Blog : Lifestyle

High End

High End

What is it that makes a house appear high end? Is it the color palette? If we gray out a house in the most modern style, will that make it high end? Is it the ceiling in a living room? If we add a bunch of trim to it, will someone walk into that room and proclaim it to be high end? Better yet, will they quietly think it is? And if we choose the nicest pattern of tile, the one that we saw on that television show, will the addition of that tile make out laundry room high end? What exactly is High End, anyway?

In the new market we find ourselves in, there is much confusion on this subject. Flippers are flipping homes, installing the things that might look high end but are, as a point of fact, anything but. Spec homes are doing the same, both big ones and small ones. Stainless steel appliances, pattern tile in the showers, gray wood looking boards on ceilings. Is this what makes something high end? After all, if you took a snapshot of a home adorned in those desirable things and failed to look closely, it may, indeed, appear to be high end. Or are we mistaking trends for finishes? Is a gray wood ceiling high end, or is it just what the magazines and Restoration Hardware have told us are on trend?

It feels as though we’ve made a tragic mistake when attempting to identify what is high end, and what merely matches the preferred style of the day. It’s not the fault of the makers and contractors and homeowners who are choosing this style of finish, it’s the fault of the market for not understanding what is nice, and what just looks nice. My position as Lake Geneva agent to the stars affords me plenty of opportunity to review homes that fit into both of these categories. Once in a while I show primary homes, and those homes generally fall into the latter category. They must fall into that category, because who would install a real Waterworks faucet into a $400k home? No one, that’s who. But the $5MM homes? The $10MM homes? The $750k condominiums? This is a very different story.

That story, unfortunately, begins and ends with a simple understanding of high end. A shiny brass chandelier is indeed on trend. But what makes that fixture, and the house it calls home, high end is the make of the fixture. I can find a brass fixture at Home Depot for $199 and install it in a home. If it’s up high enough, you might just assume it’s a nice fixture. But if I want to sell you a house for $5MM and that fixture is in the foyer, then it better be a maker that carries some panache. We’ll settle on Visual Comfort, that’s a nice line of lighting. Increasingly, Restoration Hardware fixtures are both on trend and high end. If a fixture looks pretty from a distance, that’s fine for a $500k subdivision home. But if it’s in a $6MM lakefront? Well then it better be expensive.

Is that really all “high end” comes down to, cost? I suppose, in a way, yes. A lakefront home recently, privately, sold, and it sold for a considerable sum of money. That home had toilets in it, as does every other lakefront home. But those toilets cost $6000 each. Necessary? Of course not. But undeniably high end? Duh. I was in another home recently, one listed for many millions of dollars, and the toilets had plastic flush handles. Plastic. No make or model could be identified from a cursory look at the tank. Is that high end? Don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t just about fixtures and toilets and faucets, but those few things do go very far in determining whether or not you’re standing in a high end home, or one that’s just dressed up like one.

While there is no definitive list of the things that must be included to bring a home to High End status, the make of plumbing and light fixtures is very important. Why? Because it signals the care taken in selecting these visible features, and the combination of high end fixtures goes a long ways towards lending credibility to the rest of the structure. Flooring is the same. Have guest bedrooms in your house that are carpeted? Wool is the way to go. Need countertops for a bathroom or kitchen or laundry room? If so, skip the tan patterned granite. Why? Because we all had that granite in 2002, and we all know it was the cheapest option. Need a kitchen sink? Sure, if it’s a white farm-style apron sink, that’s on trend. But I expect to see a Shaw mark or a Kallista emblem. If it says American Standard, it’ll work for washing dishes, but don’t try to sell me that the house is high end.

Kitchen cabinets are a curious thing. On one hand, a $500k house just needs to have cabinets that hold pots and pans. On another hand, a $5MM house better have cabinets that hail from some pedigree. Give me Woodmode or Plato or DeGiulio. I need to see something here, because if you’re skimping on the kitchen cabinets, what else are you cutting on? I expect divided light windows, SDL are fine, and the roof shouldn’t be asphalt. Please don’t make it asphalt. Give me cedar or give me slate, or give me a synthetic slate, that’ll be fine, too. But you’re going to sell me your $7MM house and it’s going to have asphalt shingles? If so, the land better be pretty spectacular. I don’t even need to mention appliances, but if you have refrigeration it better be from Sub Zero, and if you have an oven it better be from Wolf or Viking, et al. Just don’t try to sell me Kitchenaid, because it’ll bake a frozen pizza just fine but you’re not getting $5MM fro the house that surrounds it.

This isn’t actually an advertisement for brand name fixtures and appliances, it’s just a post about the state of our market. If someone is selling you something that portends to be high end, make sure it actually is. Don’t be caught up in the visual aspect of the finishes. Don’t be lured in by cheap and shiny. Instead, be sure the caliber of the finishes matches the price range, and the best way to do this is to look beyond the surface and make sure that kitchen faucet that looks sort of like the Regulator Faucet from Waterworks is actually the Regulator Faucet from Waterworks.

Above, my $729k Bay Colony lakefront listing. Looks high end, is high end.

Lake Geneva Water

Lake Geneva Water

I see the world in black and white. I see it in wrong and right. I see the people who dwell in the gray and I wonder why. Packers fans see Bears fans and wonder why. Bears fans feel the same. Some people saw that dress as being gold and some saw it as blue. Some think the President is good and some think he’s bad. These are binary situations with predictable outcomes. It’s one or the other. Black or white. Blue or Gold. Orange and Blue or Green and Gold. Capitalism or Socialism. Two choices, nothing in the middle. No gray to be found, anywhere.

My lack of gray awareness extends to the Lake Geneva lakefront, as do most things in my life. In this case, there are once again two sorts of people. Two types of buyers. Two positions that can be adopted, each a religion, one of conviction and one of ignorance. There are really only two types of buyers on this lake. An easy play here would be to assume that I’m talking about the smart buyers who work with me, and the other buyers that don’t. But this is the low hanging fruit and we’re not seeking the easy way out. That’s for the other group, the group that we don’t belong to. The two groups? Those who understand that the water adjacent their would-be-lakefront-home is important, and those who are wrong.

It’s true that all of Geneva Lake is divine. While the lakefront homes themselves can vary by make and model, many subscribe to the belief that the lake is the lake. If they’ve found their way here, they know they’ve already eschewed the bad lakes in favor of this, the good lake, and in that they feel as though they have made the correct decision. They would be correct, in a way. But if we dig deeper we can find that not all of Geneva Lake was created equal. This is a lake of good and better, and ultimately best, but there is a misunderstood part of this lake, one that can only be considered to be nothing but bad.

Sacrilege, you say? Heresy? Or is it just the truth, the sort that can only be discovered after a lifetime of walking this path and swimming these waves and casting from these piers? Should it be any surprise that there are good spots on this lake and bad spots? And what exactly does that mean? After all, if you’re a buyer looking for lakefront you’ve certainly already identified that this is the only lake worth buying on, which means you’ve already gained membership into a most exclusive, enlightened group. This is where many buyers stop. This is where they assume the decisions from here on must all be relatively equal. And this is where they are wrong. It’s not nuanced, it’s as binary as anything has ever been. It’s one or the other, either the water matters or it doesn’t, and it does.

The lake is deep. We know this. 150′, give or take. But this isn’t the unique aspect of Geneva Lake that keeps it so remarkable and shimmery. It’s the volume that does that. 70% of Geneva is 70′ or deeper. So this isn’t some spread out mud-puddle in Texas, the sort with swimming tarantulas and brain eating amoebas, this is a sparkling, natural, spring-fed lake of royal proportions. In spite of this magnificent volume, the lake still has its edges, and by default, those edges feature shallow water. It would be forgivable if you viewed a home in the winter without the assistance of an informed agent and you weren’t aware of the quality of the water adjacent that home. But in the summer? In the spring? The fall? With piers in and lawns mowed, this shouldn’t be difficult to figure out.

A proper pier on Geneva should feature end of pier water depth in the 5-8′ range. If you are on Black Point, you might be in 20′ range. But if you’re in a shallow corner of the lake, the sort of corner that might have been a straight up swamp before the property owners of the 1800s filled those corners in with rocks and dirt and tree stumps, then you very well might be in trouble. Full sections of the lake suffer from this shallow-water concern, and I’m positive that the owners of such homes no longer find themselves concerned with the lack of water at the end of their pier. But if you’re a buyer you have a choice, and the choice is simple. If you’re considering a lakefront home on Geneva, be sure you’re buying at a price point that matches the quality of the water. If you’re considering a home search and you’re uncertain what sort of water might be good or bad, don’t sweat that detail. Just ask me.

November

November

If I were the sort of person who was forced to spend sixth months in a more tax advantageous state, it would be a struggle for me. In order to find those six months and that extra day, it’s obvious that you’d need to be in that warmer state for the months of December, January, February, March and April. The problem is that those months only count to five, and I’d still be missing a month, and that day. On one hand, the month of May is typically, mostly, awful. It wouldn’t be a sin to miss such a month of Midwestern spring. But on the other hand, May is delightful, with blooms and birds and rising trout and calm waters. Who could trade a month of incredible change for yet another month of tedious sun and boring, swaying palm trees. Everyone look, I found another shell shaped like a heart!

Beyond May, who could trade December? What could possess someone of Midwestern roots to wish for a Holiday season spent without snow? How does one roast Chestnuts over an open fire while looking foolish in shorts and flip flops? What’s the point of hot chocolate if you’re already warm? I can see a trip to the warmth for a Holiday novelty once in a great while, but every year? You’d have to put up a fake tree, and then you’d need to decorate it with obnoxious things like ornaments of starfish and stone crabs. I can’t watch football games while also sweating. December would be a tough month to trade.

November is an option, and indeed nearly everyone who spends their lives hoping for the six months plus one ends up swapping November. This is the most egregious of the month swaps. Why would I trade this month? I just spent the last six months of color looking forward to this month of dull grays and browns. I love the still of November. The lake finds some peace. The fields turn gold and then tan and finally pale. The woods shed their leaves and show us what they’ve been hiding all summer. The month finishes with a celebration of the harvest, one last, big dinner to show our appreciation. The month is quiet and it’s still and yes, it’s dark, but it’s my kind of dark and I wouldn’t trade it for bright colors and soft salty waves.

But this year things may be different. This morning, with this blanket of insufferable snow and crunchy iced over roadways, I may be willing to negotiate with November. If November is going to count as winter, and I’m not going to get to see those dull pale colors that I love so much, then I’m open to trading November. I hate the months that don’t do anything well, which is why I hate March, and April for that matter. But now the weather has come for my steady November, and I wish it hadn’t. The issue here is even if I trade November and hang onto December then I’m still going to have to trade May. This is the problem, and we haven’t even begun to debate that extra day.

Elevated

Elevated

I spent last week in the south of France. It was a nice week, although it could be successfully argued that sitting at this desk watching the fall leaves flutter from their summer trees is much more relaxing than traveling across France with my children in tow. The sights and sounds of another land are always of interest to me, no matter the complexities that arise from my host country not having the sheer decency to adopt my language of proficiency, and choice. The travels were good and the travels were meaningful, but something happened on that trip that you should know about.

This summer it was known that I sold two homes high on the tip of Cedar Point. If you didn’t know about those Lake Geneva lakefront sales, then you haven’t been paying attention as closely as I had assumed. Those homes were different, but the location was quite the same. I showed both homes often over the course of the summer, yet no matter how many times I walked in and out to the lakeside patios or decks I was struck by the strength of that view. Remember, I show lakefront homes nearly every day, and I spent the first 18 years of my life in a lakefront home on this same lake, so my awareness of the view should have, by this point, waned. And if not waned, then certainly softened, and if not softened then certainly faded. Yet this view, over the course of this summer, from those two elevated lakefront homes continued to capture my attention. Lots of stairs to the water, sure, but that view, man. That view.

Last week I stayed for a while at a hotel with a golden goat, in a seaside village that is more cliff-side than sea-side. The hotel was stunning, the food commendable, the $12 lemon tart smaller than a golf ball. There was a chef event in the village of Eze that weekend, so the streets were crowded with people, the smell of breads and paella and charcoal kissed lamb filling the cool Mediterranean air. I spend some time lounging here, though most of the time was spent climbing the steeply positioned stairs (railings, seemingly optional) from one terrace to another, each level backdropped by an endless view of Cap Ferrat, Antibes and the sparkling azure sea. No matter where you walked here, the sea was there. Below you. Next to you. In front of you. The view was unavoidable.

Rather than have that view remind me of other sea views I’ve have the privilege of seeing, whether that be from the sea-side a California or the palm-tree filled islands of the Floridian Gulf, or the serious views off the sides of Kauai, the views from Eze and that goat hotel reminded me the most of the view from the very tip of Cedar Point. The view from 246 or 250 Circle or the view from Eze, which one would I prefer? I cannot easily choose, but if I were to come to a conclusion, the misery of air travel would need to be factored in and with that, I would choose the tip of Cedar Point. The croissants at Simple are not of French quality, but in a pinch, they’ll do.

But the market doesn’t necessarily agree with me. The market is conditioned to want level frontage. 100′ and level, they say. Eighty-two feet and level is better than one hundred feet in the air, the market insists. But I say the market is wrong. The market is soft. The market doesn’t understand that the views that are captured from elevated perches can easily and thoroughly wipe away the temporary pain of climbing a few steps. The Provencal villages of note tend to have similar characteristics. Lots of narrow, squiggly paths, lined with cobblestones of varying makes and models. Lots of pastries. Lots of shops to buy bags filled with dried lavender. But the most defining characteristic is their elevation. These are mountain-top villages, positioned for safety and awareness.

A vantage point is the position from which something is viewed or considered. This is why if you wish to view or consider this lake, whether that consideration be paid on a dazzling October Sunday like the one just ended, or on a drizzly Monday morning from which I write you today, shouldn’t your view be the best view possible? If the answer is yes, then eschew what the market tells you and look to the peaks. Look to the hills. Look to the points. Climb a few steps to find that view, and once you’re there, sit for a while. Take it all in. If you’re doing it right, if won’t be so hard to imagine that you’re looking out at the Mediterranean, but, as an important improvement, ordering dinner won’t be even remotely difficult.

Cancel The Boat Parade

Cancel The Boat Parade

There are things here that we do exceptionally well. Things we do better than anyone, at any place, during any point in history. An evening boat cruise aboard a capable boat, the sun settling below that green western horizon, the calm rotation of a strong engine and the rolling push of white prop wash, it’s all about as ideal as it could be. The lake falling flat, the piers still, the lake nearly, entirely yours. This is what we do well here, among many other things. The evening cruise here is as good as it could be anywhere, and this is something we should be proud of.

But last night, with that lake doing what it does and the boats doing what they do, there was an interruption in the quality of the scene. The carnival that is Venetian Fest was winding down, but leading up to, really, the last important fireworks display of the summer. The fireworks, I should add, were quite good. Never mind that we should still abandon a relatively tedious 15 minute display and instead choose to have an invigorating 6 minute display, one where bystanders cannot help but turn to one another and question if something has gone wrong. We are not used to so many explosions in such a short period of time. The fireworks were fine, the long weekend of Venetian Fest was fine. The Wrigley’s bringing in One Republic to fist bump with Mr. Wrigley, also fine. The problem was was happened in between all of that.

The boat parade is, in theory, a fine idea. Some old boats, adorned with some lights. It’s fine by me. Cruise boats, filled with patrons, each paying the small ransom to spend an hour or two afloat, fine. My issue isn’t with the idea, it’s with the execution. The concept is acceptable, even perhaps fun, but the actual implementation of this boat parade leaves everything to be desired. I sat on a pier on the west side of Geneva Bay as dusk settled in, and the thumping from an over-cranked boat stereo signaled that the disastrous boat parade of 2019 was about to begin. I paid attention.

