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Weekly Column

4/15/18: Little Jewels 

This week I want to share a special discovery with you, dear readers, most especially if you live in or near Traverse City, Michigan. (Those in other cities or towns may also come upon exquisite surprises at their local farm markets that might also be faintly ‘cloaked,’ except to discerning folks...)    

A few weeks ago Joe and I visited the gorgeous, towered 1880s Building 50 at The Commons, part of the huge complex of lovely structures that comprise the visually stunning former Traverse City State Hospital complex, closed in 1989, then gradually, sensitively transformed into lovely condos and locally owned small businesses. We always enjoy wandering its arched brick basement halls, where the indoor farmers’ market is set up on Wednesdays and Saturdays in winter. It’s fun, too, to peruse its many little shops that feature books, jewelry, clothes, and other various handmade items. 

We happened upon a booth where a handsome, very tall man in his 40s was selling farm-fresh eggs. Joe bought 6 beautiful brown beauties to have for breakfast the next three days. Then, while he waited for his change, he noticed another understated display at the same table. A quiet young girl stood very still behind the table, watching people move by without noticing what she was selling. He poked me and pointed. I looked down at her display- and gasped. Joe whispered, under his breath, “What marvelous art!” 

I picked up one of the stationery cards and stared at its fresh, detailed depictions of Shire horses and children. This young girl and her twin sister had apparently created the pictures, and their admiring parents had decided to feature them on greeting cards. But no one seemed to notice. She stood so still against the wall, not promoting, just waiting...hoping... 

Have a look. There are more, but just look at these... 

 

I loved them, and promptly bought 3 cards. She was so glad that I’d noticed her work. (Once seen, they arrest one’s gaze...) 

I couldn’t get such talent out of my mind, so we went back the following weekend. No girl this time. Instead, two young boys were standing there just as quietly, just as hopefully... 

I saw a new depiction- of a girl in rainboots holding her collapsing umbrellas as she walks away from us through rain and wind. It is perfect! Not cluttered, just exactly right in every way. Her red coat or dress, teased by the wind, is a delightful splash of color, warmed by the street lamp’s gentle light. 

               

Delighted, I bought it and 4 more cards. The two boys were as happy as their sister had been, not only by the money I proffered- ($3 per card,)- but also by my fulsome praise.  
I was awarded two shy smiles. 

The stationary is bare of words. 
The sketches are not signed.  
The art Shines. 

This time Joe had a very brief exchange with their dad. His 11 children help work the farm, where their horses are clearly loved and appreciated. 

If you like The Commons farmer’s market, perhaps you could keep an eye out for this booth. I can’t remember exactly where it is, as the halls wind and turn.  
The eggs, by the way, were delicious! 

Right after all this happened I was amazed to receive a hand-written letter from my younger daughter, Elisabeth. She has decided to go back to the old-fashioned way of communicating her thoughts to people she’s close to. (Often my readers, or visitors to Sunnybank’s secret garden, write snail-mail thank-you notes, which I love to receive.) 

Lisa wrote, 
“I find it hard, and tiring, to write emails. But letters written by hand help slow me down, help focus me, and when one can’t delete a sentence without it showing, one becomes so much more thoughtful in how one goes about the writing business...”   

Exactly so! I loved the idea, and knew at once how I would respond- with one of these extra-special cards!  

Funny how things work out, eh?  

I HOPE their affectionate spontaneity, instinctive composition, exquisite detail and uncluttered settings remain free of adult ‘nudging.’ (Sometimes, well-meaning art instructors can stifle, or conventionally corral young, malleable artists.) 

Next week I’ll return to the Commons for more of their work. In fact, I plan to purchase a roll of slim red ribbon to bind together groups of 4 cards (with their envelopes) to offer as gifts to cherished friends. 

Discovering little jewels certainly enriches my life!

4/8/18: Alzheimer's- the Ultimate Terror 

That one word is a synonym for the ‘long, slow goodbye,’ as people we love are ravaged by this awful thief- of memory, time, joy, sorrow, knowledge, of everything that makes us part of the human family. 
It’s the only disease among the nation’s ten most common causes of death that has no effective medicines on offer. A diagnosis of this scourge is devastating, not only to patients but to their families. It has beaten the world’s best neurologists. Billions have been spent testing drugs that fail. In fact, most potential treatments never get past the testing stage.  

Now comes the wonderful part. 
Dr. Dale Bredesen is a neurologist who has worked decades with his colleagues to fix that. He’s just finished a book detailing what’s been learned.  
I couldn’t put it down. I’ve read it twice in three days.  
Bredesen et al have made some giant strides toward killing this killer. It’s called: 

The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent And Reverse Cognitive Decline 

The book marks the beginning of a research and treatment revolution. Its most important realization? Alzheimer’s ...*’isn’t a single-cause disease, but one with many potential contributors.” *(taken from chapter 5) 

His paper, published in September of 2014 in AGING, announces the magnitude of the problem.  

‘Recent estimates suggest that AD has become the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind cardiovascular disease and cancer... 

A woman’s chance of developing AD is now greater than her chance of developing breast cancer.’ 

Most of the other diseases happen due to environmental factors, dangerous lifestyles, or a single molecular failure. That’s how Alzheimer’s has been tackled in the last 40 years. The hunt was ‘for the cause.’ 
This new way of thinking- from ‘identifying the cause,’ to ‘identifying the causes’ has yielded huge advances. 

Bredesen likens previous research failures this way: think of the brain as a house that stores everything that is precious to its owner. Roofers have been trained to recognize- and fix- one hole in its roof very well, but they don’t address -or recognize- 36 other holes that need attention.  The result: too much rain gets in for too long; the house is eventually awash.  
Today, though, new technology has made possible a much more complete understanding of how to identify those other ‘holes’- the molecular mechanisms responsible for potential ‘roof’ (cognitive) failure.  

The number 36 isn’t pulled out of the air. Bredesen and his team have identified 36 different contributors to eventual brain neurodegeneration to date. He thinks a few more will likely be found. Lab tests are learning to identify how dangerous each of the ‘holes’ is. (If most are fixed, the ‘house’ can still be maintained and habitable.)  
It is yet to be determined how many ‘roof holes’ a person can safely live with. More research will lead to new revelations. Bredesen and his team will continue to improve the EnCODE treatment, tailored to each individual’s metabolic needs.)    

The patients’ dramatic responses to Bredesen’s ReCODE program- a combination of pills, diet changes, reduction of stress, minimization of inflammation, especially of the bowels, as well as many other therapeutic changes - are incredibly heartening. They knocked me over.  

Honestly, there is so much to learn and ponder in this tome that it’s impossible to get into it all, here. The man can write clearly and well. His smooth, natural delivery is never boring. Read, too, about the obstacles he’s had to contend with over the years. I was often floored, and frustrated. 

Kindle has the book, but I’ve ordered a hard copy so I can carry it everywhere, underline, make notes and bend page corners.  It isn’t a thick tome, by the way; there are 12 chapters packed with the most riveting discoveries/information I’ve read about in years. Begin with the introduction. I jumped around the chapters for the first reading, but read it much more carefully the second time, not skipping anything. The next read will concentrate on the science. 

The patients’ accounts of their personal battles with this insidious monster, and what they’ve experienced on Bredesen’s ReCODE program, leave me awed and excited. 

