update on the lakefront market here. I was going to tell you what homes are under contract and which ones are about to close. I was going to tell you a bit about some of the complicated deals I’m working on, deals so complicated that I’m weary at 8 am just as I am at 7 pm. But there’s no sympathy in that, because Realtors aren’t necessary nor is their time valuable and if they were smart they’d all become dental hygienists and car salesmen. But I’ve written that already, so I don’t think I’ll talk about it anymore.
I was going to say that peak fall was yesterday, and I was going to tell you that I do hope you enjoyed it. But it’s calm today and the wind isn’t whipping so peak fall will last for the weekend, and you should all be pleased. Especially if you missed yesterday when fall peaked. But you knew it wasn’t really peak fall because you’ve been reading this for eight years and you know I have a tendency to shame you into visiting the lake on weekdays. I was doing it again, and you knew it, so I won’t mention it from here on out.
I could have written about how terrific it’ll be when it’s winter, because then I can go skiing with my son. My daughter won’t ski anymore because she broke her leg skiing last April, but I won’t say much more because you already knew that. You knew it last April, the day after it happened. Yesterday I was at the American Club with my wife. My wife doesn’t really like it when I take her on fancy getaways to fancy places, but you already knew that, too. You know how I feel about Kohler, how it’s all fake, how I’m only Truman when I’m there. You know the fall colors there are like the colors here, except here they’re better. You know I don’t understand that town, and I don’t understand the low ceilings and I don’t understand why the people in the room above ours had to get ready to leave the resort so early yesterday morning.
At this point in our relationship, there’s very little you don’t know. You know that I’m busy and that the market is quite healthy. You know that I’m worried about inventory and I’m worried about the deals that I’m working on that feel as though they’ll only close once I’m dead. You know I had nothing to write about this morning so I wrote this. And I’m sure you know I hope something interesting happens over the weekend so that I have something to write about. I’d write about the Cubs this morning, but I’ve already written about them.
The tractor is more important than everything else. The barn matters some, but not so much that you’d particularly miss it if you didn’t have it. The gravel driveway needs tending to, after the first snow and the last snow, the muddy middle seasons and the heat of a potholed summer. The tractor is green but your neighbors is red, and still the neighbor down to the east has a blue one. Some of the tractors on the road to the south are yellow, not a sunshine yellow but a harvest yellow, almost gold, really. Each owner will tell you why the other colored tractors are inferior to theirs, but each knows that a tractor is a tractor is a tractor, so long as it’s a good one. Without the tractor there is no farm. I learned this first.
Pluck a man from the city and set him atop that tractor and watch him try to fight his smile. It’s something that cannot be done, never has been done. There’s hardly a reason to frown on a tractor, at least not when it’s your first time atop one. But by the end of a soggy September there’s not much smiling done on the tractor. The harvest is just getting underway and the beans are too moist and the corn starting to mold. The ruts from the tires muddying the county road, no matter, car drivers just wait for the next rain to wash the road clear. Then the tractor muddies a two track path again, and the dance continues until the rain stops or the mud freezes or the last bushel has been hauled down the road to the granary.
I decided long ago that I wouldn’t farm for beans, and before that I pledged that the corn wasn’t for me. I hadn’t the manpower to pick the sweetcorn, to de-tassle and to haul and to market. I hadn’t the time, and my tractor was too small to haul such a heavy load of fresh, dew-soaked sweet corn. The best crop, an old timer once said to me, was the crop that grows without being told. The crop that grows because it wants to, that’s the crop to farm. Beans grow here, but they can burn out under an unreasonably high June sun before their canopy bushes to cover their roots. And corn loves the sun and it loves the rain, but too much in May and not enough in August make for a tricky harvest. I once saw a farmer drive his tractor down to the granary, his face beaming with the pride of a full wagon. When he pulled in to be weighed and inspected, he was turned away by the man at the scale. Too wet, he said, and too small, and too starchy. Even Kellogg’s wouldn’t grind that, the man said. The farmer slowly dumped his full season of work along the margins of the road in his way home, so that he might lie to his wife. Things were fine and that the money would last the winter.
The crop I chose was hay. We call it hay but it’s just some grass and some clover and a bit of alfalfa. If the weather is just right, I’ll cut it four times. Once in the spring, twice in the summer, and once into the fall. I get more for the spring crop, it’s sweeter, and the horses prefer it. While the farmers a ways away mortgaged to buy their combines I needed only the cutter, the rake, and a bailer. I already had the tractor. You’d think the field would dry and whither under a hot summer stretch, because the grass lawns haven’t needed cutting two weeks by then, but the fields are sturdy and they’re persistent and when the rain falls they grow and then when the sun scorches they grow. And when they grow I cut and I rake and then I bail. It’s not so much work, not so different than mowing a lawn. This is why when I become a farmer someday I’m going to be a hay farmer. I already have the tractor.
There’s a front to the north and it’s high and it’s deep and it’s dark and it’s nearly here. I can see it from this window, and I saw it from my car window on the way to this window. I saw it from my house. It’s dark and it’s gray and it’s smooth. It starts in the West and it lasts through the East. The North, that’s where it mostly is. There’s no wind yet, but soon there will be. It’ll push and it’ll bend and when it’s here you’ll know it. Cars drive by, but they’re driving faster than yesterday. Faster than they will tomorrow. They’re driving with their lights on, to somewhere, to a garage or an underpass or the faux safety of a roadside ditch. The storm is coming.
It’s dark now and I can hear the rain hitting the top of the metal chimney that carries the winter smoke from my office fireplace. The wind is blowing. And the cars are driving, faster still. It’s a summer storm, and if it’s like the scant few other summer storms we’ve dealt with it’ll be here and then it’ll be gone, and the old men of the world will look at their rain gauge and tell us it rained a half an inch. Maybe more, maybe less. It’s raining now, but barely. I don’t think we’ll get to a half an inch, maybe a quarter, but I haven’t a rain gauge because the woman at the hardware store told me that I’m not yet old enough to buy one. That I could have someone older purchase one for me, but that’s the best I could do.
It’s still darker to the north but it isn’t raining anymore. Those were just a few drops, not really rain. To rain is to pitter and to patter and to last for more than just a bit. We’ve had bits of rain this summer, full on deluges at times, but what we haven’t had is a day off. A day of dark and rain, a day where it seems completely fine to sit in front of a computer screen and not find distraction out each window. We haven’t had those days during this summer of sun, and how I’ve missed them. A reset is what they offer, and a reset is what we haven’t received.
When storms come, they rarely last. They build and they twist and they look like they’re going to deliver a knock out blow, but they hardly ever do. Instead they just come and they shake and they make a mess of the lawn with early fall leaves that have no business falling in August, but fall they do. The wind is dying now. The sky is brightening. The thunder sounds more distant. The cars are still racing with their lights on but I think they might always drive like that. The edge of the storm isn’t smooth anymore, it’s rough and it’s jagged and it looks like it’s lost most of its push. This isn’t a storm at all. This isn’t a rainy day at all, it’s just a day with some rain.
In the middle of my living room is a large fireplace. It’s made of bricks and stone, mortar and sweat. Next to the fireplace there’s a basket of sorts, a large wooden container that spiders like to web behind, between the stone and the wood. In the container is the cut and split wood, the firewood. It’s oak and maple and sometimes ash. Increasingly, ash. Opposite the wood is the axe. It’s a handsome axe, a big axe, and it’s worn and dented and scratched. I see this fireplace and this pile of wood and these spider webs and that axe every single day. I see these items in the morning and again at night. In time, my dear fire friends, in time.
And that time will come, but it won’t be here soon. It’ll be here in October, late October, on that first Saturday when the sky turns dull and dark, when the rain spits and a lonesome walker can see her breath outside for the first time since April. On that day, the wood will be stacked in the stone fireplace, a match will be lit, and the fireplace will crackle and roar to life. Then the process will repeat, not during an Indian Summer, but during the later months, those cold November afternoons and the still snow of early December. The fireplace for now is decoration, but then it will be for heat, for moods and for satisfaction and for passing the time.
It’s been summer for a while now. Summer blossomed in May and then it stuck during June, then July and now August, too. June wasn’t like June, and July was like July. August, well for a while it’s been feeling like too much. How many times can I sweat through a Wednesday shirt before I say that it’s all too much? The summer has been here and the summer will stay here, and for the rest of August we’ll sweat and then we’ll swim and then we’ll swim and soon after we’ll sweat. September will be the same. The summer that came early will stay late, and we’ll all be happy for it and yet, deep down inside, we’ll all think a little about football and a little about leaves and a little about how nice it will be to wear jeans without feeling suffocated by the denim.
This is what it’s like to live here. To live in this place where our summer is summer and our fall is fall and when winter comes, it’ll be winter. Imagine a life where summer was summer and fall was summer and winter was summer. Spring? Summer. The excitement of it all would be lost on us then, when we wish for the days when 98 might be 82, so we can wear our light jacket to dinner. What a boring life it would be to live where the seasons are the same. The people who live like that tell us how great it is. They mock our winter. You have a little something on your hat, and on your boots, they say. They’ll think they’re being funny, that they’re better than us because their sunburn is the same in December as it is in June.
