The Other Side of the Ocean

Friday, April 30, 2004


1. TIME ZONES: My blog remains set to US Central Time. Thus the time and date listed for each post is Madison time. I am 14 hours ahead of you. Right now, you are stuck in April, for me it is already May (Saturday morning). All this to say that I am now officially an EU-nian! [Today, Poland joins the EU. As yesterday’s International Herald Tribune reported (I broke my news reading abstinence and read it on-line), today’s monumental expansion of the EU has enormous consequences for the European continent. The IHT commented that never has something so important to the European community received so little coverage in the US.]

2. YUKATA: A reader passed on the correct term for the bathrobe-like garment worn by those attending Japanese public baths – it is the yukata. When asked why I didn’t in the end partake, I have but one answer: laziness. You have to scrub yourself silly before entering a public bath and everyone I’m sure would watch to make certain that the one American, with odd overseas customs, adheres to this one. I have heard that sometimes people take as long as half an hour for the pre-wash. After you have done this, you get to soak. I have, in my past travels here, soaked in a hot Japanese tub. My two word reaction? Freaky hot! (That is not to say it wasn’t pleasant in a steamy sort of way.)

3. FOOD: Last night I had dinner at a place that again offered the “all you can eat” option. This restaurant’s version of it was still different: it was, for the most part, a buffet (though you could order additionally freshly made tempura and grilled scallops) and you could eat anything at all from it, and drink any one type of drink as well, so long as you were out of there within 90 minutes. No problem, when you eat alone, 90 minutes tends to be the average amount of time you’d spend in a restaurant anyway. The meal for me was noteworthy because it had (in addition to other things which I will not mention because I am embarrassed at the glutenous way I approach dinners here) this recurrent trilogy, pictured here at the side.

4. NAGANO: In a few hours I am leaving Matsushima and heading inland toward the Japanese Alps, my second “scenic spot” selection for my pause from work here. My base will be in Nagano, so that you might say I am making the circuit of Japan’s Olympic towns (both Sapporo and Nagano hosted the games). Three train rides await me today. First, though, I must make my way to my paltry breakfast while the rest of the robed populace feasts.
posted by nina, 4/30/2004 03:23:01 PM | link

Thursday, April 29, 2004



[Matsushima at sunrise, from my window]

I am what you might call an adventurous eater. But as I’ve said earlier, for breakfast in Japan I revert to my traditional ways: I will not (and did not this morning) try the multitude of dishes offered from 7 am onwards – dishes that to my senses belong to lunch or dinner, preferably over a glass of sake rather than a cup of morning coffee.

So here I am, acting very un-Polish and passing up all sorts of delicious and healthy food in favor of a piece of toast and a cup of cafe au lait. Shame on me.


This morning I went into the hotel garden to explore. How can that offend? Well, I went out in my outdoor shoes. After I came back I noticed that people took off their outdoor shoes and slipped into the proffered (meaning communal) wooden Japanese shoes. Sorry!


I had worried about being here during the holiday week and not enjoying much of anything because of huge crowds. I have experienced Japanese crowds and they are not for the faint-hearted. How surprised I was, then, to find myself on one of the farther islands [Fukuurajima: accessible by a loooong footbridge; there are some 300 islands around the coast here—in this lies the beauty of the place; they are slowly eroding, but for now, they look positively spectacular] and hiking the trails completely by myself, with the exception of a woman who appears to live there in a small house where ice cream is sold.

As I walked, taking in the splendidness of the coast, the views onto other islands, I came across a meadow and scattered throughout, fruit trees that were in their best blooming period. Sakura? Yes, it seemed like it. I asked the ice cream lady just to make sure that this indeed was the Japanese cherry blooming. She answered in her PERFECT Japanese that yes, indeed it was and there had been even more flowers before the rain brought some down (or, she could have been saying “fall to the ground and kiss my feet!” but I don’t think so –her beautiful gestures implied rain).

How am I so lucky to have been there, in the quiet of the meadow, looking at the delicate sakura against a pale blue sky? Bliss, nothing short of bliss. This blog entry is almost a gift to myself because I can go back and remind myself how SUBLIME a tree blooming on the last day of April can be.

I went back to the ice cream lady to tell her how much I had enjoyed the half hour I spent in the meadow (yes, that is precisely what I wanted to convey, don’t ask how I got to any sort of comprehension; maybe I didn’t, maybe she thought I said that I was frightfully allergic to cherry blooms and couldn’t wait to depart, but I don’t think so – my gestures were meant to indicate radiant exuberance). She said that there are many kinds of sakura down there in the meadow (this one was easy to key into, she started listing them: sakura this, sakura that… many different sakuras). Yes and all of them, along with the bordering pines and the younger willows, breathtakingly beautiful.

And yes, growing in the wild thicket of the pine forest, I came across a Japanese wild iris. Flower euphoria today.


Walking along the main road, I watched a bus full of school children pause at an intersection. A number of the girls leaned out and waved (I sort of can’t believe this, given that I am visiting a place that is not exactly unheard of here, but I remain the only westerner around) and of course giggled a lot. I asked (a bit stupidly, if you think about it) – ‘where are you from?’ I meant what city, town, prefecture, because they were obviously on a school excursion. They shouted ‘Japan!’ And then one brave soul asked ‘and where are YOU from?’ I said ‘America.’ Peels of laughter for that one and more faces came to the window and the girls waved and waved.

I didn’t take a photo then because, after all, we were in a conversation. But other children do tempt me and I have to say this is perhaps the only country in the world where I can get away with photographing some of them. They don’t mind. Even the little ones, with parents at their side – they seem pleased that I should want to. I attribute it to their own camera obsessions. They just assume, I’m sure, that everyone is simply a photography nut and would take pictures of anything in sight. I’m still a little reticent at times, but I know I will not be denied the opportunity if I ask. Mostly, I don't even ask.


I have some doubting petunias out there among the readership and so I decided to nip the buds of festering cynicism about the authenticity of my trip and my photos. Of course, I did once post on this blog pictures of flowers that were not yet in bloom (in anticipation of times when they would be) causing great consternation among a number of readers. Who’s to say I am really truly in Japan now and not just making it all up? So, this morning I cornered a young lad and asked him to snap a photo of me just for verification purposes. I deliberately put myself in an unattractive pose so no one would think I am blog-vain. It’s Japan, honestly!
posted by nina, 4/29/2004 03:30:25 PM | link



This morning I started my trip to Matsushima. It took four separate trains and a total of eight hours to get there and so I had plenty of time to watch two batteries die down on the computer and to count tunnels. There were many many tunnels to count. Of course, I was waiting for THE BIG ONE, the longest underwater tunnel in the world, the one that connects Hokkaido to the rest of Japan. I had wanted to time my own personal endurance record so that I could then brag on the blog how I had survived the 20 minute, or two hour tunnel. But after a dozen times of looking at my watch, thinking THIS SURELY must be it, I gave up and stopped looking and so now I can only guess: it seemed like about four hours, but that is possibly the grossest of exaggerations because that particular train ride was only three hours long and it had many stops before and after the tunnel. Still, I have to say that my going-under-water-by-way-of-train phobia seems to be a thing of the past.

Long train rides are a time to think and eat. This time I was prepared. No more staring at a solitary cup of Twinkle Lady tea. I had a feast . The tea was accompanied by a spotted monster apple (that’s the way they all looked in the market: I spent more on that apple than on my earlier-in-the-week cup of Starbucks latte and that’s saying a lot; fruits are expensive in Japan) and by treats from the food halls of the department store (I couldn’t decide which of the three so I took all three; my decision would have been a lot easier had I realized that they were all a variation on a white roll with chestnut bits; no matter, their price together amounted to just about one half the cost of the apple).

But I have to say that I am starting to crave vegetables. Aside from the pickled ginger that always accompanies raw fish here and that one piece of pepper tempura yesterday, I haven’t seen any vegetables at the dinner table. This morning, therefore, I broke down and took from the breakfast buffet a small plate of limp broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. One has to take things when they are offered in life. [For the curious: I had this BEFORE my cup of coffee and cereal; I pretended that I was still eating last night’s dinner before ultimately switching to breakfast.]


In trying to decide where to go during the Golden Week, I thought about selecting places of great natural beauty. I’ll be working in cities while I am here, but for my time off, I wanted scenic splendor. I chose two destinations. The first, Matsushima, is labeled as one of the three great natural sights of Japan (more on the second destination tomorrow). I learned a poem today by a famous seventeenth century Japanese writer. It goes like this:

”Matsushima, ah! Matsushima! Matsushima!” He definitely was smitten with the place.

It was evening by the time the last of my series of trains pulled in to the Matsushima-Kaigan station and so I saw little of the scenery tonight. From the station, a bus took me to the hotel Taikanoso, the place where I’ll be spending the next two nights.

I honestly do not remember how I found Taikanoso. I believe I was directed to it by some random blog I Googled my way to. I know this place does not have a website and it is not listed in any book on Japan. And so, apart from the price per night, I cannot say that I arrived informed about my new surroundings.

Driving up, I could tell that it fancies itself to be a bit of a ‘resort.’ You can just tell: there are ‘grounds.’ People move slowly, there is piped music in all public spaces, it has the feel of relaxation and leisure. Needless to say, I am the only non-Japanese person in the entire sprawling place, though occasional attempts at translation (as in the room information sheet) imply that English speaking people are expected to make their way here.

As a foreigner, I was, as usual, treated well by the Reception. My request for a ‘pleasant view’ got me the top floor room (the place is five stories high), and from the window I could see why the scenery merits top billing. Even at dusk, it was inspiring (see photo of view from room).

I am too removed from the town to search for eating spots and so tonight I am forced to eat here. If I sound reluctant, it is because the set price for dinner is almost as high as the price of the room and breakfast. The accommodation is cheap, the meal is not.

I wondered if I was expected to dress up. I hadn’t seen anything particularly excessive in this regard in the public rooms and so I decided not to. Why do I mention this? Well, clothes issues became a shocking part of my discovery. As I entered the huge dining hall, I saw that it was filled with people of assorted ages, most of whom were wearing identical cotton bathrobes (see photo)! So here I am, in this reasonably elegant dining hall, where a man in a tux is playing Chopin on the piano, cooks are heaping food onto a buffet table, and people are walking around in blue and white robes and identical brown slippers.

My guess is that there are public baths somewhere on the premises and that it is acceptable and even expected to go from bath to dinner. Of course I want to try this too, but think of the gaffs I am likely to make along the way: do I wear a bathing suit? What does one wear (if anything) under the robe? It’s not as if I can ask. And what if it becomes undone? Something awkward is likely to happen. Or, what if one only does this on Greenery Day, so that tomorrow I’ll show up to dinner in a robe and everyone will be wearing street clothes?

The dinner itself was quite good. I could pick and choose and so I avoided the western specialties (the desk clerk had said that they served Japanese and French food; the spaghetti, meat and mashed potatoes were, I presume, the ‘French’ part) and concentrated on the sushi, the raw fish, the crab – yes, the crab legs are with me again—the scallops, braised greens and the fruit (pictured at the very bottom of the post) for dessert.

[I cannot resist posting pictures of some of the signs in front of dishes. In an attempt to appear international, I see someone was given the task of coming forth with translations.]

And here’s an interesting gimmick: I asked for a beer with the meal and was told that it cost 800 Yen extra (that would be around $7). I hesitated. One mug of beer, $7? A Wisconsinite would cringe. But then I was shown a sign that said “3 alcoholic beverages for 1000 Y.” The dining hall attendant said I could thus get three beers for 1000 Y. I could also get three whiskeys or three glasses of wine. The Pole in me wanted to go the whiskey route because, of course, insofar as there’s a bargain in this pricing strategy, it is in the whiskey. Sanity prevailed and I hate whiskey anyway, so I stayed with the beer. A plastic sign was placed on my table with a number scrawled on it announcing to the wait-staff (and the world) on which beer I was at the moment. I noticed people around me were on number three while I was still nursing number two. I never could get through number three, but still, how could one not order in this way?

In the course of the meal, the music venue changed and we went from my beloved Chopin to a Japanese band singing American pop. To give you an idea, I heard music of the Carpenters and a lot of Elvis. The room came alive for this part. People listened, tapped their brown-slippered feet and applauded enthusiastically after each number.

All well and good, but I could not take my eyes off the bathrobes.

Back in my room, I noticed that by opening the window (it was awfully musty on arrival) I let in a nice army of monster bugs and so the rest of the evening is spent hunting for what look like drunken dragon flies (they fly low, sway a lot and move at the speed of 1 meter per minute).
posted by nina, 4/29/2004 01:28:13 PM | link

Wednesday, April 28, 2004



Last night I went to dinner at Ebi-kani Gassen. It is a miracle that I found Ebi-kani Gassen. My Lonely Planet Guide writes this about it: “Ebi-kani Gassen (with an all you can eat menu) is among Sapporo’s many crab places. Its two locations are busy, informal and fun.” Then there is a general X type mark on an inexact map of the city. Okay, not a lot to go on, but I’ve seen worse.

I set out for what I think would be the right block and I find many eating places, none of them having any western alphabet sign in front. I ask. There is an art to this: you have to pick someone who looks like they would know about an obscure eating spot in this area. Bingo! It’s rare that I strike gold on the first try but there you have it: a Japanese man scratches his chin (literally) and his face lights up. He leads me to an office building with a sign that has the listing of all offices on its 14 floors. Then he points to some characters next to the 12th floor designation and says jubilantly: “Ebi-kani Gassen!” I thank him and head for the elevators.

I get in the elevator, push “12,” the door closes, nothing happens. I remember from my hotel elevator that the buttons at the top refer to "door open" and "door close" and so through trial and error, I finally get the doors to open. I am, of course, on the ground floor. A group of people join me and I am excited because maybe they will demonstrate what button to push to make the damn box MOVE. They press “4” and we move to 4. They get out. I have pressed “12” but I see that I am going back down to “1.” Lord, is “12” out of business? Is it special access only? Is it not Ebi-kani Gassen??

New people come into the elevator. I ask them in my fluent Japanese: “Ebi-kani Gassen?” They discuss this among themsleves with gusto and fianlly point to 12. We’re in business! But I show them that when I press 12, no light goes on (in my Japanese: press, shrug, press shrug). Ahhhh: they drag me out of the elevator and point me to another. Apparently this first one does not go up to twelve. The other does. Lonely Planet, do better! How is ANYONE supposed to figure all this out on their own?

At Ebi-kani Gassen I am given a sheet of paper and miraculously it has an English line scribbled on it: “all you can eat: king crab legs, snow crab legs, shrimp tempura, shrimp sushi, crab sushi, tempura shrimp sushi, egg custard.”

I am not a good “all you can eat” candidate. In the hotel, breakfast is included in my daily rate. There is an elaborate buffet, with egg dishes, Japanese dishes, meats, breads, rolls, you name it. I take a bowl of cereal and some fruit and drink my coffee and walk away satisfied. But this is a very specific to Sapporo “all you can eat” type of place. You are given a set amount of food that includes all the listed dishes. And you are given 90 minutes. If you finish what’s in front of you, you can request a repeat of all the crab legs. If you finish that, you can ask for another portion. Oh, and you are given all the beer you can drink in that 90 minute period as well.

This would not work in Wisconsin. Big people would come with big appetites and even greater thirst and drive these restaurants out of business. But around me, I see the usual lean Japanese people and they are eating rapidly, but sanely. I, too, work through my allotment and then wonder if I should ask for more. The Polish nagging little guy within me says “eat more! It’s free! And besides, it is the famous Hokkaido crab, the best in the world!” And so I order another round.

I come back to the hotel and collapse, with crab crawling out of my every pore. I don’t care if I never see another crab leg in my life! Had I spoken Japanese, I would have asked for a half portion, but can you imagine me taking that one on? Instead, I chose to gorge.

But that was yesterday. Today is April 29 – a national holiday: “Greenery Day.” It marks the beginning of Golden Week, where all of Japan takes off for vacation. Because there are three national holidays close together (Greenerey Day, Constitution Day and Children’s Day), most businesses are closed for the entire period – from April 29 until May 5.

For me, it is time to leave Sapporo. I am headed south to see one of the three natural wonders of Japan. When next I write, it will be from Matsushima. More on that later. In the mean time, I am including photo reminders that Sapporo isn’t all modern buildings and neon signs (photo 2), that space is always at a premium, thus the Japanese devise innovative strategies to not use too much of it (photo 3) and that since greenery can’t readily be found here on April 29 (too early), it CAN be found at the market (photo 1).

posted by nina, 4/28/2004 04:23:36 PM | link



This afternoon I took a train to the town of Heiwa (which translates as Peace). It is a town that is not in any conventional guidebook on Japan (I can’t even remember where I heard about it) and there is no reason to go there but for one building.

I had postponed seeking out this place earlier during my visit here, but as I am leaving Sapporo tomorrow morning, I felt it was time I went.

The building – an uninteresting, small, brick structure, is owned by “Hibakusha,” meaning the living victims, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have converted an upstairs room of the house into a sort of gallery. Graphic photos depicting injuries sustained by the people living within a large radius of the atomic blasts line the walls, and paintings express the horror of those events.

There are some 500 or 600 Hibakusha living in Hokkaido and I met one of them today.

I rang the door bell somewhat apprehensively, thinking that this would be too hard to do, especially without the protective shield of an impersonal museum.

An old man opened the door and he looked surprised to see me. Right away he said “Hiroshima, Nagasaki” as if to explain what was there, thinking that perhaps I had the wrong address. When I reassured him in my nonexistent Japanese that this indeed is where I wanted to be, he took me upstairs and unlocked the door to the room holding the small gallery.

