Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the last day of November

This was the last day of November? Oh my. December is not for the timid. There’s too much going on.

For me, there are several dozen points to take note of in the switch to the last month of the year:

1. The end of the semester is suddenly there. This week in fact. Students whom I have come to accept as being part of my everyday will mostly disappear and go on to live happy and productive lives, only I’ll never know where, how and under what circumstances.

2. The eleventh month (November) seems too long. It takes forever to get to Thanksgiving and there’s not much else to distinguish one day from the next.

3. The twelfth month (December) seems too short. It takes no time to get to the end of the semester, to leave town, to return and plan out the entire Christmas hoopla, and finally, to reach the end of the year.

4. If you think of bright holiday lights as opposed to long dark winter nights, December will seem a lot less of a drain on your psyche.

5. I had a short night. I finished work close to 2 a.m. and got up around 5 to get the condo ready for a showing, prepare for class and switch cars with daughters who needed my old Ford wreck more than I did. Even as the evening approaches, I am spent. So you only get five points here. No matter – add your own. One can tell it’s no longer November when... music: how about that one? How do you feel about December holiday music? (Emotions run high on that one; mine are, perhaps predictably, of the thumbs up kind.)

Here is the first in a series of photos of Christmas tree selling places – the ones that make no promises about the splendidness of the trees or of the buying experience (cramped, with a limited selection, yet uniquely beautiful). By Knoche's, on Old Middleton Road:


thank you

In the last month, I have received some half dozen thank you notes, mostly from daughters’ friends who have come to a family meal here. I have to say, it’s made my heart swell.

In many ways, I may be called old school. Or old world. Or both. I love excessively good manners. In fact, I think politeness is a mere front for greater sensitivity and attentiveness to the needs of another. If a person can bother with a thank you note, don't you think that they are more likely to understand postpartum blues and menopausal hot flashes and midlife upsets?

In my office on Bascom Hill, I have a collection of thank you notes from students in years past. I keep them all on my desk, right there in front of me, as a reminder of what matters in a work day -- the effort expanded and the benefits (to the student) accrued. Now I am looking at an equally beguiling collection of thank-yous at home. On rainy days like today, you can’t ask for a hell of a lot more.


Wait – yes I can. An even better ending to a work packed day: meeting a daughter, or two on the Square for a drink. Or dinner. Or both.


Thank you, daughters!

Sunday, November 28, 2010


You could say we picked the wrong day for a hike. Yesterday was a bone chilling winter-like day. Today, the temperature shot up nearly 30 degrees. A low fifties reading has to feel better than low twenties.

But Sundays are rarely good hiking days. By the time I finish cleaning the condo, it is noon. Then, today, we have to fetch Ed’s pickup truck to cart a broken old Honda motorbike back to the farm for further study and eventual repair. And once there, Ed is lost to his motorcycle project.

(And by the way, if you don't believe cats follow their owners in the way that dogs do, you ought to make a study of Ed and Isis...)


To me, good weather is a magnet. I always deeply regret any days spent indoors when the sun taunts us with its seasonal flashiness, even in the muted shyness of a February day.

And so on this ever so sunny November afternoon,  I head out for a walk without my occasional travel companion. Not too long a walk, but a favorite nonetheless: down the path that weaves through the Nature Conservancy land less than a mile south of the farmette.


If the Ice Age Trail is the well coiffed queen of Wisconsin trails, the Nature Conservancy path is her wild child. Sometimes it’s spacious and orderly...


...other times its out of control and unruly...


...almost disappearing on you, but not quite. Oh, and while you're searching for the path, you can, in this season of see-through forests, catch a glimpse of Lake Waubesa.


And so the bottom line is that this trail, too, is lovely, in the way that all your children are lovely and besides, the agency that appears to be in control here seeks to preserve the natural habitat and that to me is a worthy enough goal, no?


I think a lot about the farm house as I push away tall strands of dry prairie grasses. Once I had made the decision to relocate there after selling my condo, I thought it would be only a matter of time before I packed up and moved on. Now, the project of moving to the farm house is very much in the air:  at what price is it not worth the investment? Opinions vary on this one. And so the jury is out and we’re all waiting to see the estimates drawn up by the contractor, Andy.

In the late afternoon I am back at the condo. There is work to be done for the week ahead. Classes are ending, students need my attention. I answer emails, write letters of recommendation and only for a minute do I allow myself a farewell glance at what I’m sure will be the warmest sun we’ll have until spring arrives sometime in... well, March if we’re lucky.