I lived for a while where I thought that might be nice, to ignore winter and spend the season in some other summer. But today, in the middle of a most righteous summer I think of how much I love the sun and the waves and the breeze in the trees, but I also love my fireplace, and that stack of wood.
The oldest man with some knowledge of trees died 11 years ago. Other men lived longer, but those men didn’t know anything about trees when they were younger and for every year they aged they knew even less. This matters because the old man who knew of trees knew things that no one else knew, but his formal schooling in the land where he was from had ended before it began. He needed to work with his father, to work on those trees near that town where he was raised, to cut them and to saw them and to chop them and to stack them. He learned some things, like how to wedge the back cut when felling a giant Oak, but he didn’t learn other things, namely, how to write. He could write his name, he could make big Xs on trees that needed to be felled, but his written abilities were limited even while his knowledge of trees was not.
What he learned when he was a young man was that a variety of tree would go dormant, sometimes for up to 12 years, and then the tree would come to life, and he only learned this by chance. In his town there was no spring, no fall, only winter and summer, the latter lasting mere weeks, the former covering everything else in a heavy cloak of snow and ice. He knew of deciduous trees, how they lost their leaves one day, the day that was believed to be what fall would be like, and then the next day they looked dead. When it snowed the trees looked especially crooked, old and wrinkled, gnarled even. Then, on the day that most thought to be spring, the leaves popped back out and the tree was alive again. The leaves thrived for the short summer, and the cycle repeated. You needn’t know how to write to understand that this is how trees work.
But one spring, a certain tree didn’t leaf. The summer, no leaves. The winter, well it looked the same as the last winter and the same as the last summer. The next year, the same thing. No leaves. Some around town took to cutting down their trees, they’re dead!, they’d say. But the young man and his father were busy filling an exhaustive order for the largest lumber yard in the entire area, and that summer and the next they were only cutting down Eastern Red Walnuts. Nothing else. There were so many trees and such a larger order that nothing else was cut during those years. The snow piled high in front of their small house, the only wood that burned was wood left over from the earlier year. While the man and his aging father hiked to find and cut these Eastern Red Walnuts, or ERW (pronounced, convincingly as errrrr), the other men in town set to chopping down the sort of tree that had withered and died.
After some time of this, the order was filled and the family bought a new goat and two new horses. The horses were big and strong, tall. They were fit with the finest of hardware, leather and brass, each the finest of its variety available. The horses would haul a wagon, this was also new, bought with the small windfall that had come their way as a result of years of back breaking, literally for one hired log chopper, dedicated work. The other men in town were jealous, and rightfully so. With the work done, the man and his dad looked about for the next round of work, for the new trees that might have recently died and would need to be cut, chopped, and stacked, or cut, sectioned, and milled.
While wrapped up in the focus for the Walnuts, the trees in town that had withered and died had all been chopped down by the other men in town. This meant every dead tree had already been removed from the community owned properties and from those large yards where the families who owned the distributorship lived, and this left very little work for the man and his son. The old trees that they could find were the dead and dying trees on their own property, those trees that were once tall and proud and full of life. One morning, the man and his elderly father decided to rid their property of these dead trees. They gathered their saws, one for felling and one for sectioning, and set about marking giant Xs on the offending, dead trees. When the last tree was marked and the first tree was to be harvested, the man and his father paused.
If they cut down these trees, there would be nothing but splitting and stacking and sectioning and cording. The work, after such a long and dedicated focus on the Walnuts, appeared to be a task so daunting that they were uncertain if they were up to it. The man had wanted to take a job in town, to clean the dust from his hair and the dirt from his nails and see if he might be a success selling paper and board feet for the local mill, but his father had needed his help and so the clean shirted jobs had to wait. On that day, with a forest of dead trees awaiting them, they decided that it was time to quit. The father was old, his eyesight failing, his back long ago retired. The man and his father agreed that it was time for new things, a city job for the young man and retirement for the old man. The dead trees would stay upright for now.
And so the young man went to town and earned his living. He was a great success at the mill, earning not once, but three times, the salesman of the month. He returned home infrequently, but on that summer day when the word came that his dad was on his death bed he packed his things and hurried home. When he arrived, his grief was set aside when he discovered the forest of his youth, alive again with green leaves bold and waxy. The trees, those trees that were believed to be dead, the trees that the town had unmercifully cut down and burned in their stoves, those trees were alive again. It turned out they were never dead, only mostly dead. The young man hurried inside to find his mother in quiet tears and his father dead. The last words, scribbled on a bedside notepad, the ash tree. It lives.
PS. I’m aware this post has caused lots of brain damage. The point is, these Ash trees are all dead and it makes me very upset. So I’m hoping they’re not really dead, and that they’ll all come back to life in the near future, but if I wrote it just like that you wouldn’t have had to endure such a difficult read.
My dog eats rabbits. He hears them in the grass. He smells them on the air. He sleeps at night and dreams of rabbits and then he wakes up and he sees rabbits. He loves rabbits. But he doesn’t want to play with them, he wants to eat them. There are rabbits near my outbuilding, the one that I intended to finish beautifully to match the house, until I realized that beautiful is expensive. I should have known that, I am married, after all. And so I never finished the building, even though when asked I promise that it’s on my list of things to do. I don’t mean it, but I say it because what could I say? No, I don’t plan to do anything with that little mini-barn? I’m just going to leave it like that, to rot in place, that’s what I’m going to do. So of course I wouldn’t say that, but what my dog doesn’t yet know is that there’s a family of rabbits living near that small barn. A bunch of little, delicious, adorable rabbits.
There’s another rabbit that I’ve known for quite some time, and it’s in the front yard of my parents’ house. It’s a nice rabbit, friendly and calm, still. I don’t remember when I first saw that rabbit, or how it came to be. When I was young, I’d jump over the small pine tree that my dad planted when my twin brother died. It was a little tree then, always Christian’s tree. My brothers and I could take a running start and leap over the top of it. When we’d do that, the rabbit was nearby, under that tree, off to the side, watching then as it does now. But the tree is big now, so tall that no one could ever jump over it. The rabbit has spent time under that tree, tipped on his side, buried in the leaves and pine needles.
Because no one uses that lakeside lawn in the winter, the rabbit is mostly a summer rabbit. In the fall we might see him, but rarely. In the spring, around Easter, when the eggs are hidden in the yard, we see him then, too. He’ll be under the large tree, kicked on his side, or stuffed in the hedge of evergreen that separates my parents lawn from the association lawn to the north. In the spring, he’s often in the way. The pier boards must be moved to the water, the Laser sailboats carried from their winter saw horses to the summer ramp. The rabbit knows no fear, and so he sits there while the work is done, and he sits there when the work is done.
The other day he was there, looking as he does, bright eyed. He was facing the lawn, away from the lake, sitting high on the bricks that line a flower garden. The rabbit was put in a place where everyone, not just those who knew him, could see. He was prominent, favored, in a place of importance. It was nice to see. He’s just a rabbit, after all, but he’s been our rabbit for so long that no one knows what the lawn was like without him. He’s seen it all, at this point, and there’s no telling just how much more he’ll get to see.
Spring started a couple of months ago. I guess it was in March. March is when spring starts, the calendar says. Before that, it’s winter. And when spring ends, it’ll be summer. That’s how this whole thing works. Spring comes and the birds chirp and the grass greens and the weeds need pulling. Yesterday, some animals ate the tops off of some poppies that are growing in my garden. The tops, right off. Now I have to deal with that, which is an issue for me, because I’m busy and it’s my birthday and I don’t feel like shooshing away poppy eating varmint. I can’t kill them, because I’m still too soft. Even at this grizzled age I can’t kill things.
When spring started, it started with some wind and some rain and then some snow, still with the wind. Rain again, wind. Windy, some sun, rain. We had good weekends during this spring, more good than bad, in fact. That’s not something anyone would debate. The weekends, three of the last four, have been really solid. This weekend that starts right about now is going to be lame, so just plan on it. Three out of five isn’t bad, especially for spring. Because spring, with its birds and its flowers and all the greening, it’s really a terrible season. It’s good for, almost literally, nothing.
Sure we can shake off winter, slowly. But that’s because we have no choice. We can’t abandon winter and jump to summer, because when we make that jump we have to stay nimble, because we’re just going to end up jumping back. Boating on Sunday, shivering on Monday. Rain on Tuesday. Sun on Wednesday! Wind Thursday. Rain Friday. Tolerable Saturday. Sunny Sunday! This is the cycle and who could love it? Not me, not now, and I don’t care about the birds singing and the grass growing and the rest of it.
