Saturday, January 31, 2009

the rare one

What would it be like? The perfect winter day in Wisconsin: solid snow cover (no dirt patches in sight). The sun would be out, full blast. The temperature – a little above freezing. Not enough to create slush, but enough to keep you, well, warm.

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It cannot be a work day. You don’t notice much when you spend so many daylight hours indoors. Oh, and you cannot have a dental appointment. You’re basically free. How often does this happen?

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Some years – never.

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This year – oh, without doubt – today.

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It brought out the child in Ed (admittedly, not too buried to begin with),

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…and the sun loving side of me…

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But mainly it brought out an appreciation for that speck of beauty that lays buried in the winter months of the northern Midwest.

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We were not the only ones at Indian Lake Park. An Italian family of sledders…

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…a celestial slope of angels…

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…there to throw out the arms and say – what a beautiful day!

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Friday, January 30, 2009


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Two things my dentist said today stayed with me. First, he thanked me for encouraging him to write. He has become an impassioned chronicler of life (his life) and I should think this is a good thing, though it could be that his family feels otherwise.

The second (and related) comment was more somber – it’s hard to make life interesting when you’re older, he said to me.

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A quick interpretation would be that this is just him. Me, you – our lives are an amazing grab bag of riches! (Admitting to the mundane is hard.)

But if you think about it – if you work, if you clean your house and cook your food, if you exercise and go to your dentist fairly regularly – you will most certainly use up your interesting hours. And if you (like him?) find your work only mildly interesting (perhaps filling teeth is less interesting than teaching, though maybe he feels otherwise), then it becomes hard to create a life that, on balance, is remarkably interesting.

Of course, “interesting” need not be a worthy goal. Being hardworking, creative, respectful, nurturing – any these would form a rich life. And, interesting need not be found in the positive. Interesting can be born of tragedy. Who wants that!

Still, I go back to my dentist’s words and I see his point: for the ordinary, for us -- making an average day interesting – I have to admit it -- it can be a challenge.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

looking out

Draaaaaaag myself home. No great bounce here... Suuuuch a long day.

Maybe your work is all fun and games. You would be the exception.

BUT… there is not a work problem (except unemployment) that cannot be addressed with equanimity and a smile. So, in the weeks ahead, I shall proceed in such a fashion.

Today? Well, I hadn't time to take even a coffee break. But, late in the day, I looked up and thought – this is nice. A tree. In shades of gold. Very lovely. Let me remember it: a day can be made better by a tree.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wisconsin winter

Even on bright days, the colors outside are monochromatic.

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In February, I have often gone to the orchid greenhouses (just a few minutes from where I live) for the much needed splash of color. This year, I could not wait until February.

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As always, I walked away with an addition to my wee collection. I fret about these babies all year long. Because they understand the pain of living here, up north, in the winter. And each January and February – the most ridiculously cold months of the year, they reward me with this:

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In an interview, President Obama joked that the DC schools closed today because there was an inch of snow in DC. His daughters reminded him that in Chicago, schools never closed. In the meantime, Shelby, a blogger and commenter from Alabama, sent me this. It’s funny because, with only minor tweaking, it’s true (note my tweaks in brackets):

Wisconsin Winter Habits

60 above zero: Wisconsinites plant gardens. [ed: actually, we do it in colder temps]

50 above zero: People are sunbathing in Green Bay [ed: and elsewhere in the state]

40 above zero: Wisconsinites drive with the sunroof open [ed: of course!]

32 above zero: The water in Hayward gets thicker.

20 above zero: Wisconsinites throw on a flannel shirt [ed: the less hardy types]

15 above zero: People in Wisconsin have one last cookout before it gets cold [ed: I guess…]

Zero: Wisconsinites close the windows [not true: many NEVER close the windows; something about fresh air, bla bla bla]

10 below zero: Wisconsinites dig their winter coats out of storage [ed: about right]

25 below zero: Girl Scouts in Wisconsin still selling cookies door to door [ed: absolutely!]

