For anyone not neck-deep in the hat-phantasmic hoopla surrounding the royal wedding, allow me to present a less drama-soaked alternative: watching plants grow!
It occurs to me, that I have watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders–a British television show on air since 1997 that refuses to die no matter how many casting changes occur.*
If you know the genre, there typically is a picturesque village holding a Medieval Faire with costumed residents oozing quaintness and exhibiting occasional homicidal tendencies.
If you are unfamiliar, I recommend a movie by Simon Pegg called “Hot Fuzz” that crystallizes the best and worst bits about the deceptively serene English countryside:
The thing that captures my attention more than the body count, is the number of community fêtes thrown. There’s like, what, one every episode? It makes me wonder if it is a national British pastime to dress in Ye Olde itchy togs and con people into playing cheesy parlor games for the sake of the church roof fund!
This brings me to today’s topic: American Block Parties.
Most block parties are an organized potluck gathering on barricaded side streets with no other function than to bring a community together to eat. Saturday gives me the opportunity to attend one that is equal parts British Fête Fundraiser and old-fashioned American street festival.
Wellhouse is a community program that buys local houses, renovates dilapidated neighborhoods, and provides housing and skills training for formerly homeless residents. They also promote a ‘growing’ community with an emphasis on sustainable practices and energy conservation along with farm gardening.**
Wellhouse hosts a plant sale each year. You go for the plants. You stay for that little something extra you won’t find at your local greenhouse: community!
At first, I beeline to pick up the greenery I want to fill out the barren landscape choked with crabgrass and despair that is my backyard.
Per usual, my teenage son has a trajectory of his own.
I keep dragging the man-child away from one table in particular. (I need to ogle flowers with exotic names like ‘Clemson’ and ‘Hyssop’, don’tcha know.)
I promise my child a specialty cupcake just so I can plant shop. (Twist my arm.)
I don’t know how good the chocolate cupcake with chocolate whipped frosting was, I just know it took my son less time to inhale said cupcake than it took to remove the wrapper.
I pick the one with the raspberry garnish.
I have no regrets.
If you want more rib-sticking eats, you might hit up the royalty-hued catering provided by Purple Blaze, a hybrid of Southern and Ethiopian cooking.
Sadly, I have no time to sample their fare, mostly because the boy-child is pushing me to go, however, even I as a non-meat eater have to say the wafting odor of barbecue is positively mouth watering.
You wouldn’t think there is be more in store at the festivities, but you’d be wrong. The gray, overcast sky can’t put a damper on the upbeat spirits.
There are white-tented tables with various arts for sale. My arms are mostly full of greenery, but I stop to admire the selections.
And fabulous arts of the crafted clay variety provided by WMCAT or the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology.
Here’s CC showing off her colorful floral-designed Pot:
Before long, my son is dragging me toward our Prius in a desperate bid for freedom, but I chat and take pictures as if this isn’t killing him slowly.
Moving between lazy droplets of rain, it is possible to find your smile while listening to The Fabulous Vans.
As I am packing up my car to go, I chat with the guitarist who is setting up for a performance. We exchange brief biographies, the way strangers do.***
I point to my kid who is slumping, hang-dog, in the car since mommy isn’t hopping to like he hopes. Timmy points to his daughter, Sierra, still polishing off some ribs at a nearby picnic table. He brags about her musicality and involvement in local choirs.
“You wouldn’t be biased about her talents at AlL?”I joke.
Her dad laughs and denies partiality, “Of course not.”
We talk about kids and music for a bit.
I bemoan my teenager’s rebellion against piano and ask whether he has to badger her to follow in her father’s footsteps? He assures me that she’s the one who wants sing.
He can’t say enough great things about her. Apparently, she’s even influenced the music they play.
“We usually play classic rock covers–like Led Zepplin’s “A Whole Lot of Love” but Sierra sings from some of her favorites: Twenty-One Pilots or One Republic.”
“I’m sorry,” I interrupt him. “Did you say Twenty-one Republics?”
He corrects me without laughing, much. By now, the rest of the band has loped over, and agrees to stage a picture for me. I hear them play as I drive away. Their enthusiasm isn’t in the least dampened by the drizzly venue.
I spent the rest of the day trying to plant things while simultaneously killing as many weeds as I can.
In the spirit that embodies fine British murder mystery programming, there’s been a summer fête, someone has to die!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Regarding Midsomer’s Suspicious Death Rate: I do wonder how a fictional hamlet apparently no bigger than Rhode Island can survive quadruple homicides on a weekly basis without running out of people?
**I totally stole the Wellhouse information from a flyer available at the front table.
***Even though we all know about serial killers, no one expects them. They are like the Spanish Inquisition this way.
Thank you for joining me for a retrospective of the Mother’s Day bonsai bonanza at Meijer Gardens. I highly recommend you attend the special exhibits like these, or, failing that, stopping by to enjoy my obsessive photography habit.
I was reminded today that being human takes practice and it is, thankfully, not as hard as propagating orchids. I did not know, when I headed to the Meijer Gardens Orchid Show, that I would learn that flowers grow in forms of glass, peat moss dreams, and human bonding–both casual and eternal.
Sleepless after ill-conceived, late-night revels with the Princess Bride and Futurama, I staggered to Meijer Gardens Saturday towing a camera with a mostly-dead battery.*
Thank goodness for iPhones.**
My son dragged me to a corner and refused to budge while we both waited for salvation in the form of a fearless babysitter incentivized by college debt and the promise of at least a Benjamin to keep the orchid’s safe from harm.
The minute my child disappeared with his sitter, I was off. My goal—to photograph as many blooms as possible before my teenager got bored and came back. So, basically, like the count down timer on a nuclear device–I was set to go!
iPhone camera in hand, I stalked exotically named flora.