He followed me during the entire half hour I was there. He stood quietly behind me every time I paused in front of a picture and he said nothing as I looked on. But I felt it to be a gentle and kind presence and I welcomed his company. It is not a place where you can stand being alone very easily.

In leaving, I hated myself for not having the language skills to say more than thank you, at the same time that I felt relieved that I lacked the words, because, after all, what can anyone say.

I thought about the two photos I posted earlier today of Japanese children, especially the one from Biai, where the little girl is holding out her fingers in the symbolic gesture that the Japanese use for peace. Peace, from her tiny hand, held to the camera. Peace. It’s only when I recalled her living form that I became uncontrollably sad this afternoon. She made the children of the black and white photos on the wall of the brick house wear faces and have names.

Under the postwar Japanese Constitution, the country has no active military. In the last decade the government here has interpreted the document to permit a military without weapons, to be called forth only for reasons of defense. It was decided that such a unit should be sent to Iraq, though only for ‘humanitarian’ reasons and without weaponry of any sort. Even this was though by many to be excessive.

Travel is such a happy series of events for me, but this afternoon I had to do that other part of it, I had to go back and examine a piece of history – not the political history, but the personal one, experienced by the common, everyday people, just like the ones I am watching now go through their daily tasks of shopping, taking children to school, riding trains to homes in small towns and villages.

An image of a happy little girl in Biei, holding that little fist for peace is the proper ending to this post. Let me reprint the photo, just to remind myself of her smiling face.

posted by nina, 4/28/2004 03:42:50 AM | link

Tuesday, April 27, 2004



If blogger hadn’t given me the gift of direct photo posting, I would not have spent the first hours of the night-morning today learning the easy steps of uploading pictures from my camera.

Therefore I would have eaten breakfast before heading off to do a two hour presentation at the University. And I would have not had to run in the rain to make it on time. And afterwards, I perhaps would have also gone to the basement food halls of the department store (Japan ostensibly has three acclaimed “wonders,” one which I will actually see tomorrow, but I would add a fourth: the department store food halls—they are amazing!), but I would not have lusted hungrily after all that was being offered and I would not have searched out the free samples [I don’t like to eat my way through these when I have no intention of buying, though I would have loved to pick up a bag of the pickled eggplant (see photo below), but as I explained to the clerk (and I am sure she understood not a word), I was at a hotel where the minibar wouldn’t have held a kilo of pickled anything].

I remember when I first visited a food hall in Japan. There, and actually anywhere that something was being sold, clerks called out a friendly greeting, with big grins on their faces: “Irrashaimase!” You hear this everywhere and after a while you long to reciprocate. After some days had passed and I thought I had the pronunciation down pat, I would return the favor. “Irrashaimase to you too!” I would say.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that what they were saying was “welcome!” (as in: come over and buy from us). Blunder along, that’s me alright.

Not to get carried away with visuals, but I can’t resist a few from this morning’s visit to the halls of culinary delight.

posted by nina, 4/27/2004 10:20:54 PM | link



[image of Sapporo late last evening]

I’ve taken to running in Sapporo. I can’t help it –it’s because of the lights. If I walk at a brisk pace down the street, the green crossing lights are completely out of sync with me and so at almost every corner I am forced to stop and wait. And wait. Any red light here is like Madison’s worst nightmare intersection in terms of stopping time: each turning lane has it’s own green light and so you, the pedestrian, need to wait until all permutations have been exhausted. Thus, when I am walking along and I see up ahead that there is a green crossing light, I run to make it. This is yet another one of those transgressions that make me appear odd and foreign, but I can’t seem to help myself. Green light ahead? Run!


Last night (that would be Tuesday for me) I sought out a place for dinner that I had noted earlier while leafing through the Lonely Planet guide to Japan. It was a simple place, with counter service and a few tables, but what had especially caught my eye was the reference to the use of fresh Hokkaido ingredients. Anyone who knows me would smile in patient (I hope) amusement: it has long been true that if the food is described as fresh and local, I’ll want to try it!

I had a hard time finding this place. The book referred to it as “Uoya Itcho,” but clearly the authors read and speak Japanese because nowhere on the outside, nor inside, is there a single letter of the western alphabet. And no one speaks any English – or they do a good job of feigning ignorance when asked. But I did finally corner a few random people to inquire if this was “Uoya Itcho” and though people here always appear to be agreeing with you even if you are dead wrong, something in the vigor of the “hai’s” and the nodding of the heads convinced me that this was indeed the place.

It was crowded, but I was given a comfortable spot at the counter and a menu to make my selections. Thank God for those photos on the menu!

As this was my first authentic Japanese meal (the others had elements of Japanese food, true, but this had the potential to fulfill my cravings for such things as sushi and sashimi) I went overboard with the finger pointing. What I had forgotten is that you have to sort of ease into raw fish eating if you’ve been away from it for a while. Getting a plate loaded down with five slices of every conceivable ocean critter can initially dazzle and eventually overwhelm. I had one of those momentary longings to have a dog under the table – anything to decrease the number of pieces still ahead.

The waiters, amused I’m sure, by this solo foreigner (the place was filled with men pausing to eat in the course of their evening of work, with random pairs of women thrown in, probably just for decoration), kept hovering and asking questions which I assume had the goal of assessing the degree of my satisfaction (or, they could have been asking about my age, wealth, or country of origin, how would I know...). Of course I had to finish THE WHOLE THING. Even a tall beer didn’t ease the pain of overindulgence. Oh yes, healthy, it’s all so healthy, but my God, did I eat a lot of raw fish!

It’s interesting how quickly you then forget the pain and look forward to a repeat performance.
posted by nina, 4/27/2004 12:58:35 PM | link



Finding myself with a conversational negative balance today (I spoke no recognizable English to anyone, and what English I did speak can only be classified as minus-English. Just as an example: “time! time next train Sapporo! Next, 16 clock?”), I decided to indulge myself here on the blog. Since “the blog never lies,” I mustn’t create fictionalized persons. Thus, the conversation is between myself and myself.

NC: So what did you do today?
nc: I took the train up toward the northern part of Hokkaido.

NC: Don’t you have enough train travel in your weeks in Japan just to get you places you need to be?
nc: I have a rail pass which entitles me to unlimited train travel. I am nowhere near ‘unlimited’ yet. A Pole never passes up a freebe. Besides, it felt cold in Sapporo – too cold to just walk around like I did yesterday.

NC: Wouldn’t it be even colder up north?
nc: I did not think of that when I studied the train schedules.

NC: How far north did you go?
nc: About 2.5 hours and two separate trains’ worth of territory was covered each way.

NC: Five hours total? You are nuts. There must have been something special to see up there?
nc: I went to check out a village. Actually it was somewhere between a town and a village: I could walk it’s circumference in about half an hour.

NC: Was it stunning? Is that why you went?
nc: I vaguely recalled reading somewhere about it, but I could not remember why it was so special except that in the summer they grow flowers around there. Was it stunning –well, I have never been to Alaska, but this is how I imagine an impoverished town or village deep in Alaska would look like, right around the month of March (desolate, deserted, scruffy and gray).

NC: Sounds thrilling indeed! Highlights?
nc: Watching the youngest children returning home from school in the afternoon. Their features were very much Hokkaido features: dark, pronounced, with not a small trace of Ainu. Beautiful smiles (photo doesn't do them justice!).

NC: Low points?
nc: Where do I begin? I think three words would summarize all relevant points: it was cold. This village (called Biei) is at the foot of a mountain chain, and the mountains were completely covered with snow. Not a single bud had broken through any of the trees in town. I had wanted to borrow a bike (apparently it is possible to do that) but thought that I would not last more than a quarter of a mile. I was warmly dressed, but the wind was piercing.

NC: When you figure out how to post photos, do let us see the snow-covered mountains.
nc: That I wont do. I don’t know enough about the camera yet (it is less than a week old) to figure out how to create contrast where non exists: today the sky was gray-white, and the snow-covered mountains were white-gray. You would have been viewing basically a picture of mixed whites.

NC: Any other thoughts on the outing?
nc: Yes. I am glad I went. Just taking this little one-car train for the final stretch was cool: people were traveling home with groceries bought in bigger towns. I imagined what it would be to live there year-round. You’d have to be pretty resilient. Oh, and BTW, when I came back to Sapporo, I found that it had been (still is) raining. I didn’t have any rain up north—I felt rewarded for my efforts to move myself out of the comfort zone of this city. Then, when I got back into town I did a first: I went to a Starbucks and bought myself a steaming latte. I’ve never felt so decadent. But you’ll be surprised to hear that I have yet to turn on the flat-screened TV in my room. No CNN to date. So if the world turned up-side-down in my absence, I wouldn’t known (there are no English newspapers in Sapporo news stands so I don’t even know what the headlines are, and no, obviously I haven’t been reading – haven’t you been paying attention to my computer woes? I rarely can get a connection).

NC: So, are you having fun yet?
nc: But of course: the days are full, so full. Every minute explodes with something interesting and new. That is the essence of being elsewhere, isn't it?
Now can we go back to being one? I feel I'm bordering on the insane here.
posted by nina, 4/27/2004 03:42:32 AM | link

Monday, April 26, 2004



Well, the blog was to be built around photos and the photos disappear from the blog just moments after I post them, so technology and I are not friends at the moment. And the Internet is breaking down regularly. And Eudora will receive but not send. I can’t believe that I am using ten million high tech gadgets, all of them made right here in this country and none of them are capable of producing a good day’s worth of work.
UPDATE: Blogger and I are the best of friends! Oh, what that nice blogger rep did for me! Thank you so very much.

…As opposed to the people here, who have absolutely lost all perspective on the subject of work. How can you schedule a meeting with me from 7:00 pm, be done with it at 10:30 pm and then return to your office to continue with the work that you interrupted for my benefit?

But this morning I beat them to it! I was looking for a cup of coffee at 5 am and was deeply disappointed that the hotel was not about to recognize my cravings at what seemed to me to be a decent time to start a fresh day. The night clerk was, however, very polite about it and expressed great disappointment at not being able to oblige.

Sometimes I think that the people here should just blow their cool at the likes of me. It seems they should be saying things like “and who are you to come here and expect every one of us to speak your confusing language and to understand your weird gestures and requests when you yourself have memorized only five Japanese words and continue to violate virtually every social ritual known to us?” But no one says this. Instead, I am allowed to blunder along, and I am greeted everywhere with a desire to make my walk through this country an easy one.

In my work, I go from one meeting to another with my “guards.” These are the kind people who have agreed to translate for me – from foreign grad students to deans and professors, they all humbly undertake this, with no compensation, nothing at all from me except a thank you and a dumb little gift from Wisconsin (you can just imagine how creative those are—though to my credit, I have yet to hand over anything with a picture of a red badger on it, thinking perhaps that you would have had to at least pass through WI to work up any enthusiasm for our local mascot).

But I view them also as guards of sorts, as they protect me from my own ineptness, always apologizing, I am sure, for my ignorance. I know this to be true because I am beginning to pick up little signs here and there: like this afternoon when my ‘translator' swooped down to take my shoes and move them to a spot where I should have placed them; or earlier, when another handed me a fresh hankie as I made my way to the Japanese washroom without thinking to bring one; or this evening when I was too busy writing down answers to questions to reach for the proffered Hokkaido treat and found my “guard” gently placing one on my pad so that all could then begin to enjoy theirs.


“The sun so bright, I froze to death,” aptly describes this day: trees here are a month behind Madison (as opposed to the area around Tokyo where they are a month ahead; so where on Japan’s map is Madison??) and there is still an occasional patch of snow in the hills, but that not withstanding, it was a bright, bright day, one that needed a walk. The early morning was a perfect time for it.

Nothing is as uplifting as watching schoolchildren sail off to their elementary schoolhouses – in packs, on bikes, alone, with a parental hand clutching theirs. In France it may be all navy and white for the left bank private l’ecole set, but here, the colors of kid clothes are bright and mixed in interesting ways, so that the pink ‘little kitty’ sweatshirt will be on top of yellow ‘Tony tiger’ pair of pants, with perhaps a fluorescent pink ‘Astro man’ backpack to really set things right. Children appear to like cartoon characters generously sprinkled across every surface that lends itself to this sort of thing.

Eventually I reached the hills on the outskirts of the city. Not surprisingly, a bright red shrine stood halfway up the steep incline. Outside, a wooden stand had hanging garlands of beautiful origami cranes and a thick leather book, resting partly open, with a pen stuck inside, obviously inviting … who knows what. Is it one of those books where you’re expected to write something like “Hi! I am from Wisconsin! Glad to be here! Hey, how about that, I see someone from Pennsylvania visited last month! Go Pirates!” or maybe comment on the natural beauty of the setting (“you have one great shrine here and the view is like wow, like terrific!”), or is it maybe something that I am not getting, like a sinners book, so that if you sign in you are admitting to having killed your neighbor and lied to your own mother? I left it alone.

Sapporo is not a wealthy town. In fact, Hokkaido is a not a wealthy island. The already small Japanese houses are even smaller here. ‘Modest’ is a good operative word as you pass through residential neighborhoods. I paused in front of one mansion (that would have comfortably fit into the average Madison kitchen) to take a photo of the city below (note missing photo here as well) and I played “no, you go first” with the gentleman who lived here and was taking out the garbage and almost walked in front of the camera. After many gestures and words of protest, he won. I had to go first.


I had my first official meal on of the trip – with the various faculty who are helping with my work here. We went to the faculty club – a beautiful modern building that looks exclusive and swank, though I was assured that it was open to anyone, including tourists if they chose to visit the campus of Hokkaido University. They said it was a disappointment because none ever came – too far off the beaten path.

And now the chopstick game begins. I am offered western eating utensils and I politely refuse. Big smiles all around for that one. I am adept enough at the chopstick thing that I can, as I’m sure most Americans can, transport food from plate to mouth without losing half of it, no matter how slippery or small – a feat that never ceases to bring forth great exclamations of praise and wonder. (Japanese people must think us to be such indelicate eaters!) But the game isn’t over. I then have to decline having any such skill. And so we go back and forth on this and end the exchange with a mutual bow of acquiescence, each acknowledging that the other is right, followed by a minute’s silence to contemplate the miraculous wonder of this. The chopstick game happens quite frequently. I am happy, because at least I think I know how to participate in this one.
posted by nina, 4/26/2004 02:50:56 PM | link

Sunday, April 25, 2004

JAPAN (almost, almost, but not quite) 

Mistakes of travel (list prepared by one who made them all):

- Arriving at the Union 1 minute before Madison’s bus departs for Chicago’s O’Hare airport. [What was I thinking? One badly timed red light and the trip would have been a disaster before it had even started.]

- Hesitating before a Krispy Kreme six-pack at the boarding gate. [This is a new one! Foreign visitors can now take some American carbs, fresh from the vats of boiling grease, back home as a souvenir. For me, the unexpectedness of it caught me off guard. I almost caved in.]

- Listening to the Air France news in flight. First of all, French news announcers SHOULD NOT be all that stunning to look at. This one in particular, with his oh-so-casual blue window-pane shirts and striking tie – come on, mess it up a little, all that visual perfection is distracting. Secondly, watching clips of GWB against a backdrop of rapid fire French was so incongruous as to be completely disconcerting. Our president doesn’t speak French, he doesn’t like the French, there’s nothing French about Crawford Ranch, it was just too confusing.

o Luckily, there was also an English news wrap-up toward the end so that I could quit thinking that I am on my way to a vacation in France. I am not. Just passing through, on my way to Japan (though even the Air France ticket agent was puzzled: “you are flying to Tokyo through Paris?” she asked. People have no imagination.)

o The presentation of news in English was… thought provoking. I watched a story about Russians celebrating Lenin’s birthday today. The announcer said “ the crowd of mainly communists gather to celebrate Lenin’s birthday..” Now how did he know they were mainly communists? I didn’t see anyone being asked. Assumption, assumptions.

Not done yet, mistakes continue all the way through my 2.5 hour lay over in Paris:

- Having pushed the limits of timeliness in Madison, why should it be different now on this side of the ocean? But what could I do: we’re landing in Paris in perfect sunshine and I see ribbons of dazzling yellow fields below. What are they? Why should I wait at the airport in a stuffy lounge if I can be OUT THERE, frolicking and skipping through those fields?

o It doesn’t work that way. Impulses to board random trains at airports in search of golden fields should not be followed. After a few stations, I disembarked at Sevran Beaudottes, a town that seemed enough far away from the airport as to hold out the hope of golden fields and sweet pastoral bliss, but no, it was not to be: the fields were elusive, the town was bland (but for the spring flowers as seen in the early morning light, here on the left), and I cut it a bit too close.

o A side note: at the town’s train station, I saw this rather prominent ad [in case the low grade photo I’m using doesn’t allow you to decipher it, the words say: “Grace a vos dons, vous seul pouvez permettre une action rapide et impartiale en Irak” which, I believe, means ‘thanks to your donations, you alone can allow for quick and impartial action in Iraq.’ The picture shows a military helmet stuffed with food].

Shortly after take off, I sat back, imagining that I was soon to be flying over intriguing and complicated countries: I could very well be over Iran, perhaps Iraq – they seem on the way. History unfolds, while I am safe in the air, privileged, as usual. So humbling.

- oh no, oh no, we are not headed for Iran, not for any of those places. It seems we are currently flying over POLAND!! What? We’re heading north! Of course! A short-cut! So it’s going to be a Siberian junket. Oh, but right now it’s Poland – how about that!

