Monday, June 23, 2008

Once more, onto the beach

On June 28th, Irina and I'll be going to an odd little beach resort in Michigan to spend the week of July 4th with my Dad's family. We've (or at least I've) lost count over the years, but this will probably be close to the 20th year in a row we make this trip. There's very little in my life that I can say I've been doing consistently for the last two decades, so I thought I'd try and come up with a list of moments that I remember from the last 20 summers.

This list grows the longer I dwell on it; for now, I'm restricting it to what I remember best, or what had the strongest impact on me. But at some point, I'd like to expand it to include what other people in my family remember - I have a pretty bad and incomplete memory, and some of the most remarkable times I've had in South Haven have come when I learned something about my family that I didn't know.

*But I have to start with the one thing that will make this summer very different from the many that have come before. The whole reason that we ever went up to Sleepy Hollow in the first place was that Grandmother's paramour, Bob, had a summer house up there, and encouraged us to come. And now, for the first time since we began going there, he won't be with us. Bob was, as we all one day will be, of a different era: something inside him had literally been forged into a hard, unbending metal rod, even as his exterior became softer with age. He jogged, and repaired the house, and took care of the grounds, years after he should have stopped, and every once in a while I was able to catch a glimpse of the rebar, when he'd call Grandmother "Audie" and something in his face would shift.

But to me, he was always incredibly nice, immensely delighted by his jokes that weren't always that funny but were universally delivered with a sweetness and, I swear to God, a gleam in his eye. For a while, I think he thought I was going to become some sort of mathematician, and he constantly hounded after me to investigate a non-trivial geometric proof that he, earlier in life, had originated. I obviously never stayed on the mathematical track, and I'm sure some part of him was disappointed by that, but he never showed it. Months before he died, we were in some concert hall in Chicago, and I pressed him on his work on the Manhattan project at the U of C; he seemed genuinely glad to be telling me about his work on the chemical properties of nuclear materials.

I never got to know him better than when I saw him in South Haven, and the thought of no longer hearing the screen door slam on his sunporch, of no longer playing bocce on his lawn, of no longer almost falling into the comically deep gutters of Mount Pleasant, of no longer riding the funicular down to the beach that always smelled like dead fish, is a sad one. Of never again being asked, "Now Abraham, on a scale of 1 to 5..."

*Speaking of Bob's, one of my more unique memories of Sleepy Hollow comes from the playground near his house. Located in a subdivision of summer homes, there were usually a bunch of other families in the area when we were there, and particularly when I was a kid it seemed like getting a basketball game together wasn't too hard. I don't think it could be done now, but it was a semi-regular feature of those trips. I never played, but I still remember the pride I felt watching my family beat the living shit out of the neighbors at some roundball. The neighbors, as I recall, were actually pretty athletic, and I don't remember the scores, but I definitely remember the feeling of watching my cousins and uncle and dad kick some ass (even if it didn't happen entirely as I remember it now...)

*As for my own sporting memories, none stand out more than the delirious joy of a good long game of capture the flag in the afternoon with the other kids. There were, at the height, probably 20-30 of us, darting in and out of the trees and benches, forming jailbreak strategies, always on the lookout for the daring ones, occasionally breathlessly charging onto the other side, sliding into the flag area and scraping a knee with the utmost pride. I've always loved running all-out for a purpose, and other than running bases, capture the flag is probably the purest expression of that form. And when you can get a ton of willing kids together, for as long as your legs can hold out, on a big field with plenty of natural obstacles, literally steps away from both a pool and a lake...that's living the High Life, my friends.

*For a long time, one other aspect of the perfect Sleepy Hollow week eluded me. The running around with a dozen or two other screaming kids was never hard to get (Ghost in the Graveyard would satisfy our fix when the sun went down), but it took me a while to be able to share the experience with someone special. I felt some of my first romantic stirrings in Michigan, playing truth or dare with cute girls, making s'mores with them and watching them swim, and wondering about what would happen if we took things to the next level. Knowing that we'd be leaving in a few days, and that I wouldn't see them again for another year at best, for some reason always heightened the romantic tension that existed in my mind and nowhere else. But I never got anywhere. At all. No matter how many girls I crushed on, no matter how badly I wanted it to happen, it never did.