Saturday, November 27, 2010


We’re at Luigi’s in Two Rivers.



People from Wisconsin tend to know where Two Rivers is – it’s where two rivers – the East Twin & the West Twin empty into Lake Michigan.

They say that Two Rivers (pop. 13,000) is also the place of the first ever ice cream sundae. We’re not having ice cream sundaes. It’s cold – never made it above freezing today, even in the heat of the afternoon sun. And the sun has long dipped beyond the horizon. (Just across the street from Luigi’s, you can see the dusk settle in over one of the rivers. Significantly frozen now. No surprise. It’s really cold.)


Why Two Rivers? It was one of those early morning quick decisions, made while looking out from under bedcovers in a half waken stupor, thinking that perhaps we ought to seize the day. Or at least a portion of it.

It is indeed a fine day. Cold, but brilliant.

I canvas the state for hiking ideas. I’m willing to drive far, Ed – less so. Realistically, we can’t drive that far and hope to hike before the sun sets.

The Ice Age Trail segment hugging central Lake Michigan seems perfect.

Even though I am well aware of the fact that we are in the last two days of the deer hunting season in Wisconsin.

[On the way out, I pull into Wal-Mart. For blaze orange gear. Cap and vest $7.99. Sometimes I do like Wal-Mart.]

It’s a solid three hour drive to Two Rivers, so that it is quite late -- 1:00 -- before we reach the trail head. I know from yesterday that the sun sets at 4:15. And in the forest it tends to disappear even earlier. By 5:00 it will be dark. A four hour hike then, at most.

Still, I set out happy. It’s such a pretty trail!


And the topography is quite different here. Lots of sand. Pine, cedar, birch, yes, and then, when you think you’ve inhaled all the best that the hike has to offer, you come upon Lake Michigan...


We walk in the forest quiet. We do this so well, Ed and I. Perhaps this will be our epithet: they hiked well together, up and down the forested trails...


We are not alone of course. There are no other hikers, but there are quite a few hunters.


Hunting deer, hunting squirrels (don't look in his bucket! -- Ed tells me), just plain hunting.


At the very last segment of the return trail we see a posting announcing that this segment is closed during deer hunting season. Who knew! (I had checked on the website and I noted that during the deer hunt, much of the Ice Age trail that cuts through private land is off limits. But we are not on private land.) And how is one to return without hiking this last segment?


We continue. And moments later, I hear that quick movement through brush. Two deer, maybe three, zigzagging to the side of the path, then disappearing altogether. I want to think that these guys know to prance away quickly when there’s danger, but that’s being unrealistic. There are hunters everywhere. Blaze orange flashes constantly. This hunter is waiting, rifle ready at his side.


How easy it is to get used to guns... I’ve seen more in active use in the last month than perhaps in all years prior to this. So much do I take hunters for granted now that I hardly pay them heed. My eyes are focused on other things.

For instance, on the splendid lighthouse...


...and the never distant coastline.


Frozen now at the shoreline. Wasn’t it, on some days at least, warm in Wisconsin last week? The ice that I see here is a fraction of what we’ll see in a month, but still -- that's not a wave spilling out on the sand, that's a solid border of snow and ice.




The hike cannot be long. After two hours, we turn around and head back. By now, the sun comes through only in the frozen bogs and clearings.



And now it's just touching the tips of trees. Then it's gone. The forest is quiet, preparing for the night.

Finally. We reach the car at the side of the road. I’m glad I wore wool socks. I’m glad the heater works in the old Escort. I’m glad we had this one last hike that I could think of as belonging to fall. December will shift things for me. Today was still, at a stretch, autumnal. A cold and beautiful late fall day.


Friday, November 26, 2010


Suddenly, it’s very very quiet. Daughters left town to visit family members elsewhere, Ed retreated to his sheep shed, ostensibly to give comfort to Isis, his cat, but more likely to recover from a day of raucous merrymaking (food and drink, aided by a constant stream of music and movies).

I’m left to tackle the post turkey clean up. It’s amazing how one bird can nearly destroy your oven, your hands, your pans, your pristine neatness that you’re trying to maintain for a condo sale.


Outside – it’s winter. I can feel it. Everything has changed: it’s a different, biting cold outdoors. There are chilling winds that freeze the frown on your face, even as on the up side, we are having a magnificent winter blue sky.


I'm turn inwards. The outdoors is no longer the default option. I doubt that I’ll take the bike out again, even if the weather returns to a decent range. I’m differently oriented now. I'm taking on a winter mood.

