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Rolling R’s

Wednesday, 24 Aug 2016, 20:35 UTC

This is hard, this business of writing the thousand word that those pictures are supposedly worth. No wonder I initially just posted them sans mots! So I’ve decided to take a little rest, as you perhaps can tell.

In the meantime, something else has come up. I’ve stumbled on an online language site that has consumed me. If those picture-words are hard, this business of speaking French into the microphone is… really hard.

Practicing French out loud has not only helped my French, but it’s given my neck and throat muscles a sorely needed workout — such a workout that it feels like therapy for the scalpel and radiation abuse. And here’s the best part: the other night after many lessons (which drive Trudy nuts), for the first time in many months I was actually able to roll my r’s again. It only lasted briefly — the r’s stopped rolling some time that night — but it was still a minor victory.

The doctors need to know this. They need to prescribe this. They need to tell us along with the stretching exercises they recommend. Practice French every night. Speak aloud. Repeat yourself over and over until your mouth wears out.  Because it will help. Because your r’s will roll again!

The Camper

Sunday, 21 Aug 2016, 18:45 UTC

1. Prelude

Ok, then. What shall we say about the humble little camper sitting there shining in the morning sun?

Some of you might have suggestions.

Maybe you’ll remind us that this was the place where Bunka slept. How you told us to be quiet when we walked by the camper late at night. Or maybe you’ll talk about how it used to come and go in his truck but has long since become a permanent fixture of this place. Maybe you’ll talk about how its roof required constant attention, to which I would add that the silver roof-sealing paint got splotched onto my favorite sweatshirt, and I still look on that splotch as a of badge of honor of sorts. Or you might talk about those years when Bunka talked about getting a bigger camper, how we’d stop at dealerships with him and walk thru the newest models, how he really wanted a fifth wheel trailer to pull rather than a camper to mount.

But instead, I look out my window here in Texas and see grey skies and falling rain — rain that has been falling daily for almost two weeks, and I am taken back to a summer on that hill by that lake. A summer when the rains never stopped.

I can’t pretend to understand what it must have been like for the adults that year. That place is usually a refuge for parents, a place where the kids can run in the woods, explore the swamps and wear themselves out in the water. It must have been horrible for the adults that year.

Thanks to the rain, there was virtually no swimming. And there was little walking in the woods, because the mosquitos swarmed thick around your ears as soon as you got away from the breeze off the lake. And the sand… oh, the sand! The kids were constantly tracking wet sand into the cottage, sand that had to be constantly swept off the dank concrete floor and tossed back outside into the falling rain only to be tracked back in moments later.

2. From a Kids Point of View

Although I can’t imagine what that rainy summer must have been like for the adults, I can imagine it as a kid. Because I was one.

First of all, we were in the habit of spending virtually every waking hour in the lake, so the rain didn’t bother us. And we were used to running around barefoot up and down the dirt-and-sand stairs and back and forth on the sandy beach, so wet sand on our feet didn’t bother us, either. But most importantly, we were together again — all us kids. Together again since last year. And there was a lot of lost time to make up for. 

Um… what about that camper?

Oh yes… the camper. It was our game room.

In there, we played cards and board games. We had Uno and regular cards. We had The Game of Life and Sorry and Space Chase. My brother could tell you the others. We had a bottomless supply of them stacked in a pile on the counter immediately to the right just as you stepped into the camper.

We’d sit in there, crammed into that tiny space, at that tiny table that doubled for a bed when lowered into position. We’d sit there with wet clothes, with wet hair, with damp arms rubbing against each other, with wet, sandy toes. We’d laugh and yell. We’d win and lose. And we’d stay in there hour after hour while a breeze blew in thru the slightly-opened windows and the rain made loud dripping sounds on the sand and pine needles outside.

We’d sit shoulder-to-shoulder in that space playing games day after day while the rain kept coming. And life could not have been better.


Saturday, 20 Aug 2016, 17:10 UTC

Sassafras and Oak. Beech and Pine.

The Outhouse

Saturday, 20 Aug 2016, 16:31 UTC

1. Getting Things Wrong

“You got a few things wrong in that story about the white table,” my mother said.

“I kinda expected that,” I said. The truth of the matter is that I figured that’s the way “oral” history goes, so I told it as best I could.

“But don’t be timid mom,” I added. “Send corrections.”

I could hear her smile. “You know me… I don’t have that problem.” 

Yes, mom, you don’t have that problem — a trait you in fact handed down to your eldest son.

“Are you going to tell stories for the rest of those pictures?” she asked.

Well now. There’s a thought. Of course, there were a dozen pictures. That’s quite a project, and any of us might grow tired before the stories end. Yet…

2. Not A Cabin

So consider this picture from among those:

I actually had it open on my desktop at work the other day. It was late on Friday. The office was mostly empty. And my boss’s boss wandered by and looked over my shoulder.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he smiled and said, “A shed.” 

I looked at the picture. Then at him. Then back at the picture.

“Actually, an outhouse,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied politely.