Of course, never say never. This is already going to be Irina's third trip to Sleepy Hollow (!), which is something else I'm really looking forward to. We've been exploring, we've taken long walks on the beach, and we've just hung out. She's seen the Eptons at our most Eptony, spending several days at a time with us, carving out a well-earned chunk for herself in our family tree.

*Sleepy Hollow is also where I first bore witness to truly Eptonic displays. Being my father's son, and not particularly nosy, meant that I never got involved in any of the debates, and never had the backstory. Even to this day, Sleepy Hollow usually means a chance to learn about some juicy aspect of the family history. I've spent many fascinating nights in Jeff and Marrianne's cabin, learning the ins and outs of who did what to whom and so forth. The kinds of insidery details that would be completely uninteresting to an outsider, and are fascinating when they concern one's own aunts and uncles and cousins.

*Not that it's related to the last paragraph, but Sleepy Hollow also saw one of my most advanced attempts at "learning" how to drive. Nate and I drove around in his car (or was it his pickup...?), on the back roads of Mt. Pleasant, and it was kind of fun. I felt like I was actually getting better, and as I haven't driven that many times in my life yet, I still remember most of the individual instances. Plus it was cool to hang out with Nate - a little QC with my tallest cuz (in other families, that would be a backhanded compliment, but in ours...)

*Reaching back a bit, there was this kid (I think his name was Jeremy?) that I hung out with pretty regularly, but only at Sleepy Hollow. We played Magic: The Gathering (back when Magic was cool (or at least, back when I was a huge(r) nerd)), hung out in his place, played sports with a bunch of other kids, and had really nerdy conversations about math and computers and stuff. This was back in the early 90s, when computers were just becoming what they are today, and they had a totally mystical aura to me. They were fascinatingly incomprehensible, and I never would have imagined that they'd be capable of anything like what they are now - the relentless march of technological progress wasn't anything I was aware of - but I did know that you could play some seriously awesome games on them, and they seemed to be almost winkingly more powerful than anything I'd done with them. Anyway, going back that far, I don't remember many details, just vague feelings - the joy of running around, the mystery the future held even then, the suspension of time that seemed to occur for that one week a year...

*There is one detail that I do remember, though. Jurassic Park came out in the summer of 1993, when I was 10. I was hugely into dinosaurs, and that movie of course thrilled me beyond anything I'd yet experienced in a movie theater; it was my first real filmic event, and it was awesome. But what really got me about Jurassic Park wasn't the dinosaurs. It was - and this was even more true about the book - the computers (GOD I'm a nerd :) At one point, in order to save the day, one of the little kids has to crack into a Unix system on an SGI terminal and restart the security systems. The scene is hilariously implausible for like a billion reasons, not least of which is that, in 1993, a Unix system (even one being run on an SGI terminal, which were known for their adva...ok, I'm done here.

*Of course, Sleepy Hollow offers more than just cinematic delights. It's also the place where I got high for the first time. Mike and I smoked, got milkshakes, and went down to the beach. So far, so TOTALLY AWESOME - it was incredible (and I'd waited for a while to get to this point; I think I was like 19). So we headed down to the beach, and met up with Nate and Julie and Jess, and got a little bit more baked, and everything was going great. I think I was a little surprised that my cousins got high - I'd never suspected a thing - but I wasn't as surprised as I would be at what came next. Two more family members came strolling along the beach, one a generation older than me, one a generation younger. "Oh shit!" I thought, and we all made an effort to hide what we were doing. They came up to us and the younger individual played with us for a bit, before heading off to the water. As soon as the youngster had left, the adult asked for a hit.

As high as I was at the time, I don't think I've ever been more blown away by anything in my entire existence. I hadn't even suspected my COUSINS indulged...this was a whole new level of amazement. That week, I came to learn that my family does a lot of things when we all get together. We argue, we reminisce, we drink, we make jokes, we enjoy each others' company, and some of us, contra Bill, do inhale.

