Sunday, August 31, 2008


Saturday evening. A warm, beautiful time of day. I had spent time at the farmette and now I am heading home. Ed swings his Honda motor bike over and I get on, throwing my backpack in the yellow crate over the rear wheel.

A beautiful ride. The sky is clear, the air is turning cool.

At the condo, I unpack the back pack and reach into my dress pocket for the cell phone.


We retrace our spin, staring down into gutters, patches of grass – nothing. It’s dark now. I dial my cell phone – it goes into a no ring mode. My gut tells me it’s been crushed somewhere between the farmette and the condo and I bear the burden of its demise.

The next day, I spend $200 on a new phone, but even that is, most likely, a mistake. Look, Ed tells me, ebay has these at half the price. I shrug and cling to my purchase.

In the afternoon I attend a memorial service. I hesitate before going. The person who died was a friend, but few would understand why. She was part of what I perceived (mistakenly? who can tell) to be a hostile neighborhood. Except, she was herself anything but hostile. She was kind and caring and so, along with a million others, I mourn her sudden and untimely death. In the end, I get on my bike and pedal over.

It is a beautiful memorial service and the room is packed with family and friends. Family and friends. I think about how easy it is to sequester yourself in pursuit of God knows what, oh, those ever important projects, so that, at the end of the day, you plug in the most important numbers into your new cell phone and you realize that you really never want to talk to anyone anymore with the exception of a precious handful or two.

I have attended funerals of older people – the grandparents and great grandparents out there, and they have been sad occasions exactly because these people have outlived their circle of influence. So that at their memorial service, the rooms are quiet and no video clips of rich and full lives fill the auditorium.

At home, I have much work to do and tomorrow I plan to delve right into it. Tonight, I am watching (of all things) the Sound of Music and thinking about the last time I saw this peculiar movie – it was in Poland, with daughters, eight years ago, under most unusual circumstances. I’m watching and thinking how even as early as five years ago, when I was just fifty, I was very forgiving of myself and how now, I am much less inclined in that direction.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

family visits

During my high school years, my grandmother continued to live in the Polish village, an hour or two to the northeast of Warsaw, the same village where I spent my toddler years, the one which, to this day, has no paved road leading to it.

Nearly every week-end, we would visit her there. On Sunday afternoon, when it was time to leave, she would stand in front of the house and wave us on, crying quietly to herself. The house kept shifting for her – from quiet beyond belief, to full of the noises and demands of family. I don’t know if it was that she missed us so much on the empty days (independent types can be a handful). Maybe it was the shift from full to empty that disturbed her. A recurring feeling of loss.

I know that shift from full to empty. But I sort of envy my grandmother. She only had to wait five days for the house to be full again.

Ah well. There is always food to fill your empty spaces. On the way from the airport, we stopped at Sophia’s, where the cakes are like those my grandmother used to bake. An old world kind of place. Except for the ketchup on the tables.

003 copy
Buy print 1998

After? Well, there’s the market. A hot day, but a good one for corn and tomatoes. And shedding clothes, where appropriate.

005 copy
Buy print 1997

009 copy
Buy print 1996

Friday, August 29, 2008

once again

I bike to work just as the labor day week-end is about to roll in. For the past nine years, I spent labor day out east, helping daughters move. Not so this year. No one is moving.

And so I spend a day at home, with one daughter still here, though not for long (not even a full day) and I watch the politics unfold before me on television. Oh dear.

Slowly, I let go of it all and return to my focus on teaching. September is a month of concentration. Even as, at the juncture, when it is still really summer, you see students clinging to the comfortable, the easy, the sublime.

003 copy
Buy print 1995

006 copy
Buy print 1994

011 copy

That’s them. I’m in a different orbit.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

late afternoon caller

She was intensely engaged with the person on the other end. Sometimes she paced, sometimes she stood still, listening.

001 copy

I’ve had conversations like that, where everything seemed to hinge on what was said by the other party. But not recently. And anyway, were I to be so invested in the outcome, I would probably not position myself so exquisitely in front of a store with the perfect late summer colors framing a well-dressed countenance. I’d be disheveled, in the gutter maybe, sweating it out.

Ah, poise.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

quiet time

A nap. A big snore, an exhale. I need one, you need one. I offer a serene photo from the fields bordering the farmette. I never post photos more than twenty four hours old. This one just barely makes it. Good night, sweet dreams. I’m ready to call it a day.

005 copy
Buy print 1993

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

a half a shed (is better than none)

As if to balance the recent urban presence in Ocean posts, this day is rural to the core.

First: I went early to the farmette to check on the state of the crops. Perhaps this word (“crops”) overstates what Ed and I planted back in May. But when you put in more than three dozen tomato plants and you’re basically a city person, you think of yourself as being quite the farmer.