And what of these birds? What are they? I love when the Sandhill Crane honks and calls its way across the sky. A hunter told me this year that those birds are delicious. He said he’s heard from other people that they are the Filet of the Sky. Sounds delicious, I thought, and when he said it I could see that he knew about the taste from experience, and then I wondered what he does in those dark, deep woods he owns. I wouldn’t ever tell you that a bird I’ve never eaten is the Filet of the Sky, even if I’d read it in a book somewhere. And the birds at my feeders, they’re not the good kind of birds. Another neighbor has Orioles. Bushels and flocks and baskets full of Orioles. I have a feeder dedicated to the Oriole and they don’t even consider it. Two years ago I did, but not this year. Not last year, either. My neighbor gets them all, and so I’m left with my wrens. I am the Wren King, which isn’t really such an incredible thing. I’d rather be the Oriole King, and they’d call me Cal.
But on Facebook some people have said Happy Birthday, so that’s something spring is good for. Another year older. Milestones, not really. There are no milestones in middle age, just decade markers. I’ll be at a new decade two springs from now, and then I’ll write something about it, assuming I’m still here writing three days a week, even though that’s unlikely if you don’t actually email me to tell me you’re ready to buy a house. Come to Lake Geneva, where we have so much spring we can hardly take it! We have sun and rain and wind and green and birds and poppy-eating rabbits, usually we even have them all on the same day.
It’s snowing again. And the coffee tasted the same. The man at the corner with the portable Stop sign waved, but he didn’t want to. The FREE AIR at the gas station was still free, the hose coiled on the ground, dirty and wet. Just a dusting. The man on the television said it would be just a dusting, maybe an inch, two tops, but probably just a dusting. That’s what he said last week, Saturday. The wind blew and blew and the snow came in bands, alternating the sky between bright blue and dark with snow. Just a dusting he promised, but it was more than a dusting, it was an inch.
My car has a low tire. It’s had the low tire for a month, maybe longer. The tire is new, which leads me to believe that there’s a nail somewhere in the tread, maybe a screw. Whatever it is, it’s sharp and it’s stuck in that tire and that’s why I leave the car in my garage most of the time. I washed the car a month ago, under an intense spring sun, so bright and so big that the water dried on the car too fast and now I have hard water streaks and spots. The snow today will help with that, but the snow might be hard too, even though there’s barely a dusting in the forecast. There’s more than that on the hood of the car already.
The fire is on again. I say it’s on, rather than it’s burning, because it’s a fire for lazy cheats. There’s a gas line under all that soot, and so when I make the fire it’s really just about turning a valve and then sparking a lighter. I bought the lighter at the gas station two days ago, about one month after the last lighter, the winter lighter, gave out. When I bought the lighter I felt nervous, like a kid buying a lighter because I was going to go have a smoke with the cigarettes I found on the side of the road when I was walking home from school. It was spring then, too. So I told the gas station clerk that the lighter was for my fireplace, because I didn’t want her to wonder.
The fire burns but it only burns because of the lit gas. I don’t have kindling here. There’s paper, some of the local one with my name in it because I’m a rebel who doesn’t like mass development when there aren’t masses of people to buy the mass produced vinyl sided product. But I don’t burn that paper because I throw it out. I mean, I recycle it. Yes, I recycle it, that’s what I meant to say. The fire burns wood that came from Black Point, from the back yard of a client’s house where he cuts down small, dead trees and stacks the cylinder-like logs. I load those into my fishing truck that’s really a silver Lexus and I drive those to my office. My son loads the wood into my open storage containers and when he’s done I give him $2.
It’ll snow for a while still, I think. The man on the TV said it was only going to snow for a little longer, but no one believes him anymore. It might snow all day, it might not. It might be like last Sunday when the temperature rose 40 degrees during the day and then started the next morning where it had started the prior one. What sort of warm front only lasts a few hours? I asked the weatherman through his Twitter account but the question stumped him, so he didn’t answer. It’s spring now and it’ll only be a dusting.
I think about the days when I won’t write on this blog. I think about how admitting that is to somehow run afoul of the unwritten rules of a real estate professional. I cringe at the word professional. Cringing at the word is also running afoul of those unwritten rules, though I’ll bet they are written somewhere. New agent materials, written. Trade magazines, written. Written by people who tell you what to do and how to be successful. Wear a crisp shirt. Don’t be yourself. Don’t talk about safe neighborhoods and whatever you do, don’t say anything that might be construed as being somehow offensive. Don’t tell people that you fished Delavan Lake yesterday and you were, for the first time in more than a week, happy to have a cold. Um, Dad, what’s that horrible smell? I don’t know son, I have a cold. I think it’s the lake. See, don’t say anything offensive, and don’t let your hair be messy and don’t ever talk about how you look forward to the day when you don’t sell real estate.
I think about those days in the future, and I think I’ll try to write stories or articles or blog posts or something, and with the meager scratch I’ll earn I’ll just live on that. I’ve written for some magazines already, and it doesn’t seem that hard. Just sit here, think about something not related to real estate, and write it. Then, send the written thing in to the magazine and have them brutally reject your written thing, and you. I sent a bit into Gray’s Sporting Journal once. I received the courtesy of a rejection email, and it stung. But I’m a glutton for things that sting, (see, Real Estate Profession), and so I emailed back. I asked what about the piece was wrong. Was it the topic or the style or the fact that I always put periods inside the quotation marks? I was expecting a blistering critique, a sharp dagger to slice through my dreams. I braced myself for the reply.
The writing is not up to the Gray’s Sporting Journal standard.
That’s all he said. He didn’t thank me for my thoughtful question. He didn’t even soften the edges. He didn’t say one thing was wrong, he said it was all wrong. And so I’m happy to write for the Drake Magazine (pick one up at your favorite bookstore), where they let me write about fishing with my wife (I hate it), and fishing with friends (hate that, too), and they let me make fun of Iowa. See, when it comes to real estate, Michigan is the one who deserves my ire. I never wanted to hate Michigan, but any state that produces a commercial aimed at romanticizing Escanaba is a state that has earned my spite. In trout fishing, Iowa is the embarrassing one. Wisconsin has glorious trout streams. We have so many that you don’t dare try to count them without your favorite quant nearby to assist. But Iowa, they have streams stocked with silly trout that don’t spook when you cast your line over their heads. They have hatchery fish that are more likely to eat a Dog Food Emerger than a Pale Morning Dun. See, this is why I have to write for a fly fishing magazine, because you don’t even know what I’m talking about.
In January, the publisher of that magazine emailed me with an assignment. An assignment. I’ve never had one since high school English, and those were assignments I could cheat on (the internet wasn’t available yet, but Cliff Notes were). This assignment was different, and I’d be getting paid for it, and so I had to focus. I was to write about the early season opener in Wisconsin, which again, is meaningless to you if you’re not interested in fly fishing. But the early season opener is a big deal, and this year it was earlier than in every year that has come prior. This winter, Wisconsin anglers could fish for trout, so long as they released them. I gladly accepted the assignment, which was due by March 1st. I had more than a month to write this piece, and it only needed to be 800 words or so. Cinch. My career was blossoming.
And then the month of February passed, and my assignment went as most of my prior assignments. Unfulfilled. I couldn’t write. I sat at this desk, stared at this screen, typed words on this tiny keyboard, but a story never materialized. The month was a failure because the deadline only reinforced my writer’s cramp. I couldn’t think of anything, and when I did think of something, I wrote it and quickly realized it was the wrong thing. I stared at my office fireplace, hoping the flames would give me inspiration. They didn’t. I watched a fly fishing video or two on that office TV, hoping something would kindle in me an angle. It didn’t. I fished once that month, hoping that the snowy solitude would show me the way. The fish ate my fly, and snow felt right under my boots, but I had no angle. The deadline was looming.
And I had nothing. But when the deadline was just a day or two away, an idea. I hurriedly plunked it down, read it once, fixed a few words and eliminated a few commas (I do love the comma), and sent it in. I waited for the reaction of the editor. Would he know that I had written this in haste, because the deadline was so near? Or would he reject it because it was, in the words of Gray’s, not up to the standard? When his email arrived in my inbox, it took me a few minutes to open it. I didn’t know if I could stand the rejection, the humiliation. I didn’t want to fail at my first assignment in the field. If I flunk my first test, how would I someday retire early to while away my days on a Geneva plying sailboat or in those cold clear Wisconsin streams?
He said the angle was different, the tone not what he expected, the outcome unpredictable. But then he said he liked it, and looked forward to running it in the Spring issue. And with that, a deadline made. A dream intact. But the deadline almost paralyzed me, and I nearly missed the prize. You might not realize it, but you have a deadline, too, and it’s rapidly approaching. It’s Memorial Day Weekend 2016, the weekend that should be your launching point for your first Lake Geneva based summer. You see the gray of today, you see the possible snow of tomorrow, you see the calendar and you think you have time. But you don’t. You’re as me, pressing your luck, not willing to do the work required to obtain the reward. You have 55 days to get this right, now don’t blow it.
The trees in my front yard are budding. The trees in my back yard are budding. The trees at my office are budding. I’d be willing to bet most of my things and some of yours that the trees in your yard are budding, too. The streams run high today, high with runoff from the thundery rain that fell on Sunday and again last night. The worms that will dry and die on my driveway today are the same worms that will dry and die on your driveway. Is it better to be those worms that must wait for the drying death or better to be the worms that washed into the trout streams where they will be eaten by the hungry trout that spent all winter wondering where the worms went? I’d prefer the stream worms, because at least they have an option. That’s more than we have.
