Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 24, 2013

They were both wearing shirts of that orange only hunters, convicts, and ten-year-old boys can get away with. I didn't know much about them---just what you can glean from conversations between strangers overheard on a boat. The mother of one (or both) of them was wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt and denim shorts that were maybe a little too short and she was just dating the bald-headed park ranger, judging by the flirtatious way he fed her peanut M&Ms that he bought from the little concession booth amidships, standing together at the very tip of the bow as the boat plowed through the choppy water. He wasn't the father of either boy---they seemed far too impressed by him for that to be the case. In his distinctive ranger flat hat, with his patches and tags and badge he was all authority. He was cool, even in khaki shorts, and today he was introducing them to all that made him so, describing the things they could do on his island. There would be swimming, hiking, and fishing, of course. But they could also climb the sand dunes or explore the houses abandoned by farmers who found island life too difficult and moved to the mainland. There was a shipwreck and an old schoolhouse and creepy old cemeteries. "I'm on duty from seven to three every day," he told them. "But after that we can do whatever you guys want." The mother smiled as the boys adored this man. I could not tell what the future held for any of them, whether a man tethered to an island in the wilderness could make this work, but I wanted him to. I could not help but root for them.

The boat was traveling southwest in a direct route to the island.  The two boys were innocently leaning against the port bulwark when the first spray hit them. They looked at each other with saucered eyes and a slow contagion of smiles and then laughter. Seconds later the prow slapped right into an even larger wave and a real splash of lakewater arced over the edge and the boys were soaked, all shock and laughter as they turned to show each other just how wet they now were. I leaned back against the bulwarks on the dry starboard side, having caught a bit of their joy, and watched them as the waves painted the deck.

* * * * *

The last time I stood on the deck of the Mishe Mokwa was eighteen years ago when I was eighteen-years-old, half my lifetime ago. A college class took a camping trip to the island and I stood out there leaning against all that graypainted steel letting the waves crash over me again and again until everything I wore was soaked. It was mid-September and the only other people on the boat were my new classmates, including numerous girls---girls from all kinds of different places with all kinds of different hair and none of them had any idea what I was in high school and this would be the first thing they would ever notice about me, an act of stupid joy so much easier than words, standing alone just above where the prow broke into the waves sending them splashing again and again and again and I stood there shouting into the wind and the wet because I was in college and on a boat heading into the wilderness with girls and I was just so excited to be alive.

* * * * *

After the two boys in soaked orange shirts left the deck I entertained the thought of standing where they'd been, then thought better of it. I only had the clothes I was wearing and just the one pair of boots. I leaned over the bow and soon found myself there anyway. After the third wave hit me I looked up at the captain behind his glass with his oldfangled steering wheel and wondered how many simpering idiots he'd seen do this. Had he seen me eighteen years ago? Had he seen ten thousand fools like me? Wet beard, wet clothes, wet boots: I left the deck to show my family what I'd done. My wife guffawed but my wide-eyed kids fought for the chance to get wet too. I propped them up against the side and we cackled and screamed as the waves hit us, each proclaiming that we were the wettest. It had been warm but now we were cool, and my daughter insisted that we do this on the ride back to the mainland too. How could I have known, eighteen years ago that I was about to meet the most beautiful girl I'd ever know, that eighteen years later our eight-year-old daughter would be standing there with me in that spot between my arms catching as much of Lake Michigan as we could in our faces? Our son rested in the crook of my arm, almost too old to be carried (almost) and she was watching us from the back of the boat. We shouted to the world's driest wet blanket to join us but their mother had the good sense not to. I looked back at her and she just shook her head and smiled at what we'd done.

Back to School Project: Favorite-Animal Lunchboxes

Posted by jdg | Friday, September 06, 2013

My wife puts a note in our daughter's lunch every day. Our eldest still has some anxiety about school, and the notes are always written to help her conquer some of her challenges, to let her know how proud we are of her. They are really sweet. This year my son is going to school every day for the first time ever. I'm going to miss them both. I really wanted to make something for him and his sister that would be something like a note from me that they could see every day. So last week I decided to make them lunch boxes decorated with their favorite animals. It is only a matter of time before they get teased into shame over stuff like this, but until then. . .

My unwavering daughter chose a pheasant and a fox (she's been both animals for Halloween). After carving the images into the leather, I added dye and a protective finish, deciding to leave the rest of it natural. On the back I added a fox pocket for mom's notes. 

My favorite thing about making stuff like this myself is designing it for exactly what we need. My kids eat a yogurt cup with every lunch so I put a little leather ring that for that specific purpose in the corner, and a little leather band with velcro to hold a freezer pack. I glued an insulating pad inside, and covered it with a piece of 1950s fabric that I think came from the attic of an old farmhouse that's been in our family for generations. While that pointer isn't the exact breed as ours, I thought she'd also like a reminder of her birddog during her day. There were even pheasants on that fabric.

My son's favorite animal is a red-tailed hawk, and has been ever since that impressive experience of watching a red-tailed hawk flying around our living room. His hawk has a little more detail than the pheasant. I adapted it from an illustration in an old nature guide called Exploring Nature With Your Child. The real challenge here was mixing the dyes to get the right coloring for the red-tailed hawk. I added the cloud and shading to make the hawk stand out a bit more. He's about to catch a mouse (but sitting next to me while I worked on this, my son assured me that the mouse actually gets away).

The roots of his love for his other favorite animal aren't quite as deep. We had just returned from a week Up North when I started on this project, and that's where my son saw his first real porcupine. They were at the beach in Northport early one morning and saw a porcupine walk towards them down the pier, cross the playground, and disappear into the woods. What was he doing coming back from the pier? The children concluded he must have had a little boat moored there. My wife made the potentially unwise decision of chasing him with her camera phone:

Picking quills out of his mother's shins might have soured him on the idea of a porcupine. Fortunately that didn't happen and I found myself carving a North American porcupine into the pocket of his lunchbox, singing "Porcupine Racetrack" the whole time:

"I know that I'm a sinner, but I really need a winner, or the orphanage will close. . . so God, if you're above, and it's orphans that you love, then please help the porcupine I chose. . ." (Sorry, I just went back and watched that clip like six times).

I let him choose some of vintage fabric for the inside of his box. It was an easy choice:

I hand sewed everything while watching baseball (and will probably go back to complete those running stitches this week). I'd never worked with zippers before, so that was kind of a challenge. Initially I thought I'd use zippers from some old sweatshirts or something, but my wife explained I could buy new zippers at a fabric store and she dragged me to one (I fear fabric stores: So much fleece! So many notions!) I was able to find some that were the perfect size and the color even matched the heavy brown veg-tanned leather I used for the back and sides of the lunchboxes! I might even go back to the fabric store to buy some kind of spill proof plastic fabric to put on the inside, depending on how they hold up these first few weeks. The handles are just heavy latigo straps attached to rings.

It felt strange working on such a practical project for them (but then again, I could have bought them lunchboxes for like five bucks, so I guess I don't need to worry about being too practical). Don't worry about me, though: I'm already getting back to work on the extremely impractical projects that kept me busy all summer.