I hadn’t hit my stride when I ran into a mother and her 26-year-old son. We were fighting to capture the same bloom without flashing each other to blindness.
The mom struck up a conversation as I waited my turn at the luscious fuchsia petals that somehow managed to be the stealth bomber of the orchid enclave.
I was too focused on the flowers. I almost missed hearing that this well-spoken young man has Asperger’s. And like a flower turned to the sun, I lit up meeting him.
To his mom, I said, “My son has ‘classic autism’, he’s non-verbal.”
“I know. I saw you earlier with him.” She confided, nodding toward her son, “We reached him through his love of photography.”
Her son took a break from photographing the coveted blossom. We shook hands. He told me his name and then asked me for mine. I spelled my name out for the young man. He dutifully entered it into his phone—taking delight when I asked if he knew how to spell my last name—citing the Harry Potter – Salazar Slytherin reference. He showed me his phone and he had it letter perfect.
Unfortunately, in the hustle, I totally missed taking his name down. (The day was about photography not blogging, so my notes were whatever I could slap into my phone between pictures.) Looking later, high and low, I couldn’t find his name. If you know this young man, tell him I said ‘Hi’ and ask him to find me.
But, because I met him, my whole day changed. I wasn’t there just for the flowers, but to flower in the company of human experience.
And in writing about each person I met, I decided, I needed to invent an appropriate orchid name.
First, I met…
The Freckle-Dusted, Curly Charmer – a/k/a Rachel
In such a small space, it is not hard to run into people—several times even—at various stations.
I inadvertently stalked this couple throughout the gardens: Rachel and her very tall, camera-shy companion, Kyle—a smug owner of a Samsung Galaxy phone who taunted me periodically with the amazing shots he could take.
Not to be outdone–here’s one of the best I captured:
We exchanged observations while snapping pictures.
Almost every plant had a ribbon—though some of them could be the floral equivalent of an ‘Honorable Mention’ participant award as far as I knew. I have a policy of admitting my ignorance up front—it saves time and effort.
“They all look so beautiful,” I told her, “I really don’t know how the judges could evaluate the merits of any flower.”
That’s when Rachel dropped her orchid bomb!
“I’m sort of a cheater.” She confessed.
When pushed to explain, she said, “I was a biology major at Grand Valley [State University] and I had this professor who showed us how to propagate orchids using a method of injecting genes to create new flowers. So, I understand a bit more about this than most.” ***
This whole time I’d been standing next to an orchid whisperer and hadn’t known it!
Later, while trying to recapture what she told me, I tried to find an appropriate article on ‘gene splicing’ but failed. I did, however, stumble across an actual process to gene-test an orchid’s D.N.A. to discover its parentage: Orchid DNA
Basically, you can C.S.I. an orchid’s ass to find out ‘Whose your daddy?’ so to speak.
In our many encounters, I mentioned how rare it is for me to get out and interact with the world.
(True Confession Time: I was a bit giddy at the orchid extravaganza. I probably seemed a bit drunk with excitement—kind of like a deranged puppy with a floral fixation.)
I asked if I could take her picture for my blog—and tried to set a ‘privacy’ setting so her picture wouldn’t be plastered all over my feed. But the challenging wifi or vicious internet pixies played havoc with the Facebook options.
Rachel shrugged, saying she didn’t mind. This only encouraged me.
“It’s hard for me to go places sometimes.” I laughed and gave my iPhone a little shake. “So, I kind of live on Facebook. It’s weird, I can live so close to people I know but never get together with them. And yet, this summer, a friend from Japan is coming here and we’re going to meet at the nearby mall!”
Then Rachel said something profound.
“Facebook—it makes the far world closer and the close world farther away.”
It struck me as so true, I made her repeat herself so I could type it in my phone. Yes, I am that pushy.
Every time I ran into Rachel and Kyle, we’d fall into conversation. Well, I babbled at them and Rachel willingly exchanged floral witticisms that I could not possible recreate here. You’ll have to come up with your own horticultural insights, I’m afraid.
Except, I can share one universal truth: “Crab grass is the bitch bane of gardening.”
Everyone I met was friendly, tolerant of my intrusions, polite and sharing. None more so than my next flowery friend.
Gratia Umbra a/k/a Elizabeth N.
A slender blond with an elegance that matched the floral occasion, Elizabeth carried with her a functional camera and used it like she knew what she was doing. So, of course, I asked whether she was planning on posting them online and could I ‘friend’ her to see them.
She politely accepted.
If I were to name her using floral taxonomy, the Latin to describe Elizabeth would be A Shade of Grace or Gratia Umbra.
To Elizabeth, who got the shots I could not make. Thanks for sharing.
I could not conclude this story without letting you know of the absolute perfect ending that almost didn’t happen. A providential duo I would regret not knowing.
Defining them by a flower name that accurately tells you who they are is impossible. But I’ll try. For this couple, you absolutely have to use a crossbred variety. Match a shy, subtly engaging flower with a showy, over-the-top genus to create an utterly unique new combination. I give you:
Painted Hearts x Mirrored Souls
Sometimes, you just know. You look at a couple and know they are meant to go together So it was when I met Nick and Oberon.
I was done photographing the official orchid exhibit. But there is an arboretum that is part of the Meijer Gardens that is a glassed-in heaven in January.
I almost didn’t go. But, rare is my chance to visit the gardens and luxuriate in the peace it brings. And I’m so glad impulse led me to meeting a very special couple.
I wandered to the wall of orchids and sniffed to try and find the one that exuded a glorious, heavy smell that was sweet just to the point of being overpowering.
One of the garden volunteers—the human variety, not the plant kind—corrected me when I told her I loved a particular flower for its heavenly perfume.
“Smell this.” Is all she said.
She thrust a small pot under my nose–tiny fringy leaves with even smaller white flecks you could mistake as dots among all the greenery.
