Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the Beach

We have been fortunate lately to be spending some time on the beach. The beach near my parent's house on the dunes is quiet and mostly deserted. Some days we see no one, others we have occasional joggers, walkers or see other families playing in the distance.

Most of the time we hit the beach after a days worth of errands or cleaning the house. It's a great respite, especially as I find the time spent in the house to be emotionally draining. I often bring a book and don't touch it, preferring to sit and think.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how my parents handled the job of parenting and how it is the similar or different from my own methods. The beach we handle in the same manner. The kids carry whatever it is they want on the beach, usually that is nothing. Sometimes the take a towel. I take a water bottle and my beach chair. When they were younger, they each took a bucket and shovel, or yogurt cups or something to create sandcastles with. Then they realized they needed nothing on the beach to amuse themselves.

Typically we climb over the dune, the kids running up the hill on the hot, hot sand to get to the shade at the top. Then they scamper down the stairs, dash across the sand to the water and go right in. Now that they are older, they have to wait until I'm on the beach before going in beyond knee depth. I used to be able to match their speed.

If it's windy and they can ride waves, they stay in the water a long time. I sit and watch, the water still being too cold for me to go in on all but the hottest of days. Then they come out and each do their own thing on the beach. Large lately has been creating structures out of driftwood, which is why he wanted the towel. Medium sits right on the edge making sand sculptures with the wettest of sand. Small digs holes, makes mountain shaped "lake houses" or slides down whatever ridges the latest storms have left behind. It's a magical spot where they can be and do what they want to, as unstructured or complicated as they want it to be.

My parents let us have a lot of this kind of time in my childhood. We went to this very same community, but to a different beach. We walked along the road or through the sand dunes, carrying our own stuff. Usually nothing at all, except for our teen years when we concentrated on our tans. But even at home, we had a lot of magical spots where we could go and just be with our own selves and the thoughts in our heads. They lived on five acres in a not quite yet suburban sprawl area. Even as small children, my mother would pop us out the door in the morning and expect us to come home when hungry. Or hurt, or tired. We weren't watched over as closely as parents tend to do now, and we certainly weren't scheduled to tightly, especially in our younger years.

I wish we had more opportunity for this kind of life, the magical solitude and freedom to just be. We don't live in the same kind of setting, but we seek it out and take advantage of it as best we can.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Weathering the Storm

We've had some stormy weather lately. I'm not sure if it's unusually stormy, but it sure feels like it. The storms have been pretty severe as well, with lots of rain and more than a lot of wind.

Last night we had the privilege of riding out the storm in my parents' house. It's in the part of Indiana where the lake is mostly north and a little bit west. They built the house on top of a very high and steep sand dune when they were 70 years old. The the lot was available because the previous house had burned down, in no small part due to the lack of water pressure in the town's fire hydrants. My parents were risk takers.

The house is built to maximize the view. Most of the living takes place on the second floor, which puts you nearly at tree-top height as you gaze out at the lake. The entire mostly north facing side is floor to ceiling windows, the living room and library have sliding doors leading to decks. It is stunning in the spring when the dogwoods are in bloom, and in the fall when the oak leave change colors. The house is curved a bit on each side, offering a more panoramic view. This picture is looking more to the west than north.

It rained all morning yesterday, torrential downpours with flash flooding as we ran errands to maintain the house and cars. There was a break in the late afternoon, so the kids and I went to the beach. After a while, looking northwest across the lake, I saw Chicago vanish in a sea of darkness. we heard distant thunder, felt the winds kicking up and headed back to the house.

We sat down to dinner and my angle from the kitchen island was a mostly westward view of the storm marching towards us. In minutes the trees you see here were bent nearly in half, wet with rain and crippled by the wind. We watched the wind open locked windows on the south side of the house. We felt the water bashing the windows. We watched the lights flicker on and off several times before going out all together.

And then I had a chance to reflect again, as I have often done these past few years, on just how smart a man my father was. I grew up knowing of his scientific genius, witnessed his limitless skills in maintaining, designing and constructing houses, barns, room additions, etc. I was in awe of his ability to draw, photograph and sculpt. He could explain anything, and sometimes I could even understand it.

But I had also seen his failures. I had watched him calculate the exact angle and force to hit a cue ball in order to get the object ball into the correct pocket - and then seen him execute the shot and miss entirely. (This was a move named the "Grande Crewe" in the billiards room at the University of Chicago's Quadrangle Club.) I had also seen him, with my brother, cut down a tree that was threatening to fall on a neighbor's house. Again, they calculated the angle to avoid hitting the house and then proceeded to drop it right on the roof. My father was more than human.

Last night, as the lights shut off and the wind battered the house, I felt safe and like a glass in a dishwasher. I knew my Dad had put in an emergency generator to beat all emergency generators. He had foreseen his physical decline and knew he would face the end of his life with some medical equipment that would need a constant energy source. His generator is not based on a tank that needs refilling, but was hooked to the main gas line to the house. He was ultra-prepared.

So, when it failed last night, it came as no surprise to me that the variable he had failed to factor in was human maintenance after his death. The motor oil that lubricates the engine had run out. Mark was able to refill that, managing only one wasp sting, and get the thing running. My father kept a lot of things is his head. Like the knowledge of which outlets are powered by the generator in an emergency. Last summer we had to get the HVAC guy to come out and tell us which ones would be able to provide power to his bed and oxygen machine.

My father spent a couple of years trying to convince his carpenter and window installer that the windows and doors in the library were going to leak. He knew the house had settled, creating a slightly steeper slope to the deck. He could feel the air flowing under the doors when no one else did, could anticipate the rate at which the water was gaining ground. He designed the solution to the problem. But until it leaked, he couldn't convince anyone to do the work. It was an expensive job, and the leak was spectacular when it burst through.

Last night we also witnessed the next failure Dad had anticipated. The entrance to the house is a two story atrium with two sets of floor to ceiling windows stacked on top of each other, forming a bridge to the two arced halves of the house. The top center window showered water in rivulets onto the window sill and carpet on the second level and down to the slate first floor via the open spaces in the bridge. Not as spectacular as the library leak to the bedroom below, but it wont take too many more rains for that to come.

Just as my father correctly diagnosed himself with Parkinsons' Disease a few years before a neurologist could confirm it medically, he lives on in his predictions concerning his largest last masterpiece, this house. When I called the carpenter this afternoon, he choked up. The carpenter had a 12 year relationship with my father and misses his wisdom and humor. He knew exactly where the leak was before I told him, knowing it was what my father was worried about. He told me it took him a while to realize my father was a genius and that he misses him.

Last night's storm was more than just weather.