Friday, September 30, 2005

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks a leg and asks for a divorce

Reading Ocean from the last several months would have one believe that I do not work. It isn’t that I post huge amounts, or that anyone would be inclined to say – man oh man, there is no Nina out there, everything is on Ocean and Ocean is about everything. It’s just that I never mention anything related to my work here.

Of course, Ocean is a mere smudge on my day – a lovely (for me) effervescent smudge, with colors and ebbs and flows, but a smudge nonetheless. Moods come and go, flowers bloom, leaves fall, and all this never makes it onto to the Ocean floor.

Still, many have said that Ocean works for them because it is so…personal.

Gulp. Personal? Oh dear.

Okay, so I do happen to work and I do happen to teach. Something equivalent to 2.25 classes per semester (Torts and Family Law this fall). And predictably, ever since I started blogging, each semester, a handful of students from my classes will in some way let me know that they read my blog.

I do send out little tests: I mention something that one would get only if one read Ocean and I canvas the room, looking for that small flicker of acknowledgement, that wink, that tiny grin that tells me They Know.

This fall, their faces have revealed nothing at all. No guilty admission after class, no wink, no reference, no email and, most significantly ----- no comment.

Because in fact, this is the first semester where I am teaching with a blog that has a functioning comments section. The opportunity for (pseudo-anonymous) punchy-ness is there, and I am waiting for that irrepressible shot from the hip, of the caliber where I am sent to my proper place in the corner, quivering.

As for the personal stuff appearing herein -- okay, so I have to live with the fact that a student may potentially know a hell of a lot more about me than I do about them. I have come to accept that. It’s like throwing up in public.* You reveal your weaknesses and hope that all witnessing your transgressions are a forgiving bunch.

As a final note on teaching and blogging and the relationship between the two, I want to say that I have two groups of students (in my two classes this semester) that are astonishingly wonderful. I will protect them with all my might and so references to them and their peculiar and adorable idiosyncrasies will not appear on Ocean.

*BTW, my Ocean is my huge indulgence. Let it be known that I have never thrown up in public. And it has been more than 35 years since I have had so much to drink as to make myself ill, so don’t hold your breath waiting for a sordid description of such an event here, on Ocean. It’s not gonna happen.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Reade-ing the minds of New Yorkers

While in New York a couple of week-ends back, I walked enough to worry about getting a foot blister. I had neglected to wear socks and the shoes were getting awfully comfortable in their up and down rubbing motion against my heel.

Not to worry! I said. I’ll just step into the next Duane Reade and pick up bandaids and socks. While there, let’s throw in some chewing gum and water.

It took one more block to come across a Duane Reade drugstore. Inside, it took a little longer to find what I was looking for. On the corner of 35th and fifth, it was one of their two-floor set-ups where nothing seemed logically placed and finding things required either rambling around some, or asking a clerk for directions. Luckily there were plenty of Duanies to ask and so I was soon on my way.

I write all this because this morning I was reading an article that demonstrated to me that I was just a peg and a pawn in the Duane Reade master plan, a typical sucker who was breathing life into a growing monster of a chain.

Because Duane Reade has really taken over the city. There are far far more DRs than there are Starbucks coffee shops or Food Emporium outlets. So how is it that this ugly little store with scrawny interiors, somewhat overpriced items and bizarre layouts has eeked its way into every handful of blocks of Manhattan?

I don’t usually paste article paragraphs into Ocean, but I cannot resist it this time because the piece (found here) says as much about New Yorkers as it does about Duane Reade’s executive officers who have simply figured out what the average urban type is looking for on her or his daily run through the city (as contrasted with the suburbanite):

Duane Reade ought not to be successful. The prices aren’t particularly low andthe staff isn’t particularly helpful. And the often cramped and disorganized stores offend the boutique sensibilities of New Yorkers.

[Yet] what the stores sell gives a pointillist portrait of the New York consumer. Unlike most drugstores, where prescriptions make up the majority of sales, half of Duane Reade’s sales come from food, cosmetics, and the like. That runs from insoles and corn padsbecause New Yorkers walk so much, Duane Reade sells twice the industry average—to foods for the society-X-ray palate. “We have four-foot-long sections of rice cakes. Put those in a suburban store and they all go stale,” says Charboneau. “And we have these soy crisps, which are not the best-tasting things. But they fly off the shelf.”

Make up? The store developed its own line of cosmetic because the top national brand (Cover Girl) appears to target the blonds and the blue-eyed types and New York hasn’t too many of those. And there’s more of that savvy pulse reading going on here:

When New Yorkers make their way to the pharmacy counter, their selections are heavy on sex and therapy and ambivalent about kids. The top-selling sedative, ranked nineteenth nationally, is one of the top five drugs sold at Duane Reade. Also popular here is Viagra, and a couple of anti-AIDS drugs are in the top twenty. But what New Yorkers really specialize in is birth control: Three contraceptives rank in the top 25 of Duane Reade sellers, while no contraceptive breaks the top 50 nationally. “There is no birth-control pill that’s No. 1 in any market except here,” Cuti [the man who made DR what it is today] explains. “It’s the nature of the city. It’s where the action is.”

The aisles are narrow because New Yorkers don’t mind being bumped, and skuzzy because urban types aren’t that bothered by dirt. But they hate lines and so DR has twice the average number of salesclerks ready to hustle you out:

“When I’m catching somebody out of Penn Station moving 100 miles per hour, they want service and they want it quick,” says Cuti. “It’s, ‘I’m carrying my bag, I’m ten minutes late, the dumb train was late, I got to get the Tylenol and my bottle of water as quickly as I can.’"

In the end, it’s all about real estate – figuring out which crummy space will work wonders for the next store (they have 250 of them up and running thus far) and getting a long term lease cheap. But that aside, I have to say that Duane Reade should be on every vistor’s list as a quintessential New York experience. Except, you probably don’t need to make note of it in the tour books. Inevitably you’ll hit on the store during an NYC stop. They have us figured out: Viagra, corn pads and rice cakes – just what you need to survive a day in the city.