If you’re curious- if you want the very latest information on what is being done to diagnose and then beat back this terror, read the book.   
At long last, the bright light at the end the tunnel IS NOT an oncoming train.   

(And no, I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I’m just immensely interested in keeping up with medical advances. 
For me, this one tops them all.) 

4/1/18: Over The Rainbow 

It’s Sunday, March 25, 2018. 

Joe and I are standing ‘way above the chimney tops’ under a vivid blue sky, looking down upon a magnificent rainbow as it gradually materializes 100 yards away, in the middle of Horseshoe Falls, in Niagara Falls, Canada. 
Its sun-lit colors grow more vivid as it forms, until the entire shimmering arch completes itself, terminating at the American and Bridal Veil Falls area, about 500 yards up the road. Imagine that! A full rainbow, directly in front of us! 
Magical! 

Birds fly over and under it, soaring effortlessly in the cold, crisp air: any cries they make are drowned out by the Falls’ thunderous power. 

From our huge window we watch as this ephemeral wonder hovers just above a white horse pulling a white carriage full of visitors leaving the American Falls for Horseshoe Falls. (Remember that white horse and carriage in Oz, collecting Dorothy?) 

Thirty stories up we feel the earth tremble as mega-tons of water roar down the cliff. 
The scene is surreal. 

We are literally ‘over the rainbow.’ 

Ahhh, this one’s fading... fading... gone.... but, dream-like, another one is gradually becoming visible through the mist. Its primary colors glow for a minute or two before it dematerializes, a feat reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat’s mischief above Alice, in Wonderland. 
This ‘here again, gone again’ enchantment continues for nearly 45 minutes. 

How did we wind up here? 
We were idly wandering the Internet, investigating hotels near interesting places no further away than a morning’s drive from Saginaw, Michigan. (No dogs, please, they all said.) Suddenly, up popped an ad from the Embassy Suites Hotel. The photo was a gasper. 
‘Come visit- and enjoy the best view ever of Niagara Falls.’ 

Oh, Lord! The sight was fantastic! 
We’d come here with family and friends over the years, but had never stayed in a posh hotel. This one was tall (42 stories) and slim, shooting straight up from a small footprint. 

As if it heard our skepticism voiced, it offered another photo- of a suite that sleeps six (two double beds and a sofa bed). One wall was a huge window, high above the ‘Big Picture.’ 

“No way this price is legit,” we scoffed, as one. 
‘Way!’ said the ad. ‘This suite can be yours for $71.00 American Dollars.’ 
(Two little caveats: 
-Only on Sunday night, as it’s the ‘off season.’ 
-No dogs allowed.) 

Hmmm. We decided guests probably leave in droves on Sundays after breakfast, especially during the school year, leaving these lovely rooms vacant. 

The hotel’s incredible offer was beginning to feel -credible. 

We debated about 2 seconds, then booked online. Nervous that we might wake up the next day and back out, the hotel threw in some ice cream with the cake: 

-A $30.00 voucher if we’d dine at the Keg Steak House on the hotel’s ninth floor. 

-Plus, we could have one free alcoholic drink and free munchies during happy hour. 

-Plus a free breakfast with lots of fresh, hot coffee. 

These three enticements (and three more we ignored) secured the hook and reeled us in. 

I can hear you asking, “What about Bryn-dog?” 

Well, to keep myself from noticing how cold I was in the dog park two weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a personable woman- formerly the head of a prestigious Arts and Sciences high school, whose three biggish dogs were now romping in the park with Bryn. Long story short: I chatted about having viewed a tidy boarding kennel that morning. (We were beginning to accept that we can’t take her everywhere.) The kennel was quite nice, but the cacophony of barks was deafening. Quiet Bryn would find that extremely unsettling. Another thing; the dogs- often up to 40- are left alone all night, though there are cameras, and an alarm.... 

This year we’re celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary by planning short jaunts to beauty spots. Janet smiled and said, “Well, why not consider a live-in dog sitter? I highly recommend mine. Janie’s a reliable, educated young woman who loves and understands dogs. My three guys love her. She even has a key to my home.” 

She came to our home to meet us. Bryn took to her immediately! Joe and I liked her, too, and the price was less costly than to board Bryn. So, Janie is in our home this Sunday, all day and night. She’s sending us short texts, photos and even a brief video of Bryn playing happily outside with her. 

She’s going to work out just fine! 

Back to the narration: 
Throwing a few things into a little backpack at 7:45 a.m. Sunday morning, we motored to Port Huron and through Customs (which took all of 2 minutes), then drove Canada’s QEW highway to this National Heritage Site. 
Total travel time: exactly 5 hours. 

The check-in lady clicked her computer keys for a few seconds and then said, with a smile, “I’ve upgraded you to another very nice suite at no extra cost, with an even more encompassing view, as it’s on a higher floor. You can move in right now, at noon, instead of waiting until 4:00 check-in.  Is this acceptable?” 

Yes! 

We rode up 30 floors, opened the big door and walked to the window- and--Oh, My God. 
Before us was one of nature’s most spectacular wonders. 

When our growling stomachs gave up hinting and began to shout, ‘Starving!!’ we finally went down the elevator to The Keg for an excellent meal (which wasn’t cheap) and the same stunning view, just much lower down. Our coupon helped reduce the bill. $30.00 off is not a small thing. 

Here are some astounding statistics offered by the Niagara Falls National Park: 

- 3,160 tons of water flow over Niagara Falls every second. The huge carved out bottom is 170 feet deep. 

- 75,750 gallons of water per second pour over the American and Bridal Veil Falls. 

- 681,750 gallons per second cascade over the Horseshoe Falls. 

- The water falls at 32 feet per second, hitting the base with 280 tons of force at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and 2,509 tons of force at the Horseshoe Falls. 

- Niagara Falls is capable of producing over 4 million kilowatts of electricity, which is shared by the United States and Canada. 

- Four of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie) drain into the Niagara River before emptying into Lake Ontario. These five Great Lakes make up almost one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply. 

Now the sun is low. Mist continues to gather at Horseshoe Falls, smudging the upper rim outlining its deep curve. I remain glued to our huge window for hours, looking, writing, while Joe sits next to me practicing blues chords on his electric guitar. (He’s brought along a little para-acoustic mini-amplifier and headphones, so I hear nothing.) 

 

Much later I glance up- to find the sky a deep, starless black. I’ve been so immersed in trying to capture all this verbally that I hadn’t noticed. Without my glasses the lights from the downtown buildings and signs are blurred jewels of red, green, gold, white and blue. The effect is lovely. 

It’s bedtime. Spotlights flick on. While the American/Bridal Veil Falls are still well defined, the Horseshoe Falls has entirely disappeared behind mist. 

After opening the window a few inches we are soon lulled into sleep by that deep, constant roar, a sound that’s existed here for over 10,000 years... 

-- 

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3/25/18: The Thinker 

3/25/18: The Thinker 

 In the last, bitterly cold week Bryn-dog really wanted our attention. Alas, we were otherwise occupied. So, she developed a very interesting way to divert our minds – and bodies- to doggie matters. 
Here’s how it went. 

