Sunday, October 13, 2019

Best Laid Plans

     It was the revered Scottish Poet Robert Burns who said, “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley.” In simple English he meant that the best laid plans of mice and men don’t always go the way we want them to.

     He was right, you know. My husband’s dream is to build a log home. I’m not sure where his vision got its start, maybe one morning pouring Log Cabin brand syrup on his pancakes as a boy. I do know this: since marrying me, that city boy became a man that drove a pick-up truck. Add to that, more than ten years ago, he purchased a .30-06 (pronounced "thirty-ought-six") rifle and brings home the venison every other autumn. I’d like to think I rubbed off on him. Although I was born in Detroit, I spent a lot of time on Gramma’s farm growing up, and then later had a huge vegetable garden, horses, rabbits, ducks and chickens. Maybe our dream has intertwined like the roots of a willow and an oak. We might grow in different ways, but we are rooted together in our most important goals.

     I am fully on board to build our log home. However, Big Dee has his ideas and I have mine. I see our home realistically. For years now I’ve worked with the elderly. I see myself going in that direction; who of us will grow younger until the day we become infants again? Well, I suppose some of us do, in a way. Our mothers will not be there to tend to us in our frail, aging years, but someone has to – our children, or a nurse, or maybe someone from our church.

     Big Dee visualizes a house with an upper level. It has a bathroom upstairs. I see myself falling down those stairs. I see myself resentfully schlepping my backside up and down those steps to clean the restroom. On the other hand, I envision everything we need placed downstairs: a kitchen and laundry; extra wide showers with rails so we won’t have to go into assisted living. He sees no need for these things because he has no intention of growing old - that’s just out of the question. We’ve both agreed: this is out last home. I just want to stay in it as long as possible; and I want to make it “elder friendly” now, not retro-fit it down the road.

     We explained this to our first architect. We found that his grand plans were going to cost us three times more money than we have. We scaled down, about twice. Our architect is a genius in his craft so you can imagine how frustrated he became with us. He wanted to go larger. The limitations of our bank account made us go even smaller.

     During this time, Dee and I consulted with about a half dozen log home builders. We found out that they all have different ideas as to what kind of materials we could use for the exterior. We have basically three choices: Log siding (exterior) over a traditionally built home, hybrid where the logs are hollowed out and a foam is put in them on the pretext of energy efficiency, and last of all, traditional logs. David and I considered all options and agreed that we want real logs.

     We consulted more builders. Some were in the business a relatively short amount of time. Others had been crafting log homes successfully for decades. Many couldn’t be bothered to call us back, or text us, or email us, or send up smoke signals. One never even opened his office door. I stood outside calling. Nothing. Nada.

     We recently met with a wonderful builder. His company’s been featured in a documentary on PBS. He remained behind the scenes letting the builders, stars and designers shine in the light. He answered all of our questions. I like that his cabins have been standing firm and efficient for nearly forty years. I am impressed by his designs. I walked into his original cabin and what I noted, almost down to the last detail, was a picture from the back of my mind. The only difference is that the loft does have a toilet and shower. Everything else we need is downstairs. I guess if things get bad enough for me, since sometimes I already have the beginnings of balance issues, I’ll just have one of my kids clean that restroom. I could even hire someone just to clean the upstairs. Help is, realistically, less expensive than assisted living.

     I think of this house building experience like a young woman or a young man dreaming of their life partners. They might want to marry the clean-shaven muscular man, or the girl next door. Instead, they grow and mature and fall in love with someone that was in the back of their mind all the time, not who they thought they wanted, but what they truly needed. Together these people grow together, learning how to compromise. Maybe “Bobb” wanted a tall blonde Norwegian looking gal, but later meets a stout, little woman with short dark hair and sees eternity in her eyes. That’s just an example of course.

     The point is, I had plans for my log home. Those plans changed and morphed. Then I saw other ideas and incorporated them. Dee would make a point and I’d consider it. In my mind’s eye was a picture of the antique furniture I’d inherited, in various spots. Now I am not so sure it will look right in each room.