Though not entirely. By evening, I want at least a little of my old life back: I don’t bike, but I meander out for a winter walk. Even as the sun reminds me that if you want its warmth, you have to remember to be out before 4.  I missed it today. Now,  I'm just catching the last wisps of its brightness.


Yep, it’s winter. May as well be December.



In my experience, kids don’t like change unless they’re in charge and are the instigators of it.

I cannot tell you how many times I tried, over the years, to reconfigure Thanksgiving breakfast, for example. I got nowhere. Spice cake, apple strudel and bacon! We can't wait! The only way to  bring forth change was to introduce something new alongside the old and hope, HOPE that the new would catch their fancy, so that we could phase out the old.

That’s how I eventually switched Thanksgiving breakfast from spice cake and apple strudel to what we have now – cinnamon rolls.


After breakfast? Well, it s a nonstop cooking and eating day for us. Though... what a surprise -- many of the foods are the same as last year. Take lunch: squash soup with herbed goat cheese dumplings and chive scones.


Then comes dinner. No, actually then comes predinner. Snack foods. (This year's addition -- crostini with wild mushrooms.) The foods that keep everyone happy while the turkey takes its time.


Finally. The bird's done. With a kick.


The rest? Well, there's the chipotle corn, the whipped potato, the cranberry muffin, the mushroom gravy... You know, the usual. Except I introduce yet another vegetable (brussel sprouts). Shhhh! Let’s not focus on that wee change. Let’s just say things are the same. We like stability in foods and habits.There -- we finish with pumpkin souffles. Just like last year!


I do hope your holiday was stable and happy. The best ever!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

can of problems

I expect to be out of the condo and in the old farmhouse soon enough. Today, as I inched closer to selling the condo (inched, not leapt), I had a meeting with my favorite contractor (Andy Anderson, who has guided me through at least two major home renovations in the past) at the farmhouse to discuss what might be done there.

It would be nice if the gloom I felt coming on after our very long walk-through could be entirely attributed to the weather. Because, of course, it was a miserably cold and gray day. Like the type you usually ascribe to late November in the northern states. No redeeming value to it at all. Unless you like the color brown. Coupled with gray.


But no.

The gloom comes from realizing how much of a decaying rotting problem child the farmhouse is (no one has lived in it for years) and how much reworking its insides need merely to make it habitable.

Andy, of course, is unperturbed and he takes measurements as if it were entirely sensible to contemplate making a nice little bedroom out of a space with peeling layers of wallpaper, revealing a damp wall and crumbling chimney. With two windows in rotting frames. And a missing floorboard. And a closet that’s so narrow that you can’t hang a thing in it because the hangers would be too wide. I mean, how many things can be wrong with one square room?

And that’s before you consider the bathroom. Or the kitchen.

Moving to the farmhouse had been an option three and a half years ago. I was terrified of the prospect then. These days I see it as a simple solution to many complicated problems, at the same time that it opens an entirely different can of problems.

Life is complicated.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Well now, that was a challenge.

Eight o’clock in the morning. I’ve done my work at home, I need to get to my office. I look at my thermometer. Twenty-two, and that’s on the balcony, where things tend to feel warmer than down on the ground.

That’s a thirty degree drop from yesterday. Brrrr.

I should retire the bike for the winter. And yet... Ah, the challenge.

The cap, the pea coat – not enough. The wind is brutal when it hits you in the face. I reach for my scarf and pull it over my mouth and cheeks. So now my chest feels cold.


I look at the lake. What is that? Steam? Surely it’s not freezing over. No, I’m freezing over.


But, I'm on the bike, I'm on my way to work – there’s no turning back. And I don’t want to turn back. Indeed, inexplicably, I take the longer route. It’s lovely now, in the early, deeply cold morning.


Then there’s the work part. Classes, many classes, students in the office, work emails, more students, and then, suddenly, the sun has nearly disappeared. It’s time to go home.

And what a surprise – the puddles on the lake shore path that were frozen in the morning, remain frozen now.

The sun fades, the band is out there playing On Wisconsin and I pedal with all my energy, just to keep warm.




Monday, November 22, 2010


If you used your bike to get to work today, you were either happy (it was warm), or supremely pissed (it rained hard and at unexpected times).

I managed to stay with the happy.

I missed the morning rains by an inch...


...and even though my pack got the mud splash from the lake shore path, I thought it was a fine day to ride...

