tiny empire, tc #10

Friday, June 16, 2017
Empire, Michigan

I slammed on my brakes just before the second bend in M22, south of Empire, startling my fiance. But his eyes were lit up.

“Did you see?!” he asked.

I drew a really dramatic breath and nodded. I pulled a u-turn—dangerous, probably, but worth the risk.

We backtracked and pulled into the neighborhood along Erie Street — a collection of funky, tiny houses cutely arranged around a village green. This is what excites us.

We’re both 32 years old.

The first tiny house was sort of cabin-esque. Situated a little further off the road and behind a modest podium of shrubbery. He’s a little shy. And definitely a he. Dark, but bright-eyed and welcoming.

And then the blue one — a little reminiscent of the A-frame wanna-be where I grew up, over on Long Lake (the one downstate, in Kalamazoo, not the one up here). It’s a bit of a stretch but I’m an inconvenient combination of nostalgic, romantic, and unapologetic.
All the Icks.

It’s sort of tropical, the blue house. But that’s the trick of Northern Michigan, isn’t it? One year we stayed on Old Mission Peninsula shortly after spending some time in Ibiza and swam out to the raft at Haserot Beach. We laid on our bellies, backs to the sun, and watched the fish swim in the clear blue water below.

“Kind of like the Mediterranean,” I said.
“My love,” J snapped, tutting at me with disgust. “Much colder.”
Again, a stretch.
What can I say?

A diminutive red Victorian. Elegant and established. Regal. Monarchical. This one. This could be a place to display our tchotchkes in heavy mahogany cabinets and re-watch episodes of the Great British Bake Off into the wee hours of the night.
But is that us, really?

One of us, maybe.

The best for last, of course. My favorite — the white one. It’s the first one you see if you enter from M22 on Ontario Street. Simple. Symmetrical. Minimal. Modern and traditional at the same time.  A fusion of our two opposing styles. It seems like it’d be light and airy inside. Perhaps with wide-planked wooden flooring. A neatly designed kitchen that spilled into the living area. Plenty of comfortable seating for friends to kick up their feet after hiking the dunes.

It wouldn’t be  suitable for our tchotchkes—all the little knick knacks we’ve collected throughout the years. I’d have to throw them out.

Or tuck them in a box in the attic because I’m sentimental


And maybe that’s okay.


pine cone, tc #9

Friday, June 16, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan
Leelanau County

I wasn’t ready to go yet, but that’s always the case when check out time rolls around.

“Let’s do something around town,” I said to J.
“My love, I have to work.”

A compromise. I dropped him off at this minimalistic hipster coffee shop on the edge of town in between a terrarium store and a place that sells furniture for the 1%. Cute watering can, though. $50 dollars? I can water two plants with this. 

I walked back downtown by myself. A brief foray into Cherry Republic and then into Brilliant Books because we had been to Horizon earlier. I like Brilliant better — it’s cozier and organized in a way that prevents me from leaving without spending at least twenty dollars.

I browsed a bit and then moseyed over toward one of the booksellers.

“So, here’s the thing. I’m not from here and we’re leaving today and I’m hoping—”
“Oh, where you from?”
“Downstate originally… Kalamazoo. But I’ve—”
“Ah! Kalamazoo! I lived down there for a few years for—”
“Oh, nice! Where?”

We interrupted each other for ten minutes talking about Kalamazoo. The conversation eventually lulled. I lingered, dumb and staring.
“Soooo, what brings you in today?” People in the midwest are socially generous.

“Right. We have to leave today and I don’t want to go.” I left it there because it was already awkward and I wanted to test this socially gracious person because I have a black and rotting soul.

A quizzical look.

“You’ve gotta have something in here about Michigan, right? Michigan stories?”

He wrinkled his nose.

“You like Jim Harrison?”
“The Legends of the Fall guy?”
“He was from up here?” I vaguely knew he was from Michigan, but didn’t realize he had lived so close. Leelanau County, it turns out.

The bookseller walked me over to a section with only his books, handing me a copy of True North.

“Trust me,” he said.


A lucky encounter in Suttons Bay.

A high school friend who I haven’t seen in a few years. His wife, on whom I have a schoolboy crush. The first day of their Up North vacation was the last day of ours. We had some beers at Hop Lot. They have two cool kids, but seemed happy to have time away.

“We’re having some other friends join us, another couple.”
“They just moved from Ann Arbor to Holland.”
“Oh, god!” I cried.


A few beers. Slightly drunk.