The first few boats, no big deal. Some haphazard lights strung in varying shapes on some of our nicer tour boats. One was some sort of blue cocktail. Another maybe a surfer. One a pig roasting over flames, done entirely in orange so it looked less like a summer light parade and more a Spirit Halloween window display. While the first few boats pushed from south to north, the music still bumped. Annoyingly loud, it pulsed from the ugliest boat to ever find its way into a boat parade outside the muddy shoreline of Lake Havasu.

Rather than having actual themed decorations, the Ugly Boat had the name of the boat rental company on the side of it. Why would this be? Can I place my boat into this “parade” and write Geneva Lakefront Realty on the side of it? Even if I could, should I? Within a few minutes, the boat parade was over, and the decibel levels returned to normal Sunday evening levels. Everyone was thankful the parade was over. Shortly after, the fireworks exploded and the display was energetic and all was fine. Another Sunday night at the lake, in the books. But all was not well.

The boat parade is silly. It’s obnoxious. I recognize that people worked hard to decorate the boats, but if I work hard to carve a maze into the giant ragweed that are overtaking my yard, does that make the maze a good idea? Let’s get back to acting like Lake Geneva, and kill the boat parade for 2020. If we’re trying to become the Wisconsin Dells, then by all means, let’s boat parade like crazy. But if we’re trying to be Lake Geneva, let’s act like it.

The Test

The Test

It is true that not everyone is cut out for this thing. As a point of fact, this is the case for nearly every thing. For instance, I am not cut out for rock climbing. I have seen this done on the smooth face of bald rock cliffs and thought, that’s not for me. Another thing I’m not cut out for is being eaten to death by a bear. I’ve seen it happen, at least nearly so, on the silver screen and I decided that I am very much against it. Because of this assertion, I will never place myself into a situation where death by bear may occur. In the same way, some people are not meant for Lake Geneva.

While it irritates and appalls me to suggest that this is indeed the case, I know I am not alone in thinking this way. Some people don’t like it here. I’ve heard of these people, though I don’t believe I’ve ever had the chance to look one of these people dead into their mistaken eyes and suggest, however tactfully, that they are being lied to by Satan himself, still, I know they exist. Some of the people that feel this way have come here for a while and found that the schedule of their lives does not find time for a lake house. These people get a pass, but not a full pardon. These are people who have made decisions to pursue other things, but in that wayward pursuit they have not pinpointed that Geneva is not for them. They’ve just chosen another way, albeit the wrong way.

The people of which I speak are generally home buyers. Ambivalent, some. Others, aggressive and searching, but uncommitted when it comes time to pull the trigger. What if I don’t like it there? They ask. What if things aren’t like I perceive them to be? They balk. Never mind that my voice of calm reason is consistently assuring them that they’ll like it here. That they’ll fit in. That they’ll feel a tug to come back as many weeks or weekends as their schedule allows. When one of these would-be-owners gives me their list of 10 data points that they value, I always remind them that at Lake Geneva we’ll gladly deliver on 6 of those 10 points, but never, ever, on all 10, let alone even, perhaps, 7. This is the way our market behaves, and if you come here with some ambivalence and expect to be met at each of your concerns, you best move along. Lake Geneva doesn’t bend to a buyer, a buyer must bend to Lake Geneva.

But this isn’t about these buyers, this is about the test. And in my most professorial way I will tell you how this test is administered. First things first, stop visiting only on weekends. This is a mistake. A huge mistake. There are but two seasons here. Weekdays and Weekends. The test is only offered on weekdays. This is why you must reign in your schedule and find a day to visit. Fridays are acceptable, but not preferred. On a Sunday, look at the forecast for the week. Pick the best looking weather day. Plan on that day. On that day collect your family or friends or just drive up by yourself, it doesn’t matter. The test doesn’t rely on more than one participant. Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves and there is more work to do before you get into the car.

I used to suggest that a homebuyer should rent a boat on this lake and drive around. This was bad advice. What a terrible way to introduce yourself to a lake like this. What are you going to do, rent a pontoon boat and drive around in a carpeted, open air living room to see a scene like this? This is akin to finding your way to the finest of restaurants and wearing torn shorts and that shirt you have with the armpit stains. Don’t do this. If you make the egregious mistake and rent a boat, you’ll be tossed around like a rabbit in my dog’s mouth. The outcome for you and the rabbit are the same: pain. This is why you’re not allowed to take this test on some silly rental boat. You must charter a boat and take this test in style.

A cursory review of boat rental options on Geneva finds most boat rentals costing between $300-500 for 2-4 hours. This is expensive for the sort of boats that you can rent. And, in the spirit of transparency, I have several basic goals for Geneva Lake. 1. Ban Pontoon Boats. 2. Eliminate Boat Rentals. 3. Increase Launch Fees 10 fold. (If we did these things, the lake would be better off, so if anyone is reading and would like to discuss these paths, I’m here to help facilitate). Why would you rent a dumb little boat when you could charter the Lorelei, a most stunning 41′ cruiser and have someone else drive you around the lake? Best yet, even with taxes and fees, the Lorelei will run you around $400 for an hour tour. You don’t need more than an hour to indulge in the lakefront scene. Imagine the grief I just saved you by informing you of the proper option here. No standing in line waiting for the rental company to prepare your embarrassing rental boat. Just a high class, white glove experience aboard a beautiful chartered boat. This is the way to take in the lake.

But this Lake Geneva litmus test is not yet complete. Once you’re done with the boat, you must find a place to eat food, lakeside. You could stay in Lake Geneva, that’s up to you, but you must eat lunch or dinner on the lake. Is our food scene amazing? No, aside from a few standouts, it is not. But if you’re eating lakeside everything will taste just a bit better. Eat your meal. Then, walk the shore path in some direction for 15 minutes. Longer if you insist, but at least 15 minutes. Leave from Williams Bay, Fontana, or Lake Geneva, but get away from town quickly. Walk a ways. Gawk a bit. Imagine walking up one of the lawns to the screened porch that you might someday own.

This is the end of the test. Nothing more is needed. If you follow this program and at the end of the day you hate Lake Geneva, then there is nothing more than can be done for you. You are a lost cause. It’s not entirely your fault, because some things are not for every person. For instance, some people eat poultry medium rare. Other people that I’ve seen on TV eat eels that are still living. Some people bought PT Cruisers, in yellow. To each his own, but if you’re in the mood for a lake house and you’re uncertain as to your geographic aim, just follow my test and when you’re done you can call me and tell me how it went.

This Day

This Day

This day is too nice to type at this computer. I sat down to type, and I wondered what I was thinking. Who could type on a day like this? I should go back to work, away from the typing and back to the working. But what sane person would willingly work on days like this? For the length of our lives, we will have only a few days just like this. Sure, you could move to some absurd place far to the south of here and have days like this, but what fun would that be? What if a day like this during a week like this occurred each day and each week, every month, all year? Then we wouldn’t care, we’d just work. But we aren’t those people, we are us, proudly so, and if we’re working on this day with this sun and this temperature and that lake, then we’ve lost our minds. This paragraph took me thirty seconds to write and those are thirty seconds I will never, ever get back. It’s Thursday and it’s perfect and I have to go now, because my life is short and summer is shorter and days like this? They’re impossible to ignore.

Lake Geneva Fireworks 2019

Lake Geneva Fireworks 2019

During this time of considerable political tumult, there is just one thing that binds Americans together. Liberals and conservatives disagree on more today than ever before, but we’ll always have our fireworks to bring us back together. Conservatives love fireworks, this is obvious, but even the most liberal cities in America find rare joy in lighting up their skies. Fireworks, this is our thing. And in Lake Geneva, we gladly carry water in this unification effort.

Fireworks in Lake Geneva, WI

On the 4th, Fontana will light a match to their fireworks display. This happens later than it feels like it should, perhaps sometime between 9:20 and 9:50 pm. If you have young children, it will feel much later than that. The fireworks launch from barges out in front of the Fontana beach, so viewing is ideal anywhere on the west facing western end of the lake. Many people take to their boats for this, and if you decide to join the fray, just one work of caution. Fireworks and alcohol go hand in hand (paused to consider a firework finger dismembering joke here but decided against it), so be careful on the water. Keep your lights on. Last year, we went out in the boat and I instructed my son to install the light pole. He shoved the pole in, twisted it, and promptly broke off the connection. We sat in the boat, close to shore, with flashlights. Don’t be like us.

Before the fireworks, Lake Geneva holds their morning Farmer’s Market. This market used to be lame. I know it, you know it, the people who promoted the event knew it, too. But now it’s a really nice market, with ample vendors and a generally pleasant vibe. I like it very much, and you should, too. So go there, buy things, then return home to prepare for the remainder of the day.

If you’re not the Fontana sort, the Ridge Hotel on Highway 50 between Williams Bay and Lake Geneva will also have fireworks on Thursday evening. You will likely be able to see those from a south shore positioned boat, so you’ll likely have two displays available if you’re out for the Fontana fireworks.

Preempting everyone else, The Grand Geneva has their fireworks shooting off this evening, which is Wednesday, July 3rd. This is nice, and you can generally see these from a boat positioned in on the East end of the lake, or from the Grand Geneva itself (duh). If you’re fireworks crazed and cannot wait for Thursday, you’re in luck. If you’re anxious and also on the East end of the lake, the Lake Geneva Country Club will blast their explosives into the air this evening (7/3) as well.

The Williams Bay and Lake Geneva fireworks are in August, the prior included as part of the Corn and Brat Roast, the latter a part of Venetian Fest. No matter your fireworky aim, Lake Geneva has you covered. Just be careful, and let’s all hope and pray for the jetstream to move so we can have more than a few hours in a row without rain. Have a terrific weekend, and don’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I’ll proudly stand up, next to you, and defend her still today… What were we talking about?

Above: Tuesday’s sunset. Captured by a client near Black Point.

Lake Houses

Lake Houses

Certain phrases elicit certain reactions. For instance. If I tell my wife to “calm down”. The reaction is something I can predict with startling accuracy. If my son is bothering me and I tell him that he is banned from his xbox, he’ll react in the same apoplectic manner each and every time. And if I read that someone says they don’t “need a lake house”, my reaction will escalate far beyond that of my wife having been told to calm down and my son having been banned from gaming. You don’t need a lake house? Pfft.

The latest round of this profanity was uttered by a well-intentioned homeowner in a recent Crain’s article. The person owns a home in a North Shore suburb of Chicago. The house is for sale. When a house is for sale, the owners grasp at straws to describe just what it is that makes their house more special than the others. Better than the others. Unique and rare, that’s what their house is. In the case of this gentleman he said that he never felt the need for a lake house, because this house, located on Lake Michigan, is his lake house. It’s a primary home and a lake house all in one, with one tax bill and one landscaping bill. It’s tremendous win. Or so he thinks.

Before I blast off into a state of discontent, I must remind myself that this guy means well. He’s just trying to sell his house, and that’s something that I can understand and appreciate. But in trying to sell his house he has reinforced a myth, and it’s the myth that I find unconscionable. The myth says that a house on or near water is a lake house. A lake house is a lake house, a lake is a lake, a view is a view. In this, homes near water are all the same. Be the home near a great big lake, a tiny little lake, or this, our magnificent lake. Homes are homes, lakes are lakes, and this guy has his lake house. For terrible and irreversible shame.

Yes, you could work your way up through the minor leagues and find yourself standing on the mound, about to hurl a heater in the first inning of your league championship game. You could do that. Or you could just buy a ticket in the bleachers and eat popcorn while you watch the game. In this scenario both people find themselves in the stadium on game day, under the same sun and staring at the same green, hatch-mowed grass. Why put in all that effort to be the pitcher when you can just buy a ticket and enjoy the same game?

This is what it’s like to own a lake house on the big lake, on either side of the big lake. And this is the primary and most significant difference between Lake Geneva and that big lake. The big lake is beautiful. It’s nice to look at. I appreciate it for the inland ocean that it is. I look forward to one day holding the Western states ransom as they wish to stick their straws into our big lake. But to ascribe lake house abilities to a home on that lake is simply an error. The difference between Lake Geneva and Lake Michigan? The ability to use the lake.

If you want to tie a boat in a harbor and drive home to your lake house, I suppose that’s up to you. If you’d prefer to have a lake house with a view of water and no means to use that water, that’s again, like your opinion, man. But if you’d like a lake house situated above that water where the water itself is the weekend, then that’s why you come here. If you’d like your boat waiting for you at the end of your lawn, tethered to your private, white pier, then you should be here. If you’d like to see sunrises and sunsets, this is your place. If you want to ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon and fish in the evening, all without leaving your own property, then you come here. A lake house isn’t really a lake house unless it lets you live in a way that indulges in the adjacent lake. Swim, boat, fish, ski, sail. This is what a Lake Geneva lake house will offer you. If you’re only interested in a lake house that offers you a great view and nothing else, you might as well just move to Evanston.

Lake Geneva Winter

Lake Geneva Winter

This is the time of year when social media feeds are filled to the brim with mockery. Mockery of our place, of this place, of the cold. The snowbirds are on beaches, toasting to sunsets. Karen guessed the exact time the sun set and she won a free T-Shirt!!  They offer up lip service to their northern friends. Stay Warm! They say, with their feet in the sand.   Another Boring Sunset! They write, implying that it isn’t boring at all.  Why Do I Live Here? Asks someone who hasn’t yet won the ability to spend their winter someplace else.

Me? I was driving home last night in a snow squall, the wind whipping across the road, drifts creeping towards the center line. I drove in my car, my steering wheel and seat warm, my four wheel drive confident. There was no crisis here.  I pulled into my driveway and into my garage. I walked into my house and lit a fire. The night would be easy now. The cold outside of no concern.  The scenery and the excitement of severe weather both to my liking. What’s so bad about winter?

I suppose there are ways that it’s bad. If you park your car outside your primary home at night, every night, that might be pretty difficult. I remember the days of scraping windshields and dead morning batteries, and those times were indeed more difficult than these times.  In the same way, if you live in the north and you lack a fireplace, this would make winter far less appealing. Why would you invite this condition upon yourself? We all make mistakes that we have to live with, but no fireplace in Wisconsin? Really? Remedy this, and you’ll be closer to enjoying the nights when the temperatures plummet and the snow whips.

But this isn’t about why winter is fine. This isn’t about stew and fires and warm hats. This is about you, and your vacation home, and how you can enjoy winter without stressing about your vacation home. I’ve mentioned these things before, but they bear repeating on a morning such as this. Lest you think I’m lecturing without practicing, I have a small cabin 160 miles away from here. I don’t go there super often. But today, with temperatures well below zero, I know my little cabin is just fine.

Because of technology. Cheap technology. I have a single camera in the house, and a single thermostat. Both connected to a single app on my phone. This technology could have been set up by my 12  year old daughter. The total cost of this futuristic set up was around $350.  With this set up in mind, I can look at a live feed of my little cabin living room and know that the temperature outside is -11, but the temperature inside is 63. This is the lesson.

Times were, vacation homes were drained of water, covered in plastic, and turned off. This would happen in October, and the old cabins would sit, freezing and dry, until the following April, or May. That was nice back then, but this is now. There’s no reason to own a Lake Geneva vacation home if you’re not going to visit between October and May.  The days of seasonal ownership are long over, as owners have realized that winter here is enjoyable in its own way.  But even if we’re not going to visit in the winter, we should take care of our houses. The first step? Temperature.

Tempting as it might be to turn the heat down to 52, because you want to save the planet and conserve energy, don’t do it. Just don’t.  Leave your heat at 63 degrees or more. Why would you turn the heat lower than that? To save $50 a month for a couple of months? Don’t be silly.  Leave your heat at 63 (install a wifi thermostat so you can monitor it), and don’t go about the business of draining your water lines with the assistance of a plumber. Just do as I do and turn off your well pump and water heater (don’t do this is you have a whole house humidifier, or consult your plumber),  or turn off the municipal water supply inside your crawl/basement. You do this in case the furnace blinks out, and in doing so you’ll make certain that you won’t have a houseful of water a day or two later. It’s easy and smart.

