Monday, October 29, 2012

Life after 50

Well what do you know - there is life after 50! And it's always nice to be at the low end of a decade, where the "You-don't-look-a-day-over-50" comments outweigh the "I-can't-believe-you're-almost-60" ones. Lots of people have asked me what I'm going to do now that my project is complete. The only thing I know for sure is that I don't want another deadline right away. So I'm going to putter around the blog world for a while and occasionally post things that are taking up valuable space in my brain.

For example - My blog site is sending me messages telling me that I'm now one of the lucky ones who is eligible for Google Affiliate Ads. This means if sign up and then hawk products on my blog, and you are so impressed that you click on my recommendation and buy the gadget, I get a commission. Oh the possibilities! I'll casually work them into my blogs so you don't realize you are being sucked in ("I don't start my day without heading to Denny's for a Fried Cheese Melt!") and then sleep on the piles of money that will roll in.

I have to admit, even though I'm not signing up, I was a little curious about how it works. I wondered how they chose the products I'd be promoting. Would it be like when I finally gave in and changed my Reader's Digest subscription to the large print version, and now all the ads in the magazine are for macular degeneration and Jitterbug phones instead of for snack crackers and rental cars? So I watched their promotional video and found out that I would get to search and choose to feature ads based on the topic in my blog. This does open a world of quirky possibilities. So excuse me, I need to go get started on that blog about The Girl's school project on nail fungus.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New thing #50: Everything old is new again

I've been going to our family cottage in Ontario every summer since I was four years old, but I've never seen it in any other season. It's an 8-hour drive if there is no traffic, and with our busy schedules we almost didn't go there this year. But we had committed to closing the place up for the winter (although most of the work is done by our caretaker) and we had some friends with whom we wanted to share the place, so we decided to brave the elements and head up there for a long weekend in the autumn.

The cottage was built by my grandfather and his friends back in 1920, a place for manly men to fish, play cards, drink, swear and not be bothered by any of their women. It has rough-hewn walls, exposed beams, a tin roof, and sits by itself on an island in the middle of Lake Memesagamesing. The only heat is provided by wood stoves, although it has been updated to include electricity and indoor plumbing. Somehow the women wormed their way in over the years, so now it's a family vacation spot. My grandfather passed on many years ago and left the cottage to two of his sons, Dick and Don. Their offspring, known as the Dicks and the Dons, share the cottage. I'm proud to be a Dick.

It's hard for me to put words to all the emotions I feel when I'm at this place. There are so many happy memories. I'm several years younger than my siblings, the dreaded tagalong, but here I had their attention and their companionship. We had swimming competitions, went hiking, played board games and made home movies. We hid from our cousins and smoked weed in the raspberry patch. We explored other islands on the lake, went fishing and frogging, canoed and paddle-boated, and climbed the 'Mountain'.

My father came alive in this place. His stories, his songs, his games and his belly flops have become legend. He would wake us up at the crack of 9:00 by ringing a cowbell and yelling "Rouse out, now, rouse out! Up all hammocks! Show a leg or a Purser's stocking." When I was a teenager, he promised me he would quit waking me up with the cowbell. Instead he would clank and rattle the lid on the woodstove, dropping logs and loudly exclaiming how clumsy he was. Then he would blame the dog, Chip, for making too much noise. He would stomp around outside my bedroom door bellowing "Tippy toe, Chip! Tippy toe!". He would sing along with gusto to the country songs on CKAT, the only station that came in on the radio, even though he didn't know the words. He taught us snippets of naughty songs and nonsense rhymes, and we had a nightly ritual of going out in the boat fishing until the sun went down. He or my mom would stash away some 'fishing chocolate' so even if we didn't catch anything we still came home with a treasure.

My mom, who was pretty easy going and usually up for adventure, would go swimming every day at the cottage. She had the most perfect diving form I'd ever seen, barely making a ripple in the lake. What I didn't appreciate until much later was how much work she did for these vacations, planning food and entertainment and linens for a dozen people every year, cooking the meals, tending to our scraped knees and slivers and chasing away the occasional bat that got into the cabin, unless it happened after she went to bed, where she would just duck under the covers.

I started bringing Senior up when we were dating as teenagers. He loved the place as much as I did. Since my father was getting older and my brothers were more likely to come up with their own friends and family, Senior became my dad's right hand, and soon knew more about the cottage than any of the rest of us.

My father passed away in 1986. I dreaded my first trip to the cottage without him. I thought the memories would haunt me there, but instead I found comfort. I always feel close to him when I'm there. By then, Senior and I had married and, along with my Uncle Don, had taken on most of the responsibility for the cottage. My siblings and cousins had moved away and were starting families of their own, so they didn't take much interest in the cottage. Our vacations took on a new spin. Now we were the ones doing all the shopping and packing, planning and doing the maintenance and keeping the books. But I had a new treasure, as I got to watch my children fall in love with a place that meant so much to me. We taught them the silly songs and stories, explored the lake, fished and ate fishing chocolate, played endless games and woke them up with a cowbell in the morning.

