Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Hot Summer Nights

I wouldn’t be a typical American guy if I didn’t want to talk about the weather once in awhile. It has always kind of a national sport, I think, enhanced by the 24/7 availability of forecasts and alerts via the Weather Channel on cable TV and the sheer gaggle of weather-centric websites on the internet.
So you don’t really need to hear about it from me.
But hey, it’s been hot. So hot, in fact, that the above-mentioned sources, plus our local weather outlets have been, from time to time, announcing something called a Heat Advisory, which, according to the National Weather Service, means “that a period of unseasonably hot and humid weather is expected.”
Well, yeah.
It’s summer.
In the midwest.
And while it’s good to know when it’s going to be extra hot and sticky, it’s nothing new for those who have lived and worked in this part of the country and know what to expect.
Last summer was unusually cool, which only served to give a lot of people something new and exciting to complain about. But after a beautiful, temperate spring and a wet, wet June, this season is back to the same old sultry summertime temps most of us grew up with. Our old house is heated by a boiler, so central air is undoable, except via a pricey retrofit. While we have window units in some of the rooms, we tend to turn them on and off, like lights, when we come and go, if we use them at all. This is not, I admit, out of a sense of energy-saving virtue, but because I am a skinflint and think summer is the one time I don’t have to pay to heat the place. Our high-ceilinged house takes awhile to really warm up, but once it does, the mass of hot, damp air hangs like a dank, pervasive cloud, especially in the upstairs bedrooms.
She: Do you think we should turn on the air upstairs?
Me: Maybe we should just go out and sit in the car with the air conditioner running.
But eventually all my power-saving plans fall short, and we are forced to get out of the car and actually turn on the noisy, underpowered cooling machine that rattles and roars in a bedroom window.
She: I think it’s getting cooler in here.
Me: It’s certainly getting louder.
I got an extra dose of summertime fun last week, when my bachelor brother-in-law, who is generally unperturbed by hot weather, decided it was time to install his old, seldom-used window unit. We dragged it out of its closet storage space, did a clumsy, two-man shuffle getting it across the room, jammed it into a window and let it rip. A couple of hours later, his apartment was, perhaps, five or ten degrees hotter than before, probably owing to the heat we had generated putting the darn thing in place so that it could blow nothing but warm air across the room.
One major household purchase later, we were at it again, jerking the old, non-functioning unit out in not-so-gentle fashion, then horsing the new, more powerful version into position.
The resulting cool blast of air on my sweaty frame reminded me of the old saying about heating with wood: It warms you twice--once when you cut it and once when you burn it. I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work with air conditioners, but we were plenty hot before we finally began to cool down.
But what we’re experiencing now is nothing compared to the weather our parents and grandparents endured back in the 30’s.
Like 1936, when parts of Illinois saw temperatures rise above 100 degrees for as many as 18 days in a row, while the region saw over two months’ worth of 90-plus days. Remember, air conditioning was in its early stages, and pretty much unknown in both homes and businesses. And even electric fans were puny things that didn’t do much more than try to stir a bit of hot, humid air.
My mother, who by coincidence, grew up in the home where we live now, used to tell stories of what some folks did to beat the nighttime heat, According to mom, families would trudge into the park across the street at twilight, spread sheets on the grass, and bed down in a kind of communal campout that probably could only occur in a kinder, gentler time, when everyone knew everyone else and they all knew that they were in it together. Likewise, stuffy living rooms were replaced by front porches, where people sat at night in hopes of catching a breeze, while greeting friends and neighbors who were passing by in search of the same.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anybody leaving central air, the latest reality show and the family Wii just to hunker down in Wiley Park and count the number of mosquitos on grandma’s nose. And the front porch is more often just a spot where newspapers are thrown and mail deposited, not a place for a nightly neighborhood meet and greet.
But there was a time when folks expected hot weather and lived with it. A time when a warm summer night was a reason to stay outside, sip a cool glass of lemonade, count the stars...and count your blessings, too.
Hot, yes.
But pretty cool, too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Postcards from the Road

I promised you a postcard.
At the end of last week’s column, I said I’d send you one from our season’s first camping trip to Door County, Wisconsin. I can’t help but mourn the slow death of the picture postcard, but the advent of texting and email has made a scribbled note on the back of a pretty picture nearly a thing of the past for many. But I still admire the sheer poetry of a well-written postcard that combines a striking image with a quick, pithy story about a memorable day and place.
Door County is one of those places for me; a place “discovered,” so to speak, by my family long ago after another Wisconsin resort didn’t pan out as advertised, causing my usually patient father to pile us all back into the car and head north until we arrived at the vacation spot we would make our own year after year.
I couldn’t send each and every one of you your very own postcard, but I can share snippets of some of the sights we saw along the way.
My postcard message from an early part of the trip might read something like this:
“The washing of the waves, the crashing of the atoms.”