The silence of winter has been replaced with a most boisterous cacophony of birds. Song birds, little birds, big birds. In fact, birds so big that they swarm overheard in such great clouds, headed from the south and to the north, stopping here to breed, or to rest, or to eat our worms and rile up our dogs. The Sandhill Cranes are the superior Crane, making the Blue Heron look like a silly thing, like a small thing, like an unimportant thing. The Sandhill announces its arrival with such a great squawk that even the song birds and the Robins seek shelter.
The ice of winter is generally quiet. The expansion booms and echoes are loud, but the rest of it is quiet. That quiet ice is all gone now, replaced with wind whipped waves that crash into shore and loudly announce their return. They’re here now, the waves, and the water is anything but quiet. On Sunday, it was quiet, still, flat and smooth. The rare birds flew high over head and the song birds hid in the bushes that we’ll only know to be lilacs once they bloom, which is around the time the smallmouth bite heats up and the morels push free from the soil. It’s not quiet anymore.
But in the quiet of winter there are things we can do. I skied this winter for the first time since childhood, and I skied so much that you’d think I enjoyed it more than I did. I made fires this winter, so many that it would be foolish to attempt a count. There were morning fires and evening fires, and yes, afternoon fires, too. There were fires upon fires, and when Able Dave comes to clean my chimney he’ll stand back and wonder the age of my house. Who could burn so many fires in such a short period of time, he’ll wonder.
In the winter, the waiting is accepted. There’s nothing to do but burn those fires, ski those slopes, pack that snow, and wait. We wait in the quiet in the winter. But it’s spring now, and we still must wait. Now we wait in the noise, we wait in the wind and the thunder and under the lightening and around those birds. They’re chirping again, even though it’s colder today and it’s windier today and the ice is still gone and those overhead birds have been grounded. The worms are drying and others are being eaten. It’s getting louder, and soon it’ll be summer. The noise is the only sign we need.
It’s gray again. It was gray yesterday, too. The same gray as this gray. There is no different variety of gray now. The only change comes later, when the gray twists and builds and puffs dark and mean, wet. This gray today isn’t yet like that gray, the warmer gray, the spring gray that brings the showers which yield the spring flowers that look very little like summer flowers. Summer flowers bloom and bloom, many times, for months even. Spring flowers bloom once, a display that shows what they are and all they can be, hiding nothing, holding nothing back, and like that, gone. The gray builds and the temperatures rise and out West they’ll be saying it’s going to be hot. El Nino they’ll say, but we won’t know what that really means until we’re sweating in our beds at night, wondering why it’s so windy, so wet, so warm and gray. This gray isn’t like that gray.
But this gray is a good gray, because it’s the gray that means things are changing. It might be gray in January, but that gray isn’t like this gray. January is brighter, in my memory anyway, because it’s white and it’s bright and the cold fronts that spell below zero nighttime lows also spell bluebird days. Days so bright and so clear and so cold that there’s nothing to do with them, nothing at all. Squinting is not something. Who could love a day like that, besides my grandmother? My Norwegian grandmother loved the sunny days of January, because she had nothing to do but sit inside, and if you must sit inside then it might be better to find a sunny sky through those small double hung windows. I’d rather sit in the warmth of a fireside room with the gray outside because that day can be spent brooding. Who could brood on a sunny January day? My German grandmother didn’t care about the sun, because she had plates to fire and cakes to build and there’s no reason for the sun to shine when those things must be done. I don’t like the bright of a winter January because I associate the bright with the cold and the cold doesn’t bother me as much as it used to but I still don’t care for it. A cold sun is a useless sun, no matter how hard it tries to convince you otherwise.
But it’s gray again today and it’s been gray since Monday. Friday, gray. Monday, gray. The days in between, all gray. Except at night, when the sun falls so low that it sneaks some light in pink and purple and orange under that shroud. The end of the day, a twinkle of warmth in the Western sky. That sunset is later now than it was then, it’s light until 6 and soon it will be light until 7 and then we’ll be walking outside without jackets and we’ll put in our boats and we’ll sit on piers and we’ll complain about other things. The days are warmer now, cold still, but a warmer cold. A gray cold, the sort of gray and the sort of cold that tells us it’s soon to be spring. Spring. It’s coming soon, and it’s coming next week, because in the fifth grade they told us that we could spend recess outside without jackets on as soon as the temperature hit 60 degrees. Who could play Four Square with a jacket on? Not me, and so we’d take our jackets off and throw them on the ground and hope the teachers didn’t see. It was only 55, but it felt like 60 and no one could argue with that.
So today, it’ll be gray. Tomorrow, sun. Sunday, who could say? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters now is that each day is longer, each week warmer. Even when certain days buck the pattern the results are already in. Spring is coming, and it can’t be stopped. The bright days of winter are gone and the dull gray days that mark our slow transition are here. My grandmother is no longer alive to object.
Twenty years ago today was a normal day. Nothing much happened. I woke up and I drove myself to the gas station across from Daddy Maxwell’s, and I walked over to the new machine in the corner. It was a cappuccino machine, and it whirled and spit out a sugary, foamy drink that in no way resembles what I know a cappuccino to be today. It was the highlight of my morning, and I’d sip it a bit over the mile of bumpy roads that led to my high school. Harris Road was bumpy then, and it’s bumpy today. In twenty years, it’ll be bumpy.
My homeroom was in the kitchen of Calvary Church. My freshman class was made up of the same kids, but there were more of them then. After the freshman year, some of the kids left, through expulsion or systematic suspension, or because their parents got divorced or were thinking about getting divorced. The kids were there and then they weren’t, but the nucleus remained through the years. By the time we were relegated to the kitchen for our homeroom, there were just 12 of us left. I had my Saab 900 in gunmetal gray, my leather computer bag before people stashed tablets and laptops in them, and I had my cappuccino that wasn’t really a cappuccino at all.
Our lunchroom was our gym, and we’d eat quickly so we could work in games of 21 on the other end of the gym. Our classrooms were in the basement of that church, so on nice days we’d sneak outside to soak in the spring or fall sunshine. It was during one of these breakaways that I was yelled at by a school administrator that I know to this day. When I see him, I assume he remembers that day, and I secretly hate him for it. During a similar lunch break my friend and I pulled the fire alarm, because it was red and there and we were hopped up on faux cappuccinos and lunchtime basketball. We confessed only after being told the police department was on their way over to dust for prints. Our confession wasn’t entirely truthful, but they bought it and we weren’t particularly punished.
Most weeknights, I would take my leather computer bag and drive to Gateway Technical College to listen to some real estate person tell me what I needed to know about the business of real estate. That man told me what I should say and what I shouldn’t say, and while I sat in class with a throng of individuals who are nearly entirely no longer in the business, I took notes, diligently. When the class was over I’d stuff my notebook into my leather briefcase satchel and drive myself home. The next morning, I’d drive to the gas station, sip the sugary drink, then drive the bumpy road to school and park where the kids could get a good look at my Saab 900 that I bought for $3500 and pull up a stool to the kitchen island. This was my senior year.
These mornings, my wife makes me a cappuccino. It’s not really a cappuccino, it’s just a double shot of espresso and some steamed milk, which I suppose would make it a latte but the ratio of espresso to milk is 1:1 so it’s less like a late and more like an espresso with some milk in it. It’s tremendously good. I drink that drink and I wonder why it took me 20 years to buy a proper espresso machine, and then I wonder who the monsters are that still drink drip coffee when such fabulous espresso machines are available. Then I wonder about the people who put a puck of compressed coffee into a machine that whirls the expresso out and I think of that time I stopped at Williams Sonoma in Lake Forest and tasted one of these so called espressos. Then I finish the coffee and my kids load into the car and I drop them off at the newer location of the same school that I drove myself to 20 years ago.
Outside of this window, beyond this desk and beyond this large computer screen, I can see the office I started working at in August of 1996. I was barely out of high school, barely aware of anything at all, and I sat in that office wearing an ill-fitting shirt and a tie I borrowed from my dad’s closet and I’d hope the phone would ring. When it rang, I’d wish it hadn’t. I bought my first computer and I hooked it up to this new internet, and I’d email people and wait a few days for their response. I had a pager then, which I thought was a remarkable bit of mobile technology. All I had to do was wear it on my belt and it would vibrate when someone wanted something, though I couldn’t know what they wanted until I called them back. I wore it with pride in the way that a kid last summer might have worn his Apple Watch. But my pager was lame and I was lame for having it, but it was 1996 and things were strange and I still had that leather briefcase bag but no laptop to put in it.
Herb’s old gas station was still operating then, and his muffler shop next door hadn’t yet been torn down and replaced with an empty auto-repair shop. I’d stop in to see Herb for one reason or another, all of which related to mufflers, and it was during one of these visits when Herb told me that I wouldn’t be successful because I was too young. Who would work with me? I was too young, because this was before Josh Flagg squeaked and swaggered his way onto our televisions and back then, Realtors were white haired and they drove matching Cadillacs. It was around that time that the Keg Room burned down.
