A Lovely Letter from a Fan

I discovered your first Door County book at the beginning of the summer. I purchased it on my kindle and began reading eagerly. Then of course I had to read the second. I love Door county and Washington island so I was able to picture it in my mind as I read. We just returned from Door county last night. We spent 5 days camping on the island. I downloaded your book of essays to read while I was there, since I hadn’t purchased the third book in the series yet for my kindle.

I am glad I waited, because I was able to buy an autographed copy of “Robert’s Rules” and read it while I was there. The little book store on the island is lovely. I ate at the Albatross while looking at “Fiona’s house.”

My husband and I rode his motorcycle all over the island discussing and dreaming of purchasing property for sale there. On previous trips we had just went to the island as a day trip. This time we stayed.

I love Door county but now I am even more in love with Washington Island. Crossing over on the ferry yesterday and stopping for breakfast at the Viking in Ellison Bay felt jarring. Even that area felt like a harsh return to reality. The island is just this peaceful lovely sanctuary. I will dream about it this week while I adjust to a 20 degree temperature change. It seems that every time we come home from Door county we come home to an excessive heat advisory. Maybe God is telling me something.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your books and I am anxiously waiting for the next one

Idle wishes

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Over the course of the nearly twenty years we have lived here, there is a particular route I often took with the dogs, through the woods, and around an open field. It used to be an uncivilized, practically forgotten place, where we never met anyone except skunks (see preceding posts), raccoons, and the occasional squirrel with a death wish. But, sadly, the woods have been upgraded with wood-chipped paths, new signs with rules that forbid unleashed dogs, and other niceties which are not improvements. There are always people there, now, so we don’t go very often anymore. There aren’t many places where big dogs can just run free without other dogs around.

When we do go, I choose odd times of day and bad weather, hoping to improve the odds that we won’t encounter anyone, and we can flout the rules with wildly happy, romping dogs. There are a few other stalwarts who seem to take the same approach.

One is a runner whom we have met on multiple occasions. He is not a young man. He has a long, grizzled beard, twinkly blue eyes, and a deeply genial and sincere manner. He drives a beat-up old pickup truck, which I have come to know. There is a place in the trail where people coming from opposite directions can suddenly encounter one another without warning, and the first time we met, it was there. The dogs were happily rummaging and trotting ahead of me, when suddenly there was a figure running toward us.

Immediately, I called Moses, the scary one, to my side, and he obeyed. But Pete, who is deaf, and Auggie, the headstrong puppy, would not come. Auggie throws himself at life in general, but also at turkeys, deer, strangers, and me, in particular. I once looked out into the woods and saw Auggie joyously flying first at one line of turkeys–all four feet in the air–and without waiting to see their startled flight into the trees, turning to hurl himself at the other line behind him. There is no malice in it, just pure exuberance, and even after two levels of obedience, it’s a personality trait that I am having the devil of a time training out of him. He has a characteristic German Shepherd stubborn streak that makes him very different from Moses.

At nine months Auggie was already well over ninety pounds, and once launched, he is a projectile who can take a person down. Now–to my horror–in his customary expression of puppy enthusiasm, Auggie ran to the man and joyously flung himself at the his chest, paws first. I was expecting threats and anger, but instead the man laughed gently. “Hello, puppy!” he said, and kept running to the sound of my increasingly urgent commands mixed with profuse apologies. “It’s okay,” said the man as he ran past. “I like dogs.”

Since then we have met several times a month. Never at the same time. I take care now to take a different route so we can’t accidentally encounter anyone. When I see the runner, I call the big dogs and keep them off the path until he passes. He thanks me each time.

On Christmas Eve, on one of our solitary walks, we met him again. There was a little bit of fresh snow on the ground, and the dogs were filled with energy and eager to run. We went off on our different paths, and all was well. We were almost back to the car when I heard myself being called. The runner was coming toward me with his hand extended. “You dropped one of your leashes back there.” I thanked him, surprised that he had come all the way back, out of his way, to do this nice thing.

The logistics would have been tricky, and it would probably have been a little odd, but I would like to have given him a Christmas present.  He’s a fairly random stranger, but I feel as if our encounters are important. Life’s texture comes from these small things.