Our map indicated a benign-sounding place called the Point Beach Energy Center while we worked our way along a deserted road up a pristine stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline north of Milwaukee.
She: “Ooh, maybe it’s an offshore wind farm.”
Me: “Or maybe it’s a combination of wave and solar energy.”
Or maybe not.
The sight of an ominous-looking nuclear cooling tower and a clearly stated No Trespassing sign at the end of a dead-end, fenced-off coastal road cleared up that misunderstanding in a hurry, with a sudden sense of foreboding for those of us who can well remember Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and otherwise respect the thought of armed guards and well-trained attack dogs.
“Give me wind, sun and waves anytime,” I thought. as we beat our way back through the woods and onto another northbound road.
Our entrance into Door County and the quaint village that is home to the State Park that was our destination provided another kind of visual/verbal message, as we crested the hill looking down towards the beautiful lakeside town.
Me: “Aah, Fish Creek.”
She: “Aah, rain.”
Yes, it started raining as we arrived at our campsite, which resulted in yet another cunning portrait of northwoods fun, as one of us gamely tried to prove to the other that a devilish dome-style tent can be erected in a driving rain without soaking the inside as much as the outer fabric.
It can’t of course.
I wrestled and cursed the thing in a mud-and-sand-covered spectacle that made me look more like a wounded, wing-shot mallard crawling for cover than the resourceful, backwoodsman I was trying to portray. She, on the other hand, proved her superior maturity level by not laughing (out loud, at least) and limiting her comments to a single question:
“Is it supposed to look that way?”
Eventually, it did look the way it was supposed to look and after a dampish slumber, we set off to do something we’ve always meant to do while in Door County. Al Johnson’s Restaurant is an icon to all things Swedish, with a menu containing a wide array of Scandinavian dishes and a grass-covered roof that features real-live goats happily grazing away.
As a Bishop Hill descendent, I felt compelled to try and compare the Swedish pancakes. And I wanted to see the goats.
“It’ll be like that movie. You know, ‘Swedes Staring at Goats,’” I said blithely as we rolled into Sister Bay, the home of the restaurant.
But it was still raining.
No goats.
“I always thought goats were pretty sure-footed,” I mused, while looking around for a “watch out for sliding goats”sign.
“I guess we can check this one off the bucket list,” she muttered.
The skies cleared and we settled into a relaxed, idyllic rhythm that did a better job of matching the postcard-perfect days we had hoped for. We hiked shorelines, We biked wooded trails. We traveled by ferry to an island park and picked cherries by the bucketful in the lush orchards that dot the county. Realizing it was just another three hours north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we headed that way, sharing cherries and a day on the beach with my sister and her husband, kids and grandkids, who have made Lake Superior their backyard for over 40 years.
We zig-zagged home through Wisconsin, following the compass more than any map, heading west, then south, then west again, while stopping in pretty little lake towns for ice cream and a look around, then driving through the hills and herds of dairy farms that fill the middle of the state.
I enjoyed the view. I enjoyed the company. And I realized that every day can be like a postcard.
Some we send and share in every way we can. And some we tuck away to treasure and remember.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Even after the rocket's red glare

The Fourth of July is a big day in my hometown of Galva. Our hard-working Freedom Fest committee puts together an amazing lineup of fun, food and fireworks that starts early and ends late. One of the earliest mornings, latest nights and busiest days takes place right on my front porch, which is Holiday Ground Zero for many friends and family members, as we pack the big, wraparound structure with enough food to feed the continental army in a tradition that has lasted many years, with shade and a bit of breeze on the hot, sunny days and shelter for the rainy ones. Our across-the-street proximity to busy Wiley Park makes our locale a prime spot to watch the parade, visit fellow revelers and, otherwise, take a relaxing break from the all-day whirlwind that is Galva’s Fourth.
Or at least that’s what they tell me.
I am, you see, a busy guy myself on the Fourth, both because of my responsibilities as a Star Courier camera-slinger, and because of a lengthy list of Indendence-Day duties I’ve managed to pile up over the years. So, despite the fact that I am one of the hosts of our annual fete, I am often missing in action.
This year’s buzz-around started with photos of the annual kids fun run and 5K road race (which starts and ends across the street), plus a quick park-wide search for photo ops at events ranging from the penny scramble and art jam, to the world-famous cow bingo contest and the beginnings of the antique tractor show. Though it was my morning to play Mass music at St. John’s Church, Father John Burns traded me to the Galva Ministerial Association for six hymnals and a lector to be named later so that I could provide the music for the community church service in the park. This required my first clothing swap in a day that would see me make more quick costume changes than a Las Vegas diva.
She: Wear that new shirt I got you for church, then change into your other outfit for the parade.
Now, I wear clothes. And sometimes they even match and/or go together. But I don’t wear anything that could or should ever be described as an outfit. But I knew what she meant and followed instructions, as she was now busy meeting and greeting the first serious wave of porch party guests.
