The Sugar Shack in Winter

I can't seem to give up either the Sugar Shack, the idea of it, or even the original blog. There's another little post over there today. It's such a sweet place, seems to need its own url.

And by the way, thanks to WordPress, it's snowing on Perdido Bay. It really is cold enough to snow here, but the weather is too clear.

Ghost Insect for Halloween

Buck and I were playing again at the Sugar Shack, just about to head down the sidewalk for sunset at the dock, when he said, "Look! It's a Spit Devil!"

Sure enough, there it was on the old door. I grew up hearing them called "Spit in your Eyes" or "Walking Sticks." They are also known as "Ghost Insects," and belong to the order Phasmatodea, meaning "an apparation or phantom."

It looks like a dry pine needle with legs, and can move quickly when disturbed, as I discovered! (But it did NOT spit in my eye. . . )

Work Day at The Sugar Shack

There are lots of kooky, idiosyncratic touches at the Sugar Shack, put there by former owners with a wide streak of do-it-yourself. Buck and I recently found a concrete patio adjacent to glass doors leading from an add-on bedroom. It was hidden under a layer of oak leaves and dirt. Uncovered, it's still in good shape, and adds depth of field plus functional outdoor space to the bay-facing room.

Another hidden treasure is at the front of the house. It's a homemade brick courtyard. Until Tuesday, it was covered with layers of leaves, and dotted with scraggly potted plants, mostly dead, dying, or in serious need of repotting.

Tuesday was a stunning fall day, warm enough for shorts and tank top as long as a person was in perpectual motion, and cool enough for the breeze to dry any nascent perspiration instantly. While Buck mowed the lawn and pruned bushes on the sides and back, I went to work on the front courtyard.


IMG_4131This sweet creature seemed to embody Jerome K. Jerome's old line:"I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours," (from "Three Men in a Boat, 1889). She hung around a few feet away from the courtyard, head up, watching.  Maybe I was redecorating her living room.

IMG_4130It is satisfying to uncover the curious bones of this old place, and the physical labor felt good, too. But the real fun came when Buck and I put up our tools, washed up, and ferried our lunch down to the bay. This was Maggie's favorite part of the day, too. Cheese sandwiches, pretzels and an apple — ambrosial food of the gods on a day like this. 

We basked in the breeze and general self-satisfaction at projects accomplished, and then began to notice how sneaky bamboo stalks had flourished when we weren't noticing and had even begun making a beachhead out through the small strip of white sand to the water.


Two more hours of clipping and pruning, and the little place is almost spiff-spot adorable.

Our electrician friend is putting new fixtures in the bathrooms (one down, one to go).  That will complete our work on the inside. Outside, there is still a small, but intense, area of blight clustered in the old carport consisting of bits of metal, rope, plastic and other assorted detritus. Plus, there are two old rotted, splintery picnic tables out back. We're going to rent a small "roll-off" disposal container for all that remaining junk, do a final sweep-up and call the realtors to put the Sugar Shack on the market.

Groan? Did I hear a groan?  Oh, don't worry. The real estate market is so terrible, the odds of it selling anytime soon are slim. . . although it sure is a sweet place.

Besides, "there is time within a minute for decisions and revisions which a minute may reverse" (from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot).


Water Color

When we observe nature, our assumptions of what "should" be, or the ways we are convinced something "is," come under assault. Water, for example. I think of bay water as blue, except during storms, when it is gray.

Photography helps me see that on a late August afternoon, with the tide out and the sun at a certain angle, there are caligraphic shadows that look coppery brown, and ducks glide on water the color of earth-tinged spirit.



Mid-afternoon on a sizzling Sunday, Buck and I tackle the last big job of cleaning up the interior of the old house on the bay.

It is a closet created in attic space, not air conditioned,  and full to the gills with a combination of plastic shopping bags, wrapping paper, Christmas decorations, discarded garment bags — and books — hundreds of books and National Geographic magazines from the late 1970s.

The woman who owned this house had a clothing store. Leftover merchandise from when she closed the store had been hanging in this closet, too, and what was possibly wearable went to the Easter Seal store months ago.

I stuff the plastic shopping bags, the empty gift boxes, and other obvious trash into black plastic bags. The former owner apologetically left all these myriad bits of life and moved on, a fragile turtle trying to make herself comfortable in a new shell. We told her to just leave what she didn't want, that we would handle it. She had nursed and lost a cancer-stricken husband in this home and now, at 80, had remarried and taken to the hills. The pain of closing the sale and moving the few items she took away wore on her. I remember that day. I remember watching her eyes almost bleed with the memory of the love and suffering here.

I remember her gratitude to us, that she could finally walk away, the house sold to a clean-up crew of two who would honor the discarded souvenirs of a life, and find homes for items that might be re-used.

One section of the closet held evidence of her efforts to help her late husband be more comfortable: an electric lumbar massager, strange-looking cushioned, battery-operated slippers to massage and warm feet, and different types of heating pads. These were set aside to go to the Easter Seal store.

When a reader stumbles upon a cache of books, you know what happens. We pull them out, one by one, and examine them. We wonder at the titles of some, mourn the irretrievably bug-eaten, and thrill when an undamaged edition of Dante's Divine Comedy is unearthed.

I am grateful my hair is long enough now that I can pull it back into a pony-tail. Makes the heat a little more bearable as I walk up and down the steep flight of stairs carrying stacks of books and National Geographics. Some of the magazines had gotten wet sometime and were stiff, the pages stuck together. They went into the black bag.