About that camera. Why wouldn’t you do that? It’s so easy, and you needn’t hire an IT firm to set it up. It can be as simple as a single camera that will alert you to motion or sound. Can it nab an intruder for you, too? No, but I find that just a little peace of mind is better than none at all. In fact, I’d trade no peace of mind for a little every time.   Between the camera and the thermostat, I don’t really see what else you’ll need aside from a local emergency contact if indeed something goes awry.

Next  time you’re tempted to lock your vacation home down tight and give it up for the off-season, rethink your mistake. Keep the heat up, turn the water off. Check in once a day with your app. And if you do come up for the weekend, be sure to have some firewood. Make that fire. Enjoy that house. And remember, it could be worse, your life could have been reduced to watching a sunset and hoping the waitress calls your name.

New Construction Lake Geneva

New Construction Lake Geneva

We know the trend. It’s not just here, but it sure is pronounced here.  It’s not just a trend on Geneva, it’s a trend on our other, secondary lakes as well. Construction. It’s everywhere you look. Delavan is full of construction, Lauderdale, too. Heck, even Lake Como has a strong movement of new construction.  Gentrification, is good, everyone except the hipsters say. Out with the old and in with the new, this is our progress. This is what we were made for. To improve, to manipulate, to grow. Geneva is certainly taking that mantra to heart, and we’ve been building and building, and in fact, we just might build until we can build no more.

I left my office this week in the rain and drove around the lake. Down the roads that lead to nowhere, around the corners where the summer lives. In Williams Bay, there’s a large scale lakefront remodel that’s been in process for well over a year, and there are two spec homes that have recently been completed. Further south, there’s a rumored new project underway, that where two lakefront homes will replace one lakefront home. More on this trend later, but overall it’s a negative trend for our lake. If you care about this scene, fight against density.

In the Elgin Club, there’s a new build that’s just about done. There’s one nice sign in the Elgin Club- a neighbor purchased a home and knocked it down, perhaps to create a peaceful side yard. That’s the sort of trend I wholeheartedly endorse, and I do hope that more lakefront owners take advantage of purchasing neighboring properties when they come to market.  Fewer homes, that’s what we need.

In Geneva Bay Estates there’s a new foundation where a modest ranch once grew. There’s a patch of dirt in Geneva Manor where a home recently stood. That wasn’t a lakefront home, but it was sort of like lakefront, so it matters. $900k or so for a tear down here isn’t something I’d sign up for,  perhaps chiefly because of the tax bill that the City Of Lake Geneva likes to gift to new owners. Speaking of, did you know that the combined Stone Manor tax bill for the majority owner there is now nearly $300k? And the city hassles over permit applications, for shame.

Around that corner of the lake there’s a new build just finished on LaGrange, and a new complicated build underway on Marianne Terrace. That’s a project led by Lowell Management, and that’s a good thing. This site is unique, more like Malibu than Lake Geneva, and I have no doubt that the finished product will be beautiful and well executed. The lakefront in Loramoor is humming along,  looking sharp as it has since it first rose from that dirt (that I sold) in late 2017. At the bottom of Sidney Smith, there’s still the home that’s been under construction for years, looking, well, still unfinished.

On Maple Lane, two new homes were just built, and there’s a new spec home taking shape there along that stretch. Those are easy, deep, 100′ level lots, so it makes sense (in one way) why people are drawn to that spot on the water. In Fontana, there’s a new build on the hill above the lake, but it isn’t lakefront, so it shouldn’t count. No matter, you’ll still see it from your boat this coming summer.

The lakefront has plenty of new construction, this you can see. But I’m not thrilled with much of it. There are large, awkward houses being planted on lots that just can’t support that sort of heft. We don’t have any architectural approval committee for the lakefront, and in some ways, that’s a positive. But in other ways, it sure would be nice to have a panel to look over these builds before they rise. I dislike the trend of splitting lots, perhaps unless those lots are at least 200′ in width. The issue I have is when smaller lots are created out of old plat standards. The houses that tend to be built on the smaller lots rarely fit the neighborhoods. They aren’t cottages. They’re monstrosities looking to maximize living space and minimize neighborhood charm.

Even so, Lake Geneva is continually improving itself, and one day, we’ll look around and have nothing left to improve. If you’re a fan of this lake and wish for it to remain intact long after we’re all gone, you have but one aim. Root for less density. Root for fewer associations.  Fight against keyhole developments (much like the one proposed for Basswood last year).   It’s easier to knock down charm and replace it with mass efficiency, but is that what’s best? I don’t think so.

Lake Geneva Boat Slip

Lake Geneva Boat Slip

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when the piers are unceremoniously disassembled and stacked along our shorelines. That happened in October, sure, but this morning there are still piers in the water, plenty of them. Covered in snow, surrounded by 38 degree water, still there.  Soon enough, they’ll all be out, all stacked in some haphazard pile, lined up along the shore to remind us why we wait.  There’s more to this time of year than just waiting, mind you. It’s not just the Holiday season, it’s more than that. It’s the time of year when buyers buy houses with bad boat slips.

Is there such a thing? You bet there is. A boat slip is not a boat slip, is not a boat slip. These things appear the same, especially when the components that make up the slip are stacked in a snowy pile along the shore. But they are not the same.  If you’re new to the market, or perhaps working with an agent who might be new to the market, you wouldn’t necessarily know the difference. After all, the MLS distinction for “boat slip” doesn’t specify what sort of slip you’re buying. You want to see homes with boat slips, you look at homes with boat slips, you buy a home with a boat slip. Cool, right?

That depends. A boat slip diagram on a listing sheet might look simple enough. There’s a pier, some slips, a line to depict the shore.  Everything is awesome. Except that you, the winter buyer, can’t quite tell how much water is in that shoreward slip. Is it enough?  Well, that depends on what you’re looking to put there. Is there enough water for your 25′ Cobalt that you desperately want to gift yourself for Christmas, under the guise of it being a present for the entire family? Or is there enough for a 16′ Lund? Maybe a waverunner or two, or a scow, so long as the center board is out? Boat slips can be deceiving.

There are homes in this market that fail to sell simply because of their assigned slips. There are homes with terrific slips that have been bought by neighboring owners only to have the slip switched with their poor slip. That just-bought home goes back on the market sometime later, but instead of being sold with its terrific slip, it now has the miserable, shallow slip.  Later, you peruse the online listings… Oh look, a home with a boat slip!

There are associations with assigned  boat slips. There are associations with boat slips that can only be attained after decades on a waiting list. Other associations have other rules.  The off-water market functions largely on the availability of a slip.  What’s a slip worth these days? Call it $200k and you’ll be safe. Sometimes a slip ads even more value, and sometimes it’s less. Sometimes a slip is good and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it looks good but it’s still bad.  Whatever the association, wherever the slip, winter buyers should beware. ‘Tis the season where the bad slips are nearly indistinguishable from the good ones.

If you’d like to know the difference, it’s actually rather easy. Just ask me, and I’ll tell you.

Lake Geneva Winter

Lake Geneva Winter

I think it’s cute that the city of Lake Geneva is installing an ice rink this winter. The ice rink will complement the ice castles that are currently being built on the beach. When Winterfest rolls around, the city will be bustling with every sort of wintery thing imaginable. I’m glad for the city that they’ve decided to use some of their enormous budget on things that actually improve the experience that is Lake Geneva. But with that acknowledgement comes criticism, which will be something that they write on my tombstone, assuming I’ve prepaid for the inscription.  In the City of Lake Geneva, it’s amateur hour.

Or amateur season, to be more exact.  We know we do summer well. We have no choice.  Well, we do it mostly well. The ridiculous boat parade that accompanies the Venetian Fireworks might be one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen. It only seems ok if you squint and imagine you’re at Lake of the Ozarks, or the Dells, or some damned up river in Texas.  But aside from that, we do summer well. Fall is also handled with care, and handled rather well. The leaves will turn whether we wish them to or not.

But in the winter, this is when the wheels fall off. We’re making strides, don’t be confused. The ice rink is a nice idea. It is. It reminds me of the good times I had on the Williams Bay ice rink back in the early 1990s. What fun was had down there. We’d play hockey and lose the puck in the snowy walls that made up the edges of the rink. We’d skate and catch a rogue stone with our blades and crash into the ice.  Once, I checked my friend Eric so hard that he walked home and didn’t talk to me for a couple of days. It was a lot of fun, during a simpler time.

This isn’t that time. This isn’t a simple time, not by any stretch. It’s a complicated time with complicated problems that call for complicated solutions. The city is building an ice rink. The rink will have a floor of some sort, some short walls. I’ll bet they’ll string up some lights to make it look pretty, for the two or three days that the ice will be smooth. Once they open up the fire hydrant and flood the rink, they’ll hope the water freezes and cross their fingers that it stays frozen. This is what we did in Williams Bay when we were kids. We had no other choice. The city of Lake Geneva has another choice.

If you want to know where winter is done well, look to the mountains. I’m tired of the mountains, personally, but they know how to capitalize on their seasons. They also know that when you build an ice rink in your resort town, you build a permanent rink and you refrigerate it. Further, you run the zamboni over it once or twice a day. Yes, this sounds like more cost. It sounds like more effort. But what are we if not a destination worthy of some effort? If we’re going to try to make improvements, shouldn’t we really, actually try?  How can you effectively market an attribute if the attribute is only going to function on the whim of the weather?

I’m glad there’s an ice rink coming. I’m glad there are ice castles crowing. I’m just not sure that any of it is going to work, assuming we’ll have a normal winter that features a pattern of freeze and thaw, of snow and rain, of clouds and sun.  I’ve learned some things in my life, and those things have cost me on every level. Don’t try to save money on everything. If you’re building a house, don’t try to do the painting yourself. If you’re remodeling your kitchen, don’t skimp on the appliances. And if you’re building an ice rink, build an ice rink.

Lake Geneva Ski Season

Lake Geneva Ski Season

I write with disappointment today.  Today is opening day at Alpine Valley, the ski hill near Lake Geneva where my family spends considerable time during these coming winter months. Last week Monday was the day that I braved the cold, eschewed the wetsuit, and rode my Superjet from pier to pier and onto that winter trailer. The time lapsed from that day to this day exceeds one week. For the prior two years, the span was one week, no more. Last year it was three days. If you don’t believe me, check my Instagram. Everyone knows Instagram doesn’t lie.  This year I have failed. But I can’t run from it, because it’s something I cannot change. I can look to next year and seek redemption, but for 2018, the dye has been cast.

Alas, in spite of these failings, I know what must be done. I must ski. My son must ski and my wife must ski, and my daughter must board. She’s more of a falling leaf, but she has some terrific stickers on her board, which, as far as I can tell, makes up a significant part of the snowboarding culture.  We weren’t always this way, in fact, this ski thing is remarkably new to us. It was born of winter boredom. One winter not too many ago, my son was whining about there being nothing to do. This was before he had a phone, back when he still wanted to do something other than engage that mind numbing screen. Nothing to do, he’d say.  So I forced him to do something, and we went to the Grand Geneva to ski. He was awful, as was I. But something took and tens of thousands of dollars later, here we are. Skiers.

Those early days at the Grand Geneva were fine, but they weren’t great. The Grand Geneva is a complete resort, perhaps the most complete in the entirety of the Midwest, no matter how the boundary lines are drawn. But the ski hill isn’t much. It’s Wimot Northwest, which isn’t an enviable monicker.  Finding the Grand Geneva to be too small, even for our modest skill set, we were drawn to Alpine Valley. Alpine isn’t much either, but in local context, it’s as good as we can expect, and so that’s where we went. Several years later, that’s our hill, and while it doesn’t compare to any ski experience out west it is still a hill and the snow is still white and the skis still slide.

There are those among us who won’t stoop to the level of skiing our small Midwestern hills. Breck or bust, say the annoying people. But these are the sorts of people who might as well never swim in a pool ever again, assuming they’ve once floated in pastel caribbean waters. These are the sorts who won’t eat a sloppy joe, made with Open Pit and relish, because they’ve eaten at Alinea. These are the sorts that won’t ride in a Ford because they’ll only ride in a Porsche. Yes, the mountains offer better skiing. But can you drive to a Vail on a Saturday morning, ski for a bit, and return to your lake house for lunch and the afternoon football game? In this, we are the kings, and the west seethes with jealousy at our easy proximity.

Skiing makes the winter more meaningful, and I can confidently tell you this because it has changed the way I view winter. Winter is no longer to be abided as if we are long suffering prisoners, held against our will and in a place we dislike. Winter can be this way, and is this way for many. I find this to be a terrible shame. Winter isn’t for existing, winter is for thriving, and skiing, no matter if the hill is only 400′ tall and the cafeteria is maddeningly cash only, is an activity worth pursuing. It’s one of the things that makes your Lake Geneva house worth visiting in all seasons. You can’t ski in the city. But you can spend the weekend at your lake house and toss in a bit of skiing to help make the weekend that much better.  If you’re going to ski this winter, ski here, ski Alpine Valley, and don’t forget my advice: If you’re skiing on the weekend, get there in time for first chair. The midday skiing on a Saturday will make you long for the solitude of a boat cruise on Geneva Lake. At 2 pm on the Fourth of July.

November Swim

November Swim

There’s a thing about my dad that you wouldn’t otherwise know. He’s a quitter. Sure, he’s been married for a long time to my mother, and yes, he taught school in the same building for several decades, but don’t let that deceive you into thinking there’s some steadfastness here. He quits. He starts something and then when it’s started he’s worried about the ending. He leaves for vacation thinking about the drive home. He naps on a Tuesday because he’s worried about having to stay up until 8:30 pm four days later. He starts things and then he stops them. He’s worried, alright.

But none of these worries, and none of this quitting are quite as pronounced in July as they are in October. He will enjoy certain things, for certain periods of time. He’ll enjoy a swim now and then, though this is less than it once was and less than it should be. He’ll enjoy a boat ride, every great once in a while, which is also less than it once was and less than it should be. But mostly, he’ll enjoy July just fine. It’s Labor Day when things change, or the week before that holiday weekend starts.  September, the month we know to be one the finest months ever included in a calendar, this is not a month for him. Anticipation builds to a crushing weight, and while the rest of us are frolicking in the midst of a late summer glow, my dad is worried.

September fades to October, and the colors dim before they force out one last dying display. We like it when this happens. But my dad doesn’t.  This display is a head fake, and he knows it. He’s in this for the long haul, and he’s been here before. It’ll be winter soon. He can smell it in the air and feel it on his old skin. October is nothing but warm, colorful winter.  While others think of a trip to the lake or a trip to the cabin, he thinks only of that pier and those boats and why hasn’t the pier guy come yet? It’s October 10th, it’s 70 degrees, and winter is coming soon. There’s nothing else to worry about. Nothing else to think about. Winter. Soon. Repeat. Gaze at the fall colors all you want, youngsters.

When October ends, things get serious. Real serious. The boats the pier, the buoys and the ramp. The things that he worried about in July and thought about in August, and stressed over in September and nearly died over in October, some of them are still there. Still in view. Still in the water. That water that somehow hasn’t turned to ice yet. But it will, soon.  Water always turns to ice here, and he knows it. He can sense it. You know what happens when you don’t get your pier out in time? The ice comes and takes your pier away to the depths. He saw it happen once. Never again. Not on his watch. Winter is coming and he needs to get ready.

