Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Big Basin Redwood Forest spreads from the summits of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Barely sixty miles south from San Francisco airport, it sits there like a teardrop of quiet on an otherwise crowded California coastline.


Late on this day, 3:15 to be exact, we leave the park headquarters and start the climb toward the highest summit. At 2280 feet it’s no Everest, but it’s been a long day and we are loaded down with water, in addition to the usual provisions. Ed can take in a gallon in a snap if it’s a warm day and we noted that it is hitting the low eighties as we leave the car.

I’m not psyched for this yet. The quiet is disturbing. Initially, we pass a day tripper or two, but soon the path is soulless. Deserted. The air is so still that every snap of a dead twig sends a vibration through the basin.

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But from the beginning, the forest is breathtakingly beautiful. I’d been among the redwoods before, but here, in the dry wild of the Basin, it is so palpably enduring that it makes you feel small, and that’s a good thing. And physically small, too: the trees are so up there in the sky that surely they are higher than most any other growing thing on the planet.

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It takes us nearly four hours to reach the campsite on the summit. The sun dips below the horizon as we threw down our gear. It’s a backwoods campground (mere clearings to pitch a tent, nothing else) and we’d been told we’d have it to ourselves that night.

All I can think of how still and quiet the forest is. Turn on the nature already!

Instead, Ed turns on the portable stove and we set about with our dinner routine.

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By eight, the garbage wis neatly folded and put away and I am close to sleep, relieved at the sound of crickets. For the first hours of the night, they help kick the silence buzz from the head.

But at midnight, I'm alert again to the quiet. Except for an occasional crack and plop. I wake Ed. What’s that? Acorns falling. He’s right. All around us, acorns fall with a regularity that is comforting enough to push me back to sleep.


We wake just before sunrise (6:30 maybe?). This is our ambitious day: hike back down, past headquarters then up again to another summit and then, all the way down to just a mile short of the sea. The rangers are dubious that we can pull it off. I guess our age shows.It’s a lot of up and down miles, and one leg of the trail is so steep that it’s recommended for horses only. But these people don’t know Ed. He’s a great climber and I am a great descender. Together, we sort of muddle through.

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In a stroke of luck, we find a stream with water asking to be poured over the head, the upper body. Bath time. Of sorts. Refreshed, we continue.

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And now it feels toasty warm. We’re walking the mountain ridge and there is little forest shade. We drink insane amounts of water. But it is pretty. The vegetation changes. The soil is different too. Sandy? Limestone? The morning scrub is a thing of the past. We are sweaty hot and our feet kick up dust.

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Below, we see the goal: the coastline, with dense fog.

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The good news is that we make it to the campsite by evening. The bad news is that it’s Saturday night and this place is close to California 1, the coastal road. The campground is full. Of high school aged kids. The chaperone looks at our tired frames and suggests meekly that maybe there’s a spot to pitch our tent around the bend, away from the sqeel of adolescence.

We find a place that’s okay. On a slope. Ed looks doubtful. I’ll roll into you. Let’s switch sides, you’ll squash me. We do. I roll. Never mind, we’re tired. We sleep 11 hours.


We wake up cold. The fog is in from the ocean. The air is at least 30 degrees cooler. The dampness accumulates and drops down on leaves. The plop of acorns is replaced by the plop of fog.

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Another ambitious day: hike down to the ocean, find water, please please find water, so that we don’t have to drink the undesirable stuff flowing past the campsite. Then, back into the mountains toward the falls and onto the next and final summit for an overnight.

The walk to the ocean is like a caress of luck: the fog lifts and drops, lifts and then drops with a final stubborn thump, but by that time we will have left the coast. For now, it is delightfully picturesque.

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The trail runs past private property here and we note that old California superior growing season. I mean, this, at the end of September? And then a fresh bounty in February? Ridiculously spoiled.

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The ocean has enough surf to bring out the men with boards. Like birds who ride the waves, they bob and wait for the big one. There are few big ones and so they spend a lot of time bobbing.

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…while birds stick to the land…

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…and tourists pull up on the road to get a glimpse of a California post card scene. Fog and all.

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There is a horse campground here and we find a faucet outside. Thank you horse campground. We take gallons and gallons of the stuff, even though we are told that our last campground will have ready access to a drinkable stream. (Just fyi, don’t trust the park dudes on the subject of water; assume no water anywhere and you will not be disappointed.)

We climb up to the falls, past those magnificent, monstrously beautiful redwoods. Two thousand years old and going strong. Enduring major fires, and human foibles, they continue to stand tall. So very very tall.