We still had to fit in our usual standbys: Glen Arbor, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Road construction; stopped in the middle of nowhere. Inappropriate advances from my fiance.

There’s a woman—a construction worker—holding a stop sign ten feet away from us. She looks like a Gerry. Well, Gerry with the guys, her crew. Geraldine, perhaps, when she gets gussied up.

What if she sees?

“My love, you can have a hot dog at the Pine Cone.”


the queen is upset, tc #8

Thursday, June 15, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan

The same weird ass shit hangs from the ceiling of the general store.
It tiptoes precariously at the border between the artistically eccentric and ‘it puts the lotion in the basket.’
I was bummed. On this particular day the bulbous and curmudgeonly proprietor wasn’t there.
He scolds people who complain when their sandwiches take too long.
If you believe Yelp reviews, he says things like, “Oh, the Queen is upset she hasn’t been served yet?”
(Which makes me like him even more.)
But really….
What’s so wrong with wanting to spend a few extra minutes in paradise?


There’s fog out in the bay, even though it’s sunny.
We’re at the tip of the peninsula; one of my favorite places.
There are a few people wandering around; still early for the season.
A woman stops me to take a picture with her guy in front of the lighthouse. It’s the same spot we asked someone to take our picture the year before, the day after our spontaneous engagement
We snap a few pictures of our own and slap away the sand bees from our ankles.
It looks like my plan for a romantic and lazy late afternoon, sprawled out on a beach blanket, has been foiled.
They don’t produce honey. 🐝


We cursed all the way back to the car, stopping frequently to bend down and itch our legs.
“I need a beer,” I said.
“Yes,” J agreed.
(He’s not a beer drinker.)
“I know a place close by—let’s skedaddle.”


We turned off M-37 toward our destination.
A flower farm. We stopped to take pictures. Irises, I think.
A bit further to West Bay and we pulled into the Jolly Pumpkin.
The driveway loops around a grove of pine trees.
In that grove: rows of white chairs, an aisle down the middle.




coffee drinkers, tc #7

Thursday, June 15, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan

I brew two pots of coffee in the Gevalia, going back each time to a warm but empty carafe. There is no doubt of my genetic relation to this gaggle of coffee-addicted vultures.

I brew a third pot and stand over it, guarding that which gives me life. I pour myself a cup. There’s no sugar so I throw in a marshmallow—a hangover from the s’mores—and head out to the dock with my book: The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot. It’s a collection of slightly chauvinistic short stories set in Northern Michigan. I shouldn’t really like them but I do, except the one about baseball.

The lake isn’t still but it’s calm. The sky is a bit dark in the distance. There’s a woodpecker off somewhere chipping away. The dark clouds get closer. The wind gusts. It blows my hair around. The pragmatic side of me should have probably prepared for rain, but somewhere deep down inside me is this intuition which understands nature and keeps me out on the dock. Ron and Zack’s conversation drifts out to me. They’re talking about fishing: the time they came up a few years ago and were reeling in bass, one after the other.


“You can try this bitch kayak this time,” I said to J, kicking the green vessel his way, the one I had chosen last time we went out on the lake. It was flatter—one of those you sat on top of rather than inside. I despise anything that makes me feel off balance and reminds me that I have a ‘core.’ 

I pushed out in the blue one and knew immediately that my time in the city hadn’t rendered me unable to manage a kayak. I dipped the paddle in the water and turned around to watch my fiance struggle with his vessel, recognizing the shimmy that was necessary in order to maintain your balance. He’s cute, I thought, allowing myself to gush. We were getting married out here in one year, after all.

We paddled over to the north side of the lake, occasionally going our separate ways to explore fallen trees and schools of fish, but always circling back to each other.

“My love,” he said, with a startling sense of urgency, like maybe his kayak sprung a leak. I turned around. “What is it?” I asked. He said nothing but kept looking toward the shore. I paddled toward him.
“An owl,” he said, pointing to the nearby raft.
“Is it?” I asked, squinting. It was small, and it seemed weird to see one in the early afternoon.
“The head’s moving!” J said. And it was. We paddled a little closer.

“It’s fake!” I shouted, splashing it with my paddle.  “A bobblehead owl.”

And so it sat, regally upon the raft, moving ever so slightly and judging us.
Refusing to fly.


shobby-town, tc #6

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Leelanau County, Michigan

We passed a green sign announcing our arrival in Peshawbestown, Michigan.

