Tuesday, April 29, 2008

vocal visitor

This is the second day in a row that she is here. Yesterday she sat out on the balcony chair and I watched her rest on her legs, folded under her light body. I hoped she wouldn’t mess up the chair. She didn’t.

Today she came back with a friend. I want to think he’s her lover, but I don’t really know. She is extremely vocal, but she's secretive, too. I can't always read her all that well.

She made her way to the corner of the balcony and peered at it for a long time. Why? I’m thinking she’s considering hanging out there a while. I want to encourage her, but I don’t want to push her to a bad decision. What do I know about finding your own corner – my own version is to put down a wooden floor and buy a comfortable couch. She seems to need neither.

I had to leave to go to class. I tiptoed out so as not to disturb her thoughts. When I came back in the late afternoon, she was gone. I’m hoping to see her again. It can’t be just a two day thing, can it?

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Amos and Dave (The Writer’s Shed Project, part 6)

As we move forward with the building of the Writer’s Shed, Ed and I are still discussing who to hire for help with construction. Last week, we drove an hour south of Madison to meet with Dave, the fallen away lawyer who, with his wife and fifteen children, has embraced the simple, peaceful life of a Mennonite and taken on shed building as a livelihood.

Building sheds is something I can do with my older children – he said to us, as we presented our thoughts on the project.

This afternoon, we drive to western Wisconsin. The gentle greens of late April are lovely, even as the dark clouds of a late winter storm roll in.

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And it turns cold.

We are getting almost close to the Mississippi by the time we reach the homestead of Amos and Mary. We’re here to talk to Amos – the fallen away Amish, now somewhere between the Born Again Christian and the Mennonite faith (though I read that not all in his family agree with this religious reclassification) who, along with his wife and ten children, builds barns and sheds for a living.

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You may ask why I mention religion in a post about shed building. If you visited either Dave or Amos, you would understand that it is a significant part of the story.

Building barns and sheds. Raising children who then help with construction. Dressing simply. Modestly. Posting uplifting slogans on walls and down driveways. Frugal lifestyles. Quiet temperaments.

You’re selling the business? Ed noticed the real estate sign by the road.
Yes, we’re moving to Ghana. I’m curious about this and he seems willing to explain.
We’ll be running an orphanage there. We’ll be working with the adolescents. Helping them to transition to adult life.
You’ll take your whole family?

Yes, of course.

So I’m thinking we should work with Amos. It’s like handing money to support a good cause. Or maybe it should be Dave? He and his wife have adopted six kids over and beyond their biological nine. Maybe they’ll adopt more.

It really is more than just paying someone to help put up your shed.

The winter weather catches us on the drive back. Wet flakes and gray colors take away any ideas about spring. We pass one sad looking town, then another. Lifeless main streets. Thrift shops, empty storefronts.

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And in spite of this, I think to myself – what a beautiful venture that was! And what gorgeous countryside, just west of Madison!

And it is. Weather and other life’s challenges notwithstanding.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

raspberry canes

The Writer’s Shed is not even in the most formative stages of construction yet and still I feel the need to roll up my sleeves and do my part to improve the land where it is to be built. And so I head out to Ed’s farmette to weed, prune and chop.

Initially, I set my sights on clearing the huge raspberry patch of dead canes. There are more dead canes than live fruit bearing ones and so it seems like a worthwhile task.

It is certainly an unpleasant task. The canes scratch. Some of them crack at a snap, others are dead but stubbornly clinging to their pod. It’s all a terrific mess. But, I am to be part of this grand landscape and so I pitch in.

I watch Isis, the friendlier of the two Ed cats, move out of the canes and towards the still to be removed shed and I think – buddy, you have one easy life.

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Right to the side of Ed's raspberry jungle, Cha and his wife are engaged in their own farming challenge: the planting of new raspberry canes.

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Such grueling work! I want to say -- here, just harvest Ed’s berries!

But I know that this would not be helpful. Ed's berries, in their uncontrolled habitat, could not support what this family needs --a bounty. A harvest that will pay their bills.

And so we continue. I destroy dead canes, they plant new ones. We pause to exchange Sunday greetings and then resume our respective chores. Snap, pull, discard. Dig, plant, pat down.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008


The winds blow this way and the winds blow that way. April can be a difficult month.

But you know, we need a different marker of warmth than a simple temp reading and a wind chill factor. In April, cold and windy does not feel bad. It feels like I need an extra sweatshirt. I can live with that.

At the market, the vendors may have had a different take on the weather. If you sit in the wind for six hours you feel... the wind.