NYC Sep 05 076

In that set of NYC blocks, there must be at least six Duane Reade stores.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Kitchen, confidently

So I intend to cook big time this week-end. A few assorted odd types are coming to the loft Sunday, to help warm the place up and I told myself it’s time I did something more with the stove than just turn it on for my morning latte.

It’s depressing to realize how much care I took with moving my kitchen paraphernalia from the spacious suburban place to the smaller loft unit and how little I have used any of it since I have been here. It’s disgustingly pristine at the moment.

Madison Sep 05 103

Time to take out the variously shaped tart tins, the pastry scrapers, the double mesh strainers and get to work.

But on what? I lack a theme. I am stumped. Random nibbles? I am yawning as I write this. Substantial salads? I can see the splattered vinaigrette on my new couch, the soggy lettuce that’s been sitting out too long. Oh God, I have to do better than that.

National themes? Last time I meandered over to the kitchens of the Eastern Front, I found my table laden with foods that were as heavy as the granite on my new kitchen counters. It was nice, it was fun, it was then, now is different.

Got it! The theme has come to me as I type this: Urban Foods! How appropriate! How edgy and sleek! How urbane!

Okay, but what do I mean by that? Damned if I know just yet. Write me if you have ideas.

idle talk over a paintbrush

My man Jason and I had a talk yesterday. He asked: how is it downtown? (He recently bought a house with his partner, not too far from where he works – west of Middleton, which is pretty west, if you know Madison).

I could not lie. Great, I said, it is great! All last year I kept coming home to a big empty house and before the night was out, I would be bummed to the core. My thrill would have to come from seeing the plumber arrive early at a neighbors’ house as I would try to second-guess which of their toilets might be leaking.

These days my sense of isolation is gone. I left it somewhere there with the sagging gutters and chipped roof shingles. Toilets and plumbers are not the thrill du jour anymore.

Longing, I smelled longing in the air. Jason, who is possibly the best color guy on this side of the Polish/German border, is not one to complain so he kept quiet. Very quiet.

He painted and snipped (did I detect a sniffle?) and I watched his talented hands do such beautiful work even as the elaborate tattoos on his trained, muscled arms seemed to sag in a dispirited kind of way. We stayed in our comfortable silence --- a favorite way to be, very intimate, very “I understand you” kind of thing.

When we spoke again it was about the condo boom downtown, about trips to big cities – topics that had the big E (escape) written all over them.

A year. I give him a year. He wont stay away longer than that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Happy birthday to someone

Hey there, friend living south of the (WI) border, happy birthday to you!

I hope you appreciate the great trouble I went to, to send you a present. When I figured out I was not going to see you in the week of your birthday, I was determined to go out after work yesterday to search out some gifts for you, so that you would have stuff to open today.

First I went to Borders. There were two items there I knew you’d like. I bribed Mr. B to serve me well and we pedalled over.

I made my purchases and proceeded out the door. The alarm sounded. I went back in. The sales clerk again demagnetized my purchases. I went out again. The alarm went off again. I was asked if I had some culpable stuff on me. I was coming from the office! No heavy metal, no chainsaw, nothing!

Still, I handed over my briefcase, I handed over my purse, I handed over my bike helmet. And the alarm sounded nonetheless.

I was determined to figure out why. I took off my jacket, my glasses, all of it. By now EVERYONE in the store was watching. And still the alarm went off.

The store manager said it surely had something to do with the shoes. I reassured him that these were ancient shoes, with the tell-tale paint mark from when I proceeded to spontaneously repaint my older daughter’s dorm room when she was a sophomore. That was over four years ago. I had worn these shoes to Borders many a time without problem.

When the clerk suggested that it may be something about Victoria’s Secret underwear (I could not tell if she was joking), I decided to fight the impulse to explore further and just go through to the sound of alarms wailing and people laughing.

My next stop was at Banana Republic. I went in, just to add something to the package that I then overnighted to you, and the alarm went off. I raised my hands and said – shoot me if you will, I appear to have a magnetic personality, or charged Victoria’s Secret panties (fyi, it’s the yellow pair, with bright oranges, so avoid them to be on the safe side).

They waved me through, I did my purchases and prepared to leave. All clerks were warned that the damsel who sets alarms off is about to exit and all should pay her no heed. So everyone stared as I exited.

No alarm sounded. At all.

I lost my magnetic personality somewhere amidst the racks of the Banana Republic store. But I remain a good, albeit demagnetized, friend.

So happy birthday to you!

From the ninny-of-the year.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Monday: it's Depravity or Corruption time!

I was muckin’ around with topics for a post-of-the-week the other day. I threw out some ideas of things I might write about were I to do this kind of regular feature. But I wasn’t serious. Still, several bloggers followed up and told me that if I did not do “Vice of the Week” here on Ocean, they would do it on their own blogs.

I hate it when the competitive spirit pushes me to do things I would not otherwise do. That may be a vice in itself. I could not swallow the idea that Vice would meander over to another blog. It had to happen here, on Ocean, or not happen at all.

This week-end I reviewed my vices of the past week. They were either terribly boring or terribly conventional. I do have to say there was a lot to choose from.

All got rejected. Blog feature was about to die.

But then, a teeny tiny vice crept into my day today and the Monday Vice (of the Week) feature was born.

Oh, it’s not exciting. I did not engage in sex to gain favors, I bribed no one (that I can recall at the moment), I did not torture small animals [though I repeatedly told Tonya to donate her pooch for science or, at the very least, send her out on a boat in the middle of the lake and see if she swims home (I meant Lake Michigan, not Mendota)].

But know that by definition, my vice does not have to be filled with pathological acts of cruelty and mental imbalance to qualify (though even there, my own mother could find enough fodder in my daily life to make this work – though that may be more a reflection of how she regards me than how I regard myself).

The online Webster’s says this about vice:

a : moral depravity or corruption :
WICKEDNESS b : a moral fault or failing c : a habitual and usually trivial defect or shortcoming

So you see, a very small bitty little act could qualify. And I am going to start small. In fact, within one hour of waking up today, I had myself a vice. Here, see for yourself:

In the past weeks, I yet again have refused to pick up the mail from my mailbox on the theory that it looked boring. And when I did retrieve it, I shoved it in an obscure spot (under the bed perhaps?) and promptly forgot about it.