Bryn is normally undemonstrative. Her tail will rise slightly to form a more pronounced comma, and wag once when she greets us, often with her orange musical snake dangling from her mouth. She’ll toot it in various interesting ways while her eyes light up. Today though, she really wanted to play with us outside, not just make her snake sing while we watched. 

In our defense, it was really cold outside, in the teens, with lots of snow; her humans clearly preferred art’s gentle pursuit near the fire...Bryn, though, loves snow. She loves us in the snow, dashing about along with her. 

She began asking for our attention in the usual way, with a very gentle nose bump on Joe’s leg. He glanced down, smiled, fluffed her ears, and carried on demonstrating how to work out an intricate chord on the guitar. 

She sighed. Moved to me. Nose-bumped my knee almost imperceptibly. I responded the way Joe had, knowing she’d eaten, done her business, and enjoyed a bully stick for dessert. Anything else could wait a bit. 

Bryn disagreed. 
I watched her move to the window to think. 
How could she move our complacent, too comfortable selves outside...?) 

She sat, staring out the window. 
Thinking. 
Strategizing. 

Remembering where she’d hidden something we valued, a long time ago... 

After a good while she came back to Joe, bumped him gently again, and captured his gaze. 
Her eyes moved east, to the front door. 

Please, Boss; I want out. 

That look is easy to interpret. Joe got up and opened the door. Bryn raced out and bounded through the snow to somewhere behind the garage and workshop. 
We took up where we’d left off, working out chords. 

A few minutes later I felt her eyes boring into me through the glass front door. Bryn wanted in. 
I got up and opened it. But instead of entering, she remained just outside- to drop her long-lost Frisbee at my feet. 
She looked up at me, hopefully. Her tail twitched. 

What?? That thing had vanished ages ago! She’d hidden it somewhere out there early last December, after we’d tossed it just once, hoping against hope... 

Bryn isn’t keen to retrieve. 

Now I examined it. After being stashed in deep snow for months it still looked fine. So, I flung it out, as requested. She dashed after it- and brought it straight back again to drop right at my feet. 
I was shocked! This had never happened before! 

“Hey, Joe!” I called.  “You won’t believe this. Bryn’s resurrected her ‘lost’ Frisbee; she wants us to throw it!” 
“What? Why bother? She never ever brings it back!” 
Well, she’s doing it now. Come see!” 

Joe came, saw, and, looking baffled, tossed it to see for himself. Bryn galloped away, pounced on it with great enthusiasm, then raced back in double time so we wouldn’t close the front door, thinking she wasn’t coming back with it. 

Plop. It was placed at his feet. She sat, enjoying his astonished reaction. Her tail wagged once. 

Again, Boss! 

My Lord! What was happening here? 

We stood in the open doorway holding our breaths, too flummoxed to remember to close it, too surprised to shiver, or even don our coats. Our mouths hung open. We found ourselves applauding as she fetched and then delivered it right to us, time after time. 

But- and here’s the topper- after ten or so perfect retrievals she began to place it one porch step down- then two, then all three steps- still directly in front of us, mind you, but jusssst far enough away so we’d be lured down onto the sidewalk to retrieve it, so she could... 

Whoa! 

My hair prickled. 

Finally snapping out of our stupor, we belatedly shrugged on our winter gear, and flung that cloth Frisbee over and over from different areas of the yard, then cheering her on as she charged after it. 

Bryn was absolutely delighted! She ran and jumped and plowed through the snow for a long time, happy to bring it back. Once she even snatched it out of mid-air! Not a few times we pretended to chase her, or threw the Frisbee to each other while she tried to get it. We froze, but had a rollicking good time. 

Later, watching her sleep upside down in her nest, we quietly reviewed, in properly awed voices, how cleverly we’d been manipulated. 
-She’d known all along how the ‘fetch it’ game worked, but simply hadn’t been interested before today. But she knew what game we liked. 
-From deep within her brain she’d retrieved the memory of precisely where that Frisbee was buried. 
-It would be used to lure us outside, one step at a time... 
-She’d set her plan in motion. 
It was wildly successful! 

Hmmm... 

Sometimes our doggie blows us away...

3/18/18: Mucky-Muck Delight  

Bryn, Joe and I stopped at one of Bryn’s favorite bark parks two days ago. The thermometer registered 38 degrees, just warm enough to encourage a half-thaw. I opened the second of four gates- and gasped. The much larger ‘big dog’ park was a quagmire! The earth had softened into black glop. Muck, two inches deep in places, was everywhere. Doggie paws would pound it into thicker treacle. Bryn would be filthy in seconds, not to mention cold and wet. And how on earth would we cope with that amount of mud when she entered our car again? 
So, we backed off and opened the ‘small dog’ park gate. This area is used much less in winter, as little dogs cope poorly in deep snow. So, its ground had remained semi-firm. 

After a few minutes watching Bryn sniff its perimeter we noticed another couple had driven up. Their two pre-teen girls led a middle-sized hound into our area, remarking that they’d be crazy to let Samson play next door. Cleaning him up would take forever, and after that they’d face mucky-muck on their car seats. 
No, thanks! 
The two dogs sniffed each other, but didn’t care to romp yet. 

Then- another car drove up. It sat there for a long time, but we noticed that its chassis moved and swayed, as though a very large animal was moving around in there. 
Finally, a woman wearing an attractive fur pillbox hat and fitted winter coat got out, then struggled to extract three leashed, handsome, rambunctious golden retrievers wearing expertly combed, shining off-white coats. They looked fresh from the groomers. She finally managed to lead them past the first two gates- a tricky business, as their three leashes, connecting to one main lead she’d anchored to her wrist, kept tangling as they scrambled over each other in excited anticipation. The resulting confusion made for quite a spectacle. 
(Why hadn’t she removed them from the car one at a time? 
Oh, well...) 

As I moved closer to her she glanced my way, trying to keep her balance. 
“Hi!” I said, cheerfully, speaking through the chain link fence. “You might want to re-think going into the big dog area; it’s a lake of mud. Come in here where it’s nicer...” 

She shrugged, too busy coping to smile. “Doesn’t matter; my guys love all that room; we’ll be fine.” (Only yesterday it had been fine- about 29 degrees. A couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen, producing a white, clean, hard field. But today’s considerably warmer air had utterly changed that topography. 
Couldn’t she see??) 

Okay. Fine. 
She’d been warned... 

I backed off and all of us watched, riveted, as she eventually managed to unhook each dog’s leash and then open the fourth and final gate. The three animals fell over themselves to be the first to charge inside the big park. Barking happily they skidded through room-sized puddles of brackish muck. One gorgeous guy actually lowered himself to roll around and around in one before turning upside down to wriggle deeper! 
In seconds he was unrecognizable. 
We groaned in unison. 
He stood upright and shook mightily. Black water and mud- and the inevitable bits of poo that hadn’t been picked up over the previous icy weeks- clung tenaciously to his once-gorgeous coat, or flew off to splatter the lady’s. 
She seemed unperturbed. 
It was surreal. 

The other two retrievers raced up and down the long field on long, pale, fringed legs that kicked up, and collected, dirty water and mud paddies. Their bellies were coal-black strings. Their softly bannered tails were now soaked black poles from which dangled so much clotted mud that wagging was all but impossible. 

But wait! This show wasn’t over!! 