But he can control the boats, and so they’re already out. Tucked away in their barns where they spend most of their days. The pier, that’s still there. Still bothering his view and interrupting his winter thoughts with a stubborn summery holdover. But the one thing that really drives him to insanity is my little jetski. Yamaha’s Superjet, to be precise. It’s his white whale. The thorn in his side. His nemesis.  And I know this. Which is why I leave it in the water as long as humanly possible. Long after he thinks it should have been out. Long after everyone else thinks it should have been out. Long after the water has chilled to a level that humans should never experience against their skin. That’s why I wait, and that’s why this week I was left with no choice. I pulled the superjet.

I don’t pull it like you pull yours. I don’t call the company and have then deliver it to a heated storage unit. I wait until it’s November and my dad has nearly lost what’s left of his mind, and then I put on my swim shorts and I strap on the life vest and I coax that cold little engine to life. Then I drive it, near the piers and close to shore, inside the summertime buoys that have no control over my November path. And to the launch. The ride is cold. The ride is wet. To fall is to die, because this isn’t some sit down waverunner with seating for four. This is a water jet, built for those of us who were kids in the 1980s.  My feet lost feeling, allowing me to only notice the cuts left by the mussels and the rocks once I returned to the heated indoors. The ride is difficult, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s the last piece of summer, and I hang onto it as long as anyone ever has. Sure, it’s only to bother my dad, but it’s worth it.

 

Lake Geneva Video

Lake Geneva Video

It’s been three years since I had my homepage video filmed. That was a terrific video, if I do say so myself. But this last week’s weather was so perfect I decided to have a new homepage video created. I hope you like it.

 

 

Emagine Theater

Emagine Theater

I’d like to become the sort of person who only spells theater theatre. I’d like to place emphasis on the A, while I’m at it. But I’m not sure I can pull this off, as much as I’d like. I don’t even really like movies all that much.  The concept of a Summer Blockbuster is lost on me. Who are these people who go to movies in the summer? Why are theaters even open then? Shouldn’t we only go see movies in the winter, when it’s cold outside and we’re hungry for popcorn? Why are we so drawn to bright lights and loud sounds?

In spite of these concerns, I made my way to the new movie theater in Lake Geneva this week. It wasn’t because I wanted to go see a particular movie. And it wasn’t because I was uniquely bored. I wanted to go to see what this new space was all about. I wanted to see if the new group had dialed in the movie experience, which is, as I mentioned, an experience that I care very little about.  I wanted to give the community a review of this newcomer, so I loaded my family into the car and pulled up to the Emagine Theater for the 5:10 viewing of The Meg.

As I already said, I didn’t want to see this movie. But my daughter has an affinity for Jaws, and so the natural progression to a prehistoric killer shark was unstoppable. After a series of partially completed roundabouts we had arrived at the old Showboat Theater, just outside of Lake Geneva on Highway 120.  The old theater was closed and subsequently sold, thankfully to the Emagine Theater group out of Michigan.

The website for Emagine promises that their theaters are luxurious and modern, with reclining seats and food service far beyond the typical popcorn and Mike and Ikes. They have a bunch of locations in Michigan and Minnesota, one in Illinois, and now one in Wisconsin.  I had bought two tickets to this B movie on my phone earlier in the day. $28 for four tickets to the 5 pm show, including a $4 service charge. That charge, the woman at the ticket counter informed me, would be waved if I signed up for some $10 year long pass, or something. Since I’m not a regular movie goer, I didn’t listen to her.

The interior of this old, boring building was sleek and modern. Fancy, almost. There’s a bar area with a fireplace (as I recall), a large concessions counter with hot food options and the typical movie fare. We ordered a pizza, which they told us would be brought to our seats, and popcorn.  My kids pleaded for water, but why would I buy water in a bottle when there were perfectly good drinking fountains right there in the lobby?

The service, as expected, was quite clumsy. No one seemed to know exactly what was going on, which didn’t bother me so much, as I was there only for the spectacle of the space.   After we were directed to our particular theater, we took our seats. Well, they weren’t our seats, as the ones I picked out and paid for online were supposed to be in the middle of the theater and were, instead, located in the last row. No matter, we had the entire room to ourselves. The lack of other viewers may have been because it was their second night open, or because it was a 5:10 show on a Wednesday, or because we were watching The Meg. I couldn’t be sure.

The popcorn was good, and when the pizza was brought out it wasn’t terrible. Too much cheese and the sauce was odd, but overall it was fine and we ate it all rather quickly. The screen was large and crisp even if the pizza was not. The seats were large and leather, capable of a full recline. I nestled into my chair, tilted it back, and marveled at all of the years we suffered through stiff-backed movie chairs. How awful things were for us back then.

The new theater is nice. It’s better than any area theater by miles, and likely rivals the very well appointed Marcus Theaters in New Berlin. It’s a good thing for the community, a good thing for the immediate area of that new Highway 12/120 interchange. Unfortunately, this new place will deliver the death blow to the Geneva Theater downtown Lake Geneva.

If you’ll recall, that old downtown theater was renovated in just the past two or three years. I was glad to see the renovation, as the space was too visible to go unkempt ad unimproved. While the exterior of the building looks nice, even if a bit art deco-y for my taste, the movie experience there is rather mediocre.  The seats aren’t the fancy new style, the screens are small, and the common areas boring. There was a great opportunity here to deliver a unique product, instead, the group took some city money and performed a relatively low end renovation. If this group doesn’t transform the Geneva Theater into a live music/live plays type venue, it’s going to fail, and soon. With the shiny new Emagine theater down the road, they don’t stand a chance.

 

PS. Skip The Meg

Summery

Summery

My calendar said spring turned to summer last week. The first day of summer, it said, capitalized with an exclamation point. The hardware stores had an ad in the paper, every paper, telling us that it’s summer time and because of this we need things. Grills! Plants! Bee Killer! I was in a hardware store over the weekend when a man walked in with a bee problem. He told the store worker that his bees were out of control. They were in the rocks and around his waterfall.  They were a problem and his children wouldn’t be happy if they were stung, even though no one had been stung just yet.  I kept quiet for a while but ultimately decided to ask if he was certain these were not honey bees, because honey bees are valuable and shouldn’t be choked by a foaming pesticide. He didn’t know. They’re all bees he said. And they’re all going to die. Welcome to Summer.

A woman drove a convertible down the road and across the intersection where I was stopped. There was something going on around the corner, a race maybe. Some bikes zipped past. Numbers painted onto the participants’ arms. So much determination, so much haste. The woman in the convertible didn’t care, she had on her big hat, and I wondered how it stayed attached to her head without blowing away in the open-top-breeze. Pins, maybe. I figured there was a trick, something women know that I don’t. She turned the corner too tight and her wheel clipped the curb, causing the car to bounce and her hat to flop and her neck to whip back like something happened that she couldn’t control. Later, when she’s home she’ll tell her husband that she just can’t understand what happened to that wheel. By then the scrape on her shiny rim will be smudged dark by summer dirt that washed from the spring fields during the last storm.

No one knows when it’s summer more than boaters. You can see the boats now, sitting on trailers and in slips, full of gas and ready. There’s no time like now to boat, at least now that it’s summer. If you have a boat and you own it during summer, what a thrill. Boats in the winter aren’t nearly as much fun. That’s when the bills come due. Winter service, winter storage, winter protection from the winter: $2650. Last year it was $2250, but the economy is better and the labor is tighter so the price has to go up. Boats are like that, a good measure of inflation and of the economy. Need your boat waxed? It’ll cost you $550 during a recession and $825 during a boom. It’s booming now, and the bill was $900. The extra is the Geneva fee. It would have still been $825 in the Chain, but no $75 has been better spent.

It’s raining again. It’s not a spring rain, it’s a summer rain. I’m sure because the weatherwoman said it would be a passing shower, like how it rains at Disney every afternoon. It always amazes me how much rain we can get in the summer and yet when I want precipitation in January so my kids can ski, it’s as dry as the driest of deserts.  It’s dry in the Southwest, and they have purple mountain sunsets there. Come to the Southwest and see our cacti and our purple mountains and our sunsets! There’s nothing like a sunset over a purple mountain with some cacti in the foreground. That’s what they say, but I don’t believe them. Because it’s summer here and our sunsets are better. Once this rain passes I’m sure there will be a better sunset tonight. A summer sunset. The humidity will make the sky dazzle.

The calendar told people it’s summer, and they’re reacting. Boats are boating, sunsets are filling up Instagram. #summervibes, someone writes. Others Like. It’s that time, when summer comes to those who otherwise wouldn’t know. But I know. You know. We know summer has nothing to do with the calendar. Summer arrives when we first feel it on our skin. When the first pier is in, white and sturdy. The first boat pushes through the water from West to East and back again. When that first sunset is no longer visible through the bare branches of winter, but instead hides behind a deep, dark canopy of Oak and Maple. Summer doesn’t start at the end of June unless you’re not paying attention. Summer for me started sometime in May, whether the calendar watchers knew it or not.

Lazy Patience

Lazy Patience

It was good to be a buyer in 2011. And in 2012. 2013, too. We know that now. What a time! We think. If only I could have been a buyer then, say the buyers now.  But was it so great back then? Was everything perfect? I remember a buyer from the fall of 2011. He was worried about the 2012 election. Worried about the economy, or the economy as measured by the stock indices. He bought in the fall of 2011, and the lakefront purchase changed his life. But he almost didn’t buy and it almost didn’t change his life. It was good to be a buyer then, but it wasn’t easy.

If you were a buyer then and you didn’t buy, and in the days that have followed from those days to these days, I understand how you must feel. Shame is a powerful thing, but shame with equal parts regret is devastating. I have buyers today that tell me they wish they had bought. They wish they had upgraded. There were so many properties for so few dollars.  What an amazing market it was, they say, as if they were non-eligible bystanders during the whole show. I should have bought something. Anything.  That’s what a buyer of mine told me in a text last weekend.

Bill Shakespeare once said, “striving to be better, oft we mar what’s well.”  It’s no secret that I’ve built myself a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, on the road from Where? , just past Nothing, Unincorporated. I commonly bemoan what it is that I’ve done. I built something too small. I built it a bit too far to this side. I painted that a bit too blue. It was supposed to be gray. The shame is intense.  The deck isn’t finished, the patio never will be, and the gravel driveway is nearly impassable several months out of the year. There were some execution issues. It took two years to build a scant few square feet.

But it did get built. And I do get to sleep there. And when I drive down the road and fish the streams, I feel content. I say hello to the cows in the pasture and wish there was something I could do to help them get rid of those flies that pester and bite. I wander the farmer’s market once in a while, and buy something from someone who made it near there.  The process was painful, the execution questionable, the outcome reasonably acceptable, if full of concerns.  But I’m happy with it. Because it lets me hang my hat when I’m done with a long evening of casting tiny dry flies to wary, wild trout.

In the same way, last Memorial Day I sat lakeside and watched the show. It’s our show, after all. This is our thing.  After a dreary winter it’s easy to forget how much passive fun can be had while watching boaters boat. New boats, old boats, new boats made to look old.  Shore path walkers, some strolling, aimless in their amusement, others hiking, working, efforting. This place is unique, and it’s ours. On that day, was there any difference between the boater who has a Viking range and the one without? Was there any difference in the way that cool May water felt to the owner who has a small cottage a few doors away from the owner who has the larger home closer to the lake?

The great equalizer in the home search is found when you maintain focus on the true goal. If you want a nice house, just buy one in the city or the suburbs. There are lots of them for sale. Shiny ones with fancy things.  But those homes don’t get you any closer to what you want. To indulge in this place. To wake up Saturday morning in a different state with a different state of mind. A different state of being.

The buyers from 2012 who missed out largely did so because they wanted better. They wanted different. Something with a larger living room and another bedroom. A shinier kitchen. One more bathroom. What a tremendous mistake to hold your lifestyle hostage when the demanded ransom is something as trivial as square footage. Or a garage.  Today, buyers are doing the same thing. They’re deciding that an extra bedroom is worth another summer in the city. They’re choosing nothing over better, because they really want best.  I have buyers tell me they’re being patient. Being patient is easy. It’s finding motivation that’s often far more difficult.

Above, the entry at my Basswood estate listing. Now reduced to $8,950,000
Geneva National Vs. The World

Geneva National Vs. The World

If you think the vacation home market at the lake is active, you should check out the market for sub-$350k single family and condominium residences that lack lake access. That market is absolutely on fire. A recent search I performed showed 23 single family homes in Williams Bay priced between $310k and $400k. Of those 23, 15 were pending sale. That’s a hot market. Similarly so, the vacation home segment under $400k is also active, and that activity isn’t only involving properties with lake access. There’s an entire subset of vacation homes here, those condominiums that lack dedicated water access but still, often, appeal to a vacation home buyer.

Condominiums, wherever they are found, lend themselves to vacation home ownership for pure ease of ownership, and as a result, the off-water, non-access condominium market in Walworth County is a common target for vacation home seekers who find themselves with a fixed budget. Many of these buyers find their way to Abbey Springs, where they receive lake access, or to other condominiums like Willabay Shores in Williams Bay or the Abbey Villas in Fontana. It’s obvious, too, that these buyers end up in Geneva National. But increasingly I’m finding it annoying that Geneva National is overlooked by so many in this sub-$300k price range.

As I don’t often work this market, you’ll know my annoyance is genuine, as I’m not stumbling into this condition simply because it doesn’t serve my purpose. Geneva National might offer solid value and a rare setting, but as budget minded buyers know, it also offers a hefty monthly association fee. Often lakefront condominiums on Geneva will have elevated fees, but that’s an understood situation given the piers and pools and increased amenities. Geneva National has high fees, and while it offers justifiable amenities, many buyers will look directly past GN based solely on those monthlies. I think this is a mistake.

Let’s consider a random Geneva National condominium and contrast it to competing inventory in the broad market. For our purpose today, we’re going to look at a Highlands unit listed around $220k. This unit is a three bedroom, three bath, with a two car attached garage, three levels of finished space and a walkout lower level. The unit is a bit dated at this point, but who isn’t? The tax bill is around $3500 with monthly association fees of $590. That fee covers exterior maintenance, pools, tennis court, gated security, private roads, etc and etc. It’s a nice condo for the money.

If we’re a buyer of a three bedroom condominium in the Lake Geneva area, another reasonable option would be a unit listed for sale on the East end of the City of Lake Geneva listed at $290k. This is a four bedroom unit with slightly more square footage, but a two car garage and a one less full bath. To be certain, this is also a nice unit, and any buyer on a budget would likely find living here to be pleasant. The condo fees are $235, the taxes $4200.  The fee covers exterior maintenance. And exterior maintenance. There’s nothing else for it to cover.

The sort of buyer that might be drawn to the city condo would likely find the low monthly fees to be an important data point. Those fees might be the same reason they avoided Geneva National. But let’s really consider those fees. The GN fees allow use of a resort community with pools, tennis, walking trails, gated security, and more. The fees at the other development cover simple exterior maintenance. There’s no resort there. No other value added amenities. Just a condo that lists access to the highway as an amenity. These may seem like similar units, but they are not, as a matter of fact, even remotely the same.

But that’s just the lifestyle difference, and that’s where Geneva National shines, so let’s go back and look at those monthly fees. To own in Geneva National, versus our fill-in-competition, it’ll cost an extra $4260 per year. Ouch, that’s rough. That’s why people avoid GN. But let’s dig a bit more. The taxes at GN are $700 cheaper, owing that to a Town of Geneva tax scale, rather than the City of Lake Geneva. Now our annual premium is down to $3560. The fee in Geneva National covers water and sewer charges, which the other condo adds in separately (according to the MLS listing). It’s fair to assume the annual water/sewer charge for moderate use would be around $800. Now our Geneva National premium is down to $2760.

