Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Bark House

            Kim was recovering from her cancer surgery – her seventh in the last three years and by far the most serious because her breast cancer had metastasized to her spine. Paralysis, or even death, were possibilities. And in the best case she would survive the 7-hour surgery to live with stage 4 cancer. This is not a situation where most people would say, “Hey, let’s build a house!” We are not most people.

            Kim had been through a lot – double mastectomy, radiation, uterine cancer surgery with more radiation. We thought, after finishing her uterine radiation, that we were pretty much in the clear. We had finally sold our snowbird homes in North Florida and Southeast Michigan and decided to move to Traverse City. We found a piece of land that reminded Kim of where she spent summers in the Upper Peninsula, bought it in October of 2016, and decided to build. We met with a couple of architects and builders before fully launching into the project.

            In March of 2017 we drove to visit Genne’ in Florida and pick up a sculpture that we did not trust with the movers. On the drive down Kim experienced severe back pain. At this point we were unaware that the cancer had metasticized. Genne’ showed her mom some stretches that might help, and she encouraged an X-Ray, which did not reveal any problem to the person reading it. Meanwhile, Kim took a bad fall in a dark bedroom, landing hard on the floor. Miraculously, there was no permanent damage.

            The pain continued so we decided to head north early. It was unrelenting. We went to our doc when we got home, Kim had a CT-Scan, and her radiologist called and told her not to move or do ANYTHING, that he was scheduling her for surgery as soon as possible. On May 9, 2017, she had cancer removed from her spine. As it turned out, the cancer had eaten her vertebrae and was, in fact, what was supporting her spinal cord. The surgeon constructed a cage out of titanium, bone, and whatever else he could find. A few weeks later she started a month of almost daily radiation, followed by chemo. Sounds like a great time to build a house, right?

            We debated, back and forth, whether to go ahead with the project. The reasons not to do so were obvious: the stress, the financial and physical demands, the remoteness (an hour from the hospital), the possibility of being snowed in, and the challenges of living in and taking care of a home in the woods, especially when compared to condo living. 

            It was Scott who finally convinced us to go ahead with our building. “You’ve always wanted to live on a lake. It’s your dream. Do it.” He gave her a kayak for Mother’s Day, shortly after she returned home to the condo from the rehab facility.

            Anyone who has built a home knows how the process usually goes – the delays, the errors and corrections, the expense. But despite all of that, it was a creative experience. Kim is an artist, and our home is her continuing work of art.

            This is our bark house. The exterior siding is made from the bark of tulip poplars from a company in North Carolina where we had stopped on one of our snowbird drives. The birds and squirrels think our home is a large tree, and they may be right. Kim and I have always been tree-huggers, and now our tree is hugging us.

            One of our favorite songs is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” with the words, “And dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true.” The dream was to sit on our porch in the evening, sipping our bourbon, watching the snow fall, noticing the deer in the yard.

            And here we are. The cancer is still stage 4, we have more scans and tests coming up next weeks.

            But meanwhile . . ..

Thursday, November 8, 2018


            We are living on two frequencies these days, AM and FM. Each one is generating its own information and music. The question is, Which frequencies are we tuning into?

            Most of our time and energy is devoted to what I call AM. Launching a new home is a young person’s game. It requires energy, fueled by hope, visions of our future, and sufficient water and caffeine. We are pretty much moved into our house, and certainly our hearts are here. We are feeding the birds, gradually putting our stuff pretty much where it belongs, though a major shift will occur in a week or so when the garage is finished so we can move our junk precious belongings out for a future garage sale. We are also planning a major wall of bookshelves and kitchen island with lots of drawers. Once we put everything away, we hope to find some missing items: the power cord for the printer and Kim’s backup hard drive, for two examples. I’m missing some shoes that I suspect I threw away, and I hope I never find some old neckties. We pause from time to time to look at Our View – you saw some photos last week. This is home. Another reason I know our house is our home is that I turned off the cable at the condo, making it virtually uninhabitable.