40 below zero: People in Wisconsin let their dogs sleep indoors

100 below zero: Wisconsinites get upset because the Mini-Van won't start.

460 below zero: ALL atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale). People in Wisconsin can be heard to say, "Cold 'nuff fer ya?"

500 below zero: Hell freezes over. Wisconsin public schools open 2 hours late [ed: except for UW]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

mixed images

In the morning, I wait at the bus stop and I think 1. It’s really cold... can we have a break? Just below freezing would be really nice for a while; 2. I am staring at the lot where the Westside Community Farmers Market sets up in better times.

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You may think that this is a depressing thought. But no. Think of it: in three months, the market will replace the snow pile. Not bad!

In my office now.

I look out and I notice a tent out on Bascom Hill.

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Oh! It’s taunting me! Na na, you just agreed to camp in the cold in Scotland! Look, look – does this look like fun?

Eh, it’s a coincidence. I know this tent is probably an ad for something.

I go out to look around. From every side it looks like – a tent. No ads.

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Do you suppose it’s a warning?

Ridiculous. I need a good night’s sleep.

Monday, January 26, 2009

flying on the cheap

In my nightmarish scenario, the IRS and various bill collectors will be chasing after me, clamoring after my nonexistent funds and I’ll turn to them and say – sorry, I have a plane to catch.

If I wasn’t born restless, I most assuredly became this way very early in life. I was the family go-to girl when trips needed to be planned and motels booked. I was all of 8 years old.

Ed and I are in the process of negotiating our spring and/or summer travels. As usual, I am strictly bound to a work schedule and he is not. He cares about one thing: if it has to be across the ocean, what’s the cheapest place we can get to?

I spend time searching. Bizarre: it’s Scotland. Half the price of any other destination.
My occasional traveling companion is enthused. Let’s hike in Scotland! With a tent!

I know Scotland to have finicky (that’s being kind) weather. I lived there in the Fall of ’77 with my then partner, soon to be husband. We were graduate students and we put many a shilling piece into coin heaters to take the chill out of an interior. Memories of those quick-to appear clouds stay with you. And now, almost 35 years later, I’m to go back -- to camp?

It’s rare to see Ed positively chirping about Europe and so I find myself weakening. I look at trails through the highlands. I can do this. We purchase his ticket.

Only, I need to get there as well. I’ll be coming from the south and I’ll have a handful of days to kill before he shows up. I could, in the interim, take (the very cheap) Ryan Air to Sardinia…

You’re going to Sardinia? I want to go to Sardinia. Fly down from Edinburgh. Why am I going to Edinburgh if on the same day I am to fly down to Sardinia? Because it’s cheap and you like cheap. Will you camp in Sardinia? Maybe we should go to Barcelona instead. You hate cities! I’ll fly to Sardinia and wait there until you can join me and then we’ll both fly to Edinburgh and camp in the highlands. And then go home, right? Sure, only we have to stop in Paris overnight on the way back, because otherwise we’ll surely miss our connection. Just one night in Paris, correct? Actually two. The airfare returning a day later is way cheaper…

Outside, the winter continues to hit below the waist. The news on the economy is bad, the work for the weeks ahead is daunting.

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But hey. Sometime in May or June, I’ll be pitching a tent as the sudden dark clouds explode with torrential rain and the winds gust with such force that they close the bridge on the return from the Isle of Skye. Our food supplies will be low and we’ll have to make our way to the nearest pub and eat whatever they have. Blood sausage maybe. And I’ll say – aren’t you sorry that you yawned when I suggested a gentle hike along the coast of the Mediterranean? Yeah, that’s what I’ll say.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


The whirl of a good week-end. The super spin of a good week. The tiredness of Sunday, at the tail-end of it all.

I leave you with a photo from the Inaugural Ball last night. Three images: the host (Ian), the superhero (Barack) and the local hero (Tammy).

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Saturday, January 24, 2009


Thinking about the need to refinance my condo makes my brow furrow. It’s as if everything worth complaining about right now is, in one way or another, linked to that process of refinancing. I know, in the scheme of things, a mortgage is only a mortgage, but as I said – many strings of worry can be pulled from this one little pile and by the time you’d pull on most of them, you’d admit that I have myself a nice bundle.