And now a little something from Book Three, Robert’s Rules.

Book Three of the North of the Tension Line Series is now with the publisher, being made beautiful for publication in the Spring.

In response to some enquiries, here is a brief excerpt.

****

After breakfast, Pali, who had the day off, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife on the neck.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“What about?” she asked, envisioning her mental list of the many things she had to do.

“Let’s just sit down together.”

With an inner sigh, Nika followed him into the next room. She never got as much done when he was home as when he was away. She sat in her favorite chair and looked at him with some impatience.

Pali looked down as he began to talk. “I think it’s time we thought about leaving the Island. I’ve been thinking that it might be a good thing for Ben.”

Her impatience forgotten, she focused all her attention on him as if her life depended on it. She forced herself to sound calm. “But we promised ourselves we’d never do that again. We love it here. It’s our home.”

“Nika, we need to think about this. We need to prepare Ben for his life. He’s growing up, and I can’t say I’m liking the way things are going. He can’t hide away here on the Island forever. There’s no future for him here—“.

Nika started to interrupt, but Pali kept talking “—or if there is, it’s a future he can only choose when he knows what else is out there. Think about his life here. He needs to learn about the world. Ben has no experience with the worst of human character. We can’t just throw him to the winds and expect him to fly.”

“But we did. We left and found our way. We were ok.” Her voice was low.

Pali shook his head. “It’s such a different world now. This culture. The lack of values. The pace. Ben won’t be able to keep up if we don’t help him to acclimate. And isn’t it better for him to encounter these things while we’re there to guide him and protect him?”

Nika was silent. Pali could see the tears welling up.

“We don’t have to decide now. We can think about it.” He got up and went over to her, kneeling next to her chair and taking her hands in his. “It’s our decision, Nika. Ours together. But I’m going to start looking. If something comes along, I won’t say yes if you don’t want me to. Just think about it, ok?”

She sat silent, afraid to speak, her heart and mind in a turmoil. She hated this. When they returned to the Island they had sworn they would never move away again. And now, here he was, threatening to rip her away from everything that mattered.

“Well,” she corrected herself silently, “not everything.”

She felt a flash of her old passion for this man who had been her other self for so long. She had always loved him, from the first day she saw him. He was the best man she had ever known. And, when she looked into her heart, she knew, as much as she fought against admitting it, that he was right.

“Just think about it,” he said again.

She nodded.

****

 

In Praise of Small Towns

W.I. Crossroads

My column that will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 

A writer in a national magazine recently theorized that small town voters who are worried about the deterioration of American culture are “insular” and unenlightened, stuck in the past, resistant to progress.
Having grown up in a small town, and also having taught at a high school in the inner city of Milwaukee, I can say that most of my students and their families were also living in their hometown, and the hometown of their families. Does that make them insular? Or does it make them normal?

City life is fine. It is filled with cultural and social and employment opportunities that may not exist elsewhere. You can choose how and whether to connect with other people. But bustle is not for everyone, nor is anonymity.

Some among us choose to live in a different way. But it would be a mistake to believe that small town life is a bucolic and peaceful existence. Living in a small community is not for the faint of heart.

Small towns are a microcosm of the human experience, but with more intensity. You live shoulder to shoulder with your oldest friends, and your fiercest enemies. You daily encounter the person who cheated you; who stood you up; who broke your heart; and with people who know your complete history: every bad decision, every embarrassment, every moment of kindness (if any). In cities, there can be the relief of some anonymity, but not in a small town. Living in a small town is a psychologically raw way to live.

But small town life also requires a deep connection to community that city people may not acquire. It generally means that you go to church because that is what is expected, and what almost everyone does. It means you are surrounded by people who know you. In the city it’s called networking. In a small town, the network is your neighbors, and you are expected to participate. Your neighbors are the ones who gather around you to celebrate births and mourn deaths. They plow your driveway when you have the flu. They raise money to help in a tragedy. They put an arm around your shoulder. They make casseroles. And you, in turn, celebrate, and mourn, and plow, and comfort, and bake. This sharing and mutual support is as old as human beings. And it is good.