Over the years the vacations have morphed again. My mother can no longer manage the trip. My uncle has passed away. My sister, cousins, and nieces and nephews are again making annual visits and actively participating in maintaining the cottage. Now we have a lot of different personalities trying to make decisions, coordinate vacation time, and generally get along. My sister took over the bookwork, which was a big relief. Occasionally we are able to overlap our visits so we can spend time together at the cottage, but as our families grow and expand it gets more difficult.

So anyway, enough of the old things. This is about New Things, and we had plenty this trip. It was the first time we had brought up our friends from Michigan, the first time The Boy brought a girlfriend up, the first trip we made there without The Girl. It was the first time we'd seen the new wood stove, installed late last summer after the one that had been there the previous 90 years finally had to be replaced. It was the first time I'd been there in the fall, when the leaves were blazing with color and the lake was steaming in the cool morning air, and the first time I had to worry about flurries but not about bugs. It was the first time we drove the entire way there on the highway, which is under perpetual construction and inches along a little further north every year before petering out into a country 2-lane winding through small towns. It's the first time I've ever seen tiny freshwater jellyfish in the lake (thanks to Eagle-eye Kim). And it's the first time I've been conked on the head by a tree limb the size of my arm, requiring a 140-mile round trip to the emergency room to get stapled back together.

It means a lot to me that this trip, to this place, was the final chapter in my New Things project. I've traveled the world, but I think this is the most beautiful and tranquil place on earth. If you ever want to experience Lake Memesagamesing for yourself, contact our friends The Becks at Parolin's Cottages. You won't be disappointed.

This past year has been a great journey. I'm filled with optimism and looking forward to trying New Things until my final breath. And I pass on the challenge to you - go try a New Thing! It doesn't mean that you have to travel the world or conquer a fear or spend a lot of money. You don't need a deadline or a blog. Just reach out and experience something different that life is able to offer, good or bad, and reflect on what you get from it. At the very least, you might get a good story out of it. I hope you've enjoyed reading all of mine.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

New thing #49: Celebration of the Horse, sort of

We don't celebrate horses much at our house. The main reason is that The Girl is highly allergic to them, a fact we discovered right after we plopped her on top of one as a child (followed by another new experience, breathing treatments). I also had a less than stellar experience with a tired old mare at Camp Wyomoco when I was twelve. I never could find the right horseback riding rhythm, so I spent the whole week as a human paddleball. But since the tiny town of Metamora, MI was hosting their annual Celebration of the Horse, and we've never done more than drive through Metamora before, it seemed like a good time for us (minus The Girl) to give horses another try. 

Why the long face?
I checked the schedule events for this one-day celebration,    which kicked off with a pancake breakfast at 7 am and wrapped up after a concert finished around 7 pm. We had a busy day at home, so we planned to head over in the late afternoon. We arrived shortly before 5 pm and were thrilled to find a prime parking spot right in front of festival ground zero, the park where most of the events were being held. They had the usual craft vendors, food booths and not-for-profits, but what made it special was the minature pony rides and half a dozen beautiful horses in temporary pens. We spent a great few minutes with each of the horses, going right up and petting them and mostly avoiding all sorts of horse slobber. As we bid the last one goodbye we noticed that they were starting to tear down the horse pens. In fact, all the booths were coming down. In a matter of minutes, the only thing left standing was the gazebo where the band had just started playing, and by the time they were half way through their first set you wouldn't even know there had been a festival in the park. The whole town and all the horses had rolled up the sidewalk and disappeared. Even the grass had fluffed back into place. Some celebration this turned out to be.

But the evening was not a total loss. Just across the parking lot sat the historical White Horse Inn, the self-proclaimed home of the best burger in Mid-Michigan. We decided to go grab some dinner and went inside. There we found the entire population of Metamora (approximately 30 people) already eating dinner, so we relaxed at the bar while waiting for a table to become available.

The White Horse Inn opened in 1850 as a stagecoach stop, and is the oldest continually-operating restaurant in Michigan. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad and later received a franchise to feed and house overnight passengers of the Michigan Central Railway. They survived and prospered during Prohibition by promoting "breakfast specials", and later added an upstairs tea room, winter sleigh ride/dinner packages, cooking classes and ghost hunts. Legend has it that the Inn is haunted by a ghost named Lorenzo, the original owner. 

The building is really neat. The ceilings are low and the hardwood floors undulate under your feet. It's tavern decor, with wood paneling, small tables, and plenty of kitsch hanging in the bar. We only had to wait about 30 minutes before our table was ready. Many of the current menu items are based on original recipes from the late 1800's. Ordering was a bit of a challenge because our waitress was hard of hearing, requiring everyone in our section to repeat their menu choices loudly. This would come in really handy if you are one of those people that scans the plates of your fellow diners to see what looks good. We tried the 'best' burger and the famous all-you-can-eat fish fry. The food is surprisingly upscale in taste without the usual matching upscale price, and everything we had was fantastic. The portions were generous but we still managed to share some dessert before sliding into a food coma.  (Updated to add that sadly, the White Horse Inn closed without notice about a month after we visited there.  I swear we had nothing to do with it).  ((Updated again - new owners!  Yay!))