So that when I picked up the phone this morning to find out if an email message in my Inbox was spam or for real, I found that my newly established phone service at the loft had been shut off for nonpayment of the very first bill (that apparently came some 30 days ago).

(Personally, I think they should have sent at least one warning and allowed me to redeem myself, but hey, I am not the CFO of SBC and so I cannot tell them how to run their business.)

What is pathetic and vicey about all this is that it was my very first bill in my “new life” at the loft and I fucked up (oh, sorry, I guess we have ourselves vice number two, all in the same day! How sweet!) right from the start.

Bet you can’t top that.

P.S. The phone service is up and running. To compensate, I sent them a check and then, full of shame and remorse, called and gave them my credit card number. In effect, I paid twice, but hell, who cares. I needed to feel like a whole person again.

rhymes with cupid

A helpful reader gives tips about hooking up my DVD cables. I follow his instructions. No picture. A Madison blogger comes over and looks at the cables, gives a twist here and there but changes nothing. He turns on the DVD, puts in a disc, presses this button and that and voila. We have a picture.

How stupid of me to struggle for so long with cables. How doubly stupid to fail then at pushing the right buttons.

The only noble thing to do after the embarrassment of being a moron is to head over to El Dorado on Willie Street and close the place down.

Madison Sep 05 098

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Done. Totally done. Unpacked at the loft. Last box made it to the recycling bin. I am now completely moved in.

The first act of celebration? A ride on Mr. B to the Indie Café, where I encounter students, the more serious ones, congregating early Sunday evening to get their assignments in order. Me, I am done, finished, exhausted. No one will force me to crack anything tonight that would require effort, textbooks included.

A latte, leisurely sipped, nothing more. Done. Yes.

Madison Sep 05 096

sushi, sex and chocolate

In the movie the 40 year old virgin, the protagonist flashes back to unsuccessful attempts at sex in his younger years. Circumstances (or, as Althouse argues here, powerful religious conviction) cause him to remain a virgin at 40.

It reminded me of Tonya, Ann and I setting out to see a show together. Our attempts were foiled by fate each time. The most dramatic illustration of this was when Ann decided to have a full blown collision, totaling her car on the way to a showing of Sideways last January.

Were we destined to never sit in a theater together? To demonstrate to each other who laughed the loudest? (Ann claimed earlier that she was a “laugh leader” in movie theaters. Ha. I say ha to that.)

Yesterday we made yet another attempt to join forces with the multiplex crowds of suburban Madison.

At first it did not look promising. One person picked a showtime at a theater on the far South side. Another argued that the crowds were likely to be more with-it on the West side of town. To which someone responded that we may as well fly to another city, as the crowds in Madison tend to be dead, regardless of which side of the compass you find them at.

That seemed extreme. We stayed in staid Madison.

Still, it was not a straight-shot to the comfort of plush chairs. When we arrived at the specified time, not a minute late thanks to the expert driving of the Person With the Leased From a Friend Car, it appeared that the show had started a good half hour earlier.

Did we give up? No!

When all is failing and you think fate is slapping you down once again, you, of course, go have sushi. It’s seductive, it’s sensual, it’ll set you in a giddy mood. (It was also close by.)

Madison Sep 05 087

Madison Sep 05 081

Madison Sep 05 083

Our waiter, far from 40 and I’ll bet anything himself not a virgin, sings high praises for the movie. That’s a good sign. I wish he were in the theater raising the mirth levels to above tepid.

We make it to the theater. I manage to bring in a Godiva chocolate bar and a latte. How can you watch a movie about the pursuit of sex without filling your mouth with the creaminess of a solid piece of chocolate?

Maybe it was the chocolate that did it. Certainly it was not the tentative crowd. I haven’t laughed so hard in a movie in along time.

Mostly though, as for the Virgin in the movie, the spell of foiled attempts and no-shows for us was broken. Already, seconds ago, Ann sent this email: We should see "The Aristocrats" (recommended by our waiter).

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hooking up

Blast it. All my life I have wanted to do it right. I have hated it in the past, when signals have been mixed, or when you just didn’t feel you’re connecting.

Maybe I am too blunt here on Ocean. Maybe. Few bloggers would openly admit to these embarrassing failures. But when I get discouraged I turn to my blog and last night, indeed, my hooking up fell short of expectations.

There had been an earlier attempt, quickly aborted for lack of time. But last night was different. The light was right, my mood was primed for it. So what happened?

I don’t know. It’s all so confusing. I just don’t know.

UPDATE: This morning I figured it out. In situations like this, you need to find some young dudes who know about these things and can give you a few pointers. So I went to Best Buy and asked the guys there what I had been doing wrong. I showed them a sketch of my failed efforts and they set me straight. It’s the positioning that matters.

UPDATE 2: I’ll include a sketch of what I believed ought to have worked (broken lines), as well as what I should have been doing (straight lines, drawn by the BB guys). I don’t know why the instructions in the TV and DVD boxes don’t make it easier on you, I really don’t.

Madison Sep 05 076

Friday, September 23, 2005

a return to Ninaland

Suddenly, for the first time in months and months, I have time. Oh, just don’t engage me on the topic of work projects I am behind in. Irrelevant. At the end of the day, I come back to having time.

Time to look for the deserted, neglected Mr. B. [Hey buddy, I have a present for you; I bought it in NY in this cool store on Spring Street; get a load of the colors! it’s from Ocean and me. I get a deflated response – as if much of the air had left him due to more than a month of neglect. I note that he's turned greasy, so that when I rub against him, as inevitably I am wont to do, it totally dirties my pants. Ah well, I was prepared for this – there’s some make-up groveling I have to do here. I take him out of his cramped quarters and we go for a spin together at the end of which, I finally introduce him to the loft.]

Madison Sep 05 065 a bell for Mr. B

Time for a latte with a pal. (When did I stop those? Okay, I did not stop those, but I felt guilty during each and every one this past month.)