“How do you think you say that?” I asked my Brazilian fiancé, motioning toward the sign. I raised an eyebrow at him and took a sip of my coffee. Black. Like my cruel soul.

“This is a town?” he asked. And he had a point. The only sign of civilization was a utility pole. He then gave the pronunciation a solid attempt. I would’ve said the same thing myself.
“How then?”



We thought we had driven past it, but we didn’t. This is the progress I’ve needed to feel better about wedding planning, I thought, as we pulled into the driveway. I’m Type Z, but still conscious enough to acknowledge that we’ve been engaged for over one year and have done nothing. This is part of the reason we came up here, but it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the serenity out at the lake. I will never understand people who throw themselves into wedding planning.

We were greeted by Holly, an extraverted black lab, followed by the owner of the farm. She showed us around. The farm was over 120 years old and stunning. She took us through the kitchen and introduced us to her business partner who was also the chef. “He won’t tell you himself, but I’ll brag on him,” she said. “He was just on Man Fire Food for his fire pit. It’s just out here, I’ll show you.”

She showed us the barn and the grotto, where the bar would be placed, and walked us through the garden where they source some of their food. Her parents were tending the garden. It was all very charming and easy to envision a nice little wedding there.  The owner handed us a packet of vendors and we were on our way. “We’re headed toward Northport,” I said. “Any recommendations for breakfast?”

“Try the Tribune,” she said, waving us off.


It was a quick, five minute drive up to Northport. The town was still unbuttoning for the day, despite being nearly ten o’clock in the morning. My kind of people, I thought, but I had a hungry and crabby fiance who didn’t want to hang out at the marina while we waited for places to open. We got back in the car and drove down M-22 toward Leland. The morning had been sunny, but it was starting to get cloudy by the time we got to town.

We walked down to Fishtown, which is a surviving commercial fishing village. Our first stop was the Village Cheese Shanty, because I had to feed the beast. A South Shore (a pretzel bun, ham, dill havarti, tomato, onion, pesto mayo) and a bag of cheese curds, just mildly squeaky (the other side of Lake Michigan is better for these).

After lunch we poked around the docks, stepping around fishing nets, tossing pebbles into a school of minnows in the notoriously clear water. The clouds got darker, though, and drove us back toward the car. We’d parked in front of the bookstore and I noticed, in the window, a poster we had in the cottage growing up. Water Wonderland, it said. A picture of a sun blowing air on Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties. I’d thought about it a few times since my grandparents sold the cottage in 2007. One of those relics that’s present in the background of memories and old family photos. It started to rain. “I’ll wait in the car,” J said. I darted in the bookstore. The downpour began just moments after I closed the door.

I fished it it out of the bin and took it over to the register.

“I told her I should have fetched that marquee,” said the bookseller, looking out the front window. “I can’t get it now, I’ll look like a drowned rat.” She continued ringing me up.
“I don’t have a bag that’ll fit this,” she said.
“Yes you do,” chirped the other worker. “Wrap it in a garbage bag.”
I smiled at their banter and thanked them before dashing out into the rain.

The car was just in front of the store but I was soaked by the time I got in. J was on the phone. I started the car. The windshield wipers wicked away the rain. I turned on the headlights and we drove off down M22. The poster remained dry.

morning ppl, tc #5

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan

I know he’s not a morning person. This is a fundamental tenet of our relationship. I’m really not either, but his is an extreme case. I treaded carefully.

“Look at this,” I said a few weeks before we left for Michigan. It was an Instagram photo of East Bay, taken from a small, secluded beach we stumbled on a few years ago while staying on the peninsula. It was early in the morning and everything was covered in mist. The horizon blended into the sky. It was stunning.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“You know this means we’d have to get up at, like, five A.M., right?”
“That’s fine.”

This quick agreement threw me off. I didn’t push further. I mean, the best thing I can say is that our intentions were good. We had a morning appointment to check out a wedding venue, the Cherry Basket Farm. We’d just get up a little earlier, have our Zen moment at the beach, and then carry on with our wedding planning. A morning as perfectly curated and meticulously planned as the lifestyle blog where I found that picture to begin with.


…the Zen thing was never going to happen.

The day of rolled around. I snoozed the optimistic 4:30 AM  alarm, and eventually shut it off altogether. We staggered out of bed at 8, showered, and trudged to the car by 8:15. We were late, but still stopped for coffee — one of those tiny, roadside huts with a narrow, looping drive thru that I had to maneuver our beastly Dodge around, yet again. I ran over the curb.

