Love Song to Our River House
Shadows in this house hang confidently like art.
Where water dances on the ceiling,
There is the music of light.
Seven windows and one wall
Reflect a vase of wildflowers.
A friend who’s been to the River House frequently came for dinner last night. Both of our husbands were busy and our schedules have been keeping us apart, so she drove her little SUV up the hill after her last class. Stepping through the doorway, she emitted an involuntary sigh.
That’s what this house is like.
It was almost 6, and the evening sun was painting the hills. The arched expanse of windows creates a cinematic sense that this is the landscape of a story. Of course every landscape is the backdrop for someone’s story, and this is ours.
Even when the windows need washing (we are our own house cleaners) or the river’s low and the hills are dry, the light slides with such drama that people stop and wait–the way people who live in the flight path of an airport wait for planes to pass overhead. Our wait is slower and more luxurious; if it happened more than twice a day it would be distracting.
We brought our glasses to the chairs by the window. The sun’s strength was crossed by a chill wind up the river, so we sat safely inside. We talked about art and film and Shakespeare and the dramas in our lives. The sound of the fountain masked what evening traffic comes home with the commuters. Other than that, it was just our voices—words and laughter and exclamations like the wisps of clouds outside that were turning pink and grey and finally disappearing.
Greg came home as she was leaving. He reminded her that the futon folds out, the doors to the den slide shut—she could wake up to the sun climbing over the foothills. But she had to get back. We said goodbye, then settled in ourselves to discuss the day.
Sleepless at 3AM, on a night when my brain won’t rest, I slip out of bed to the window seat. The bamboo floors are tight and quiet and comfortable on bare feet. Lightning stripes the sky from behind the hills in pulsing waves—no wonder I’m restless, but how fortunate I am to witness this silent show. The sky calms, and I settle into my reading nook (I don’t love that word “nook,” but I’ve rummaged the thesaurus and there’s not a better one. Similarly, I resist the word “hutch” even though it aptly describes a bank of windowed cabinets where we keep vases and serving dishes–Greg started calling it the “starsky,” after the 70s cop show Starsky and Hutch. “Nook,” “hutch,” these words seem so banal for something so, so vivid).
A photograph can show you the nook, but it can’t capture the space. I nest in pillows on the bench. An overhead light illuminates my book, but, tucked behind the library wall to my right, it doesn’t interrupt Greg’s sleep. Specific to me, perhaps, is the comfort of a library–endless possibilities of stories and ideas, many old friends and mentors, and some acquaintances I want to know better. At my eye level is the slot of a window—at night, from this angle, it is an obsidian detail, but in an hour, the hills will come slowly into focus. The river windows across the room reflect me like a blurry roll of negative film, knees and shins, knees and shins, knees and shins, and the wall of books in triplicate. A confluence of angles and curves, this blending into that like a polyphonic madrigal, introduces endless possibilities of thought.
As day breaks, the crickets’ song is replaced by that of the morning birds.
On a June evening, birdsong comes from the piano. Thirty guests taste wine and cheese while our good friend David Clemensen plays Le Coucou (1735) and Le Merle Noir (1985), one traditional and one avante garde; the guests smile when a bird outside joins in. David plays river songs: Aaron Copland, Franz Schubert, Nico Muchly, “Three Songs for the Kings River” by his friend Greg Lapp, a Frederic Chopin, John Cage, and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The acoustics of the curved ceiling create a surround-sound effect. One friend says afterwards, indicating the room, the view, the piano, “I feel like I’ve just fed my soul.” Another says, “the peace is astounding.” I ask if he means a piece of music, and he clarifies: “’that-passeth-understanding’ peace.”
“Three Songs for the Kings River” text (a Lapp collaboration)
The morning water, cross-hatched in upstream light
You yawn beside me.
A finger of mist drifts behind the island willow.
A great blue heron stretches up in exultation
“Good morning,” I say,
And you smile.
“Hola! Hola!” you call from the grill. “Hola! Hola!”
The baby’s lolling on his blanket
With his mother and her sisters,
Who lean together eating strawberries.
Mu-sic gathers under the sycamore’s canopy
And settles among our friends
who laugh and sing the chorus
“Hola! Hola!” you call from the grill. “Hola! Hola!”
From the game above, the metal boules click.
You bring me a glass and a plate
I smile and say, “sit here with me.”
Green, blue and red, our boats nose downstream
I dangle my Tevas, and we paddle when we want.
A musical rush heralds rapids, a familiar cascade.
Thrill laced with danger.
We hold our breath past the slipping rock.