Now that we’ve figured out the monthly fee difference, consider what that $2760 buys you. Tennis, pools, gated security. Is that worth $230 a month? I think it is, but you might not be so easily convinced. What we’re forgetting here is that the Geneva National condo is a full $70k less in initial purchase price. If we’re financing our transaction with a 20% down payment, that means the non-GN condo cost us $14k more up front, and adds $335 to our monthly liability. If we’re paying cash for the purchase, assuming a similar discount to ask for each unit, we’re forking over an additional $70k for the amenity-void unit.  That’ll cover the next 25 years of Geneva National premium.

The exercise today is simple. Let’s stop ruling out condominiums based solely on monthly fees. Let’s consider the real numbers behind that initial number, and let’s buy something that matches our lifestyle and our budget, not just our budget.

Photo Courtesy either Ideal Impressions or Matt Mason Photography. I’m really not sure… 
Process

Process

There’s a process to this whole thing.  This is something the buyers who wish to be here on these shores, but lack either the financial ability or the mental focus to actually be here, need to embrace. I sold a particular lakefront house a couple of years ago. A modest house on a beautiful lot, purchased by a young couple with their young children. There’s a sign on the street welcoming guests to their home. It says, “Someday”.  The interpretation of the sign is simple: They dreamt of the day they’d be on this lake, and now they are. It’s Someday, everyday. Passersby see the manifestation of that dream, but not the messy, painful process of making it a reality.

It is no secret that I harbor a fierce addiction to fly fishing. I would argue that the addiction has waned some in recent years, as my work and my love of this lake has a tendency to keep me here, rather than where the fly fishing occurs, there.  Several years ago, when this addiction was new and escalating, I decided that it would be good if I had a small cabin in this hilly part of this great state.  So I did what any Realtor would do, I started looking.

I looked high and low, ideally for something modest, bare, hardly there. Something simple that could hold my hat for a night once in a while, so that I wouldn’t always have to drive home at midnight after a long day hiking these streams.  An Amish cabin, perhaps, with optional plumbing but some built in cots, maybe in a loft. I looked at some of these cabins and quickly decided that composting toilets are of the devil, and wood structures built by the Amish tend to bow out at the heel height, causing some awkward leans that I could not, and would not abide. Maybe not a small cabin, but maybe something a bit better? The budget would need to expand.

An acre, down in the valley, by a trout stream. That’s what I want. To see risers from the deck. A slow stroll with fly rod in hand, a BWO tied to the slight leader. An evening fish or two, before returning to the peaceful still of my little acre and my little deck. But one acre or two, that won’t cut it. There’s no privacy in a place like that if one acre is all you have, so ten or twenty, that would be better. And the house, that should be better, too. The budget would need to expand.

But these houses, for an area settled by Germans and Norwegians, two groups I thought had a proclivity towards quality design and construction, these houses are so terrible. Raised ranches on hillsides with vinyl cladding. Old farmhouses with terrible bones, brittle shacks with a propensity to lean. That valley dream? It’s a floodplain.  The term Hydraulic Shadow means nothing to Lake Geneva, but it means certain someday death to the homes that lie in its path. Valley is out, hillside is in. And these houses? They’re no good.  I’ve built several homes throughout my life, certainly one more wouldn’t hurt. The budget should increase.

But these hillsides, they’re all the same. County after county, hillside after hillside. They’re like lakes in the Midwest, all the same. But lakes aren’t all the same, and I know that here, so I should have known that there. The counties, well, they’re all the same to those who don’t understand or subscribe to nuance. But I am the self proclaimed nuance king, and so I should know which county is best. And I did, so the search had focus, but still not enough. The one valley, one stretch of river and the draws with their own rivers, that one area would be my aim. That area commands a premium to the other areas in this vague, general region of this state? The budget needs attention.

And then one day, after years of on and off searching, one day the right lot appeared. Was it perfect? No. Was it everything I ever wanted? No. Did I let a desire for great get in the way of a hope for good? No, I didn’t. And so I bought that lot, as imperfect or perfect as it may be, and in June of 2016 I started building a little cabin for my family.  The process was as imperfect and blatantly annoying as any process has ever been. I had issues with weather, issues with tradesmen, issues with finding tradesmen whom I had already hired, and issues with finding tradesmen to hire.  The build was a total disaster, the process a painful experience, the result an imperfect realization of a dream I first hatched a decade ago.

That’s the thing about a place like this, whether it’s here or there.  Every once in a while, someone, somewhere, finds the perfect house for the perfect price in the perfect location. Lake Geneva cannot generally accommodate you on those wishes. We might give you the perfect house, but at a price that you don’t believe to be anywhere near perfect. Or we’ll give you the perfect location, with a mightily, aggressively imperfect house. We can’t give you everything you want. But you should be like me. Strive for the best, knowing that all you’re really after is a piece of this place. A place that gives you things other places can’t. Narrow your focus, true your aim, and do your best. It’ll all be worth it in the end, at least that’s what I kept telling myself for the past two years.

Of Houses

Of Houses

I have a good friend who has found himself in the middle of a housing conundrum. It’s a geographic conundrum, really.  It might be a different sort of conundrum, but what is for sure is that it is a conundrum.  The appeal of the known has worn off. It no longer feels as useful as it once did. Perhaps it’s time for a change. A drastic, sweeping change. Everything, different. From a city to a small hamlet, from a lake nearby to a mountainside.  From the varied experience that has become mundane, to a mundane experience that will, for a while, feel varied. What to do?

When you live in Wisconsin, or Illinois, or Minnesota, or Michigan, there’s a constant tug to explore something new.  In winter, this is evidenced most openly on Facebook and other social media.  (snows) “Remind me why I live here?” (rains) “I want to be on a beach somewhere!” (hot)“I’m melting, why do we live here?” (cold) “It’s another bitterly cold day in Wisconsin and I can’t feel my fingers!”  The seasons change, the complaints adapt to the season, and we roll through the years outwardly wishing for something better.  We do this for a while and then we die.

We do this because it’s an easy thing to complain about. It’s the default complaint. It requires no effort.  If my problems are here, in this place where I live, then maybe the problems will go away if I move to somewhere else. Another town, that’s the answer. I hate the cold and I hate the wind and I hate the way my car looks when it’s covered in salt. If I move to where it’s warm, and where the wind doesn’t blow, and where they don’t douse the roads in salt, then these problems will disappear and my life will improve. I’ll just move, that’ll solve it.

It’s brown outside. It’s gray outside. It’s ugly. The snow fell and now it’s melting and the sides of the road are littered with winter trash.  It’s terrible here, and I want something better. I want sunshine and white snow. I want palm trees and soft beaches. Always wanting something different. It’s what we all do. But what happens when something different isn’t better, it’s just different? What happens when the different that we thought we wanted turns into the known that lacks what we already know?

It’s easy to feel trapped. To feel limited by your surroundings. But it’s only easy to feel that way once you take them for granted. The snow has melted and it’s ugly outside? That’s factually incorrect. The snow has melted but it’s not ugly outside, it’s just different. It’s not bright and blue and green. The lake is locked in a struggle for consistency, some water frozen some not. Is the lake ugly like this? Does it look better when it’s all blowing blue? Of course it looks better then, but does it look terrible now? Only if you want to see it that way.  Are 38 degree days useless? Sure they are, but will today be useless because of it? Not at all.

I’d like to suggest something that might seem self serving, but this is my blog and I’m actually only in business for myself, so that shouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary. Perhaps what really bothers those Midwesterners who spend their days pining for something else isn’t the geography of their condition, it’s their housing.  If I live in a house that’s dark because it lacks south facing windows, and the winter days feel too dark because of this, what is the root problem here? Is it that some days are cloudy? Or is it that my house doesn’t have the right design?

If I park my car outside at night and wake up in the morning with a coating of ice and snow on the windshield, do I need to be mad at the ice and snow?  I’ll take to Facebook to complain about those things, and then wonder aloud why I live here, but wouldn’t it be easier to just try to buy a house with a garage? I know I’ve spent years in houses with and without garages, and I vastly prefer the garage house better. If I dislike the noise of the city I live in, and I hate the cars that park in front of my house and clog my limited view, should I hate the cars and the city and move far away to run from those things?  Maybe I should just find a house on a quiet street in a different part of town.

Maybe you really do hate the cold. Maybe you really do hate the clouds. Maybe you really do hate the city. Maybe you really do hate the way the ground looks when winter has ended but spring hasn’t yet begun.  But maybe you just need a better house with some woodburning fireplaces, the sort that crackle and hiss when a new log is thrown on it. Maybe you just need a house with southern exposure, so every day feels bright, even when the clouds build. Maybe you don’t hate the city, maybe you just hate the street that you walk every day. Maybe it’s time to find a better street. Maybe it’s just time to find a better house. A different house.

Above, a gray day at the lake.
The Hunt

The Hunt

I kill animals every year. Or at least one animal every year. It’s a right of passage, a tradition, something I do, annually.  I’m a killer, I suppose.  But I’m not a cold blooded animal killer. This is a title reserved for those who enjoy the event. The killing.  But even that isn’t my fault. It’s my dog’s fault. I have two dogs. One small dog who doesn’t like children, and one large dog who likes everyone. The big dog likes people, sure, but he’s a vicious killer of every other creature. He kills for sport. He tortures for fun. He’s an awful, terrible dog, renowned in the animal kingdom as being the worst of the worst. Rabbits have come to know the sound of his footsteps in the grass.  Entire families have been destroyed by his jaws.

And this is why I end up having to kill. Each year,  perhaps just once but possibly more, this aloof dog will play with a small rabbit until the small rabbit is near death. Crawling on the grass, begging for a reprieve. Bloodied and broken. This is when I get the call from my wife, or my daughter, and I have no choice but to drive home and load a gun. From the moment this painful process starts, I’m sick over it. I don’t want to kill his rabbit. Even if it is already nearly dead, it isn’t totally dead. No, that’s something that I have to do. My daughter looks out the window, tears filling her eyes. Forced into action by something outside of my control, it’s up to me to end the suffering, and with one pull of the trigger, that’s what I’ve done.

I’ve thought about joining the bird hunters. This doesn’t seem that difficult, not does it seem that bloody. Just walk in a field and shoot at a bird. The feathers hide the damage, after all. There wouldn’t be any eye contact with my prey, just a blast from a gun and a dog retrieval. This seems like something I could do. I could buy the best field chaps, if that’s what they wear, and then walk through the tall, tan grass on a still November morning. What a great thing this could be. But then last week I saw a bird in my driveway that appeared to be sick, or injured.  My wife and daughter checked on it, and put it into a small shoe box filled with pine shavings. We kept it in the box outside in our shrubs to protect it from the skunks and weasels and coyotes that would have eaten it overnight. The next morning I checked on this bird, a female Cardinal, and it was dead. I felt awful, and quickly realized that bird hunting isn’t for me.

I’d like to start something, someday. A business. A service. A product. Something, anything. And with this I’ve thought about the world of catch and release deer hunting. Why couldn’t this work? The gun would look like a gun, but with a different tip on it so people would know it isn’t lethal. Instead of shooting a bullet it would shoot a tranquilizer dart. The dart would hit the deer, the deer would fall asleep quickly, like in the movies. And then I could pose with the deer, just like a real hunter, only that my magnificent buck would then wake up and return to the rut. I’d experience everything, just like a real hunter. The gear. The face paint. The thrill of the hunt. The squeezing of the trigger. The photo. The admiration of Facebook and Instagram. And then, the peace I’d feel knowing that my deer walked away from the incident with nothing but a small scar where my tranquilizer dart stuck. If catch and release fishing is a thing, why not catch and release hunting, too?

Alas, it isn’t meant to be. I’m too soft. I value life too much. But I don’t begrudge the hunter his season. I wish him well, I wish him safety.  For the families that find connection in hunting, I wish them peace.  But there is something of which non-hunters like me need to be aware. It’s that this is the time of year for the hunter.  Wisconsin’s rifle deer season begins this weekend, running through the Thanksgiving holiday and the following weekend. Today, a simple word of advice.  Just stay out of the woods. Don’t walk nature preserves where hunting is allowed. If you’re not sure whether or not hunting is allowed, assume it is.  Don’t wander through woods, no matter how lovely a late fall walk might be. Leave the woods to the hunters and the deer these next two weekends, and wish them both well.

Off Season

Off Season

It was January. Maybe February. The snow had piled up and the lake had frozen. It was winter, but not like last winter, it was real winter. The sort we had a couple of years ago. The sort we might have this year. The property came to market on a Tuesday. It might have been a Wednesday. I saw the listing and sent it to a customer. I didn’t send it via an automated feed that all of my “competitors” use. Those feeds are insulting to your intelligence. Or at least insulting to mine.  I sent him the property, with a note, “Buy this”.  Within a few days, he had done just that. The beautiful vacant piece of Fontana lakefront was his. Ours.  Today, a new home is being built. It will be a stunning home, designed with summer weekends in mind, perfect in the little ways. Perfect in the big ways. It’ll be done by next summer, hopefully.

The lot was listed in January. My buyer was in Naples. Or Ireland. Or California. It might have been South America, hunting grouse. The sort that live in the rocky crags. They might not even be grouse, but grouse lookalikes. It didn’t matter where he was. He knew what he wanted to buy here, and when it hit the market, it didn’t matter if it was a Saturday in July or a Tuesday in January. It didn’t matter if he “had the time” to make it up for a look. He had me, and my eyes and my advice, and he knew I knew what he’d want. In this, there is no humble brag. There is just the reality of a resort market during the months that the casual lookers perceive to be the off-season. The reality of Lake Geneva? There is no off-season.

Had this buyer not been paying attention, he would have easily let this opportunity pass him by. That’s the easy thing to do, after all, to assume that there’s always something else. There’s another best thing, coming soon. Not today, tomorrow, maybe. If not tomorrow, perhaps seven Wednesdays from now. That’ll be the day.  That lot was purchased perhaps three years ago.  From that winter day to this autumn day, there has been nothing else come to market that reflects the same sort of attribute. The ideal location. The ideal configuration. The ideal price. If that buyer had decided that, no, he didn’t want to pursue something because his attention was momentarily elsewhere, none of this would be happening. The carpenters wouldn’t be rushing to finish the roof before the snow. The buyer wouldn’t be thinking about summer at his new lake house. He’d just be temporarily distracted by the distraction of the day.

A cold November morning feels about as as distant from summer as possible. Nothing could be farther away at this point. We haven’t even started winter. We haven’t grown tired of winter. We haven’t longed for spring. We haven’t tasted spring. We haven’t put a pier in, because the piers still aren’t out. Next summer is forever away, and it’s easy to live our lives as though we have plenty of time. Summer will come, but it won’t come soon. This is the easy way to live. This is the way most live. But this isn’t the way to get things done. This isn’t the way to accomplish the goal. How do you accomplish the goal? You pay attention in December just like you would in July.  When a property lists in January and I tell you it’s something to buy, you drive up in January.  The grouse can wait. Summer’s coming.

Fall Rules

Fall Rules

I have several different sets of rules pertaining to several different disciplines. My real estate rules are well known. Don’t buy a house on any lake that doesn’t start with a G and end with an EVENA. This is the main rule. Other rules involve other things. I’ve been lifting weights for a year or so now. You can’t tell. I’m getting mostly fatter but marginally stronger, so if I ever need to lift a car off of a small child there is now a good chance that the car will at least wiggle when I apply force. My workout rule is simple. Show up late on leg day. Show up early on chest day. Simple, rules.

We have six chickens at our house now. My wife collects an egg or two each day, small oddly shaped eggs of different colors. They’re nice, enough. But the chickens wander all over my yard and scratch through my mulch beds, and use my bluestone patio and sidewalk as their commode. This is unacceptable to me. My wife visits the chickens and returns to the house with chicken crap on her shoes. This is unacceptable to me. At my house, my rules of no chicken crap in the house are viewed as being unnecessarily onerous, for reasons I cannot understand. Still, rules.