The tomatoes are doing fine, in a lazy sort of way. Ed, ever the minimalist, doesn’t stake. So the tomato field looks like a beach with plump beings who forgot the sunscreen.

004 copy
Buy print 1992

Next, there are the fields of cosmos. The truth is that a packet of seeds will NOT create fields of anything. But, the flowers that finally budded, while limited in number, are magnificent.

007 copy
Buy print 1991

And finally – a progress report on the Writer’s Shed Project. Today, Amos & friend hauled the skeletal structure to Ed’s place.

It took them three hours to plomp the thing into the place and there were casualties along the way.

026 copy

Inside, there is nothing. We are to fill the interior with walls, floors, lighting fixtures. Water, if Ed thinks of a way to run it in (not likely). Projected date of completion? I do not know. Maybe never?

040 copy

041 copy

044 copy
Buy print 1990

Monday, August 25, 2008

from Chicago, one last time

And the food. What of the food here? Oh, always exquisitely diverse. Yesterday we opted for a new Indian eatery -- Marigold. Yes, sure, there’s Devon Avenue – home to any number of Indian restaurants, but Marigold is off to the side, on Broadway, and it is superb.

046 copy
Buy print 1989

048 copy
Buy print 1988

054 copy
Buy print 1987

055 copy
Buy print 1986

We note on this Chicago trip a number of restaurant closures, or for some old favorites -- significant face changes. When people are tightening their budgets, restaurants suffer, even, and perhaps especially in the middle price range we tend to favor (one assumes rich people will never lose interest in the upper end establishments). Sometimes the face changes are very welcome. And they make me wonder: how is it that Madison’s kitchens don’t change much? I can list a dozen restaurants that people love for no reason that I can think of, except that they have been there for decades, with the same menus, the same d├ęcor, same locations. I expect my grandchildren will become familiar with them too. Yawn.

We aren’t especially welcoming of new places in Madison. We are far more critical of them than of the old places, where we demand nothing more than that they remain the same. In Chicago, people flock to the new and interesting and seem to show no loyalty to tired cooks.

I started this mini series with the statement that Chicag is a handful. Sometimes being a handful can be very interesting. And good.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

from Chicago

I was going to give you a day’s respite from longer posts. I took this photo of a man on a break and thought – that’s it for today.

006 copy

But then I go for an early evening walk – up and down Andersonville (once Swedish, now – who can tell; it certainly known for its high concentration of gay couples, but the ethnic dimension is unclear), then west to Lincoln Avenue and south to Lincoln Park. I pause at a park there and watch men – some dozen or more, my age mostly – play a very, very good game of boules.

029 copy

The men speak another language. I’m not a Higgins, but I’m more than okay at placing languages and this one sounds familiar. But what is it?

One of the players comes over to chat. So it’s Croatian! They’re not recent immigrants. They all came between twenty and thirty years ago. But they get together every week in good weather. Fridays after work and Saturdays. And they play. And talk. It’s a good way to pass time, he tells me.

So are there still communities with demographic labels in Chicago? Do cities segregate in ways that are beneficial rather than simply exclusionary? The current thinking is that it's better to mix it all up, right? Sort of like this Swedish Andersonville Jewish Italian New York deli slash pharmacy that is also especially gay friendly?

008 copy

I go back to my favorite bakery, Natalina’s – the one where she bakes, inspired by her Sicilian grandmother’s recipes and he helps, with his Lebanese family bakers’ experience. It is a wonderful place, not only for its pasteries…

013 copy
Purchase photo 1985

…but also for watching what happens in the open kitchen, just behind the counter. The owners, Natalie and Nicolas are both so sensual, so deliciously focused on each other that it’s like watching an elaborate meal preparation in their own home, as she rolls the dough, slowly, with beautiful, strong arms, and he leans on the counter, waiting for another tray to come out of the oven.

016 copy
Purchase photo 1984

My visits to Chicago would be greatly diminished without a stop at Natalina’s and so I ask them, nervously, because I see the framed, glowing reviews from Food and Wine and other reputable magazines on their melon colored walls – will you be relocating someday? Downtown maybe?

No… he says this slowly, as if he’s just now mulling this over. Because really, it’s not only about the business of it, it’s also the place, their place.
No, he says again, not in Chicago. Maybe in Italy?
Sicily? I prod…
No.. somewhere else
Rome! I say, and he considers it and smiles.

I drink a shot of espresso, with a scoop of raspberry gelato at the side, I take a pack of cookies and head out, thinking that this is the new Italy, here in Andersonville, in this pasticceria. In an old Swedish neighborhood, in Chicago.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

from Chicago

If I were forced to live a life of great affluence in Chicago, I would consider setting up shop in Lincoln Park. There is a restrained aesthetic to the place, a sense of lovely calm that displaces images of the chaos and confusion just blocks away. Perhaps for this reason, we always make our way down here on our biannual trips to this city.