Once safely by, I turn to watch you follow,
Then you pull my paddle to you
And lash your kayak to mine with your leg.
You splash your face.
The sun shines.
We built this house for the two of us, our friends and family, parties and concerts, retreats for the choral groups Greg conducts, but also as a venue for charity events (Kings River Conservancy, the public radio station, San Joaquin River Parkway, University High School, Reedley College Literary Arts). We are committed to sharing our space and benefitting our community. For these events, furniture moves aside, chairs come out, umbrellas go up, depending on the event. In an El Nino year following some years of drought, a storm came in late April, giving us the opportunity to prove how nimble this house can be. The function was an 11AM-3PM barbeque/band/water activities/games sort of thing for about 200 people to benefit river programs and conservation. The heavens had dumped over 3 inches of glorious rain the night before and didn’t stop until 10:30AM that Saturday morning. Of course the band was worried about their equipment (their name was ironically Fire and Rain—of the two options, we preferred the rain to fire). Tucked under the 15-foot overhang on the terrace, the musicians stayed dry, and the acoustics were better than ever. We moved all the auction sheets and raffle prizes indoors, added seating in every corner, and set mats at every entrance. We covered the barbeque with tents like a bazaar, and we set the bar strategically just outside, under the overhang, but near the auction tables. As the skies cleared, the sports set up and people played and talked and listened to music. People were in and out of the house all day, tracking wet shoes of course, but the bamboo floors wiped right up and the house was back in order by dinnertime.
Once a year, we open the house to the public. It’s a big barbeque, and Greg serves drinks while I lead tours. Although we start on the lawn down by the river, we walk around to the front of the house to begin. I explain the history and introduce Art Dyson (one time I looked at the back of the group of twenty or so visitors and there was Art himself) and the builder, Sydney Mukai. Because the fountain bubbles as we approach, I explain that timbre of water matches the timbre of traffic, and we have commuters morning and evening that we’d prefer to ignore. Also, from the house, we can see the river, but at this point of the Kings, it’s wide and usually calm, so the fountain suggests the sound you expect to hear from the traveling water. I tell about our commitment to green living. I list the cool roof (and describe how it was rolled off of massive spools on the back of a truck so, lengthwise, it’s one continuous piece of metal with only 32 standing seams front-to-back), the solar panels, the electric car, the drought-tolerant yarrow and lavender (which also repel rodents), radiant-floor heating, the overhangs and cross-drafts we have in place to avoid air conditioning. I even purposely leave some tidy laundry hanging to show off the solar clothes dryer.
I explain our one pest problem, bats, which are a mixed blessing. We appreciate them eating mosquitos and gnats, but we didn’t expect them to find the slimmest of crevices in the structure to set up dormitories. We use sonar blasters to redirect them and their effluence away from the windows and exterior walls. We built an 80-bat apartment for them onto the side of the barn, and mostly they stay away.
Still facing the front of the house, I point to the boulders which perch at the edge of the fountain and encourage people to notice that most of the decorations in the house and on the grounds originated on the property. For the mailbox post, Greg drilled center holes in quanco-sized river rocks and stacked them on a steel rod (a quanco is a rugby ball, but doesn’t “quanco-sized” sound better than “rugby ball-sized”?). I point to the slot window in the aluminum pop-out, which has the effect of embracing the entry, just as the steel beams give it a ceiling. I show them also the swoosh etched into the front door frosted glass (I just cut the design out of contact paper, backwards, applied it to the glass, and painted the stencil with the same acid the gangsters use to graffiti store windows). I show them my wedding ring, which Greg and I designed to look like the river, and I tell them to look for the river swoosh motif also as we go inside.
Opening the door always results in oohs and ahs. A Dyson trademark, the oversized door pivots. Art likes to say, “There’s a fat side and a skinny side.” I close the door behind the last person to keep the bugs out and demonstrate how I lock the door. Syd was already puzzled with how to weatherstrip the edges when he suddenly stopped and said, “How are we going to lock it if it pulls closed with just a pole?” The ranchgirl in me answered immediately, “gate latch,” and so it is.
The 18-foot entry would break Frank Lloyd Wright’s rules of compress-before-you-express to create anticipation, but the heavy black parallel steel beam that run from outside in front to the pool on the back terrace serve not only to compress the entry in a non-confining way, but also to connect the inside to the outside and balance the directional lines of the house. Without the north-south steel beams, east-west lines would dominate and make the design static. The stunning east-west line begins with two massive glu-lam beams, which Syd had placed with a crane in three segments: first east, then west, then center after watching a documentary on the Hoover Dam. These beautiful wooden beams also run inside and outside, as does the aluminum siding of the pop-out, which wraps around the entry wall and transforms magically into the library wall on its flip-side.