Those dots were actual orchid buds, so small, you had to pay attention to see them.
I did as instructed.
It was like being punched in the nose by the goddess of spring. This confirms a long-held suspicion and I told her so.
“I think the smaller the blossom, the stronger the smell.” I nod in satisfaction. “To make up for not being so showy and bright.”
Saying nothing, she put the pot back and I moved on my way.
Without knowing it, this was the perfect segue to my last encounter of the day.
Getting ready to depart, I was stopped by an incongruous sight.
Among the elderly wanderers, nodding white heads in appreciation of the wonderful view, the families with children, grandparents, and photo-happy parents, there sat a glaring anomaly—a tattooed duo dressed as if headed for a punk rave or a New York grunge art review. Ready for something, anything, more hip than an arboretum.
To Nick and Oberon—for the story about the beehive ink alone—I am indebted. The explanations of a clamshell with the number 13 drawn on your wrist. The laughter and the stories too personal to share here. The tattoo review was the most unique floral exhibit of the day. So if I had to pick flowers to represent you, it would have to be these two–so similar and yet so different, and perfectly matched.
You opened up to a stranger, one arguably stranger than most. You shared your origin stories like the super heroes you are. You let me take pictures that said a lot more about you than words could.
You let me remember what it was like to be young, in love, and filled with the adventure of it all. Thank you.
And yes, I will happily descend upon you the next time I’m in Chicago. I’m dying to color in all those black and white tattoos. Let’s find out if you are brave enough to hand me a needle to try.
And to my final floral tribute – the young man who made it all possible.
You invited me to be part of the human race instead of just an observer. At 26, you understand that connecting with people is more important that getting a perfect shot. I will remember you always and name you for your warm spirit as well as the small bits of fuzz that dotted your baby face.
My Velvet-Petaled / Open Invitation
You are not in my notes, my phone, my email.
I’ve looked for you everywhere.
You are the one who caused me to look up.
To put the camera down.
Hopefully this will find you, somehow.
To the autistic young man at the flower show.
You reminded me to be as well as see.
I dedicate this blog post to you, for without you it would not have happened.
You will forever be a gentle poem in my heart:
And for those curious as to the title of this post, it was the flower name I most identified with. We should all be opalescence on the edge!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*If you ever catch me with a fully-charged device, assume I’ve been kidnapped by aliens and that this is a clone doing research for the impending invasion of Earth. Act accordingly.
**Curse you, Kyle, and your fancy Samsung with those neato photo features. Smugness does not become you!
***This quote is from memory. So, take it with a large grain of salt that I got this at all right.
I am spending Christmas Day writing cards to friends because, apparently, I am living the holidays backward. And it started off so promising too…
The cookies were baked and frosted in early December…ready to be handed out to teachers and neighbors instead of requiring exhausting shopping jaunts and wrapping to accomplish. Ta dah!
*She gloated and lo’ the gods of irony did take notice.*
So, of course, the minute I added the last dragée sprinkle, I came down with the worst bubonic nasal funk, like, EVER. I didn’t dare hand out the frosted ones out to anyone…I liked.
We’ve been eating them all in lieu of chicken soup. (Note: I make something like 100 cookies each season.)
As a result of the plague, all shopping was done last minute. Like on Saturday, or as I was calling it, the Eve of Christmas.
I gritted my teeth and plowed through the tinsel strewn madness in a frantic bid not to throttle my fellow man–just so I’d have presents to hand out at the family gathering.*
I stayed up all night Saturday wrapping the last-minute what-nots decorated with frills and furbelows and wondering why BBC America wasn’t showing the much-awaited Dr. Who Christmas special.
*A clue, she has not.*
Dizzy with a stuffy head, thrown by the fact I work from home and days are marked by whether I have to shove my kid on a bus or not, things are spectacularly wonky. Festivities happen in spastic fits and starts if they happen at all. To be perfectly blunt, I’m off! In fact, I am so off in my order of traditional holiday crapola, that we celebrated early.
LIKE…a DAY early.
I woke Sunday thinking that it was Monday because I saw a mail van delivering to the house next door. So, Santa came early. I made the traditional pop-n-fresh, cinnamon rolls from a Pillsbury can baked into the shape of a lumpy Christmas tree the way my mom always made for us when we were kids. My son happily opened his giant tube of popcorn and his Orville Redenbacher fun-fun air popper.
It is only after the morning is gone and all the presents are opened that I realize…oh, wait. It’s only the 24th.
So, here we are, December 25th with nothing to celebrate. The snowy day precludes the emergency ‘road trip’ that I blankly promised my son yesterday with the caveat “If the weather is good.”**
And we woke to this…
This wouldn’t be so all-fired tragic if it weren’t for the irony of it all.
My kid, the Calendar King, said NOT ONE WORD about the fact mommy was off by a day.*** I guess all kids dreams of Christmas coming early. This does explain the kind of puzzled looks he kept giving me when I told him to keep opening his presents though…
So, Happy Holidays to everyone… and I might as well wish you Happy New Year. I’ll be with you in spirit/s next Saturday as we toast farewell to 2017! Because who in their right mind would put New Years on a Sunday of all things! Am I right?
*I was shocked to find other people shopping and leaving me with no place to park but the butt-end of the parking lot. Seriously, why weren’t they all home with their families and snug in their beds?
**Note: all weather is good weather for travel according to my son. The roads could be melting with lava, hail could be denting the roof and Pteradactyls might be making a bid to return from the primordial ooze from which they sprung and he’d still say, “Car ride?”
***Yeah yeah. I know. Non-verbal autistic. But he could have pointed to a calendar or something!
I was going to title this 2017 – A Year in the Crapper and include an appropriate photo, but my friends tell me I overshare.