I have other rules for other things, but now it’s fall and there are fall rules that are very, very important. I have three fireplaces in my house. They’re nice. I love burning wood, and view an affinity for gas fireplaces as a character flaw. When a real estate description says “gas fireplace”, I generally feel sad and empty inside. Fires are meant to consume, and if I can’t feed the fire wood, what good is the fire? In the fall, the temptation to burn wood comes early. The first crisp night. The first rainy Saturday afternoon. The problem with all of this is the rules are the rules.

No fires until the nighttime temperature is consistently in the 40s. No fire if the daytime high exceeds 62 degrees. In tandem, these two rules work beautifully. A cold night does not allow for a fire if the preceding day was warm. And vice versa. These rules keep the burning of wood as an important and restricted ritual. If I had a fire whenever I felt like it, just because, then the importance of the fall and winter fire would be diminished. Do you eat cake every night? Of course not. That’s why it’s nice to have on birthdays. Fires should be revered in a similar manner. This is the first fall rule.

Apple orchards are wonderful. They really are. Apples are delicious. Anyone who disputes this is an apple bigot and should be silenced. Freedom of speech does not include the right to diss the Wisconsin apple. If you live in Texas, I’ll grant permission. But Wisconsin apples are the best apples, and northern Illinois apples are nearly equal. The Lake Geneva area has several orchards, but there’s really only one that matters. Just south of Walworth a ways you’ll find Royal Oak Farm Orchard.  The name is clunky, but the apples are not. It’s fall, and it’s orchard time.

Or is it? I cannot visit the orchard on nice, warm days. Warm days at the orchard are terrible. Bees, apples, and sweat do not mix well. That’s why I abstain from orcharding until such a day that the temperature is not more than 60. An ideal orchard day is in the mid 50s, with some light breeze. And U-Pick must be open on most of the apples. If you go to the orchard on a 70 degree fall day and the only U-Pick is Jonagold, what are you doing? And are your parents aware of how much shame they should feel?

Fall at the lake is perhaps the best time to be here, at least second only to summer.  But if you’re going to be here, please follow these rules. They’ll make your experience that much better, and your life that much fuller.

Lake aerial, courtesy Matt Mason Photography.
The Why

The Why

It was windy. It hadn’t rained yet, but the clouds had overtaken the moon and everyone knew the rain was near. It wasn’t warm anymore, not warm like the day and not warm like the summer. It was cool. Cool like fall, cool like late-fall.  The day had given us a taste of summer, whether or not this was the last taste no one could be sure. But the wind blew the trees and a few leaves fell and the rain was coming and the moon had gone dark. It wasn’t late. A month ago it would have been light, or at least glowing, the last bits of the day still visible.  It was dark.

But the porch lamps were on and the screens are still free from their winter canvas.  A distant whiff of woodsmoke in the air, blown here by that wind that stripped a few leaves with it. The night was damp even before the rain came. Damp like a mountain night, cold like one, too. Cars clogged the driveways. The paved and cobbled drives that lead to the lakefront homes were littered with cars, just as the gravel drives with grass creeping in from the margins that lead to the small wooden cottages were filled as well.  A porch table with the mostly eaten dessert still left out, a crisp probably. Peach I’d bet, because the apples are not yet in season even if the cold wind proves their time is very, very near.

A flashlight in the yard. Kids running and playing and hiding behind the trees. The wind masks their steps even as the fallen leaves of late summer give them away. The adults lounge on that summer porch, with their bare feet tucked under blankets. The old wool ones look so nice in that porch stack, but they’re scratchy and uncomfortable and everyone knows it. Laughter leaks from one porch to another. A cruise boat pushes through the darkness, the revelers laughter making it to shore as nothing more than a happy murmur.

Me? I wasn’t on a porch. I was just driving a truck back to my parents’ house. Down the roads I know so well, around this corner and turning at that one. The streets full of those weekend cars. The porches light. The kids playing. The stories being told.  The weather, that damp cold night, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t even okay. It was pretty terrible, really. But the weekend went on, and the people gathered at those houses. The porches are all different, some large and fanciful, others small and bare. But the night was all the same, each house happy to be in use. Each group happy to have gathered here, at this lake, during this time. Even on the darkest, dampest of summer nights that feel more October than not, this scene is the same. We come here because we love the lake and the sunshine and the way it makes for a summertime afternoon. We stay here because at night on a cold porch with damp cushions and scratchy wool blankets nothing feels more like home.

Sell The Lake Geneva Riviera

Sell The Lake Geneva Riviera

In a recent Lake Geneva Regional News article, City of Lake Geneva Alderman John Halverson, when discussing the state of the Lake Geneva Riviera and a desired multi-million dollar referendum for repairs asked, “If we don’t get it passed, what should we do? Sell the building?”

I’m so glad he asked, so that I can answer.  Yes. That’s the answer. Sell the building. The question was posed rhetorically, in a way that would suppose a yes answer would be ludicrous, even sacrileges. But the best way for the City of Lake Geneva to deal with the aging Riviera and the several million dollars of repairs it supposedly needs is to sell the building to the highest bidder. To keep the building beyond 2017 would be a significant mistake, and would prove once again that the city has no regard for the tax payers who already pay the highest rates around the lake.

I’m not suggesting the building be sold in a traditional manner, wherein the new owner would have the flexibility to do with it as he or she pleases. I’m suggesting that the city utilize the power of deed restrictions and covenants to clear an aging liability from their books.  The Riviera is a most impressive structure, and its unique location and design lends a visual boost to downtown Lake Geneva and that commercialized lakefront scene. The structure has anchored downtown for generations, and should be respected.   In the 1930s my grandmother would ride the train up with her sisters to dance at the ballroom on Saturday nights. She met my grandpa there, while he was hawking popcorn or cigarettes or newspapers. The Riviera has a deep and important history, and the building itself should be preserved. That’s why the property should be sold. Here’s how it could work.

The city slaps deed restrictions on the property, dictating the allowable future uses and the exterior design and color palette of the structure. What happens to the interior shouldn’t be any concern of the city, especially once they receive a few million dollars for the building.  With the deed restrictions in place, the aesthetics of the Riviera and the setting will be secure, no matter who owns the deed. There are options as to how to sell the space. The city could rezone the building into a condominium, and retain the lower level retail spaces to be operated as they are today. The problem with this model is that the city would then still be on the hook for repairs, that’s why it’s best to sell the entire structure. Separate the park from the building, retain the park (the fountain, etc), and sell just the building. The entire thing.

Who buys it? Well, I don’t know. Maybe one of the nearby local business would like added square footage? Maybe the cruise line operating from the adjacent city pier system?  The cruise line could utilize the space for some offices and use the ballroom for a wedding venue, just as it is used today. The difference is that rates could be increased exponentially from those paltry sums the city charges, and the building could be modernized to host more events.  Some might suggest the increased usage of the facility would be a negative for the city. I’d argue that the structure is a ballroom. It wasn’t built to sit idle. It was built to host bands and dances and parties of epic proportions. Why not let the private market return the building to its original intent?

The city has estimated the repairs to be in the neighborhood of $5MM. My estimates that I’ve considered now for all of five minutes prove that the cost would be significantly less. The problem is municipalities pay retail plus for everything they do (just check on the cost of school construction for proof). The private market could handle those repairs for less than a million dollars, likely with ease. Yes, a new owner would have to undertake these repairs, which drives up the initial investment. Yes, the fact that the city has broadcast these repairs to the world means a buyer will use the city’s figures against them in a negotiation.  Yes, that might mean the building sells for less than it might otherwise sell for. But the alternative is worse. The alternative is the city taxes its vacation home owners to fix up a building that loses money. To repair the Riviera on the taxpayer’s dime is the very definition of throwing good money after bad.

The idea of selling the Riviera hasn’t been discussed much in public, but it’s time the conversation begins. There is no reason for a city to own such a valuable liability. Deed restrict it. Zone it to allow very few select future uses, and sell it to the highest bidder. Since I am nothing if not a fan of Lake Geneva, I’ll even offer to sell the building for the city at a reduced commission rate.

Summer’s End

Summer’s End

The streets are quiet now. The excited conversations of summer are now just a murmur, fading like the green in all of these leaves. There was life back then, so much of it that it needed to be discussed. The green of the trees was bright, full, deep and overwhelming. It’s still very much green, but it’s duller than it was. Our conversations are quieter, the trees are duller, the waves are softer. The streets are quiet. This thing is nearly over.

Oh sure, we’re trying to act like that isn’t true. The gas station is full of boats this morning, their empty tanks being filled again. There’s still time, the boaters say. This day will be the best day. There won’t be many more like it, but this day. This will be the best.  The beer will be cold and the fish might bight.  When the fish ignore then we’ll tube and we’ll toast our skin and we’ll snack and we’ll drink. Today will be the best day of the summer. These are the lies of late August.  We know they’re lies, but we tell them anyway. We have no choice.

We know, deep down inside our summer selves, that the only way to enjoy summer is to engage in it without a clock. The only time that summer is truly bliss is during early summer. The sort of summer that has so much left in the tank that we wouldn’t even think of anything else. An 80 degree in late June will always thoroughly beat an 80 degree day in late August. That’s because in June there are more coming, so many more that who could count? There isn’t anything ahead but more summer, better summer, tons and tons of summer.

It’s not like that now.  There is football on my television, no matter if I click past the programming quickly or not, it’s still there. I looked at the stack of wood on my porch and thought that the stack should be taller. The wood is dry now, lighter than it was. It’ll be easier to stack higher and deeper, and I should start doing this soon. It won’t be long before I burn that maple. I cut and split the limbs in late winter, which is to say it was early spring, which feels now like it was forever ago, but not really. It was just a few months ago, before the spring really took hold, before the heat of June and the deluge of July and the niceness of August. It’ll be that way again soon. I should start chopping wood.

Yes, there are a few weeks of this thing left, but are there? If you’re lying in bed dying of something, is it great to be thinking that there might be a couple of weeks left? Is that life? Is that really, truly living? Or can you only really live when you aren’t thinking of dying? I always tell my parents that life doesn’t change when you’re on your deathbed. Life changes when you’re sitting in the doctors office swinging your feet back and forth off the end of that elevated bed when the doctor knocks at the door and enters the room. Life changes when the doctor tells you you’re sick. It doesn’t change when you feel sick, when you grow weak, when you’re nearly done. It changes right then, when she tells you what you have and why that’s bad. In the same way, is summer over when it’s October and the Sunday temperature barely touches 60 and we feel a sudden and overwhelming urge to wear our boots and visit the orchard?

I say no, that’s not at all when summer is over. Summer’s over when we start to think about fall, and I’m starting to think about it already. I don’t want to, I really don’t. I wish I didn’t have to rush through this season to discover the next.  I already know what fall is like. But that’s exactly what I have to do, because I have no choice. I’m from Wisconsin, proudly, and we can’t linger in any season for too long. I know there are boat rides still to come, swimming and superjetting and sweetcorn. But there’s also wood to chop and jeans to patch and cider donuts to eat.  I don’t want to do those things on purpose, it’s just that I can’t help it. The streets are too quiet for me to pretend any longer.

 

Photograph “Sweet Wheat” by Kristen Westlake.
Summer Night

Summer Night

There is some thought, rampant among those who cannot yet know, that a night is a night is a night. The night it dark here, just like there, in fact like every night. Night.  Those who love the night take great pride in this universal truth, that night is dark and it’s dark everywhere. In the daytime everything can be different. Every place its own, each unique. Some places with high mountains and cold rivers, others with wide plains and low, wet marsh. Some other places teeming with dark leafy trees and little dotted lakes, clear perhaps. Daytime, now that’s different because it looks different. But in the night when there’s nothing to see, each place is the same: dark and quiet.

But that’s not at all true. The night is filled with sounds, each season its own, each place its own. A winter night under a brilliant cold sky is something to behold. The deep, snowy still of a leafless and seemingly lifeless field contrast under the brilliantly bright stars.  But it’s not something one can savor. It’s too cold to dwell, and in, and so a winter night is something gulped in deep breaths and left alone. It’s still night outside, but inside with the wood fire and the warm lamp light is much more comforting.

A fall night is a noisy night, a windy night, some rain maybe. But that’s not entirely true. A fall night can be as alive as a summer night, or as still as a winter night, or it might be anything in between. There’s no rule for fall, nothing it must do. What it will do is build to a colorful crescendo just before it ebbs and falls silent. Fall is like winter without snow, unless it isn’t.

But those summer nights. In our memories, they all sound the same.  Crickets and hoppers, chirping and singing their redundant tune. Softly fading as the night wears on, only to be replaced by the chirping of song birds once the morning light is near.  This is what night at my house sounds like. My house, surrounded by prairie and distant trees, alive with the casual rhythm of so many field bugs. An occasional rustle in the grass, a rabbit hiding from a fox. A coyote clinking through the wooded edges, thinking about which chicken it will steal. There are other characters in this prairie night, but the stars are those bugs that I cannot identify, crudely scratching out the sound that I’ve come to love. Summer days can wear on me, but the sound of a summer night has yet to grow old.

I spent a few hours last week on a lakeside screened porch. The sounds were those of my childhood, a slow churning boat pushing through the night, returning its guests after dinner. Or the other boats, the large boats with parties aboard, spinning around the lake and clearing each point,  the dull murmur of the happy crowd reaching across the window and to my childhood bedroom. But what struck me wasn’t the familiar sound of a few slow boats. It was the quiet of it all. It was the distinct sound of a Geneva lakefront porch.  The steady but louder pitch of the cicadas, a sound I know well but one that I don’t hear at my prairie house. The quiet hush of leaves flittering in a late night lake breeze.  Next time you think a summer night is a summer night, spend one in a screened porch next to Geneva Lake. You’ll soon be like me, well aware of the privilege of a summer night anywhere, but equally aware that there is one place where that night is better. At the lake.

 

Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market

Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market

The thing about summer in Wisconsin is that as summer we know it starts on Memorial Day weekend. That’s when we’re first ready to light our grills, gas our boats, and indulge in this thing we call summer. Except that Memorial Day weekend is rarely summer, it’s more like spring with  swim shorts, and so we typically wait some amount of time for real summer to begin. Then once real summer begins we swim and we boat and we do the summery things. But this is June and that is July. If we’re waiting for summer to look, feel, and taste like summer, then we have no choice but to wait until August. We’ve waited, and it’s August. It’s time to eat.

Sure, we could have visited farmer’s markets in June. They exist then. The Lake Geneva market, on Broad Street in front of Horticultural Hall is open and ready for business (Thursday Mornings). But what would we buy? Some local honey, that’s nice. Maybe some fish from Rushing Waters. Some relish and jam, made by someone. But the product in Wisconsin then isn’t what we want it to be. If we were in Marco Island at their farmer’s market, we’d just buy produce that came off the Sysco truck (repackaged farm stand style, of course). But we’re not in Marco Island, we’re here, and we’ve waited and now the produce of Wisconsin is ready.

The Farmer’s Market in the Lake Geneva area is a thing of relative consistency. There are several of them (Fontana in front of the Coffee Mill on Saturday mornings),  but they’re basically all the same. What can you expect? Jam, honey, eggs, meat, cut flowers, bird feeders (made by Hank, or Hal, or Uncle Joe, or whomever), and other various and assorted things.  You’d be wise to buy all of those things at the market, but if you’re looking to entertain for the weekend at the lake, don’t you date buy your produce from Whole Foods and bring it here. Shop here. Buy our things.

Pearce’s Farm Stand (open daily) is outside of Williams Bay, in between here and Fontana on the corner of Highway 67 opposite Inspiration Ministries. It’s large and it’s nice, and while I dislike the carnival style haunted house stuff that’ll come in the fall, the summer stand is near perfection. The sweet corn is the main draw, and while the corn has been available for several weeks, it has only now begun to taste like Wisconsin summer corn should. It’s delicious, and you can’t buy it at Whole Foods. Even if you could, why would you? If you’re here,  indulge the markets. Wander around. Find some honey and some eggs. Do these things because you can’t fully enjoy a Lake Geneva summer if you don’t even know what it’s supposed to taste like.