The Keg Room is still burned down. Herb doesn’t own the gas station anymore, but there’s still a gas station on the corner. Daddy Maxwell’s still serves a heck of a cajun chicken sandwich, and there’s still a gas station across the street. Southwick Creek, where I saw my first trout, is still flowing through culverts and still hosting a handful of trout that try so hard to stay alive. The beach is still where it was, and while there’s a new beach house I’ll bet that every once in a while a snapping turtle still follows Harris Creek into the lake and then the kids shriek and the beach mothers point and warn. Williams Bay today looks like it did twenty years ago, and that’s exactly what it’ll look like in twenty more.
The woman is running. She’s running on the other side of the street. The sidewalk. She’s running from East to West, but I haven’t been here long enough to know if she has already completed to West to East part. She might have just started, but she’s running and she’s winded and she’s running up hill. She’s not really running, she’s skipping, she’s skipping. Her knees lift up high with each skip, and it’s as though she’s running more vertically than horizontally, but she’s moving forward and she’s running, though it’s really a skip.
She doesn’t want to run like this, but she must. It’s sleeting now, and the sleet has made the sidewalk slippery, made the road slippery, made everything so slippery. She’s out of view now, up the road somewhere to the West, skipping with those high kicks, wondering why she decided to go for a run that turned into a skip on this day when the rain turned to sleet and the sleet never turned to snow.
I wished for a white Christmas, I did. I know it’s nice to have fifty degree winter days, but I also know that my kids wish for snow, and so I wish for it on their behalf. I wanted it to snow, as did so many others. A white Christmas, that’s all I really wanted. But it didn’t happen for us, no matter how we wished, and so this morning it’s sleeting and it’s sort of white and that lady is skipping somewhere up Geneva Street.
In the summer, the farmers wish for rain. Their fields dry and their corn withers. The ground cracks open to show its dry contents, like a beggar turning his pockets inside out to show you that he truly has nothing, nothing at all. The farmers till their dust, and inspect their drying and dried crops. They shake their fists and pray for rain, while others quietly hang their heads in desperation and pray. They need rain, just a bit, just a light drizzle that lasts a day, or a downpour that lasts all night. They need the rain and they wish and they pray and they beg. The corn wilts, the beans sag, the lines in the farmers faces grow as deep and wide as the cracks in the soil.
The lady is back now, skipping. She cautiously ran down the hill, now she’s skipping back up it. She’s wishing it would stop sleeting, but it won’t. It’s going to sleet some more, then it’s going to rain, and the kids are wishing for snow. The farmers are wishing for rain. No one is wishing for sleet.
A Nashville Christmas sounds terrible to me. I feel like I’ve seen snippets of these Nashville Christmases, though the image in my mind of Kenny Rogers riding in a sleigh, wearing a Christmas sweater and smiling, that might just be something I imagined without having ever actually seen it. I picture a country farm, with bright lights in the trees and large horses plodding through the fresh white snow. I picture the Nashville Country Christmas appearing on screen, lit as with twinkling white lights, and I see Kenny singing with his friends, Dolly and Reba, those sorts. I don’t know if this has ever happened, but everything I know about television, Nashville, and country music stars of a certain age tells me it has.
But it’s all a lie, that Nashville Christmas. It doesn’t snow like that in Nashville. The horses down there would freak out if it did, because they also know that the snow is fake, not for them, not for Nashville. It’s for television, like Dolly’s puffed lips and Kenny’s new chin, and that sleigh isn’t a sleigh at all but rather a stage prop that will now immediately and dangerously crumble after being exposed to so much fake snow. Those lights aren’t really that bright, it’s the lens on the camera, made to blur them into a twinkle so we don’t notice Dolly’s exposed skin. And that singing, it can’t be real because it’s too good, and why is Kenny talking to Dolly while they’re singing? Who told Reba she could even be there?
The hot chocolate isn’t necessary, not at all. It’s 61 degrees as of that filming, and no one has ever gladly drank hot chocolate when it’s 61 degrees outside. Little kids wouldn’t even do that, and we know Kenny and Dolly can’t taste anything anymore, the injections long ago killed off that sensory staple. Why is Reba wearing those black jeans, and why doesn’t she look like Reba anymore? Who told the horse to stop neighing?
This whole thing is crap, really. I can see behind that barn and there’s green grass. It’s mostly brown, but there’s some green in it and a stage hand smoking a cigarette. And why do the carolers have rosy cheeks? Why are they sweating so profusely in those winter jackets? Why is the one kid drinking from a gatorade bottle instead of from the hot chocolate mug? There’s no way that’s hot chocolate, because it’s 61 degrees outside and those horses are jostling the sleigh around so much that any chocolate would have already spilled all over Kenny’s Christmas sweater. Reba is standing now, crouching a bit in the way that singers of a certain age crouch when they sing. She’s singing Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About, but it’s set to the tune of Jingle Bells and neither of those songs are hers.
Christmas in Nashville has been a huge disappointment. I prefer Christmas in Lake Geneva, but it’s raining here now and the trees are budding and it’s only a matter of time before that Magnolia tree on Geneva Street shows its bright, gaudy blossoms. If I wanted a rainy Christmas I’d move to Nashville, because I know that’s what it does there and this television special I’m not sure I’ve ever seen was probably filmed in Wisconsin.
I fear this job of real estate is a no-win proposition. There is very little left to do here, little left to prove, little that can be done to change the outcome. The profession is a miserable one. It is miserable because it must be, because any profession that so easily takes the blame cannot ever be a noble profession. If I were a plumber, this would be noble. I could hang out a sign, Dave’s Plumbing. What a sign it would be. I would have a truck, a big four door truck with leather seats so that when I was done with work on Friday I could clean the seats and take my family to Chili’s. Then, on Monday, the phone would ring and I’d need to go fix a leaking sink. The lady who would call would be frantic. I’d rush over, fix the leak, be a hero. And I’d charge $129 for the visit, which would be paid quickly and happily by the leaky sink owner. My effectiveness would be tangible. When I showed up the faucet leaked, then I fixed it. I fixed it. Without me, the sink would still be leaking. I’d do that five days a week, this hero work, and then I’d clean my truck and I’d go to Chili’s. That would be rewarding work.
This real estate business is not rewarding. If you hear of a Realtor who says their reward is in the smiling faces of their clients, they must not have very many clients. It’s very easy to be happy in the business when you get to sell a few houses a year, and each one is a splendid surprise. It’s different when you must sell many, constantly and without pause. There are no victories in this business, only temporary breaks from the battle. The breaks last hours, if that. That’s because the industry has never, ever, created an environment of respect. There is no respect for the Realtor. This is not a grievance, nor a litany of self pity, this is only an accurate observation. There is nothing noble about this profession, about this work. There is no level at which the job of Realtor could be elevated to be something meaningful. It is a position filled by those who either have little else they are capable of, or by those like me, who felt they could excel at the post and perhaps, just perhaps, change a few perceptions along the way. I was right about the excel part, wrong about the shift in perception.
No level of proficiency can shift the perception. No level of effectiveness, of success, of individual service. I closed a transaction recently that was a win for all parties. The buyer found the rare bit that fit their needs. The seller sold quickly, easily, efficiently and at a market rate. There were no losers in this sale, only different sorts of winners. The job of Realtor was administered by this guy, and the job was done with proficiency. Everyone succeeded in this sale, yet, for the success, there is a bad guy. Lest you not understand the business, the bad guy is always, without fail, the Realtor. That’s not because Realtors are, by nature, bad, it’s because the Realtor is the link that holds these individual transactions together, and it’s the Realtor that bears the brunt of the unrealistic expectations that the different parties bring with them through a transaction. Realtors might make lots of money on television, and they might wear super pointy shoes and drive sportscars, but the business, even at that outrageous level, requires a serious dedication. Dedication to the deal? Sure. But really it’s dedication to being treated poorly, as an overpaid, unnecessary cog in the transaction. The irony here is that most times the transaction would not exist without that cog.
Most of the trouble in a real estate transaction involves perception. Buyers and sellers, perceiving what they will, understanding the business and the process as they will. Their understanding is not universally accurate. The customer is always right, except when the customer is usually wrong. But it’s about the perception and the way different parties enter into an agreement to sell a home. There are showings, which are good and tedious at once. There are offers, some bad, others good, most requiring work to bridge. The game of real estate is, up until the point of accepted contract, just that, a game. It is a game to find the properties, to list the properties. It is a game to negotiate a deal. Negotiations are games with serious outcomes, but they are most obviously a game. This is the game that some clients love to play, and this is a game that I’ve become quiet capable of winning. But the process ceases to be a game at the point of contract. What comes next is the work of actually selling a property. The point of contract is not the end of the process, but it is the end of the game playing.
