Monday, December 31, 2007

Chicago confection

I walk over to Pasticceria Natalina on Clark. I love that place. It’s authentic-young. She takes her talents from her Sicilian grandmothers, he brings them from his family bakery in Lebanon. And they create magic.

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I wait in line. They’re baking like mad.

When we run out of stuff, we’ll close for the day. For the week actually.
Taking time to welcome the New Year with your family?

Family? Oh no. Not them. Christmas is for family. New Year’s is for fun!

I just want four Sfogliatelle, with ricotta and candied orange peel (right next to the stars below) and a bag of cookies con limone, but I’m enjoying watching others buy boxes and boxes of lovely creations.

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Sweeten this day a little! It’s the end of a year and we’re all here and ticking. Celebrate! And hope for an even better 2008. I’m wishing all my readers a tasty ending and a delicious beginning.

To you, straight from my favorite Sicilian bakery on this side of the ocean:

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

from Chicago: walk

I started out early. On the El, taking it south, beyond the Art Institute. And from there, I turned around and walked back. Miles and miles of Chicago streets, until I was too spent to walk any more.

Here is a handful of photos, chronologically, from the walk, for Ocean:

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Good night.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

from Chicago: city life

In the late evening, I take a walk up and down Clark Street. I tell myself exercise will be good for me after the stormy ride into town.

But it’s Chicago the way I remember it from my student days: biting cold. Sometimes I think big cities feel cold even when it’s hardly freezing outside. Chicago, New York, Warsaw – I lived in these before I came up to Wisconsin. And they all felt dismally cold from November onwards.

Inside a Starbucks, a guy sits and draws cartoons. You do cartoons? – a friendly type asks him. He ignores her. She shrugs and leaves.

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I pass a place called the Cheetah Gym. I go inside to poke around. Week passes? Sure, we have week passes. Wonderful. I’m yours. Hand me a towel and tomorrow I’ll start pushing weights.

Late at night, I eat a wonderful meal at Brioso to celebrate my gym days ahead. The city is kind, the city is bright…

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…and most importantly, there’s a parking spot right in front of the place on Foster Avenue, where I’m staying.

Saturday morning. My family is pushing for an early wake up. So that we can get breakfast at Pauline’s. You’ll like it, you’ll see.

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I do like it. It’s a diner, a little kitschy, but very true to the neighborhood corner, where there’s been a place dispensing food for many many decades. And, the old guy who owns it now is determined to pick up dated stuff (how retro!) to fill the interior. More importantly, he is bent on serving fresh foods: Michigan eggs, no more than five days old! Potatoes, peeled and panfried fresh each morning. And so on.

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My kind of place indeed. The waitress is happy to chat, I’m happy to listen.

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And the blueberry pancakes on green plastic plates are outstanding.

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We walk back to Foster and I look. And I look again. No car. Stolen? Really? Towed? But why? I checked the signs: no parking M – F, daytime, or when there are two or more inches of snow. Last night, there may have been a quarter of an inch here, probably less.

I call the city.
The old Toyota? It’s here, impounded.
Where’s “here”?
North Sacramento.
Where is that?
By Chicago Avenue. Look at a map.
How much to get it back?

Bring $160 and a license.
In cash?

I said $160. I don’t care how you carry it.

Oh. One of those. Hates her job. Who can blame her.

I get myself to North Sacramento and the City Pound. No fancy building here: I make my way to two trailers, filled with angry people on both sides of a dirty counter.

I want to appeal, but the appeal information person is out to lunch. At 11. Wont be back for a while. Besides, all he’ll do is give me a date two weeks from now when I can get my fat ass over to the courthouse (she didn’t say it, but she wanted to).

We go around this several times, getting nowhere. It’s not her fault. It’s none of these people’s fault. The sign saying “no parking at night on Foster in the winter at all,” or words to that effect was far from the signs that gave me permission to leave my car there. These people didn’t put up the signs. They merely impound cars.

I sigh, pick up the appeal info, pay up and go to claim the car. I can’t resist a photo: there is the Sears tower, in the distance, far from this desolate lot with a hundred cars plucked out of the streets of Chicago.

No photos! – a burly guy shouts at me.
Says who? I shout back. I lived in Poland with hostile service people all my growing years, I stopped being pushed around by them when I was thirteen.
No photos! Put that camera away!
It’s a public place! I can take a photo. Leave me alone.
You want your car, right?

Oh, he’s one of the many many men here who actually are in control of the old little Toyota. I put away my camera.

Get in the white van. They’ll take you to it.