     Soon, we will finalize plans. There’s just details and paperwork. The best laid plans, of mice and men don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we just have to make new plans.

For a useful guide to translating the original poem, please, consult:

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

One Man's Junk

                                    (The historical journey continues, my friends.) 

     Last spring when we closed on our property, I found that bags of trash were dumped in our woods, way back in a small ravine. I was disgusted and disappointed. I was angry. We put up a sign and the littering stopped. However, several weeks ago when I went back there to pick up more bags, although there was no new garbage, I noticed that the dumping had gone on, apparently, for a long time. So far the pit is about six feet down and it continues; how far I can only speculate. There are small saplings rooted into this mess and even a couple trees, as evidence to how long this assault on nature has been going on. There were glass bottles, metal, and some plastic. A few scrappers picked up the metal that was set aside. I joked that if they found an old car under it all, they could keep it. There was in fact, almost an entire vehicle. Not sure if they ever found the engine, but there was a rotted seat, a bumper and headlights. I joked that maybe Jimmy Hoffa was down there, too. Within ten minutes they found shoes and underwear, rotted, but recognizable.  At that point, the joking stopped. After that weekend, when I saw that there was broken glass in the ravine I said, “no more.” I didn’t want any of the men that were collecting scrap metal to wander in there and get hurt. We put up a no trespassing sign.
     That didn’t keep me out of the rubbish though. As I said before, I’m curious and blamed this bout on a need to feed the history monkey that’s been on my back as of late.

     Since that time, I’ve poked through the mucky artifacts with a shovel. It’s like some wicked geology dig. The first layer was fairly recent junk. I tentatively prodded a couple feet and saw cans from the 1980s, with so-called “collectable” logos. The next week, after a storm, I found a small foot sticking out of the debris. The toes were grimy, but recognizable. I cautiously reached out to them and found cold plastic. It was a doll. I dug through this stratum to find toys from the 1970s. There was a learning board - the kind parents used to put in play pens, Fischer-Price toys, and even a huge Hasbro inch-worm riding scooter. It was broken, or I would have tried to clean it up.  There was a ceramic panda, a cracked mixing bowl, too. Later, I found more dolls. They were intact, but their clothes were ragged and their hair was rotted.

    Yesterday, I got all the way to a layer that is from the 1960s or maybe even the 1950s. At that point I’d had enough. The sides of the ravine are taller than me and I don’t want the slop to fall in and suffocate the life from my lungs. I hope the demo crew will dig it out with a back hoe, and then they can haul it off. The men can keep whatever they find that they think might be of value.

    In that last band of refuse that I was brave enough to burrow into, there was a perfect little Anchor-Hocking milk glass flower vase with a lovely grape cluster pattern. I took that home and cleaned it up. Turns out it’s worth some dough! An exact artifact is on Etsy for a whopping $14.00. 
Pizza’s on me guys.

                                                                                        (Similar to vase that I found)

Monday, September 23, 2019

History On Fire

     I know that I haven’t been dedicating much time to my blog these last eighteen months. It’s been a busy couple of years. After nearly three decades, I decided to end the commute between the desert and the Great Lakes to settle in my birth state of Michigan. I am home. To stay.

     Additionally, as some of you may know, I’m now in charge of Manitowen Press, a tiny publishing company that gives new writers a leg up, something to put in their cover letters to other publishers. Being one of two chief editors with Manitowen Press, as well as writing my own books and stories has kept me busy; and if that wasn’t enough, my husband and I have decided to build a log home on five acres we recently purchased.

     It was just last year that we were looking at five wooded acres of pine and oak with a little cherry here and there.  On the property stood an old cinderblock house with jerry-rigged wiring that dated post World War Two. The original owner “Jonah” and his wife “Natty” lived in that home for more than 70 years. Jonah passed away about a decade ago. Natty is in her mid-to-late nineties and is sweet and sharp for her age. It was a delight to meet her at the real estate office to close on the place last spring.  Natty had moved out just before her home was put on the market. Her family has owned the surrounding land for about 150 years. Last month, we had the old house, built in 1948, torn down. It wasn’t in the best shape. Recently, I dug up and relocated some “heirloom” tea roses that graced the crumbling foundation of what I believe is the original farmhouse. That foundation can still be seen just behind where the cinderblock structure once stood. I hope to replant those rose bushes close to our new home, once it’s built.