            At the same time, however, there is another frequency in our lives. I’ll call it FM, for no particular reason. We just learned about a family member, the sister of Kim’s ex, who is dying of cancer. Without going into the details, it’s been a long, slow, painful process for her, one that may be over by the time you read this. Nobody should suffer that way. And it’s hard not to imagine, when we think about her suffering, what may lie in Kim’s future. Yes, we are all going to die – I have reluctantly come to acknowledge this – but can’t there be better ways? Especially for us? Yes, we may sympathize with the sick and dying, but sympathy, as I understand it, involves looking at someone who is less well off, understanding how they feel, perhaps dispensing kindness, support, connection. But it's something more than sympathy when you actually see  and feel yourself in the unfortunate sufferer. It’s more like empathy, where you actually experience the emotions of another. (My online Merriam Webster Dictionary, by the way, gets the sympathy/empathy distinction totally wrong, IMNHP.) Empathy comes with a convenient barrier – it ain’t really happening to me. In our case, there is another clause: but it will. Perhaps soon. Whatever the next level above empathy is called, that’s what we sometimes tune into. Maybe the best term is “fear.”

            Sometimes, when we are happily working our butts off (I’m currently down 12 pounds) in AM, Kim experiences some intense pain. Months ago, this was easy to explain – she was lifting rocks and pulling weeds. And now she is unpacking boxes, lifting stuff onto shelves, cleaning sticky and dusty floors left from construction. But still – what if that pain in her hip, gut or back is not muscle strain or dehydration, but instead a sign of cancer’s return? A sudden pain can quickly shift you from tired-but-happy AM into what-if? FM. And if the pain means Kim can’t sleep, the FM may be heard all night - though her last bout of insomnia focused on where to put her collection of nests to decorative advantage.

            My FM thoughts this morning are interrupted by Nate, who has arrived to install our range hood and vent, and if time allows, the sink in the guest bedroom. And our builder may be here, blessedly, to hang some lights and maybe install a bannister down the stairs I’ve been climbing, according to my iPhone, about 40 times a day for the last month. Good news! And when the workers leave in the evening we will sit on the sun porch (in the dark), turn on the Jotul stove, sip a bit of rye whiskey from our local Mammoth Distillery, and contemplate the large hornet's nest we hung on the wall across from the bird nest that Kim built. The AM  world has a lot going for it.

            And here’s more from our AM receiver: what Kim photographed from the back porch:

Goldfinch in winter colors

Tufted Titmouse

Downy Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse

Gray Squirrel - black version seen here in northern Michigan

Thursday, November 1, 2018


            It was a Kim moment. I looked out the window over the lake and saw that the moon’s reflection on the water was startlingly beautiful. I called Kim up from the basement, where she was unpacking, to see it. She did more than see it – she grabbed her camera and hurried out the back door. What made this a Kim moment was her being in her pajamas, normally a sign that it’s Netflix time. She was also wearing her socks, one of which was packed with ice because she had slammed her toe into a dresser in our realigned bedroom. Nevertheless – out the door, down the steps to the shore, where we struggled to get the right shutter speed and exposure for bright moon and dark clouds and water. 

            I spent about an hour, while Kim was unpacking, looking for a poem I wrote years ago, one that captured the essence of this experience. I finally found the poem, but it urns out that I didn’t write it at all – Robert Francis wrote it. (I could have written it if he hadn’t written it first.)


Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me the clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me ‘till
I’m half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I’m not too hard persuaded.

                                                --Robert Francis

            Actually, it’s usually Kim who first spots the moment of beauty and summons me to look, much as my  the poem describes. I’ll take credit where I can -- I saw the moon-lake first. We photographed it for several nights, though not in pajamas.

            It was Kim who summoned me to see how you can enjoy a sunset when looking east.

            And a sunrise:

In the afternoon Kim summoned me to walk down the road where we now live,

and back again. That's our home in the distance.

            And it was Kim’s son, Scott, who started this whole thing by calling her in the middle of the night, insisting that she get out of bed and go outside to see the northern lights. She did, and she got me to go with her. My life has not been the same since then. I’ve been summoned.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Coffa Cuppee

            People reading the four coffee-themed poems below might think they are dealing with an addict. They would be right. But just because I’m an addict does not mean that I have a problem.

            These poems are about ten years old. Kim was making an artistic book about coffee while I was a Starbucks barista, and she needed some verbal content to go with all that she was doing visually. (There’s only one copy of the book, so I can’t share it with you here.)

            As I read these over now, fueled by coffee for the unpacking part of our move, I notice that I have plagiarized from myself a couple of times. So, what?

Coffa Cuppee

When I drink my coffa cuppee
sleep awakens, down is uppee.

Cowboy coffee leaves some grit
to tongue long after drinking it.

Irish coffee – there’s a drink
to liberate creative think.