006 copy
Purchase photo 1983

007 copy
Purchase photo 1982

Until I moved to Madison (and excepting my first three years, which were spent in the most primitive Polish village), I had always lived in big cities – Warsaw (okay, relatively big), New York, then Chicago. My parents had (have?) a profound urban snobbishness about them and they passed it on to me, so that for the longest time I never imagined life could be good in a place without a significant downtown. When my father visited me in Madison (something that he did only once or twice, concluding after, that he had seen all that was worth seeing west of New York) he asked how I could stand living in such a suffocatingly small community. That it was naturally beautiful meant nothing to him. Mountains are beautiful. The ocean beaches are beautiful. Everything else is either New York, Warsaw, or boring.

And now, I can no longer imagine myself living in a city, especially one that lacks quick escape routes to the deep and quiet countryside (a problem with both Chicago and New York).

Still, places like Lincoln Park flaunt their loveliness and they tempt me to reconsider. In my imagination only, but still, it’s a nice little exercise. Could I ever do it?


But the walks down here are beautiful. The murals are beautiful. Even the dogs are beautiful.

024 copy
Purchase photo 1981

013 copy
Purchase photo 1980

It was the last day for me with both daughters. I could walk the barren landscape of a dessert and still find it a heavenly place with them at my side. Oh, daughters!

023 copy

Friday, August 22, 2008

from Chicago

We covered a lot of ground today. Greek, Italian, then Pilsen, which was once Czech and now has become vividly and colorfully Mexican – we were there. Why? Because it is disappearing so fast. Ten years and it will be lost to a strip mall or a high rise. So take this walk: roll out a map and follow the streets -- deserted at times, crowded elsewhere. There’s a lot of Chicago on the near southwest. Makes me regret (only a little) that I did not stick it out and do the ethnographic stuff that I set out to do here thirty years ago.

On the other hand, it’s nice to just visit now.

I wonder if some decades into the future any of this will look anything close to what it looks like today.

019 copy
Purchase photo 1979

Purchase photo 1978

030 copy
Purchase photo 1977

036 copy

044 copy

062 copy

048 copy
Purchase photo 1976

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

from Chicago

I’m off for the week-end! I toss this out to the condo concierge, feeling very New York about both the idea of the weekend starting on a Wednesday and that I have a concierge who'll pretend to care as I make my way out. An aura of urban-cool is precisely what Ed dislikes about the condo. Me, I like having someone (the "concierge") sign for deliveries. Besides, our man in the lobby (the "concierge") does not open doors. You’re on your own with that one.

And now, I am scaling down on the goodlife and taking the common form of public transportation to Chicago – the bus. I sit up front, near the driver, so that I can keep an eye on him and give advice, should he ask for it.

He doesn’t seek driving input, but he is a friendly fellow and as we make our way out of the city, he remarks – yep, it’s going to be an early and long winter.
I ask, genuinely curious.
My dog’s coat is already growing extra thick. The farmers are also noting signs of an early cold spell.
I mull this one over. It seems so preordained. And how is it that a dog’s fur is privy to something I do not know? How fair is that?
It must be hard on you, driving as you do no matter what the weather.
Oh, these buses run easy. We know where the road is supposed to be even if we don’t see it.

Another comment that makes me worry that everyone else has powers that have passed me by.
Anyway, it’s always great once you hit Illinois. They lay an inch of salt before there’s even a half inch of snow. And they plow with three trucks, side by side.
Don’t we do a good job in Wisconsin?
He laughs. In Beloit, they wont bother until the last flake is down. In Janesville, they keep saying it’s a federal problem and in Madison they wait to do what is environmentally correct, which usually means letting the sun melt it all. When they do go out, they plow one lane, wait for an hour and go after the other. Meaning, they sort of push the snow around from one side to the next.

Sounds dismal. I distract myself from the sad denouncement of my state’s plowing habits with a book. About New York, to get in the urban mood.


I’m on the blue line from O’Hare. Nice. Back when I lived in Chicago, the train didn’t make it all the way out here. Chug chug chug, I zip along in the direction of the Loop. Did I say zip? Is this the only subway in the world that moves more slowly than the congested Kennedy Expressway?


The final leg, this one on the city bus. Not too many people with issues on board. One who talks loudly about her dating situation, but so what. She’s bullish and brassy and interesting. Oh, there is the other one. The Asian woman clutching an old doll whose clothes and hair are beyond disgusting. People move away, just to keep their distance. From the doll.

