Our vacation: a pop quiz

You get one clue.
You get one hint.

Dave and I spent a week up north to be in nature, see some colors, and generally relax. In the list below, can you spot the 2 things we DIDN’T do to make our vacation a success?

  1. Locate vacuum cleaner immediately upon arrival and vacuum entire cottage.
  2. Replace  fluorescent  bulbs with LEDs purchased at hardware store in town.
  3. Sweep front steps and walk, though no one’s coming over we hope.
  4. Rearrange living room furniture. Twice.
  5. Outfit the dog for woodsy hikes in bright orange hunting vest, bright orange hunting collar, and blinking light for collar, then mostly walk on the beach.
  6. Purchase a sled.
  7. Consider purchasing a 1000-piece Jesus puzzle but ultimately decide on a pack of cards.
  8. Nestle in front of the fire with dog curled adorably in shower stall.
  9. Plan and cook meals that make best use of the available pots and pans.
  10. Confess ourselves genuinely surprised by Tennessee Williams and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The first correct guesser gets a jar of Cherry Republic cherry jelly — because Donna says it’s better than jam.

Non fighting words

Love is a battlefiled.

Maybe one of the reasons I keep feeling that I’m fighting the same battles is that I do things at the same time of day. I write in the morning, even when I’d rather be doing yoga or meditating or getting out with the dog, but I seem to have worked this habit into my bones. Even when I don’t feel much like writing, which is lately, I grab the pen and begin.

Every year at this time, we have a blow-up about taxes. It’s similar to a vacation blow-up, where there’s some funny little thing you joke tentatively about for a few days—his inability to say where he wants to eat, her unfortunate tendency to navigate from a map of the wrong town—and then, by the third day, maybe about four o’clock, when you’re hungry and tired and hot and thirsty and have had to pee for ever, someone says something that might have gotten a laugh a few hours ago but suddenly is grounds for divorce.

“It’s such a beautiful night, let’s work on taxes!” is the non-vacation version. By the twentieth time I say it, we’re usually days away from when we have to get our completed worksheet into our accountant, the beautiful David Turrentine. I generally start my casual references in February, saying things like, “If we just do a few hours a week, we’ll be done before we know it!” or “I worked on mine for a few hours today and I feel great!” To me, this sounds encouraging and helpful, just like it sounds to Dave when he says, “If you just concentrate on the map you won’t feel so carsick.”

“How am I supposed to look at a map when we’re about to topple into the Irish Sea?” is the equivalent of “You don’t understand how much I hate taxes.”

“Everyone hates taxes” and “People drive this road every day.”

“You don’t.”

“It’s really just a matter of doing what needs to be done.”

“But why do they plant hedges right where you need to see what’s coming? It’s like they want to make it as difficult as possible.”

“I’m sorry, that’s just how it is here.”

“I’m not blaming you, it’s just…you have all these expectations.”

“I know you’re doing your best.”

“I really am trying.”

“I know. For God’s sake watch out!”

“I see it.”

“Then why are you driving straight into it?”

“It’s a parking lot. Come on, let’s get some lunch.”

“Don’t forget to save the receipt. Technically, this is research.”

“Don’t start on next year already.”

“But if we start now…”

But this year, we seem to have sidestepped the blow-up. Even though I started earlier than usual this year, with my first “Feel like starting on taxes?” in January instead of February. Even though I danced around the kitchen last night singing “I’m done I’m done I’m done” with my printed report in hand, when Dave had only set up his card table a few hours before. Even though we have to have our stuff to David T. by tomorrow, not Monday as I originally thought. Dave is deep in now, and I think the danger has passed.

Which is good. I’m grateful for the win, but it feels weird. It’s like when I look at the new kitchen and see why we’re not going on any fancy vacations any time soon. It’s totally worth it. It means progress. It means change. But I have to remind myself that change is good. Change is what winners do. And anyway, there’s always next year.

The undeciders

cocktail napkin
Maybe it makes more sense to a decider.

I shot my wad on the way up to Bay City. We were closing in on lunch time, and I remembered a café near New Buffalo that I’d eaten at a few years ago. I didn’t have to actually make that decision, just suggest it. But when you’re travelling with three other undeciders, even a comment can be construed as a command.

Lunch was fine, though for some reason the waitress didn’t want to give Kismet water. Throughout the weekend, we had a hard time getting four waters. However, the booze was cheap.