So, here’s my modified letter to the world:
2017 KINDA SUCKED
It took a whole year of bad things happening for me to put my finger on exactly what was wrong…
2017 – LIKE TREE-EATS-ROOF KINDA SUCKS!
Yeah, yeah. Having a tree drop on your house in a sh*t storm was a pretty big effing clue. But you could just chalk that up to really bad luck and shrug it off. If it weren’t for all those bad juju kinda things that kept happening.
I TRIED 2017. I REALLY DID.
I tried traveling to exotic locations and exploring for fun and adventure. I generally learned there is a diminishing return on happiness. The farther away we got from home, the more likely we were going to need an E.R. trip or an intervention. We are now circling the drain of 2017 and sticking mostly to home as a result.
My son loves to go places and sleep outdoors.
Or so I thought.
Instead, what I found was photographic evidence that my son just likes a variety of places he can write calendars–or, if not writing them, he is contemplating it with a fistful of markers or crayons awaiting his next fix.
My son discovered a love of popcorn. That was a new obsession.
This really was his primary food source in 2017
Camping meant lots of time spent popping this way.
But despite the happiness campaign the people at Orville Redenbacher are pitching, popcorn can’t fix everything.
Not even calendars can do that.
It also took me nearly a year of misery to realize something…
Despite the occasional flashes of joy and happiness I managed to capture…
In most of the photos I took of my son…he was not smiling.
He was there. But he was an unwilling participant in:
Mommy’s Campaign for Happiness and Symptom Control.
If 2017 were a fairytale–it was the Hans-Christian-Andersen-dark-with-a-side-of-maniacal-laughter kind. And it would have opened with this line…
THERE ONCE WAS A HAPPY BOY…whose mother tried to address his recurring rage-outs with a wave of pharmaceutical fixes.
We tried several different combinations of psychiatric panaceas. If a drug caused a side effect, we gave a pill to fix the side effect – or in theory, that’s what it was supposed to do. Instead, it produced yet more side effects that, surprise, surprise, we’d try to address with more medication.
It was the loopiest, saddest, roller coaster of a year you can imagine.
Part of me wanted to believe this was a transition year. That turning thirteen and becoming a dreaded teenager was the root of this particular evil. But after several incidents of biting in school this fall, I decided to stop the massively medicated merry-go-round–at least in part.
We backed off the majority of his drug trials. He is back on the two drugs that have the fewest complications and I just deal with side effects that only have him crawling up the walls and not sleeping instead of the combo-platter pharmacopeia backlash that produced jittery anxiety, biting, and head bashing, among other things.
I now take comfort in momentary joys–as rare as a solar eclipse and therefore exponentially more cherished in their singularity.
But when added up in seconds, the joys of 2017 could not outweigh the sorrows.
In this year, I have watched my happy boy transform in a downward spiral of misery and depression, taking me with him.
Then I had to leave my job to take care of him. Because, once he outgrew his handlers, I was the only one who could get him off the bus.
I left a good place to work for a life of uncertainty and near-poverty that allows me to work from home in the hours that my son is in school.
The only upside to this stress? I have spent less time developing an ulcer over the toilet tank of a government where The Great Evil and his Cabal of Cackling Soulless Ones are stirring a sh*t stew for the masses to swallow.
So, 2017–that’s it! I am out of it: Out of work. Out of patience. And now, out of time.
I AM DONE, 2017.
I AM DONE WITH YOU.
I am coasting the rest of this year and hope that 2018 has some upside that I just can’t foresee or imagine. But I doubt it.*
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*In a traditional end-of-year review, I usually take a light-hearted look at the craziness of my life. 2017 hasn’t been so much crazy-fun as it has been crazy-needs-to-be-committed. I’m not going to pretend otherwise and that’s my gift to you. Some years, all you can give is the honest truth…even if it is wrapped in a craptastic bow.**
**Seriously, though, being sick with cough and congestion this past week may have affected this year’s letter. Perhaps after I finish coughing up a lung, I’ll find my happy place again?
If my child remembers me for anything, let him remember me for this…
Friday is a dream day-come-true for my ‘little’ man. A half-day of school as a start to the mini-fall break weekend. Road trip, here we come!
We discovered “The Ledges” by joyous accident on a past excursion when we wandered east of our standard Exit 59 pitstop.
This time, we travel to Grand Ledge on purpose, hauling my Canon EOS Rebel XS with the intention of cataloging the experience.*
You can find a description of Fitzgerald Park at the park’s website. But understand, no words can convey the simple pleasure in tramping leaf-strewn, mud tracks that wend along a slow-moving river. This will not stop me from trying, however.
Posting this humble shot to Facebook, a friend introduced me to the true art of nature to be found in the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy.
The sluggish current is dotted with geese and ducks, fattening on late blooming bugs confused by the unseasonable warmth. Ignoring the catastrophic implications of global climate change, my son and I tramp the trail fantastic in search of adventure. Who knew it would end in the best darned French fries this side of Mackinac Island’s truffle fry extravaganza?
Between a rock…and a hard place…you will find a reluctantly posed teenager.
Walking leaf-scattered paths on a sundrenched day doesn’t present many dangers. One thing you can count on when charting a wooded trail is that generally nice people abound.
Everyone we meet is friendly, and after a moment, recognize my son’s quirky tendency to plop down in the middle of the trail to jot numbers as just another sight along the way.
Tree Swallows Rock – looking like the strangling coils of a wooden snake
Leaves crunch underfoot. My cane helps me balance across the footpaths where humus formed of decomposing plants and steep inclines make traversing the narrow passage challenging.
The slope gets gradually steeper until you begin to have sympathy with yaks in the Himalayas.
I am calm in my repose, whistling to my son periodically when his goat-like surefootedness keeps him yards ahead. He disappears around a bend and I hail him to halt. He waits impatiently for me to catch up. Aside from being short winded, I have nothing to fear. Or so I think!