We stop and a disabled person attempts to board on the drawn down platform. The platform gets stuck. The disabled elderly passanger wants somehow to climb over the ramp. The driver will have none of it. She tells us all that the damn bus is broken. Platform and all. We all get off. She stands there, surveying the bus, as if a good staring session will cure it of its malfunctioning.

013 copy

A new bus comes. We all climb on board. The disabled man finds a spot on the new bus, but not a secure spot, because as the bus lurches, he falls down. The bus stops. An accident report must be filed. We all get off. The old bus, now cured of its malfunctioning picks us up. Except for the diabled guy. But he is so traumatized that nothing makes much of an impression on him by now.


My daughters and I take a long walk, all the way down to the Ukrainian neighborhood. We walk past meatpacking plants, across bridges where few ever choose to walk.

038 copy
Purchase photo 1975

Ukrainian Chicago. Or, is it a partly Polish neighborhood?

031 copy

030 copy

Is every neighborhood here partly Polish? Is Chicago the one city on the planet where I do not want to admit to being Polish? Oh, Chicago. You're a handful.


For superdad (in comments), more from the "Ukrainian village:" (Keeping in mind that neighborhoods are intractable these days. Though I did indeed hear Russian tossed around in a back yard. And Polish.)

027 fl copy
Purchase photo 1974

032 fl copy
Purchase photo 1973

033 fl copy

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

being ready

You can’t be ready. You cannot prevent injury, you cannot anticipate punches. Basically, life is about walking the fine line with the gut exposed. A sigh of relief if it remains intact at the end of the day. You never know.

That’s a very Polish attitude. I know that. Still, I embrace it full force. Today it’s this and tomorrow it’s something else.

I went to Jason’s this afernoon The color guy. I want to break with the color addiction, but I believe in a slow release and so I trudged over, ever so meekly, and asked for a dose that would hold me over for a while.

I mention this because typically, a trip to Jason’s is total relaxation. Not today. No one’s life is easy, even if you are the best color person this side of the Mississippi. We felt our issues in half finished sentences and periods of silence. My thoughts are with a friend who died last week. Jason has his own world of loss to consider.

On the way back from Jason’s, I stopped at a tiny beach – a place where I sometimes went with daughters when they were very very young. I expected it to be empty. Lake Mendota sucks right now. All that algae. I was surprised to see a life guard. She was SO ready.

008 copy

I asked her if it was safe to swim. Today? Yes, she said. Indeed, there was one swimmer. And she was ready for him. The wheelbarrows of algae could wait. She was ready.

010 copy
Purchase photo 1972

Wouldn’t it be grand if there was a ready life-saving person to help us through the rough spots all the time?

In the evening, I finished several projects that had been waiting for my attention. It's good to throw yourself into the pleasantly mundane every once in a while. Life's kind of short. Can't waste it on the sadness.

Monday, August 18, 2008

afternoon walk

Summer is the big indulgence. You want warm? Here, we’ll lay it on until you’re sick of it. Except that I never do get sick of it. So warm outside! So beastly, beautifully warm!

Still, I recognize the signs: curled petals, tired trees, wistful conversations. I saw them today. There’s a whole month of summer left on the calendar. So what. Summer’s stumbling to an end. It’s a good thing that I don’t mind Fall.

001 copy

003  copy
Purchase photo 1971

Sunday, August 17, 2008

in and out of Cambridge

Suddenly, the house is empty. Just for a small while, but still, soulless. As if all energy has been sucked out and tossed over the balcony rail.

I bike to Ed’s, losing myself in the curvy bike lane and the tall flowers of August.

007 copy
Purchase photo 1970

I shed one bike and hop on the other, the motor driven one. We roar east to Cambridge. Wisconsin’s Cambridge. I haven’t been through this small town in maybe fifteen years. Has it changed? No.

017 copy
Purchase photo 1969

Oh, fine. The ancient cars are just passing through. Still, people-wise, it’s an empty town. Stores say “open,” but for some, that’s just plain wrong. And, as in so many small town main streets around here, there are very very few people out and about. This may well be the bulk of the downtown crowd:

011 copy

013 copy
Purchase photo 1968

We go to Ripley Park, at the edge of Cambridge. The lake side is crowded. It’s very late in the afternoon, but you'd hardly know it. People are drawn to water. Even in its murky state.

019 copy

Okay, at some point, you have to head home.

026 copy

And we do. Past cornfields, soy fields and tobacco fields. Past silos, farmhouses and tobacco barns.

035 copy
Purchase photo 1967

043 copy
Purchase photo 1966

One more hill climb, one more bridge crossing a river and we're back on the main road, heading home. Sleepy quiet home.

066 copy
Purchase photo 1965

058 copy
Purchase photo 1964