From the entry, there’s a panorama of the river. They can see the room-sized overhang over the terrace, the pool whose shape mirrors the roofline, the grapevines and garden planted in a configuration to match the lines of the house, as well as the lawn and the party they just left down below. I tell them they’re currently looking at ¾ of the total house and remind them that it’s only 2,000 square feet. I explain the multiple purposes for each room. From the west wall behind the grand piano, I open one of the cupboards that holds the 50 folding chairs. I explain that with the furniture rearranged, it’s easy to seat 50 or 60 people. I explain that the high counter above those cupboards, mostly bare, often hold stacks of music or chapters of works in progress. From there, they are facing the window seat, reading nook, and library. Now they see how the slot window works at eye-height from a sitting position. In an earlier iteration of the design, the library was a separate room upstairs, but in the single-story version, the library is divided into three segments. Someone points out the river rock book ends. Someone else always asks, at this point, how we reach the beginning of the alphabet if Atwood, Borofka, and Boyle are 16 feet up, and I show them the telescoping ladder in the closet. This corner is my office, I explain, and open the drawer that has my laptop and pens and highlighters.
I often work over by the windows that face the river and the foothills and this is where we eat breakfast in the morning and read in the evening. The birdscope is trained on the sycamore most frequented by eagles, hawks, and osprey. Move the rolling armchairs, and this area is also the bamboo floor yoga studio. From here it’s possible to see all five identical fans because above 8 feet, the walls are glass. This also allows for a view of the glu-lam and ceiling that, without ducting for a dual-pack, curves smoothly with the line of the roof. Someone always says they were sure that was a mirror up there.
In the kitchen, someone always says they’d be glad to wash dishes here, and I have to admit the view does make all housework pleasant; I point out that it’s an easy house to keep clean. One thing I’ve learned about open-format homes, though, is they tend to sacrifice storage space, so in this house every wall and all the built-in furniture doubles as storage space or bookshelf, some of them 18 feet high (remember the collapsible ladder). I tell how Greg’s father Leroy left the house with a trunkful of wood when we had to take out a sick oak tree (we planted two more), and he returned with the parquet lazy susan for the center of the 8-foot island. I explain how, at the Creek House, which had an isthmus instead of an island, I could become trapped. Since we both cook and often at the same time, we have a sous sink and lots of counter space. We didn’t splurge on fancy appliances—nothing very trick—but we carefully planned the kitchen exactly as we wanted it, down to the size of our biggest serving bowl and the height of the blender and had custom cabinets made. Just as the big view windows are segmented instead of curved, I suggested we segment the cupboards under the island. They’re mostly tucked away anyhow, I rationalized, and we needed to watch the budget. The cabinetmakers, Golden State Woodworking, offered to make the cabinet curved for the same because it would look better, and they could use the photos for their portfolio. So that a standard refrigerator could fit flush with the cabinets, we framed four feet of the wall deeper, which was behind the door in the bedroom and created a depression for a recessed bookshelf (another third of the library) along the bedroom wall.
As if we are pinballs, I lead the group around the circle island and back to the entry, so we can see the den/guest bedroom (and third third of the library). The wooden doors, made by Greg and his father out of three woods pull together the bamboo floor color (blonde), the piano and dining room table (cherry), and the front door and glu-lams (oak). They slide open and closed like a shoji screen. While they don’t latch (we could add a latch), the edges are beveled, so they overlap for privacy. A framed rendering of the Creek House and a framed magazine ad for Kenwood stereos featuring the Creek House hang on the wall of the den, so I answer questions about that house and compare them. I point out that the houses are similar in size, but the piano took up most of the Creek House’s “great room,” and the dining table had to live upstairs in the loft. In the den is the only window treatment, blinds that close from the bottom up for privacy and to block the summer morning sun. Unless we have guests, we leave it open the rest of the year. The TV is in this room, and the futon folds out. The whole house is wheelchair-accessible since Greg’s brother uses a chair. The bathroom has handicap fixtures so Brian can stay here comfortably.