Now let’s get in the right mind-set already: what better way then to watch Lost in Translation – several times. The flight from Paris to Japan is long (12 hours) so that I come to know by heart the last scenes, where they meet up after lunch, meaningfully connected.

JAPAN (Yes, for real)


1. The very first greeting from the Japanese is a loudspeaker announcement as I approach the passport gates. A friendly voice tells me: “You are passing by the health center. If you have a fever of diarrhea please stop here.” Do people readily admit to this? An ethical dilemma right then and there: if something is upsetting your digestive system, do you move quickly in the hope that it doesn’t show, or do you fess up, risking who knows what –isolation? Deportation?

2. The train connections to Sapporo (my final destination) for today are BAD: I will need to take four separate trains, and I wont get there for a full 14 hours. Lord, this week-end of travel will never end. [Note things to be grateful for: the sight of cranes standing in wet rice paddies outside. It was a fleeting moment, but a nice one.]

I notice that my computer battery is fading. At one of the ‘change trains here’ stations, I see a electrical socket by the escalator. What would the traveling public think if I took the opportunity to recharge? Stellar computer moment happens: I stand by a hugely crowded passage-way and type a sentence or two as the computer balances on my suitcase and recharges for a few minutes. All this, while smiling candy salesclerks look on.


I am one to say things like ‘I would never ever take the train under the English Channel. I’d FREAK OUT! I am way too claustrophobic!”
So at what moment (today) did I realize that you cannot take a train from Tokyo airport to Sapporo without going through the world’s longest under-water tunnel?
What are you going to do in these circumstances – not go?? However do I get myself into these situations? If I post this tonight, that means I will have survived.

On the train, people are chomping at box meals and flushing it all down with Sapporo beer. Me, I’m still nursing that cup of tea the train hostess brought me. Notice the sign on the cup: it’s in English and yet it makes little sense. The feeling of disconnectedness is starting to take center stage. As for the fancy service –oh yes, there’s that. And the train toilet seat is heated, and if you press a button, thinking it to mean ‘flush,’ you get a nice big burst of warm water right where you, foreigner that you are, least expect it. You can even preset the strength and temperature.

Tunnel came, tunnel went, I never noticed. Suddenly some kind passenger was tap tap tapping me and telling me the train is about to empty out. Well, I can test my new tunnel capabilities on the return: there’s only one way to leave this place, and that is via that dark, long tunnel.

I am closing off with a note on my final destination, Sapporo, where it is at the moment cold, dark, and completely closed up for the night. Food would be easy to come by if only the hotel telephone operator would quit repeating all that I say to her. We are making no progress. ‘Shrimp curry’ I say. ‘Shrimp curry’ she says, falteringly. ‘Room service?’ I ask. ‘Ahhh, room service’ she answers. And so on. There are always the free nuts that I stuffed mindlessly into my bag during the plane ride. Sound Polish survivalist impulses were guiding me then.
posted by nina, 4/25/2004 04:01:00 PM | link

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Nipponese wanderings 

Tomorrow (Friday) I am setting out for Japan. Therefore, for the next 25 days this weblog will truly live up to its name: posts will indeed appear from the other side of the ocean.

I am traveling in an odd manner: I’m going across the Atlantic. Don’t ask. I sometimes do things for reasons discernible only to me and my dog. Let’s just say for now that it has a little to do with days number 23 and 24. WAIT AND READ!

But this convoluted flying mode does make for a very very long trip, especially given that my first destination is Sapporo. I will use a combination of buses, flights and trains to get there and I wont arrive until late Sunday (meaning late Sunday for me: I will now always be 14 hours ahead of everyone on Central Time, 13 on Eastern). Consequently, this blog will be without posts for the next 2-3 days. After that, I should be able to post regularly. I am traveling with my computer, and I will make good use of business centers when my connections fail.

I promise NOT to make this a travel journal. There will be no educational overtones to the posts – the reader will learn nothing about the Tokugawa rule (1600-1868) or the Taisho era (1912-1926), nor about the hot political topics confronting Japan (unless they become so overwhelmingly important that they threaten to ruin my very existence!). What will it be then? WAIT AND READ!

True, not everyone wants to get into this Japan stuff. I understand that. I myself would not be fascinated if someone were to post daily updates from Antarctica. Too cold down there and the food can’t be good. Oh, maybe I’d check in on the blog anyway, just to see if there was any mention of seals and polar bears, but I wouldn’t rush to it. So, too, blog readers may not want to hear of things Japan-related. To honor their preferences, and to make life easy for the countless confused others who read 827 blogs each day and can’t remember who is doing what and from where, I will precede each post title with the word: JAPAN. If it’s there, I must be in Japan. You don’t like Japan? You’re forewarned: move on.

For the occasional new reader – what can I say, they’ll think me to be Japan-based, or Japan-obsessed, or Japan something. Logging onto a weblog in mid-sentence always has the potential to unsettle and mislead. For instance, I continue to wonder what readers who do not know me must think if they jump into the middle here and start noticing my obsessive Poland-related posts, which, these days, are no longer explained or justified.

One last comment. Why am I IN Japan to begin with? Work: I am collecting information on the evolving legal interventions into families in crisis. Thus I have a number of interviews scheduled in different parts of the country (plus a number of guest lectures thrown in for the fun of it, yes, sure, for the fun of it). What is my itinerary? WAIT AND READ (hint: I will NOT be in Tokyo)! This is my fourth trip to Japan which at once seems like a lot and not anything at all, since I truly do not understand so much about this endlessly fascinating country. Most of the destinations will be repeat-visits, but I guarantee that I will feel lost and confused and out of my element (a version of Bill Murray I guess). I always do.

I hate to sound trite, but I do think that in wanderings of this nature, it is essential to keep an open mind and to start each day afresh.
posted by nina, 4/22/2004 12:42:06 AM | link

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Wild flowers, sent to gladden hearts less mean than mine 

If keeping a blog verges on being slightly narcissistic (I have been told this!), then posting notice of one’s birthday has to be the epitome of (inoffensive, to be sure) self-indulgence. Oh, but how nice it is to hear from everyone!

Still, I worry that it is an unreciprocated event. I think of all the birthdays, name days, celebrations and important dates in people’s life that I have passed without so much as nod of greeting. Makes me cringe with shame.

These flowers, then, are for all those forgotten, unrecognized, or mistreated by me souls (oh so many!)!

[BTW, the answer to the earliest post of the day is, of course, that all those faces belong to April 21st birthdays; this post title is my blasphemous reworking of a poem line by Clare]
posted by nina, 4/21/2004 11:18:49 AM | link

On a more serious note... 

Kristof’s Op-Ed piece today in the Times (here) again reminds us that the current administration, preoccupied as it is with Iraq, refuses to engage in negotiations with N. Korea. Kristof writes:

“Resolving this crisis is in the interests of virtually everybody on the planet, with two exceptions: President Bush and Mr. Kim. They may have nothing else in common, except that their fathers also ran their countries, but they do share an interest in delay.”

It’s as if we only ever have enough mental energy to worry about one issue at a time. But with each day, nuclear arsenals grow, the air quality goes down, the Sudan massacres continue, a child falls sick, a weapon takes a life, many many lives actually, and we continue to sit back passively, refusing to hold our current leaders accountable, as we skim the papers and debate Kerry’s upbringing or oratorical style. There’s something terribly wrong here.
posted by nina, 4/21/2004 09:43:41 AM | link

Tatuś (Polish for dad) 

My father called minutes ago. This blog never hears about there still being a father which, I suppose, is because I rarely hear about there being a father either. He lives in Poland and he makes no use of computers, little use of writing implements and certainly even less use of the phone (international phone rates from Poland are, I believe, the highest in the world: when last I stayed in a hotel in Krakow and called Madison for about ten minutes, I was amazed to see at checkout time that the phone call cost me more than the room for the night).

It’s easy to lump my father into the UN fold and refer to him as that UN guy, since he played such an important part in the life of the organization (from its inception almost 60 years ago up until he retired at the end of the 1970s). But has the organization really shaped him substantially as well? I didn’t see that it had. Up until this year I had regarded him as being the quintessential Pole – shaped, more than anything, by the war years and the political transformation that ensued.

But during my last visit to Poland, I talked about this with him – about his Polishness, about his feeling of belonging there (when he finished his tour of duty at the UN he was asked if he would like to stay in the US: no thank you, was his answer). It seems, however, that my images haven’t been that accurate all these years. He told me he prides himself in having little allegiance to feelings of nationalism of any sort. Poles typically swell with pride when they speak of their deeply wounded country, torn apart by neighboring states over the centuries. He, on the other hand, said to me “I’ve always actually wanted to be born to a Nordic father and an Italian mother – I’d have both the height and the good looks on my side!” He is a pretty short guy (not helped by the fact that my mother is tall and for a long time wore high heels. Maybe that’s why they eventually separated!).

Anyway, he called today and he even remembered to inquire about other members of the family, though I’m not sure my answers registered much. I’m going to fault the bad phone connection for that. Today, I just prefer to have this image of him--sitting by the phone, dialing, wondering whether I’d be home, then singing a song befitting the day.
posted by nina, 4/21/2004 08:12:04 AM | link

April 21 

When I was born (in Warsaw, Poland, April 21, 1953), my mother displayed her rebellious streak by refusing to name me according to the conventions of the day: she did not want to be constrained to the use of names that were those of known saints. Her decision was so out of conformity with the norms of the time and place that it took a while for the governing authorities to approve her choice. But eventually she got her way and so I came to have a name that was not on the calendar of Saints. Thus, in addition to belonging to the .000001 % of non-Catholics in Poland at the time (or so the percentages seemed to play out for me), I also had a name that had no “Name Day” celebration associated with it.

Perhaps this is of no consequence to those who read this here, in the States, but for me this was deeply disturbing (at least from a kid’s point of view) as in Poland Name Day celebrations were far more consequential than birthdays. You were a star in school on your Name Day. You brought treats for the class. People fussed. Your house was filled with drop-in visitors all day long.

April 21 has thus had to serve double duty, or, more often, no duty at all, since celebrations of this sort were of no great consequence in my childhood household, particularly once one passed the age of 10. Still, for me, this day isn’t only about a birthday. Really, I just like this time of the year. I also like the symbolism of days that stand for progress, movement forward, a leap into the future with a glance and a smile at the past.
posted by nina, 4/21/2004 01:13:08 AM | link

April idling 

What do these people have in common?

Charlotte Bronte

Catherine the Great

Queen Elizabeth II

John Muir

N Dorota Lewandowska C

[It has been suggested that Hitler and Lenin be added to the list, but that would be just wrong.]

[Answer to follow later today]
posted by nina, 4/21/2004 12:00:18 AM | link

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Local talent 

In the late afternoon I went over to visit an old haunt –l’Etoile restaurant, Madison’s flagship culinary powerhouse. Odessa Piper, winner of the James Beard Award for best Chef of the Midwest back in 2002, was presiding over the staff meal and I thought I’d join up and listen in on the latest buzz. It seemed timely since this weekend marks the seasonal beginning of the Saturday Farmer’s Market on the Square. L’Etoile and the Market are so interlinked that I do believe if one would vanish, the other would soon follow.

The restaurant world is like no other (and yes, I know, you can say this about any subgroup of intensely focused, crazily obsessive people). In a place like L’Etoile, cooking on, say, a Saturday evening becomes a total adrenaline run: one sweats, curses and moves so quickly, in such tight spaces, with complete body awareness of all the other players, that it becomes more like a test of agility than food preparation. And everything, everything has to be timed to the second, so that it is ready for pick up, at exactly the right moment, not a minute too soon or too late, coordinated with all other dishes that you work on for a given table.

The turnover among cooks is extremely high. The l’Etoile cooking folks from two years ago are now mostly scattered all over the globe – the pastry chef is in Chile, the fish cook is in Japan, the appetizer guy’s in California. But the waiters are all the same, down to the last one, and so are the Latin American dish washers, with some new cousins thrown in.

The staff meal was good – but for the food! Typically, one chef takes on the chore of cooking for the bunch of them (using scraps and ingredients that were purchased in excess of what was needed). Not infrequently, the chef will humor the desire to get away from high-end cooking. So, for example, today we could enjoy potato salad with bacon (ahhh, but the ingredients are always the best that the local small farms have to offer, so that it was NUESKE’s bacon!) and something that looked like sloppy joes. It’s not unusual to see the chefs douse any or all of the meat dishes with fiery Mexican sauces that someone will have picked up in Milwaukee. Left-over meat or fish are a staple of staff meals because the restaurant life of these products is extremely brief and so if customers don’t order in a predictable pattern, the ingredients are retired for the staff to enjoy.

I like this world of intense people with lives that appear oftentimes on hold. I left just as the first L’Etoile diner was making her way to the table. The meal that will be served to her within the hour of her arrival will be pricey. It will be admired maybe, criticized perhaps, but it most certainly will be a product of a day-long effort to make it appear just so. It's really quite amazing: so many people conspiring to perfect something on her plate. I wonder if she’ll even give it a second’s thought.
posted by nina, 4/20/2004 08:25:16 PM | link

Rejoice, it’s April! 

It’s not important. It’s fairly trivial actually. Still, I can’t let it slide. The has the following caption (which then leads to a story about seasonal weather disturbances) under a photo of a man braving the chill of an April rain:

Cruelest Month? Here's Why:
Romanticized for its showers, April often sees a brief chill before the full vernal warming actually kicks in

Can we please refrain from needless name-calling? Cruel April? I disagree. April is the singularly most refreshing, rejuvenating, reenergizing month on the calendar. People get EXCITED when April finally arrives.

April – in Polish it is Kwiecien, a derivative of “kwitnie,” which translates into “blooming.” How cruel is that?

As for the brief cold pause that the NYT article speaks of, why hold it against April? I’ve seen June come down with wickedly cold days and October plod along with sweltering heat waves. Aren’t all months subject to fluctuations and irregularities? Leave April alone!

[n.b. in several weeks I'm hoping to take a quick peak at the blooms in the garden pictured on the left. This is how it looks at the moment, IN APRIL.]
posted by nina, 4/20/2004 01:09:16 PM | link

Gutting an aging interior  

Today’s story about the underbelly of the United Nations headquarters (here) made me feel about as ancient as the building itself (and I am! I am! –give or take a year). The NY Times article describes a building that was meant to last 30 years without an overhaul and it is now going on 51+. What are you likely to find if you poke your nose behind the vast, awe-inspiring conference rooms? Consider this from the Times:

East River water is pumped into the building as a coolant, and Mr. Raymond (a foreman who has worked at the UN for 25 years) said workers had collected eels, blue claw crabs and bluefish from the basement filters to take home to cook. …

[P]eriodic surveys have found the building, with its asbestos, lead paint and outmoded plumbing and electrical systems, to be alarmingly behind the times. …

In the rooms directly above the high voltage chamber, computers have been known to go into visual convulsions, and Vivian van de Perre, a management officer, said, "We sometimes joke with each other that the only women we'll allow to sit there are the ones who've already had their children."

[photo to the right, btw, depicts the UN "knotted gun" monument]

There is, finally, a plan (subject to a loan approval from the US) to renovate the “patched-together, aging interior of the landmark Modernist marble and glass tower.” This pleases me no end. 50+ structures should occasionally be updated, polished and improved. It sends a message of hope to 50+ year old structures. An overhaul is possible: past sins of omission and commission erased, insides overhauled, a fresh and unblemished outlook on life achieved. [Hey, are we still talking about the building? Maybe yes, maybe no.]
posted by nina, 4/20/2004 08:07:41 AM | link

Monday, April 19, 2004

Questions, comments 

This day brought a flurry of (e)mail activity, some of which is worth noting.

First, I was amused with an email from a friend and reader from southern climes. She writes (clearly out-of-her-mind-jealous): “(Your blog) made me miss spring as it is perpetually spring or summer here; we never get the joy of a glorious spring day in the garden and mine will undoubtedly be a mess by the time I return (north) at the end of May.” Yeah!!! I am plenty sympathetic, even though in February SHE was out picking shells on a beach while I was scraping ice off of the sidewalk.

Then, my most distant reader and friend from Asia writes: “I think that once you get over the Big 5 things are supposed to be getting easier, slower and more peaceful.” He is referring to my turning 51 sometime very soon. Peaceful? Slower?? Easier??? He must be kidding. Richer maybe. Nothing more, nothing less.
posted by nina, 4/19/2004 09:12:20 PM | link

So is it Slovakia or Slovenia? 

There will be readers who will think this is a question worthy of a third grader. Yes, there will be one or two such readers. The rest of the world is confused. Separate countries? Do we know which is which?

An article in the IHT (here) reports the following:
Last December at a news conference in Rome, Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, introduced Anton Rop, the prime minister of Slovenia, which is directly above Italy's northeastern border. "I'm very happy to be here today with the prime minister of Slovakia," Rop recalled him saying, adding politely in a recent interview, "It was very strange..."

In 1999, when the then Texas governor, George W. Bush, was on the presidential campaign trail he puzzled a Slovak reporter by saying that "the only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned firsthand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas. I had a great meeting with him. It's an exciting country."

In fact, Bush had not met the foreign minister of Slovakia, but the then prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Drnovsek.

The stories of wrong national anthems being played at state events and wrongly delivered mail are legion.
Erwan Fouéré, the head of the European Commission's delegation to Slovenia, recalls getting a memo recently intended for the commission's office in Slovakia. A Slovene ambassador in a European capital, who asked not to be identified. says his staff meets someone from the local Slovak embassy at least once a month to exchange wrongly-addressed mail.