That lady left them to walk back to her car, where she leashed, then extracted (with much difficulty) two more biggish, short-haired, enthusiastic tan dogs of uncertain vintage, and led them into that park. 
Both gleeful animals were transformed in seconds. 
We all gaped in disbelief. FIVE?? 

Was she a dog walker/sitter? Were they were out for their afternoon exercise? But how could this be? She couldn’t return them to their owners’ homes in this state. 

Or, were they all hers, and she truly wasn’t worried about practicalities? 
Her car’s interior was probably doomed... 

None of us had ever seen such drastic transformations- from svelte, groomed calendar-gorgeous dogs to ‘creatures from the black lagoon,’ as the two children dubbed them. 

The woman’s fur-lined boots sank deeper as she stood out there cheering on her charges as they ran happily about, or wrestled. She even tossed ice crusted, blackened, shredding tennis balls for them to fetch. Her mittens turned black. 
But. Never once did we witness distress or annoyance in her voice, or on her face. She stood out there enjoying her dogs’ enjoyment, seeming to live for the moment. Everyone was having fun
Her motto could be: Don’t worry; be happy; there’s only now... 

Twilight was morphing into darkness. We began to shiver and decided to go, which meant we’d miss their eventual departure. That would be fascinating theatre, lasting a long time. 

Joe warmed our car and we and the other couple collected our reasonably clean dogs and drove away, shaking our heads. The woman would be up half the night trying to make those five animals acceptable. 
Where would that happen? Inside her house? Surely not. Her shower would gag, then cough it all back up. 
Outside? How? Garden hoses were shut off for winter. 
Could she hope to resurrect her car’s interior? 
How about her own spattered winter coat and boots? 

So many questions... 
The work she faced tonight simply boggled our minds. 

Huh! I admit that, looking past my amazement and wonder, I did feel a sneaking admiration for her chutzpah. 
There was probably a lesson here, somewhere... 
But, just perhaps, it had been taken that one step too far...

3/11/18: Meadow Brook Hall  

England often nibbles at the edges of my mind. For almost 40 years that country was an integral part of my life. I wore out 4 passports to go there to be with family, and to admire its lovely gardens and classical architecture- early, middle and late Gothic and Tutor styles, especially- the best examples of which are found in ancient, ancestral homes and thousand-year-old cathedrals.  I sorely miss these structural wonders. 

England’s traditionally delicate winters make for stunning scenery. I loved how snow would gently collect around mullioned windows, or enhance primeval forests. So when Joe wandered into the kitchen one day and set his iPad in front of me, I gasped. A stunning old- home? castle? -was pictured, featuring wonderful carvings and graceful archways built with stone and brick. The building radiated warmth and comfort in the late afternoon light. 

“Where IS this place?” 

He smiled. “Only an hour and thirty five minutes away by car. It’s the entrance to Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester Hills, just north of Detroit.  Isn’t it gorgeous?” 

It was, for me, a deeply pleasurable reminder of England. 

During Michigan’s often difficult, long winters we’ve taken to driving around America for a week or so- to Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and southern California, to explore their natural wonders. But I rarely see human architecture that captivates me as completely as it did in England.. 

We are a very young country, preferring to be- innovative. Modern steel sculptures are featured on huge, grassy knolls that front imposing mansions or museums or important buildings. Some homes are mostly giant windows and have lots of angles. Most don’t appeal to this traditionalist. Buildings erected with an absence of curves, with little appreciation of the warmth of wood, are, for me, empty of soul. 

Now I was gaping at Tudor Revival architecture created in the early twentieth century, that was practically on our doorstep! 

So, of course, we loaded Bryn into the car and made a day trip there last Friday. Joe booked an hour-long tour, starting at 1 p.m., through this American beauty, born from the imagination of Matilda Dodge Wilson, wife, then widow of, John Dodge. She later married Alfred Wilson, a lumber baron. She was, by the way, one of the richest women in the world in her own right, at that time. 

Read about Meadow Brook Hall here.

We arrived at noon, and took Bryn for a walk on a paved path that wound through a freshly fallen snowy forest, a lovely part of Meadow Brook Hall’s landscape. A large bridge arches over a wide, burbling stream near the house, and every tree and bush was coated with icy snow. The effect was magical. Bryn wandered along sniffing deer tracks while we absorbed its quiet serenity. (Matilda’s adopted daughter, a famous horsewoman, rode all over this 320-acre property.) 

The house is splendidly appointed inside. The stunning chimneys outside, and their corresponding fireplaces inside, arrest the eye. Each fits the room it’s in, but none are cavernous. A nice fire would heat the room without roasting its residents. And oh, the wonderful, wide, thick doors! Each is a work of art, beautifully decorated with hinges and carvings. Even the door handles are handmade. 

Matilda traveled extensively through Europe admiring its spectacular architecture, and thus developed an eye for detail. She brought her knowledge back to Meadow Brook- and her instinct to ‘do’ –but NEVER ‘overdo’- yielded spectacular results. It took three years to build Meadow Brook Hall. Though her home comprises 88,000 square feet of living space, I never once felt uncomfortable or lost. The layout makes perfect sense. She designed this ‘castle-house’ to be warm, welcoming, and accommodating, instead of immense, imposing and ostentatious. 

Her Tutor ballroom could have been gigantic, but is better described as welcoming, without being vast. I thought it delightful. By the way, there is an air of mischief, too, incorporated into many of the carvings and stone gargoyles scattered about. Many depict events they’d experienced, or are medieval-type caricatures of Matilda, her husband or her children and friends that depict lots of subtle silliness, if you know how and what to look for... Matilda had a fine sense of humor. 

That ballroom and the garden room are among my favorites. 

The wonderful floor-to-ceiling leaded windows in the bedrooms are set into oriels, to better view the gardens. Their fragrant flowers would perfume these rooms all summer. 

Castles and giant homes in England often possess ceilings so high -20-25 feet- that one’s voice would echo. (Oh- and because heat rises, the medieval V.I.Ps below would always freeze in winter unless they stood right next to the fireplace. 

Meadow Brook’s are lower- perhaps 15-18 feet high- and frequently supported by huge, carved timbers. Some ceilings, though, seemed to float suspended; -for example, in the dining room- and the beautifully done plasterwork up there doesn’t detract from the room’s lovely walls and flocked paper. Everything is the epitome of Taste. 

She was truly gifted. 

There are secret passageways, secret doors, intriguing, narrow circular stone staircases leading to the highest ramparts, or to the upper floors- she thought of everything.  Every little thing. 

There are two changes I’d make if I owned this jewel: marry ‘Meadow’ to ‘Brook.’  Meadowbrook Hall. 

It seems to flow better.... 

And I’d remove the (three or four) huge steel abstract sculptures that sit on the hills as one motors in and out of the estate. They simply don’t fit. Not one bit. 

There’s one more wonder: the basement. Perhaps my favorite of the three floors. I’m sitting here trying to find the right words to help you picture its gorgeous cathedral ceilings- the incredible bathrooms, the game rooms,  the tiles, the wonderful little gargoyles— 

Michigan has other architectural marvels like this to explore. We plan to. (By the way, Meadow Brook was donated by the Dodge-Wilson family to Michigan State University- now Oakland University- in 1967, when Matilda died (while still living there). The campus is close, but you’d never know it.) 