The Easter Seal folks accept books to sell for cheap in their thrift store. There was a daughter in this house for a while, a teenager and college student until she moved away. I know she loves language because of the books in the closet, and hope the plays and novels written in Spanish will be welcomed by someone in the thrift store.

Buck comes along behind me with the shop vac. He crawls all around in the double-bay closet, vaccuming up bug dust, dessicated silver fish and gecko skeletons.

We load trash bags and boxes of books and other donations into the van. I leave the National Geographics and several books that are "keepers" on a kitchen counter to clean up later.

It is getting late. Buck and I  grab a bottle of water and walk down to the dock. The tide is out. The bay water here is brownish at low tide due to the influence of the big river nearby. It changes to clear, inky blue again at high tide. We watch a ski boat and skier in the distance, a bright red jet ski, and smell charcoal from several docks over. I see a woman shake out and spread a red-checked tablecloth onto a picnic table. She anchors the ends with pots of red geraniums.

Buck and I turn to look back toward the old house. We hear distant thunder. The air has taken on the greenish-yellow cast that presages a summer storm.

"Let's go before the bugs come out," Buck says.

We walk along the dock, stopping to admire three pelicans flying in formation overhead. I hear the laughter of children down the way.

"Twenty years ago, this place would have been perfect for us," I say.


"Time is the enemy, and we have other fish to fry."


I smell the sweet, gardenia-like scent of the mass of summer-blooming ginger lillies as we walk from dock to sidewalk to house.

The drive home, back to the woods, takes about a half hour. I pull out an Agatha Christie paperback rescued from the closet. It is Death In The Air. I open the cover and find a young person's clear inscription. The book was a gift.


"Daddy – I think of you sitting on the deck next to the red rose, absorbed in a book. I hope you enjoy this one. Happy Father's Day."


Wired, Retired and Ready to Go

When you set up a blog on Typepad, there's a place to put a description. It becomes a kind of tone-setter for the blog. From Day One, my descriptive phrase has been the quote, (variations of which have been attributed to Albert Camus), "And in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer."

I'll always love that quote, but have changed it today into a totally non-literary description of where Buck and I are in our lives. We thought we were all settled into the "old home place" here in the panhandle Florida pine woods.

But you know what? We miss living in the mountains of Western North Carolina. We just keep coming back to it again and again.

And so, we've come to one decision in a series of decisions to be made: we're getting the old house we bought a while back, the one we call  the "Sugar Shack," ready to put on the market. Buck and I grew up around lakes, rivers and the Gulf. We spent a lot of times as children hanging our feet over the edge of a dock. But like many fantasies, the reality of a place on the water in Florida is trumped by our recollections of mountain living.

Since we can't live in three places at once — frankly, two is a pretty big stretch — we're going to trade our dock-on-the-bay dream for a writers'-cottage-in-the-mountains dream, where Buck can finish his novel, start another, and I can doodle around with my essays, stories and the memoir of our time at Longleaf. If we are very lucky, the "Sugar Shack" will sell quickly. Even in this slow-moving real estate market, there is almost always a buyer for a quaint place on a pretty bay with a brand-new dock and amazing sunsets.

Soon as it sells, we'll be ready to find a piece of ground and a builder in the Waynesville/Asheville/Hendersonville area of North Carolina. I can already see the look in Buck's eye that tells me he is designing a small cottage with lots of decks.

It's an exciting time for honeymooners of any age.

We are wired, retired and ready to go.

Night Lights

Tropical Storm Ida, our November almost-hurricane, left a few homes without power, some docks under water, and some small inconvenience. She shook us up a little, put all the emergency services through their paces, and caused me for once in my life to do a week's worth of grocery shopping on Monday morning.

I'm thinking about storytelling on this windy, gray afternoon, and how the repetition of our personal narratives becomes, over time, emblematic of our unique (however tiny) imprimatur upon the universe, iconic beacons in the dark night of humanity.

Buck and I were at the Sugar Shack Sunday afternoon and evening. Click here to drop in for a virtual glass of red.

Somebody Tell Ida We Don’t Do November Hurricanes

There is an edgy feel to the traffic today.  Vehicles almost running stop signs, short bursts of speed for no apparent reason, cars cutting their turns short. Pre-storm behavior. I've seen it before. I am only surprised when there is not a line at the gas station or the bank ATM.

The grocery store parking lot is full, but people are buying party food: chips and dip and beer are going out the door in greater volume than gallons of water and canned mystery meat. It's hard to have conviction about a November hurricane.

Besides, Ida is such a wholesome name. If this storm 's name was Jezebel or Buster, I would worry that it would be a trickster. Mid-afternoon here, and it looks like Ida is continuing to weaken. It has already been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. Still, schools are closed today and tomorrow. Buck and I haven't decided yet whether to label and pull down all the plastic doors enclosing the pool. It will be a pain to go out in the rain and lug those doors into the little red storage building. But it will be a worse pain to go chasing after them in the middle of an early-morning landfall if we guess wrong.

Despite Ida's honest-sounding name, we have gassed up the car, gotten a little cash, bought a new battery for the generator, and picked up enough groceries to feed the multitudes. I didn't buy party food. I bought a chicken and a pork tenderloin to roast, ground beef for chili and meatloaf, canned salmon, eggs and veggies, that kind of stuff.

It's dark as night outside. The deer came out for a quick graze during a lull in the rain. They ran around in short, fast bursts that reminded me of the storm-neurotic drivers I saw earlier in the day.

Last night we sat on the dock at the Sugar Shack. The slow gray waves looked like a little weather was on the way. We watched as lights came on at homes across the water on the Alabama side of the bay. They were in various shades of yellow, white, lavender and blue and looked like a necklace strung with semi-precious stones.