*Which is quite nice. But what really makes Sleepy Hollow so pleasant is the series of little moments it provides. Every year, without fail, even if the weather doesn't cooperate, at some point I make it out to the sandbar a dozen or two yards off the beach. Sometimes I'm on a raft, sometimes I'm swimming. Sometimes I'm alone, sometimes I'm with my Dad or Irina or anyone else. And I just sit there, bobbing up and down, gazing at the tall, iconic staircase leading up from the beach, surrounded by sand and trees and grass, and even though I'm only two hours away from the place I spent most of my life, I might as well be on another world. And that's one hell of a vacation.


Irina said...

Two poems from Sleepy Hallow '08:

your hair never looked so dark
so dark against your skin
like marzipan
that sweet, sweet dough

they're all right
you have grown
wider and prittier
radiating joy

it scares me a little
those burst of energy that can't be pinned down
thoughts emerging out of range
actions out of earshot

your rhythm is easy, methodical
unlike my exacting pace
we sit together watching the waves
you let them wash over you
as i calculate each angle, anxious to hang on

one day i'll let you wash over me


In the dim first-floor bedroom
of a two-floor cottage
437 feet from the shore of Lake Michigan

22 years after
progress came spewing out
of Reactor No 2
at Chernobyl
in the Ukraine

17 years after
a small nuclear family
packed their bags
and came to Los Angeles
and ate many bananas
[without связи)

6 years after
a little coat hanger
with deep-dark eyes
left Denver for Boulder
and put 45 minutes
or a dozen of miles
or one speed-dial button
between her and her parents

3 years after
another Russian Jew
came to Chicago
(to study art and education
and art education)
and also learned
about people
and immigrants, just like her
who lived, like her people,
in ghettos

1 year after
the devotchka with curly hair
and dimples
and soft skin
and a desire to connect
with people
moved to California
San Francisco
and Berkeley

Here we are
In each other's arms
Touching skin and reading poetry
And being happy
And in love.

Jeff Epton said...


So I finally get around to reading your post, this great set of memories about Sleepy Hollow, and it's three days past SH 2008.

I wish I'd read it pre, rather than post. I would have spent less time playing Civilization IV and more time gazing with appreciation at each Epton and Bentley and Case kid and all the friends and all the lovers. But, however belated the reading, I am touched by the way you use memory to gather people to your heart.

I am impressed by your example, too. I should be as thorough.

Obviously, I do not remember all your experiences with the clarity that you do, but there was a time in your childhood at SH that there were gangs of kids racing through the grounds in the ways that they don't now. More precisely, there seem to be fewer children lately, a number far lower than "gangs" suggests, and they seem so much better behaved, too. (It makes me fear for my country.)

And though my capture-the-flag days were elsewhere and elsewhen, I remember the exuberant feelings that the game's full-out running inspired in me. Thanks for the reminder.

I was never a kid at SH, Iit's hard to imagine a kid-friendlier, even teenager-friendlier, environment. I think for me that might actually be the biggest gift I got from Sleepy Hollow--getting to see the cousins together, and knowing that the experience was not simply memorable, but also unique. Sometimes what happens at Sleepy Hollow seems almost unimaginable anyplace else. We have a lot to thank Grandmother and Bob for.

Further, everybody must get stoned, and though everybody doesn't (multiple exceptions to that rule, after all), SH has always been a way and place to access an altered state of some kind or other.

Even Grandmother, who is straight as an arrow, and never mastered any psychedelic except alcohol, and does precious little of even that now, knows that the magic at Sleepy Hollow is hardly a side effect. Still, I guess I should also acknowledge that sometimes families bring the magic (I don't mean pharmacologically) with them. I think ours does, reliably.

Let me also note, somewhat immodestly, that you are correct that your Dad and Julie and Nate and Linda Bentley and I (or some combination thereof during the course of the day), beat all comers with some frequency. Some of them were young with hard bodies and a rage to win, but they didn't bring enough to beat us and couldn't have. For a few years, I knew before every game that each team we played would leave the court chastened (and better for the experience). And then our time (or at least, mine) passed. And others played and won and I found something else to do.

I even remember the arguments with some pleasure, though I am pretty sure that not every one involved would say the same. I should note that you didn't sit out every argument, either.

Irina, your poems are flavorful and rich. Write more. Others will savor your efforts.

Meanwhile, there is always next year, and there always will be.


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