I send the group through the bathroom and the office/hallway and meet them in the bedroom. I tell them to look at the poured concrete counter top as they pass, but the master bath counter top is even cooler. The bathrooms are all grey tile. It’s nice that people think they are some special stone—they really are pretty— but they are ordinary tile, 16 x 16 on the floor and shower bench and walls, and 4 x 4 on the shower floor. The outside walls of the shower are glass, so the room looks bigger, and, like all the cabinet kicks in the house, there is an 8 x 8 clearance so they look like they’re floating. The counter is deep and the mirror meets flush with the concrete countertop, so the river rock design is doubled. The office area is like a backstage view of our lives. There’s the calendar, tickets and invitations, phone numbers and grocery lists, cookbooks, stationary, and a cleaning and linen closet.
The master bedroom is actually a rectangle, although it doesn’t feel like it because of the soffit, the terrace, and the mirror. The story of the soffit shows how we worked with Art Dyson. As the walls were going up, I became agitated about the bedroom. It was practically square. Your eye was drawn to one 90-degree corner, and your line of sight died there. Our bed is low and I didn’t want lamps, but the ceiling was 18 feet up there. Art came out, and I showed him my idea of making a soffit that would arc over the bed like a canopy, a convex circle. It articulated with the convex half-circle of the terrace outside the mostly glass wall facing the river, I reasoned (that small terrace links to the larger terrace like a Venn diagram). The fan would be kind of squished in there, I admitted, but it could work. Art smiled and said, “Make it concave.” He pointed to the 8-inch kick under the bookshelf. “And put a mirror under there.” Much better. The concave soffit looks like it was designed around the fan. Together with the convex half-circle visible through they form a complete circle. The mirror under the bookshelf distracts the eye from the opposite corner, and the ceiling is curved anyhow. Still wary of the right angle, I cocked the chairs to cut the corners. People invariably comment on the collection of feathers and dry flora that compose a sort of dream catcher and the niches on either side of the bed. To avoid side tables, I asked Syd to frame the niches into the wall for books and sundries. The walk-in closet has three levels and a chute through the wall to the laundry room.
The poured concrete counter top in our bathroom began with hand-selected river pebbles glued in the swoosh motif of a stream bed. We put down Styrofoam forms for the basins, and Eddie poured the concrete and, once it cured, ground it smooth, but not too smooth where the rocks are because we wanted it to resemble a riverbed coursing across the counter. Someone inevitably jokes about the glass walls and windows in the shower, and I’ll say, “Hey, if voyeurs want to watch a scrawny 56-year-old woman in the shower, let ‘em,” then I explain that the glare obscures the view, and the effect from inside the shower is amazing because we see the river about five times: the actual river, the east and north windows, the half-wall shower glass, the glass door into the bathroom, which is usually open, and the 5 x 10 foot mirror behind the sink, which reflects all that glazing on the way back. Out the window to the east, I composed a garden of enormous river rocks extracted from our landscaping, outtakes from the glu-lam beam ends, which I set upright to look like river reeds and rushes, and I placed a steel heron I’d bought on impulse years ago. With the actual river beyond, it looks like he’s just lifted his head from fishing. I purchased 18 teal towels when we moved in and two red ones. One red one marks where we are in use, so we wear them out evenly. After four years, they still float, color and texture, on the glass shelves. When they finally wear out, I’ll buy twenty more and start over. On the way out, I show them Greg’s clever innovation for messy wives and their stuff. Because I tended to use the hair dryer, brush, etc. and then rush out the door leaving everything out on the counter, he suggested making a sub-counter with plugs and a lid that lifts up. The tough part was making a concrete cover for the lid to match the countertop, but it’s lasted four years and holding.
I lead the tour back through the bedroom through the laundry room with a storage system that goes up to the ceiling, the printer and modem, sink, washer and dryer, outerwear closet, and a counter where Greg sets his school and music things. He also has a desk and piano keyboard in a studio upstairs in the barn (we call it the Tree House). The Tree House also has a couple extra beds for overnighters. The Tree House, which was here before we were, is not as efficient; we plan to put a small dual pack on that roof to make it bearable in hot or cold weather. Downstairs is Greg’s shop and brewery.
Out in the carport, I explain that I didn’t want a garage. “I’ve had two dear husbands,” I say, “and two out of two of them collect shit.” As in the house, the walls of the carport are deep storage cabinets, one side for sporting equipment and the guts of the fountain, the other for large-scale entertaining. Attached to the carport is an outdoor project room that also holds two freezers, the bicycles, and an exercise bike, all under cover. There’s even room for a visitor to park a car.