Time to swing by and visit Mai. [Hey there, another pair of pants to tuck and trim! You look well? Better. I have everything ready for you. Nina, would you help me make a video about sewing? Oh Jesus, I have no special talent for that! A photo, I can take a photo. Here, see how well you look! Wait, please, I have to comb my hair! Mai is dressed spiffily again. It’s Friday. Where will she go after she puts in the last tuck this evening? Whom will she meet up with? She is from Vietnam. Is he from Vietnam? I’ll find someone who can help you with the video…]

Madison Sep 05 069

Time to go to Borders and look at books. Time. When I was 10 or 11 I read a book that I loved to pieces (I wont mention the title because it has since been shamelessly turned into a movie, so totally inadequate that it has ruined all my best memories of the original text, which was lovely, really lovely). It is about an efficiency expert who, in the 1930s, basically created ways to cut back the number of seconds it took to do, well, any number of things. Toward the end of the book he dies of a heart attack and it’s all totally sad (except for the fact that his kids then went on to write this book about him). But I have always for some oddball reason, remembered the last line of the book. It goes like this (and I am certain that I am not off, not even by a word):

(so, his friend asks him at some point) But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?” And he answers “for work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumbelty-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.”

I had my share of mumblety-peg today without tossing any knives into the air.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

At what point do you think your speaking patterns should take a spin through the laundry cycle?

Yesterday, a friend who is more or less my age wrote this to me (and a bunch of her other friends):

I know I am swearing more. I enjoy it, but are there other and perhaps darker reasons why I find myself swearing more?

Jeepers. That’s scary. Imagine sliding into an abyss of routine cursing, where four letter words are something you find yourself reaching for in even the most innocent of times. Holy moly, I hope this never happens to me!

I mean, gosh, swearing is so undignified. If you insert the “s” word with any regularity, it does sound like, at some level, you are preoccupied with your bowels. The substitute – c*** can’t be any better.

My friend found herself calling forth in a public setting (among law profs no less) a part of the anatomy that oftentimes receives prominent coverage in skuzzy magazines. The people were rightly shocked. Goodness gracious, wouldn’t you be offended if someone asked about slanginess of the word **nt?

I was forced, nonetheless, to send a reply to her. She is a friend after all, living in a distant state, asking us, Midwesterners, with strong values and good manners, to comment on her increasing ventures into those parts of the dictionary leafed through mostly by adolescent boys.

I am honest. I had to admit it. Though I’m not one who likes the mention of poop in every sentence (blog or otherwise), recently I found myself in an argument with a friend where every other word seemed to deal less with the subject matter of our dispute and more with an act of copulation. It was more spirited that way! You can’t make a point by shouting “you are so gosh darn weird.” Gosh darn doesn’t have the same dramatic impact value as, well, its dirtier cousin.

The NYTimes got it right a couple of days ago (Science section, here) when it highlighted our longstanding committment to linguistic vulgarity. It causes people to stop and listen. Desparate types may need to resort to it more, but even us here on the sidelines, we need to fucking wake you up every once in a while. Life doesn't have a bold key to grab your attention and make your heart race.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

it’s either sadness or euphoria

briskly, have to move briskly after class, back to the loft to pick up the car and drive over for the house closing.

Hello, real estate agent? I think I am on the wrong road (on the wrong planet?). You’re all waiting for me? Sorry, sorry.

How many people does it take to sign a bunch of papers? Who bothers listening to an explanation of what they are about anyway? They say older people. Older people wont sign anything without going over minutely every word. They’re terrified of being scammed. Me, the attorney, I never read any of it. Bring it on and let’s be done with it.

Presents, I get presents. And profuse thank yous. Hey, for what? I did not build the place! For hustling like crazy to get it ready on time and for the fantastic cleaning job you did. (I did do a fantastic cleaning job. The place sparkled when I said good bye to it last night.)

We can’t wait to move in. And the neighbors! So friendly! Yes, definitely, but I did ask them last night if they would love you more than me and they promised no never in a million years, so don’t hold your breath.

My real estate agent gives me a gift certificate for a day at the spa to relax after all this moving craziness. Today, for the first time in over a month, I am not driving any boxes over anywhere.

I zip to Whole Foods in the spiffy (leased from a friend) car that I am loving so much. It is NEVER going back to its original owner. I decided. I will hide it and its awesome sun roof which I opened up, warm air rushing in, loud noise of the radio rushing out.

(Meanwhile, the van stands deserted, actually, unbeknownst to him, right close to this guy’s house. Someday I will get around to giving it away to some kid who wants to take it apart with the intention of never putting it together again. Inside, I hid Mr. B. I feel a little like a parent who has left a child abandoned in a hot car. But I refuse to bring Mr. B to the loft until they finish putting up a bike rack.)

I alternate between pangs of such deep nostalgia that it overshadows all else and feelings of euphoria. The house project is complete. The new family loves it. I am free of land. I am free of repairs and gutters and rakes and mice and older appliances and a super old roof, of three bathrooms to clean and salt blocks to replace. Of snow removal, of creepy people-eating vines growing among bushes and plants, of a lawn that looks like the Mojave Desert, of empty rooms holding tight memories and little else.

At Whole Foods, I run into Peder. Twenty-five years ago Peder sold us our condo – our initiation into home ownership. Freaky coincidence to see him today. I wanted to say –
hey you! I am done with being a homeowner. One condo and three houses later, I am done. What a ride!

hey, maybe I should introduce a weekly feature...

People like regularity. Maybe I mean a different type than described here. I mean regularly appearing blog events, as in blog of the week, or if it’s Saturday, it must be market day, or Monday weigh in, or whatever else you want to feature on your blog to keep that returning audience curiously checking in.

I have thought of doing something on a regular basis. Of course, I am likely to forget about it one day and I’ll feel like a failure. What a loser, couldn’t even remember to put in her Polish Joke of the Week. [BTW, here’s one, via Saul: A Polish immigrant goes to the DMV to apply for a driver's license. He has to take an eyesight test. The examiner shows him a card with the lettersC Z J W I X N O S T A C Z. "Can you read this?" the examiner asks. "Read it?" the Polish guy replies, "I know the guy."]