 

Matthew McConaughey Lake Geneva

Matthew McConaughey Lake Geneva

I first saw Matthew McConaughey in line at The Cheese Box. I had seem him before, sure, at the Quik Trip, but this was the first time I really saw him. He asked for American Cheese. Strange, I thought, to ask for such a boring cheese, but still. He asked for it to be wrapped in paper, like at the butcher shop, he said. He glanced my direction after he said that, with a nod to suggest that I knew what he was talking about. I did. Except the butcher paper at Lake Geneva Country Meats is white and this cheese paper was tan. Still, it was a nice interaction and MM swaggered out to his waiting Infiniti.

But you already know this isn’t true. Because why would it be? The rumors this summer, and the last, are swirling. Where is Mathew McConaughey’s house, everyone wants to know. The answer, from what I can glean from the interwebs, is Austin. Maybe Malibu. But Lake Geneva? Well, the source of that rumor rests squarely on the shoulders of one local publication. This publication swears that MM is moving to Lake Geneva. That he’s been seen all over town. Here and there. Everywhere. Driving and walking, talking and eating. He’s been seen. It’s too late. We know he’s here.

The last MM inspired piece declared that the Realtors are lying about this. That we’ve all been sworn to secrecy. The ceremony was indeed strange, with the blood and the capes and the copper bathtub, but there was no swearing. There is no secret.  The initial thought was that perhaps, just perhaps, MM had bought a house that sold in Fontana last fall. The house at sold for $3.9MM or so in 2015, then printed for a million and a half dollars more in 2016. The deal was shrouded in secrecy. Was this the McConaughey buy?

It appears as though it wasn’t. The publication from whom the rumors swirl insists that his house is near Stone Manor, just a ways up the road. But this, according to public records, is not the case. Could he have so successfully shielded his identity that he convinced a stranger from Aurora, Illinois to take title in her name, rather than his? I suppose that could be. But then, if the secret was so closely guarded, would he drive around town in his Infiniti with such blatant disregard for his anonymity?

I doubt anyone really knows if McConaughey has a home here. I don’t think he does. Purportedly he’s friends with the owner of Tito’s Vodka, who does have a home here. They’re Austin buddies, or so the story goes. Perhaps his wife is from Brazil, Illinois? Perhaps none of it is true. But why did a builder tell me once that he had plans on his desk to be bid with McConaughey’s name on them?  But if that’s the case, where’s the house? There are lots of new houses being built on Geneva right now. Loads of them. It’s just that I know each and every owner of these new homes and none of them are our actor friend.

So, is McConaughey a Lake Geneva guy? I don’t know. I doubt it. I have no reason to believe he is. But maybe you do. Did you see him at Popeye’s? Did you see him on the mailboat tour, with his Groucho glasses and mustache? Or maybe you just happened to be driving, minding your own business, when you saw him driving down the road, heading to Piggly Wiggly because his wife ran out of bratwurst. If you did, please do let me know because I’d really appreciate some insight on this. Personally, I don’t think he has a home in Lake Geneva.  But he’d be a whole lot cooler if he did.

Fontana Fireworks

Fontana Fireworks

I admit I’m a lazy fireworks watcher. I know what happens. The fuse, the ssssssss, the explosion. I’ve watched them before. I know the weeping willow and the star ones. I know about the loud ones that flash. I’ve seen it all.  It’s because of this that I find it difficult to be enthused by a new display. Isn’t the new display just the same as the old display? Aren’t the fuses the same? Now, if they could come up with new fireworks that I haven’t even thought of yet, then I’d be interested. Until then, meh.

And this makes me a bad dad, I’m well aware. Our Independence Day celebrations are typically the same. We grill something at the lake. We eat. My mom makes some flag jello, and some blueberry cheesecake with lemon glaze. It’s all quite good. But it’s heavy and I’m heavy and if it’s hot then I’m hot. After some boating, swimming, superjetting, perhaps a showing or two if I must, I’m beat. I retire early on most nights, and the 4th of July is no exception. It’s just that the fireworks, dad. We should go see the fireworks.

Should we? Need we? Aren’t these fireflies in the yard just as good but even more interesting? No fuse, no noise, no hooping and hollering. Besides, the neighbors have fireworks that they’ll light in their driveways until 1 am. Aren’t those fireworks good enough? Sometimes we go. Usually we go. To a boat or a pier or a shore path section. Sometimes we park high above the lake, on a farm field to the West of town, were we see the display underneath us. Yes, we’ll probably go. Probably.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. The fireworks this weekend are as they are every Independence Day Weekend. Fontana will launch their explosives from the beach barges just after dusk on the 4th. The Grand Geneva and Geneva National will send their wares to the sky on July 3rd, just after dark. I’m sure Delavan will have some fireworks, too, but I’m not concerned. The Lake Geneva Country Club will light their fuses  sometime this weekend, but exactly when I’m not sure. I’m guessing Saturday night. Let’s just go with that.

The weather forecast for this weekend is somewhat difficult. There are lightening bolts and rain clouds in my app. But if we’ve learned anything it’s that we cannot count on bad weather just as we cannot count on good weather. Let’s be here. Let’s enjoy this place. Let’s be thankful for our freedom, and let’s celebrate it by not calling the cops on our neighbors when they’re still lighting cherry bombs at 1 am.

Lake Geneva Musky

Lake Geneva Musky

It wasn’t so long ago that I remember seeing a rainbow trout. It was swimming from my childhood pier to the next door pier, aloof, brilliant, without purpose or direction. It was electric, shockingly bright like a rainbow without the storm. I cut my teeth on smallmouth and largemouth bass. The former falling between bronze and sage, the latter darker, steely blue, almost. I remember great clouds of bullhead minnows, one or two adults surrounded by so many offspring. The purple of the bullhead was matched only by the purple of the carp that would cruise the shallows two by two, under the early morning sun.

That purple was dark and serious, not at all like this rainbow trout. The trout was shimmery, silver and pink, red and orange. All of the colors, that’s what it was. And it was huge and it was football shaped and my young eyes could hardly believe what they were seeing. It was mysterious, foreign, something out of my most surreal dreams. But it wasn’t a dream at all, it was swimming in this lake from one pier to the next, in the middle of summer under that high yellow sun. I’m quite certain that I will never, ever, forget my first fleeting encounter with that trout.

I have not found my way to the pier this summer as often as in the past. There are conflicting reasons for this absence, each important and meaningful but also useless and mundane. Work, that’s what it is. But it’s also the rainy pattern of the past two weeks. Summer is well underway, but with a cold front slowly meandering through the Midwest it feels less like certain summer and more like an uncertain spring. Still, the pier has called and I have only seldom listened. Perhaps the calling has passed me by in favor of my son, for his ear is always bent toward the lake, always hearing the call of the waves and the fish and the diving board.

Several weeks ago I was delivering magazines and happened upon a scene in the White River Park, in the middle of downtown Lake Geneva. A police officer had his eyes trained on the water, that lake water that rips through the locks and provides life to the White River before joining other rivers and making its way to the ocean. How I feel for that water, once born of this lake and this place, to be forced to travel through so much ugly before ending up overwhelmed in a salty sea. The police officer’s gaze caught my attention. I know better than to walk past a policeman who is investigating something.

It was a musky. Four or five, maybe six. Large dark bullets in that clear swift water. They were holding in the current, like salmon pointed upstream. These fish measured 40 inches, some better, some worse. They were beautiful.  In the coming days and weeks anglers would arrive, prompted by ridiculous youtube videos, to try their hand at these few fish that had been swept through the spillway out of Geneva Lake and were now stuck in this skinny water. Lures were presented. Snags were committed. Pictures were taken. No shame appears to have been felt.

A week or two later I was on the pier with my son, casting a small fly hoping that something might bite. While pier fishing, many fishermen find their eyes trained towards bikinis on neighboring piers, but my eyes find their way to the water, under the surface, scanning for movement. Looking for fish, for bass and bluegills, for crappies and gar. Perhaps for an elusive rainbow trout, but not likely.  This is when the musky showed up. Rising out of the darker depths, 40 inches, likely more, of musky pushed slowly through the distance off the edge of the pier. My son was frenzied. Excitement filled his eyes.

A few years ago, the DNR stocked Geneva Lake with a large handful of fingerling musky.  The DNR undertakes such experiments often, throwing darts at a wall in hopes that something sticks. Fast forward a few years and the musky experiment has worked. The ciscoes and bluegills and perch would argue that the experiment has been a collosal failure, but the muskies disagree. The population has grown to such a degree that the fish being caught this summer are of trophy size. This summer, children will accidentally catch 44″ musky off of the piers.

This, of course, is exciting news. But it’s also delicate news. The fish are not reproducing in this lake, at least not to the knowledge of the DNR. So the experiment will yield only one real benefit: angling pleasure. Still, I have one bit of advice. Treat these fish well. Don’t keep them. Musky doesn’t taste great. Just enjoy the fight and release these monsters to the dark depths. If you see one stuck in a shallow river, just leave it alone. If you see one swimming slowly off the end of your pier, tease it with a lure, but don’t snag it. It’ll be a memorable summer for those who are lucky enough to catch a big Geneva Lake musky, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, just take a picture and let it go.

Lake Geneva Memorial Day Weekend

Lake Geneva Memorial Day Weekend

And away. We. Go.  That’s best if read in the Joker’s voice, right before he ignites a bomb that has the power to destroy one thousand Gothams. But alas, we are not igniting a bomb, though we are ready for this slow burning fuse to hurry up and give us a show. It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and with this weekend we commence the first summer of the rest of our lives. What a summer it might be. It could be. It should be, probably. The issue today is that last summer was just so nice. Last Memorial Day weekend was delightful, full summer, instantly. This summer looks to be off to a rockier start, or at least a wetter one. Still, after some driving, it’s time to live it up like it’s the weekend.

I’ve written it before, but it should be mentioned again. This weekend is not a summer weekend. No matter how badly we wish it were, it isn’t. It’s a spring weekend. It’s May, for crying out loud.  If the weather waxes summer, terrific. But if it doesn’t, let’s not get all bent out of shape. I can envision the text messages now… “What a crappy weekend”.   “Are you building your ark?” Etc and etc. Yes, the weather might let us down this weekend, but that’s okay. This is just a dress rehearsal for summer. It’s the last full pads practice before we take the field. This isn’t the big show, it’s just the dry run. Or wet run, depending.

What does matter this weekend is the intent of the weekend. Yes, we’ll light our grills. Yes, some will go swimming. Yes, I’ll have my Superjet in the water. But this is about remembering those who died in awful places so that we can live here, in this place, where our biggest concern is whether or not it’ll rain on our cookout. What an embarrassing bunch of people we are.  My kids can’t swim in the pool this weekend, so everything is ruined! No it isn’t. We’re alive. We’re free. We’re living in this place. We aren’t just existing. We’re living.

And so this weekend here’s what you should do. Pick up my 2017 Summer Homes For City People magazine. It’s out on newsstands now, and it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think it’s the best, either, but that’s just between us. At least I didn’t put the wrong date on the spine like I did last year.  Please grab the magazine and bring it home with you and leave it on the doorstep of your wealthy neighbor who doesn’t understand that weekends are not for the 6000 zip codes. Please do that, I’ll be thankful and my kids will, too.  Now that we’ve discussed the things you can do for me, here’s what we can do to show our respects to those who made all of this possible.

There are parades everywhere this weekend, but since you’re reading this on this site we’re going to skip all of the things happening in towns that don’t matter. There are parades on Monday in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay, and Fontana. Men will march. Women, too. Kids, sure.  The Lake Geneva parade is downtown at 10 am, the Williams Bay and Fontana parades are in their respective downtowns at 10:30 am. I recognize you cannot attend each parade, but try to attend the one closest to your lake house. If you try, I’ll try. It’s so easy to get caught up in the superficial worries of this weekend. Is the lawn fertilized? Are the annuals planted? Is the mulch done? Why isn’t the irrigation watering in the far west bed?!  Who cares. Some famous philosopher once said, “It’s the superfluous things for which men sweat”.   Let’s stop sweating and give a salute, and then we can go back to sweating.

Here’s to a most enjoyable Lake Geneva Memorial Day Weekend. And remember, if it rains don’t be sad. It’s not really summer, anyway.

Vernacular

Vernacular

If we were in the deep south, it would be understood that there would be certain words we’d use at certain times. We’d drop the G on many words, like he’d be “fixin” to catch a “beatin”. This is hard for us yankees to understand, but this is the way it is. Why then, should it be any different for us? Why shouldn’t we have our own set of words, meant to describe our own set of things? We aren’t in the northeast where things are strange and er is pronounced uh, but we are unique. At Lake Geneva it’s less about the pronunciation and more about the chosen word.

With Memorial Day on the very near horizon, it’s a good time to take a refresher course in our preferred words. Perhaps you’re new to the lake scene altogether, which means you haven’t yet had a chance to learn these linguistic lessons the hard way, through the embarrassment of the utterance. Or maybe you’ve been here so long you’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter anymore. What matters, you say, is world peace and kindness. You’re being silly, because the words matter far more. Without further ado, the list:

There is a company here called Pier Docktors. This is a company that makes, installs, and removes piers. The name is a pun, a play on the words, which is the only reason we’ll give them a pass for using the root word “dock”. The white thing that juts out from shore in front of your house is called a pier. It’s not called a dock. There is no acceptable substitution for this. A pier is a pier and a dock is a dock, and what we have here are piers. Don’t call them docks. It’s embarrassing to the pier, and to you.  There are a couple of piers on the lake that aren’t white. Those piers are not the piers you should emulate if you own your own. Piers are to be white, end of story. Docks can be brown, but we don’t even have those here.

If you’ve worked hard and sacrificed and you’ve made your way to the lakefront, your front lawn is the lakeside lawn.  When your friends are coming over to hang out, you tell them you’ll be in the front yard, or front lawn. This is the lake lawn, not the street side lawn. I’m amazed at how many people- seemingly intelligent, good natured, people- get his wrong. Your backyard is the street yard. Your front yard is the lakeside yard. Please don’t confuse the two.

Did you catch a bass off your pier? Really? Was it a largemouth or a smallmouth? If you say, neither, then you didn’t catch a bass. There are only two types of acceptable bass in Geneva Lake. The largemouth and the smallmouth. If you caught a rock bass, then you caught a rock bass. Don’t call it a bass. It’s only a bass of sorts, in the way that a Redfish is really just a freshwater drum which is really just a carp. Don’t church up a rock bass by calling it a bass. It’s a rock bass, nothing more, nothing less.

The little white plastic or wood or foam thing that floats out in front of your house beyond your pier isn’t called a can. It isn’t called a mooring ball. It isn’t called anything except what it is: A buoy.  I’ve heard all sorts of other abuses, but this white bobber that you tether a boat to is called buoy. It’s a buoy now and it’s a buoy later. It’ll always be a buoy. Please don’t call it by any other name, and if you have one, don’t you dare tie a pontoon boat to it.

The Shore Path has received much attention this spring, mostly due to the absurd Muck Suck race that was supposed to be held this coming weekend. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and the race was canceled as a result of a significant push back from the lakefront owners. The shore path, as it is, is a lake path, but it should never be called that. Your great Aunt’s name is Edna, but you don’t call her Edna, you call her Auntie Edna. Show a little respect and call the lake path what it is: The Shore Path.

If you invite me over to your house this summer and you send me a text like this, “David, stop on over. I’ll be in the backyard on the lake path trimming some weeds that have grown too close to the dock”, just know that I won’t be coming over.