“My love,” J said, scoldingly.
“Leave me alone,” I said, my voice creaking and horse. “I need this.”

east bay minutiae, tc #4

Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan

“What do you want for lunch? Peegios? It’s that biker bar by the house, but they have good pizza.”
“Are you crazy? It’s hot.”
“Yeah… something lighter, I guess?”

He ignored my question and I wasn’t starving, so we got in the car and headed in the direction of the cottage.

“Don’t ever say I don’t do anything nice for you,” I said before whipping the car across three lanes of traffic into the strip mall on the corner of 31 and Garfield.

“What?” J was startled. I pointed to the sign.

Jimmy Johns.


We ordered alongside the fine working people of Traverse City, happy to not be among them, for the week at least.

One Turkey Tom, no tomato, with added sprouts.
One Bootlegger Club, as is.
And one Cherry Coke, to share.

We hopped back in the car and drove over to the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay. There’s a small beach across from the State Park. We found a picnic table near the water and plopped down with the goods. Off to the side, a woman had pulled her beach chair into the shallow water and was reading her book. 

We ate our sandwiches in the sun, listening to the waves lap up on shore.


parallel, tc #3

Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan

I tried once and tapped the Cadillac behind me. Gently. But still, I have to keep reminding myself this isn’t New York where that is an acceptable way to park a car. 

I tried again.
What was that rule? Something about two o’clock on the steering wheel?
Same result. No Cadillac tap.

And again.
Something about the front wheel of the other car? I tried to remember. Whatever, the other thing didn’t work so let’s try it.
The results were a little better, but the front of this Dodge Journey was still poking out into the street. I flicked the steering wheel in an expression of gay anger.

I hate this car. It’s the second time we’ve been stuck with a Dodge Journey rental. The websites always promise you a RAV4 and then stick you with some garbage Dodge. Or a Jeep Patriot with Texas plates.

One of the employees from the café—Yiaya’s Eatery and Sweets—came out to watch. I don’t blame her. I, too, would watch a Fudgie tourist try to wedge his way into a parking spot… Not to help, but purely as a judgmental spectator.

She motioned for me to roll down my window.

“You don’t do this often, do you?”
“I do not.” I didn’t tell her I lived in New York. There were already enough reasons to mock me with this parking fiasco.
“Pull up there, next to that car. I’m gonna help you out.”

I kept my window cranked down and followed her instructions. Naturally it was a plucky, fresh faced youth that allowed me to wedge the heft of this stupid fucking car into a generously sized parking spot.

I stuck my head out the window and thanked her. “I’ll see you in a minute for some quarters.”
“Actually, if you hold down the button on the meter you get a free thirty minutes,” she said.
I faked a worshipful bow in her direction.
“For coffee, then.”

summer ppl, tc #2

Monday, June 12, 2017
Traverse City, Michigan

“—Oh, that noise is a frog,” babbled Jack, my nephew. He interrupted the middle of a previous thought to point this out—something about Grandpa, a small plastic bucket, and the fish they caught earlier that day. The mystery stands.

He continued spouting off unfinished thoughts and random nature facts as he showed me around the cottage, leading me to a canoe kicked up on the shore. I stopped for a moment to admire the lake and breathe in the air. Pine trees and moss. It smelled exactly the same as it always had. Fresh.

My tour guide had abandoned me by the time I turned around. I could hear him chattering away somewhere off in the distance.

His attention span is genetic.


My sister struggled to place her infant daughter, Isabella, into a papoose as I looked on. A papoose. Because we’re up north so we’re going all out Ojibwa, apparently.

“Is this how it’s supposed to go?” she asked, skeptically.
“You think I’m the right person to ask?” I said.
“Do you think she’s comfortable?”

Her body looked like a starfish and she was at risk of being suffocated by my sister’s chest.

“She’s fine – she likes it,” I said. “Let’s go.”


“McMansion monstrosity,” I said, pointing out a giant house wedged between the road and Spider Lake. It was for sale.

“Overpriced,” Sara replied. Eight hundred thousand dollars (we checked later), so she was right.

We continued walking down Lake George Trail – a dirt road running along a thickly forested ridge with Spider Lake on one side, Lake George on the other.

“I’m into this one, though,” I said about a charming and tiny A-frame that couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet wide. “The garden’s a little overgrown, but I like that.” The owner stomped up from the side of the house as I was finishing my thought, muttering something: an admonishment to Fudgies, probably.

“She’s so quiet,” I said, referring to Isabella.