The courtyard, the stables, that wonderful bridge, the ramparts--- the entrance door and its handle and a thousand other details- Ah, I’ve sputtered and run out of descriptive adjectives. 

One has to see this place to understand how special it is. 

Fascinating facts: 

Meadow Brook Hall, a national historic landmark, has: 
23 bedrooms 
24 bathrooms 
5 staircases 
24 fireplaces 
110 rooms in total 
It is the fourth largest historical house in the United States. 
The National Park Service maintains its vast, hilly grounds and wildlife.

3/04/18: Deliverance - part 2  

(Dear readers: last week’s column began this saga. You may wish to review it before reading this second part.) 

Every day meant another bureaucratic battle or three. The insurance people were extremely resistant to even coming out to see the flooded cottage. It took two months to receive the industrial strength fans I should have had within 48 hours, to dry out the cottage. The horrible part of months of stalling? Black mold stealthily crept up the walls of the library and insinuated itself into every cupboard in the kitchen, expanding an inch a day. By the time the fans were finally operating, mold had blanketed almost every damp, vertical surface in the cottage. So now the insurance company would face a much bigger repair bill. (I’d get that money from them eventually.  It was fairly owed, and I am, by nature, a bulldog.) 

My lawyer read them their own contract, which stated that fans had to be provided in a timely manner for flooding disasters ---or else they would be sued for massive damages. 

They’d lose, and they knew it. (I’m not the sort to sue, but their haughty refusal to respond for so long brought out the fire in me. I’ve rarely been so shocked and angry!) 

The fans were delivered without notice one evening while I slept. I didn’t realize their van had crept up the long driveway until morning. What petty defiance! It took me an exhausting half day to get the huge machines inside the cottage using two long, heavy planks dragged from David’s workshop so I could inch them up the path, then up the three steps to the main entrance and finally into the sunroom. Only two outlets worked in there- sometimes. But at least I had something, now, to shift the wet air outside and could return the small fans I’d borrowed from Gaynor. 

The huge ones ran day and night for over two weeks, but it was too late. Most of the walls were gone: the mold had won. 

It was so unnecessary. The insurance adjusters had simply needed to inspect first thing, install the fans immediately and begin funding the restoration as it progressed. We’d paid big premiums for 30 years and had never once made a claim. But. 

I was not British. 

I was not David or my late mother. 

If one is not British, one has no credibility in Britain. 

Zip. Zero. Nada. 

The rats were being addressed, though. 

Dilbert loved his work, and, eyes shining, he tackled this formidable job with enthusiasm.  It was a true rescue. I was exhausted, and, after despairing that I’d ever get the insurance company- and implacable English utility firms- to help me, I longed for a champion. Dilbert was a modern knight. 

But now, having laid the traps, he sighed. 

“This poison works wonders- slowly. I highly recommend that you find lodgings in a hotel in Ross-on-Wye for a wee while- four or five days. I need time to do what must be done. It’s not safe to sleep here just now. You are overrun. 

Believe it.” 

I refused! No rodents would evict me! Besides, every night spent in a hotel meant I’d have to part with more of the money my lawyer retrieved when he closed David’s bank account.  (David would never again be independent, but would need full-time care.) 

The next morning my friend Aaron (who’d found David collapsed on the bedroom floor in December 2008 and summoned help, thus saving his life) offered his services again. I’d decided to clean out the big, water-soaked attic, a herculean task. 

Aaron opened the ceiling’s trap door, lowered the heavy ladder, and ascended. I began to follow, but suddenly he stiffened, backed hastily down the ladder and feverishly re-secured the door, but not before I’d peered up to see a dozen large, red-eyed rats positioned in a ragged circle around the open hatch, glaring down at him. They. Were. Furious. 

Aaron is a farm lad, rarely ruffled by anything, but now he turned to me, white-faced and horrified.  “Leave tonight, Dee.  Those rats have established their base. They consider us invaders and will not hesitate to protect their nests from attack. Dilbert is so right! Listen to him!” 

Still mutinous, I went into the back bedroom to make the bed- and froze.  Its walls were alive with gnawing noises radiating from multiple new places. Muffled squeaks filled the air as the rats urged each other on. I realized it would be stupid, and yes, dangerous, to stay here. 

There are times to hold the line, and times to fold up one’s tent and temporarily retreat… 

I gathered up my few clothes to wash in town, and motored to Ross-on-Wye and its centuries old Royal Hotel. I was offered a tiny, snug room- more like a closet, really- for a mere token fee (twenty pounds), because sympathetic management knew my story. (I would sometimes eat a simple meal there and chat with the staff when I came into town to visit David and shop for essential supplies.) 

That first wonderful night is enshrined in my memory. I showered for ages, savoring the hot water, and then crawled between the crisp white sheets and thick blankets and welcomed the best rest I’d had in weeks. A hot English breakfast in the hotel’s lovely dining room, under its 15-foot high ceilings, was truly memorable. And to think I had at least three more days to anticipate! 

Fortified, I motored the six miles back to Bryn Garth cottage to carry on. Wearing masks, the workmen and I ripped down ceilings, steamed off rotting wallpaper and applied full-strength bleach to salvage walls not terminally moldy. The rest were torn down, exposing centuries-old vertical beams. 

A few pictures:

Rat droppings showered down, blanketing the floors. I kept busy loading the mess into huge buckets to empty into the forest. 

Starting on the third day after my move to the Royal Hotel, bodies began turning up among the scattered tools and bags of lime and plaster. We found dozens of corpses under freshly cut replacement timber. These were tossed into heavy black plastic construction bags, which were then tied off, hauled outside and heaved into one of the huge dumpsters. It was hard, satisfying work. (A big moving van had packed and removed dishes, upholstered chairs and sofas (which went to people who knew how to dry and restore them), the dining room table, boxes of salvaged books, framed pictures and assorted bric-a-brac, giving us space to work. 

The roof crew sealed the holes at the roofline, redid the foundation, and tore out all the cupboards. New ones were ordered. Joe sent funds via Chase Bank in Traverse City, directly to my lawyer, who deposited the money in his account, which kept me going. I was not allowed to open a bank account. So this was my way around that obstacle. 

Chase Bank management in Traverse City, by the way, was wonderful. Knowing my situation they maneuvered through innumerable international regulations so that I could survive, and eventually pay the builder in full. (I reimbursed the bank as soon as the insurance came through at the end.) 

Finally, in March of 2010, I saw light at the end of this dismal tunnel that wasn’t an oncoming train. 

I remember when that realization truly hit; leaving the workmen, I ran to the bathroom for a good private cry, overwhelmed with relief and hope, not just helpless rage at the bureaucratic Machine. The rats were bad enough, but to have to constantly fight bureaucratic indifference and plaster-flat immobility from almost every business firm, was so much worse. It took months to shift those monsters even an inch closer to reason. Some government-controlled entities, like the gas firm, were hopeless. 

That word- ‘firm’ -had taken on an entirely new meaning. 

For Example: I was being billed every month for consuming lots of Gas, stored outside in a huge sausage-shaped tank. It was mysteriously diminishing at a steady rate, (so they said) even though I hadn’t been connected for months. No cooker. No heat. Never mind: the delivery man came as scheduled; looked, ‘filled it,’ checked a form, left. No amount of reasoning with him made a whit of difference. Bill after bill was sent to me. 