Even de-caf when the doc
wants to slow my tick and tock.

Zapped, identified as “pseudu,”
still works arabica voodoo.

Black, espresso, cappuccino,
drip or percolated – we know

Coffa cuppee – make it two!
Down is uppee – magic brew!

Coffee Breaks

Sometimes java jazz
makes synapses crackle
and brain cells dance
until I can do anything

and everything    pages
flash through my brain
love is quick and stylish
or young and languid

your hair the brown
of fresh coffee the way
god made it    warm
fragrant     bittersweet

Sometimes we share
Sumatra in silence
or idle chatter across
the expanse of our table

and it’s here we are
again you and me
and the coffee in jadeite
or white ceramic    the two

of us plus birds beyond
the window     words
about our families     these
and the shared flavor

And sometimes it’s Starbucks
or Sweetwaters     a pause
on our errands to infuse
ambiance and a mug

surrounded by earthy
colors and artwork
inviting us to linger
where a guy leans over

his laptop or two young women
shake their heads at the folly
and this middle-aged couple
shares coffee and their day

Relax Attacks

Havva cuppa     tall or grande
cappuccino     latte    hand me
coffee     black or room for cow
couldn’t really care less how
mug or to-go     demi-    maxi-
caf or de-     relax attacks me
off the lid to waft aroma
synapses crackle     I’m at home a-
way from any where I sip
or gulp or idly get a grip
by car     or sofa    buzzing fast
or slow     prolong my coffee blast
where black is brown and white is tan
baristas percolate élan
I roast my beans     French or Italian
then dance Sumatran     Guatamalan
Kona     Java    Costa Rica
jungle jingles     magnifique
espresso single double cap
fuels this caffeinated rap

House Blend

We pause, a middle-aged
couple, to share coffee
and perhaps a mid-
afternoon treat.
emerge from your art
room, I from my study,
and we re-heat what’s
left from the morning
          We face eath other.
We read the mail. Talk
about kids and grandkids.
Sip. Plan tomorrow.
rinse our cups and return
to whatever we were doing.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Gray Area

            We are living in a gray area. And no, I don’t just mean the area surrounding my skull.

            For the last several weeks we have been between homes. We have been sleeping at the condo, but there has been a gradual shift as we have carted boxes to the new house – clothes, kitchen gear (there’s lots!), books (ditto), crap from the drawer that has served as my desk. At some point, I figured, our center of gravity would shift north in, but it has not yet happened.

            All of this makes me ponder: What is it which, other than Kim, once moved, makes the new place our home? The candidates:

·     Coffee maker? We have one in each place, but we moved the grinder north.
·     Computer? Mine is a laptop. Cable in both places.
·     Electric toothbrush? I have manual backups (free from my dentist).
·     Checkbook? Who writes checks anymore?
·     Pills? Unfortunately, a viable candidate . . ..

            On Saturday we decided to sleep over at our new house. Was this an act of commitment, moving us out of the gray area? Not exactly. After a day of unpacking, we were simply too tired for the hour’s drive back to the condo in Traverse City, so after a dinner, an anthology of leftovers and wine, we collapsed into bed. It was a good way to celebrate Kim’s birthday.

            I drove back to the condo on Sunday for a realtor showing, and I hauled the stash of pills back to our new home. I also brought some expensive whiskey from a local source, Mammoth Distillery, in order to toast our new digs. But not so fast – we still don’t have an Occupancy Permit (the house is not done!), so whenever we spend the night, we feel like outlaws.

            Unpacking is proving to be a challenge, and not simply because of the quantity of boxes, which we calculate to be well over 500. The problem is that Kim and I have different theories of unpacking. My approach is the same one I use on the top of my desk: Get everything I might need out in the open where I can see it. (This is the Compost Theory of Desking – stuff on the bottom is absorbed into the biome, where I don’t have to deal with it.) So I unpack a box and then leave the much of the stuff lying around while I collapse the box (a verysatisfying experience!) and go on to the next box. Kim has a peculiar idea that when you unpack a box, you put the stuff away where it belongs. (Recently, she confesses, she has gotten into the thrill of box-collapsing, but her real motivation still has to do with the creation of order and beauty, not destruction.)