     The old man, bless his heart, had cows and a horse in the woods back in the sixties and seventies. To save a buck, about sixty years ago he wrapped barbed wire around some of the saplings instead of using fence posts. Those plants are now much taller, but diseased since the trunks grew over the wire. With each windstorm, another tree or two snaps, coming down so violently that it makes the ground shudder.

     Since my daughter Kay and her husband are splitting the lot with us, we had those trees and some others next to them removed so that they won't come crashing through the roofs of the homes we're building.

   Friday, the arborists left for the weekend. They aren’t finished yet, but being the nosey person that I am, Saturday evening I walked to where those trees were removed and found


     Yes, ash -- about two feet under where, until the other day, tree roots were solidly imbedded into the ground. The soot is thick and goes down about three or four feet. I guessed the oldest trees to be about 120 years old, but I am no expert. I wondered what kind of fire would have caused that much blackened debris to be visible, and so very dense, scores of years after the incident. It had to be an inferno.

     I was so excited. My husband and our daughter Kay thought I was crazy and said, "Who cares?"

     Eagerly I said, "It's HISTORY! Aren't you the least bit curious?" Well, they were not interested in the least. I know May my youngest child, who is away at college, would have been all over this discovery.

     I stood in awe at the site. Again, I wanted to know what kind of catastrophe in recent history would have done this much damage. In spite of my family’s disinterest, I did a little sleuthing. I found out that the Great Fire of Chicago in October 1871 was not an isolated event.  According to Mike Hardy, the Chicago, Illinois fire was famous but the Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire was horrific. In Chicago, three square miles were burnt to cinders and three hundred lives were lost. Compare that to Peshtigo where eight hundred souls perished when families fleeing into the river boiled to death.
Michigan was not spared Mother Nature’s conflagration. Hundreds of miles across Lake Michigan, flames sprang up. Hurricane strength winds intensified the blazes along beach towns and the western shore. In the city of Holland, founded by Dutch settlers, not a barn nor fencepost was left to mark property boundaries.

     Manistee, about a hundred miles north of Holland, was also affected by the flames in addition to some points in between. The embers were further carried east by the tempest, across the state, and eventually into the thumb area. Residents from lumber towns and farms across Michigan fled the flames that were now one hundred feet tall. People jumped into wells. Children were cast into boats and set along the rivers. In one case a boat full of children bobbed for days until it reached Canada. After the fire, masses of people were found wandering to the very tip of the thumb, hair singed, skin blistered and their clothes burned from their bodies.

     Reading these tales gave me a lot to think about. I realized that I was off by about a couple decades using the tree trunks that would have gotten their start a couple years after the fires. In my defense, it had been drizzling all afternoon and it was too dusky to count each ring.

    Most people do not know about the infernos of October 1871, yet a few historians speculate as to the cause. One debunked tale is the story of a cow knocking over an oil lamp in a barn. There is no possible way that such a fire beginning in Chicago would consume much of the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Some scholars claim a meteor breaking apart across the United States sparked many small fires that grew in unimaginable magnitude. Some blame trapped methane. Whatever the reason, I won’t speculate. It is known that the Summer of 1871 was hot and dry and that autumn was warmer than usual.

     Next time you take a walk in the woods or along a beach or even on a city sidewalk, stop for a moment and ponder what lies below, the lives that once occupied that same space, the events that forever influenced the geography or geology. Think about the history that preceded your mortal experience, and please, don’t ever say, “Who cares?”