Why the mix up? If one remembers that there once was a Czechoslovakia, then it’s easy, isn’t it? The word gets broken down into the two countries that were born of it. Slovenia thus is simply the “other one.” [The flags, of course, are also confusing. Note Slovakia is on the left here, and 'the other one" is on the right.]

The real challenge, I think, is to distinguish between something that is Slavic rather than being a Slovak or Slovene. For instance, being Polish makes one Slavic. So does being Belorussian, Bulgarian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, Russian, and Ukrainian. Thus, if you are from Slovenia, you are Slavic, but not a Slovak.

And as we’re brandishing national identities here, I may as well ask – if I am Polish (I have not formally relinquished my Polish citizenship, though I have become an American a decade or two back), does that mean, in addition to being Polish and Slavic and American, that I will be as of May 1st, also EU-nian? Does that make me a walking multinational treaty of sorts?
posted by nina, 4/19/2004 01:38:23 PM | link

Correction: no droppings 

In a previous post I claimed to have my grass fertilized with turkey droppings. Apparently this year my Green Earth guys have gone vegetarian. Their letter tells me that they have just sprinkled my grass with organic corn gluten meal. Like me, I am sure you’ll want more information on this yummy new product. Green Earth tells me to take my curiosity to their website at . My own report is that the bunnies appear pleased with the change to corn. I’m watching a monster rabbit outside at this very moment –he can hardly move, he is that obese. (Maybe it’s a pregnant ‘she’? Oh joy, I am supporting an extended rabbit family with a steady diet of tender flower buds and corn meal.)
posted by nina, 4/19/2004 09:07:22 AM | link

Expect to see more pickled cantaloupe  

Today’s WashPost (here) describes the migration of Amish families from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. In an effort to escape the urban sprawl of the eastern states, families are opting to buy land in the pastoral farming communities of Wisconsin. According to the article, Wisconsin now ranks fourth in Amish population (with about 12,000), after Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Most Wisconsinites welcome the new ‘immigrants.’ The Amish grow crops and make products that are well received on the Wisconsin markets: the article mentions good sales of goat cheese, rhubarb pie, furniture, leather harnesses, and a new one for Midwesterners – pickled cantaloupe ("people here hadn't heard of pickled cantaloupe, so we tried selling it and they really like it," commented a woman from an Amish household).

Is the migration always a complete success? Not everyone is pleased with the Amish swell here. Town meetings have helped build tolerance among those who have reacted less than graciously to the presence of the Amish. One Wisconsinite commented bluntly that “the Amish ‘are the worst thing that have ever happened to this area.’ [The long-time Wisconsin resident] owns a farm-implements store that has been in his family for three generations. Because the Amish do not buy mechanized farm equipment, he said, his business is struggling.” Others complain that the horse-drawn buggies are unsafe and that horse droppings ruin the country roads. Indeed, one Elroy resident got so angry when a buggy caused his car to go into a ditch that he went on a violent rampage against a local Amish family.

Overall though, the Amish appear to like the move to the north. The title of the news story is “For the Amish, the Grass is Greener in Wisconsin.” True, the article was written in April when it appears a lot greener to many of us. Against the chill of a Wisconsin January night (the Amish typically do not use electricity), these newcomers may have been longing for their more southern spaces.

[photo: Green Co., WI]
posted by nina, 4/19/2004 08:21:26 AM | link

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Sociological perspectives 

A reader wrote to tell me he had recently received a complementary book in the mail (he is a sociologist and the book appears to fit into that discipline’s boundaries). The book is titled “If You Tame Me” and from what I can tell, it has something to do with developing a conceptual and theoretical framework for looking at “human-animal intersubjectivity,” whatever that means (who said sociology is obvious?). If you are concerned that this perhaps hasn't the worth of a more conventional text, do note that it has been favorably reviewed by Jeffrey Masson, author of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey into the Feline Heart."

But there's more: in the envelope, along with the book, a baggie was included with a little promo card announcing the release of the book. Along with it, there were 3 animal chewies and a little green mouse with pink ears. I want to know what's behind this. The publisher writes that “’If You Tame Me’ makes a persuasive case for the existence of a sense of self in companion animals and calls upon us to reconsider our rights and obligations regarding the non-human creatures in our lives.”

Are we to chew the toys ourselves, perhaps to demonstrate ‘the animal within’ (meaning our shared traits with other species)? Or should we take on the task of bringing a greater number of animals into our fold? I presume the little toy mouse is for a cat? Aren’t we, therefore, sacrificing one animal-kind (the mouse) for another (the evil predator cat)?

The other (literally) mystifying thing is the author’s previous publication. It appears to have no relation to this most recent topic. Or does it? She is only an assistant professor of sociology but she already has an earlier book in print. That previous one has the title of “Codependent Forevermore: The Invention of Self in a Twelve Step Group.” It is at times like this that I have a lingering regret that I am no longer part of the sociological enterprise. The things I could be reading right now! Instead, I am stuck with deciphering the contextual antecedents to the legal best interest standard in custody determination. Bummer.
posted by nina, 4/18/2004 11:49:45 PM | link


Sometimes there is a total disconnect between what you want to accomplish in a day, or in an email, or in a post (your intent) and what ultimately appears to happen (your inept end-product). Perhaps on those days it’s best to make your way to that part of Owen Woods where charred fallen logs are still smoking after a burning of deadwood. Then, on returning, you can play an endless number of Chopin’s Nocturnes (try Nocturne No.2 or No.1 for a real Polish-style melancholy spin into the land of moroseness). And then? I’m still working on the “then.”

posted by nina, 4/18/2004 04:07:21 PM | link

Spring Update 

Last night I pulled weeds, all 847 of them, until it was so dark that I couldn’t tell a weed from an honest plant.

The perennial beds are so full of promise at this stage! I can’t see the planting mistakes yet, everything looks fresh, dense, alive.

I especially like my clumps of Aquilegia out front and my pink Gaura plants in the back. Each comes with a delicate stem, but it is misleading: the blooms will be sturdy and strong and subtly beautiful. And when the Aquilegia fades in late spring, the evening primrose will take over – that magical flower that has spread to form a mat of yellow faces. All are well established by now, just biding the time until the weather decides to settle down into a more stable pattern of warm days and nights.
posted by nina, 4/18/2004 09:50:56 AM | link

A letter from my mother 

I’ve blogged about my mom on numerous occasions, particularly around the time of the primaries. Though she is 80 years old, I don’t think most would regard her as feeble or soft-spoken.

With each letter she sends newspaper clippings and these reflect her unique Berkeley-style take on the political scene. I haven’t read all the clippings yet. Each time the size of the envelope grows—she’s now using yellow manila to pack it all in. But I did read the letter.

One has to know this about my mother: she has a not insignificant interest in home decorating. Though she lives in one tiny room in a very modest retirement home in Berkeley, there was a period in her life when she moved in and out of diplomatic circles (my father worked for the UN, actually at the time that Bush Sr. was the US Ambassador) and she studied carefully that which she herself could never have: the glamorous life of privilege (the UN itself was an odd assortment of wealth and modest means, depending on which country you came from).

This time she writes:

“Incidentally, did you see the picture in last week’s Newsweek of Bush with the Saudi prince inside the Crawford ranch?? What an ugly, ugly house with those ugly dining room chairs, ugly tall windows, ugly bookshelves and ugly sofa chairs. Ugly, ugly, ugly.”

You heard it here. Listen, the woman knows classic high-end décor, so I’m taking her comment seriously. The operative word here is ‘ugly.’
posted by nina, 4/18/2004 07:58:17 AM | link

Perhaps I am over-sensitive… 

In the NYT Sunday Travel Section there is an article about Warsaw (here). I was expecting it, really, what with May 1st being just days away (Poland, along with 9 other countries, will be joining the EU then).

I know the author of the article is the NYT Bureau Chief in nearby Prague and so he is knowledgeable about Central European matters. Still, there were many points in the piece that I felt were skewed and misleading.

The opening paragraph is just fine. I read:

"Poland is the new player in the New Europe, the biggest by far of the 10 countries set to join the European Union in May. Its lure is not the grand or the quaint; it was leveled with systematic cruelty by the Nazis in World War II, and you can still find houses where holes from bullets and shells have not been repaired. No country suffered more in the last century. Rather, Poland, and particularly Warsaw, is a place where you can almost see history being overcome."

But then, we come to observations that are a touch more troubling. Briefly, the article raises the following points:

* It concludes that Poles are skeptical about joining the EU, not foreseeing any immediate benefits for themselves.
[response: although Poles will acknowledge that an immediate economic miracle is not in the cards, virtually every single Pole I have raised this with has said that they are hopeful because of the emergence of a European community, with Poland in its midst.]

* There’s the following sentence to worry about as well. The Times writes: “Luckily for visitors, that moment comes in spring, when Poland shakes off its long winter and the flowers of its big downtown parks eliminate all shades of drear.”
[question: Drear? What drear? Does the author imply Warsaw is dreary at times when it isn’t covered over with flowers? I'm not liking this guy...]

* Then, there is also the Chopin bit. From the Times: “When the weather finally warms, Poles pay weekly tribute to Chopin - revered like no other Pole, with the possible exception of Pope John Paul II - in free Sunday concerts at Lazienki Park off Aleje Ujazdowskie. Poland is rarely overrun by tourists, so the concerts attract a fair share of ordinary folk”
[comment: Poland is rarely overrun by tourists? Well, okay, though maybe the Prague Bureau chief hasn’t been in Warsaw during its hot days of summer when tourists are EVERYWHERE, especially in Warsaw and Krakow. And what’s this last line about ‘ordinary folk?’ Who is the referent here? Ordinary, plain, colorless, fade-in-the-crowd type people? And am I an ordinary folk?]

* Comment on the Polish cuisine: I have never eaten wild-boar knuckles in my life. I do NOT consider it a well-known or beloved traditional Polish dish.

* On the subject of milkbars, the Times writes: “For a quick and cheap meal, it is worth a visit to one of Warsaw's vanishing Communist traditions, the milk bar. Among Poles, milk bars are regarded with nostalgia, disgust or both. They are places where students and workers could fill up on breakfast with a glass of milk, pancakes, pirogi and soups inexpensively, often in gloomy surroundings.”
[comment: how many things are wrong with that paragraph? Are milk bars a Communist tradition? Are they regarded with disgust, ever? They are the former fast food emporia of sorts. Most Poles did like them quite a bit and I don’t remember anyone ever referring to them as gloomy. They may not have had the pizazz of an American food court, but they were nonetheless highly popular.]

It’s late. I’m sure I’ll see the good sides to this article come morning. For now the exuberance is lost on me. I read a description of a city that is dreary, with uninteresting food and ordinary folk lappin’ it up, in gloomy surroundings. Makes you want to pack your bags and go to Prague.
posted by nina, 4/18/2004 03:27:41 AM | link

Saturday, April 17, 2004


If you were a birch tree today (IF YOU WERE A BIRCH TREE???), you might want someone to write and revel in your good looks. I am providing that service. A grove of young birches could never look more fetching than in the late morning light of an April day. Not surprisingly, in this summer-like weather, the birches I saw today were absolutely stunning.
posted by nina, 4/17/2004 04:06:29 PM | link


Last night two very wonderful people came to dinner. As is my custom, I identify no one outside the blogger community by name here and so they shall remain anonymous. Call them A & Z if you want.

In my mind, they were the perfect guests. I couldn’t quite put my finger on any one reason and so I floated a list in my head of what was especially congenial about the evening. I came up with the following:

1. They brought flowers. The custom of flower-giving is something that hasn’t quite caught on here. I don’t know why. Flowers are a lasting (at least for several days) source of pleasure. They move the evening beyond the meal itself. They are uplifting. They are cheerful, colorful, they speak of spring and summer days, and you can never have too many in the house.

2. They accepted a second helping graciously. We are talking about thin, food-conscious people here who probably would eat half the amount were they home. But they were thoughtful of my preparations and they extended themselves in this way for my benefit.

3. They noticed my salt shaker. I love my salt shaker – it is a work of art. Most people never pay much attention to it because it holds the substance of evil – salt – an anathema to the dieting public. (I’m not thinking of those with medical necessity on their side; I am thinking of the common joe or jane out there.) But salt, in small doses, is a flavor enhancer. Eliminate canned, processed foods and you will eliminate the need to monitor the salt you sprinkle on your main dish or put into the cake (to enhance the intensity of chocolate, you need salt). But even when a diner picks up the offending container, the vessel itself goes unnoticed. A shame.

4. They tried everything that was offered. Cooking these days for others is a minefield of tastes, diets, statements, inclinations. People are off the deep end with their preferences. It makes me think back to winter months in Poland some thirty years back when one was SO GRATEFUL for any food variety at all. I did not understand the concept of food preferences until I moved here.

5. They politely asked for the site of this blog. I need say no more.
posted by nina, 4/17/2004 09:07:03 AM | link


Depending on whom you ask, cyclists around town are either a supreme menace, or are menaced by the world of cars. Cross, say, University Avenue on a green pedestrian light, and inevitably you will be grazed by the manic rider who is determined to weave around every obstacle in sight, including you, at breakneck speed. Conversely, ride a bike on one of the streets where there aren’t bike lanes and you will understand what it means to have a brush with death as cars mistakenly calculate that they CAN pass you while sharing the same lane.

Perhaps we have reached a time where bikers, walkers and motorists simply cannot coexist. It’s a tense world out there: gentility is gone, the pressure to get where you need to be mounts, and there you are, glaring at the obstacle that is impeding your progress and making life difficult.

I am assuming that was the mood of the moment in England, where a cyclist had experienced one too many road incidents where he was done in by a motorist. This time a car had passed him in total oblivion to the road issues they both faced: puddles, in the very real British definition of puddles: big oceans of water on the road. The cyclist got drenched as the car whizzed by.

Fury took hold and planted the ugly seed of revenge. Over the next ten days, the cyclist slashed the tires of some 2000 cars.

The NYTimes notes today that he got a hefty jail term for his act of violence. Deservedly so. Still, one can sympathize just a bit. Cars are merciless to cyclists. But then, cyclists are merciless to pedestrians. I have to admit that when a cyclist darts in front of me when I cross a street, I have been known to ‘tap’ his (it’s almost always a guy) tail end with my bag, just as a reminder that my pedestrian rights have been egregiously violated. A form of revenge, I suppose. At least I leave the tires alone at the bike racks.

[to interject a note of lightness into the tense story, I have included a Guinness Book of Records photo of a man cycling backwards while playing the violin]
posted by nina, 4/17/2004 08:00:31 AM | link

Spring Update 

(it’s not all about plants you know)

If you were to look outside right now, directly into the morning sun, you would see the rays working their way through branches glittering with the wetness of last night’s rain. It is such a beautiful sight that it deserves a post of its own.

[photo credit:]
posted by nina, 4/17/2004 07:27:17 AM | link

Friday, April 16, 2004

My grandfather was a better person than I am 

As a young kid, I used to sit outdoors next to my grandfather quite often. He and I shared a love of sun, plants, fresh air, spring. A favorite activity for me (these were not very stress-filled days) was to sit by his side, chin in cupped hands, and watch bugs walk across his stomach or his arms, on the way to their next destination. I’d always ask – “don’t you want to chase them off?” and he’d answer “what for? They like this path.”

Today was a perfect day for me to take my notes outside (I’m trying to imagine what I am going to say during guest lectures I have to give later this month). Sitting in my yard, thinking of my plants, of the sun, of the fresh air and of spring makes me drift back to my grandfather. He and I shared a birthday, except his was in a different century. He would have been 118 this week.

Out of deference to him, I tried the ‘let bugs move across my stomach and arms’ thing. It was like the oldest form of torture. One pernicious wasp-like creature actually appeared to raise its fangs, poised for an attack. I flicked it off. Sorry, dziadku*, I tried.

*[Polish, directive tense (in the Polish language, nouns get conjugated as well), for grandfather]
posted by nina, 4/16/2004 01:38:20 PM | link

Wisconsin images 

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, a Wisconsin patrolman took the first prize in the annual doughnut-eating contest for police officers (story here).

The World Cop Donut Eating Championship attracted some 40 contestants from the US and Canada.

I thought that the winning result was unspectacular. The prediction had been 7 or 8 doughnuts in 3 minutes. Our Wisconsin man ran away with first prize at 10 doughnuts. That seems entirely doable to me. Unless they were powdered sugar, with no accompanying beverage to push things down faster. That would be a challenge.
posted by nina, 4/16/2004 08:39:23 AM | link

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Politics, politics and more politics: patriotism is all about how you speak 

It was disheartening to read the New Yorker story (here) on Kerry and his use of the French language when among French diplomats or journalists. The Washington Bureau Chief for France 2 has remarked that in recent months Kerry has refused to banter on record with the French press corps in their native language. It appears that Kerry’s relatives in France, his attendance at a Swiss boarding school, and his comfort level with foreign journalists in general have earned him such labels as “Monsieur Kerry” and “Jean Cheri” and “Jean Francois Kerry.” Capitalizing on the whiff of negative air directed at the Democratic campaign, the Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans (perhaps looking after his own le job), told reporters that Kerry even looks French. Mais non!

The French press have had a tough go of it in Washington this year, the article tells us, what with snide references to freedom fries and the Axis of Weasel hanging in the air. But Kerry’s abrupt departure from his previous open-door policy toward foreign journalists has the press corps ‘perplexed.’ The following comment is cited in the New Yorker: “For us (this from the French journalists), to speak any other language and have an open view of the world, for a President, should be a plus.” It appears that this view is not shared by the rest of this nation.