It’s not as if I am made snarly or grumpy by this – not like this guy at the café, whose brow is even more furrowed, or the bull that’s positively fuming…

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…but I am more than slightly preoccupied with the idea that I should be more careful in the way I proceed in life.

I have, today, a diversion and it is getting myself and Ed to an Inaugural Ball (not official, not even in DC, but large and formal nonetheless). When I downsized a few years back, I gave away all that I could not imagine ever using again. However I envisioned my life, it was not with formalwear. What formalwear I had (one glittery sweater) found its way to Goodwill.

Still, I can fake formal by slipping into something black and short. Ed, however, presents a problem.

If you want to go, you must dress up, I tell him. So, do you want to go? Do you want me to go? You don’t have to go. But you’re going? Yes, I am. So do you want me to go?

We have had some version of this conversation on and off for the past several weeks. Today we finally reached the end: So are you going? Okay.

And now we are on round two: can you please wear your black turtleneck? (Ed does own a tie: he never took the price tag off of it: $3.99. I love beautiful ties. This is not one of them. ) The black turtleneck? The one without the ridges. Why not the one with ridges? Because that one has little rips and the color black has faded to a streaky gray. I’ll have to see if the other is clean. I’m near the bottom of my clean clothes so it may be unavailable. Let’s make it available. And no jeans please. Should I wear a jacket? (This is a leftover from a funeral.) Yes please. It has cat hairs. Get rid of the cat hairs. You sure I should go?

Living in Madison shifts your attention from concerns with how clothes look to concern with how warm they are. Spending time with Ed erases preoccupation with appearance even more. He tells me “you look wonderful” randomly. When he thinks he needs to score points.

But I miss thinking about style. I like looking up and thinking – wow, her shirt matches the painting. Nice.

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We leave the café. Down the road, we pass an empty train, standing, waiting, looking sort of magnificent against the blue snow of the late afternoon. You’re going to let that photo go? It’s too cold to get out. Really?

I get out and take the photo. An endless line of empty cars. Beautiful.

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It’s good to have diversions from concerns about refinancing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

winter dogs

To those not from Wisconsin – I am sure you have noticed the string of photos on Ocean: all snowcovered and slippery. Many times this past week I have been thinking back to Alex (a Tobagonian) and his response to my brag about how cold it gets up here (wow, people live like that?).

The thing is, most people who do not live like this (by “like this,” I mean where the cold starts early in November and lasts ‘til early April and then continues to threaten until it’s laid to rest forever in mid-May), think that we, northerners either like it or are used to it.

In fact, so many of us alternate between enduring it and feeling repulsed by it. Oh, there’s the occasional cold but sunny day that feels robust and great, or the snowstorm that makes everything look so pretty the day after – but these are mere moments in a parade of cold and bitterly unpleasant days. And if you think that’s just my take on things – listen to our local news and weather reporters: the purveyors of doom, always looking for the hope of spring, exhausted with the onslaught of cold spells (minutes ago: it’s windy and nasty…).

Ed and I went to Trader Joe’s to restock in cheap wine and ginger snaps. A dog was tied to the rail just outside the entrance. He seemed livid at being left there, even though he had a blanket to sit on (supplied by the store) and a sweater to take the chill off. I felt for him, in spite of his most unpleasant yap and snarl.

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But really, for dogs, it’s not about the weather – it’s about companionship and freedom to romp and food dumped into a dish on a regular basis. Me, I may have companionship and freedom to romp and food dumped into a dish on a regular basis (okay, maybe not the last), and still, I long for that day when it will not feel cold outside.

Maybe I don’t want a dog’s life. Maybe I just want a dog’s attitude.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009


In Tobago, the public cemetery had small tombstones with dates of the birth and death marked as a time of sunrise and sunset. I passed this cemetery daily and over time, I became very familiar with the engraved sunrises and sunsets.