For Ed, the best part of the park is the path next to the falls. Four of them – each delightful, unusual, mesmerizing.

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Oh, but now we are tired. We unpack the tent by five, eat by six and fall asleep before 7. For twelve hours, we sleep. Okay, with interruptions. In the middle of the night, I hear delicate footsteps. Mountain cat? Fox? Wolf? What? Go back to sleep, Ed tells me. The noise stops, I sleep. Until the next one. The utter stillness is shattered. I hear the crash of a bigger mass moving through the dry twigs. Wait, they promised no bears. Ed? What the hell?? Quiet, he tells me. He snaps his fingers once, twice… The noise retreats. Go back to sleep. What was that?? Deer, obviously. Fine, but at night, it sounds like bears.

But we did spot deer. Twice. Black tailed, very people shy. Barely noticeable here, in this photo.

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It’s funny how at night, you forget that deer are people shy. They seem, for once, mightier than you, there in your lightweight tent and your REI sleeping bag.


And now we must hurry. The goal is to meet my mom downtown SF for lunch and then dinner. We have more than three hours of hiking, a two hour car ride, a very much needed half hour for showering and a half hour BART commute to get through.

Our last trail is labeled strenuous, but it seems like a breeze. Our water supplies are depleted, our food bags are near empty. Lighter backpacks! Three hours and we’re done.

The forest remains as beautiful as the day we first walked into its fold. And why shouldn’t it be? I would hope that two thousand years down the road, it will be as lovely as on this day.

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Ed, at the base of Berry Creek falls

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Ocean author, hugging the smaller tree

My mom waits for us at the BART station downtown. We stroll (rather late) for a lunch salad (one misses salads when camping). The hours roll along leisurely now. The rush is done...

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We take a cab down to Fisherman’s Wharf, for an early evening walk along the water’s edge.

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She is almost 85, and she is a character. No, I’m not like her. I am a whisperer. She speaks with authority. I know no one who is like her. If, momentarily, I felt chastised by her formidable presence, it is a thing of the past. Today, she is determined to make this a memorable evening of good food. She knows I admire good kitchens and she has researched the dining options. She tells us that the hot off the press top pick remains Gary Danko.

I give Gary Danko an A+ for this evening. Here’s why: the food is, indeed wonderful . That’s perhaps predictable. You’re not number one if you can’t get your food stuff together in this culinary epicenter (I would say northern California is, indeed, a culinary epicenter, spoiled that they are by a generous clientele and fresh produce year-round). Lobster pieces on melon balls, pickled cucumber and mango. Corn chowder with Dungeness crab and pancetta biscuit. Salmon in crusted horseradish and mustard sauce… Mmmm…

But beyond that, their set price menu gives you total choice. You buy three courses, you get three courses. Any three courses. You want three seafoods? Go for it. Three apps? Yours.

And then, most importantly, there was their treatment of us. Picture this: my mom is wearing her bright red fleece to keep warm, her tennies to keep comfortable, her peasant cap because she likes the fashion statement, and a huge Obama button because she believes in the man. Ed, well, he’s in his best Ed garb: the black t-shirt I once bought him in an attempt to make him blend into the background. Me – I stuffed a sundress into my backpack at the last minute. Imagine the wrinkles. Oh, and my well worn ballet flats. For comfort on tired feet. We were, well, different.

The staff couldn’t have been nicer. The maitre d’ came up several times and commented on Ed’s hearty appetite (he wipes plates clean of all sauce with bread routinely) and my mom’s political leanings. We were not quiet (for God’s sake, my mother can’t hear “quiet”). We raided the menu of all the choice dishes. We drank, between the three of us, only one bottle of wine and it was hands down among the cheapest. A dry New Zealand Riesling.

We were treated like royalty.

Danko, you have the best staff in the world.

The cabbie who took us to the Bart station was eerily the same guy whom we had flagged to get us to Danko. An older guy who hated the East Bayside. My mom could have made mincemeat of him for that (she’s loyal to Berkeley). But they parted friends, especially once he told her he was soon packing his bags and moving to Italy.

My last memory of the evening is of listening to them pass words in Italian to each other -- of the mamma mia, mangia mangia type (neither claims to know more).

At the BART, we go one way and she the other. I leave her, content that she is exactly where she wants to be, doing exactly as she wants, dependent on no one, forging her way ahead, unencumbered by the caring for others which had so weighed her down, especially when we lived in Poland.

Before dawn, Ed and I head back home, to the Midwest. By late afternoon, I'm in class, teaching.

