A Lakewood Lens

I’m painting an old rocking chair, which is really quite bold of me if you could have seen the mess I made painting my kitchen 10 years ago. The results of those efforts made family lore.

But for a while now, I’ve had the urge to do something physical – something that involves patience and skill and that puts me in a rarely used room away from the noise of the 6 o’clock news or the lure of the computer screen.

There is something I read once in literature that calls this urge “kitchen work,” when a man tires of the ways of the world and goes back to washing pots and pans for a while – back to something raw and basic. In doing kitchen work, he is able to find his old rhythm, to become familiar again with his own instincts while he labors away at a simple task.

Painting the chair, then, is my kitchen work.

I’ve begun keeping a list inside my head of the things I wanted to learn in this life but haven’t yet. Its length makes me a little sad – and a little too aware of the passage of time.

One thing I wanted to learn was how to restore old furniture, so here I am with the rocking chair and a paint brush in hand and the skills of, well, a third grader.

I went online to watch a video or two that might be of help – and it came from the most unlikely place: a guy standing near a swamp somewhere in Louisiana, I think.

He’s got a bucket and a paint brush and he looks at the camera and says, “Painting is an art. It’s not just a sentence.”

OK, so he’s not Albert Einstein, but can he paint?

After he swears at his cat and threatens to send it to the glue factory, he finally gets down to the business of painting. What I ultimately learn from him is how to load the brush with paint in just the right way. And I have to laugh because as smart as anyone thinks they are, there’s always someone who knows something they don’t.

And here is testament to the fact that when a student is ready, the teacher appears, even if he looks like a guy who walked right out of a swamp and holding a cat by the tail.

I wonder if humanity has lost the urge to occupy itself with small, joyful labors. We have become accustomed to being entertained – to sit passively in front of television or computer screens and to not have to think very much. We say that life is busy and difficult and that we deserve this – this electronic respite from the world.

But what do we lose in this act of mindlessness? Separated from our creativity and our curiosity, our passion to learn-even to live – is dulled.

For some reason, in Western society we think learning is test taking or we relate it to going to school. But learning is also about exploration and personal growth – like taking French when you’re 50 years old, or making beer in your basement or patching together a quilt.

I used to go to a hairdresser where I lived before who was a pretty talented guy. He thought cutting hair was an art and he treated it like it was. The last time I saw him he told me he had just gotten his Master of Fine Arts degree at 55 years old. In order to do this, he said, he had to travel 120 miles roundtrip three nights a week and walk a half mile from the train in the cold to get there.

Of course, I figured he planned to teach or work in a museum and he said, “No, I just did it because I wanted to learn about art,” which is really learning for learning sake.

Henry Ford said anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. “The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young,” he said.

People used to have a breadth of skills that they’d honed throughout their industrious lives. Think of the grandfather who’d spent his whole life tinkering in the garage and who could fix anything. He could grow tomatoes, rebuild a car engine, make a mean set of pancakes and shoe a horse if he had to. Those savvy grandfathers are an icon from the past.

I called a friend and said, “I’m not trying to pick on your 11-year-old son, but what is he learning to do? I’m writing about tinkering as a lost art.”

“He is absolutely a video game aficionado,” she said. “He doesn’t have anyone to teach him how to tinker, but he’s got Mario mastered.”

I know there’s merit to that – at least in terms of the technological future. But there’s merit to being a jack-of-all-trades, to knowing how to do an array of things pretty well and in not being too lazy to stretch our boundaries.

That boy, I thought, needs a good garage.

A Lakewood Lens

Sometimes you just need an old lake person.

Some wise and clever lake soul should open up a phone business to answer questions from the confused and less industrious folks who live near the lake.

He or she could wax prosaic on all manner of topics, including bat houses, lopsided docks, winterizing cottages, mice in the walls, moss on the roof, fishing wisdom and home repair.

There is, for example, something living in the wall behind my bed and if there were some wise lake person I could call, I could garner the wisdom of a thousand lake years.

My husband-who is not a lake person – never hears the creature, so therefore, it doesn’t exist.

“Well, I’ve never heard it,” he says, with that tone of voice that’s meant to infer that I am a hysterical female, imagining scratching noises from behind my bed.

“How big does it sound?” he asked.

“Bigger than a mouse,” I said, “but smaller than a tyrannosaurus rex.”

“How many creatures do you think are in there?” he wanted to know.

“Just one,” I said, because in my dreams it’s just a sweet little chipmunk storing his nuts and is always kind enough to do his business outside. But I know better than that.

For my husband, this is a case of “hear no evil, do nothing,” because if he hears no evil behind the walls he will do nothing. And one day when our house turns into Disney World for Chautauqua County varmints (as they swing from the rafters and slide down our water faucets), I will be standing on a stool shrieking “I told you so.”

My neighbor thinks the animal living behind my wall is Rusty the squirrel – his favorite high-wire friend who entertains him all summer with his antics as my neighbor sits on his porch and surveys the natural world.

“I bet it’s Rusty!” he said, when I told him my woeful tale. He sounded proud of the little fella, as if he had known all along how industrious Rusty is.

“Well, if it is Dusty,” I said, “he’s not long for the neighborhood. I can’t have squirrels living in the house with me.”

“His name isn’t Dusty,” he said with a serious face. “It’s Rusty.” Obviously, my neighbor was to be of no help in this matter.

Another friend told me she hears things running around her walls at night, and since she didn’t describe any effort to investigate, I assumed her reaction had something to do with the “life at the lake” phenomenon.