Three burly men ride along with me. The city of Chicago keeps burly men employed. I suppose that’s a good thing. Better here in the dirty white van than on the streets of the city.

I told her, no photos. Make sure she gets it.

Hey, it’s my car, I can take photos.
They laugh. Sure you can!

I get in my blue car, slam the door. There’s not much to photograph here anyway, in the far corner of the lot. Just the jail number on the window. The car, in shame, dumped in this desolate place with high fences and a remote gate.

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I drive it out. The guard is all warm and fuzzy now. You watch the parking signs now, hear? He grins. I glare. And I note the ticket pasted on the windshield. Another $100 owed for a winter parking violation. Two appeals before me, both most likely futile. City life is like that.

It’s time for me to put my energy into something other than getting angry at poorly positioned Chicago parking signs. I walk along Clark Street enjoying the spirit of the place.

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And I make my way to the Cheetah Gym where I spend a good hour and a half exercising next to very fit guys in spiffy gear (having myself borrowed too-large tennies and boxer shorts for the occasion – who knew I would join a gym for the week).

City life. I like it so much except when things go wrong. Not the deep country, nor urban places are gentle on the person in trouble. You want hassle-free? Move to Madison. A commercial for my town: parking bullies getting to you? Come home to Madison, where we tow your car around the corner and parking tickets are cheap.

Friday, December 28, 2007

en route to Chicago

They said it would storm. It did.

By the time we reached the Interstate, cars were slowing down to a crawl. Those who insisted on holding their own were punished mercilessly. Nothing major, mind you. No roll overs, no screaming ambulances (thankfully). Just many vehicles whiling away the hours in the ditch.

And still, the snow continued.

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It was an intense ride. Terrifying, beautiful, chock full of music, sometimes almost at a standstill, sometimes careening with the speed of the rest, not believing that there’s anything safe in numbers, no not at all. And yet.

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All the way down to the south of the Wisconsin border, we bullied our way through the storm. The world was white and just a little dark. No color, there was no color.

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But who cares. There was color in the absence of color. There was beauty in the ice and cold tones. Bold statements. Defiant riders. Fantastic mix of bravado and subjugation.

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And for the person who cannot live without drama, there was the occasional Ace truck splashing red onto this white and gray landscape.

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[photo credits: Ca, from the back seat]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

goodbye holiday town of mine, goodbye holidays

Tree comes down. The condo is a mess of needles and old cardboard boxes. Outside, I see branches gently touched by snow.

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A friend writes from Warsaw: no snow this year for Christmas. I want to say – tides do turn! We’re getting close to a record amount.

Tomorrow’s forecast: winter storm. I’m to drive to Chicago. It may be slow going.

But the days, they're moving fast now. It’s like when you flip the hourglass – the last grains plummet.

Goodbye decorations. How will the world be when I unwrap the toilet paper next year to take each one out?

I drive down to pick up a daughter on State Street. Goodbye State Street snowflakes.

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The street is nearly empty. A bike leans against a snow mound. A bus – one of mine, the one I take from work, spins past me. Empty.

The boxes of ornaments are stacked in my storage room. End of holiday season.

I call down to Muramoto for sushi.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

new ice, old ice

The day after. Empty campus. Cold office. No good mail, piles of paper, exams to read. I walk over to the College Library to pick up some books. I linger over the new collection. I'm leafing through a volume titled “All the Money in the World.” I’m on the chapter about whether money brings happiness.

Not surprisingly, most rich people think it does not. Most rich people, I think, don’t remember what it’s like to be not rich, in the same way that I do not really remember what it’s like to live in a poor country: I only recall I felt like Nina then and feel like Nina now. Troubled by everything and nothing. Is it that you only notice deprivation when others count on you for a better life?

Outside, I note that Lake Mendota is getting that sheen of ice cover. Not thick yet, not rippled, not covered with snow. Dangerously new, not solid. Kind of like a fresh relationship – the one you shouldn’t feel too comfortable with. Time hasn’t thickened the skin yet. Everything is new. Everything is shiny. Everything is fragile.

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I drive to the other lake, the one with the bay at the side, The one favored by the ice fishers. And they are there. Doug-in, safe, on ice-covered snow.

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It's good to be able to count on that sheet of ice growing solid. It doesn't cost much to hang out its surface and hope for a fish to make its way into the bucket. You're alone. You let someone else fix supper and welcome you at the end of the day.

The world is different depending on where you throw your stool.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Day dreams

The Eve is like the very end of a mad race. I'm almost there! Almost, but not quite. Hurry up, get it done, do it right, it's a big one, do it well, watch your step, it matters!