There is no warning. No scary music. Though I sing a half-choked ululation when I am startled by the sudden appearance of a garter snake—or is it a ribbon snake?—dashing frantically away from clumsy feet stomping through its territory. I squawk like a demented chicken, hopping to avoid the tiny red, yellow, and green striped reptilian flag whipping past. Its curving body signals a fervent desire to have nothing to do with me.
I swear it looked like this–Northern Ribbon Snake by Nick Scobel. thank you for the loan. I was too busy shrieking to snap a pic.
A later search on the internet at The Michigan DNR website assures me that I was in no danger—but they fail to take into consideration the effect a small snake has on an unsuspecting woman, on a hill, with slippery, squishy, rotten leaves and rocks and roots to upset an already precarious balance. I’m lucky I didn’t fall into the river, is all I’m saying.
It was a truly idyllic while. We passed the trestle bridge (pictured above, on separate days) where we’d experienced the sound and fury of locomotion just weeks before. It is a quiet sentinel as we pass.
The famed ledges are rocky outcroppings where lichen and verdigris—the coppery extrusion that rusts to a gorgeous blue-green powder adorning many a Catholic cathedral—turn the mundane slabs of sedimentary strata into a magical realm.
Fairies and sprites no doubt whisper from moss-coated crevasses. And red and gold leaves mark a journey through streams of light, chariots with invisible riders steering the autumnal march.**
The trail ends for us at the juncture of West River and Harrison Streets in Grand Ledge and we face the choice of turning left, crossing the walking bridge to Island Park, or going right heading into town. I lure my son away from a moored pleasure boat with the promise of lemonade and a snack toward the option that would let me sit down for a while.
This is how we stumble onto the best d*mned French fries for a hundred miles, if not more.
The Crossroads Barbeque is a most serendipitous discovery. The unassuming block-front, dark glass exterior doesn’t inform the prospective customer what delights are in store. You have to be on the lookout for such a dining experience—it is not to be missed.
I am more thirsty than hungry, but travelling with a teenager means we stop for food on an almost hourly basis. I am so glad we did. And not just because we get to meet the nicest guys behind the glory: Lee Burmeister, co-owner, and Cam, “You can call me Hershel Frobisher,”*** who describes his managerial style as “Giving everyone a hard time.”
Inside Crossroads BBQ, a giant rectangle of space is marked along one side with tables and seating and an open, wood floor that almost has room for a small band and dancing. After meeting Lee Burmeister, co-owner, or as he referred to himself, “Pit Master” of the joint, I could imagine an after-hours crowd breaking out into impromptu two-stepping, or perhaps heavy metal thrash jams, filling the space with sound.
The walls are covered in my kind of kitsch, fire engine red walls interspersed with giant chalk boards scribbled with bright, handwritten menus make the space warm—no doubt an interior design nod to the spicy cuisine offered up.
A cast iron pig ‘oinks’ the daily special—which is what leads me to add an order of fried chicken to my son’s enormous French fry basket. I am not sorry.
My son graciously lets me try a wing as he inhales the rest of the golden-crispy half of chicken that comes out. We’d already been bestowed a platter from heaven—a wholly satisfying mound of fries that suggests the magic of the Ledges walk leads to this particular pot of gold.
I did not come to Grand Ledge to write a blog post, travelling with autism has its limits. But sometimes, the discovery of delicious splendor demands a little improvisational review. I beg a scrap of paper—and am given a hunk of butcher block from a roll—to make my notes. I pepper the crew with questions, while my son explores and attempts to move a piano to find the secret behind a blockaded door. The proprietor is an understanding guy—letting me know he has a nephew on the spectrum. He is un-phased by my questions or questionable parenting.
The secret to the fries is easy—a beer batter coating and a bath in scalding soy oil—they are presented towering high in a thick pile. If you don’t think too hard about it, you can tell yourself these are a healthy treat. The chicken is about as moist as a bird can get without feathers. The secret, I’m told, is “high humidity.” I immediately picture the chickens sitting in a sauna before heading to the fryer.
The fries edge out the chicken by a crispy, salty bite. Then again, I tasted them first. I think I’ll have to go back again and try them in the reverse order. It may take a few taste tests to narrow down a winner.
Lee is affable and proud to show off the winning trophies from regional and statewide chili championships—the latest being a sharp, neon glass sculpture—depicting a 2nd place victory at the BWL Chili Cook-Off in Lansing in September. It’s no surprise that they came a close runner up to “Hottest Chili” considering their claim-to-flameingredient.
The secret to the hottest chili? The pepper of course. Feast your gaze upon this innocuous looking baby:
The Carolina Reaper no doubt lives up to its name. A customer, curious about our conversation about the heat index of a chili so hot it comes with a disclaimer warning that the pregnant, nursing, or elderly might want to give it a pass.
The cook serves up a portion of the diluted sauce and the man eagerly accepts the viscous, volcano-red serving—but one taste and he passes on the offer to try the unadulterated chili by itself.
You could not pay me to try one though. No amount of money is worth taste bud annihilation.
Mid-conversation, my teenager loams large dragging me toward the exit, but I managed one last question. “Do you need to wear protective gear—like an industrial painter’s mask—when preparing the pepper?”
Both Lee and Cam, hold up black, rubber-coated digits.
“Rubber gloves are all we need.” Lee eyes his thick latex mitts for a second, and adds, “But a mask wouldn’t hurt.”
One quick group photo and we’re gone. With only a wafting odor of fries to remind us that Shangri La exists.
We scarper past the Masonic Lodge where a sandwich board outside informs us that pasties are the fundraiser of the day. It’s a shame we are too stuffed to take advantage.