Patriotism has come to have an interesting, singularly American meaning: it appears to require a repudiation of anything not born and bred on American soil. And it requires speaking like an American.

The concept of ‘patriotism’ makes another appearance in the New Yorker: in a letter to the magazine, a reader writes in response to a review of Woody Guthrie’s biography which had suggested that the songwriter was less than patriotic. The reader states: “[M]ore troubling…especially in today’s political climate, is the implication that one becomes patriotic by supporting one’s government. Wasn’t Guthrie being patriotic when he stood up for poor people during the Depression or when he fought for the labor movement? Was he being unpatriotic when he wrote “Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land is Your Land?”"

I suppose if Guthrie had also worn a French beret and occasionally thrown around a bonjour, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. Can you blame him for affecting an American drawl?
posted by nina, 4/15/2004 03:46:57 PM | link

How to irritate a government official 

Say you’ve just written a mystery-thriller novel. All characters appear to be fictionalized versions of people out there. You’ve inserted the standard language about everyone not really being anyone and about the coincidental likenesses that may have emerged (which is, of course, foolish because your imagination most likely made use of traits scalped straight from your black book of familiar persons), and you are hoping for big sales. Your book even has political undercurrents: it is about a person who seeks revenge after being driven by the government to a state of complete desperation. This main protagonist winds up shooting the Chancellor (I forgot to mention, the book takes place in Germany).

Wouldn’t it be maddening if you were that author and the real Chancellor (Gerhard Schröder) brought a successful injunction to put a stop to the sale of the book, because on the cover there is an illustration that sort of kind of but not really looks like him? The NYTimes writes about this (here), noting that the judge sided with the Chancellor (oh what a surprise) and banned publication until the picture is removed from the cover. Is someone over-sensitive, or could one really make the credible argument that such a likeness (if it is a likeness) might incite someone to acts of great violence?
posted by nina, 4/15/2004 11:42:23 AM | link

A word of thanks to the greats 

There are four weblogs out there that keep me going each day. There are others, too, but these four are what I start the weblog day with and I am never disappointed. They could not be more different from each other and it is this perhaps that gives me such joy in reading – the diversity of perspectives and the singular personalities that come through (I do happen to know all four authors reasonably well and that is definitely an asset).

I’ve picked one completely non-representative post from each to cite to here. The authors may squirm at my selections, but hey, it is my choice!

I’ll start, alphabetically, with Ann’s. Ann doesn’t always accompany her text with photos, but on the rare occasion that we do get pictures, there’ll often be a gem of a caption. Consider the post here – and be sure to scroll down to the "trees squirming." Look around at her other posts to get a taste of her commentary on art, politics and the American Idol.

Jeremy, yes, well, then there’s Jeremy. In truth, his was the first blog I ever read and so if there is any culprit out there responsible for the blogathon that was born this year, I suppose he must bear the blame. Just today he posted a paragraph about a concert he attended. Read about it here. It is poignantly hilarious. Scroll down further (note photo depicting his sentiments about teaching this semester) and you’ll become a JFW addict.

Mary came onto the blog scene later than the others. Though legally inclined, she brings to her blog her past life as a journalist. Consider her post today on cranberries (here). It makes me so very proud that her blog grew out of our discussions on blogging early in the semester. (You mean I had a wee tiny role in this? Wow!)

Tonya can be irreverent in her blog. I can’t resist linking to her post from today (here) because it shows off her pride in having 'Communist friends' – and perhaps only she would appreciate the joy I get from being singled out as a friend in this way!

Again, there are so many other bloggers who can make my day on any particular morning. But these four – they are always part of my wake-up. This, then, is a quick (and late! oh my is it late!) note of thanks. Your efforts are SO appreciated.
posted by nina, 4/15/2004 02:10:25 AM | link

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Are you STILL in school? 

That is the question I wanted to ask a student who came by to talk about his work plans for the summer. My memory may be off a bit, but I swear that he was first in a class of mine some five or six years back. His visit reminded me of the cartoon below -- a relic from days when it seemed like I would NEVER be done with the proceess of collecting degrees (or not collecting them, as the case may be, unless they have now officially designated an 'ABD' as a recognized academic degree). And isn't there a law that says you have to be out of law school within six years (in Wisconsin) OR ELSE??

posted by nina, 4/14/2004 05:07:48 PM | link

Early run in with the law 

I was taking a morning sprint through Owen Woods when I came across a police officer and a squad car. Being rather in a fine mood and not wanting to face a dose of blood and gore on this gorgeous day, I went up to him and asked, in my most level (rather than excitement seeking) voice: “Is everything alright, officer?” I mean, I sounded like a role in a movie. I swear he blushed. Or maybe he was just flushed. He said: “I couldn’t help it! I just had to get out of that squad car and take a stroll on this fine day! The weather got to me! So, let’s just say I inspected the trails. They’re safe, you can go right ahead.”

I don’t blame him. I myself should have been preparing notes for lectures that I have to give at the end of the month. Instead, I was counting chikadees in Owen Woods (I don’t know anything about birds; they looked like they should have been chikadees). This day is THAT beautiful.
posted by nina, 4/14/2004 11:24:00 AM | link

A momentary retreat into politics: on the error-proof GWB 

Watching the GWB press conference today, I noted (as I hope the rest of America noted) that his greatest source of difficulty was with the four differently worded but basically same questions having to do with his mistakes of the past. It was fascinating to watch how uncomfortable he was, to the point of stumbling and ultimately flubbing the direct appeal to give just ONE EXAMPLE of a mistake, a misstep, an error of judgment. He couldn’t do it: he visibly squirmed and in the last go-around, admitted to one thing: that he wasn’t adept at thinking of mistakes extemporaneously.

[BTW, I think the reporter from NPR, the guy with the very last query – QUESTION: But I guess I just wonder if you feel that you have failed in any way. You don't have many of these press conferences where you engage in this kind of exchange. Have you failed in any way to really make the case to the American public?—can just assume that his goose is cooked in the White House; GWB had taken the gamble, feeling perhaps that it’s a do or die situation, and pointed to NPR for that last Q. Mistake. NPR will have lived up to the GOP image of it as a commie-liberal waste-pile –it hammered in the point that GWB regards himself as error-proof. I’m sure even at this moment GWB is scribbling memos that will lead to further cuts in federal funding for All Things Considered.]

And how do you respond to the question of “What were your mistakes, your errors, your moments of poor judgment?” knowing that Democrats are sitting at the edge of their collective chair, pencils poised, tomorrow’s TV ads waiting to be written?

Bush’s speech writers failed him. Any person applying for a job would know that the interviewer may ask for a list of weaknesses, or reflections on things you wish you had done differently. You learn to enumerate faults and errors in ways that make you look strong. To say “shucks, I really can’t imagine what they could be” is an invitation for someone to say “oh yeah? Let me help you come up with a list for future reference.”
posted by nina, 4/14/2004 01:30:31 AM | link

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Is it really the end of the semester? 

(Where inconsequentiality and lightness return to the blog)
Today marked the beginning of the end: I gave out course evaluations in my big Family Law class SO NOW I DON’T HAVE TO BE A GOOD TEACHER ANYMORE (and of course proceeded to have immediately after one of my best classes ever – can we redo the forms?)!

Just a few minutes ago, a student came in to talk about her paper and she told me how thrilled she was that the academic year is nearly over. She was animated and excited about her future work, but completely deflated when she spoke of the next few weeks.

I don’t think there’s a person teaching who doesn’t relish the end of a semester to a degree. But I have to say that to me, there are ulterior sad elements as well. By now, I have a decent sense of the students – I know their style of speaking in class, the slant of their comments, their quirky traits. But unlike in grad school where you see the same faces for many years, in law school you only get to work with them once, at most twice and then they’re gone. And the class dynamic, that irresistible and energizing force of the collectivity – that ends with the end of the semester.

So, at the risk of sounding extremely odd and off-kilter, I do have to admit that part of me is sorry to have just a few more class meetings left –especially now that the evaluations are done and I am free to be AWFUL.
posted by nina, 4/13/2004 01:43:51 PM | link

"When you digest your lunch is that you?" 

This question is posed by Dr. Crick, who, at 87, is still attempting to determine what creates conscious awareness.
Is there a dividing line that separates mind (consciousness) from matter (the millions of neurons operating in the brain and the nervous system)? The NYT states: “While some philosophers claim that consciousness is a phenomenon outside the purview of material science, Dr. Crick dismisses such arguments with the imperious confidence that is part of his legend.”

If you are as fascinated by the debate over the validity of a neurobiological approach to understanding consciousness, you’ll have read, no doubt, today’s NYT Science article on this subject (here). If you’re not, well YOU SHOULD BE! Today, the weblog is seeking to educate and expand the horizons of the fellowship of blog readers. From Slovakia (below) to the brain: let it not be said that I write about fat cats (below) and Siberian irises (below) alone! [Have I suddenly strayed from my pledge to maintain an incredible lightness of blogging? Nothing could be further from the truth; the post titles alone should reassure the worried reader who does NOT wish to be educated, but simply wants to kill time in between more valuable pursuits, such as reading other, more worthy blogs.]

Dr. Crick is ruthlessly opposed to the idea of a consciousness that “lives” outside the body. In the Times article we read: “In a 1979 editorial in Scientific American, he argued that the time had come for science to take on the previously forbidden subject of consciousness. In his 1994 book "The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul," he went further. "You," he wrote, "your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."”

Does Dr. Crick’s view diverge from mainstream science? The Times states: “While many scientists assume that consciousness is a global property of the brain — "a gestalt phenomenon" — Dr. Koch and Dr. Crick say they believe that only a few neurons are responsible at any given moment. Of the 50 billion or so neurons in the brain, Dr. Crick says that perhaps only tens of thousands, or even a few thousand, give rise to the feeling of conscious awareness. "We believe it is essentially a local phenomenon," he said. That position is certainly contentious. "The idea that there is a special population of neurons that mediate awareness is a minority view," Dr. Kanwisher noted.”

Moreover, Dr. Crick’s work raises questions about when exactly we can speak sensibly of consciousness: “[H]e asks, "How do we know that a newborn baby is conscious?" Perhaps consciousness is something that doesn't begin at birth, he said, but gradually emerges.” Dr. Crick insists that in the next several hundred years the idea of an independent soul will have been discarded with the science of the Dark Ages.

Be proud that you've read this far! This blog will stand out one day as being at the vanguard of modern science -- it will be admired for putting forth revolutionary ideas in the same way that bloggers 500 years ago, had they the time and means to do so, may have been tempted to link to the Copernicus website (we all know that he was Polish, right?), to share with other bloggers all that we now take for granted.
posted by nina, 4/13/2004 10:53:56 AM | link

Spring Update 

So long as we are on that side of the Atlantic (see post below about Slovakia), I thought I’d sneak in a post about the Siberian Iris – a favorite plant that is coming up in a robust way both in the front and back yards. I’ve not met a person who doesn’t think this flower is a “ten” on the scale of loveliness. My most recent additions (from last year) have the added bonus of rather unique, variegated yellow and green leaves. But the attention is all on the blooms. A sample of what’s coming appears herein.
posted by nina, 4/13/2004 07:29:22 AM | link

In my continuing efforts to raise awareness about life in Central Europe:  

The IHT reports (here) that Slovakia is about to become the Detroit of Europe. Just this year, the ancient walled town of Trnava has succeeded in attracting the large auto manufacturer Peugeot Citroën to build a plant there (to the great consternation of the 123 people whose homes have to be demolished for the project).

One could say that Slovakia is the poorer cousin of Central Europe and so a plant of this size means welcome economic growth to the region. Tell that to the people who have lived there all their lives and now must relocate. The article suggests that the displaced farmers, some too old to ever reap the benefits of having Peugeot there, are ‘distraught.’

Slovakia has been extremely successful in attracting car manufacturers to its borders. The IHT reports:
Scrappy, hard-working, and relentless in its drive to attract foreign investment, Slovakia has lured two giant car makers, Peugeot Citroën and Kia Motors of South Korea, in the last two years. It beat out Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary for the projects, despite their larger populations, better-developed economies, and expertise in manufacturing cars.

Volkswagen already has a major factory in the capital, Bratislava. When all three plants are running in late 2006, Slovakia, with 5.4 million people, will produce 850,000 cars a year - the most of any Central European nation and the most per capita in the world.
Trnava itself doesn’t look like Detroit (see my quirky photo comparison), though I wouldn’t be surprised if a visit in a few years would make one gawk in amazement (and what makes me think that the changes wont all be for the better).
posted by nina, 4/13/2004 06:43:10 AM | link

Monday, April 12, 2004

The Monday after Easter 

Comment from friend who got sprinkled by me with water today: “I’m sure glad I knew you in the years prior to your renewed interest in your ethnic heritage. Things were a lot dryer then.”*

*Today is Smigus Dyngus in Poland – the day when it is legitimate, even expected, to douse others with great amounts of water. Smigus Dyngus is also responsible for more google leads to my blog than all other google leads put together. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the world out there has a peculiar fascination with Smigus Dyngus. It’s just water, for pete’s sake: you dump water on others, what’s so curious about that??
posted by nina, 4/12/2004 10:11:50 PM | link

Fat cat living 

I’m trying to understand the importance of the message forwarded to me by a friend and reader (I mention ‘friend’ because this brings forth the presumption of helpfulness, attempted in this most indirect fashion). The story (here) is about an extremely obese German cat who was put in a shelter for protection. His owner had been feeding him about ten times the amount of food he needed and as a result the cat just blimped out.

I have several theories here:
1. My friend wants to demonstrate that cats have the same problems as we humans do and so I should have greater respect for these feline monsters whose sole purpose in life seems to be the killing of birds in people’s back yards;

2. My friend is worried that I am not good to my own animal (Ollie the dog who is wonderful, beyond reprimand, he would never ever go after a bird) and is hinting that shelters are there to protect pets from people like me, who refuse to basically spend five hours each day tickling the dog tummy and making sweet cooing sounds (which she thinks is standard owner-to-pet behavior, I’m sure);

3. She is indicating that Germany has problems with obesity and it’ll just be days before the epidemic spreads to neighboring countries, like for instance Poland and so I should warn all friends and neighbors there;

4. The most likely explanation: my pal is so cat-obsessed that she would find this story possibly the most important and interesting story to grace the papers today. Notice that I, by blogging about it, am totally humoring her. That’s what friends are for.
posted by nina, 4/12/2004 04:02:41 PM | link

Will the joys of technology never end? 

I just wanted to go on record as saying that writing anything by hand is no longer an option: I will never pick up the pen again.

Today, for the first time, I lugged my laptop to a faculty presentation. I wanted to type in a file right away (rather than transcribing it from notes later) because FOR ONCE, the presenter was actually talking about something relevant to my work (a rare event) and so I wanted to store the information for later use.

It was brilliantly awesome to have my little baby laptop right there next to me. I was tired and so there was a danger of me drifting off when the analysis got a bit tedious, but with my baby there, GONE were those squiggly illegible letters that I am capable of producing as sleep takes over and the pen falters. It was all beautiful text, neatly organized, saved, filed, stored.

I am throwing away all pens and pads. From now on, it’s me and my little machine.
posted by nina, 4/12/2004 01:39:03 PM | link

Obsessed with religion? 

There is a very interesting article in the WashPost today (here) describing the Atheist Convention that took place in San Diego this Saturday. There is a definite voyeuristic tone to it, as if the writer is checking to see if these people are really Normal. With great relief then, I read the following:
The godless do not look so different from anyone else. Normal with a capital N. You couldn't pick them out of a police lineup in the hunt for a secular humanist. … [T]he leader of the American Atheists today is Ellen Johnson of Parsippany, N.J., who wears tailored suits and matching pumps. She is blond and trim and as put together as an astronaut's wife at an Apollo launch. … Really, this gathering looks like decaffeinated Unitarians. Or like a real estate investment seminar in Indiana. Slightly more men than women. Older than younger. A few aging hippie ponytails. A T-shirt that reads: "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"
The association brings together people who support any number of small and large objectives:
[O]ne of the longtime members … runs an atheist-centric summer camp for kids called Camp Quest (motto: "It's Beyond Belief!") … In the lobby are tables selling books on papal corruption and greeting cards that wish recipients a Happy Solstice. … There are bumper stickers that read "Praying Is Begging." Several attendees show a visiting reporter how they scratch out the words "In God We Trust" from dollar bills. One fellow says he defaces $300 a month.
But grouping atheists together appears to be a challenge:
Organized nonbelief is a bit of an oxymoron, or, as Ellen Johnson likes to put it, getting atheists to cooperate collectively is "like herding cats." … Kenneth Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists, recalls attending his first meeting of the Gotham group. "It was sad," he says. "Ten guys in a room, all arguing with each other." A typical rally would draw a dozen people.
One long term goal for the group is the support of politicians who openly and continuously advocate for the separation of church and state. Thus it seems natural that there should be an action committee established toward that end. The reporter offers the following comment:
We wonder how many candidates are ready to have among their endorsements the overtly godless. … [T]he atheists here understand that most of those people are not aligned, specifically, with the atheist movement. It retains a stigma. It is revealing, the atheists admit, that they have adopted the language of the gay rights movement. "I've only been out of the closet for a year," says Seattle's Bob Seidensticker of his atheism. Like many here, he told family members for years that he was a doubter, an agnostic, that he was "questioning." But he recalls that at one family gathering, he was listening to a relative talk about how Noah's ark had dinosaurs; he finally flipped and declared himself. It was liberating, but tough.
Most members of the association were one-time believers. Their knowledge of the Bible can be impressive. Again, from the article:
[One member] is wearing a "Proud to Be an Atheist" T-shirt. He once was a young Bible quoter par excellence on the Southern Baptist circuit of youthful savants. … But one day, he says, he began to compile these "contradictions" in the Bible. He was just a kid. "I made a list of 200 and stopped," he says. His relatives told him, "You read too much." He says, "Can you imagine?"