                        (Photo, Public Domain - Great Chicago Fire October 8, 1871)

I would like to thank Alan Naldrett and Mike Hardy for their keen interest and research.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Nola's Story

      I'm moving to a new house soon and going through a lot of photos and clippings. Sorting and wrapping, packing and tossing. I ran across a news story originally printed in November of 2010 that told of a man frozen to death in his pick-up truck in Nevada. It brought to mind a story I heard decades ago, told to me by my late father, so I can bet the event is sixty, maybe seventy years old. A woman named Nola was a close family friend for many years. She was a younger sister of my dad's stepfather Roy Farmer. She'd even introduced my Uncle Edward to a pretty southern girl name Agnes. The two eventually married. 

     Well, one day Nola's husband went out to get the newspaper or mail. It was winter and they lived in the woods. He didn't come back. She waited. Come evening she called relatives and friends who searched the forest and town, and contacted people he might know. There was no sign of him. Sometimes back in those days a man would just walk out and never come back, even if his wife thought everything was going well; most times to take up with a floozy in another town. Nola figured that must have been the case and mourned the loss of her man, missing him dearly. Well, along came the spring thaw and at the end of April her dogs were out for quite some time. She called to them and they came trotting in, carrying some fairly large bones in their jaws. At first she thought the remains were from a deer, but some other people at her home figured otherwise and followed the dogs into the deep woods. Her husband was resting, his back to a large tree. The dogs had removed his leg bones. Had Nola's husband stopped to rest? Had he felt ill and fell to the cold ground? All anyone knew with some certainty was that the man just froze to death out there. 

(Art by Emil Grimm)


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Scotland, Christmas and a Little Red Truck

     Oh my heck, the stuff I could tell you about my family. I might have mentioned some of it before. We have a rich, documented history. My father's side of the family (Owen-Owens) lived in the highlands of North Carolina and Georgia for several generations; since before the American Revolution (with the exception of one soldier who also eventually settled in North Carolina after the Revolution). My dad, the youngest, was raised in Detroit, but his siblings lived in the hills for a great deal of their childhoods. My ancestors knew how to read and write, so please, don't think they were ignorant. My people held positions such as postmaster that required one to be literate. People in Michigan always thought that I talked differently, but I thought I sounded fine, since I spoke like my father's family. We used a lot of what I later found out was considered Shakespearean language; words like “ya’ll”, “learnt” and “amongst”, or a request such as “go fetch that hen for me, she done escaped her coop again!”  

     My Aunt Lynn, born in 1919, adhered to the belief that a Stuart must hold the throne. She used to show me illustrations in books about Bonnie Prince Charlie. Mary, Queen of Scots was Lynn’s hero. She had a deep love for Scotland’s Queen Mary. Even into the 1970s my dad and family still hated "Tories" and I heard how those scoundrels hid in Canada after the war. Just tonight I was telling my husband and children some of my Owen Family traditions and how my uncle always wanted a little red truck for Christmas when he was a boy – but he never got one. The family story went on that my grandparents didn't go in for the holiday. In fact the aforementioned Aunt Lynn did not celebrate Christmas. Her husband and children gathered at Thanksgiving and had their big dinner and present exchange at that time. Life had moved on in Scotland and Ireland, but not for my father’s Appalachian family. His people were isolated. The region’s lore was very Scots-Irish, too, as were the songs. Even my German-born mother thought my dad's relatives were a little odd. That doesn't mean that they were screwy, but up until many families moved north for work or the men marched to Europe for the World Wars, entire communities lived in isolation. You don't know just how much the Outlander book series tugs at my heart. Call me crazy if you wish, and maybe there was my aunt's influence, but much of Scottish history was not taught in public school and I felt a little less informed because of that lack of instruction. (According to the history books, suddenly the Colonists wanted freedom from King George—it was spontaneous after all, wasn't it, in our way of thinking?) I learned later that the Revolution had been simmering all the way back to Scotland, a nation that resented the English kings and their desire to control all people from their own isle and beyond to other nations, creating an empire that up until recently, stretched to continents such as Australia, North America, Europe and Asia. When I read the Outlander stories, I felt like I was living them. I had dreams long before I’d even heard of Diana Gabaldon’s novels, long before I knew there were such books—things I could not know. I truly believe, that some of those memories were passed down, cellular memories you could say.  (I will post one particular eerie story in weeks to come.)