Once Greg started making wine from his grapes, he needed a place to store it (my father had suggested as much when we were designing, but there was that budget thing). Ideally we would have dug into a hill. The highest hill area, though, faces the river, so it would be temptingly obvious to river floaters and park guests across the river. The hill we chose on higher ground (good) is riddled with boulders (bad). This hamlet is called Piedra for a reason. We rented an excavator, and Greg dug while I carted the dirt and rocks away with the tractor. Greg was able to haul out boulders the size of Smart Cars, but when he ran into three that were bigger than Volkswagons, he had to stop, and we had to be pleased that their crowns were relatively level. We flattened out a level pad. Greg found on Craigslist: 1) an airtight shipping container, and 2) a disassembled walk-in fruit refrigerator. We hired someone to deliver the container, who slipped it in on the dime. We encased the whole thing in fridge panels, saving the best to make a solid floor. Greg pink-insulated the inside and covered it with sheetrock because we’re trying to get by with a simple cooling unit from the hardware store instead of a costly wine cave unit. He built racks and shelves, and left one 8 x 20-foot wall for me. I contacted all my friends, some of whom are involved in the wine business or hospitality, and many of whom drink wine, and I asked for all their corks. I said I needed a million. Using liquid nails and glue gun, and corks that Greg has cut with a band saw, I’ve made a mural loosely based on sun, wind, and water. We don’t actually hang out in there as there’s not a lot of extra oxygen, but it’s working well for wine storage, holding constant at 62 degrees.
At the end of the tour, someone usually asks what I would do differently, a good question. I remind them of the curved bank of windows in the living room, and say that if the westernmost one were partially openable, we’d have a better cross-draft. I try to have my grandson play baseball right in front of it, I joke. Someday, we’ll split that window and the lower 24 inches will open with a screen for ventilation. The other problem we encountered originally was the sun for one hour, between 5 and 6PM on summer evenings. We simply miscalculated, since the overhang deflects the sun for most of the day, and the sycamores pick up the slack in the evening, but there’s a gap for about and hour for a few weeks in the summer. We toyed with some elaborate shade ideas, especially after visiting Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome with the draping white shade cloth, but we realized that standard heavy-duty market umbrellas with the tilt feature could do the trick and move from place to place depending on the weather problem. We realize the weather may be changing, but we are powerless to change it, so, no matter what, we’re all going to have to adapt.
Stormwatch is mesmerizing in any season. While the house is only 2,000 square feet, 48 feet of windows face the river, some of them 18 feet high. With an unlimited budget, we would have curved all the walls so the footprint resembled a leaf or a rowboat. In compromise we curved the great room window wall, so the view towards the river wraps around to include the forest to the west and the foothills of Tivy Mountain to the south. Rather than pricey curved glass, it’s segmented storefront glazing and standard sliders arranged in an illusion of curved glass. After adrought, rain takes on mythical mother-goddess proportion, and I remember the Incan Pacha Mama of Peru. The wind shakes the trees, and they dance with latent animation. Unless it’s very cold—and usually it’s not in California—we like to open the glass and close the screens. Windows are, after all, for letting in the wind. As it courses from the back of the house and out the front, the wind charges the house with its energy.
To shower in the rain is to surround myself with falling water. In all weather, window glass, interior glass and the ceiling-high counter mirror reflect the river in all directions. On a May morning in a dry year, a welcome cool spell ushered in thunderstorms, the cold shower outside coinciding with the warm shower inside.
The glass is not tinted or treated (because of the cost), but we’ve crossed the river at different times of day to check, and a glare masks the view in the daytime, and in the night, it’s too dim, even with the lights on. And at night, I turn off the lights in the house to let the moon in. While I type in the nook in the great room, the half moon shines insistently through the highest windows at the top of the arched ceiling. Even as October clouds veil its intensity, that moon shines a path across the living room table, and the cool night air settles like a clean sheet.
On a January morning, the moon is still shining when the sun comes up.
I know this because from bed I can see the moon in the mirror by the sliding glass wall as the warm nimbus of sleep evaporates and waits near the ceiling until dark returns. At the same time, through the wall of glass, the sun illuminates just the top of the green foothill across the river. As the sun rises over the Sierras behind us, the light will slide down the hill as the moon slowly dissolves.
Whether Greg sleeps on, leaves for work, or joins me, I watch the world wake from the living room as I struggle to corral the thoughts, resolutions, and images that come in the night, drinking milky coffee to hurry them onto a page. There’s a lull, and maybe an osprey flies past.
Once I’m staring at raptors, not recording dreams and ideas, I stop and stretch mindlessly while a beautiful Asian dancer urges me to undulate, and willingly I do so to the background song of a low-toned flute. All the while, the sun reaches down the hill and into the water. The river surface skips upstream or down depending on the wind or lack of it. In summer evenings, when the wind is strong and the river current weak, the river rushes up the canyon and appears to flow upstream. When the river is full and the current and wind are both strong, the river flows downstream (as it should) right to left, and the wind whips the pool water left to right. The illusion is a whirlpool. On a windy winter morning, the surface water flows upriver toward its source in Kings Canyon. “Thank you, Namaste,” says the soothing voice.