            One result of the different approaches, other than some harsh words, is that Kim has to think up things for me to do in order to direct my energies away from unpacking. So far this has included mounting the outdoor thermometer and placing boxes of Christmas ornaments on some shelves in the basement. I have also loaded up my sock drawer (currently over 40 pair, including abundant white socks that Kim says are good for dusting) and organized my colored t-shirts, attempting to pair them up with the outer shirts that they “go with” – a task that will no doubt be re-done in the future. I put all my extension cords into a separate box, apart from all the puzzling cables associated with former televisions. Yes, I do almost all of the box hauling and driving, but that’s usually done by mid-morning. I also have my books to deal with – far too many. I set myself a limit of one bookcase, consigning those that don’t fit to a recently emptied cardboard box destined for a future garage sale or, more likely, a donation to the library.

            Packing and unpacking have revealed some surprises. On my side, other than the quantity of white socks, a dozen of which went straight to trash, I have also counted over 40 colored t-shirts and some 400 band-aids, a symptom of a mental illness I don’t want to contemplate too closely. I also found a box containing six (6) land line phones, a fact that brought great amusement to the grandkids when I told them via Skye.

            Did I mention that Saturday was Kim’s birthday? Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion:

Every Day

is your birth-
day. You unwrap
each morning’s gift,
thank the party guests,
taste the cake, and
choose not to blow
out any candles
just yet.
               Not just
yet. So every birth-
day is a gift to me.


Thursday, October 11, 2018


       I know a lot of you have moved, so you know how much fun it can be. Well, Kim and I are having that kind of fun now, putting in 13-hour days carrying boxes, unwrapping boxes, moving furniture, and waiting for our builder to show up to finish the house so we can move in. No, we have not yet moved in - not until we at least have functioning bathrooms and the kitchen sink doesn't leak.

       If you do think back to how enjoyable moving has been for you in the past, try imagining it when you are in your mid-70s. We rarely pause for lunch, and a few days back we didn't get home until 9:00 and, too tired to prepare food or even eat, we dined on half an English muffin - having moved most of our food to the house, foolishly thinking our builder would finish when he said he would.

       Below are some snapshots of our dream home. Kim wanted folks to know that I took these pictures, not her.

Living Room

Television Room / Study

Kim's Art Room

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Sudden Changes

            I don’t know much about coaching football, but I do know, from what the tv announcers tell me, is that the ability to deal with sudden changes, is crucial to a team’s success. By “sudden changes” they mean things like blocked punts or pass interceptions – usually it’s bad stuff.

            Well, our week of moving brought some sudden changes. Our mover was scheduled for Wednesday, but due to a conflict on his end, he postponed to Sunday. But on Saturday night, he called again to say it would have to be Monday. No problem. This gives us more time to clean the house after our builder cleaned, and then the cleaning service cleaned and then came back to clean again. No, we are not being fussy about cleaning – even I could see the dirty floors and shelves.

            But wait! There’s more! (as the late night tv ads say). On Saturday morning our renter’s family called to say the 87-year-old woman who was to live here had a major stroke and would not be moving in. Difficult to be upset, as their issue is so much more serious than ours. So we’ll put the house back on the market, which means the condo has to be ready to show to a prospective buyer soon, not ready for someone to move into a furnished home on November 1. What to do with all those boxes? This is not exactly a blocked punt, but it’s certainly a sudden change. We are moving some of the stuff we moved from the condo to the house back to the condo, and we will again need to make our condo ready to show.

            My brother Bob, writing about start-ups in How the Best Startups Make It Happen, mentions the importance of agility, the ability to adjust and move quickly. Kim and I, in our mid-70s, are not exactly a start-up. People our age are usually involved in slow-downs, not start-ups. But we are enjoying our senior agility. A circumstance changes, and we, usually Kim, find a way to adjust and make it all work out for the best.

            Meanwhile, we are doing a lot of running around – carrying boxes, cleaning up messes, disposing of collapsed boxes, looking after landscaping (Kim had to replant much of what our landscaper planted), in addition to leading our regular lives (preparing meals, paying bills, etc.) 

            But wait! There’s more! The mover postponed again – now scheduled for Thursday (tomorrow), but he has not called to confirm. And the cooktop does not fit our counters, the vent does not meet code, and we do not have a Certificate of Occupancy. Gale force winds expected tonight!

            I’ve been too busy to get the now overdue oil change for my car, and as we drive around my car is sending me a very important warning: “Maintenance Required.” With that in mind, Kim and I are looking into massage, vowing to sleep better, pausing for deep breathing, eating mindfully, and reminding each other how much we have to be grateful for – including each other.