People who vacation on the islands love sunsets. I saw a couple standing on their balcony, camera in hand, photographing every inch of the descent of the sinking sun.

I think sunrises are so much prettier. More gentle. Especially on a misty winter morning.

Thursdays are especially full days for me and so I am up very early, early enough to watch the dark night turn into misty pink sunrise.

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The day is warm, considering. Almost reaches freezing. So after my morning class, I take a walk to the lake. Supremely lovely. Misty lovely.

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I ask the ice fishermen about the day’s catch. Not nearly as lucky as the Tobago fishermen. Still there for you! They tell me. Nothing wrong with hamburgers for dinner!

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Later, the busride home is just a little past the sunset hour. As I leave the bus and walk the few steps to the condo, I think – nice, this is nice.

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But sunrise is better.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

lost in thought

Ah, life. I work, I work out, I work on cooking up another stew that’ll be around for several days.

Late, Ed and I walk down to see Defiance (Sundance Theater is a mere five minute stroll from home) – another movie reminding me of how a short period in time can change everything about your life. From normal to nearly impossible.

I leave you with just two photos. In one, I see nothing more than winter and the loneliness of coping.

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In the other, I see this person across the street and something about the way she looks makes me think I haven’t been in Poland for a long while.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Sometimes you don't even fully understand the stress that you're feeling until the moment when it is removed and you say to yourself -- wow! So that's what that was all about!

I lived in Poland at a time when not many of us had faith in the political leadership. I'm used to that. Some people are motivated to challenge what is thrust upon them and some people withdraw and concentrate on other worlds. (I belong to the latter group.) I have always wondered if art flourished at a time when so many artistically inclined felt themselves to be politically apathetic and disenchanted. Poets, after all, write when they are unhappy. That's what I've been told.

I never fully grasped how disconnected I felt from politics in the last years until the presidency passed today from one person to the next. And how happy I am to once again follow the political discourse (not to worry, not here, not on Ocean).

So let me at least recognize my own thrill at listening to the inaugural address today. As I would recognize the birthday of a daughter, or the funny comment made by my occasional traveling companion, Ed. [And there was such a comment, just this morning. Sensing I was about to start my yearly nag on the matter of Valentine's Day -- he wont observe it, nor any other holiday -- he preempted me by saying: so, I bought us the bus tickets you wanted so that we can visit your friend at the end of February. Happy Valentine's Day!]

And so, even though the day proceeded in the most normal fashion (yes, we are a town of many clothing styles)...

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... and I taught classes and rode the bus home as I would any normal day, this day was not normal. It was thrilling.

Notable, too, was the light on my ride home. Last semester, I would travel back in the dark of a winter evening. Today, the bus driver shielded his eyes from the glare of the beautiful, fantastic sun. Sure, my last class ended a bit earlier. Or maybe it's because we're moving closer to spring?

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In the evening, I went to the gym in my “Obama makes history” t-shirt.

Monday, January 19, 2009

heady thoughts

This day, a holiday and, for many, a day of service is, for me, a day of work. You cannot take off a day just before the semester starts. And tomorrow our Spring Semester (how poorly named!) begins.

And, while millions milled around the monument to Mr. Abe, out by the DC Reflecting Pool, I milled around this rendition of the same person, though our President Abe had a dusting of white snow in his lap:

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While the DC Capitol was readied for the big day tomorrow, I had my own view of the white dome just up State Street:

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Much of my day was spent at Law School, empty today, nice and quiet for a person who needed her quiet:

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Late in the afternoon, I put aside my papers and returned home. My building has a new tenant on the ground floor: a fitness center. And while many residents have been grousing about the sudden presence of the young and fit in our elevators (something about the sweat quotient), I am completely enthusiastic about this ready access to exercise space. Since my return, I have put in solid hours there. If Obama can find the time to work out daily, so can I! (This is my motto.)

Going to the gym is not in itself a very interesting topic for Ocean. But I had today my very first in my life session with a personal trainer (it’s free for new gym goers in the hope that we’ll get addicted to having trainers; believe me, my budget already said “no you can’t!”).