We live in a society in which the elites make a continuing push against the values of faith and decency and commonsense. The cultural gatekeepers seem to believe that someone who doesn’t live in your community can decide what’s wrong with you, and what you need. It’s an insult, and a barely veiled one. You are flyover country: insular, irrelevant bumpkins filled with prejudices, unable to participate in the enlightenment of the cities, destined never to be famous. Living in a small town means that you are aware of the scorn heaped upon you by city dwellers who think they are better, and you shrug your shoulders and get on with it.

Maybe resisting progress isn’t all bad. In an age of celebrity and reality television, of Instagram and Twitter, most small town people live out quiet, uncelebrated lives of dignity and depth. They work; they care for their families and their friends; they mow their lawns and mop their floors. They may not be famous or trend-setting. But they have lives worth living.

And that is something worth standing for.

Not Judging Books by Their Covers

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I had car trouble yesterday on my way to a signing in Door County. I was tooling along at 70 in the pouring rain, when all of the sudden there was some catastrophic electronic failure. Every dire warning sign flicked on the dashboard. I lost my brakes, I lost my power steering, and the engine began to buck. Fortunately, I was close to an exit in civilization-which for our purposes here means a place with a Mazda dealer only a few miles away–and was able to coast and manhandle the car down a ramp, through a roundabout, and into the parking lot of a minimart.

I hate roundabouts. I mean, I hated them before, but in this case it was lucky I didn’t have to stop. I could just keep coasting.

When I pulled up next to the building out of the way, all the lights in the dashboard went out, and I couldn’t turn off the engine. I had to go inside to figure out where I was so I could tell the tow truck where to come, and normally one doesn’t leave a running car unattended. But what the hell, I thought. It’s not as if anyone could drive it away.

None of this is the point of the story, but I kind of wanted to tell it.

The tow truck showed up in about ten minutes, to my surprise and relief. We were going to be cutting it a little close for me to get to my event, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to explain to the bookstore proprietor–my friend, Peter–that all his planning was going to be for an author-less book signing. I called my husband, who was speeding in my direction to rescue me, and told him he could go back.

Anyway–and now we’re getting to the nub of the thing–the tow truck driver was this young, blond guy with lots of tattoos. He was a kind of classic Wisconsin small town guy, complete with the rural accent: decent, trustworthy, competent, grease on his clothes, dirt under his nails. He hooked up my car, and I climbed into the cab of the truck for the ride to the (mercifully) open car dealer who would loan me a car.

I told him that I was in a bit of a hurry, because there was an event I had to be at. What kind of event? he wanted to know. So I told him I was a writer.

“I love books!” he said. “Harry Potter is my favorite, as you can probably tell by these.” He raised his left arm to indicate his tattoos, which I couldn’t really see, but which must have been representative of this passion. “I listen mostly to audio books, though.” He fumbled in his pocket to get out his I-phone while I hoped that he was looking at the highway. “I’ve listened to…” he looked down at his phone to check the exact figure…”two months and two and a half weeks worth of books this year so far.” He then proceeded to talk about his favorites: after Harry Potter, a series of World War I historical novels by Ken Follet, and some other series in a similar vein. He was knowledgeable about history, and he clearly loved stories of heroism and mysticism. He wanted to know if my books were on audio. I told him not yet, but that we were working on it.

“I read paper books, too,” he said. “But with all the driving around, I do mostly audio.”  I kind of doubt that my books are his kind of thing, but so far all my assumptions were being proved false. “Would you like a copy of my book?” I asked. He was enthusiastic.

We got to the dealer, and I dug out a copy of each of my books and signed them for him. We shook hands.

I love thinking about this tow truck driver, wandering around the country roads of Wisconsin, doing this necessary but unglamorous job, the rhythms of different authorial voices accompanying his travels, moved by the heroic acts of protagonists both real and imagined. Along what path will these values take him? How will these stories affect his life and the lives of others? From the seemingly mundane heroism of helping people with broken cars to some other, more dramatic form? Or is it these small daily rescues that give his path meaning?

Maybe he thinks about these things. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a job to him, not a mission. But the meanings of our lives may be things we never realize until we’re looking back. Or they could be things we’ll never know.

People are always more interesting than you think.