After lunch, I left the decision-making to Kismet and Kyle and Dave. At the fest, there were multiple good options for doing something at any time: three film venues, plus a few workshops, plus parties, plus restaurants, plus bars. One of us would say, “Do you want to go to this?” Someone would answer, “Sure, if you do.” Followed up by someone else’s “Whatever you think.” Confirmed by the fourth person’s “I’m good either way.”

I was the one who probably should have had some plan, for how I could meet as many other filmmakers as possible, how I could insert myself into as many conversations as possible, so I could be one of those people quoted on film fest sites, “I made so many great connections and we’re already talking about collaborating on future projects!” But that’s not me. The transition from “Liked your film” to “Wanna read my script?” always seems fake.

Plus, I’m too distracted by new faces or off-topic conversations or pictures of peoples’ dogs or another event happening three blocks away. Like the wonderful family parties that ended just as I realized I still hadn’t talked to the one person I wanted to catch up with, I was too busy having fun. Wandering from place to place, sometimes with the other undeciders or sometimes alone, because in addition to being undeciders we are also unclingers. Watching good films. Eating good food. Meeting an occasional filmmaker and making vague plans to talk later. Because there seemed to be infinite time in this friendly, happy world. Just like the parties at Auntie Aggie’s, where there was always another roomful of interesting people, another tray of food coming out of the kitchen, and rumors of Mr. Microphone in the basement. Oh wait, no, Mr. Microphone wasn’t at the festival.

I did a pretty good job of not putting myself down, though Kismet scolded me once for advising someone to watch Sandman “in a group – it’s not as good alone.” “But it’s not,” I protested.

“Have you watched it alone?” she charged.

“That’s different,” I said.

“That’s your opinion,” she replied. “Keep it to yourself.” Kismet also took apart our distribution plan, late at night in the hotel bar, on the napkin from her Manhattan. In response to my presentation of our strategy, “We’ve done some festivals, so now, hopefully, I guess, some distribution,” she asked for a pen.

“First we identify our long-term goals for the film. Then medium-term goals. Then short-term goals. That’s this column. Then organizational considerations. Then allies.”

“What are organizational considerations?”

“Don’t worry about those yet. Start with goals. What are your long-term goals?”

“Um…” Saved by the waitress. “Another round here?”

“Yes, please!” We decided to finish the discussion on the drive home. That was the one actual decision we made, but we didn’t keep it. Instead, we nursed our hangovers and thought about gifts for the people who were taking care of our dogs.

In classic undecider form, we couldn’t figure out where to exit for the gifts. Maybe a gas station would have something suitably kitschy? But these were favorite people; we didn’t want crappy. Was there something local? Dave took out his phone. “If we detour through downtown Lansing, there are two gift shops.”

“Detour? Do we want to detour?” No one said anything. “Is there something right on the highway?”

Dave searched. “There’s a Gifts from the Heart. It’s about a mile off exit 127.”

I wondered what about a mile might mean. “Do you guys want to stop?” “Sure, if you do.”“Whatever you think.” “I’m good either way.”

We neared the exit. There was some construction; there could be delays. “What do you think?” “Should we just keep going?” “Should we stop?” “Should we…?” “Exit,” Dave suddenly said. And Kyle exited.

We followed the directions, the sure enough, one mile off the highway, was Briarbrook road. But it was inside a gated community. Gifts from the Heart is online-only. “But we commend you for deciding,” we consoled Dave. He was done with decisions.

To get back to the highway, Kyle had to turn around in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. Which turned out to be a great place to get kitschy gifts. Even better, once, we’d bought them and could forget about it, we saw a sign for apple cider. We sampled from 23 flavors of cider, ate cider donuts, posed for pictures on rocking chairs that seemed more authentic than the ones at Cracker Barrel, and played in an outdoor metal dinosaur museum. It was the perfect Michigan roadside stop, discovered only because an undecider decided to stop at a store that didn’t exist.

Mrs. Libman disposes

bug climbing
Always giving you a little something extra.

No story today, but there’s this: Yesterday I got on my bike and rode out to the highway, not sure where I was headed. I rode up M-22 a mile or two, terrified the few times a car passed. There’s a good shoulder but I was still convinced I was invisible. I saw a sign for a road that Ruby had said goes around a pretty lake, so I turned off.