So maybe I am not cut out to do something predictable and steady. Okay, I know I am terrible at predictable and steady. Still, I am tempted. Several ideas have occurred to me. Vice of the Week is one, where I describe in great detail the sinfulness I indulged in that particular week and ask readers to share some of their own failings and transgressions.

Or richest food consumed in the last seven days, with a photo of grossly fatty meats or over-frosted desserts sampled by me.

Or CD listened to in the course of the week with the greatest number of repetitions with an explanation of the deranged state of mind that lead me to select that particular one.

Or I could recall the most interesting conversation I had in the past week and reveal all fascinating aspects of it, putting everyone on notice that if you talk to me in the week to come, you may be the chosen one (or not, making you feel, well, boring).

I’m thinking about it. The semester is steadily progressing, tomorrow -- a new season begins. Time to play!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

malutka*, malusienka** Ninka, welcome home, you old peasant, you

It is so in vogue in academia these days to say you come from humble origins, but me, I cannot say anything but this: I do come from humble origins.

Not humble like people in the States mean it (working class poor, crappy urban ghettos, farm isolationism, border towns, single parent resource-deprived), but Polish post-war humble.

We did not own land, us humble-origins Poles (that would be 99% of the men and women I knew and read about). We sometimes had chickens and other food-producing animals, but land? Forget it. Poland was the only Communist country that did not turn practically all private property into collectives after the war, but still, people, especially urban types, for the most part, did not own land. At least not anyone I hung with.

So then I came to America. Wow. Everyone who is not totally destitute (admittedly, there are a lot of those) seemed to own property. Moreover, the further you moved from the city, the more property appeared to define you in every way imaginable. You own land in a neighborhood – the neighborhood set the tone and style for you. It become your world, your life.

I came to first own land in America in 1984 (ergo: I was 31). It was in this partnership thing called a mortgage plus spouse, but still, I owned land. I would walk out in the morning, look at the soil and almost want to do the Gone with the Wind thing of running the dirt through my fingers.

This land is my land, this land is my land…

I felt American.

Today, tonight, is my last moment of land ownership. I spent the better part of nonteaching hours cleaning my house and getting it ready for its new owners, who take possession of my little piece of suburbia tomorrow.

I will return to my peasant stock. I will let go of the land. I will be one of the people. I will disposes myself of holding onto property as if it defined me.

Tonight, though, I am still the fat bastard who orders her peons to jump through hoops. I am a landowner. For twelve more hours I am a landowner. And then? You heard it here: never again.

* & ** = "little" & "very little," used in a folksy way here

warm and gooey

When you are up in the air, some thirty plus thousand feet above TV screens and magazines telling you how you should look on this day, any day, you become a free bird, suspended in your own chirpy little songs, lulled by the engines, bounced around by finicky air currents.

What a feeling! Zipping through dark skies with lights below and stars above, moving ahead to obligations and habits, but indulging none of them just yet. Think of it – you are there along with a handful of others, trapped - yet free, seemingly still - yet moving forward at terrific speeds.

It is perhaps for this reason that you do not say no to the warm chocolate chip cookies that are offered to you by the Midwest Airlines flight attendants. No one says no to the cookies (a signature Midwest Airlines treat). No one. I watched the flight attendant roll her cart down the aisle. Hands reached out, passengers sighed with contentment. The cookies. When all is said and done, at the end of the day, you can find comfort in two large cookies, warm and gooey, wrapped up in a napkin.

Monday, September 19, 2005

New Haven, the city that everyone loves to hate…

A city that suffers tremendously because it does not look fresh and honest. Because it spiraled through a period of economic decline and continues to cope with high rates of unemployment.

New Haven, visited by most because of Yale, hated by most because of its non-Yale aspects. Those same types that dis Yale for being resource-heavy even as the community remains resource-poor, manage to take advantage of Yale because of all that it does for them, at the same time that they look critically at at the community that would stand to benefit from their largess and I don't mean only in terms of money.

In fact, New Haven is as fascinating as any city on the Northeast corridor. And at its core, it is a city that will talk to you. Encountering New Havenites is easy – they engage you in taxi cabs, at the cleaners, at the distant supermarket. They ask who you’re buying for and what you’re doing here. They tell you how the best pictures for your walls come from free dated calendars (my encounter today) and they help you lift things when you’re struggling.

Yale and New Haven are linked in profound ways. The community recognizes, much more than us, the idle visitors do, how much its future depends on Yale’s success. Even the homeless person will tell you that there is a lot to be grateful for in this tight relationship. It is clear as hell that the city would become a burnt-out shell (case in point: Bridgeport CT) were it not for the presence of the university, even as every advocacy group would tell you that so much more needs to be done to revitalize this place.

Scenes from Yale are indeed pretty scenes. Academically strong, it is filled with images of what it means to be committed to your studies.

NYC - NHaven Sep 05 012 Atticus Coffee Shop

NYC - NHaven Sep 05 016 Maya Lyn's plate, dedicated to the first (and all subsequent) female scholars, including, I suppose, this one;

NYC - NHaven Sep 05 014 in between those gothic-like halls

NYC - NHaven Sep 05 021 "Koffee?" - a place to get serious about baked goods (me), or your work (them);

And there is the good life here for those who can afford it. Last night I ate this – it cost me $8, more than a vast majority from the neighborhood could afford, less than what I would pay back in Madison for a comparable appetizer.

NYC - NHaven Sep 05 007 Roomba Restaurant

New Haven. The city that always manages to teach me something. The city I love to visit and walk in, over and beyond the “confines” of the university, the city with bigger problems than any one town should be required to handle. How it manages to be so generous to the outsider is beyond me, but it does and I am drawn to it again and again, for its generosity of spirit in spite of the huge burden of its poverty.

NYC - NHaven Sep 05 020
(the other side of New Haven)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

NYC, what is it about you?

Oh, the food, always the food!