3. A Story About It

Let me tell you, dear reader, a story about that outhouse…

To start with, you should know that the western side of the lower peninsula of Michigan is sand. I mean it; it’s all sand. (The glaciers did it.) The forests, the orchards, the berry farms, the asparagus fields and all the lakes, swamps and bogs are just decoration on top of pure sand. (For example, see this.) As a consequence, digging holes up there is a breeze compared to, say, digging in the black gunk and white caliche and limestone down here in Central Texas. 

Now, my family likes to dig. We like to dig in general, but holes in particular. Partly, I suppose that’s because a hole is to dig, as Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak tell us. But we also dig because there are things that need digging in order to get done… like outhouses.

So what you see in this picture, is our outhouse. And there ever has only been one: the very same structure with the very same seats (yes, two differently-sized seats, side-by-side) and the very same door that has adorned this corner of the woods, behind our cottage for generations. But although it’s been the same outhouse, from time to time, we have had to move it. To a different place. To a different hole. Because… you know.

As I recollect it, when we were young, my cousin and brother and I dug a hole that was almost over our heads. Then followed many years of frequent gatherings of many people in that place. And some time when I was in graduate school, my cousin and brother dug another hole in the sand (because… well you know). I heard the story of how that hole they dug was the deepest that had ever been, the stuff of legend.

And then years came and went. Another generation was born, and they grew up, and then one summer, it came time again to move the outhouse, because… you know. So it fell upon them to dig a new hole. From Texas, I heard the story of how that hole those three cousins dug was another great one. And if I am not mistaken, they also dug a spectacular compost pit that lasted for years and years, because it too was so deep.

This year, my brother cleaned out the outhouse, texting me an outhouse ready message as we were driving from Texas. Swept the floor. Stocked the toilet paper. Made sure the buckets of lime were full. Chased away the daddy long legs. 

And there it stands in that picture, early in the morning with the eastern sun slanting thru the forest. It’s turned away from the cottage, of course, facing into the woods. So, if you are so inclined, you can sit there with door wide open and gaze out on the spectacular view of Oak and Maple and great White Pines and even a now-twelve-foot-tall Beech that my grandfather tended in his later years from the day he spotted it poking out of the leaf mould, lopping overhanging branches from a crooked Maple sapling that had a head start. There you can sit, contemplating whatever you might contemplate.

No, it’s not quite a shed; it’s an outhouse: The Outhouse.

The Hill by the Lake

Friday, 19 Aug 2016, 21:18 UTC

Let’s try this again, shall we. There is a story behind this picture,

just as there are stories behind the others that I posted a few days ago

Know that when I talk about the hill by the lake or the cottage on the hill, that this is the place. Generations ago, my great grandfather helped move a house. As I remember the story, it was a house in a nearby town, and the owners wanted to live on the lake. Now, moving a house back then must have been a very big deal, and I must tell you that the house they moved was a very big house. It must have been a tremendous effort. Afterward, for years and years, that house sat atop the highest point on this side of the lake with a spectacular view of the western sunsets on the other side. 

As payment for their help, my great grand parents were offered any plot of land they wanted. The owners of the house must have been wealthy. As I internalized the story, they owned all the land on this side of the lake (although strictly speaking that might not have been true). In any event, they offered land as thanks.

It being the Depression (do I have that right?), my great grandparents were reluctant to assume too much of a tax burden, so they chose a tiny plot. Were they sure they didn’t want more? Yes, they were sure.

I must say, that although it was a postage stamp sized lot, their choice was a fine one. Indeed, it was on the second highest point on this side of the lake, and it also had a spectacular view of the western sunsets on the other side.

In the generations that passed, our family has returned to this place like clockwork, gathering together, sitting on this hill, marveling at those sunsets, glorying in the cool breezes off the water on hot summer days and (as you learned yesterday) careening down the stairs to the sandy beach and the wooden dock and the water. 

On that very hilltop spot we’ve sat, year after year. In those very chairs, although they used to be silver and then red, and then they were green and then a few years ago in an orgy of paint-letting all the chairs were painted a slightly-off shade of yellow. For generations, I tell you. My great grandmother sat on that swinging bench and in that very chair. My grand parents sat in those very spots, although they never sat still for long. And my mother and her sisters. And my cousins and my brother and me. And our spouses. And our kids. And our friends.

On this very spot on this hill by that lake.

White Pine Mea Culpa

Thursday, 18 Aug 2016, 23:42 UTC

Wait, David. Close your eyes. That red table on the hill nailed to that tree. Can you see it, David?

I see it.

The tree. Now look closely at the tree. And at the bark, look at the bark. Do you see it?

Yes, I see it.

Look closer. Can you see the texture? How it’s smooth-ish?


What kind of tree is it, David?

Well, it’s not a White Pine, as in the story I told. I can see clearly now. Smooth-ish bark. And a bit of red paint slopped onto the trunk from when we painted the table. It’s… it’s… it’s a Maple. No, wait. Oh heck, maybe an Oak. No, Maple. Well certainly not a White Pine. Oh, I really messed up that story, didn’t I?

The Worth of a Picture

Thursday, 18 Aug 2016, 20:52 UTC

He has become lazy. He doesn’t write much, anymore. He just posts pictures. He must not have anything to say.