Monday, September 29, 2008

from California: not eaten by a bear

The hiking shoes are packed now. The dust of the dry California hills is scrubbed off (at least from the body if not yet the clothes), a post-camping dinner in downtown San Francisco with my mother could not be more different than Curry in a Hurry, made in 7 minutes with boiling water in a pouch, eaten in the dead silence of a redwood forest the night before.

I have a handful of hours before I need to catch a flight home. Please accept this brief Ocean post for now and log in tomorrow, and the next day for some tentative answers to the question that bugged me no end before we set out – why do people insist on camping in the wild, when there isn't running water within miles? Not even in the form of a babbling brook?

Only one photo for today. From this morning's hike, when the sun was just beginning to pierce through the cool air of a foggy dawn.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

camping on the coast

Treat this like an “out to lunch” banner. I cannot post. I am in flight to California, then hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco.

Three nights in the dry wilderness.

Aren’t you jealous?

I’ll be back on Monday. I hope. Stay happy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

the day before the Big Basin

It's as if I am posessed. Careening through the day. (where do I get my immagery? Too much news coverage in the background.)

In the late afternoon, I make the mistake of biking home between classes. Added minutes on the road. No time. I feel like I am the one at the tail end of a group effort. Trying to catch up. Unsuccessfully.

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I pass the rehearsing band. Fast stepping, blowing hot air into a trombone, sweating. I stop and watch. For a minute. Before speeding ahead to class.

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The band master (is that what he's called?) shouted at them - not so loud, not so fast! He could have been talking to me.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Some people feel impassioned about fly fishing. Others about their art. Or camping. I know at least one person who would love to camp every night of his life.

Me, I care deeply about bread.

An email comes just before class (Tuesday). A friend tells me a new bakery has just opened out on the west side of town. The name stops me short: La Baguette.

I have groaned about the state of bread in Madison. There are places that produce a decent loaf. I’ve written about them. But without exception, the crust just isn’t there. (Well, there is an exception, but the loaf is sourdough and good as it is, it’s still sourdough, which is great if you love sourdough.)

It seemed unlikely that suddenly someone would be able to roll out and bake the real thing and so I decided to put off a visit for a slow day sometime in the future.

Today was not a slow day. I had a seminar on the Square and afterwards, I took time to admire the fall colors at the Wednesday downtown market.

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And then I fell into the pre-departure chaos, where work issues are pounding at me from all sides, and Ed and I banter on the phone about what constitutes a decent meal on a hike and how many bottles of water each of us is able to carry.

But by early afternoon, an image of a perfect baguette wedges itself in my mind (that happens in times of chaos, except sometimes it is an image of a perfect pastry). I dial the number of La Baguette (608.827.6775) and wait.


Oh, I haven’t heard that combination of French and English, all in one word, in a long time. It is Olivier Vigy, the owner of La Baguette and he tells me that if I wish, he’ll set aside a baguette for me. There aren’t many left.

I’m there in minutes. But where is “there?” A strip mall across the street from a big mall. On Mineral Point Road. A serious challenge for my red "velo." No rows of poplars here. No lovely cafés, no feeling of neighborhood. So how far along the asphalt speedways will I go to bring home a good baguette? It better be heaven.

I go inside.

Tables and chairs in a spacious, bright room. A glass counter with the classics: tarts, napoleons, flan. And leaning against the wall, the breads.

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Something about my notebook and camera must have given a hint of my excessive curiosity. Olivier comes out from behind. We exchange greetings, then sit down at a table and exhale. I remember that the place has only been up and running for a week.

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... I ask, bluntly: why here?

It turns out not to have been a straight shot. Olivier moved from a suburb of Paris to Minocqua (northern Wisconsin, pop. 4859).
Dunque, yes! (Olivier’s sentences are exquisite composites of English with French accruements.)
We used to vacation up here (French people do that? cool!) and there came a time when I wanted something new in life and so we moved! (“We” means Olivier, his wife Carine, their three little kids and the grandparents. French people travle en famille.)

But, business in Minocqua slows during the off season. And so Olivier moved his family to Madison.

It’s sophisticated town. Multicultural. Too smart to fool with imitations.
Yes, but here?
It’s the perfect spot. On a busy road. Across from a shopping place. Close to home.

Close to home. Middleton home. I’m curious if he misses his Paris home.

I like how I am so close to nature. I love Chicago, but it’s too hard to find the countryside there.
I’m egging him on now. The food, surely you miss the food in Paris?
I did in Minocqua. Nothing there. Supper clubs. Here? We’ll see. We ate at l’Etoile. Nice. We liked the Chinese food in Middleton. And there are steak places. You know anything else around here?