Even though there’s no shoulder there’s almost no traffic. I was about the same level of terrified every time a car went by, but it only happened twice. The rest of the time, solitude. A few houses. Great views of the lake. Lots of long, winding downhill slopes and only two uphill ones of any difficulty. I had to get off and walk but I could feel that at some point I might be able to ride them. Later I ran into Rebecca at Molly’s cocktail party and she said she and Rich had also ridden around that lake today. And for the first time since they’ve been coming here she rode both uphill slopes all the way to the top. I asked how she did it. “Are you stronger this year? Have you been training?”

“No,” she said, “This year I just didn’t give up.”

The shape of things to become

Not pictured: iPhone picture.

This morning I put my iPhone in the dresser drawer. I’m going to try to do without it for a day, and if that works, two days. It feels ridiculous to be in a place where I don’t need to be connected, and yet I can’t stop checking weather and email and Facebook and rock tumbler reviews. I did want to call Liz today. Maybe I can take it out just once, to use only as a phone, if I put it back right after.

It will never stop, the sand shifting from year to year, sometimes a wider beach or a narrower one, sometimes the shipwreck visible and sometimes not. It will never stop, but we will. We’ll get too old to climb Baldy, then too old to get to the big beach, then finally too old to come at all. Or perhaps before any of that, some of us will just tire of the place and its preciousness or its sameness or whatever we choose to accuse it of, while it goes on just the same, black squirrels scurrying through pine forests, dune grass looking at the water, stones polishing themselves in the waves.

Me and David Hasslehoff

Objects in mind are farther than they appear.

I can handle hard work. I can handle tough choices. But when it’s hassle-y, when it comes to fitting two bikes in the car, taking them out and putting them in again in a slightly different way, I want to rip my scalp off. I resent the time it takes to even complain about it.

And the locks. The U-locks with the cables attached, and the keys, and Dave suggesting that I get both the front and rear wheels into the cable, which I know, I know, but the cable doesn’t stretch. On a folding bike, the smallness of the wheels makes their rims too far apart so just forget it, no one would steal a bike here anyway, would they?

“No. No one would steal a bike here, but if just one person did, it would suck to lose a new bike, and it would really suck to learn that someone would steal a bike here.” So by the time we unlock the bikes from the porch and get them and our helmets and our various possible biking clothes (none of which I learn later are good for biking) and grocery bags and other tools into the car after breakfast, I am fuming. We’re only heading into town to get apples and cocktail fixings, but the Betsie trail goes right through town and we might feel like riding, so why not bring the bikes? It sounds so carefree but the reality is, you take one of my bike lock keys and I’ll take one of yours but I don’t have a little key ring, should we add that to the grocery list, and do we need a patch kit or should we buy extra inner tubes somewhere, and what do we need to replace inner tubes, are there special tools we should buy, and what if our air pump doesn’t work?

“I don’t know why I hate this so much,” I say when we are finally after a million years on the road to town.

Instead of pointing out that he did all of the “this,” from unlocking the bikes on the porch to loading them and everything else in the car, Dave says something much more provoking. “Because you’re just like your mom.”

That is an unacceptable reason. My mom would never put her bike in the car and take it to town. My mom would never submit to wearing a helmet or buying an expensive and complicated lock. “I’m not going through all that,” she’d say. “If God wants me to crack my head, so be it.” I remember her going on bike rides with my dad and Auntie Marie and Uncle Vince and Norma and Bill. Was biking safer then? They didn’t go on bike paths. They rode down busy streets, a leisurely parade of six, into north Oak Park and River Forest.

I’m just like my mom is not acceptable, though it might be true. I don’t want to commit to an activity that might be too involved, might take too much time and effort, might keep me from the beach, which is how I define vacation here. Going into town is a guilty consumer pleasure that keeps me from the real magic of this place, which is the stunning miles of beach and bluff and blue, blue water.

Maybe commitment was what Mom hated too. Maybe it’s why she wouldn’t go to Europe when Dad asked or join a bowling league or take an exercise class. Okay. I commit to the ride.

We park near the library and take out our bikes and get all situated and pack the basket, which was purchased for my bike but which Dave loads onto his without a complaint (I don’t want the extra weight). It ends up being a full day, riding this sweet trail that goes past the tiny town of Elberta and past occasional houses and even past the lake sometimes, and over long wooden bridges over marshes and rivers, shaded by trees most of the way. I think it’s about four or five miles.

When we get to the next town, Beulah, we buy padded shorts and inner tubes. An old man with two big bags of cans sits at the railroad station, which has been converted to a very nice set of rest rooms and an area for picnic tables. He says what a nice day it is and we agree. The guy at the bike shop gives us a full demonstration of how to replace an inner tube and it’s suddenly very interesting. We wander through town a little and get ice cream cones, and I feel sorry for Dave that they didn’t have any padded shorts for him. When we stop at the railway station to fill up our water bottles, the old man is gone. We pass him later, limping along the road near the bike path, without his bags.