For instance, skate in vanilla sauce, over seared greens at the Porcupine:

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…followed by a pastry selection. This is not easy. Too many choices along Bleecker Street.
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NYC Sep 05 120

This will take care of the chocolate urge:
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The skies clear, it’s Sunday, park day. So many little tykes, especially in and around the Zoo. Their food choices steer toward drippy, creamy cones and bars.
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Still others take to the boats, looking for calm waters and quiet moments.
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Outside the park, at the Museum of Natural History, an exhibit celebrating my blog:
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Oh fine. I admit it. I visit Zabar’s with the same enthusiasm that others reserve for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just the blue cheeses alone fill a photo.
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I wanted to zoom in on the varieties of smoked salmon, but they insisted that the photo was about them.
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More food thoughts: two randomly selected judges sample bagels from the “best bagel store in the world.” Great stuff. No complaints.
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Ending the afternoon with a slice of the real thing: thin crust, New York pizza.
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I am on the train now, heading for New Haven for a dinner with daughters. Sunday meals should never be eaten alone.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

why would anyone not be drawn to New York?

I have not time to write now... I'm here with a small bunch of Madison and ex-Madison bloggers and they, especially one of them, the one who Intends To See Everything, keep me on the run.

I did take some photos and I am hoping that they will suffice for now. It's Saturday, a slow day for blog reading anyway.

My 24 hours, in a nutshell:

NYC Sep 05 001
there's always something slightly off about New York

NYC Sep 05 002
and just the other day, while still in Madison, I reflected on how steamy the city is,

NYC Sep 05 004
it seems to rise from many sources and it envelops you, so that you float with it, reaching new heights of steaminess,

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a city of reflections,

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and maybe it's the Central Park lakes that make even ex-Madisonians feel right at home,

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me, I love the food (in the Village: black pasta with pink fish)...

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it's worth pausing a diet for a slice of New York cheesecake;

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after that meal, she swore she would never leave the city

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others are really drawn to the sights,

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indeed, there are many sights...

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me, I cannot pass on a latte, at Soho's Cafe Cafe

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Oscar pointed out that JFW and Ocean appeared, well, sort of similar today;

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in the early evening we finally reached the tip of the island. the breeze was magnificent. a New York haze, a low sun, the once busy harbor quiet now.

Friday, September 16, 2005

why would anyone go to New Jersey? get to the other side.
of the river.

Last night, I watched the pink tones of a sunset outside my Madison loft window.

Madison Sep 05 056

Today, I took the scenic road from Newark Airport to NYC. (Yes, it's the Empire State Building nicely framed by NJ industrial parks.)

Madison Sep 05 059

When I was young and lived in New York, there were only two reasons to ever go to New Jersey: to splash in the bahtub of a pool with a million other kids at Bare Mountain on a hot Sunday, or to hold your nose and zip on the NJ Turnpike to D.C. I never ever went to New Jersey for any other reason that I remember. I crossed the river to Queens, Bronx, Staten Island, Connecticut -- any place, any place at all. But not New Jersey. Somehow Manhattanites had a thing for that state.

So it is no surprise that I have never in my life flown into Newark.

Today I am declaring a new affection: Newark, I love you. While planes are circling over troubled (weather-wise) La Guardia, I came in smoothly, early, without a glitch.

Oh, New York, New York! So crowded, muggy, loud. It's great to be here.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

mai oh mai

Or: how to succeed in business without really trying.

If you haven’t guessed it as yet, I have been somewhat overwhelmed these past weeks. Work, packing, moving, clearing the house – all have taken their toll.

So I tell myself: oh, what the hell. Let me give my nonfitting clothes over to Mai. Mai will put up my pants, take in the tuck where a tuck is needed, she will do it well and she will do it cheaply. She has saved me before when my inclination was not to sew.

On Monday I take things to her little shop around the corner from where I once lived.

You have to be careful how you approach Mai. She has a million ongoing sewing projects. Like anyone on this planet, she does not like being told what to do. What you want to avoid saying is: please fix these by the end of the week. Instead, you say: is it okay if I ask you something? Then she will look at you with great doubt spreading to every pore of her beautiful face and you can push forward with your request. And tell her that you will amply reward her for her efforts. Then take out the bills and lay them down flat on the counter.

It’s worked before.

We agreed on Wednesday as the pick up day.

On Wednesday, I come by in the late afternoon. It’s dark inside. No sign of life. She must have closed earlier than her usual early hour. Okay, tomorrow I will come even earlier.

And so today I brush off students, write the most nonsensical, hasty emails on the planet and head west.

By now, people have pasted angry notes on the door begging for their clothes. I thought of the trip I am going on tomorrow at dawn and of my teaching needs for the next week. What good are angry notes when she is not there to read them? Calling her landlord proves futile. He notes that she had disconnected (temporarily? permanently?) her phone and his lawyer told him to stay out of her store (thank you, random and unhelpful lawyer).

Inside, her store appears even darker than before. And yet, I can see the parrot that keeps her company all day long (it flies loose, and I always check my clothes to make sure somewhere in their folds their isn’t a bit of parrot dropping). She may have gone off and left our clothes behind, but she would not have abandoned her parrot.

Or would she have?

I drive home wondering if a daily dose of jeans for the next three weeks would be noticed.

I sit down to write a post about Mai – about how beautiful she is and how I wished her beauty would make its way to Mai’s Tailor shop and open the door for me to retrieve all that I hold precious.

The phone rings. It is Mai.

Nina? I’m in the shop. Do you want your clothes? I am here for only five minutes.

I live downtown, no longer around the corner, but I promise her I’ll be there in ten. And I am, give or take ten additional ones.

She is standing there in the dark shop, not wishing to be seen by anyone, holding onto my clothes.

Are you sick? I ask her.

I thought I was. I do have an appointment in a few minutes.

I feel bad that I am keeping her from the doctor that she so needs to see. And yet, I note that she is standing in a full length black dress with sparkles sewn in throughout. Her hair is down around her shoulders. She is wearing make up. Her beauty, though no longer youthful, is especially palpable.

I stare at her unrevealing, unflustered face. Thank you, Mai. I tell her. You saved me.