I repeatedly rang Calor to ask them to inspect the big tank, explaining over and over why it didn’t need refilling. There might, in fact, be a leak. 

To send out an inspector would take a week or two and be quite costly, the lady declared. 

Fine, said I. Just come, to make sure. 

They came two weeks later. Looked. Left. 

Billed. 

NOTHING had changed. Oh, wait: I was poorer. That had changed. I objected, via cell phone. Here is a typical exchange. 

Me: “How can I owe this huge sum when I haven’t used any gas? Maybe your serviceman is diddling the amount he says he’s topping up...” 

Spokesperson: “Are you Mr. Firks? (David was hospitalized and unable to speak.) No? 

Are you Mrs. Firks? No? We are sorry, but, as you are not either, we cannot assist you. Please address the remuneration, or penalties will continue to accrue, and service will, of necessity, be terminated. Good day.” 

Click. 

What service? I had nothing. Nobody was listening

Still, every month the bills, for bottled gas and other services (internet, TV, electrics) continued to pile up. I explained to the electric company that all wires been chewed gone since December of 2008. I had only a torch (flashlight). 

Bills came anyway, now lined with red-lettered threats: they would soon cut me off. 

Duh... 

My lawyer shook his head. He’d tried to reason with them... but the bills kept coming. 

You get the idea. Implacable British bureaucracy made my life almost impossible. Even my lawyer had to admit defeat. 

“You’ll have to pay them, I regret to say, unless you stay on to sue all the utilities and the insurance people. I guarantee you’d win, but the legal posturing would take years, and you’d need to live here to address it.” 

Impossible. I had a life in America. I suppose the businesses knew that... 

Anyway, after staying 5 days at the hotel, Dilbert approved my return to the cottage. All the walls were perfectly quiet. Subsequent daily visits by the triumphant rat man confirmed that Bryn Garth was rat-free. 

I returned to carry on working in December of 2009 and left in late May of 2010. 

In that final week before the massive restoration was completed an amazed electrical crewman yelled and sat back on his haunches: he’d been securing a cover over a newly wired electrical wall socket, when enormous blowflies began emerging from these wire-crammed holes. Ugh! 

Aaron solved the mystery. 

Some rats had inevitably died inside the walls; blowflies had laid eggs on their corpses. Huge mature blowflies had eventually hatched, and seeing the sunlight through the outlet hole, they’d emerged. 

DISGUSTING! 

Dilbert confirmed Aaron’s theory. On the bright side, as he’d promised, there was almost no odor. What little there was would resolve within days. The fat, languid flies exited through opened windows and doors. 

The cottage was lovely once again, with the perfumed scents of an English country spring to freshen the scrubbed rooms. The professional cleaning crew left dandelions in a fruit jar to brighten the dining table. The sight brought me to tears. 

After many months away, everything was delivered back home, fully restored. My sister Kath, and my cousin Nancy, who’d flown to England to help, moved the furniture, wall hangings, bedding, dishes, etc. into their proper places. It took two days, and was so satisfying! 

I will never forget that monumental battle to save my home, and will always be deeply grateful to: 

- The contractor who’d rebuilt Bryn Garth because he couldn’t walk away from such carnage, though he was sure he’d never be paid. I was not British, and that much money would be impossible to move to England after 9/11. Plus, the insurance company was continuing to resist, hoping I’d give up. Fat chance. They finally did pay, sheepishly, after I quietly told the agent who came a year later that I would visit the London Times and tell all... I would have, too. That wonderful contractor was reimbursed In Full, to his great amazement. (Read previous column.) 

- Dilbert, with his knowledge and skill in dispatching a most determined, fearsome enemy 

Chase Bank’s unstinting efforts to supply me with funds 

- My immediate family’s invaluable help and support 

- My English friends Gaynor and Aaron, and my wise lawyer, the late Christopher P. 

The State, and its Titanic Bureaucracy, I left to the English. The best of British luck to them. 

Though I’d finally returned to America, I prepaid Dilbert to visit Bryn Garth once monthly for the next six months to insure that all was well. 

It was eventually sold to a couple in 2013. Bryn Garth cottage and the ancient forest behind it are once again cherished.

2/25/18: A (Twice-Told) Tale of Terror and Triumph  

Scene: England: Our lovely cottage on a high hill in the Herefordshire countryside. 

Time: December 10, 2008 

My mother died in England just a few days before 9/11. Her heartbroken husband, David, collapsed from a heart attack in their home seven years later and was taken to hospital via ambulance. As the medical techs left the cottage one helpfully turned off the heat to save on fuel bills. Standard procedure. 

But just days later England was slammed with the worst winter in over a century. Feet of snow fell. And stayed. Birds dropped off branches, dead. (I witnessed this.) Pipes froze and exploded. No one possessed snow shovels, or knew how to cope. Not a soul owned snow tyres. Ice covered the country. People who normally food-shopped every day in their little villages, were trapped inside their ice-cold homes. Snow paralyzed everyone. Lorries couldn’t deliver food to stores. NOBODY knew how to handle road ice. Electricity went. Fridges failed.  Below zero temps stayed, and stayed……….. 

Our cottage's pipes burst, too, but, with David in hospital, no one noticed. Torrents of water roared down from the ceilings and flooded through the structure and out the front door for over two weeks before the disaster was finally discovered by social workers who’d come to the cottage to ready it for David’s eventual return. They were overwhelmed by gushing water. 

A full week later Joe and I were finally notified by authorities (David was eventually able to give them this vital information) and we immediately flew there. David would recover in time, but his lovely home was wrecked. 

Joe had to fly back to the States ten days later, but I stayed on for nearly six months to try to save Bryn Garth cottage. One back bedroom was still habitable. While damp, it was still possible to sleep there. The electric shower failed; toilets froze… 

Every night at sunset I gratefully retreated to that back bedroom to fall thankfully into bed wearing four layers of clothes. There were no lights. Only my torch. My hot water bottle, heated from the big kettle on the wood stovetop, was heavenly to hug as I nestled under the musty blankets. Odd noises were discernible as I drifted into sleep, but I shrugged them off, too exhausted to be curious. 

Weeks passed as I began to salvage what wasn't flood-ravaged. And slowly I began to comprehend that rats were invading my home. Huge ones. I glimpsed them running along the high, exposed ceiling beams in the library as I laboriously sorted through mountains of damp books. They emitted high, raspy, squeak-shrieks as they explored their new territory. And- I was pretty sure their numbers were increasing. 

This cottage was theirs; they'd lived in it for weeks.  I was an unwelcome invader. 

We'll see about that, thought I, as I motored the 6 miles to Ross-on-Wye to buy poisoned bait. I laid it- and waited. 

Two days later, while chatting with my new, very nice builder* in the ruined library, a big dead rat fell from the exposed rafters onto my shoulder before dropping to the floor. His crew, tearing out soaked walls and heaps of destroyed wiring and split pipes, was horrified. 

But I was delighted! 

More bodies appeared in every room in the cottage.  After a few days of tossing the kitten-sized beasts into big rubbish bags I noticed the bedroom walls had gone quiet. 

Ha! 

I slept well for about a week. 