Gaither spends hours a week in chat rooms debating the Scriptures. That is another thing about the atheists at this convention. They can be snide. They can bash. Frank Zindler, director of the American Atheist Press, does a whole hour on the podium lecturing on "the parasitic class" of priests and ministers engaged in what he called "the ignorance industry," saying, "These guys can spew out more disinformation and nonsense in 30 minutes than I can refute in 30 years."

Yes, these atheists are absolutely obsessed with religion. The weekend was like antimatter Bible camp.
Why have an annual meeting on Easter week-end? It appears not to be a ‘Statement’ of any sort. Practical concerns set the dates: hotel rates are cheaper during this stay-at-home holiday period.
posted by nina, 4/12/2004 08:45:42 AM | link

Sunday, April 11, 2004

What’s New for 2003 (tax-wise)? 

- the label wouldn’t peel off, and when I stuck it onto the 1040, the paper curled around it in a most unattractive fashion;

- I do not think I could purchase a new TV on the money GWB saved me;

- It took me 16 minutes less to do the forms for 2003, quite likely because I copied all those zeros off of last year’s form without giving them much thought, to save time;

- Because the week-end is so far in advance of April 15th, I completed the forms a full 4 days ahead of schedule, a life-time record of sorts, I’m sure.

Wisconsin forms will have to wait. My mind is spinning after this excessive conscientiousness.
posted by nina, 4/11/2004 05:28:10 PM | link


To family and friends in Warsaw and Krakow, none of whom got a card from me as I never remember that Easter calls for greetings of this nature, thank you so much for your messages and let me just say:

Wesołych świąt wielkanocnych, smacznego jajka i mokrego dyngusa

Out of kindness to those who think I am making it all up and it is all gibberish, let me inform you that the above is a traditional Polish Easter greeting, translated to mean: (May you have) merry Easter holidays, a delicious egg and a wet Dyngus.*

*On the meaning of Smigus Dyngus, see post of April 1.

posted by nina, 4/11/2004 02:39:10 PM | link

Separation of church and gym 

An annoying moment happens when you look outside, see that it is close to 32 degrees cold, with an occasional snowflake for emphasis, decide that a walk would be less than inspiring, and so you slip on your gym shorts, pick up a book that you just have to finish by Thursday, and go to the gym. Yes, THAT gym the one for which you have paid great sums of money, only to consistently under-use now that the weather is good, the same gym that promises round-the-clock 24-hour protection against the encroachment of superfluous blubber. So you drive up and you see that the lot is empty, but you drive up anyway in the hope that the patrons are all there, they just WALKED over, hence the empty lot. But no, lo and behold, there is a sign, and the sign says “closed for Easter.”

Now I don’t want to deprive folks of their rightful share of Easter merriment. But for many of us the day allows for plenty of hours for which the gym is a very real and attractive possibility. To say nothing of those for whom the day just doesn’t have the same degree of zesty commitment to the home as, say, Thanksgiving. And so I am filing a protest: places of public gathering should think about keeping to regular business hours today. Besides, NOTHING IN MY CONTRACT SAID ANYTHING ABOUT EASTER! I want my annual membership refunded for 1/366 of its value!

I did take a walk in the end, but it was with hands deeply buried in the winter jacket pockets. And the shorts had to be replaced. So how fun is that on an April morning??
posted by nina, 4/11/2004 12:35:07 PM | link

Sociology News (Okay, I start the day on a more serious note. It'll be 'down the light path' henceforth.) 

It’s hard for me to pass up any article featuring a prominent sociologist and so, not surprisingly, a VERY LONG interview with Ann Swidler in the WashPost (here) caught my attention this morning. Swidler, a professor at Berkeley, writes on families. Her latest book, written three years ago (“Talk of Love”), takes on the topics of love, marriage and commitment. Is there an overarching theme? The author of the interview says that Swidler’s stance on marriage or family life isn’t easy to pigeon-hole, though you could certainly conclude that Swidler takes the position that “the family in America is in a flux—both imperiled and deeply resilient.”

Having once been a grad student in sociology with an emphasis on comparative families, and now finding myself teaching family law, all this would, of course, be good reading for me. But there are also other memorable little tidbits in the article, having less to do with family studies and more with the art of academic discourse. For instance, the author recognizes an interesting and bifurcated world out there. About Swidler’s research on marriage and the family he writes:

Swidler works quietly, methodically and out of the popular limelight, which makes her an interesting voice -- refreshingly nuanced and unpredictable -- when asked about the wrenching cultural issues of the day. She is a chin-stroker, when it comes to thinking about American family life, rather than an ideologue with a fast-on-the-draw sound bite for every occasion -- which only underscores the huge gulf between sociologists who simply study American life, and sociologists who throw themselves into the partisan fracas.
Of course, it’s easier to abandon sound bites when you are having multiple pages of a prominent paper devoted to your “nuanced voice.” Nonetheless, it is true that these days lecturing or writing about families forces you to make decisions on how you are going to position yourself before an audience (a non-positioning is of course a positioning of sorts) in the current debates that are taking place. Swidler does not use her academic arena to advocate. Is this good? It’s one way to gain respect as a scholar. It’s not the only way, but it is one way.
posted by nina, 4/11/2004 09:31:02 AM | link

Saturday, April 10, 2004

And they said it was going to snow 

Never underestimate the potential for good weather in April. Today, though not brilliant and certainly not warm, had enough of a spring feel that I decided that a camouflaged Spring Update may be in order. How can I not acknowledge willow catkins that are ready to flower? Or the budding birches? Or the presence of bluebirds? Just a brief post, no great words needed. Taking a walk brings out all the very best of this crackerjack month.
posted by nina, 4/10/2004 03:39:25 PM | link

The politics of salmon 

In a post below I wrote of my determination to step away for the moment from political blogging. I am staying with this decision (and indeed, the response seems to have been one of relief, since several readers indicated that this is a good thing).

However, may I just retreat into a fishery politic for a second to say that everywhere I turn, I am now reading about the horrors of farming salmon and it MAKES ME SO MAD because here we are again, making our foods “cheaper” (translates: more profitable and produced on a larger scale) in the short run and quite deadly in the long run. I truly think that it’s gotten to the point where one just should not buy farmed fish unless the grocery store can tell you exactly what the farming practices have been at the place where the fish was raised (Seafood Watch tracks the safety issues, but most grocers don’t give you this information even if you ask, forcing one to shop in places like Whole Foods because there at least you don’t have to battle the store at every turn if you want to know about these things, and indeed, they can provide assurance that minimal standards of sustainable fish farming have been adhered to).

A good synopsis of the debate over “wild” versus “farmed” can be found in this month’s Wine Enthusiast (of all things). The recommendation couldn’t be clearer – unless a restaurant or a store can tell you about how the fish was raised and whether sustainable farming practices were followed, if it's farmed rather than wild, don't order it. Farmed salmon, raised in the “modern way” (SO MAD!) has up to 40 times more PCBs than wild salmon, to say nothing of having hormone levels that probably sprout facial hair on the poor fish and an antibiotic overdose, just to counter the filth in farm holding pens (analogy of chicken coops comes to mind). The FDA (which regulates farmed fish; the EPA sets only wild fish standards) refuses ('is lax') to update its standards for fish safety in spite of the surfacing reports about the dangers posed by eating conventionally farmed fish. REALLY MADDENING!

[cartoon credit:]
posted by nina, 4/10/2004 02:49:31 PM | link

Update on calves and cottonwoods 

My reader from Montana clarified things a bit for me. Two days ago I posted a picture of calves, thinking this would be a good depiction of what life in Montana would be like now (she had written about caring for young calves and planting cottonwoods this week).

Not accurate, writes my pal. In her words:

"I like your pictures - only you need to change the calf picture. This morning it's snowing [we've had several inches in the last hour] and the calf that was just born is wet [from both the snow and life in the uterus] and slimey. I left it so its mother would lick it off but soon will check to see if it needs a warmer place to be."

Okay, maybe I should focus on spring updates closer to home. I seem to know nothing about young calves and weather conditions in April in Montana.

As for cottonwoods – my reader explains:

"Cottonwoods are large, deciduous trees that are native to this area - they are related to poplars. They are also the tree you see in Utah's canyon country along dry riverbeds."

I am all for accuracy in the blog! I’m not sure what you see here is a Montana cottonwood, but at least it’ll strike the image of a futon store* from our minds.

[*Cottonwood is, I believe, the name of the local futon merchant]
posted by nina, 4/10/2004 08:52:17 AM | link

Friday, April 09, 2004

What my mother told me 

Today’s Cap Times (Madison’s local paper) invites readers (here) to submit sayings and wisdoms that their mothers have passed on to them. The idea is that on Mother’s Day we will have a paper filled with important words implanted by mothers to their daughters. Yes, to daughters. For some odd reason the paper invites only daughters to participate in this enterprise.

The newspaper offers clues as to the type of sayings that might be appropriate:

"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

"Don't imagine you can change a man, unless he is in diapers."

Or, what has to be a first for the Cap Times:

"Keep your dress down and your panties up."

I thought about this project some and deliberated whether my mother (who now lives in Berkeley) would enjoy seeing this public display of her infamous words of wisdom. I decided not. But forget the Cap Times, what is the blog for if not to relive those years where virtually all conversations ended with the following pronouncement on her part:

“Life is not a bowl of cherries.”

Deep? Well, yes, if you think about it. There are anti-Pollyanna overtones to the message, to be sure, but a friend with whom I shared this recently said that it also speaks profoundly to certain cultural differences between Poles and Americans. He speculated that perhaps cherries had inherent value to a Pole (after all, in the past I’d described cherry vodka, the popularity of sour cherries, even my sister’s week-end-long-nothing-but-cherries fast). Surely depriving a Pole of cherries would be a harsh punishment. Life, then, according to the saying, could never measure up to that dish of all dishes: plain old unadulterated cherries.

He has a point. But perhaps there is a silver lining? I have contemplated upon occasion how good it is that life is not a bowl of cherries. I don’t think that is what my mother intended, but certainly the words have had this other effect. Sometimes I even hope that it’s all about blueberries or raspberries. Others may wish for cherries, but for me, there are those other fruits to consider. And in the end, as I have been know to say so often lately, you take what you can get, right?

P.S. My mother’s other important missive was that “you have to sacrifice for the children.” That doesn’t quite have the punch of the first, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. Though perhaps it isn’t so much a directive as a statement about where she sees herself on the sacrifice continuum?
posted by nina, 4/09/2004 08:38:27 PM | link

To days gone by... 

The New Yorker this week reports on the phone company’s sudden and unexplained cancellation of New York’s longtime informational numbers –including the longstanding weather information source at 976-1212. I remember that number as well as I remember the birth date of Jacquie Graupner’s mother (Jacquie was my grade school girl-friend – see post somewhere below). But as of March 24th, the weather person behind that number is gone. Gone, too, is “at the tone, the time will be one twenty five, and thirty seconds, beeeeep!” which had lasted for many many decades at 976-1616.

There appears to have been no citizen’s revolt, no great protest or outcry. The author of the article speculates that people are inundated these days with informational sources. Weather forecasts appear everywhere from newspapers to elevators and computers. All true, but in fact, when you wake up in the morning and you wonder how many sweaters you’ll need to survive the April-in-Wisconsin kind of morning, it shouldn’t be that you have to turn on your computer to find out. Turning on the computer leads immediately to ten other computer-related activities (I should check my email; I should check the headlines; I should check a few blog updates…) and then you’re just lost. Calling an anonymous voice to get the weather was like a gift to yourself – you could avoid the world encroaching on your space that much longer. You could not pick up the paper, turn on a radio or TV or computer, you could just BE.

As a side note, the reporter for the New Yorker attempted to find out why Verizon had decided to scrap the info numbers. The article states: “A call to Verizon didn’t reveal much, either. The company spokesman seemed to be preoccupied with a recent catastrophe involving a technician who had mistakenly routed two hours of 911 calls to a bank in Brooklyn.” Next time I am down on myself for some inept act that I will have committed (so many come to mind, even as I write…--you, email recipient of the wrong message as of fifteen minutes ago, know exactly what I am talking about!), I will remind myself that at least I did not do that: at least I did not cause people to reach a bank when they desperately needed a doctor or a police officer.
posted by nina, 4/09/2004 01:37:40 PM | link

Where have all the politics gone? 

I have noticed recently that I have absolutely no inclination to blog about things of a political nature. Stories that caused me to contemplate a post today ranged from an article about cat remains found in an ancient burial site (NYT here) to a piece about a woman who decided to use her down-time at the airport to give free advice (IHT here). (Both are great stories, btw!) I had no interest in blogging about anything more serious than that. [I know, I know, my devoted-to-cats reader will immediately respond that an article on the origins of cat-as-pet scores a ten on the seriousness scale, but for the rest, I would regard it as a curiosity rather than a shattering event; and it certainly lacks any political overtones.]

It could be that I am bucking the trend. Every day I come across a new weblog with posts about politics. Some of these commentaries are interesting, thoughtful, original, but most, to me, are not. Many appear arrogant (no cites, I don’t want blogger-enemies), anything but reasoned, in fact –quite off-putting.

On the other hand, abandoning politics here seems entirely wrong too, since the very title of this blog suggests a contemplation of matters that are of concern to those living here and in more distant places (eg Poland – and I have a handful of loyalists who continue to check the blog there!). If ‘politics’ stands for the art of government, then surely an internationally-inclined blog should at least make references to things of a political nature.

Call it a crisis of blog identity. I am giving more ‘serious’ thought to the ‘lightness’ factor that has seeped into virtually every post. Perhaps it is a sign of the times: I look for frivolity because the daily news stories that I wake up to have almost none of it, or at least it is overshadowed by the doom and gloom of a never-ending political drama that is both threatening and unnerving.

Comments and suggestions are welcome. If none are forthcoming, then I will organize a focus group very soon and I will gauge public sentiment from this select audience. The scientific method for selecting members of the focus group? I’ll use the legal standard of ‘arbitrary and capricious.’
posted by nina, 4/09/2004 09:21:13 AM | link

Thursday, April 08, 2004

A week-end of 1040 fun 

It’s not holiday time. It’s tax time! Last year I asked one of the professors who teaches Tax here, which computer program he uses to file his returns. He said “the simple one called ‘pencil and eraser.’” Me too.

But I’m still a week away and the temptation each day is to push this odious chore to another moment.
Today, for instance, I could not possibly work on taxes. I am distracted by the following email received from a reader:

Greetings from Montana.
Although my head is full of keeping calves alive and planting cottonwoods right now, I will be back in Madison next week.

What is more interesting than gathering the requisite papers for tax work? The above. I wish I were keeping calves alive and planting cottonwoods this week-end (btw, what are cottonwoods*? Futons?).

*name of store in High Point Plaza
posted by nina, 4/08/2004 05:36:59 PM | link

It’s Easter week-end, isn’t it? 

My family never did anything about Easter as I was growing up. There was no reason to make a holiday of it: in Poland, Easter was a supremely religious celebration (my family was not Catholic). I don’t remember there being bunnies or chicks or Easter bonnets – just crowds pouring out of church, and then, in the late post-dinner afternoon, crowds in parks, as families went for the weekly ‘promenade.’

But the painting of Easter eggs for Easter transcended the holiday itself. We learned early on how to get the egg out of the shell and preserve the shell itself. And we learned to love the designs that we repeatedly saw reproduced on eggs sold in craft shops.

I'm including a few photos here, perhaps to remind myself of their loveliness.
posted by nina, 4/08/2004 04:29:42 PM | link

It’s final: a pyramid over a crate 

I didn’t read this week’s NYT science article (here) until today. I once fancied myself as being mathematically-inclined (it seems, in retrospect, that I have fancied myself inclined in very many ways over the years…hmmmm..) and so I read the article with greater care than I normally would read a piece from under the “science” rubric.

It appears that one of the oldest problems of math has been conclusively solved (as demonstrated by the acceptance of the proof by a leading mathematics journal). No, don’t stop reading! You may want to know, even if you have no interest in math. The problem is all about the most efficient ways to pack oranges (originally stated as a problem of stacking cannonballs): the pyramid holds more than the crate. Why? The Times gives this simple layperson’s explanation: “(the pyramid) allows each layer of oranges to sit lower, in the hollows of the layer below, and take up less space than if the oranges sat directly on top of each other.”

The article explains how the computer-assisted proof initially raised eyebrows (checking issues arose). It is a fascinating story of how mathematics can no longer rely on the human brain to solve its remaining puzzles (but neither can it simply feed the problems to the computer, for understandable reasons). But I am still stuck on this very basic truth: pyramid over crate. So easy, so logical, but I would have never guessed.
posted by nina, 4/08/2004 11:35:15 AM | link

Confession of a weary gardener 

It’s not all fun and games out there in the mud. Nor is it all smiles in the blogger community in reaction to my Spring Updates. Two comments from yesterday are especially telling:

Reader number one wrote the following:

“I'm glad to see that you are not blogging about Spring and gardening today. Though I enjoy the pictures of the flowers, you were making me feel guilty because I have no interest whatsoever in doing yard work or getting my hands dirty.”

