fall color 2

Autumn in Michigan

Pentwater in autumn
Pentwater in autumn

There’s a fire roaring in my uncle’s enormous fireplace, the red wine and cheese and crackers are disappearing fast, and Pentwater’s literature lovers are dissecting 30 pages of my novel. It’s my aunt Mary and her book club friends Bev and Ellen. They’re smart, well-read women, and I’ve given them several chapters about my main female character so they can spot any flaws or holes. They talk about those 30 pages for two hours.

This is good timing. I’m working on my characters now, trying to deepen them, give them more dimensions. I’m writing long bios on all of them, even the minor characters. I’m picturing them in my mind in different settings, listening to them talk like an eavesdropper. You can’t eavesdrop on your own imagination, can you?

I just returned from a quick visit to Michigan. I come up regularly, typically in July or August to escape Austin’s heat and get my fix of Michigan’s summer charms: swimming in Lake Michigan, walking on white sand beaches under a sun that doesn’t punish, eating my weight in lake perch and sweet corn and cherries. I stay in Pentwater with my aunt Mary and uncle Bert, who have spent most of their lives here and now live in a big home they built back in the woods, a short walk from the big lake. Every time I come they take me in like a lost son.

Pentwater seems eternally unchanged, swelling and shrinking with the seasons. It swells in the summer with tourists and beachcombers and pleasure boaters from Chicago and Wisconsin, then empties out after Labor Day weekend and sleeps all winter. I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a cottage here, on Bass Lake, and my family made the drive from Kalamazoo (where I was born) on summer weekends so my brother and my cousins and I could spend our days playing in the lake and catching frogs in the drainage ditches and running off our energy outside while the grownups sipped manhattans and talked about whatever grownups talked about.

We left Michigan for Texas when I was 12, and it took me years to shake the pang of nostalgia that would strike every September when Texas was still mired in summer heat and I knew the leaves were changing and the air was turning cold and bright back in Michigan. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve experienced Michigan in autumn, and now that I don’t have to ration my vacation days, I wanted a big dose of it.

It was pretty much a perfect fall week: crisp air, pumpkins on porches, leaves painted red and orange and yellow, doused in slanting fall sunlight that makes it feel like the golden hour all day. Bert and Mary took me on our annual pilgrimage to Scotty’s in Ludington for perch, we’ve made homemade Italian sausage and pasta, I drove down to Grand Haven to catch up with my cousin Courtney (another literary soul who’s supported me throughout the writing process) and to South Bend to catch up with my cousin Megan (who’s about to move to Chicago to take a great new job running admissions at the University of Chicago’s business school).

A few years ago I came here for two weeks while I was writing the draft of my novel and wrote each day on their sun porch, then walked on the beach in the evenings. So it was nice to come back with a finished draft and let Mary and her friends have a look. They like the character, they think she’s believable, and more importantly, they care about what happens to her. Bev said she was disappointed when she finished – she wanted to read more. Also good. They gave me some suggestions, asked good questions, and had me jotting notes to myself about changes I need to make. Then we had homemade fettuccine and Italian sausage. A good night all around.

And a good visit. It was a nice break. Now, back to work.

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ACL 2014 at Zilker Park

Moshing for Beck

I’m going to get back to work on the novel. Really I am. As soon as I can take a breath.

Austin, you’re a beautiful distraction. But I really need to get back to work now, I have this book I’m trying to … what’s that? ACL? In the park, with highs in the mid-80s? Well … just for a few days.

Of course I was going to Austin City Limits. I’ve gone for 13 straight years, through the highest highs (more transcendent performances than I can count, from Arcade Fire to Café Tacuba to Los Lonely Boys in the gospel tent) and the lowest lows (the Year of Dust, the Year of Mud, the skin-melting 100-degree days, and we won’t speak of the night that Bob Dylan sent 10,000 people rushing for the exits after three songs). It’s an Austin ritual, an orgy of sun and bodies and sweat and flags fluttering above the writhing masses. And it kicks my ass every year.

It’s about more than seeing the bands and hitting the food tents (which are always good. Thai fried chicken at a festival?). For the last eight or nine years, it’s been an excuse for my core group of friends – guys I went to college with that have stayed close ever since – to get together for four nights of musical brotherhood.

Everyone stays at my house (which becomes a sort of middle-aged dorm all weekend).  Thursday night we party like it’s 1989: the kitchen counter fills with bottles, the fridge fills with beer, everyone makes a drink and catches up a little, then Jerry, my freshman year roommate and the group’s Minister of Music, plays cuts from a couple dozen obscure bands so the rest of us can figure out who we want to see. Most years we segue into a trip down musical memory lane, playing road trip anthems from long-defunct Austin bands, maybe breaking out some bad ’80s hair bands or old Sabbath.

We drink. We swap stories about jobs and kids and marriages, we talk about favorite shows from past ACLs, and at some point Buck – the group’s Minister of Jokes – starts throwing down some of his best material until some guys are laugh-crying. This year the festivities went until 4 a.m. (I was out by 1:30, for the record) before everyone flopped onto whatever bed, sofa or air mattress they’d claimed.

Walking past the Stevie Ray Vaugan statue to Zilker
Walking past Stevie Ray’s statue

Then, suitably sleep-deprived and hung over, we lather on sunscreen and walk all day in the heat and the sun – starting with our ritual mile-and-a-half hike along the lake from the American-Statesman parking lot to Zilker Park.

ACL always shrinks the city for me. My friend Dan, who I met at the UT student newspaper 25 years ago this summer (happy anniversary, brother), is always there with his neighborhood crew. I bump into co-workers, old friends, former students. It’s like going to a small-town July 4 parade, everyone you know is probably somewhere in the crowd.

Dan and Dave, ACL 2014
Dan and Dave, ACL 2014

It never fails to test my stamina. Every year the sun seems a little hotter, the crowds a little denser, the evening walk back to the car a little longer. And I know it’s just me getting older. This year, all of that was magnified by the shift from mountain to city. Going from the cabin’s solitude to a milling mass of 70,000 people was kind of dizzying the first day. Then Jimmy Cliff, decked out in gold and grinning like it was his first time on stage, started playing and everything was good.

This year gave us the best ACL weather ever, thanks to a perfectly-timed Thursday night cold front, but musically it didn’t have as many highlights for me – there wasn’t that early-in-the-day band each day that blew my mind.

Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff

But there were enough: Jimmy Cliff, Spoon, Ozomatli, Lana del Rey – I even got into Eminem’s show a lot more than I’d expected. And then there was Beck. A few of us moved up close to the stage for this one, which was only possible because Outkast had siphoned off most of the crowd to the other side of the park. Beck, who’s two years younger than me and still looks like a video store clerk, delivered a great big rock and roll show that made me glad I made it 13 in a row this year.

Now where did I leave that novel I was working on?

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Pearl Jam on the big stage
Pearl Jam on the big stage