     Back to Christmas and the Scots, the people in that country did not celebrate the holiday until it became legal in the 1950s. The church in Scotland had outlawed any Yuletide celebrations for nearly four hundred years claiming them to be influenced by the Catholic Pope. Yes, the Scots believed in the birth of Christ, but Christmas as we know it in the United States for the last 150 odd years was not celebrated across “the Pond”. We here in America gradually took on several rituals brought over from Germany and crafted our own traditions around their lore. In the meantime, the Scots and Irish who had come to the USA in the mid to late 1700s still believed that ceremonies and feasts centered around trees were pagan and somehow distasteful.

     My father, uncles and aunts were not raised to observe Christmas. My own papa taught me to remember that Jesus was most likely born during the Holy land’s lambing season in April. He, being an atheist, believed in the history of Christ the man, not His claim to deity. Add to that, I’d heard that the good Christian people in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains would not allow a tree in their homes let alone fancy decorations. My mother on the other hand was rich with tales from Germany. She and her sister Maria got hand-crafted dolls with dresses hand-sewn by my Oma (German for grandmother). My Opa (grandfather) used to melt down metal to make soldiers for my Uncle Heinz. Decades ago I was told the sad tale of how, as a child, all my Uncle Edward wanted was a little red truck. He’d begged and begged for one since the Owen family moved to Asheville in the late 1920s. Some of the city kids actually observed Christmas. Not my grandparents or their offspring. It just was not a part of their culture—and why should they participate, just because a few fancy people wanted to sing and dance around trees and boughs? I don’t believe my father and his brother Harold, who was closest to him in age, celebrated Christmas at all until after they’d moved to Detroit in the late 1930s. Harold died having only enjoyed one, possibly two, real Christmases.  Luckily my other uncles, Edward and Eugene, both married women who embraced the holiday and all its trappings.

     As a man nearing his forties, and as the father of his first and only child, Edward finally settled into Christmas with his wife Agnes. They battled dry trees, needles and sap on the carpet, and waded into the deep waters of parenthood. They bought my cousin Gregory presents, some of which I was lucky enough to get when he outgrew them. I got gifts from my parents, as well: dolls, jumping mechanical frogs and puppets. We ate sweets sent from Germany, too! These are memories I treasure.

     Recently I ran across a tiny red, metal truck. Right now it’s tucked beneath my little Christmas tree. Come spring, I want to take a trip out to the Michigan Memorial Cemetery south of Detroit. I’m going to take the little toy and put it on my uncle’s gravestone. Merry Christmas Uncle Edward.
Merry Christmas, to all of you.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Me? Me, too? Originally Titled "Swimming with Has-beens"

(I had such a weird experience some time ago and posted it, but then quickly took it off of this blog. That was before the "Me Too" movement. I wanted to post this again, at that time, but then realized that some people would view my comments as wanting to jump on the band-wagon. I've actually had worse experiences that I won't get into. The reason that I share this story is that I've always been strong enough to say ,"No!"  In this case, the Neanderthal-perp actually tried to shame me as not being a real woman when I backed away from him. So, month after month, I've hesitated to tell my story. It's been a year, almost, since I've added anything to my blog.  I had a busy summer of editing and writing another book. In Autumn life got in the way of my creativity. Yet, my story needed to be told.  I finally decided that there is no time like the present to finally be brave and post to my blog, warts-and-all. Here is my story.)

I get into a pool in an undisclosed desert-area resort (for those of you who don’t know where I live and/or visit in the winter months, I’m not telling.) I make innocent small-talk with an elderly fellow. I noticed earlier he had a lot of chutzpah and carried himself confidently like he owns the place.  A lot of people there know him. He looks very familiar and I recognize him from somewhere, something.