Then, the second wave hit. And it was apocalyptic. 

In the dead of night I woke suddenly to loud grinding sounds. Rats were gnawing, gnawing through the bedroom walls! They’d squeezed through chinks in the centuries-old exterior stone foundation to make their way up between the ancient beams that supported the interior walls. I set my ear against the sheet rock: they were nearly through. Every rat in the ancient forest behind our home wanted in. Wherever I pressed my ear I heard them working toward that goal. 

My God. The cottage was besieged! I'd be overrun in a few hours! 

I banged the bedroom walls with a shoe, which kept them at bay for about an hour. I caught a few winks, but woke with a start when rats ran across the bed. I leaped out, switched on the big torch and screamed at them. Alarmed, the creatures poured back through the hole they'd just made. I was alone again. 

But it wouldn't last. 

Absolutely furious, I dragged in heavy bags of worksite nails to cover the new breach, and then retreated to the destroyed kitchen to add wood to the embers in the little potbellied stove. After downing cowboy coffee and a hardboiled egg I settled down and made a plan. 

This was WAR. 

One I'd win. 

But only with professional help. Right NOW. 

I rang Gaynor, a dear friend in Hereford who raises horses, and she immediately recommended her rat man (vital when one owns stables). 

"He'll sort you, Dee. Dilbert lives to kill rats." 

I rang him immediately, though it was barely daybreak. The guy, alerted by Gaynor to my plight and hearing the desperation in my voice, came straightaway. A tall, whippet-slim, eager fellow in his mid-sixties, with tufts of clean white hair that stood straight up, he was dressed tidily in cords, a collared, pressed shirt and a warm vest. He’d dedicated over 45 years of his life to dispatching rats. (On the phone his wife had assured me that he had a 100% success rate.) 

"Don't you worry, lassie;” Dilbert said, cheerily. “I'll get 'em. I’ll need three to five days." 

He hugged me, grinned, and then cheerfully began the hunt. First, he announced, he’d get the 'lie of the land.' That elderly Sherlock scoured Every. Foot. Of. Ground. within 70 feet of the house, and even climbed up to the slate roof to search the eves for entryways. He explored every inch of the exterior stone walls, and investigated every inside place, even peering into the backs of all the mold-slick cupboards. Occasionally I'd hear delighted yelps, or chuckles sprinkled with 'tsks.' 

Dilbert inspired confidence. He was thrilled by the challenge, and expressed amazement that I'd been living there while the rodent rogues schemed and plotted how to run me out. 

“Rats is clever, you know. Dangerous, too…I’m thinking we’ve a major problem here.” 

Then came the tour. I bundled up and we tramped outside. He showed me how the ‘scout’ rats had stepped from the drooping, cedar's snow-heavy branches onto the cottage’s roof and then entered the attic through a crack under the eves that they'd patiently enlarged with their sharp claws and incisors. They'd even tunneled under the stone foundations to scurry up through the walls to gnaw through the backs of the kitchen cupboards. Dilbert pointed to where the earth next to the foundation was packed down, indicating where they’d dug. 

Feces and bits of half-munched birdseed provided more clues for this dedicated investigator. 

Dilbert went to his car to remove six large black plastic briefcases housing industrial strength poison that rats can't resist. There was an inviting passage built into each case that opened onto their own tunnels…. 

He explained that when they paused to sample the bait as they passed through his cases- only to die days later- their bodies would be desiccated, eliminating most odor. 

He set the big, loaded briefcases on the ground next to well-traveled entrances and winked at me. 

Inside, he located and plugged rat holes – four were gnawed through cupboard backs- with tightly wadded newspapers. "If these wads are shifted, it tells me they're still coming." 

He paused, then added quietly, "But the papers won't move." His eyes twinkled. "They're done for, lassie." 

What happened then? OMG. Tune in next Sunday... 

 

P.S.  *By the way, no firm would take on the renovation; one contractor looked it over, shrugged and told me to plow it under and start over. Others were sure I couldn’t pay; I was foreign, and had no bank account there. Besides, they were overwhelmed by local demands to restore collapsed roofs and rooms that had caved in from snow weight. Business was booming. 

Two months later, in mid-February, I finally convinced a contractor to help, and assured him I most certainly would pay every bit, somehow. But he was positive that I would never be able to manage the huge bill. Horrified by my circumstances, though, he couldn’t walk away, so he’d decided to take it on, and write it off. The massive redo took his crew almost eight months, working five days a week. 

When I paid him every single penny owed, just two weeks after his crew finished the job in May of 2010 (from the insurance payout that took me a year to wrestle from the adjusters), I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more astonished, incredulous, joyful reaction.

2/18/18: Changing Landscapes...  

Joe, Bryn and I have just swapped Florida’s warmth for Michigan’s deep winter. The contrast is stark. Both states, though, offer their own peculiar beauty. 

For nearly two weeks we took in Florida’s greenery, the odd, deeply whiskered, stumpy trees, the purity of a beach’s snow-white sand finer than cane sugar. That same sand, only a few miles down the road, is a denser honeyed vanilla. The difference is subtle but distinct. The Gulf of Mexico though, has a massive wardrobe of glorious colors that project its mood from moment to moment. When smoothed out and meditative it decorates itself with vivid variants of emerald green mixed with clear, pale blue tones trimmed with creamy magnolia margins. When agitated, its chameleon-like surface changes to an opaque, dull steel gray fringed with snow-white, foamy lace. 
I find this endlessly changing canvas fascinating. 

When at peace the Gulf’s countless, rhythmic, broad tongues of water quietly lap Florida’s vast shoreline, leaving unique impressions that last only seconds before the gracefully curved imprint of each is quietly replaced. Every wave ‘tongue’ has traveled thousands of miles for months, or even years, before finally sliding gently onto this beach. 

This rhythm, to me, is reflective of our lives. In between our own formation and dissolution, there can exist a bit more time to make a unique impression, too, before being assimilated into the Great Scheme of Things. 

Michigan winters create a pause that lasts for months. That pause can stretch time, at least for me. I have fewer obligations in winter, leaving more time to read, and to note changes- perhaps in me, and certainly in the landscape. 
Bryn and I quietly observe the Grand Traverse Bay’s ice-lid, which seems strong enough for fishermen to move substantial huts far out there. I love to watch enormous, distant weather systems subtly alter each winter day’s limited color palate. 

The recent sudden warmth has affected the ice’s solidity. It seems to stir, ever so minutely. Parts of it are translucent.  And yet- lots of people happily fish inside their little huts, or move confidently over the arrested water, pulling sleds. 
I, though, wouldn’t go out there, now. 
No sir. 

Fat flakes fall to earth. As though equipped with parachutes each perfect flake seems to take its time selecting a landing spot. Dormant brown/black trees, swathed in a soft, white mantle, are striking in their nudity. I walk miles with Bryn, careful to plant my Yaktrax boots firmly on iffy pavements.What a wonderful invention. 

Bryn likes to sit in front of Sunnybank’s floor-to-ceiling kitchen window to watch the secret garden’s edging gently blur with snow. Bouncing through drifts she’ll scoop up mouthfuls of snow, copying the street plows. She takes pleasure in every cold minute. Her nose constantly moves, reading the news plainly etched in every drift. 
My dormant, winterized proboscis, though, is pretty useless. 