In other spaces I might eat my breakfast standing at a counter while reading New York Times online, but this house insists I carry my cereal back to the window, coaxing me like a good friend who knows better than I do what I need. I still read the news—I have to—but sitting back where my journal is, watching the light from various windows attempt this pose and that (and they are dazzling), often untethers a floating idea or two.
If Greg hasn’t let the dogs out, I take them for a walk down to the river and up on the bluff above; leashless as they are, the girls are walking me. They pantomime wild stories of what they would’ve done if I’d just let them out at night (usually too risky with the road so close), or they re-enact their exploits from nights when we relent and leave them out to shoo away the chicken-eating foxes. As we go, I collect treasures. A dreamcatcher of hawk feathers and sycamore bark, dry leaves and seedpods floats above our bed. I had intended to change it with the seasons, but over the years, I have just added, rarely subtracted.
Besides the dreamcatcher over the bed (it’s not a mystic dreamcatcher, actually; that’s just what everyone calls it), we have very little wall space for artwork. There are a few paintings by local artists, a Georgia O’Keefe reproduction (it was originally just a placeholder, but it’s dark orange/red and I love to lose myself in it), a painting of ballerinas by my husband’s cousin Aaron Lapp that we both love, and an expressionist triptych of running horses from the old ranch house that so enlivens the piano corner of the great room, and matches Aaron’s dancers, that they will stay.
Looking back at the house from the river with the mountain behind, the house is just another foothill, slope-curve-slope. But it’s the fancy foothill–while the hills are green or gold or red, occasionally white, and the mountains a purple-blue, the house is silver-grey with a smooth arc of white roof. The wall of glass, practically the entire north side, attempts camouflage as it reflects the colors of the hills and trees, but it can’t shake the shine. With my red Massey-Ferguson, I have sculpted the bluff around the house to complement the curves. Greg moved in boulders. We’ve worked hard, made good choices, and we’re proud.
The dogs can play together now (always have two dogs, or they never let you work). I can sit down for a couple-three hours before lunch. Unless sucked into a compulsive flurry of energy (which happens occasionally), I have trouble working for long stretches in one place. It’s increasingly difficult for me if the space is small or my line of sight dies into right angles. With its curved glass wall and varying lines, I can work in the large open great room as long as all is quiet. My “desk” is tucked into the drawers below the window seat. From there, I can look out at the front yard, the mountain, and the road that separates the two. Our lawn-mowing llama prefers to chill under the blue oak there. Even in the daytime, we don’t have much noise, but traffic or loud park guests across the river can distract me, so I turn on the fountain, which has the same timbre as traffic and voices.
With a laptop, I can float from perch to perch around the wide room as my mood, inclination, or 56-year-old back determine. I try to channel patience, not from the busy finches, but from the red tailed hawk, deep in concentration at the top of the sycamore.
The ceiling inside is arched so that thoughts slide across it and come back down the other side. I lay scraps of paper in stacks along two long straight counters for chapters or paragraphs, and sort projects in a row of wicker boxes under the bookshelf, inspired by Twyla Tharp’s Creative Habit.
While I appreciate the proximity of the outdoors, I’m glad to be inside when it’s hot or cold (the Sierra foothills give us both). Still, we have no AC, and our heat radiates from the floor. I wear a vest in winter and little more than a swimsuit in summer, the better to cool off at will in the pool. The house modifies the outside temperature, but we still experience the natural fluctuation and tune our routine to the weather. The lack-of-AC-thing stuns most people, but we have a breeze off the river, a whole-house fan, and six matching ceiling fans (I love the way they look, especially when they’re going, because you can see all of them at the same time). They add to the illusion that there are mirrors above the 8-foot walls, but those are glass. That fan is on, and this one isn’t.
The glass uppers of all the interior walls add magic similar to the morning moon and sun. In fact, the moon and the sun are generally featured in this show as well. From the kitchen, we can see through the den to the mountain beyond, and sometimes the full moon will shine from the south into the kitchen (on the north side of the house). Greg can call “bald eagle!” from the shower, and I can watch her path (east to west in the morning, west to east in the evening; raptors also have a routine). The glass wall blocks sound but not light, and this house is all about light.