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Me, I took the bike out and it felt like the day could not go wrong.

Until it did.

And then it recovered.

April is tricky. Did I say that already?

Friday, April 25, 2008

storms and sinks (The Writer's Shed Project, part 5)

In the evening, the weather people are warning of storms. The severe kind that do damage.

Ed and I are back at Menards, looking at windows, light fixtures and sinks. For the Writer’s Shed.

We have already checked out the Recycle (Habitat for Humanity) store, a lighting fixture store and really every other discount entity we could think of. We are back at Menards as Ed waffles between going for the appearance (casement windows) or cost (double hung). [I know cost will prevail, but I go along with this process because I think the “what if” path is one Ed likes to travel.]

And there, in the aisle of Menards, I pop the question.

Do you think I could have a sink?
It is nearly impossible to connect the Shed to the septic system and water pipe.
I know this to be true, but when I get swept away by emotion, reason fails me.
Still, maybe we could look at sinks. Maybe there could be a place where I could drain waste.

If you think the idea of draining a sink that has no water pipe leading in is strange, you must understand that we had already studied carefully such oddities as composting toilets (the video on this system was... compelling) and had looked at many on line presentations of incinerating toilets. We rejected them all – Ed by reason of cost, me by reason of grossness.

We look at sinks. I daydream of how wonderful it would be to rinse a cup right there in the Writer’s Shed.

I could run a hose to the Shed and you could rinse anything you like..
It’s not the same,
I tell him.

We make no real progress today. And yet, we inch forward. We know what the stumbling blocks are. And we know they are surmountable. In the scheme of things.

Maybe I could keep a rain barrel at the side and hope for above average rainfall.

Late in the evening, as I watch reports of damaging storms in the area where we kayaked earlier in the week, Ed looks at sinks on Craig’s list. Take a look at this: fluted green clamshell. Slightly soiled.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


I’m generous with passes in class. You don’t want to talk? Okay. You get a pass.

I’ll give myself the same here. It was a work day. I pass on anything more profound.

Oh, but wait. Don’t you want a photo? Yes, sure! Clumps of flowers with the light of spring (from the ride home).

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

life’s confusing

All day long I have been thinking that it's hard to be a goose. Unless you're this goose.

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On another note, I want to ask this`-- am I in California? I mean, how lovely to have this in April?

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Not California. Not even close. Wisconsin. In April. No kidding.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I go along. Earth day? Yes! On board! I think green thoughts daily now, but today I think super green thoughts.

And it’s soooooo easy! A birthday bouquet from a friend – look! Flowers from the soil. Colors for the soul.

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Not enough? You are a demanding audience! I thought as much. In the evening, I take a walk. Just nearby. Nothing special. My mind is on work and other details of survival.

But it’s a beautiful evening and that’s enough. Take a breath. Smell that earth! Value it.

What? You’d like photos? Here, I send you this robin. He sings an earthy twitter.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

the two fives

I have been thinking about being 55 for a while now. Of course, hitting the two fives is just as significant as hitting any number. Another day ahead! Fifty-five, fifty-four and a fraction, what’s the diff?

To me, it is a big deal. There’s the birthday part, that’s huge. And then there’s the fifty five.

I give myself this day to pause and consider where I’m at. It’s like going to court for a progress report, but you’re before a forgiving judge who pats you on the head and tells you to give yourself credit in life for merely getting by and not messing up significantly.

So that’s why I like to celebrate.

When I was a kid, my parents were not much into celebrations, but my next family sure was and we did splendid things for each other’s birthdays.

Right now, I hang out with the non-celebratory kind and so it’s a challenge to do anything beyond the ordinary. Still, it’s a beautiful sunny day and so the ordinary needn’t be so ordinary. We can slap on some sunscreen and head for the great outdoors.

But, it being a Monday, we get a late start on things. And there’s a kayak to inflate and a truck to load up and so it really isn’t until after 3 before we get to the village of Germania. Ed’s thinking we could pick up the Mecan River there and paddle down a dozen miles toward the Fox River.

We get out to leave our bikes at the take out point. Oh, but what happened here? Where’s the river? The forest looks flooded and the bridge over what must be the river almost touches the water level.

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If you lean forward, you can make it under the bridge. No, not me. My adventuring quotient is low this afternoon. I want to emerge whole. Indeed, I want a good meal at the end of the day, not jello on a hospital tray.

We drive up and inspect all bridges along the stretch we are to navigate. I finally agree to put in at the Germania damn and take out some six miles downstream.