The rest of the day included stints hauling sound equipment and serving as emcee for both the Freedom Fest parade and talent show.
I remember listening to other announcers over the years; guys like the late, great Chuck Hay, who sounded cool, collected and fun-loving as they told me everything I ever wanted to know. I don’t know about them, but I’m generally faking it, battling as I am against notes-threatening breezes, last-minute line-up changes and an inexplicable inability to sort out the mass of politicians, beauty queens, dance groups, singers and vintage tractors I encounter between the two events.
Eventually, I was free to return to the porch-front for awhile before making the trek to the Galva Park District for our city’s amazing fireworks show. I’m often a little pooped by the time dusk rolls around, but the sheer energy of that astonishing display always reenergizes me, making me glad to be there, in Galva, Illinois, USA.
My hometown.
Another high point of the holiday weekend was the 100th birthday of my dad’s cousin Helen. She’s the last of five first cousins, including dad, who were the grandchildren of a Bishop Hill Colony girl and a Swedish immigrant railroad worker. Many Christmases and other important events were spent in the company of those cousins and their families. Now, Helen is the only member of that generation left, a distinction she carries with grace, good humor and continued independence.
The camping box is out of the basement and back in the vehicle where it belongs as we plan our first tent outing of the summer. Door County is the destination, with a couple of days scheduled in breathtaking Peninsula State Park, and several ideas percolating for how we’re going to get there and back. I’ll send you a postcard of sorts.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Another Kind of Freedom

We’ll celebrate our national day of independence this Sunday, which made me hope I could write a little bit about some of the freedoms we all share as citizens of this country. But as often happens, the day-to-day events surrounding me have driven my mind down an alternate highway, with some thoughts on a different, but equally compelling kind of personal freedom on my mind.
I spent an enjoyable day serving as emcee for the annual Bishop Hill Midsommar Music Festival last Saturday. It’s always a fun one for me, with the chance to meet and greet old musician friends, and get to know some new ones, as well.
This year’s lineup began with Galesburg singer/guitarist John Heasley, with his traditional folk group, Morningstar. I got a large charge out of the Templeton Family, a bluegrass/Gospel band that includes mom and dad on bass and fiddle, along with eight talented kids. Three of the boys, aged 15, 13 and 10, share frontman duties and play banjo, mandolin and guitar with a skill that makes this old guitarist wish he had practiced harder when he was their age. Musician/historian Chris Vallillo displayed the talent and knowledge that has made him the Smithsonian Institute’s Illinois Scholar on the subject of “roots music” this year, and the Blackhawk pipes and drums gave the sleepy Swedish village a powerful taste of the Scotch highlands.
But the performer I connected with most was a fellow named Mark Dvorak, a Chicago native who spends all his time sharing his love and knowledge of traditional folk music with anyone who’s willing to sit down and listen.
“What’s your day job?” I asked him after he played, knowing full well that many musicians find it hard to live on music alone and are forced to find additional employment to make ends meet..
“This is,” he said, gesturing to the gazebo/stage where he had just performed to an appreciative crowd.
“You can make a living at this,” he continued. “You just can’t make a killing.”
But I don’t think he cares.
And that was the start of this story.
It’s not just because he’s talented, though he is, with a fine, clear voice, some excellent picking on both guitar and banjo, and a repertoire that covers just about everything important in his folky genre.
It is, in fact, his whole happy approach to what he’s done with his life that caught my attention. Most of us make “life’s work” decisions based on a combination of passion and ambition, with the latter often overwhelming the former when it all comes down to it, because it’s so very easy to confuse monetary success with happiness.
We all do it.
Mark Dvorak doesn’t.
Instead, for over three decades, he has pursued his passion and his very heart’s desire as a modern-day troubadour who is happy--overjoyed, in fact--to travel the United States and different parts of the world with nothing more than his voice, a guitar and banjo, and an undying love for traditional American music and the people he shares it with.
He’s played the big cities and concert halls.
He’s played small towns and out-of-the way venues.
But it doesn’t seem to matter where, as long as he he’s playing his music and singing his songs.
When he’s not on the road, he shares his love for his craft and its roots and traditions as a teacher at the world-renowned Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music.
“I look at this music as a great gift. Not everybody can do it,” he said. “It lets me connect with all kinds of people. And the people I meet are nice people.”
Seeing him perform, it’s clear that he loves what he’s doing.
You can see it in his face. You can hear it in his voice.
The result, for me, at least, was a sense of awe, admiration and flat-out, right-back-at-you joy at the sight of a man who seems to be doing just what he was meant to do and is kind of overwhelmed at the chance to do it.
That’s a special kind of freedom.
“It’s not like working just for money,” he said.
“No, indeed,” I thought.
And that’s why it made my day.