When a party to a transaction adopts the juvenile approach that sees the entire process as a game, the transaction will, without fail, turn ugly. Will the buyer see the seller turn ugly? Will the seller see the buyer turn ugly? Well, that depends on the Realtor. If the process is being handled correctly, the ugliness that is pettiness will be masked by the go between, by that unnecessary cog. This morning I am not intending on whining, though I can hear the whine coming through the keyboard with each new letter. This morning is intended to serve as a reminder to the parties of a transaction. There is a goal in this game of real estate, and that’s to sell or buy whatever real estate is in focus. Play the game, negotiate, win. But once the dust of a contract has settled, recognize the task at hand. Complete the transaction. Be flexible to understand the situations, be attentive to a buyer’s request. When selling real estate, do so with a grain of salt, knowing the goal is not to win each individual battle but to win the war. When buying, think of the process in the same way. But just know that if you’re unreasonable or otherwise inflexible, it will, at the end of this day and every day, be the fault of that unnecessary cog that made the entire thing happen.
The signs made it known in July that the men would come to work on the road in August. There was a sign taped to the door of this office, and one taped to the door of the office next door. The town new this was going to happen, because of the signs. Weeks before the men would arrive with their trucks and their diggers and their flags, but a week or two after the signs were taped to so many doors, the orange and white barrier markers were shipped in. They came from the last town where the men put down the asphalt, back in that town somewhere else where they put the signs up that told everyone they’d be coming, long before they did. The orange barriers are wide and tall, substantial, portly. They have the look of something you don’t want to hit with your car, though no fewer than two times I saw one hit by a car and very little happened to the car. The barriers aren’t that heavy, but they’re heavy enough to withstand the wind and the rain. They did their job in the last town and now they came to do their job in this town. The signs made us ready.
The barriers were to mark off a section of road, to tell those who didn’t read the signs that this thing was indeed happening. There were barriers dropped, each pushed off the back of a long trailer, every 30 feet or so. The men drove up one side of the road for most of the morning, spacing out the orange and white barrels. Then, after lunch, they drove down the other side of the road, back to where they started, dropping the barriers in the same pattern. The men who they trust with the plastic barrier pillars are not the same men that they trust with the earth movers. How could they be? There’s no way someone would move a barrier on a Tuesday and scrape up the road on a Wednesday. These are different men, different unions. They went to different training schools, in different parts of the country.
Once the markers were set, it was a scene. No signage could have prepared us for this. So many barriers, so much distraction. In the afternoon when the sun sets low on the western horizon, it’s a trick to drive in that direction on this road. The road bends, but not enough. It just points towards the sun in a slightly uphill trajectory, making late afternoon driving a blinding event. How many barriers were hit into these late afternoons I cannot know. The crossing guard probably knows, no one else could. The barrels were moved, as needed, from the margins of the road and into the road, to make two lanes one, every driver obeying the women with the flags and the portable stop signs, especially the leathery one with the tattoos. Often, cars with plates from other states would disobey the signs and the flag waiving and they’d whip right around the barriers. The flag ladies would flap and waive, but those rogue drivers had already made the decision to ignore the signs and the barriers, no matter how many barriers there were.
The barriers were moved from the road and to the margins, then to the road from the margins. Back and forth as one lane was dug up, then the other. Then one lane was replaced with fresh asphalt, and the barrels were moved. When the project was done, the road was smooth. So smooth and so likable, except for the areas where the old manhole covers were too low for the new high grade. There are bumps there, but after some time we learned where they were and how to avoid them. We didn’t even need the barriers, though the barriers stayed. Once the torn up margins of the road were filled with new soil and fresh sod was laid on top, the barriers stayed. The barriers stayed right on top of the new sod, and when the truck came to spray water on the new sod, the barriers didn’t move. The road crew packed their diggers and their asphalt, they collected their signs and their portable flags. They had to get to the next town, because the signs had been circulated weeks ago, and the next town was wondering why everything was taking so long to begin. The last man on the last truck out of town grabbed the few remaining rolls of sod, and with that, they were gone.
The road was nice. Smooth and wide, striped and pretty. Bike lanes were labeled. The sod grew, the sidewalks were walked on. Everyone was in a pretty good mood about this new road. Visitors who hadn’t been to town for some time drove over the new road and commented, what a fine road this is. The school children walked down the new sidewalks, past the new sod, paying little attention to the stationary decorations of orange and white, with those large rubber bases. The barriers were still there, and for those first few weeks it was obvious to everyone that the road crew would be back, soon, to get their belongings. But the fall came and the fall grew old. Halloween was over. The barriers remained. Old men in town walked down the roads, shaking their heads. Stopping, thinking, wondering who would leave such a large amount of barriers behind. Drivers driving up the road in the late afternoon squinted beneath their low-pulled ball caps to see if they could tell the different between the stationary barrels and a child running towards the street. Traffic crawled. Tempers flared. I’m not one to get too angry over barrels, but I took offense to the ones in front of my view and I dragged them down the road a ways. No one noticed.
Yesterday, the men came back. They drove a truck, with a trailer, and they drove West up the road in the morning, picking up each barrel and stacking it neatly. After lunch, they drove back East, picking up the remainder. By evening, they were all gone. This morning, not a single barrier could be found, and I can barely contain my excitement. The road is finally finished, and what a road it is.
I can’t quite read the name of the boat. ENRY is all I can see, the rest blocked by the odd inboard/outboard engine protruding from the stern. Maybe it’s HENRY, but I’ve never heard of a boat named HENRY. Perhaps it’s, no, that must be it. Henry. That’s an odd name for a boat, unless I can’t see the Oh. Then it would make sense, like when he bought the boat and he drove it home to his driveway his wife said, Oh Henry. That would have been all he needed to make the name the same. Oh Henry, it’s a reasonable little name for that reasonable little boat.
It’s blue, but in this light I can’t tell what shade. It has a Tiffany coloration to it, but it’s probably not that blue. There’s cover over it, so I can’t see the inside from here, but I can see the outside and the engine and the down riggers. Henry fishes. He has a smaller engine next to the bigger engine, a “kicker” it’s called in fishing terms. The boat is’t more than 19 feet long, but it’s enough. He fishes lakes and rivers, mostly rivers but also lakes, and he’s pointed north at the gas station. Whether he’s heading north to fish or he’s just gassing up in that north facing lane, I cannot know.
The truck is a Ford. I’m nearly sure of it. It might be blue, but dark, not like the boat. The bumper hangs low, in part because of the boat on that trailer but also because of the large camper that he long ago bolted to the open bed of that pick up. The camper hasn’t been nice for decades, or more. It has a back door, and a back window, but you’d have to duck to get inside the back door, and if you were large around the middle you’d need to both suck in and turn sideways to enter. There are some side windows, a front area that protrudes over the cab of the truck, that’s where he sleeps. There’s a two tone stripe of paint wrapping around the entire thing holding it together.
I can’t make out his license plate, but he’s been in the gas station for a long time now, so he must not be from around here. He’s in there drinking coffee, eating donuts, washing his face in the washroom. Or maybe he’s still in the truck, frantically digging through the seat cushions looking for his wallet. To be this far from home without ones wallet would be a horrible imposition, whether you had a small boat named after you or not. He’s in that gas station and his truck, camper, boat, and trailer are resting under the covered roof of the Mobile station.
There are at least two stickers on the back window, bu there’s no time for that now. He’s walking back to the car. He’s a bit older, maybe 65, maybe 70, maybe 73. He walks quickly, like he spent too much time in the station and he’s ready to hit the road. He’s probably from Illinois, but downstate somewhere. Some place where campers are more in style, where light blue is the preferred boat color, where his buddies see him drive through town with that camper and that boat and they wish they were him. He fired up the truck and with a diesel rumble it came to life. The truck isn’t a Ford at all, but a Dodge. The trailer lights work, which means he’s driving somewhere far from here, and he’s already far from home.
When he gets to where he’s going he’s going to pull into the campground and pick the best spot. It won’t be difficult to do that, because it’s rainy today and it’s dark, and it looks like fall and no one camps when it’s like this. Not on Wednesday’s, anyway. He’ll get to where he’s doing and he’ll uncover the boat. It’s filled with rods and reels, life jackets mostly of orange. There’s an old Coleman cooler, old enough to be old but not old enough to be cool. He has beer in it, venison sausage, cheese and eggs. If I were driving that truck across this state and I reached my destination, I’d be sad to think that I had to then sleep in that horrible little camper. But he is not me, and so when he gets there he’ll unpack and he’ll eat and he’ll sleep. And in the morning, he’ll fish.
He’ll spend the week that way, maybe more. He’ll fish and he’ll camp and he’ll sit in that little musty camper and he’ll read a book. When the nights get cold he’ll turn on the propane heater, but he’ll turn it off when he gets a headache from the exhaust. When he wakes he’ll go fish, and when he catches something he’ll cook it over a dark black skillet that he’s had since, well, since forever. He’ll endure some rain, some cold, some fumes and plenty of solitude.
When he rides back into whatever town he’s from, his friends will see him and they’ll wish they, too, had been on a trip to somewhere far away. They’ll see his boat and trailer and they won’t think that it’s a shame that the boat is so small and such an odd color blue. They won’t think that the engine is old and the down riggers rusty. They won’t see his camper and think of how oddly musty it surely smells, or how his truck must be full of wrappers from the venison sticks and the gas station pastries. They’ll just think that he was lucky to have spent those days someplace else, living in a way that he can’t live in Sometown, Illinois.