Metamora is a quaint, pretty little town nestled in rolling hills. It's a nice place to stop by on your way to somewhere else. You can get a terrific meal there. But if you want to celebrate horses, you'd better get there early.

Monday, October 1, 2012

New thing #48: Thursday Night Live

Click here to listen to the Cold City Cowboys
Cold City Cowboys is a local country band that has only been playing together a short while but is already making a big noise in the local music scene. They were recently invited to perform live at the 99.5 WYCD studios in Ferndale. DJ Rob Stone hosts a program called "Thursday Night Live" that showcases local talent, and listeners are invited to come into the studio to watch the show, eat free food and win prizes. I've never been to a radio studio broadcast, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

We had a little trouble finding the studio, a non-descript building set apart from the other cracker box offices by the radio tower looming overhead. There were a handful of fans gathered in the parking lot, waiting for the doors to open. We chatted with a few, some of whom had never heard of the night's featured musicians. They're VIP club members, regulars to the show who stop by every Thursday for free entertainment and food, which seems like a pretty sweet deal to me. One of the regulars was a tiny old man who was decked out in a fancy purple cowboy shirt, black leather pants, cowboy hat and boots. He was awesome. Another was a friendly and slightly scary guy chugging a Coke, or at least something brown in a Coke bottle.

The doors opened promptly at 8PM. We filed in, signed a release form, and were pointed towards a conference room where hot food from Qdoba Mexican Grill was waiting. Unfortunately we were reading the release form when they pointed this out, and didn't see which way to go. We wandered aimlessly down a hall lined with movie posters from the 70s and 80s, which seemed really out of place until Senior figured out that the sister station sharing space at WYCD is an oldies station. There were only a few people working at the station that evening, most young and all very nice. We could see through a window into the booth where the Cold City Cowboys were going through a sound check with Rob Stone, who bears a strong resemblance to the blond kid in Saved by the Bell.  After a few minutes they opened the door to the studio and invited us in to the booth.

I've seen enough pictures and live feed of on-air radio programs to know to expect a small room with desks, computer screens and big microphones. But I was wondering how they would accommodate a studio audience of up to 40 people. In my mind I pictured myself on a bleacher straight from the set of Jimmy Kimmel. Actually it was more like being in Wayne and Garth's basement. It was an average-sized room with low drop ceilings and plain carpet taped to the floor. The center of the room was filled with a circle of tables and office chairs, and loaded with the computer monitors and microphones that I was expecting. A group of padded stacking chairs upholstered in a nice 80's dusty rose-colored pattern (from the oldies station maybe?) occupied a small area near the door, and the rest of the room was ringed with neon orange couches dotted with coordinating geometric throw pillows. Lots of posters and banners covered the walls and an autographed cardboard cutout of Taylor Swift in a tall silk hat stood nearby. Rob told us to grab a seat anywhere. We did so, lounging on an orange couch in the corner while others sat on chairs or sprawled on the floor or leaned up against the door. The broadcast wasn't starting for another half hour, so he pointed out where the hot food was set up (ohhhhh THAT conference room!) and went out to fix himself a plate. When he returned he briefly explained the format - he would introduce the Cowboys and chat with them for a minute or two, and then they would play two songs, and then there would be a break, and repeat the whole sequence until they'd played 8 songs. We audience members had a job too, to make noise whenever Rob held up a ratty handmade "Applause" sign. We practiced this several times, watching the sound wave display on the computer monitors pulse in response, then settled in as the show started.

It was the first time that the Cold City Cowboys had been interviewed by a major market radio station, and nerves were setting in. The usually-ebullient Levi Bootcut seemed subdued. Although he bantered deftly during the interview portion, he didn't really come to life until later in the set, visibly relaxing as he looked into his girlfriend's eyes. Frank Bash left his bass home for this acoustic set, instead plucking away on a banjo that he had picked up for the first time the previous week. Like Sampson, his energy kicked in when his hair was freed from the Rastacap he wore. Silent Joe Bash let his fingers speak volumes as he kept the beat on a snare box, a cool contraption that looked like a crate but was an ergonomic challenge to play. Trevor, however, looked like he was right where he belonged. He was relaxed, in his element, and sounded better than ever.

When the mics were on the show was a lot of fun. The breaks were kind of weird, with most of us sitting in that uncomfortable silence you encounter on an elevator full of strangers. I think we were all afraid to say much in a room full of recording devices. In no time at all the show was over. The crew has the whole TNL experience down to a science, and did a nice job herding people from the studio to the lobby for prize drawings and pictures after the show, then out the door without anyone feeling rushed. I still don't know how much the internet audience heard while listening to the show being streamed on the Web, but I enjoyed this glimpse inside the radio business.

We listened to the station as we were driving home, and heard the broadcast debut of the Cold City Cowboy's latest release, "Back Home". It's pretty cool that WYCD supports the local music scene like that. If you want to check out the band, visit their Facebook page here, and maybe give them a "Like". It's not just their talent that draws me in, it's their brotherhood. These guys genuinely love and respect their music and each other, and it shows. They support each other, insult each other, and take turns calling the shots. And in case you were wondering, there is one more reason this is my favorite band. The Boy is a Cold City Cowboy.