Florida’s average temperature hovered at around 60 or so, and made Bryn drag a bit. She panted after only a few minutes’ play in the dog park. Though I’d trimmed her long, wavy fur and eliminated her beard, she was still too warm. Only days ago she’d been in 12-degree weather: the change was shocking. Confused, she began to shed in earnest. 
But her humans loved it, so she kept her opinion to herself and her tongue in her mouth. She didn’t exactly long for long walks and bike trips, but enjoyed them just the same. 

Ten days later it was time to leave the Panhandle. Using our iPad’s aviation weather maps we wove between systems to slip northward just ahead of huge, ominous black clouds that eventually dumped great quantities of water on Florida and Alabama, literally washing cars off the roads we’d traveled just hours before. 

Now and then we’d visit a rest stop to stretch our legs. And at every one, beginning in mid-Alabama, the temperature dropped ten more degrees. We used our van’s large interior to swap lightweight tee shirts for long underwear and turtlenecks. By the time we entered Michigan and approached Ann Arbor, fat flakes had begun to challenge our windshield. It became very difficult to see- and stay on- the snow-covered, icy I-75 freeway. Cars, who’d whipped by us too fast just moments before, flew into ditches, turned over, or crashed into other cars. It was quite a sight. 

About 15 miles from Saginaw, wind-driven snow had greatly lessened. It was the only fearsome weather we encountered during the 22-hour trip. 

Back in Traverse City Bryn is happy to sniff all the news imprinted on every huge mountain of dumped snow deposited in the Central Elementary school’s front yard. She’ll add her own scent, then trot to the next spot, sniffing deeply, processing mountains of information I could never hope to learn...(How tall, how old, which sex, each canine’s personal scent, its master’s mood.) The answers are parked right there, in thin air. 

Her delight in winter and my own memories of the Gulf’s wild beauty mitigate any sadness I might feel about returning to winter’s landscape. 
Besides, now that it’s mid-February, I’m beginning to anticipate what’s just around the corner...

2/11/18: Some Florida Goodies  

Once again Joe, Bryn and I packed lightly, hopped into our van and drove to Florida’s Panhandle, and Panama City Beach. These last three years of intense cold, deep snow and cutting winds, things I normally find invigorating, were becoming too much. For a few days, Florida’s warmth would make a welcome change. 

Joe and I enjoyed biking with Bryn-dog all around Conservation Park, located about 12 miles west of Panama City Beach. It provides long wooden elevated paths through extensive wetlands, as well as wide asphalt paths to allow visitors easy access to that fascinating territory. Some of the gorgeous birds there took our breath away. 

Sawgrass (which isn’t actually a grass, but a sedge) growing thickly on either side of the paths, is aptly named.  If touched, the leaves’ sharp, serrated edges will cut into unprotected legs, arms and hands. Sometimes, in the right conditions (i.e., lots of standing water most of the time) this nasty, attractive, sturdy grass can grow 9 feet tall. Birds enjoy its seeds, and alligators use it to pad their nests. (Of course, their hides are impervious to its sharp blades.) Sawgrass is one of the earth’s oldest plants, and has learned some pretty awesome survival skills over millions of years. It shrugs off fire, intense summer heat, hurricanes- and humans who may try to chop it gone. Its well-established underwater roots quickly grow new blades. 

It is always unsettling to note alligators noting us. They’re everywhere. We visited another state park and wisely left Bryn in the car while we strolled 70 feet to the elevated observation deck near a small, quiet sunlit lake. Nearby, three big dinosaur-like beasts just floated, watched, and waited. I saw a little dog bouncing and barking before the annoyed owner shortened the leash so it wouldn’t fall into the water. That cockapoo would have made a quick snack. 

We walked some steep, hilly, sandy trails near the small lake that had wild, tangled vegetation on both sides of the paths, which were, by the way, studded with long tree roots half buried in sand. It was easy for walkers to trip. Joe forged ahead, vanishing into narrow side paths, but I was uneasy, and kept to the main one’s exact center. Alligators- and snakes, too- can move at lightning speed, and could easily be parked in amongst the thick sawgrass and vines. Big signs warned that we were in THEIR territory, and to Stay On The Trail. Oh- and report to a ranger any alligator that we might encounter along the way. 

Gulp. 

Smack in the middle of this little lake (or, more accurately, large pond) sat a small mounded island blanketed with scrub trees that were nearly overwhelmed with giant nesting blue herons, who kept flapping in (after dining in the Gulf) to skim above those naked branches before folding their enormous wings to settle into their big, rough nests. The scene was eerily prehistoric. 

Instead of a sandy or stony beach, a wide band of bright green lilypads surrounded the island, barely moving when two large alligators languidly swam through them hoping for a silly birdling to tip out, right into their jaws. 

I couldn’t imagine trying to raise a family out there. The enormous herons seemed indifferent to the monsters just below. 

After awhile we took down our bikes from the van’s back and I buckled Bryn into the very cool Bike Tow Leash. Off we went on a long, exploratory ride, with Joe leading the way. After about 2 miles he cycled back to me with a suggestion: “Ride closer to the side of the path so Bryn can trot on the sidelines. This asphalt looks rough and can be hard on paws for long distances...” 
Good idea, thought I. 
GREAT idea, thought the horrid little chollas lurking in the rough winter grass. Three of these tiny burrs made Bryn lame within five minutes. Fortunately, I noticed and stopped right away. Dismounting, I lifted her paws. There, imbedded between her toes, were the wicked little monsters. They’re the very devil to pull out. 
She was happy to be free of their painful grasp, and after that I made sure she trotted only on the tarmac. Better the devil you know... 
We all moved happily along, enjoying the cool breezes and cloudless sky. The sun made everything green and gleaming, as rain had fallen hours before. 

Miles later we finally wound up back at our parking area. Bryn hopped up into her place in the van and we drove to a little place called Fishale, which served the best darn perfectly cooked 8-ounce hamburger (–just that- no bun-) I’ve had in ages. And, the sweet potato fries, cut slim to make them crispy, were to die for.  I loved every morsel. 

It’s long been a policy of mine to tip a cook who is exceptional. The smiling waitress reported that, astounded, he’d said: “I’ve been cooking meals here for 24 years, and this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.” 
He was happy for the positive feedback. (Great word choice, eh?) 
I’ve always thought that, besides tipping staff, cooks who produce a particularly yummy meal should be similarly rewarded. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, just Delicious. Chefs/cooks strive for culinary excellence, but are otherwise ignored by the patrons they work so hard to please. Their reward: people keep coming back. (Fine and dandy. But they never see them; they’re busy slaving over a hot stove.) 
It’s fun to thank them another way. 

La Quinta hotels welcome dogs (at no extra charge), and when visits pile up, good things happen. As we checked in, the manager smiled and said, “You’ve earned an upgrade; I’ve booked you a suite for the same price as our regular rooms.”  We were astounded! We’d forgotten all about La Quinta’s rewards program when we’d signed up at Zion National Park three years ago. Now we had a suite- a big one- for eight days! Awesome! 

All in all, every day was wonderful: Sun, Sand, Stars, Music, an Ocean gently lapping a pristine beach- and the three of us snug in our Suite. 
Life just doesn’t get much better than this.