Conclusion number one: Spring Updates inspire guilt rather than pleasure.

Reader number two commented:

”Call me old fashioned, but I like to see grass as the dominant plant-life of a lawn. It seems that if you sprinkle turkey droppings and only turkey droppings to sustain it, you’re likely to have weeds, weeds and more weeds. In fact I distinctly remember seeing weeds last year in your front yard.”

I remember an exchange that I had with someone about lawns a few years back. When I recounted to this person that I had just spent a morning picking out the particularly noxious spreading weeds, she had said “in my yard, if it’s green it stays.”

Conclusion number two: people feel strongly about lawn care (or lack thereof).

I am all for balance, so I promise, Spring Updates will appear at intervals so great that you wont even remember when you last saw one. As for weeds – I will continue to dig by hand. For those used to greener pastures – I’m sorry, but I can’t even stand to take walks through the neighborhood when the Chemlawn truck has passed through and left its dirty trail. The stench takes all the pleasure out of walking. In my mind, this is one of the most avoidable chemical addictions that suburbanites continue to support. I can understand smoking better than I can understand spraying your yard repeatedly so that it will look like Astroturf.
posted by nina, 4/08/2004 08:39:46 AM | link

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

To buy or not to buy? 

Suppose your income was $200 a month and you had a family to support (including aging grandparents and parents who had no where else to go). Suppose life was tough, entertainment options were few, winter nights were long. Suppose you were used to buying things “under the counter” as it were, and you lived in a country where the word “copyright law” has not been in existence for the past 70 years.

Alright, supposing all the above, would a legitimately produced CD, priced at $10, or DVD priced at $20 cause you to turn away from the market of pirated copies, selling at $4 each? Showing titles that are more recent than what you can legitimately have access to? And appearing with ready translations into the language of your choice? You would do that? ARE YOU SURE??

The Times reports (here) that the American Film Industry is now trying to fight piracy in Russia by lowering prices of DVDs (cutting them back to $10 -$15). Still, it seems futile. I cannot imagine a person who earns that little spending so much just to feed the American Film Industry its rightful share of profit. I’m not saying that this is right, I am simply dubious that the Film Industry will make even an infinitesimal dent in piracy with this move.
posted by nina, 4/07/2004 02:42:41 PM | link

Perennial quest to understand life around me 

Early on in the blogger game, I puzzled over an intriguing bumper sticker (on Bukowski). That speculation proved to be the single most provocative thing I ever wrote here – it inspired pronouncements of anger, admiration, boredom, impatience, and confusion from all corners of the world. It was riveting to be in the midst of such controversy.

This time my walk through a parking lot made me spot yet another bumper sticker that I found puzzling. I do NOT anticipate a slew of emails over this one, though I must say, I am at wit’s end as to the meaning or purpose of the following sign:

“Visualize whirled peas”

I have two hints:
1. the person is not announcing anything of a politically conservative tenor since all other bumper stickers on this car were rather left-leaning.
2. a search on the Net produced the picture I've included here. But does this really help us any? I'm confused.

UPDATE: A reader unscrambled this one within seconds: World peace. Whirled Peas. Ah. It had nothing to do with sustainable agriculture after all.
posted by nina, 4/07/2004 12:17:23 PM | link

Trying to make the best of "life in the suburbs," part 2 

In a February post, I rhapsodized about the household across the street and their creative genius in bringing out (on a drab winter day) a stockpile of pink flamingos, to be arranged haphazardly in the snow by the children who live there.

Yesterday the entire family was hanging out in the front yard (I love this about them; only two households on the entire long block of some 30 houses, actually use their front yard for hanging out purposes) and so I finally quit being the voyeur and went over to introduce myself (they are fairly new arrivals to our neighborhood).

After this first encounter, I am convinced that they are indeed great people, creative, fun, terrific in all respects. But the flamingos? Alack, alas, these are not their birds. They do not have a single pink flamingo. Some service brought them around for a week, to celebrate the birthday of the woman living there.

Still, I was cheered to see buckets of colorful chalk by the garage. Maybe now that we’ve officially met, I can help paint dragons and monsters and butterflies on the street with them. At the very least, I can again watch the color unforld.
posted by nina, 4/07/2004 09:39:23 AM | link

Accounted for 

Today, Agence France-Presse announced that a plane wreck has been discovered off the coast of France. The plane has been identified as belonging to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This is certainly not a recent crash: Saint-Exupéry disappeared 60 years ago and although it was speculated that the plane he flew went down, the accident was never confirmed.

‘The Little Prince,’ written by Saint-Exupéry, was first published in 1943. The Times reports that it has since been translated into more than 100 languages and is third on the all-time-anywhere best seller list, after the Bible and Marx’s Das Kapital.

Das Kapital is second on the list of best sellers? Can you list ten people you know who have read Das Kapital? (I can be included on your list as it was required reading for me at the U of Warsaw; but then, I was an econometrics major and this was Poland in the 60-70s!) I would think that if you were going to be Marx obsessed you’d pick up the Communist Manifesto, not Das Kapital.

As for ‘The Little Prince’ – well, for me, too, it was a truly magical little book, but I don’t know why it uniformly inspires such feelings of rapture. It is quite a simple story. One might say that it is sort of the opposite of Das Kapital in that way. Are the same people reading both??? After the eyestrain of paging through Marx, ‘The Little Prince’ may well offer the perfect antidote.

‘The Little Prince’ is one of those books that makes you think that surely there is a subtext, a Great Meaning of some sort. It’s not hard to imagine a Great Meaning hidden in simple statements about our planet –as seen from the eyes of an interstellar traveler. Now that I’m remembering it, I can see how easy it is to get lost in the imagination of that storyteller. And the illustrations – well, after reading the Bible and Das Kapital, one would be so GRATEFUL for a book with illustrations. Gentle words, soothing pictures, nice text, possibly with Great Meaning, but probably not. Yeah, a nice relaxing moment, lyrical, calming to your senses, allowing you to forget about the deeply troubled world described in the “top two” best selling texts.
posted by nina, 4/07/2004 08:50:32 AM | link

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Wake up! It doesn’t get much loftier than this! 

If this wasn’t a day that topped all spring days, I don’t know what could possibly qualify: partly (mostly) sunny, temperatures in the upper sixties, no chilly undertow, truly great walking weather!

It was also a perfect day to revisit the UW Arboretum. When I am there, I think I should devote my life to collecting seed samples and to the creation of this place of great natural beauty. It evokes a feeling of community and partnership. True, in some places you can hear the Beltline traffic and the noises of nearby construction. But in some spots it's just the echo of your walking shoes among the pines and birches. And, on the hill of orchard trees, you could just run and run and test your endurance and no one will care or even notice. Next time.
posted by nina, 4/06/2004 11:52:41 PM | link

News doesn’t just hit you in the face have to go out and look for it. This week’s Newsweek tells of a writer who went right out into NY’s alleys in the interest of searching out stories about rats.

Robert Sullivan observed rats for a year and then wrote a book about it (see comment on it here). Not bad material, I should think. There are enough rat stories out there to keep us intrigued for a while. I do side with the Newsweek interviewer who asks “why do people hate rats and not squirrels?” Why indeed? Each is a rodent, yet we teach our children how to feed the latter and fear the former.

The author of the rat book was also asked to comment on how rats and people may be similar. Sullivan replies:

"I observe these rats, and they come out of their hole, they go to the same place each day to feed and then they go back to their hole for bed. Then I turn around and look at Wall Street, and I see all of these people coming out of holes in the ground, going to breakfast, going into their buildings and then going home. Same thing."

No kidding.

[sketch: from On-line Pravda]
posted by nina, 4/06/2004 04:10:14 PM | link

Spring Update 

A kind reader, wishing to feed my blogger-vanity, asks for a Spring Update. I think he must simply like to start off the work day with a transfixed gaze at something colorful and benign. This fits the bill.

In fact, I do like writing about my plants. To me, plant-care is a very “other-centered” activity. I spend far more time working with my borders out front (even though the light is less consistent, the planting space is on a slope, and the roots of nearby trees make digging deep trenches virtually impossible), than on the ones out back, which sort of thrive on sheer neglect.

Today I am happy to see the beginnings of what I call my “woodland spring garden.” This is a bit of a misnomer because the woodiness consists of only one very large birch tree. But it provides ample spring light now when the branches are leafless, morphing into dappled light when the birch leaves emerge, and eventually emerging as almost complete summer shade for the dry ground below. In the spring, the light is perfectly in place to grow the yellow and blue flowers that are a Monet-like statement about the loveliness of this color combination.

And so, of course, there are the daffodils. Scattered between ground cover are forget-me-nots, golden yellow globe flowers and the tiny blue bells of the hyacinth. In odd spots I have the very gentle green beginnings of ferns (they’ll grow monstrously big by July and then collapse for want of moisture by August –the birch roots take too much of the water to sustain this garden for long), and toward the end of spring, the lily-of-the-valley and the candle wildflower will signal the end of pale yellow and blue, and the beginning of a summer infusion of stronger greens and contrasting whites.

A reminder, nothing is blooming yet, but I think here, in this garden, we’re talking about just a week, not more, before we begin to see a display of color.
posted by nina, 4/06/2004 11:23:33 AM | link

“I’m a creation, I’m a gifted improviser” 

These are the words spoken by Tom Ripley in the just-released for the DVD market movie, “Ripley’s Game.”

After reading the review of ‘Ripley’s Game’ in the Sunday Times, it was obvious that it woul only be a matter of days before the DVD would find its way to this household. Some phrases from the review especially stood out: “Perhaps the most exquisitely sardonic thriller to go straight to DVD…” Or, about the lead actor’s role: “A supercilious reptile dripping with venom, he materializes, black beret just so, in the splendidly apt form of John Malkovich…(portraying the) screen incarnation of the enigmatic antihero.”

The film’s premiere was at the Venice International Film Festival in 2002 (“to thunderous applause” writes the Times), but subsequently it appeared in the US only three times (in NY, to sell-out audiences). Apparently there was disagreement about the way the film was to be released, resulting, in the end, in no release at all.

You could watch this movie for Malkovich’s depiction of Ripley alone. Or, for the splendid European cinematography. Or as an example of Liliana Cavani’s directing talents. Or you could watch it for its entirety – a superbly balanced story, a character study, an eerie portrayal of a man without a conscience. Yes, yes, there are nit-picky points that can be made – why this, why that, how is that this family is so wealthy, do we really need this subtext, etc. But nit-picking belongs to paid movie reviewers. For those of us seeking a good movie viewing experience, this one is well within that orbit.

Russell Smith (who co-produced the film along with Malkovich) talks about the irony of having a small gem of a movie to release. He tells the Times: “Complex, interesting films have become difficult to market, junk easy to market, and at the end of the year everyone scratches their head and wonders why they cannot come up with a 10-best list.” I’m not sure if he’s suggesting that his film should have –would have—been on that list. No matter, ‘Ripley’s Game’ is indeed a near-perfect thriller, worth every penny of the $4 rental fee.
posted by nina, 4/06/2004 07:54:08 AM | link

Monday, April 05, 2004

The news that’s more than fit to print 

This year’s Pulitzer Prize winners (announced today) are, as I suppose is typically the case, from a number of better and lesser known papers. I am curious about the stories, in the same way that one becomes curious about movies that win Oscars, so I google a number of them and spend a fascinating half-hour reading articles that are not only well written but have such breadth and vision (on such topics as the medically dismissed condition of aortic aneurysms to the examination of death and injury among American workers) that it makes your daily story seem like a first grader’s chapter from a story book. (Though a very useful chapter. For instance, for the Pulitzer Prize story, look here.)

The Pulitzer for political cartoons was awarded to Matt Davies. My googling brought up wonderful examples of Davies work, among them, the above.
posted by nina, 4/05/2004 07:19:51 PM | link

A steady dose of Nina  

I was nineteen, coming from Poland to work as an au paire in the States, reading the NYT for the first time in my life on a regular basis (one might say I had to: the knife that buttered my bread was the NYT) when I was told of the Ninas in Hirschfeld’s drawings. But it wasn’t until much later that I learned that the number next to the artist’s name at the bottom gave you the Nina count for a given illustration.

Today the Times has a short little story about the Nina phenomenon in Hirschfeld’s work (here).

It’s odd what we sometimes get ourselves into. Hirschfeld had originally placed the name in a picture in recognition of the birth of his daughter. Eventually he wanted to stop the practice (hey, was Nina consulted on this?) but the public was outraged and so he was ‘forced’ to continue.

Is there comfort in this ritualistic search for a Nina? I always looked for the Ninas, but you’d think that I would be the one person who had an excuse to do this on a regular basis. Or, is the act of Nina-searching a dumb-person’s version of doing the NYT’s crossword puzzle? Or is it some mystical associations that we have with the name, the state of the world, art, death and all living things? Oh, but of course.
posted by nina, 4/05/2004 09:39:09 AM | link

The greatest asset in your house may very well be your chair 

After reading yesterday’s WashPost article on the merits (or lack thereof) of renting movies online, I decided that there is virtually no reason to ever get up and move your feet again. A friend recently discovered the joys of even ordering groceries online. She has good reasons to do this, but in time, others will buy into these services as well, even if they haven’t her movement limitations.

We talk through our computers, we acquire things, we send greetings – basically we do all that a cave person once had to venture out into the world for. We put ourselves right back into our caves, the boulders are rolling down the mountain and closing off entrances and exits, shutting out air and light, and we’re happy as anything with our great sophistication and brilliant mastery of life. To me, sometimes we seem dumber than the (computer-illiterate) apes who came before us.
posted by nina, 4/05/2004 09:15:42 AM | link

And now come the divorces… 

A WashPost article this morning describes a gay union between two men, entered into back in the 70s, dissolved several years later.

The article is a good reminder of the obvious: that the legal aspects of marriage are most salient at the time of break-up, not during the marriage itself. If you ask someone what legal protections they are seeking in marriage, maybe they’ll mention health insurance and hospital visits. Effectively, for most couples, the law does not permeate daily married life.

But the law is the great regulator of dissolution. It is no surprise that in my Family Law class we spend 25% of the semester on marriage and 75% on dissolution and non-marriage, and even then I think I am too generous toward marriage.

Couples (gay or straight) who break up without the legal protection of divorce proceedings (because they never married) have very real problems, ones that are hardly considered at the time of moving in together. Property, custody of children, pension rights, support benefits – none of these can have the oversight of family court (flawed as that oversight may be) if there isn’t a marriage. In fact, even in Wisconsin – a state whose highest court wrote the law on third party rights to visits with children –it’s very difficult to gain access to your partner’s children unless you can demonstrate (a legal certificate sure would help here) that you were indeed acting in a parent-like relationship toward the child.

Perhaps, then, in this great discussion of gay marriages we should be really concentrating on gay divorces. Maybe I could suggest to GWB that he should amend the proposed constitutional amendment so that it realistically states what it is we are asking the constitution to do: “marriage may only be entered into and dissolved if it is between a man and a woman.” Phrased this way, maybe it would wake opponents to gay marriage up to the absurdity of this kind of legal limitation: the vast majority of couples who are splitting up needs the protection of the law – most can’t get to a fair result without it. The point is so obvious, yet so negelcted (by those on both sides of the issue) in current discussions of the merits of gay legal unions.
posted by nina, 4/05/2004 08:39:18 AM | link

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Everyone’s gone to the moon 

Walking through a Westside neighborhood today I imagined how it might look to a Martian landing on any of the front lawns (now that we know there was once water on Mars it is easier to imagine that there are also little Martians traveling around the universe and beyond in their little oblong space ships). They’d see a street resembling a ghost town. Not a sign of life. Silence from within. If I were that Martian, upon witnessing such silence and emptiness I’d hightail it out of here. Surely some chemical toxins have either wiped out 100% of the population or at the very least forced everyone indoors? For safety’s sake, I’d close the door to my spaceship and flee!.

Of course, there are no toxins, there was no chemical spill, no bombs exploded wiping out the population. It was just a gorgeously bright and sunny Sunday in Spring and everyone was locked indoors, creating an outdoor sense of desolate emptiness and betrayal. What Martian would want to pause and be part of that? Sometimes I just hate the suburbs.

P.S. I do want to exempt one tiny portion of my block from this: where the flamingos once somersaulted in the winter (see February post), there are now plastic chairs, wheelbarrows and toys. The family across the street brings life right onto the front lawn and their magnetic draw attracts others. Our block is thus spared the ghost-town imagery. As I worked clearing the plant beds of winter debris out front today, I felt that a Martian would feel okay on our block.
posted by nina, 4/04/2004 07:45:32 PM | link

The Spring anti-update 

Realty sets in as I watch the following plants proliferate at an alarming pace: dandelions, violets, and defiant lamium (which took over an entire area prepped for a new flower border and now will not leave).

I feel noble and virtuous with my resistance to chemicals in the yard. I fertilize with organic turkey droppings – how cool is that –and I pull out (no exaggeration here) hundreds of dandelions by hand, one by one, so that they don’t completely control the yard. But lamium has stumped me. Thus I get a deep thrill when I come across a container of Round Up weed killer at Menard’s. I study the toxic ingredients with something verging on lust and I tell myself that there'll be one more year of waging war against the lamium and after that I’ll cave in: late at night, when no one is watching, I’ll point and spray and watch the noxious foam do its dirty work, seeping into the leaves of each and every one of these little bastards.

As for the violets: never has something that looks so pretty in June turned into such a menace for all the months after. I'll cut off the flowers and throw them in salads and basically resign myself to their spreading habit. Taste and beauty sometimes win over orderliness.
posted by nina, 4/04/2004 01:08:41 PM | link

So are we down to four now? 