The man whipped me around a host of exercises as if I were a young cadet. Every time I protested, he slapped on a dozen more pushups, rope jumps or what have you.

At the end, Jessie the trainer said – pushing yourself to stay fit is all in the head. And I think what’s in your head is pretty near to what’s in the head of the young woman (she was in her twenties) I just trained.

Jessie cracks jokes as rapidly as he cracks the workout whip, but I think it was meant as a compliment.

I am especially mindful of what is in the head of twenty-four year olds, as my little one celebrates her 24th birthday today. As she revels in this memorable day and in the day ahead (as it happens – she is in D.C., with her sister and friends), I can’t help but think how wonderful it must be to be “in her head” right now! Her fantastic, spirited, ever-concerned about others head. Happy happy birthday, little one! I love you more than all the sweet smelling flowers on all the tables of the world!

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

standing on ice

The sun was out this morning. It was a good challenge to the piercing wind and the bitter cold air. Still, it stayed around 6 degrees (F). With winds that kicked things around and made everything appear even colder.

Let’s go! – I say to Ed. I am on a “keep moving” kick. So that we don’t become permanently glued to a couch this winter. Ice sculptures. We can take a look at them.

I don’t really know that there are ice sculptures, but it seems that each year at around this time I’ve seen them just south of the Capitol. We head downtown.

No ice sculptures.

Just our capitol. And piles of snow.

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We walk toward the Monona shorefront. Oddly enough, I quite like being out on the lakes now, during the bright, biting cold days of winter. Sun on face, toes losing it to the bitter cold, nose long gone, fingers hangin’ in there. It’s all sort of wonderful. For a not too lengthy walk on the snow-covered ice.

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I once biked across the lake in winter – Ed tells me. Do you want to hike over to the other shore? He likes to remind me of the bigger challenges, the ones I wont consider.

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I'll stick with the small steps. This was my significant nod to winter. Hello, bitter cold day.

And now I need a few days to warm myself, inside and out. Meantime, the monsters can have their romp.

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In the evening, it snowed.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

odds (and ends)

[In response to a blog comment:] Barry, you know I cannot fudge the photos – my rule is this: it goes up if it was taken in the last 24 hours. Unless it’s a scan of some childhood memory. So, unfortunately, I must plod on and deal with the reality of this day. Which had no Caribbean bougainville, nor flocks of green parrots flapping noisily toward the forest, nor turquoise seas and ripening green bananas. I suppose I could include a bunch of green bananas. I picked some up at Trader Joe’s today.

No, all you get is this:

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It was a day of bits and pieces. Of scattered thoughts and wisps of conversation.

Did you know that if Chicago got the Olympics in 2016, Madison may then get the bicycle races?
But what are the odds?
Significant, according to some.
Not at all. I’m outta here if that happens.

Did you like the movie?
Clint Eastwood played his part well.
Ah, Clint Eastwood. He has a house on Tobago. On a hill, close to where the hummingbirds congregate. But it’s not Clint Eastwood that I think about when I watch Gran Torino. It’s the scene in the barber shop when guy talk happens. Take away the swears, the racism, the guns, beer and cigarettes, and I think I have myself an occasional traveling companion who would fit right into the movie set. Ed does guy talk very very well and it isn’t a performance.

We eat one of the many soups I have cooked this season in the comfortable silence of knowing that odds are in our favor. Our lives, at the moment, are wonderfully uncomplicated.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Somewhere in this photo, there is a house, right?

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Not my house, but still, a house.

Somewhere in this pile of hours there is a life and I remember it – well lived (or well enough) just days ago, on an island off the coast of Venezuela.

Buried now. Pulverized and scattered in banks of chin-high snow.

How I miss my hours in the sun!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tobago: the final one

Tuesday. My last day here. I’m tracking weather patterns back home. As long as there are no storm systems, I wont complain. I live in Madison. In the winter, my town is cold. I tell this to Alex, who basically earns a living taking people out on the warm waters of the Caribbean. How cold? I answer in both Centigrade and Fahrenheit. He shudders. You live like that?