Some confluence of glass creates a rainbow across your shoulder
And the certain light casts my pale skin transluscent, exposing blue rivers.
The water reflects in ribbons on the ceiling and the far wall,
Dappled whispers of shadows, drifting across the room.
Unless the weather is impossible, I take lunch out on the terrace. Sun and rain don’t stop me as the overhang stretches fifteen feet—more, if you measure the diagonal. The animals convince me to go out to the garden for a little while. “Just 30 minutes,” I tell them. “We do need lettuce for dinner.”
My grandmother would read for an hour after lunch; she always had a library book going and a small stack on the bench by the door. She might take a nap with a pencil in her hand and wake when it dropped; but, unless I’m sick or grossly sleep-deprived, I can’t nap. In the afternoons, I work in the yard, on projects, or read. Reading can be a wormhole for me, so I have to be cautious if I start. I divide books into daytime reading and evening reading. Heidi Julavits’ “diary” The Folded Clock is brilliant daytime reading with its short chapters skipping from topic to topic. On page 82, her thoughts go to ghosts and interior design: “We wondered if people mistook for ghost sightings what was, in fact, a primal fear response to poorly arranged rooms.” She catalogues rooms which lack escape options or have too many unprotected entrances, (obviously problems for different types of people). She worried when she awoke facing west, “something better was happening elsewhere.”
Over winter break, I was editing a text about organic architecture, about houses (including our own) by a contemporary architect, translated from the Italian into English by a German. The piece is well-structured, the analysis is sound. The writer is brilliant, an architect himself. The translator is accurate, classically trained and obviously multi-lingual. The vocabulary is dense with jargon—all precise, but hopefully intended for an audience of specialists. I can identify elements to fact-check, quotes that require attribution. I myself would prune out many of the adjectives, but so far, I’ve only excised the word “perfect” and rearranged a handful of sentences, remaining true to the style of the author/translator. It reminds me of people who walk into my house, look around and say they love my interior design style: “who did it?” “I did,” I answer. Greg looks at me, whether he’s there or not. “Well, we did.” I’m forever taking credit for projects he and I do together). Unless that admirer authentically wants me to design his or her space the way I’d like it, I’d be stuck. I don’t know how real interior designers channel a client’s style or priorities. This editing project is like a lover of Baroque style asking for my interior design advice.
I’ve thought a lot about the psychological impact of space. I see our house as a form of architherapy, but clearly every mind is different, and there can be mismatches. Perhaps, to successfully achieve form, architecture as inhabited art must reflect the specific kilter of the minds of those who live there. I feel soothed and well in my house, and I think Greg does too, but some people say they couldn’t live in a place so open. For me, there’s the problem of the square: when I must work in a close rectilinear space, I subconsciously cock my chair at an angle. My office at the college, for instance, has a fixed window facing the blank side of the Forestry building (“lack of escape options”) and on the opposite side a narrow glass panel (that some professors cover up!) and a solid door, which I (with apologies to my dear colleagues) never close and face when I’m not glued to the computer. “Do you want me to close the door, Mrs. Lapp?” students ask as they leave. It’s all I can do not to fling myself at the door to keep it from shutting.
Cooking is pleasure for both of us: Greg is sous and science—he chops, and makes complicated cheeses, fermented vegetables, even beer and wine—I am sauce, soup, and sautee. We have ample space at various levels around a circular island of leatherized granite, and Greg’s father made us the spinning center. Sometimes we have bake-offs to see who can create the best—or most interesting—sourdough creation. The food we make is a joyful gift to our guests and to each other.
Since I teach at a college with colleagues who are not only fine writers themselves, but also interested in meeting authors whose work we teach and exposing our students to living writers, we invite three or four authors a year to read and speak to our students. Before the reading, I host a dinner for the writer and the faculty who have taught his or her work. Richard Rodriguez, when I met him at the door, burst out laughing, and said I was Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’ll take that as a compliment, although I see more similarity between the Vandamm house and ours than between myself and the starlet.
We entertain often—weeknight dinners or weekend lunch. Usually, we have six or so at the table inside or out, but fifty black folding chairs wait in their own bank of cupboards by the piano for concerts, and the curved ceiling blends the music as it originated in the composer’s ear. People pass inside, outside, stroll around the grounds without visually leaving the group. When it’s dark out, and we’re all back in together, images and colors repeat in the glass panels, and sound dances in ribbons of laughter. The bowed wall seems to expand with satisfaction. If one friend comes to talk, I hand her a glass and follow her to the spot she chooses, and there we sit until the sun is drained from the sky.