I do not believe in putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. Unless tomorrow is pretty open, and today is pretty busy. Then I whole heartedly endorse putting off until tomorrow something that you could, technically, do today. It’s all about pacing yourself, and in the world of real estate where a Realtor could in fact work from 5 am until midnight every single day of their sad lives, this determining of a proper pace is remarkably important. That’s why I went to The American Club.
I, like most successful Realtors, struggle with the concept of rest. What is this rest? Is it sitting at home on a couch scrolling constantly through emails and texts? Is rest found when you sit on a boat and scroll endlessly through emails and texts? Is rest found when you go fishing, and spend equal time fishing and sitting on the bank scrolling through emails and texts? Is this rest? I have struggled with this notion of rest for a long time, and I believe at this point in my life I’ve accepted that there is no such thing. Rest might come easily for those who punch a clock, but for the self employed there is only the visible display of rest- of sitting on a couch or the bow of a boat, of wading through a quiet stream or flying off to a warm winter vacation- but inwardly, there is never any rest.
This is why I took my clogged up brain and my pretty wife to the American Club on Monday. Not because I needed a break, because I had indeed spent Sunday late afternoon superjetting in 60 degree water, and that constituted a nice break for the sole reason that we have not yet figured out how to tether water-proof phones to our ears. As an important aside, I was superjetting without a wetsuit, while my fancy Illinois friends were superjetting and surfing in full wet-suited shame. They said it was because I had extra padding, and that because of this I was able to withstand the icy waters. We all know it was actually because I’m from Wisconsin and they live in Illinois, but the padding joke made them feel better about their silly suits. Still, the getaway.
The American Club is not far from here. It’s just up the road a ways, through Milwaukee but not as far as Green Bay. It’s in the town of Kohler, which is a town unlike any other town that I’ve ever visited. The town is famous for its plumbing fixtures and its generators, for its Whistling Straits golf course- that epic lakeside links course- and for its billionaire family that made it all happen. The town of Kohler would be like the town of David Curry, if I had many billions of dollars and a plan to create a town around my business and my preferred leisure. This isn’t so much a town as it is a personal village, and in that lies both its charm and its oddness.
Because it is odd. If you’ve visited this place and you’ve left without thinking that something was amiss, then I’m not sure what to say except for you may have watched the Truman Show without understanding the plot. This is a fabricated town, and when you enter it already feeling that way, everything seems even more staged. We walked through the aisles of the grocery store on Monday afternoon and I watched several shoppers shop. They all came to the checkout with barely a handful of things. Who shops at a grocery store on a Monday night with the intent of just picking up a few things? Where are the carts overloaded with edibles? Where are the snotty, screaming children stuffed in the cart seat? Why is everyone staring at me?
We walked by the river to see the salmon jumping and spawning and dying. The river was full of them, which was nice, but the fishermen were all positioned up by the dam, and not downstream where most of the fish were. They just stared at the water, dabbing their lines out into the current for a moment, then lifting and dabbing again. They stared at the water except for the times when they stared at us, wondering if were were buying their roles as “fishermen”. We walked away from them and when we returned they were still fishing, still staring, still waiting for us to leave so they could sit down and have a smoke break.
Later, at dinner, we sat in an old fashioned dining room where the waitress first asked us what brought us to town, then asked us what we’d like to drink. A few minutes later someone else sat down at a neighboring table and the same waitress went to them and asked the same exact questions, in the same order. Coincidence? Obviously not. The dining room was old, not shabby but dated. If it were in Elkhorn no one would go there, even if they had a divine relish tray. But here, in Kohler at this American Club, people go and they dine and they are asked the same questions every night.
The boy that brought the water carafe over was named Brian. I asked him if he lives in town. I said, Brian, do you live in town? He said that he didn’t, that he lived in some town named “Sheboygan”. I asked him if he worked here, which was a ridiculous question that was already answered, but what if he said he didn’t? Then I would have caught him in his act, and known that he didn’t actually work there but he was just assigned to that role on that night. Presumably, after we ate our dinner and shared the creme brûlée, he was hastily driven home to this “Sheboygan” and chastised for almost letting slip that this entire thing was a ruse.
When the valet fetched my car yesterday morning, I could see the relief in his eyes. He knew that my stay was over, and that I hadn’t necessarily figured out what was going on. Never mind that the waiter at the Horse and Plow on Monday was the same person who fixed my espresso on Tuesday morning in the Greenhouse. Never mind that the women were shopping without buying anything. Never mind that the fishermen fished where there were no salmon. Never mind that Brian the water boy was or wasn’t from some town that might be ficticuously named Sheboygan. I tipped the valet and said I knew what this was all about. He said, excuse me? And I just nodded and smiled.
I own many coats. I don’t tell you this by way of bragging. I’m not especially proud that I own so many coats, it’s just that I own many of them. Lot of people own more, sure, but that’s because they’re super concerned about their coat collection and I, a humble Williams Bay kid, only own them so that I might stay warm when inclement weather arrives. I own black jackets and brown jackets. One blue jacket and some tan jackets. I own so many jackets that I can’t even remember what they all look like. That’s a lot of jackets.
In September, the world is abuzz with jackets. Fashionable women wear their jackets in the mornings, when they drop their kids off at school or when they make sure the nanny knows what to do that day. In September, ads appear on television showing children in impoverished countries, showing them without jackets, telling us that it will be winter soon. They need just one jacket, and the woman with the kids and the nanny has so many. I, too, as previously mentioned, have more than enough to spare. September is a month then jacket sales and jacket donation and jacket wearing spikes.
At September soccer games, I have worn jackets. I wear one of my black ones, and it’s thin and it isn’t particularly warm, but it’s still a jacket. If the kids in the commercial had that jacket and their country got as cold as the narrator said it might, then they’d still need another jacket. This jacket isn’t warm, but it’s a jacket, and on those days sitting on those sidelines I wished for a better jacket. One of my heavier ones, maybe the blue one.
But most September days there’s the thought of a jacket in the morning, and a complete disregard for a jacket by mid morning. My children wear jackets to school in September, at least some of the time. They wear jackets out of the house, into the car, into the school. They come home without their jackets. The jackets are in their locker, they say. They know exactly where the jackets are. They didn’t need the jackets this morning, really, but September has us thinking we need to wear them. My wife thinks we need to wear them. Don’t forget your jacket, she says, as the kids run from the house and the temperatures climb into the seventies. No one, not even the kids in that ad, needs a jacket when it’s seventy something.
This is the problem with September. Retailers tell us it’s fall, so we’ll buy their fall wares. We need tweed and leather, wool and plaid. We need the things we didn’t need in August. But September isn’t really fall, just as March isn’t really spring, just as June isn’t really summer. October, these last two weeks of sunny days and crisp nights, this is fall. This is perfection. October requires a jacket, which is good, because I have so many.
When you put on your jacket this morning, do me a favor. Skip work. Just drive to the lake and get this fall weekend started. Colors will peak here not this weekend but next, (October 20-27th will be our peak color in Lake Geneva, write that down), but there are enough reds and yellows in that previously green shoreline to make it all worth while. Saturday morning, wake up, put on your jacket, the one you can’t wear in September because September isn’t fall, and go for a walk. Kick some leaves. October only lasts for another two weeks, and while the world and the retailers love September, everyone knows October is the better month.
In 1998 I was just a kid. But I was a kid selling real estate, and as a result I was in a strange place. My friends were all still off at college, learning, presumably, something. I was working, struggling I’m sure, but I was too young to see anything as much of a struggle. The Cubs were good that year, or good enough. I payed attention to the season with youthful optimism. When the Cubs won their play-in game against San Francisco, I watched each game of the following series with eager intent. The Cubs did what they do, and after being swept by the Braves I felt what they made me feel: despair.
I don’t remember how old I was when I went to my first Cub’s game. I do remember watching Andre Dawson throw out a runner at first on what appeared to be a clean single into right field. I remember a home run being hit while my grandpa was in the bathroom. I remember going to that game as if I were leaving one country and traveling to another. I remember thinking what a treat it was. Because I only went to two games as a child (that counts through age 18), I was of the impression that access to Wrigley Field was somehow difficult. That it was only available to the privileged few. That we could only go when my dad got tickets through a generous customer of his who lived up the road from him. Only later did I realize that tickets at the time were like $10 each and we didn’t go to games because of my father’s undying devotion to cheapness, a condition that plagues him, increasingly, to this very day.
The games in the 80s were on WGN, and I watched Sunday games as often as I could. The era of Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Dawson, Jerome Walton, Shawon Dunston- those were my teams. I was too young in ’84 to remember the hurt. In ’89 I was still too young. By ’98 I was ready to cheer, and I was let down in remarkably efficient fashion. What followed from that ’98 season through the 2008 season was an incredible devotion to a team. There were games of epic importance, seasons of gratuitous winning. Steroids. Home runs. Balls in the stands that Moises Alou couldn’t catch.