Germania. What can I say. It is the most depressing village I’ve seen in the state of Wisconsin. We are not an island of prosperity up here in the Midwest, but Germania is so down and out that it looks like everyone’s given up. Debris. Old motors. Rusty everything. Heaps of nothing. Fallen porches. This, for a grocer:

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…and this for a saloon.

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Hearty appetites, no?

We unload the kayaks and pick up the current.

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At first, it is serene, wide, beautiful. But under the first bridge, we hit some rapids and Ed’s boat takes in water.

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We continue. What can you do. It’ll be a springy but wet ride down for both of us.

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Ah, but the sun – though low now, it’s still there. Sort of. Behind a cloud or two, then out again. Swallows dive and soar, two sandhill cranes hover over us with their odd folk song. Ducks take off in pairs and we watch it all – this show of water fowl, one minute with us, the next, off to people free places.

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We paddle to the shore and bike back and catch the one beautiful Germania view: of the lake in the early evening light.

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By seven, we’re back on the road to Madison. Past Montello, where fishermen and boys try to pick up a few striped bass.

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Past herds of deer and fields of burning orange.

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Home to Madison. Home of many birthdays past. Home, at fifty five.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


A day requiring great physical stamina. Doing the usual Sunday morning condo scrubbing, I wondered why, for me, Sunday has always been a day for cleaning. Should it not be a time for repose and repast? With family, friends?

The weather finally pushed me out the door and I pedaled vigorously towards Ed’s farm where we were to do some land clearing in preparation for the Writer’s Shed. [Thank-you, sixty-five, for tip on “A Pattern Language.” Ed, who is a designer by trade, had a nice hefty copy and now I am convinced that anyone involved in a building project should leaf through this immensely wonderful piece of writing.]

There was a lot to clear.

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Ed took down rotting trees and I cleared growth from seasons past. There is a certain wild randomness to Ed’s property and I know that if I am to spend time there, I will need to create some sense of order, at least in the spaces proximate to the Writer's Shed. Sure, yard work takes time. But, I am my grandfather’s child and making things grow ranks up there, with cooking (that comes from my grandmother; neither of my parents were drawn to growing things or cooking). And, for me, time is no longer madness. I move at a different pace and with different imperatives than I did, say, 55 years ago.

The Writer’s Shed space abuts the land farmed by Cha and his younger brother. I watched them work the soil all day – such tough work. Last year’s crop was a disappointment for them – 2000 strawberries completely ruined by bad weather. And this year? Whose fortunes will improve? Whose strawberries will bring rewards? Whose book will get chapters added? Which trips will be scrapped? Which will become important?

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I did not stop to sit until now, in the early evening. Cha’s family is finishing their work for the day. Another family is circling the dilapidated shed to see if they want to take it off Ed’s property. Two boys are climbing through the weathered boards. Their grandpa makes things from old wood. An artist. How sweet the whole scene!

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Me, I’m spent. No matter. It was a rock solid day, Gorgeous on the outside and within.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


The Writer's Shed Project, part 4

As we stand yet again in front of an array of (inexpensive) (relatively speaking) windows at Menards, having just done the same at Home Depot, Ed says, without much zip – this is going to be quite the project.

I think it’s a statement more about our age than the project itself. We each, independently, have put together huge things before in our lives and they have been far more challenging than a Writer’s Shed. Still, as we check off items and then reconsider them, we’re thinking – damn, we haven’t even cleared the ground of the old shed yet.

We purchase three bargain windows at Menards and wait for inspiration to strike us for the remaining ones.

the Market!

Surely a turning point. The major outdoor markets of Madison begin their season today. I make it to the Westside Community Market just across the street where I live.

And it feels so happy to be there – like you woke up to an extra strong bloody mary and it gave you a dizzy push into the day. I mention bloody marys because I see a “farm stand” with very fresh and honest bloody mary mixes (in addition to tomato soups and salsas); so tempting, but for the fact that my bloody mary days died decades ago, along with huge brunch fests and other forms of Sunday morning indulgence.

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The other farm stands are full of baked goods, cheeses, plants and the remaining roots of a Midwest winter.

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Still, I am reassured that we have left the impossible days behind. My windows are wide open. Windows. Yes, I know a lot about (inexpensive) (relatively) windows. Uff, let me not think about that.

the ride

The bike has been getting a workout. And here's how I know we really are in a good place, season-wise. I no longer record the siting of a bird, or a leaf. And I almost didn't even pause to photograph this. It's just one of many. Too many to stop for. And that's a good thing.