She smiles. It is the only time I have ever seen her smile.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

…a decent home

Michele Norris talked to some of the children displaced by hurricane Katrina and fragments of these interviews aired on NPR today.

I have often felt that living in the States induces an unmanageable amount of guilt for people like me. I never felt that way in Poland. At the time that I was growing up there, I witnessed levels of poverty as well as privilege that were nothing I would likely ever encounter in my own life. But this was rare. The vast majority of families were sort of in the same heap together and if it wasn’t a fantastically inspiring heap, it was, nonetheless, a heap.

Then I came here. I set myself up in a Fifth Avenue apartment in NY (the home of my employer – I was a nanny) and I attend a private college (paid for by my employer). And I kept moving up in life, so that by the time I settled in Madison, I found myself living among doctors and lawyers in a suburb where the yard was so big that it was beyond my ability to tend to it.

And when, for reasons of economics (but also preference), when I switched homes, I moved this week to a downtown loft that is a rental unit, but one with nifty track lighting and my very own washer and dryer.

So that when I hear a young girl on the radio, talking about what she feverishly hopes for herself fifteen years from now and she answers simply: a decent home, my heart breaks.

if these boots aren’t made for walking, then I’ll chuck them. the walking stays.

Although I have not yet come to class late (I am talking about my morning Tuesday/Thursday class) I pretty much come in at 9:30 and 59 seconds (it is scheduled for 9:30).

It’s not that I sleep in. On work days I am up and moving so early as to be able to watch with total fascination the night beat squad car meandering in the back lot, right by the railroad tracks. It appears to always finish the night in the same spot, causing me to wonder if this is a high-crime area between 4 and 6 a.m. or whether it’s just a good spot to tune out and doze off.

My near-late arrivals have more to do with the walk to work. It’s getting longer. I used to be able to pull it off in 22 minutes, door to door. Now I am closer to 40.

What’s happening?

1. It's the shoes, damn it. I am discovering that my teaching shoes are not walking shoes. I have never had to walk in them before! Yesterday I paused right there in front of Fraboni’s Deli, took off my shoes and contemplated sending a nasty letter to the manufacturer about the folly of using plastic lining in sensitive areas. Cars passed, people gawked, I stood with a shoe in each hand thinking evil thoughts about women’s footwear. Eventually I moved on, but it took time to motivate myself.

2. Then, there’s my utter fascination with the things I pass. When you drive, you are locked in your own little bubble of thoughts, occasionally waking yourself to maneuver the car in some assertive way to show your dominance and control. When you walk through a city you notice the world.

In Madison, that world seems to be all about construction right now. When you drive, construction is more than a headache. It is a nightmare. When you walk, it becomes all about people building things.

In New York, street corners are forever steaming and drills are pounding at the flawed pavements. The racket is fantastic! It adds bounce to your step.

Turns out that in Madison, we have the steam and the racket too.

Madison Sep 05 052

And we have the crane invasion:

Madison Sep 05 053

And of course, I cannot resist it all. I stop, I watch, I take an occasional photo.

I know I have to speed up or leave earlier. I know that. I’m not even going to mention my walk home, via State Street, then veering off into the Bassett belly: it’s even longer, with double points awarded for fascinating structures and scenes to consider along the way. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. So what will happen when I do? I wont make it home until 4 am, at which point I can stop and chat to the cop in the squad car.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Don’t wait a minute more, downtown

I don’t think there has been a single time when I have mentioned (to suburban friends) that I am moving downtown that I haven’t gotten some version of the “I’m so jealous” response. I truly believe our cities have been abandoned by hoards of reluctant sheep following some powerful force that drags them from vibrant urban communities to the stripped of any heart and soul suburbs.

And I am not even talking about leaving behind the downtowns of Manhattan or Chicago. I’ve moved to Madison’s downtown which, forgive me, little city, is hardly the epicenter of urban buzz. But it does have a buzz.

It’s for the kids that we leave all this, isn’t it? We buy houses with gardens and we let the children make loud noises because there are no neighbors above or below. We learn how to tend to tomatoes and flowerbeds and the kids go to proximate schools and have neighborhood friends to kick a ball around. They splash in wading pools while their dads grill meats on Sunday evenings.

Until we find that we need a new roof and the tomatoes rot and the kids have to drive everywhere and you hope they avoid intoxicated friends who incidentally are also horrid drivers. One year we take a long hard look at the four walls that we call home and we find that they’re, well, crumbling. And at night it’s quiet. Very quiet. Six-feet-under-type of quiet.

Downtown. Walking with crowds again, to and from work, looking at store windows, smelling not the roses but the coffee. Stopping to drink it. Getting home late, waking early. Watching construction workers leave their trucks in a vacant lot and move with their huge lunch coolers toward the newest condo project a few blocks up.

I was in my mid twenties before I set foot in a suburban house. Honest – I had never been in one before.

I’ll never forget the feeling when I woke up for the first time in our own house. One small daughter, another on the way, two cherry trees planted by me, next to each other, a yard where I put in coreopsis and campanulas (yellow and blue). It seemed right then. Almost like playing house.

Downtown. Bright lights and promises.

ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies

I am at the wine store, taking back a couple of bottles of booze that I had in the house, ones that were never used and will never be opened. A random bottle of scotch (I am so much not a scotch drinker). Gin from unmade martinis. Recent acquisitions, made in anticipation of neighborhood gatherings that were to combat somber times and bleak winter nights.

Returning unused alcohol has this wonderful effect of clearing irrelevant nonessentials and restoring nice sums of cash into your wallet. It's very forward looking. It’s as if you’re saying – damn it, I am not all about martinis you know. I am selective! That was then, this is now. It's summer edging into fall. Different times, different moods.

Joe, the owner (yes yes, it’s Steve’s Liquor Store) is an old friend of mine. We have known each other for almost twenty years. He looks at me, my handful of bottles, my receipts and says: you know I have been away in France for a while. So what’s going on in your life anyway?

Don’t you just hate this? Three people behind you in line (listening?) and you get asked “what’s happening in your life?”