Lake Geneva Shore Path Race

Lake Geneva Shore Path Race

The Shore Path. It is perhaps the most unique aspect of this Lake Geneva scene. While water flows from one end to the other, from a shore over here to a shore over there, the thing that truly connects this lake is this path. The original iteration of this path is easy to imagine. It was a foot path for the indians who inhabited this land, a worn single track used by these residents and the deer to get from one location to another. Later the path became a means for estate staff and grounds workers to move from one estate to another. The path endured and was protected via a deed restriction that still today runs through every lakefront property on Geneva Lake. The shore path is immensely valuable to this lake, to these owners, to this thing we call Lake Geneva.

The shore path, no matter if it is a recored as a public right, is best viewed as a privilege.  The constitution does not protect the shore path. It is simply a privilege, bestowed onto the public by a benevolent group of owners who, 130 years ago, could not have foreseen the path becoming the tourist attraction that it is today. Take away the boats, the fancy piers, the ornate lawns and strip this lake down to its very natural, undisturbed state and the only thing that would remain is that single path.  Though there are signs occasionally to remind the path strollers that this path is on private property and should be treated with respect, the path is often the subject of much abuse.

Path walkers are to do one simple thing when they walk the path around Geneva Lake: Stay on the path. This concept is not difficult to understand. The path does not give a walker the right to comb the private beach in front of the path for sea glass or shells. The path does not give the walker the right to snip a flower or two along the way. The path is not intended to encourage loitering. There should be no resting, no matter how weary the walker, on the lawns of those great lakefront properties. The path is for walking and walking only. Leash your dogs or leave them at home.

With that understood, imagine my surprise to hear that the City of Lake Geneva has voted to allow a running race to take place along this venerable path.  I have significant issues with the city itself, with the government run by those that seemingly fail to understand why the city is popular. The city exists solely because of the lakefront home owner, as without that high tax paying vacation home owner, there would be no means to carry out whatever it is the city is intent on carrying out. I was in the room yesterday while a local resident argued with a city employee over a parking ticket. The city employee was refuting every argument this resident made as to why he shouldn’t have been given a $20 parking ticket. The city worker staunchly rebuffed the residents claims as though her very life depended on it. This is the city that has forgotten what made it popular in the first place.

The city voted to allow this race, to be run by as many as 150 racers, to occur over Memorial Day Weekend. This old single track around Geneva Lake is ill-suited to host a race of any variety, and the group who should have been defending this historical footpath instead voted to exploit it.  For shame, city aldermen, for shame. And shame on Clearwater Outdoor for having any part in this race (according to the Muck-Suck website).  As an owner here or an interested party in this lake, you should be motivated to keep the serenity of it all intact. There are few vestiges of history here that can rival that path, and the path should be protected at any cost. The city has approved the race for this year, likely out of the primary governmental motivator greed, but there is time to stop this race from ever occurring again.

Reach out to the City of Lake Geneva and tell them to knock it off. The footpath is meant for leisurely strolls, not organized races. Keep the races to the streets and protect the path.  The mayor and city aldermen are listed below. According to what I’ve read, the only alderman who voted against this exploitation was John Halverson. Well done, John.

akupsik@cityoflakegeneva.com

sstraube@cityoflakegeneva.com

echappell@cityoflakegeneva.com

dskates@cityoflakegeneva.com

rhedlund@cityoflakegeneva.com

bkordus@cityoflakegeneva.com

khowell@cityoflakegeneva.com

cflower@cityoflakegeneva.com

jhalverson@cityoflakegeneva.com

 

Shore Path Photo Courtesy Jeff Robichaud
Mushroom Time

Mushroom Time

When an acorn falls in the forest a squirrel eats it. The squirrels wait for the acorns, then the acorns drop from the trees, and then the squirrels eat the acorns. It’s really not so difficult.  Some of the acorns are washed away in fast fall rains, buried under piles of leaves and silt, hidden away from the gluttonous squirrels.  The next spring that acorn shell will crack, and a tiny oak tree will emerge.  Over some time, the oak tree will grow tall and thick and we’ll look at it proudly and say, “now that’s a tree”.

In the same way a farmer will soon sow his Wisconsin field. He’ll till the soil and fertilize the soil and my wife will stand on the side of the field and picket his seed provider. He’ll plant corn seeds and after a germination period of a week or so, the baby corn plant will emerge. It’ll grow and it’ll tassel and by early August the corn stalk will have healthy, golden ears of corn. The farmer will wait for the drying of September and the hardening of October and then, or in the month that follows, he’ll harvest.

The farmer doesn’t have days to harvest his field. He has weeks. Sometimes, he’ll leave his field up over the winter, if the cash prices are too low and the granaries are too full, he’ll opt for the cheap storage of an upright field. The corn is already dry, not willing to rot, and the deer can only eat so much of it. The farmer, though he moves in November with urgency, has plenty of time to harvest his corn.

If the acorn is allowed to grow and the oak tree emerges, this is generally accepted as a good thing. Who doesn’t like a sturdy oak tree? It makes for a good leanin’ tree and an outstretched branch of enough heft will make for a wonderful tire swing support.  There’s nothing immediate about an oak tree. No window that opens and closest abruptly. And there’s nothing immediate about a corn stalk, about the way it grows and the way it greens and then turns to gold and offers its seeds to anyone.

These things are not true with the mysterious morel. The mushroom sprouts from the earth, pushes, really, emerges, sort of. It grows and then it’s there and the next day it isn’t. Was it picked by a fellow trespasser? A woman with a wagon is pretending to pick up garbage on the side of this road, but is she really harboring a vast bounty of stolen fungus? Or was it kicked off accidentally by a bounding deer. Or pecked at, momentarily, by a strutting turkey. Where did that mushroom go?

No one really knows. It’s here now and it’s gone tomorrow. Maybe it lasts a week. But the wind blows and the tips dry and the bugs eat and the rain swamps. There’s no reasoning to this madness. It’s mushroom madness, really. Which is followed closely by Morel Blindness; a condition that strikes at the most inopportune of times. The season is upon us, and unlike the lazy corn or the sturdy oak, this isn’t a game for the passive. It’s a game for those who have work to do but would rather find their way to the dead trees and the sunny southern slopes. It’s mushroom time, ready or not.

Avant Bicycle and Cafe

Avant Bicycle and Cafe

Resort towns in the Midwest tend to follow the same pattern. A downtown, some shops. The outskirts of the downtown, some big box stores. In the downtown you’ll find some stores that sell sunglasses, some that sell ice cream. Some that sell t-shirts. Some of those t-shirts are geography specific, like “I drove all the way to Michigan and all I got was this crappy t-shirt”. That’s one of my favorites. Some of the shirts are specific to nothing, except to whiling away time. A clock with a beer on it and the minute hand pointing to the 6. That’s a staple of resort town wares. There will be some restaurants, some good others bad. Mostly bad. These are the strings that tie a Midwest resort town together.

At Lake Geneva, we have those same strings. We have some t-shirt shops, obnoxious each one. We have some places to buy fudge. We have ice cream shops. How Coldstone Creamery survives in the downtown high rent atmosphere I’ll never understand. Two ice cream concoctions for your two toddlers? That’ll be $14.55. We have restaurants to buy bad food, and some to buy good food. We have old bars, we have some new bars. We have old hotels and new hotels. We have all the trappings of your typical, boring Midwest resort town.

But these are the things we have in common with other towns, the things that exist in each town because some town somewhere decided to try it all first. Increasingly, small resort towns are getting better, they’re getting more interesting stores, more interesting t-shirt designs, better restaurants and better food. For all those food improvements, our local coffee scene is sorely lacking. Fontana has the Coffee Mill, which is nice. Williams Bay has Boxed and Burlap, also nice. But Lake Geneva has a coffee scene that’s been on the decline.  Boatyard Bagels brought Intelligentsia to our cups, and it was nice while it lasted.  Boatyard has since closed, not due to a failed business idea or lack of market interest, but because the building they leased ended up selling to someone who had a different goal for the space.  I miss that space.

Across the street, Caribou Coffee sold to Peet’s Coffee and then Peet’s caved to the heavy burden of downtown Lake Geneva rent. I liked that shop not for their coffee, but for the marble. So much marble. It was good for town and I’m sad that today the landlords of that building are still advertising the space, and the adjacent space as FOR RENT. The rent’s too damn high, but that’s none of my business.  Across town we have Starbucks, which remains an anchor. There’s another Starbucks in the Target, but that’s not a place you’d go because of the Starbucks, you’d just stop there if you’re buying whatever it is people go to Target to buy (disclaimer: I hate Target, for no particular reason. It reminds me of Prange Way, so maybe that’s why). There’s a rumored new Starbucks coming to the empty lot to the North and West of the Lake Geneva Walmart, so that’ll make three Starbucks within a mile radius.

Across from Starbucks is Geneva Java, which sounds like it might be okay but I’ve never been in there. Down the road you can go to Simple for breakfast, but you better only feel like drip-coffee, because that’s all they serve. The bakery next door surely has an espresso machine and a capable barista, right?  Don’t be silly. You can get drip coffee there, too, and you better like it.  A morning danish is wonderful, but if I can’t wash it down with an Americano,  is it worth the effort? Simple is the best breakfast in town,  and the bakery is the best bakery in town, but would it kill them to invest a few grand in an espresso machine? Apparently.

Perhaps their lack of espresso-ness left an opening in town, considering Boatyard is gone and so is Peet’s, and the Starbucks triangle is farther East.  With the newly renovated, super art-deco Geneva Theater now open, the traffic on the West side of Broad Street should be picking up, which should breathe life into the space that has been so many different things over recent years. Good Vibes was some sort of musical, or perhaps a restaurant, I’m not certain. The Creperie resided in this spot for a bit, but I can’t say I ever saw the CLOSED sign flipped to OPEN.  Now this space, the space right to the south of the theater, is home to yet another business. I went there yesterday to see what it was all about.

Avant Cycles was previously located in Delavan, behind the giant elephant and next to the karate shop. I never went there. Now Avant Bicycle and Cafe has made the move to Lake Geneva, and they’ve opened in that recently renovated, nicely appointed space at 234 Broad Street. The store has a coffee shop in the front and a bike shop in the back, a combination sure to thrill bearded hipsters and bag clutching tourists alike.  My mountain biking career was short lived when I discovered how much I hate mountain biking, but my love of coffee persists. The space here is comfortable, stylish, and I think it’s a tremendous thing for town. It brought something interesting to a revolving door location, and if we’re to make Avant last in this spot we’ll need to buy some coffee from them. And maybe a few bikes, too.

And that’s the thing about Lake Geneva. It has the cheesy trappings of every resort town, but it’s continually improving and that’s all I ask of it.

Golf Lake Geneva

Golf Lake Geneva

I haven’t cared about golf for a long time. To be honest, I never particularly cared about golf. I was on the golf team in high school, which, at first blush, might sound like I was a reasonably good golfer then. The truth is the Faith Christian School golf team didn’t have any barrier to admission. If you owned a set of clubs, or felt like using a set borrowed from one of the teachers who liked to golf for free and was, as a result, labeled the golf coach; then you were on the team.  At the start of one match, I teed off on the 10th hole of George Williams and ripped the drive straight down the middle.  My opponent acknowledged my immense skill, to which I replied in a golfing sort of way, “that’ll probably be the only good one I hit all day”. It was.

Into my twenties I played some golf. At one point in time, I counted myself as a good enough player. The summer I twice shot 80 was the summer I hurt my back, and just like that, my golf career was over.  I still play from time to time, and I still think I might have a shot at being decent if I were to practice, but interests have pulled me in different directions now. Those different directions didn’t stop me from flipping to the last few holes of yesterday’s Masters finish, and what a finish it was. I felt genuinely pleased for Sergio. I felt somewhat strange watching the announcers handle him as though he was a washed up old veteran who had finally broken his personal curse. I felt that way because at his old age he’s younger than me.

And that finish got me to thinking about golf again, about the courses and the options and the Lake Geneva golfing scene. There are plenty of reviews of local courses available. I’m sure you can read all about slopes and handicaps and the like, but this isn’t like that. This is the abridged version of local golf as seen through these two eyes, and as experienced by this one-time-marginally-proficient-golfer.

In my mind, the king of the local golf courses is Geneva National. It doesn’t matter which of the three courses it is; this is the best golf in the area. The Player course is the most scenic and involves the fewest number of houses. Trevino is the easiest of the three. I once teed off on a Trevino par three. There was a group just leaving the green who had stopped to watch my shot. There was another group behind my group, watching. The pressure was on. I gripped the eight iron and swung. Clean. Beautiful. High. It looked good, like it might go in. When the ball landed on the green and rolled towards the hole the green-side group through up their arms and hollered in celebration. A hole in one! At least it seemed like that was the case, until I walked up and the ball was three or four feet from the hole. The green-side group must have been more easily triggered to celebrate than most.  The Palmer course is nice, but I despise the finishing few holes. Geneva National is the king. If you want high quality golf, play here.

The Grand Geneva would beg to differ with that prior opinion, as their Brute and Highlands courses are indeed very, very nice. But the Brute from the tips is just awful, a terribly difficult endeavor suited for truly great players. The Highlands has some spongey, swampy holes that I don’t like. I played the Grand Geneva often when I had a good friend who was the tennis pro there. We’d play and he’d beat me and I’d realize how much I hate the game of golf. The Grand Geneva is worth playing, and you may like it, but I don’t.

Abbey Springs is a curious little course. I don’t think it gets the respect that it deserves. Yes, it’s short. Yes, the driving range is short. Yes, there are condominiums and houses throughout the course. But it is a beautiful track, capable of flustering the best golfer. There are views of Geneva Lake, wonderfully manicured fairways and greens, and if you own a lake house in the Bay or Fontana, it’s right next door. I dislike the layout of a few holes, but when you’re tucking a golf course into a residential development, creativity can suffer. Still, play Abbey Springs and be happy you did.

In Delavan, you’ll find Delbrook Golf Course. I’ve never played there. But I drive by it sometimes and I think about how some golfer apparently killed a turtle with his club and I cringe. What a terrible thing to do to a turtle. I’ll never play Delbrook, but I’m sure it’s just fine. Evergreen Golf Course in Elkhorn is where we played some high school matches. It has some ponds with bass in them. I’ve fished for the bass before, but I don’t remember the course. It’s green and there are some flags. It’s fine, probably.

Hawk’s View still feels like a new course to me, though it’s been here for nearly two decades. In the 1960s, this was Mount Fuji, a ski hill that really was just a hill. Now the beautiful grounds host an 18 hole par 72 course and an 18 hole par 3 course. The par 3 course is ranked as one of the top ten in America, according to someone. Hawk’s view is well maintained, close to Lake Geneva, and it’s more affordable than the larger courses in the area. A Saturday round in July will run you $85, while the same round will go for $115 at Geneva National. The Par 3 at Hawk’s View is very nice, and comes highly recommended if you’re playing with a kid, or you’re just crunched for time. I haven’t played that course in a few years, but I just talked myself into it.

Obviously we have private courses in the area- The Lake Geneva Country Club, Big Foot Country Club, and Lakewood. But these aren’t the topic for today. I’ve played all three courses, and they each offer something unique, but today isn’t about the country club set. It’s about people like me, people like you, people that like to golf but haven’t made it their obsession. This summer, play a bit of golf. If you’re at all like me, it’ll remind you of the reasons you no longer play.

Colors

Colors

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

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

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

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

 

Photo courtesy Kirsten Westlake

 

Peace

Peace

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

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

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

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

Lake Geneva Construction

Lake Geneva Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Geneva News

Lake Geneva News

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

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

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

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

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

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

March

March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

12 Most Luxurious Lake Towns

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Geneva’s Winterfest

Lake Geneva’s Winterfest

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo courtesy Lake Geneva Country Meats
Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

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

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

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

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

Ski Towns

Ski Towns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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