At the time we were designing the house, some of our friends were buying vacation homes at the coast or in the mountains. We have been fortunate over the years to spend summer holidays at my parents’ lake house in Montana. Because it is a recreation paradise, people sometimes ask if the River House is our vacation home. We exchange a smile and hedge, “well, yes, but it’s also our primary residence.” In designing the house, we had in mind that we wanted to lure the children back—and future grandchildren. In fact, when the grandkids come in the summer, we call it Grandma and Grandpa’s summer camp. When my soldier son has leave, he comes here (or Montana) to relax. When my artist daughter faced a stressful episode in her life, she flew from New York for “River House therapy.”
There was a period of time when the grandkids spent a lot of time with us. They actually lived in the Creek House while their mom was getting her life organized. Since she worked the early shift at a nursing home, she dropped the kids off at 5:30AM, and we got them on the school bus at 7. In that semester I wasn’t teaching, so I’d whisk them into the den or the reading nook so Greg could sleep. We’d draw, or read, or whisper until the sun made the electric light and quiet unnecessary, and we’d watch the world wake. They’d crawl into the stools around the kitchen counter for cocoa or apple canoes. While I don’t miss rising in the dark, the house and I remember those mornings.
Ordinary and extraordinary scenes populate the terrace. A wide cement bench, flanked by garden boxes of kitchen spices, defines its edge. Greg’s vines and the garden grow beyond. Summer mornings and evenings, afternoons in the spring and fall, we live outside. At first, we tried to encourage the wildflowers, so it was cement, wild green and flowers, then mowed lawn below. Later, Bermuda grass choked all but a few flowers, so now Greg mows the burm and the “apron,” as we call the lawn. He carefully avoids any poppies or lupine that persist. The terrace is a barefoot space, while barefoot is a bad idea beyond (stickers, snakes, fire ants—it’s the country in California). When Eddie Garcia was pouring the concrete, I asked if we could sink pvc pipe in to create a series of tubes along the edge. He said we could, and now we can insert pvp poles with colorful streamers when the event requires such fanfare. A bride waits on the terrace and walks down to the ceremony below. On an April afternoon when our absentee neighbors, friends whose home is close by, were leaving their property, thinking about building up here, we were returning from the symphony dressed in heels and tie; they were in sweatshirts. Together, we sat on the terrace and caught up on a couple months of news and plans and ideas. On a summer day, a friend’s husband was ill and, rather than talk on the phone, she drove up and we sat with our feet in the pool and talked about the options, issues, and everything else, and she left calmer and fortified. One November day, we hike with some friends up Tivy Mountain. When we returned home, I realized Greg had obviously planned a surprise birthday. So many friends were gathered on the terrace for a lovely afternoon. There was the day I harvested so many beets, and Greg said we should make marga-beet-garitas (very red, but tasty). Another hiking day with people we hadn’t known (we are docents with Sierra Foothill Conservancy), we enjoyed the group so much that we invited them all back for a beer, and they all are friends now. One July, all the Lapps gathered here for a family reunion, every room in the River House and Tree House had sleepers and tents littered the lawn. It was the time of the Harlem Shake (do you possibly remember?). The whole Lapp family, from the parents in their 80s to us six in our 50s (one in a wheelchair, right?), 20-somethings, teenagers, our grandkids who were 7 and 9, and the youngest grandkids who were infant/toddlers, all ended up in the pool doin’ the Harlem Shake. When the grandkids visited in the summer, we ate on the terrace every night. One time, we’d spent the day doing papier mache, and I hung those from the extending black beams. Greg had made sourdough pizza crust and mozzarella cheese. The kids and I gathered tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, garlic and zucchini (they hate eggplant, but they didn’t have to choose it). We made a sauce. Each person designed his or her own pizza, and we ate and played outside until the sun went down. I like to go out on the terrace on summer evenings.
Standing on the concrete bench that divides the orderly from the wild,
My back to the soft glow of kitchen light and reflection,
Lifting my face to the scattered stars,
My lean cat comes in from the hunt like a suggestion.
The grapes and tarragon grow, even in the starlight
And gather the stars’ crisp breath.
Without white noise, nights are quiet here. Our beds face a wall of windows, separated by a narrow panel (and the Georgia O’Keefe). Greg’s side frames a puzzle-barked sycamore, leafy in summer and home to orioles and songbirds. On my side, the night sky rises above the hill in two panels. On dark, clear winter nights, Polaris guides me into my dreams. When the full moon eclipses the stars, I watch for awhile as the shadows glint on the white sycamore limbs, and, as my limbs settle, sleep predictably descends.