He gets my thirty second version of the events of the year (as, therefore, do the others in line; it's awfully quiet at Steve's Liquor). I suppose there is some pleasure in crafting a response that leaves the person gaping and scrambling for an appropriate reply. People are used to "nothing much" and "fine, how about you."

I remember a year ago when I ran into Joe and he described for me the ordeal of taking his aging father to get retested for a driver's license. Life cycle events, marking the passage of time. Sometimes the events are tame, other times -- not so much.

Monday, September 12, 2005

how is it that my life’s dilemmas are best summarized in an ad for an automobile?

One of the last things that I removed in the course of packing up bedroom things yesterday was a magazine ad, pasted to the inside of the closet door.

I don’t remember who put it there – probably me. At the bottom some other soul stuck a label with my name on it, as if it wasn’t clear already that the captions were all about me.

I took it to the loft with the intention of putting it again on the inside of a closet door. Unfortunately, all loft closet doors are of the sliding type. Is this fate telling me that I have resolved these particular dilemmas and should not ponder them anymore?

Madison Sep 05 051

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Fly me to the moon…

Last night, neighbors – or, I suppose I should call them now old neighborhood friends – brought out a large telescope and we took turns pouring beers from a keg and picking out craters from the orange half-circle, plainly visible, awesome.

Madison Sep 05 042

…and let me play among the stars…

I am not much of a star gazer, but every once in a while I pause and take note.

A year ago I sat with these same people outside and we talked politics and religion late into the night. It was the year for that. For me, it was a year for a lot more, too.

…let me know what spring is like
on Jupiter and Mars…

People who know me well understand the significance of spring for me. This year, though, spring was only in one way a standout season. The other seasons would have to compete for being equally loaded and of course, summer had the highest drama quotient, ending finally with this week’s hauling of the remains of my suburban life over downtown.

In the mornings and afternoons, yesterday and today, my two pillars of moving support, Susanne and Sarah worked their garage sale magic efficiently, optimistically. Today we finished by handing over to two last stragglers car-loads of stuff for free. The older woman especially could not believe her luck: china, silver, even my never-worn gardening straw hat (I do not know what possessed me – I am so not the gardening straw hat type) – all suddenly hers. Antique plates and silver dishes, packed gently into cardboard boxes, appreciated again.

Madison Sep 05 045

In other words, hold my hand…

Friends. How would this week have looked without them?

What stands out for me about yesterday and today was the laughter – S & S are caustically funny and an afternoon latte at MoFools with bloggers was equally tearful – of the mirth type.

Madison Sep 05 024

At dusk, Madeline and I did our evening drink & laugh routine as we caught up at Crave, and the day ended with the outdoor moon-gazing & beer sloshing -- a good and solid reprieve from hauling boxes.

Ah, the move, the move.

I’m done recounting the details of it.I know I’ve been tediously obsessive in my posts here. To be honest, I kinda had fun sifting and sorting through the events surrounding the transfer of residences. But it’s just about done now. Time to move Ocean forward.

Just let me say one more thing. My back is completely killing me. The only people who have seen and handled as many cardboard boxes as I have this month, work for places like Two Men and a Truck. Who can point me to someone with solid back rubbing skills?

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Why did I once have a framed page from Gleason’s Pictorial? It was snatched at the garage sale today by someone who wanted to give it to a friend whose last name was Gleason.

Why did virtually everyone at the sale examine the plaster heads of Polish kings, decorative and very fanciful, not a little weird, inherited from my family?

Why did people come at 6:45 to a garage sale that officially began at 7? (S & S bailed me out yet again by showing up in time to let them in.)

Why is it so damn hot today? Why don’t I remember people’s names? Why was this past year so turbulent? Why is the house still not empty of garbage? Why do people say and do the things they say and do and not say and do other things?

A calm day, a pensive day, a Saturday... with several terrific daytime lattes and evening even-more-pensiveness-inducing beverages. More later, I'm late.

Why am I always late these days?

Friday, September 09, 2005

Morning becomes electric

Garage sale, at the unpopular time of 3 to 6! Today!
The newspaper ad did not appear yesterday, nor today.

Why didn’t you run my ad? You sent me an email confirmation!

Did you open the email from us? It said we needed credit card confirmation.

New garage sale times: Saturday 7 – 11 and Sunday 8 – 12.
Come and take it all! Price greatly reduced: I pay, you take.

My Two Men and a Truck are a dream. FUW*s: No problem!
It takes them only two hours to clear out the house.

Madison Sep 05 004

Favorite moment of the morning (and the commencement of the Ocean author's upswing): when Susanne D comes and lays out this in front of me:

Madison Sep 05 006 food, latte, Onion

Least favorite moment: it’s a toss up: when I take a hammer to my daughter’s bed to get it out of the room, or when I leave Susanne and Sarah to deal with the mountain of rejects and garbage and garage sale items while I follow the truckers to our various destinations.

Second favorite moment: when I return to the house and find that S & S have single-handedly cleared most of the recyclables and refuse out of the house.

Most communal moment: when the neighborhood kids and their parents converge in my driveway and look through my loot, buying some of it and just enjoying playing around. In truth, they are the best neighbors ever. Hard to leave you guys, really hard.

Madison Sep 05 012 Susanne and two of my favorite boys on the block

Madison Sep 05 016 Julie and Anne (sob; oh I do hate leaving you)

The surprising moment of the day: a stranger comes over, looks at the plant “shelves” that I have loved (from Smith Hawken, for those who value snot appeal), goes away, comes back, buys all three and says “good bye and good luck, Ocean.” Whaaaat? [Turns out he is a reader (thus he would know about the garage sale even as the rest of the world does not) – a regular one at that (hi again). He promised photos of how his plants will look on my gorgeous tiered stands. I’ll link, for sure.]

We finished late, Susanne, Sarah and I. So tired – I am so tired. But brimming with gratitude. Happy gratitude. You heard it here – the Ocean author is out of her hell hole.

P.S. I got some fantastic news today. What, you want to know? Check in on October 21st14th.

*Frequently Uttered Words