The ride back is even better than the ride out. When we get to Frankfort, Dave checks the trail map and learns it was almost 10 miles each way, not five. I am so glad I didn’t know this beforehand, because although I want to work on this commitment thing there’s no way I would have committed to a 19-mile bike ride when I could have been at the beach, which I ended up not missing at all.

The comforts of not being home

rubber ducky
Have arrived safely. No idea what that means.

Today on our way up the lake coast, we ran into Frank and Fern at Ray’s drive in. They were sitting at a picnic table outside. They said we’d just missed Ruby and Roy, who’d already gone on. As we sat and ate our perch sandwiches (best in town), they said most years they run into Ogilvy and Olivia here. We usually leave Chicago so late we just hope to make Brigadoon by dinnertime, but it’s worth it, leaving early to make Ray’s by lunch. Later we learned that the O’s pulled into Ray’s about ten minutes after we left.

Seeing Frank and Fern made me feel like I’d stepped into Brigadoon early, and I felt a rush of comfort. Out of the chaos of infinite places, infinite choices, infinite points in time and people on earth, a few people we know converge spontaneously at the same place for lunch. Maybe not so spontaneous, since we’re all headed for the same place another three hours up the road, but still.

It’s also comforting not having anyone here, or expecting anyone. I don’t have to make sure Brigadoon is a good experience for someone else. Last night the soup was lukewarm and I thought, if Buck and Xeena were here I’d be mortified, but since it was just us, I sipped my soup as fast as I could, to get the last of its delicious warmth. Dave thought the Bleu cheese dressing tasted like Ranch but I thought it was the same, garlicky and superb.

After dinner I sat on the inn steps with Alice Fay and talked awhile, about families and how you keep learning that you know nothing about the stuff you thought you’d gotten so wise about. The wind was up though not crazy, and even the little lake was moving. Blue is still here. Thirteen years old and he came creaking his way around from the kitchen, where he’d just gotten a piece of flank steak from our drinks guy. He came over and got petted and praised by all of us for still being alive, then he went and sniffed around in some ground cover and laid down.

We headed back to our cottages. As we unpacked, Dave found the rubber ducky from our bathroom at home, tucked in the pocket of one of his shirts. A goodbye gift from Jakob, who’s staying at the house while we’re gone. I took a picture and emailed it to him. No wireless here, but my phone works. A few years ago, you couldn’t get cell reception in Brigadoon, but now I’m on 3G most of the time. I must be changing, because I find that comforting, too.



Please enter through anywhere

store sign
Pathways in town were more complex.

When I made reservations and the guy said they had a labyrinth, I imagined some kind of New Age corn maze. But when we walked up from the B&B, there were no walls. Just a ballroom-sized expanse of stones in concentric circles, leading you through one half roundabout to the center, where a post displayed some Chinese or Japanese characters that probably said something significant, then through the other half and out.

The stones were bordered only by low grasses, so there was no suspense about which was the right path or the right turn. There was just one way through, or you could step right across the circle and ignore the path altogether. When I saw it, in the middle of the broad plateau, I thought, What’s the point if there’s no mystery?

But I walked in. My sandaled feet tramped first along the fine gravel of the outer pathways, then more quietly on the smooth stones of the inner pathways. It was curiously satisfying to feel that my feet were filling each part of the circle in an orderly though indirect way. Sometimes I’d feel like I was moving away from the center, yet the design always led, ultimately, closer in. When I got to the center, I looked at the post and wondered what the characters meant, but it was nice not to know.

Dave hadn’t entered when I did. He stood near some benches on the edge of the plateau. As I slowly rounded my way out, I almost shouted over a joke, or something to tell him it was no big deal, he could enter while I was in there, but something stopped me. I didn’t want to speak across the nonexistent labyrinth walls. I proceeded out through an exit which was exactly across from the entrance, and walked over to the benches. They were flanked by two spindly trees, maybe six feet tall, anchored to the ground with wires that I guess were meant to direct their growth. Everywhere in this place there were things built or planted with an eye toward the future. Five or twenty years from now, this will be a shady refuge from the merciless Kansas sun.