Yes. I have always lived like that. This is the warmest winter week I have ever had in my entire life.

I have thus far avoided the southern tip of Tobago. It’s the tourist center: most of the hotels and eateries are grouped there. But I’m thinking I should at least see it. The reefs are here. And the white sand beaches. Quintessentially Caribbean, no?

My last walk from Bacolet to Scarborough. Sob.

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Tomorrow I’ll be doing mind games to feel warm.

I take the bus to Pigeon Point (at the southern tip of the island) and head toward the water. The strip of sand is almost empty. One child, bathing, as her mother sells hand crafts on the road.

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Up the beach, I come across a man cleaning fish. Such colors! Do we eat these?? They seem like something out of an aquarium at the dentist’s office.

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Still further, I see the boats. Birds are limin’ there now, but these are the boats of fishermen.

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Indeed, I see that the catch is being cleaned and bartered just off the beach. Red snapper, grouper… Big grouper! Huge grouper!
You want the grouper?
That’s a grouper for twenty.
We can grill it right here! Have some wine with it… He’s playing to my foreigness. Who the hell drinks wine here? It’s rum and beer country.
Next time. With beer.

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Did I say next time? I often read guest book comments in inns and b&bs and there is always the (empty?) promise of a next time. We will come again! How many do come again? Will I come again? Which is better – to go back, or to try something new?

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I find Alex on the beach, next to a handful of boats. Can someone take me to Nylon Pool? – I ask.

It’s an offshore spot. An underwater sandbank creates an unusually shallow area of water. The sea here is so clear that Princess Margaret claimed it’s as sheer as her nylons. The name stuck, but it’s a curious choice. I don’t think anyone wears nylons in these parts (lucky them). What for?

Alex tells me that the fastest and best way to get there is by ski jet. Will it disturb the reef? I know little about underwater life, but this is one of the top spots anywhere for reefs and I know that they have been damaged by people poking around.
No, we’ll fly over the surface of the water. But, can you go out like this? – he’s looking dubiously at my sundress.
Sure. I don’t mind getting wet.

He hides my camera to keep it dry and I climb up behind him.

We take off. Man, it is a thrilling ride!
Hold on! – Alex shouts. The wind is strong!

In ten minutes we are there. I jump down. My dress billows out in the water in significantly unfashionable ways. I can't be bothered by any of that. I am in turquoise heaven.

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Alex urges me to find more shallow spots, but I am too content. I am lapped by gentle waves of a warm and salty sea.

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And then we race back. I’m in a hurry now. There is a small wedding back at the Bacolet Beach Club. I don’t want to be late.

Except that I lost my bus ticket. The bus is insanely unpredictable, but I saw it a minute ago rounding the bend. I poke into the nearest shop.
Do you sell any bus tickets?
I don’t sell them, but you can have some of mine.
Thank you, thank you. I toss the money and run to catch the departing bus.

Last walk from Scarborough to Bacolet. I pass an old woman sitting on a stone ledge.
G’d afternoon! Saw you walkin’ by early! That would have been more than four hours ago! Has she been up and elsewhere since then?
And always the friendly advice: pull down your dress a bit. Where your bag is.

She’s right. The dress is almost dry, but it rides up a few inches where the back pack hangs down. I grin and do as I am told. She nods, satisfied. I can be sent out into the world again.

The wedding. An American pair with their two year old, the bride's mom and step dad. That’s it. (I’m there taking photos for them.) They want to exchange vows on the beach. Of course, these full moon days, there is very little beach. The priest person looks skeptical. His shoes are spiffy and undamaged. He finds a ledge to stand on.

The words of the priest person are terribly predictable but the sea holds back on the big waves. The sun dips down and the little boy throws fallen almonds at the waves. By the time it’s over, I feel a spray of misty wetness on my face and it’s not from the Caribbean or the Atlantic.

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In the evening, I eat at the Beach Club. I order a rum mojito and fish soup.

At five the next morning, Beardy drives me to the airport.

Hello, Wisconsin.

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