For another hour, we cross the bridge we abjured earlier. We interrupt squirrels and Canadian geese, disturb a young lady fishing, and then my son tries–again–to break into the Grand Princess hitched alongside Island Park. It is time to leave.
We start the walk back and I am serenaded by demands for our next outing:
“Boat ride, boat ride, boat ride…”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Intentions aside, I sadly neglected to recharge my batteries from the day before— where I photographed my son’s school field trip to Post Family Farm. Who would’ve thunk taking 205 pictures of pumpkins would drain a camera battery dead?
**You’d have to be soul dead not to find poetry in these woods.
***I’m not explaining this joke. I find it much funnier this way.
The chatty family at breakfast–who shares an understanding of the role of stress in caregiving those with special needs. How did Alicia do on her conference call, I wonder?
Biking hither and yon, a velocipede pedestrian torquing her camera like an unwieldy bolo tie at every scenic vista. I’m kind of suprised I didn’t garrote myself with my Canon by accident.
What I have learned thus far:
Strangely, the police station is not open for tourism. They were polite, but firm. I’ll just have to count the windows and make my best guess.*
Ditto for the hospital. Though, a very nice nurse did mention that patients could be airlifted via helicopter, saying, “When in doubt, we ship them out!” She was also very pleased to tell me that the medical center was one of the few “free standing emergency rooms” in the state. Now, to Google exactly what the significance of that is so I will be duly impressed…
The airport is a parking lot for planes…planes with highly trusting owners. Apparently a 12-and-a-half-million dollar jet called a Citation Sovereign + landed there just a few weeks ago. I speculated that the ‘plus’ stood for that extra half million. I wonder if they left the keys above the visor?
People on vacation are willing to talk to strangers–probably in greater detail than they would anywhere else. Especially the newly weds.
Congrats once again to the couple from Holland who showed me their wedding photos and chatted in the shade by the Arch Rock waiting area. I’ll make sure to check out Kollen Park the next time I’m visiting Holland. May you live a long and happy life together, may all your worries be in your past.
Seriously, for such a small island, there is an inordinate number of hills. And rocks. And horse hockey.
I managed the tour of the Grand Hotel, getting some good photos and ideas for the finale–yet to be written–but what I really gained was an appreciation for the staff. The many kind people who work there–as well as a mother who took time to chat with me while her son ‘shadowed’ an employee in the program in hopes he might work there himself when he graduates from high school.
I shall take my sweeties and go thither…
Who doesn’t walk their bicycle with an umbrella on a sunny day?
This mom had worked there in the summers of her youth–right around the time the hotel was last renovated. She confirmed that the wallpaper was original, they have no ‘servant stairwell’ (cross that one off the list), and that the wait staff, musicians, and bartenders were housed in buildings down from the hotel, back in the day. The building women stayed in was the John Jacob Astor house which is now called The Grand Cottage. The men were housed elsewhere–possibly in a building called “The Twilight” which is a forest green house down the hill, take a left, and the first on the right. (You can’t miss it.)**
Slipping in and around busy bartenders, waiters, flower vendors, and the myriad other people working the hotel, I was routinely helped, with courteous, generous insistence.
My favorite stop had to be the Tea Shop. The Jamaican clerks were all natural charm and chatted about tea choices and even laughed when I read off a menu item identifying the contents of a $130 cocktail available in the nearby bar.***
I finally asked how I could say ‘Hello’ in the patois of Jamaica. A painstaking effort was made to help me try and say it right: ‘Wha Gwahn’, is what it sounded like. Which could almost be a contraction of ‘What’s going on!” I also practiced the appropriate reply: “Arri, mon!” (Perhaps, ‘All right, man?”) Strangely, the language seems even harder to speak when stone cold sober. Go figure.
I ordered my tea and wandered off to drink it, forgetting entirely to pay. The assistant apologetically brought this to my attention–as if they were at fault for wanting payment!
The young lady and I chatted for a bit. I told her about my son and asked her about autism awareness in her native land. She told me that everyone knows about autism because a great lady wrote a book about her son and it became very well known. I only wish I had taken down the name of the book! Antonette concluded by saying, “Don’t be afraid to bring your boy. Jamaica will be a great place for him. It’s all love!”
How can you turn down an invitation like that?
Her manager called her back to duty, I hope she wasn’t in trouble for taking so much time with me. If he only knew the kindness of such a gift. The thought that somewhere, out there, is a world full of people who would welcome my son with open arms.
It’s all love indeed.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*As dedicated a writer as I am, I wasn’t willing to get arrested to achieve my goals.
**Maybe you can’t miss it, but I certainly did. It is only gravity that keeps me from wandering off this planet by mistake.
***Maybe you’d prefer to save money and make the 125th Anniversary Cocktail at home? A quick search online reveals a bottle of the 100-year Grand Marnier Centenaire costs only $116.00, the 150 Anniversaire Grand Marnier comes in at $219.99 a bottle (Kaching!, and edible gold leaf–strangely enough–is the least expensive ingredient. It’s available, of all places, at Walmart for $76.45 for a pack of 25 squares. Don’t believe me? Check it out here: Gold Leaf at Wally World.
And bonus points go out to anyone who noticed what is particularly strange about the bicycle depicted in the close-up of the wallpaper. I didn’t see it the first dozen or so times I tried to upload the pic from a location Where the Wifi was Iffy. (Which once I wrote that down, looked like a book title for a modern day sequel to Where the Wild Things Are.)
I hit the island like a tropical storm…wearing makeup and shorts and a sweater and a rain coat. (I’m prepared for anything.)
The confusion at the docks means either I gave my luggage to a porter…or someone just made off with my computer.**
Once I’m checked into the B&B where I’m staying, I dive for a bike to start my two-wheeled therapy.
In a giddy rush, I tackle the 8-mile circumference with stop-and-go glee.