Oh dear. While not Minocqua, the west side of Madison is (almost) a culinary wasteland. There’s Brasserie V – great moules frites (mussels with fries).
He laughs. You don’t need a restaurant for great moules! My mother… (and he goes off on a story about very very good mussels…)

So what about your baguette… (I ask this delicately, because, you know, I haven’t tasted it yet.) Why do you think it’s better than what we’ve seen around here?
Olivier doesn’t hesitate: the ovens. I spent a lot on them! They’re from France and they have the stone for baking bread. That’s what you need for the crust.

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...and for the pastries...

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I’m almost convinced that this place may be the real thing. But I keep going back to the idea of selling bread on Mineral Point Road.

Still, Olivier may know how to succeed in America better than I do. Here, you move by cars, he reminds me. Back in France, it’s all there: three bakeries, the butcher, the grocer, the market, the café bar. You walk from one to the other. You stop, visit with neighbors. It’s different here.
What about selling at the farmers market?

We did that up north. In Madison, they tell me the downtown market has a long wait!
There are other markets! I say this and then I think – oops, the other markets, including my beloved Westside Community Market, have bakers with sourdough loaves and breads with cheese inside. Is there room for a French baguette? Even if it’s the real thing?

As if on cue, Olivier says – I sell a different product. We are not in competition, we respect everyone!

I get up to leave. I pick a few pastries and an epi baguette (one of those where you can break off chunks). The bread feels great: the crust is firm, the texture looks right.

Olivier reminds me to come back for a real chat, over espresso. For sure! A bientot!

I can’t wait any longer. I break off a piece just outside and munch. Terrific crust. Nice. Chewy on the inside. I rush home, tear it into chunks, put a slice of cheese on top and a ripped up tomato from my patio. I take a big bite.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

tough week ahead for Ocean

So beautiful outside! So beautiful! The air vibrates with summer warmth. Even though it is no longer summer. Technically.

If you look close, of course, you can tell. It’s sort of yellow out there.

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I noticed, too, when I biked home after my late class, that there wasn't a sun on the horizon. All gone. Just the pink remains.

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Sad, really.

But let me change topics. Here’s the scoop: I am speeding to get stuff done so that Friday morning I can take off for California.

Huh? California?

Well, my mom’s there and though she swears that visits aren’t needed, I think that on that point she may be wrong.

And I have this deal going with Ed: we will go together to California for the week-end if I agree to camp the three nights we are there (the fourth night is on a red-eye special, so basically we’re talking about four nights of inadequate sleeping arrangements). I don’t really remember why I once thought this was a good deal.

So on Friday morning, we’re heading west. And then, for two or three days, Ocean will have to stay suspended as I…camp.

There are positives:

We are not going to Big Sur (as originally planned) to camp among the fire damaged tree stumps. Nor Yosemite (as I proposed) to camp among the bears that eat ANYTHING you carry in. Because time is short, we're opting for Big Basin State Park.

There are also the negatives:

It appears that you have to lug water, as the streams at the campsites are nonexistent. So the washing, to say nothing of drinking possibilities are even more remote than during the typical camping experience.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I am at the moment but a stone’s throw from a glorious shower. I have good food in the fridge and a rosé wine chilling for the evening. Why worry about the week-end ahead?

Three nights out in the wild... Whoa! I amaze myself.

Monday, September 22, 2008

politics, not as usual

I read last night that Michelle Obama would be visiting Madison. Curious, I clicked on the official website. Indeed. Monday morning at Camp Randall Park. Not too far. Oh, there’ll be a press box. Bloggers aren’t press, are they? Are they? I fill out an application, listing my most unpolitical blog and wait for a response. (The campaign responds only if it doesn’t accept your application.) None came.

Still, on this foggy Monday morning, I forget all about Michelle. I’m settling in to do some work and then it came back – Obama’s wife should be coming through.

But why go? I admit that I support Obama. Not because of any speech that anyone made anytime in the last two years, but because his platform most closely corresponds to what I think is good for the majority of Americans. I used to like to listen to discussions and read blogs on both sides of the spectrum, just because a healthy debate is always stimulating, but since the level of speeches and correspondent blog discussion has degenerated into something verging on bizarre, I’ve cut back. I certainly wont change my mind and I don’t intend to use Ocean to blast away about anything except that we should all have a good day while the weather lasts.

So why go?