The life at the lake phenomenon refers to the kind of stuff that happens here that you must learn to accept because, well … you live at the lake.

When, I want to know, is it just life at the lake and when is it time to take a stick of dynamite and blast the wall behind my bed? I have these kinds of burning questions often, as I stand clueless watching moss grow on the roof of my garage, or I ponder how to keep the wind from the cracks in my door, or, as so recently happened, when a water spout came down the street and took a layer of paint off the front of my house.

“That’s just life at the lake,” we told our insurance adjuster.

Last week, my dog got wind of the creature in my wall and starting pawing at the paint and crying and smelling the vent near the floor. Clearly he was on to something.

I put my ear to the wall and I could hear scratching noises on the other side. Of course, my husband was nowhere to be found, so the whole incident was a moot point as far he was concerned.

What I know is this: Rusty is inherently my problem.

And this is where a lake person would come in-if only he existed. I need a wise old grandpa type who has lived his whole life by the lake, studying bats, squirrel habits, fishing lures, water depth, boat engines, seaweed and water spouts.

I can picture him in a fishing vest and a pair of waders and a beard, standing on my front lawn scratching his chin.

After a long quiet while he’ll say, “I think I got it all figured out. Now let’s go in there and get Dusty.”

“That would be Rusty,” I’ll say. “His name is Rusty.”

And the old guy will think nothing of this, because that’s just life at the lake.

A Lakewood Lens

Some of us tend to get a little more serious about things when a new year arrives. It’s a good time to take a look at our quality of life – and assess those things we can improve upon.

I’ve written before about how important it is to choose where we live with care – it’s one of the most important factors in our lives. I feel privileged to call Chautauqua County home. As someone who has hung my hat in many places, each month that passes I find new reasons to unabashedly love this region.

Thankfully, Chairman Jay Gould from the Chautauqua County Legislature feels the same way. He’s a lifelong resident and seems to have served on every committee in every pocket of our community. I asked him to assess our quality of life here to try to ring in the New Year with a sense of hope and optimism.

Q: As a lifelong resident of the county, what do you love most about it? What do you think is our best resource?

A: What I love most about Chautauqua County is its rural atmosphere and the agricultural, manufacturing, recreational and residential opportunities that only a rural county can provide. Our best resource is our fresh water – clean water for our residents and businesses and the abundant water that provides fire protection and recreational activities.

Q: Property taxes here stifle growth – not just in Lakewood where taxes are exorbitant but for the whole county. How do we get a handle on this?

A: In collaboration with County Executive (Vince) Horrigan, the legislature will develop ways to save taxpayer dollars through greater shared services and continue to work with our state and federal representatives to lessen the burden of unfunded mandates, as well as continuing our efforts to seek other revenue sources and additional grant funding.

Q: As a recently replanted Chautauqua County resident, it’s no secret that I think this is a special place. Is attracting more tourism to the area a priority?

A: Absolutely. The comprehensive economic development strategy developed by the Chautauqua County Department of Planning & Economic Development includes initiatives to increase tourism in the county. By working hand in hand with the Chautauqua County Tourism Bureau, the Chautauqua County Legislature supports new and ongoing tourism projects by utilizing the funds received from the Occupancy Tax revenues. Year-round tourism is encouraged and supported in all areas of the county – especially in the regions around Chautauqua Lake and Lake Erie and includes boating, fishing, snowmobiling, hiking, biking, our wine trail and our new equestrian trails.

Q: Chautauqua County was a beneficiary of the governor’s 2014 Regional Economic Development Council Awards. How soon will the nine projects translate to real jobs?

A: When these projects are initiated as projected early in 2015, some projects will create immediate jobs through contracting with professional firms and the water infrastructure projects are expected to create a significant number of construction jobs.

Q: You have an educational background in agriculture and the environment. How are we doing in terms of improving the health of the lake?

A: In 2014 an environment sub-committee of the legislature was charged with considering issues and making reports and/or recommendations to the legislature concerning environmental issues that may affect Chautauqua County. Led by Legislator Pierre Chagnon, the committee has recommended several motions to the legislature that address the most pressing issues related to water quality – not only in Chautauqua Lake but in the entire county. The legislature continues to support the efforts of the Chautauqua Lake Management Commission and the Lake Erie Management Commission.

Q: December was a tough month for the Southern Tier with the defeat of fracking and a proposed new casino slated to be built elsewhere. What’s next on the list for reviving the region?

A: Under the leadership of Director Kevin Sanvidge, the Chautauqua County Department of Planning & Economic Development in coordination with the Chautauqua County IDA has developed a comprehensive economic development strategy. Their stated mission is: “Develop and Implement a long-term multi-faceted, proactive Economic Development Strategy, which includes investment thereby resulting in the creation of jobs, a decrease in unemployment, an increase in sales tax revenues, and an increase in the total assessed value of all properties as a result of new development.” Their initiatives will focus on business retention, business attraction, business startups, strategic lending, strategic infrastructure investments, workforce development and quality of life. Specific goals and associated measurement metrics will document the progress of these initiatives and regular reports will be provided to the legislature.

Q: Name three projects of which you are most proud.

A: The privatization of the County Home, the unanimous passing of the 2015 county budget with a tax rate decrease and the creation of the Legislature Environmental Sub Committee.

Q: What are the legislature’s goals for 2015?

A: Our primary goals will be resolving the $6 million deficit, addressing jail overcrowding and identifying and addressing the environmental issues that threaten water quality throughout Chautauqua County.