Stop-and-go because everything is a picture.
And I mean, E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.!!!
I’m stopping at every cove, each turn reveals a new sparkling shore.
I even photograph the rocks!
(I chuck it at the rolling surf, continuing my life-long experiment in how much I suck at skipping stones.)
There are oddly shaped trees and new construction–I wonder what the islanders have to say about the double-decker mansion going up on the east side??
I meander my way past a makeshift driftwood chair and table hosting a solitary cairn.
I stop to chat about this and that before, I’m off again, weaving my way until I am fish-hooked by a marker signifying the filming of ‘Somewhere in Time.’ A rock with a plaque reads “At this site on June 27, 1912 Richard Collier found Elise McKenna” making fact of fiction.
Does stopping to take a picture mean I’m perpetuating the lie?
The omnipresent seagulls make me a little paranoid…I mean, they are following me everywhere.
I stop to write bad poetry about seagulls pinned to the sky by the wind.
I circle back to the noisy, tourist-engorged center of town…
I clickety-click my way to “The Dock Shack” to ask a few questions about the island’s private harbor to make sure a scene in my book will actually work. I’m assured that the larger boats could dock at the privately owned pier at the far end where my heroine meets a watery fate. (Though, not fatal, as she’s only twelve.)
I have qualms about whether a golf cart could get through this narrow passage way…but then decide that fiction makes all things possible. (No matter how improbable.)
And then, thirsty, but elated, I belly up to the best scenery you can find–overlooking a miniature golf course. I dine with a view of happy families as far as the eye can see.
I sip my watermelon/elderflower cocktail–fluffing my violet so it doesn’t get sucked up the straw.
And I listen…
To the “Good Game” family as they cheer each other on:
“Go, Team Justin!”
(If he’s no taller than his putter, that makes him four, right?)
“Go, Team Evan!”
(Stoically, Evan waits his turn as Justin putt-putts the ball to the cup in what had to be eleventy-hundred strokes.)
Everybody is a winner!
“Crack!” this is the sound their sister’s swing makes as she whacks the ball–hard–and it hits the flag sinking into the cup in a single move. I doubt professional golfers could duplicate her efforts.
She’s all poise and nonchalance as she retrieves her ball.
Everyone high-fives each other and they totter off the 18th hole.
As they leave, I can still hear their echoing ‘Good Games’ wafting behind them.
Then there was the artist earlier in the day. I’m perusing her exhibit and overhearing a NSFW conversation about a date that went nowhere.
“And then, I ask him…’Are you a good kisser?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know. You be the judge.'”
The conversation goes in and out like a static-y station on the radio as I move from room to room. I hear the last bit as I bring my purchase up.
“And then he offers me the couch…’Or,’ he says, ‘you can sleep with me, if you want,’…but that was too weird, so I didn’t go to bed with him.”
To me she says, ‘That’ll be six dollars.”
The waiters behind me are bantering, bringing me back to the here and now. Despite the chill of dusk, there is something warm in their words. They speak in drawling tones–a language born under a hot sun, where humidity slows the syllables and hard consonants are too much work.
Is it…French…? Or…Spanish? I can’t quite tell.
When the waiter returns, I start to ask…and then notice under his name, the tag actually says, “I am from Jamaica.”
We chat for a bit and he tells me he’s been coming here for five seasons now. Flying in from Detroit or Chicago and driving up together.
It’s then that I notice his name, and I’m startled into asking:
“Fitz? Isn’t that a German name?”
He looks at me with his soulful dark eyes–a rich brown to match his skin–apparently unperturbed by my rudeness. “Oh yes, there are lots of Germans and Irish in Jamaica.”
I don’t question it at the time…but now I am wondering if he was pulling my inebriated leg?
I borrow a menu from my neighbors–a father and daughter who’ve been sharing the view of the perfectly manicured lawns.
We exchange “Where are you froms?”
Turns out–we live about ten miles away from each other.
I learn that I’ve been sitting next to a member of the cast of Annie–a production run by Hope College. Ellie tells me that she’s playing “Molly” and that she has a few lines of dialogue as well as singing. She speaks like she’s been in theater for years. She’s ten!
I ask in a conspiratorial whisper, “Do you have a real red head to play the lead?”
She shakes her head. “No, they dyed her hair!”
“Would you have dyed your hair for the part?” I ask.
She considers this. “Well, if it was for a big theater. Yes. Not for just a local production.”
My head is spinning, and not just at the savoir faire of the pint-sized talent beside me.
I eyeball my drinky-winky…
Hey, where’d it go?
I pay my bill, trying not to wince at the total.***
“How much alcohol was in that drink?” I ask Fitz.
“Only a shot and a half of vodka, plus the elderflower liquor.” He seems surprised by my lack of backbone…or knees. “Should I call you a ride?”
I hold up my helmet. “No…’v got my bike. The B&B ‘s not far.”
I pour myself out of the restaurant, slurring my way back to the bike rack. I miss every single horse plop on the way back to the B&B.
Surrounded by families biking, building cairns, playing golf, and being chauffeured by a proud parent from stage to island and back again…I’m tipsy enough to be missing my son. And hoping he’s having as much fun as I am.
There is no high like the freedom from parenting…but a little elderflower liquor certainly doesn’t hurt.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Also drunk blogging…
**Hint…I’m typing on it right now.
***Welcome to the island, all major credit cards can be maxed out here.
I’m taking my post-luncheon peramble to the Fulton Street Farmers Market Wednesday when I stumble on a gloriously sweet find. The Crepes By the Lakes mini kitchen was hopping with customers despite the small crowds.
I had already had my lunch for the day, so it was a total indulgence to get in line for a warm, made-to-order crepe. There was so many choices, despite the petite dimensions of the mobile kitchen.