Two reasons: I actually really like Michelle and I enjoy hearing her talk in support of her husband. Her face is supremely expressive and the whole performance is really rather cool. So there’s the fun factor. And also – it’s an event. Insofar as I photograph people and events around where I live, what could be more appropriate for Ocean than an outdoor rally? Of a very Madison sort?

Minutes later, I park my bike and head for the press entrance. Sure enough, I’m listed: Nina Camic, blog.

I’m early. Naturally. I assume you’re supposed to come early if you’re press. I sit down and look around.

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Hmmm, it would be good to take notes. What kind of press person am I? I forgot to take writing materials. I “borrow” a Bic from the Obama campaign. No one at the press table has paper. I leave and buy a notebook at Union South.

For a person who likes to take photos of people, a rally is a photographic fairy tale. Everyone expects to be photographed and most everyone wishes to be in rather than out of camera (and mike) range.

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And so the people came. Not a huge crowd – just under 2000 – but a nice one, full of enthusiasm and good cheer.

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(from Obama volunteer): That baby just told me he loved Barack Obama!

(from someone in the crowd, just below me): hey, nice Doug Moe article in the paper on you! (my face turns Polish beet red)

(from random person interviewed for channel 3 news): I decided to come because this hasn’t happened since Kennedy… (I did not hear what the “this” was, but I assume it was something good)

(from me, directed to the cameraman next to me): Is the guy next to me from CNN? Doubt it. How can you tell? You can always tell by the cameras whether they’re big time press. This guy’s camera is bad. What’s a good press camera? 99% will be Cannons, a few Nikons, all with good reach. (I look at a Nikon dude, then, down at my Sony and give it a sympathetic pat so that its feelings wont be hurt.)

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The WKOW TV guy takes out his pad and writes: “it is a partisan crowd.” To give him credit, some of my notes are even less interesting.

And now the speeches begin: the provost, the mayor, the county executive, our congresswoman, a student. The press corps is actually behind a chunk of the crowd, but we have platforms from which to take photos. And so I dutifully take photos of all the above. But as the rally is not about them, I’ll spare you the Daves, the Tammys, the Kathleens. Even though I especially like the one I took where our county executive looks like a spy, dark glasses and all. Another time.

Do press people applaud? Only one on our podium does. She looks to be a fake anyway. Sort of like me, except way too enthusiastic to even pretend at journalism.

And finally, out comes Michelle.

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And as if to carry the theme of dawn, awakening, parting of clouds, change, the skies force the foggy clouds to recede and wisps of sunlight fill the stage.

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Michelle’s voice starts low, quiet even. And then she says “Barack gets it!” and you can tell she speaks from her gut. “Barack gets it!”

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“There’s only one candidate…” – her voice builds now, her passion is rising…

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And because this rally is to kick off Women in Action Week in Wisconsin and there are many women in the audience, she tells them – “men help, but women get it done… this race can be decided on our shoulders!” and the crowd roars.

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As it settles, a voice shouts from the audience – “how do we bridge the racial divide??” Michelle looks up, finds the face in the crowd and tells her with a smile: “ we are bridging it every day!” – and the crowd responds again.

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As the crowd settles, a little guy, this one, in the front row…

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…shouts out “no!” A parental figure is attempting to control him and he's feeling assertive. Michelle looks at him and grins: “you, too, can bridge the divide, Mr. three year old! Talk to your grandparents!” Everyone laughs.

The speech isn’t too long and it includes references to policy positions that women care about: equal pay, reproductive rights, sick leave, affordable health care, college tuition breaks for those who engage in service. (“Barack and I just recently paid off the last of our educational loans!”)

The crowd is enthusiastic and as she leaves...

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...they linger to shake her hand.

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Many are reaching out for a hug. A number engage her in stories and the secret service dudes nudge her to move on.

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At one point, someone reaches their baby over to her. Michelle stretches and you can tell that she is tempted to take the baby, hold it…

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…I can only imagine what her body guards and campaign people are saying to her. Her hands linger, then retreat.

And I retreat as well. I run into friends and colleagues…

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…and I chat to the security guard who is busy clearing gates and such. My buddies are on lunch break at the bar across the street and I’m left cleaning up, he says. They’re laughing at me.

By now, it looks like just another Monday at noon. Except it feels a lot warmer. The sun is out and, well, there’s this warm fuzzy glow that comes from attending a positive rally. I find myself smiling. Humming almost. No slander, no put down, just a vision, Michelle Obama’s, representing Barack Obama’s, of where we should be heading.

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I bike back to my work. I take off my jacket and begin to undo the press badge and then I let it go. Just for a few more minutes.

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