“She’s like this most of the time, totally chill,” Sara said. “When she does scream you know it and so do the neighbors, but she’s usually like this.”

“Well, we’ve already irritated the locals anyway, so live your life girl!”

We walked around the lake and caught up on life and wedding planning, a topic I have been avoiding, despite venue selection being one reason we were up there.


An extraverted Lhasa Apso ran up to us on the street, followed by two middle-aged women. “You guys from here?” I asked after greeting the dog because I am a man with his fucking priorities straight.

“North Carolina,” one of them said.
The other scoffed. “Only for a year.”
“Still getting used to saying that—we’re originally from here. Where are you guys staying?”

“Miller cottage,” my sister responded.

“Oh, how nice. Enjoy.”

Was there a twinge of cynicism in her response? The New York version of my psyche immediately sought out her motives. She was a bit sarcastic earlier. Did she really mean that—“enjoy?” Maybe she has some sort of beef with the Millers? God, I hope so.

Or, perhaps, she was just being nice.

We’ve been in Michigan less than twenty-four hours…


The back of the cottage faced west, out over the lake. Dusk was about to meet nightfall and a storm was due anytime now. The rest of the family was holed up inside. I sat by myself on the deck where it was still and sticky—summer in Northern Michigan.

The wind picked up and started whipping through the trees. The lake, which had been a mirror earlier, started to get those little ripples where gusts of wind dance on the surface. Lightning flashed in the distance followed by the gentle rumbling of thunder, which always seemed to take longer to reach us than it should. It was still pretty far off in the distance.

It’s one of my favorite things in the world—watching thunderstorms roll in. Especially in Michigan where the rain seems to hold off until Mother Nature has given you a show. In New York you get it all at once and then it’s over.

Here, it takes a little more time.

My mom and sister started a game of Rummikub just inside the screen door, and I could hear the clinking of the plastic tiles and the low tones of their conversation. I stayed outside as the storm got closer. The rumbles of thunder were getting bolder, and better in tune with the lightning. Not crashing or dramatic, but those long and strong rumbles that slowly gather intensity and that you feel deep in your bones.

The rain eventually blew in on a huge gust of wind, and I made my way inside after letting a few drops fall on me. My sister dodged off to feed Isabella, so I took her place at the table. Diane was happily organizing her game tiles. She’s never more pleased than when her entire brood is under one roof.

Maybe we should have been European.


Our bedroom was tucked in the corner of the house and had two twin beds that we pushed together, haphazardly. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the old transistor radio so we laid in bed and listened to the rain.

I tried throwing my arm over J but ended up sinking slowly into the crevice where the two beds were pushed together. The pillows were too small and kept falling behind the bed. I was happy anyway.

The window was cracked and the vocal bullfrog my nephew pointed out earlier was busy croaking sweet nothings to his admirers across the lake. They were deep and a little vulgar sounding.

I pushed J.

“My love, you really need to quit farting.”



cabbage shed regular, tc #1

Monday, June 12, 2017
Elberta, Michigan

Between Elberta and Frankfort is a short land bridge—Betsie Lake on one side, the marshlands of the Betsie River State Game Refuge on the other.

“Whoa, hey! Stop the car,” said J. He noticed a turtle trying to cross the road behind us. I looked in the rearview mirror. She was giant—one of those craggy old gals who, were she a person, would be a chain smoking local with her own barstool at the Cabbage Shed.

By the time I turned around, he was already outside the car. I yelled after him everything I knew about turtles. “Sometimes they bite! My love, be careful! I think they might have diseases! And make sure you take her in the same direction she’s going!”

He picked her up by the sides like a pro. “Has he wrangled turtles before?” I wondered about my Brazilian fiancé. “In the Amazon, probably.” Her head thrashed around as she tried to bite him. I chided myself for not recording this. Instagram gold. Was this appropriate for a ‘Story,’ I wondered, still not sure what that even really is. But I digress, this is not a story about my social media ineptitude.

Eventually the two of them arrived safely on the other side of the street. A passing convoy of tourists honked and waved, grateful for our service to the natural world.


I could smell him before he got in the car.

“Don’t touch anything!” I screamed. “You know they have diseases right?” Now much more confident in my assertion.
“Yes,” I said. “Salmonella.”

He probably thought I accumulated this knowledge from growing up on a lake and catching turtles. The truth, however, is that I know this because my family—a bunch of vulgar nurses—named a stuffed turtle of mine ‘Sal’ when I was three years old. Sal was short for Salmonella.

He had a monocle and a dapper red scarf.