Owners and entrepreneurs, Stephanie Lenhart and Courtney Verhage, were dicing tomatoes and spinning crepes while chatting with customers. It was a busy scene, but they willingly stopped for a photo when the powdered sugar dust settled.
Because of customers, there was only time for a few quick questions–besides the one the cook shot me: “Would you like strawberries with that?”*
The dynamic duo were somewhat challenged by windy attempts to blow their sign off the cart and plates and napkins flapping like signal flags at the start of a race. But they had happy smiles as they described their products.
Courtney pointed to the Cubano–the first item on the menu–letting me know that this would be their entry in the annual Grand Rapids “Grandwich” competition. Voting begins July 5th and you just have to check the Crepes by the Lakes Facebook page to find a location where you can hunt down this origami-folded entrant:
Sadly, I did not get a picture of a cubano, however, there is video available on the Facebook page that’s downright sizzling:
My personal choice looks pretty sedate by comparison, but don’t let looks fool you!
After a healthy toss of powdered sugar**, I ducked into a nearby farmers market stall to taste test my prize. The warm, buttery slip had been folded into a fan shape. You couldn’t see the precious berries until you sank your teeth into a crispy edge and they popped up with an ooze of butter and cinnamon/sugar liquid.*** It was sweet and yet savory. Each mouthful served up a rich texture of the best a thin pancake can offer, down to the very last, sinful mouthful.
If you go…make sure you are willing to leave, fingers dripping in butter, with a guilty trace of indulgence on your lips.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Strawberry-Bedecked Answer: Yes. Yes I would.
**Warning, powdered sugar will blow up in your face if you let it. It’s the sugary shrapnel of pastry-artillery fire.
Does anybody remember the classic American small town? Anybody? I grew up in such a place–so small, the population numbered under a thousand and there was only one traffic light (and it was the flashing, blinky-red kind) as you drove through.
This weekend, my son picked Exit 59 off Highway 96 heading eastbound, toward Lansing, Michigan, as his road trip du jour. We’d taken this route a few times before, but never got past a quick, farm-glutted glance at Clarksville and a Where-The-Hell-Are-We-Now? tour of Saranac, Michigan.*
This time would be different!
“Okay honey. We’re at Exit 59. Which way now?” I call from the front seat.
My child, who has been grinning the entire way, begins barking commands:
Eventually we ended up at a most-delightful destination: Lake Jordan in Odessa, Michigan.
We dined at the under-construction, but-still-popular Buddy’s on the Beach. Even with half the building covered with rough-edged plywood, the place was hopping. I only saw two servers working the floor and they never stopped moving.
Tequila–I’m not making this up–was our waitress and, even though the meal took a while to arrive, due to the popularity of the joint, she stopped frequently to check to make sure we were okay. She recognized Little Man’s quirky behavior right away and gently made sure he was doing okay, even though she had to be off-her-feet, worn-out catering to so many.
The food definitely falls into the standard diner fare–burger, fries, pizza–category. Hearty and hot and big enough for leftovers to go home. I would say, the pizza definitely looks like the star of the establishment. They were flinging pies and burgers left and right. I had ordered a wet burrito and it was huge. I had to double-check to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently ordered the ‘Grande’ size which claimed to be a pound and a half.
“Nope, ” says Tequila, “If no one asks, we always serve the smaller size. The Grande is huge.”
She holds her hands out like she’s carrying a football…or a ten-pound baby.
Little Man, of course, went with his favorite: Bacon and Pepperoni Pizza.
The food was good, solid fare. I suspect ordering a burrito at a place that specializes in hamburgers and pizza was probably an oversight on my part. But it was good-n-plenty enough. The French fries that floated past me looked to die for.
The place is family friendly, even with a smallish bar on site.
I suspect the beer-on-tap is intended for the thirsty ten-pin aficionados in the adjoining bowling alley.
If you travel with a special needs child, this might be a chancy place. It was a little dark, and crammed with families and the neighboring bowling alley added a certain level of excitement. That said, the wait staff was superlative. The management even schlepped orders when necessary.
The outside park with a clean, if unsupervised, swimming area, was inviting and the small-town atmosphere couldn’t be matched by any five-star establishment, no matter how nice the décor.
You could tell Buddy’s has higher aspirations by the in-laid flooring and outer-space, motion-sensor sink and hand dryer in the women’s restroom:
Flooring not pictured because guests were using the facilities, but trust me, Buddy’s is going places. Although…for the men…the trip requires a detour:
We dined and dashed, but I was able to see that a special event was taking place in the bowling area. Tables had been set up and crafts like crocheted blankets and other miscellany were on display. A quick inquiry turned up that it was a local fundraiser for the “Richards Family.” I was assured it was referenced on Facebook, but a later search turned up unsuccessful.
I kick myself now for not being more diligent. This is the kind of effort that deserves recognition. It is representative of the kindness of small towns that doesn’t tend to hit the big-time news.
Calling Buddy’s the next day didn’t clear things up. The manager I spoke with hadn’t been there Saturday. He thought it might be a softball fundraiser for the local Lakewood Girls’ Fastpitch Softball team and recommended I check out the school’s website. I uncovered zilch! Another no-go for my investigative reporting.
I can recommend the Annual Lakewood Area Lion’s Club Chicken Bar-B-Q, however. It smelled fantastic as they were setting up. And if my kid would have hung around for its start time four hours later, I’d be reporting the quality as well. A picture will have to suffice:
Sadly, the event happens only once a year. So, set your calendars for a nice weekend in May 2018 and check back. I certainly plan to.
From the winding, lonesome roads of Michigan. Peace out!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Not to diss Saranac but even the people who are born there probably wonder how the hell that happened! According to Wikipedia, the claim to fame of the 1.15 square mile village is the ‘world-renowned’ geologist J. Harlen Bretz.