...until the weather turned even more strange. Warm. Windy. Wildly beautiful. Then just plain wild.


So many things that appear threatening turn out tame, and so many innocent ideas grow to be ferocious before you know it. You just need to take heed.

I pedaled home as the winds picked up and the light faded.


Tomorrow promises to be much much cooler. These days, I take them as they come.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


In contrast to yesterday, today was indoor focused. I cleaned, I helped someone hang pictures in her office, I shopped, I cooked, I baked, I tidied things afterward.

And there are no photos for you from any of it. Even as it was one of my more detailed dinners in a long time. With a goat cheese soufflé and a pear pie and a spicy pot of shrimp. (The soufflé was airy and perfect, the pear pie could be improved upon, the spicy pot of shrimp was fine.)

Sometimes, you don’t want to offer detailed explanations. A wee break in the monologue of a life.

See you tomorrow.

the push

I think you can’t get yourself too comfortable. If I take this hard earned, much longed for free day and do nothing with it, I’ll feel disappointed.

I ask Ed -- so what have you been up to, back at the farmette?
Arranging metals. In the garage. Scrap metals, so that I can make use of them when I need them.


It's a huge job. I'm thinking, he needs a break, I need a break...
Do you want to do a longer ride today? I ask. Hiking will have to wait until the deer hunting season (which starts today) is over. Either that or we buy blaze orange. But a ride – it seems doable still.

Even though it’s very very cold. Low thirties when we set out toward our starting point (Cottage Grove). With a whipping wind.

It’s 2:30. There’s a bit of sun left, but there are plenty of clouds so that the warming effect seems lost on me.

You sure you want to do this? Ed knows how I feel about the cold, particularly when biking. Can’t get too comfortable, can’t get too comfortable... Still, I’m wishing I had worn tights under the pants. And a warmer jacket. And wooly socks.

It’s a twenty-six mile loop and we’ve done it several times in the past, though never quite this late in the season. The hills are moderate – fewer and gentler than those to the west of Madison.


Two miles into the ride Ed asks again if I want to reconsider.
No, I do not. In fact, pedaling hard keeps me reasonably comfortable. Sure, the toes and nose suffer a bit and toward the end of the ride, my fingers join the frozen club, but honestly, I’m okay.


And of course, it’s always lovely to be out on the country roads in south central Wisconsin. (Though I notice that the smaller pools of water are starting to freeze over now.)


On this particular circuit, you’re never without company. Cows, sure, we’re known for that.


Ponies and horses too.


Wild turkeys, in large flocks.


Flying off at the sight of me.


And farmed turkeys too. Most likely in their last week of life. Sigh. Maybe we should have a tofu Thanksgiving...


Oh, and llamas. Wooly, curious, a tad jerky when you touch their neck.


And, because we are in Wisconsin and it is the time of the big hunt, we see hunters. Many, many specks of blaze orange in the woods and fields.


You get used to this of course, and I can’t be one who fusses about hunting. I eat meat after all. (I'm thinking back to the duck breast I had for dinner last night...) And still, it’s jarring to see the success, strapped to the roof of a car or SUV. Even as I congratulate the awfully proud guys who brought in not one but two in the course of the afternoon.


I tell myself that it’s a better way to go than most any butchering that we do with our cattle or other barn-to-table animals. I wave and pedal on.

Of course, stops for a photo, or to admire a particularly stellar snippet of landscape adds minutes to our ride. Ed pedals ahead a number of times and I work hard to catch up.


I’m not surprised when he tells me that we’re running out of daylight. I have a head light, he does not. There’s a faint moon that’s just starting its own ascent, but even though it looks mighty round and full, it’s not throwing the light that some moonlit nights offer.


I watch the geese formation and listen to their distinctive late Fall squawk.


But not for long. I’m cold now. Each time I stop, I cool down even more and it’s hard now to get the speed you need to stay flushed.

Another song, another pause. The heron’s voices are always so pronounced. They're the tuba in the symphony of bird song here. I see them, hiding in the pond. They watch carefully, waiting to see if I come too close. I do not.


And now we’re in the final stretch. I notice the ponds have thin crusts of ice already. I know it’s well below freezing. My fingers can vouch for it.


Ah, to feel warm again! Back in Cottage Grove now. We mount our bikes onto Ed's Geo and head to his sheepshed. He wants to fix my broken food processor, I want to warm up with a cup of tea. And I’ll grant his cat, Isis this much – he’s got a warm body. For once I let him stay on my lap for a long long time, claws and all.