But the Day (Christmas Day) forgives it all. It’s too late to feel the burden of wanting to be a better human being. You've arrived, you're settling in at the theater. You can't change a thing. Turn on the lights, throw on the bacon, wake the kids (not kids anymore, but oh well, they're sleeping nonetheless) and let it all roll forward.

A snowflake on spice cake. It doesn’t make an appearance every year. Sometimes we just don’t have time. This year, a daughter did the cut-out and there it was.

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I used to love Christmas Eve to pieces, but with time, I’ve switched. It’s the Day that holds the greatest bounty. When did the change happen? When I realized that watching my girls do a puzzle together is possibly the most beautiful sight in the world? (I’m watching them now.)

In the early afternoon, I go to the sheepshed to touch base with the person who has never thought much about holidays. The approach is always lovely...

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...and more often than not, you can watch wild things (gobble gobble) move in and out of the forest.

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We take a walk up the Nature Conservancy path just up the road and round the bend. The drifts of snow are deep enough to wet my pants and send icy coldness into my boots.

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No matter. The sun is out and everything feels fresh. A dog runs to us across a frozen sheet of snow. Tail wagging, tongue out, a moving picture of exuberant joy. It’s a great stretch of land, isn’t it? -- her owner reflects.

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The evening is food based. Cornish hens, causing the smoke detector to shriek, Yule log, requiring a loosening of the pants.

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The sun has set on a beautiful sky of pumpkin clouds. The stars come out in twos, threes, then dozens, as we walk down to see a late show. I sip an espresso and listen to the clever dialogue of people way younger than you or I ("Juno"). And that's a good thing, because I want to believe that the younger generation will be more clever and witty and wise than any of us is, or was ever destined to be.

We laugh hard, and some of us sniffle now and then and on the walk back to the condo, we proclaim it to be a fine Christmas.

Goodnight sweet, forgiving Day. You're the best.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

be merry

Look away from the crowds, keep your purse shut tight, walk past all stores that advertise long shopping hours, smile your way down the grocery aisles. Be merry.

No photos for you tonight. Oh, okay, of the tree. In its wonderful simplicity and splendor.

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One more. Of Christmas Eve, from my rooftop.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

storm passes

Between 2 and 3 at night (I listened), there was a shift. The warm(ish) misty air gave way to freezing rain, then snow, then winds, then plummeting temps. It all happened within a minute. Maybe two.

I could tell this morning: a storm came, racked havoc, moved on.

Looking out, I could see it all: the ice, the snow, the wind, the passage of time. Fury diffused.

In my pajamas still, I drove toward the lake.

Does a chill in the air always follow a storm?

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At dusk, I drove out into the country. The storm, never satisfied with just one hit, came back with a sweeping fury of snow and wind. I would mind none of this if only I could be assured that storms are a passing thing. That they aren’t the norm.

In the meantime, I battle them. I cultivate indifference and pretend that tomorrow, I’ll hardly notice. My personality will be transformed. Happiness will come from within, not from some freak meteorological condition out there, in the brooding skies of December.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

café thoughts

Isn’t it true that most people view themselves as being quite independent, carving their own path, listening to some internal voice rather than conforming to the (petty) demands of others?

It seems that the time you most like to do your own thing is when what is expected is too annoying, too displeasing, uncomfortable, grating.

If you place two individuals in the same room and both view themselves as being extraordinarily independent, what happens? Maybe you’ll have formed your perfect partnership -- something like the movie version of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, or, digging deeper, maybe Virginia and Leonard Woolf?

Off the screen and out of the manuscript, all I see is conflict. Individualism presupposes a certain degree of stubbornness, no? And if no one bends, then, unless you’re both on the same planet with your individualism (and it can happen, but how likely is that?), you’re going to be running past each other all the time.

Anyway, this season makes me think that individualism is way overrated.

Typically I write the post to fit the photo. Today, they’re independent of each other. I guess.

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(at the café: brother and sister; he's killing targets on his Apple; she's dreaming)

Friday, December 21, 2007


The day is hidden. Out of reach. Unrecoverable.

Layered in heavy, wet fog.

I bake, I move from one corner of the room to another, I listen.

In the late afternoon, I drive out to the sheepshed. How to photograph fog? Each of us will “see” it differently. To me, it is best recognized in the infinite nothingness of a white field, blending into the equally white air around it.

In the center of all that emptiness, I can see a tree and a half. Because half of it seems to have collapsed.

So, a tree and a half, in fog, for Ocean.

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Oh, and a partridge in a pear tree. Make it a robin in a peach tree. Same diff.