It is true, that there have been a lot of pictures here. (I hope you’ve enjoyed them maybe a little.) And it is also true that many have been unencumbered by text. (I hope that this hasn’t been too much of a drag.) But it is not true that I had nothing to say.

Consider, the inanimate objects around the cottage on the hill. There is a story in each of those twelve pictures. 

For example, this one:

That ratty white table near that flue tile leaning up against that White Pine tree are in a very special place.

Long ago, there used to be a red table there. It only had two legs, because one end was nailed to the tree. This was where, we were told, grampa Macmillan used to shave in the morning. He’d lean a mirror against the tree and put his shaving gear on the table and shave. (For what it’s worth, I believe that mirror is in our camping gear in the garage.)

Of course, as children, we had no memory of this. It was only what we were told. Yet we knew the red table well. We sat on it. We crawled under it. And we ran by it over and over, because the stairs going down to the lake used to start in exactly that spot. And we knew those stairs so well that we could run down them in the dark.

On sunny days, when it was ok to swim, we’d dash down those steps. And when we got to the bottom, we’d go out onto the dock that extended into the water from the base of the stairs. Although calling it a dock is being generous, because in those days it was just three long planks mounted to a stump at the water’s edge extending out to Oak or Maple posts pounded into the lake each spring. 

The bluegills and crawdads hid under the planks of that dock. And there was a mucky spot in the water there where if you stepped in, you’d sink up to your knee. Frogs hopped on the sandy beach there. And sometimes snakes slithered by, trying to quickly get to the swamp just twenty yards up the shore.

The dock. I was talking about the dock. And about how we’d run out onto it.

What I wanted to say is that when we’d run down those stairs and get to the dock, my brother and I would stop short, but my cousin would continue running out onto those three long planks at full speed. With huge strides, he’d pick up speed and put his arms over his head, and then he’d dive off the end into the water.

That’s the story that goes with that picture.


Wednesday, 17 Aug 2016, 21:56 UTC

Today is Mr. Guinness’s birthday. 

Fifteen years ago, Trudy threw a party for him. It was his first, and to celebrate, she had invited the dogs up and down the street to a party where they wore party hats and ate hot dogs. I can only imagine the event, because Trudy and I had only just met online and were tentatively getting to know each other on the phone and with brief visits on the playground behind the school that was a kind of no man’s land between where each of us lived.

What I’m saying is that I wasn’t invited to the party. But on that day (or maybe the day before or after), Ben and I walked across no man’s land and delivered an envelope to the mailbox in front of Trudy’s and Guinness’s house. It was a birthday card that I had drawn myself with all the flourishes and designs and celebratory colors I could muster. A birthday card for her dog. On his first birthday. 

It was the smartest move of my life. And because of it, I am happy to say, Mr. Guinness and Trudy and I have been together on this side no man’s land for fifteen years and running. 

But he’s moving slowly now. His back hurts. His front legs sometimes hurt when he takes a step. And he hasn’t been eating, even though he wants to be hungry. And so he doesn’t jump, anymore. And he doesn’t bark at the door, anymore. He doesn’t run around in the rain, anymore. And his waist is wasting away to almost nothing.

Yet his dark liquid eyes still look up at us. And on a good day, his smiles still smile. And no matter the day, when you walk up to where he is standing motionlessly because it must hurt too much to move, his eyes look into yours, and … and his tail still wags his prize-winning wag.

Mr. Guinness is sixteen today. That’s old. Very old. He hurts so much that it sometimes makes him tremble. He takes a very long time to wake up in the morning. And it’s a chore to get him to eat maybe just a bite of anything

But today was his birthday, and in celebration tonite he ate well — two slices of ham, part of a hot dog, a slice of cheese and a small piece of watermelon. (He refused anything else.) Having eaten, he wagged his tail and looked up and said, “What about a walk?” which was quite a surprise. So we went halfway down the block, he and I, until he decided that was far enough. And as we returned, the fair and industrious Trudy drove by, at which point he began to pull on the leash so that he might meet his mommy in the driveway. And once back in the house, he wandered into the backyard and let out a loud bark just like we used to tell him not to do.

Happy birthday, Mr. Guinness. It was a good day. 

If It Were a Normal Year

Tuesday, 16 Aug 2016, 21:49 UTC

If it were a normal year, the creeks would have dried up long ago. If it were a normal year, the grass would be brown. It it were a normal year, the rain barrels would be empty.

But the rain barrels are full. And the grass, in mid August, is lush and green. And water is rushing down the creeks.

Today the sky was gray, and threatening clouds rolled low overhead. Rain fell from the sky. The roads were cluttered with clean, shiny cars driven by drivers who didn’t know quite what to make of that glistening stuff on the pavement. 

Even now, even as my eyes droop and my fingers betray me at the keyboard, there is thunder booming ever closer in the darkness to the west.

This is has definitely not been a normal year.

Did I Tell You?

Sunday, 14 Aug 2016, 19:32 UTC

“Did I tell you the rain barrels are full?”

She laughed and slapped her hand on her leg. “Yes… just three times!”

Ok. So I’m excited. I suspect the trees are, too.