Game 7 of 2003 found me in Canada. Canadians, perhaps outside of Toronto and Montreal (at the time), have no interest in baseball. That day, leading up to game time, I was a wreck. At game time, I scanned the television channels, finding nothing but Hockey and Du Mourier cigarette commercials. Frantic, I left the the house in search of the game. I traveled far and wide, finally finding a bar that allowed me to turn on the game. I sat alone and watched as Kerry Wood served up three Florida runs in the top of the first. I sat even more alone as Kerry Wood crushed a two run homer to center in the bottom of the second. I sat in quiet jubilation as the Cubs took the lead in the bottom of the third.
But Kerry Wood couldn’t quiet the Florida bats, and with a 9-5 Florida lead I quietly left the bar. I would catch the last inning back at a relative’s house, but by then I already knew that the outcome was sealed. The outcome was sealed, as would be admitted later by Cub’s players, in the latter innings of game 6. Game 7 didn’t matter, and everyone but me knew it.
I soldiered on, attending perhaps 8-10 games per year during the decade that started with being swept out of the NLDS by the Braves, and ended with being swept out of the NLDS by the Dodgers. I was at game two of that 2008 NLDS, sitting anxiously in the left field bleachers while the Dodgers torched a fidgety Zambrano for five runs in the top of the second. That game was over right then, as was the series. The remaining game didn’t matter, just as game 7 didn’t matter in 2003.
The next season, Tom Rickets bought the team. He promised a rebuilding process, a long and painful tenure of losing that might, someday, result in winning. I was still bleeding from the last decade of disappointment, and he poured salt on the wound. At least the prior years we had pretended to care about winning, and here comes Rickets to promise that winning will not be probable, let alone possible. I decided then and there to bail on this Cubs team, to bail on a lifetime of hurt. To bail on the wish for winning, an expectation of mediocrity, and a guaranteed outcome of failure. I was, as of 2009, a recovering Cubs fan.
I canceled my subscription to the Chicago Tribune. I only subscribed to read about the Cubs, anyway. I didn’t watch Sportscenter during baseball season. Within a year of my bail, Ron Santo died. I understand he was a jerk on the field, and I understand he might have been a jerk off of it. But his call, alongside Pat Hughes, was a magical ointment that soothed my disappointment by making his own frustration so apparent. A year or two later, Bob Brenly left the television booth. During those years, Cubs games left WGN. The radio call was different, the television broadcast was unavailable, and I was too angry to care.
It went this way for all of those years since I sat in the dark and watched the Dodgers win. I didn’t listen to a game. I didn’t watch a game. I didn’t read an article about the Cubs. I avoided them on purpose, aggressively. In January of 2015, a phone call. It was the Cubs. They told me that my name had come up on the season ticket waiting list and that it was my time to pick out my seats. They said it so happily, so unaware of my anger. I obliged the call and thought long and hard about rekindling my relationship. When the day came that I was to enter the virtual waiting room to pick out my seats, I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested.
Then, within a week, the Cubs sign Joe Madden. I hadn’t heard much of him, but I appreciated that he seemed to be a good choice. Shortly after, the first signing in what felt like a lifetime- Jon Lester. Spring training came. Kris Bryant was supposed to be good, but I had heard that many times before. Jerome Walton was supposed to be good, too, but a Rookie Of The Year Award is only awarded for one season. I wanted to cheer for this young team, for the team that looked nothing like the last team I remembered watching, but I wasn’t so sure.
Begrudgingly, I paid attention. For the first time in 7 years, I planned to watch a game. Game 1 of the Cubs/Cardinals 2015 series. It also happened to be the home opener. I watched the game, watched the new kids, watched the $155MM pitcher Jon Lester. I watched the Cubs lose, 3-0. Some things, it seems, never change.
In July, a client invited me to sit in his company box for the Sunday Phillies game. I have never been one to decline a suite invite, and so I took my wife and kids to what would be my first game since 2008. My kids, I decided, were being unfairly blocked from Wrigley Field because of my own complicated fandom. This first game back was fun, sort of. It was nice to see the stadium spiffied up. It was nice to see a replay on the scoreboard. It was nice to see the green grass and the sky line. It wasn’t nice to be greeted with the common refrain. Cubs lose.
That game marked a turning point for this team, and in the months that followed they won far more than they list. Two weeks ago, another generous client invite, to another suite. This game was the Sunday night game against the Pirates, with Jake on the mound. The Cubs won, and I drove home late into the night thinking that perhaps I could forgive a team that looks to unlike the bloated teams with bought talent that I rooted for with such fervor in the prior decade.
Tonight. Cubs and the Cardinals. I despise the Cardinals, because they’re the anti-Cubs, all they do is win. But tonight, like every other night, I’ll remember that I do love the Cubs, even if they’ve never loved me back. Does this make me a fair-weather fan? Does this mean I’m somehow not a die-hard? I would say no. It doesn’t mean I haven’t always been a fan. It just means I don’t enjoy a party as much as I enjoy an effort, and now that a team is finally providing an effort, I once again feel engaged in a common goal. Go Cubs.
PS. Kerry Wood, even though you own a home on Geneva, I do not forgive you for pitching like crap in game 7 of the NLCS.
My oldest friend had a birthday yesterday. He’s not old, he’s my age, but it was his birthday and he is the person who has been my friend longer than any of my other friends, so he’s my oldest friend. We will generally fish on our birthdays, either on the exact day or near the day, but yesterday was a day that neither of us could fish, and so I invited him to lunch. You pick the place, I said, in a generous birthday tone. When he said that we should meet at Manny’s Snack Shack in Twin Lakes, it was too late for me to renege. I had already made it sound like I was available, and though I tried to get him to meet me in Lake Geneva, on this side of that county line, he refused. Manny’s it was.
You’d probably be surprised at how many local agents, Experts, they’d say, have trouble finding their way around Lake Geneva. I’ve had agents who proclaim themselves to be Top, and other things, get lost en route from one place they should know to another place they should know. I don’t get lost at Lake Geneva, because Lake Geneva is in my blood and how can one divorce himself from his own DNA? But as I mentioned on Monday, I am not an expert in all things, though if you saw me throw an axe into a chunk of wood you’d be forgiven for assuming that I was. Twin Lakes is an area near here, but so far away. So I relied on my GPS and set the location. I would drive to the Twin Lakes, which lake of the two I was uncertain.
The route from here to there is not that difficult. I drove East on Highway 50, and when my car told me to, I turned to the south. This was an unnatural turn, one that I only typically make in order to perform a U-turn. The road was unimportant, but it was something like 386000RTW50th Street. I paid little attention, because soon I was to turn on 99820th Avenue 4, before veering slight right onto EWP County Highway. I stayed on that Highway for a bit, then took a sharp right followed by a sharp left. I was leaving the corn fields and arriving into a town. I saw a lake ahead, and while I knew I was on 3860000RTW50th Avenue, the sign ahead beckoned me. Lake Avenue, it said.
Now, if I had just fallen off the turnip truck and I saw this Lake Avenue sign, I might have been convinced. But I am not so green that I can’t see a 386000RTW50th Street when I see one, and while Lake street urged me to consider that it was indeed Lake Street, I knew better. This was a county road, with a hugely long and uninteresting name, masked under the guise of a more friendly vacation home street name. I sat and ate with my friend, and while everyone else thought they were dining near a lake on Lake Street, I sat and wondered how they could be so gullible. At one point I almost stood and asked the patrons to consider their mistake, to understand that they were not dining casually on Lake, but instead they were lined up on 386000RTW50th Street and no one could ever enjoy such a setting. I imagined the name wasn’t Manny’s but Lake Street Diner. How the people would love that name, and they’d eat there in their flip flops and they’d feel at one with the area, at one with the lake, at one with that street. But 386000RTW50th Diner would have gone bankrupt years ago.
Having eaten enough food to last for days, I drove back, following those confusing directions posted on my car’s display. When I made it back to Lake Geneva, I noticed my surroundings, and the things that we’ve named our routes. Wrigley Drive. Basswood. Snake. Folly and Bonnie Brae. Constance and North Lakeshore. Linden and Glenwood. Ara Glen and Hollybush. These aren’t masked highways at all, these are pure street names, vacation home names, and they provided me with great relief after the journey I had just endured.
I’ve thought often about buying some land in the country, far from here where I might fly fish once in a while. I look for this land somewhat often, and when something pops onto my MLS screen I judge it before clicking on the pictures. I see a street name “HIGHWAY NN”, and I know I can’t buy it. I see COUNTY LINE S and shake my head, that can’t be for me. I can’t buy on such a road when I know that roads like OAKSTAAD and LOVAAS RIDGE exist. How could I tell my friends to go to my house, the one at 39W50RT COUNTY HIGHWAY NN? I want to tell them to take that highway for a bit, when veer right onto HORNBY HOLLOW. I could live in a Hollow, just not on a highway.
Last week, a closing in Lake Como. The property was nice, the price fine, the market something other than what I know. But the street name was interesting, and it further makes my point. Street names matter. The latest Como sale was on URANUS Street. Maybe it’s a road, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If you’re ready for a lake house, I’ll be over here, at 57 West Geneva Street, which sounds so much better than all of the alternatives.