Friday, April 18, 2008

more... (or TWSP, part 3)

Who knew that construction people had an exclusive language that no mortal outside their clique could understand?

I had spent quite a bit of time transcribing an idea (of what a Writer's Shed should look like) onto paper.

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It did not gain me an entry card into the builders' club. This evening I listened to a back and forth between Ed and Dave (former attorney-turned-Mennonite-and-thus-someone-who-is-no-longer-willing-to-engage-in-legal-dscourse-but-happy-to-dispense-construction-advice-to-the average-shed-builder) that left me thinking that I am perhaps the most incompetent individual south of Verona.

Both Ed and Dave glanced at my sketches. Ed commented: "no one writes 6.5 when they mean 6ft. 6in." And Dave asked: "what's that?" pointing to a rectangular shape at the edge of one of the sketches. To this, Ed answered with amusement: "Ignore it; that's her bed."

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Yes, I know that construction people would find it to be a silly inclusion on a sketch of what's to go where, but how am I to give guidance about the placement of windows if I leave off such essentials as to where I should doze off when the writing's not going so well?

Anyway, the drive to the countryside (where Dave, the potential co-builder resides) was nice.

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Sort of. If you can forgive the rain and the misty coldness and my hunger for sensible conversations about the key elements of building a Writer's Shed. Like where to place a bed, or even a large hook to hang a coat on at the end of a long and weary day.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Writer’s Shed Project, part 2

I have never built a house from scratch, nor had anyone do it for me or with me. Except my grandfather, but I was a baby then and it was Poland and we didn’t have Menards. So I am a novice at building a Writer’s Shed.

Ed, the originator of the idea and my future part-time landlord (in addition to being an occasional traveling companion) is an experienced shed builder and so I believed I would need give little more than occasional decorator’s advice in this undertaking. And since this is a Shed, after all, the decorating is pretty basic.

Today, we began the task of finding suitable materials. In other words, we spent many hours at Menards.

I’m not stupid. I know how to keep sane in building projects. You put yourself in the mind of your co-shopper and think like he does. For example, when looking at one hundred different windows with Ed, you say “interesting. Yes, I see that. Double hung. Good screen fit. Ah. Let’s go with the cheapest model” and move on. With the floor? “Bamboo? So nice. Interesting. Yes, I see that. Let’s go with something cheaper.”

At the end, we were both exhausted with being so agreeable. Ed dropped me and my bike right off the Beltline and I pedaled home. He returned to his own shed for an evening of male bonding with his two cats.

So, the process of building has begun. Has exuberance set in? Building requires patience, not exuberance. Exuberance is something I see outside my office window. It belongs to the young and lofty types who think they can fly just because spring has set in.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

a day so full…

The Writer's Shed Project, part 1

Ed has decided (and I have agreed) that I should learn how to build a shed. It’s not hard, really. And if you are successful, you can have yourself a hut to do all sorts of things in – for example, to hibernate and make progress on your Big Book Project.

I am in favor of gaining such skills. For instance, I am learning how to heat a shed creatively, given that it will sit in frigid Wisconsin, in an exposed position and will be used as shelter by a person who hates having to wear multiple sweaters, year round, indoors.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first stage is to knock down the shed that is cluttering the space for, let’s call it the Writer’s Shed (to distinguish it from the Sheep Shed on same property, providing shelter not for sheep but for Ed).

Early this morning, we removed clutter from the Dilapidated Shed (different from either the Sheep Shed or the Writer’s Shed) – metal scraps, turned in at the recycling center.

And, here’s the first lesson I offer you in shed building:

Lesson 1: if you’re clearing space for a new shed, try to recycle the clutter. Ed’s metal clutter netted him $212. Sure, Ed probably had more scrap metal than you or I, but still…

Okay, so watch for further updates. And consider this the first photo of the Shed that is NOT the Writer’s Shed, but the one that is to be knocked down to make room for a Writer’s Shed. (BTW, anyone need fine, weathered, antique-looking lumber? Yours, for pennies!)

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Farming, part 2

The farmers were plowing, hoeing and staking today. I envied them. I was off to the Law School, they were off to the fields. I would very much enjoy being a fair weather (hobby, so that my income doesn’t have to depend on it) farmer. When I am not traveling, writing, etc etc.

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The “I’d rather be fishing” people

There were a number who would say this today. Indeed, there were a bunch who were fishing. On my way to work, following the now much more climatically hospitable bike path along the lake, I encountered these:

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And just outside my office, there were those who fished for the pleasure of simply being outside. I leave you with their playfulness. Ah…. spring. I love you so.

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