The NYT today provides an assessment of the four most likely Kerry running mates: Edwards (+charisma, but he wont even deliver NCarolina), Gebhardt (+everyone likes Gebhardt, but he’s old news), Vilsack (+swing state Midwesterner, but no foreign policy credentials), Richardson (+ swing state and foreign policy on his side, but has never run for office before).

Of course, those who have seen the spiciness of the primaries wither and become an endless dusty road with no sign of anything more titillating than Kerry’s shoulder surgery may still be holding out hope for McCain. So what that he doesn’t want the job, doesn’t want to cross party lines, doesn’t want to be anyone’s running mate? It is said that if he got on board it would be a sure win for Kerry. You’d think that would be tough to pass up if you were as dis-enamored with GWB as McCain is.
posted by nina, 4/04/2004 12:01:41 PM | link

Spring Ahead 

Had I remembered that clocks leap forward today, I would not have turned off the computer at 1:30 (meaning 2:30) last night, especially since a visitor is stopping by in an hour and so an early wake-up was essential.

All this is rather trivial, but I did want to note that waking up has not been a problem recently because of the unfortunate bird issue. I don’t mean “birds singing” either. Birds have been flying into our windows at an alarming rate this year. There have always been a few confused souls in the past who have done this. Usually the birds fall to the ground in a state of shock and if I am around, I will either keep an eye on them or move them, just to make sure the vicious neighborhood cats don’t get to them before the little guys get over their shock and can fly again.

But there have been so many lately that I wonder if it isn’t like the “frogs stopped singing in the Amazon” phenomenon (i.e. a sign of disastrous environmental changes that have caused a weakened species). So, I’m up, listening for the next thud and wondering whether I should paint temporary orange stripes on the windows, at least until the bird population gets its seasonal strength again.
posted by nina, 4/04/2004 07:35:47 AM | link

Saturday, April 03, 2004


Today, the April breezes and skies and trees were so stirring that I took no fewer than TWO long walks, though the first one was better than the second for reasons (among others) of increased wind velocity and decreased interest in the enterprise the second time around. But I did want to note that walking in Madison, especially during three out of the four seasons, is just about the best thing you can do here. I mean, people love the lakes and I admit that if your life is all about sailing and ice-fishing, you’re going to be magnetically drawn to these great bodies of water.

If, on the other hand, your only lake associations are either with 1. the Union Terrace on a late summer afternoon, 2. the view from your office, if you’re lucky, 3. the unfortunate death of Otis Redding, or 4. the very real possibility of increased mosquito activity, then you have to look elsewhere for outdoor diversion. Forgetting about State Street (which has greater commercial and people-watching value than outdoor-amusement ), there are still any number of non-mosquitoed walking places, including bike paths, interesting neighborhoods, and, of course, places like conservation parks, or the Arboretum.

When I am reminded that this month marks the beginning of all these trekking possibilities, I positively soar with energy and joy.

[photo: Owen Woods]
posted by nina, 4/03/2004 11:50:41 PM | link

A Blockbuster in hell 

I hate being wasteful –spending money on things that prove to be completely worthless, too horribly bad for even the garbage can.

Last month I bought a DVD, thinking it would rest easily on the shelf of “DVDs that are fun to watch when you want to do the ironing or pay the bills and don’t want to exert yourself much but wouldn’t mind a sweet moment with the silver screen or at least a good laugh.” That shelf has a number of movies on it that I consider completely entertaining – Possesion, Chariots of Fire, Tortilla Soup, Moonstruck – all fun stuff, nothing too taxing, a pick-me-up-when-I-am not-too-chipper-kind of shelf. To this I thought I’d add “Intolerable Cruelty.” Why? Because anything with Catherine Zeta-Jones was bound to be easily digestible and not terribly challenging in the cerebral way, and although it only had a “US Weekly” recommendation on the back (“Huge Laughs!” it reads, which I now think has hidden subversive meanings, sort of an inside joke among reviewers: “what a HUGE LAUGH it is that some people will actually spend more than a quarter to see this!”), I though it would be okay.

It was not okay. In fact, I have played it several times just to demonstrate to various people passing through this house how BAD a movie can be, because no one quite believes my blasphemous comments uttered in a not altogether sane manner about it.

So what do I do now that I wasted what suddenly seems like huge sums of money on this worthless piece of trash? I can’t toss it, but I also can’t possibly display it – I can’t stand to even look at it, let alone be reminded that I actually brought it into the house. What now?

There ought to be a special delivery service collecting movies of this nature for rental in hell. This particular film could make life miserable for any number of people who need to be tortured in a systematic and continuous way. Consider it a charitable contribution, just from me.
posted by nina, 4/03/2004 08:40:41 PM | link

But does he care about you and me? 

A Washington Post poll shows a decline in people’s perceptions about how compassionate GWB really is. Here’s one set of responses:

Bush has frequently described himself as a 'compassionate conservative.' Do you think Bush has -- or has not -- governed in a way that is compassionate?

Has 49% (now) 64% (2/2/2003)
Has not 45% (now) 34% (2/2/2003)
No opinion 5% (now) 2% (2/2/2003)

I’ve never fully understood what the term “compassionate conservative” really means, and what its opposite may be (“spitefully conservative?” “indifferent-to-the-lot-of-others conservative?”) and who would subscribe to that opposite given that it’s bound to then have pejorative meanings or associations.

But it’s interesting to wonder what exactly happened in the last year that would cause the change in public opinion. People sometimes ascribe great meaning to smaller things and not enough meaning to big ticket items, so it remains a mystery why numbers on compassion where as high as they were a year ago (and, conversely, why they dropped).
posted by nina, 4/03/2004 02:47:38 PM | link

The most touching story… 

…appears in the NYT today (here). It is about an old (perhaps 84 yrs?) Kenyan man who took advantage of the government’s decision to make elementary education free and enrolled in first grade (he had never before gone to school and could not read, write, or count). If you passed over the article, do at least read these snippets for a real feel-good start to the day:
On the first day of school, he put on some gray knee socks and blue trousers that he had cut off above the knee to resemble the short pants worn by schoolchildren all over the country. With his school uniform in place, he limped his way from his mud hut to the office of the headmistress, Jane Obinchu.

She thought Mr. Maruge was joking when he said he was there to enroll in the first grade. But Mr. Maruge was insistent, and Mrs. Obinchu decided to give him a chance - a spot right up front where he could hear her.

The other students, most of them 78 years younger than Mr. Maruge, were amused at first by the old man's presence. But over time they grew used to having a "Mzee," the Swahili honorific given to elders, as a classmate.

After all, Mr. Maruge practiced writing the A B C's just as they did. He worked on basic math problems right alongside them. Slowly, the entire class, Mr. Maruge included, began to learn to read.

Kenyan officials were stunned that Mr. Maruge and others well beyond school age had sought to take advantage of free primary education. "We never knew that such people would come," said S. K. Karaba, senior deputy director in the Department of Education. "They still want to be taught. There is an urge."….

At Kapkenduiywa Primary, Mr. Maruge is now a fixture. He is frequently the first student to arrive in the morning, sometimes an hour early. During the school day, he plays the role of both student and teacher. He feels free to give advice to his classmates, reminding them frequently to study hard and listen to their parents.

When the school day is over, Mr. Maruge walks back to the home he shares with his sister. He tends his small herd of sheep and his goats and chickens. Later, he pulls out his books to study a bit before dinner. He is the only student at the school who asks his teacher for homework.

The story does remind me of my grandmother who, though basically literate (in the way that you would be if you completed only three years of schooling), had never read a book in her life until she was about 70. From then on, she read with a vengeance, going straight to the Polish classics that we’d bring to the village from the Warsaw library. She worked her way slowly, very slowly through the great epics and tragedies belonging to the past. She never talked about what she read, but I used to like to watch her, sitting at the kitchen table, turning the pages slowly, following each line, sometimes mouthing the words. It was so quiet in the village (no paved roads, no traffic, just one store a mile away). During the years that she lived there alone, books must have literally kept her sane against all that quiet.
[photo credits: "Kenyan first grader" is from the NYT, countryside around my grandmother's village is from]
posted by nina, 4/03/2004 07:26:29 AM | link

Friday, April 02, 2004

No photos or art will accompany this post 

Did anyone catch the Cap Times review of the 3-day show opening this week-end at the Barrymore? It’s titled ‘Puppetry,’ and it is about, about… an art form of sorts, depicted with humor and, I should think, great physical skill. Certain body parts of two actors are formed into, among other things, a pelican, a hamburger, the Loch Ness monster and the Eiffel Tower.

How original and apparently exceptionally funny and asexual. Still, tickets are at $35. I’ll wait for reports from others. Write me if you venture out to see it.
posted by nina, 4/02/2004 08:37:24 PM | link

How can you keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree.. 

Ollie, my canine, was well trained (emphasis on ‘was’). I believe I have bragged ad nauseam about his independent quick run in the unfenced yard each day, all on a brief verbal command from me.

Today, Ollie went out as usual as I waited, bored, inside. And waited. And waited. Ollie had obviously flown the coop. Spring had gone to his head, poor guy, and he was off to see the world. For the first time in his four and a half years of life, he experienced FREEDOM! Oh, he was shy enough to come back when I went out on the street, sat down (how odd-seeming was that?) and stretched out my arms (he can never resist the lap and arms). But I’m not fooled. He’s seen bigger oceans and grassier fields now. He’ll fly again. Who wouldn’t?
posted by nina, 4/02/2004 07:57:43 PM | link

No, no, no, of course not! 

A reader (referring to blog posts below) asked today how is it that I got all my plants to bloom this early in the season. This reader, obviously an urban and urbane fellow, assumed that the photos in my “Spring Update” series depicted flowers that were now in their best form in my yard. He was exceedingly in awe of my horticultural skills since he’d only seen crocuses in other Madison yards.

It is painful to stick a pin in the balloon that stands for one’s over-inflated-worth-in-the-eyes-of-another, but I fear I must: no, my flowers are not yet in bloom. Far from it, no such luck, couldn’t be, no way. April, that most wonderful, revitalizing month, just started YESTERDAY! The plants identified below have all emerged from the ground, but the photos simply portend showy summer weeks ahead. We’re not there yet. As I sit here typing in my wooly socks and big burly oversized sweater I am reminded, brilliant sunshine today notwithstanding, we’re not there yet.
posted by nina, 4/02/2004 07:40:40 PM | link

Spring Update 

I apologize – these updates are now loading here fast and furious, but my plants are rapidly breaking ground and it is a joyous experience, one that deserves notation. Today, it’s all about daylilies. There are hemerocallis nuts out there – people who study, breed and cultivate the hundreds of varieties of this genus of plant. I’m not quite there, but I am charmed by daylily designs and colors. Plus it remains one of nature’s most prolific flowers—a regular fertile myrtle: a bud opens each morning, is spent by the end of the day, a new one opens the next day, and so on. It is a remarkable thing to observe.

I can’t find all the varieties I have in the front and back of the house, but they include some of the ones pictured here.
posted by nina, 4/02/2004 08:18:24 AM | link

Maybe I should reconsider spectator sports 

Yesterday, in our discussion of custody and physical placement (in the Family Law class) I gave examples of cases I had worked on that had, in my opinion, an incorrect result despite the fact that a text-book reading of the fact patterns would have lead you to predict a decent outcome. I had wondered if the students could really understand this peculiarity about family law – it can be unpredictable because so many factors can confound and confuse the proceedings. I was gratified, therefore, to get the following email from a reader this morning. She was reflecting on the class discussion and thought of it in this way:

Here's a basketball metaphor I think applies here: anybody can learn to dribble the ball down the court to the basket, and make a stylistically brilliant shot from different points on the perimeter, with enough practice and diligence, if you're playing alone with no other players. However, in the real game, even just a one-on-one, there is another person always covering you, trying to stick their hand into your dribble and get the ball, and block where you can move on the court, block your shot once it leaves your hands, etc., which severely limits what parts of your game you can play depending on the opponent. Like in family or custody law: any book could summarize how the custody decisions are made on paper, or you could read the statute and think that's easy enough, but your real-world explanations today were kind of like the defense checking the ball handler.

I’m impressed. Sports metaphors typically elude me (is that ever obvious – see posts below), but this one hit home. This semester I have a renewed respect for the playing field, and an exponentially growing admiration for the students in my classes.
posted by nina, 4/02/2004 07:00:16 AM | link

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Suspicious minds 

My friends and readers have let me down. One after another, they question the authenticity of blog posts today JUST BECAUSE IT’S APRIL 1st! The last message on this was the final straw. My reader writes:

“Now I'm just trying to figure out if the Smigus Dyngus post is for real, or an April Fools post in itself. The photo, with realistic looking costume, has me being less suspicious, but one never knows... Very mysterious you can be!!”

Now really, would I make up something like that? Check out the site here (scroll down to the bottom for an analysis of Smigus Dyngus). Or, if you aren’t the checker type, let me quote the relevant passage for you:

Smigus-dyngus, czyli pomyślność na mokro: Oblewanie się nawzajem wodą w poniedziałek wielkanocny (nazywany z tej okazji Świętym Lejkiem) to również zwyczaj stary i wywodzący się najprawdopodobniej z obrzędów związanych z wiarą w dobroczynne właściwości wody. Był przy tym i jest doskonalą zabawą dla całej rodziny, a także okazją dla psotników, by płatać figle... w zgodzie z ludową tradycją. Polewano się różnie, na dworach paroma kropelkami wody perfumowanej, na wsiach wiadrami i konewkami. Niejedna panna została nawet wepchnięta do rzeki czy koryta z wodą.
Is says it right there, doesn’t it?
posted by nina, 4/01/2004 08:36:18 PM | link

The essence of fox 

A reader asks where I am able to procure 100% fox urine (see Spring Update posts below). Well, naturally, I don’t chase down the animals myself with jar in hand. But someone does, and what a job that must be! I suppose I could also find it on the Net, but for me, it’s just as easy to locate it in select stores that sell farming or gardening essentials. And btw, it seems not to “spoil:” if you buy too much to use in one season, let me assure you, the stuff is even more foul smelling the next year.
posted by nina, 4/01/2004 01:16:27 PM | link

The fools of April 

A reader and a friend sent me the following email message late last night:

“It is now April Fool's day. meaning I refuse to talk to you for the next 22 hours (until the day is over, your time). what will happen this year? I don't know, but I know it will be something, and I know I'll fall for it, whatever it is, so see you April 2.”

That’s harsh! I’ll have you know that this year, I am much more into Smigus Dyngus – a traditional Polish celebration that falls on Easter Monday. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT SMIGUS DYNGUS IS???? Wait ‘til Monday, will you ever be surprised!!

[For those far away, and therefore not within a bucket’s reach that day, let me explain: traditionally, on Smigus Dyngus, boys drenched girls with squirt guns, buckets of water, anything that caused great wetness. The thought was that the more a girl was sprayed with water, the higher were her chances of getting married—though I see some pagan ritual elements here, as in cleansing the body and soul, etc... The holiday is observed especially by young people: boys will literally wait out on the road, near markets, in village squares and as soon as a girl would pass – she’d get the bucket. Older men, on the other hand, sprayed their wives with cologne water, though I’m not sure what the purpose of that was – unless he secretly wanted her to leave and marry someone else, a.s.a.p.!? The revenge comes the next day: the girls dump water on guys on Tuesday. In my time, we were way too impatient and so everyone, male and female, dumped water on each other, all Monday long.]
posted by nina, 4/01/2004 08:26:30 AM | link

A lesson from the past: my lack of talent may be a virtue 

A guest lecturer from Taiwan came to my class yesterday to address issues of Family Law in the context of changing norms and values. His own view was that Taiwan had rushed to embrace Western standards too fast and without enough discussion of what was sacrificed along the way. Individual rights are all fine and well, but the relinquishment of family-centered values comes at a very personal cost to the many people who once had a rich network of family and now feel themselves to be isolated.

The Taiwanese professor gave two examples of old Chinese proverbs that no longer have the force they once did, and I must say, even though I do not live in Taiwan, I am intrigued by them and think they could have interesting applications even on this side of the ocean. Consider each one:

1. “For a woman to be without talent is a virtue.” Sure, I know that sounds harsh, but think how much pressure would be off our shoulders if this was honored today. Awards would be meted out for mediocrity and lack of accomplishment. Working long hours to perfect something would be pointless and indeed, may cause you to appear virtue-less.

2. “Marry a chicken, follow a chicken, marry a dog, follow a dog.” This one, too, is superb! You want marriage? Great – here it is: you got yourself a dog. Now are you happy?? Much could be learned from these words.

One of the most telling moments, however, came at the beginning of class. As students were trickling into the room, I handed them outlines of the paper to be presented by the visiting scholar. He watched in fascination, then asked: “Do you always hand out papers like that to students?” I hesitated, wondering if I had committed some International Gaffe of Great Magnitude and Consequence. He explained: “You are the respected one here, no? Why don’t you have THEM come and pick up the paper themselves?” It had never even occurred to me that I had just put myself down, meeting the students at their own low-status level rather than asking them for proper respect. No wonder they throw spitballs in class and play spider solitaire on their computers. Resolved: today, they come to ME to pick up the statute that I am now copying for them (wait: why am I even making copies for them??).
posted by nina, 4/01/2004 07:24:38 AM | link

I'm Nina Camic. I teach law, but also write (here and elsewhere) on a number of non-legal topics. I often cross the ocean, in the stories I tell and the photos I take. My native Poland is a frequent destination.

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