I watched Dave enter the labyrinth through the exit and wondered if that was right. Later I learned that it’s all about left and right, so I guess entrance and exit are relative. Madeline, who built the labyrinth with her husband Ken, from a design some MIT professor created, said it’s all about the three R’s — remember release, receive? Something like that. So when you enter, you walk first through the left side of the labyrinth, which somehow corresponds to your left brain, and think about what it is you want to get rid of. Then at the center I think you release it. Then you walk through the right side and maybe receive what you need to receive? But at the time, I hadn’t learned that yet. All I knew was that it felt really good to walk through it, though I didn’t know why, and when it was over I really wanted to walk through again, but it didn’t seem right to while Dave was in there.

And now that we’re home, past the stress of the grandmother visits and the challenging conversations about her offspring and the return flight on the tiny plane, I have one reason to want to go back to Kansas.

Things to remember for next time

motivational billboard
Self always forgets.

I feel in reserve. I am sitting in a B&B drinking coffee. It’s seven a.m. We need to figure out how to get a Pizza Hut pizza to Dave’s grandmother before her normal lunchtime of 11:30. Pizza Hut opens at 11. Grandmother expects to go out, but after spending the day with her yesterday, neither of us feels up to the task. After much hemming and hawing I finally told her, “I’m sorry we’re not more confident about getting you in and out of the car. We don’t want you to fall,” but she ignored that, or didn’t hear it, or revised it into something else.

She doesn’t remember she has a son named George (Dave’s dad), but she knows all about another man named George. He was stolen from the family when he was very small by the couple in the picture (Dave’s parents), who travelled around from state to state to avoid capture. The upside was, this George got an excellent education (true enough). She told us, “They pretend it’s not there, but there’s a seventh floor, and if you go up there, and he’s there, why, he’ll let you in. But if he’s not there, he won’t let you in. And he lives there in majesty with his mother. It’s just his mother and him, they don’t have anyone else. And every now and then I can hear him sing. It’s wonderful.”

Yesterday we flew in on a small jet, the kind with two seats on one side and one seat on the other. Just before we took off I said to Dave, “Next time we book a flight, remind me that I never want to fly a plane this small again.” Dave looked annoyed. “There are so many things we’re always supposed to remember for next time.”

The take-off was so smooth that after an hour in the air I almost said, “Take small planes off my list, this is great,” but five minutes later we started bumping and hurtling through space. Suddenly I could feel the speed we were moving at, in the rattle of my seat and in my chattering teeth. I realized that one of the things I take for granted about flying is that you rarely feel like you’re actually moving.

I couldn’t tell whether this was normal turbulence or pieces of the plane falling off. I looked down the aisle and the flight attendant was sitting in her jump-seat. I gripped Dave’s leg and he covered my hand with his. Other passengers were looking straight ahead but no one was screaming. I saw these things in snatches because I was slightly less nauseous with my eyes closed. I wasn’t so much afraid of dying as I was that I might need to take some kind of action and not be able to because of nausea.

Dave was trying to read his iPhone, but as the plane lurched like a wagon down a mountainside, he raised his eyebrows at me and turned to the window. I shrieked, “Is something happening?” But the plane noise was so loud even I couldn’t hear myself. I shut my eyes again. A few minutes later, the flight attendant announced, “The captain has begun the final descent into Wichita. Please make sure your tray tables are stowed and your seat backs etc., etc.” We landed smoothly and no one clapped, so I knew it wasn’t a big deal.

As we walked to Dollar Rent-a-Car, Dave surmised that we’d been moving through storm turbulence and the captain probably descended more quickly than usual to get us out of it. I decided that after the return flight, I will never fly again. Unless it’s somewhere I really want to be. But I’ve decided that before, and I always forget.

We spent an hour in Wichita, bracing for the final bit of the journey. Dave shopped for a gift for Grandmother while I got my nails done. On the way out of town we saw a billboard for a motivational conference. Is Self meant to be the target customer before all the motivating, or after? Doesn’t Self know we’re all going to end up in old age homes, those who survive cancer and other tragedies, wheeling around the social room as we wait for five o’clock dinner, trying to steal the red slippers off a neighbor or trash-talking the only resident who seems to smile consistently? “I don’t know if her family sends her money from China or she’s just here for the freebies.”

We called Pizza Hut and they told us to be in the drive through at 11:10. By the time we get to Grandmother’s the pizza will be cold, and she’ll still wonder why we aren’t taking her out. Come on, Self. One more day. If Cosby and Giuliani can do it, Self can do it, too.