Well, he swims over to me after commenting that some old geezer coming out of the hot-tub had white, see-through swim trunks. (Why, yes he did and my eyes are still in pain.) Mr. Chutzpah keeps getting closer and I realize nobody else is in the pool at that moment. He is an arm’s length away and notifies me that his wife is out of town.  I use my water weights to subtly swim away all the while keeping eye contact. I realize this guy was a well-known entity in the 1970s, a singer and actor. (I’ve seen other celebrities at this athletic club. It’s known for its discretion and privacy.) He wants me to see how big his thumbs are. I see where this situation is going and back away as courteously as I can. He asks if I’m married and I say, “Yes,” to which he replies that he just wants to be friends and that he hates the word, “Maybe”. I get major creep-factor vibes by this time and tell him that I grew up in Detroit and know how to defend myself; that I can and will hurt guys that get too close. He stops his advance and yells, “I bet you think all men have the same thoughts and want the same things, don’t you?” I say, “Yes, they all do but most know how to control themselves.” I swim to the other side of the pool close to the hot-tub where another bather is relaxing. He asks if he can use my towel because he doesn’t have one. I say, “NO!”

"What's wrong with you?" he gripes. The creep gets out muttering something about lesbians, gives me a sideways glance and grabs a towel out of his gym bag. He leaves the pool and says “Arrivederci, Bitch!” I was incredibly relieved that he left.

(Hey, Dude, I don’t care if you were a big deal in music and on the big-screen forty years ago. Now, you are a dirty, itty-bitty old man that doesn't respect personal space or your wife’s feelings. Stay away, you little nerd, because I might have looked vulnerable in the water, but I'm Hell-on-land and know how to fight. I don’t want to, but I can. I’ve been through Hades and back in my life and I will not tolerate your creepy behavior. I don’t care if someone whistles. That is a compliment. If someone holds a door open for me I say “Thank you,” to the gentleman. If someone says, “Hey, baby,” I am flattered -- but "nobody" violates my space even if he thinks he is some big-deal. Get stuffed, you old has-been.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Have We as a Nation Lost our Perspective?

I have a view. You have a view. We all have views. I look into the wild blue yonder and see a cloud. To me it is a castle. You see a fortress. Someone else sees the New York City skyline. I see a whale. You see a shark. Those other people see a seal, yet we are all looking at the same sky!

Matthew, Mark and John all knew Jesus. Their recollections of our Savior are the beginning of the New Testament. We also have Luke’s beautiful narrative that tells us of the Nativity, which the other Gospels do not have. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all shared the same story about the greatest man who ever lived. Each individual shares another detail, a different perspective, and they are all right.

Yes, there are things that are clearly black and white, wrong and right—that’s obvious. Yet, grey areas are all around us. Stealing is wrong, but who would begrudge a child inside of a refugee camp a crust of bread that he snatches from a kitchen? Committing a robbery and shooting the victim is wrong. However, using a gun to save your family’s life if a bad man is trying to assault your children is justifiable.

I like to give to causes. I tithe to my church. The church then distributes the money to hungry families and hurricane victims, etc. I would feel differently if a hurricane survivor forcibly demanded that I hand over what little I have when I myself am struggling. I like to give, willingly. I don’t like to be coerced and robbed. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Some of you supported the candidates that ran in last year’s elections. Many saw saviors that had the potential to put our nation back on the right path. From my point of view not one of them was truly worthy of the office of president. From my view, they had no real direction. Of those that courted the voting masses, some were well-meaning. Others were self-serving. They each had a viewpoint that in some portion was right, but to me as a whole, was wrong. With all the confusion, and fighting, I’m afraid that our voters lost their perspective of what is good for our entire country, for everyone.

Getting back to the story I mentioned a couple posts back, about the elephant, I feel I need to ask if we are all blind. Are some of us grasping a trunk and others a tail? Can we not see what is best, not for just one group but for all Americans? Can we once again have a nation that is for the people, by the people, of the people?

Sadly, from my perspective, the answer is, “No”.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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