Friday, July 31, 2009

from shore to shining shore

Suddenly, nothing around me is calm. It’s as if I have stepped onto the Coney Island Flopper. [In case you’ve not heard of the Coney Island Flopper, let me explain: it’s an amusement park ride that wiggled and jerked, so much so that it caused a young man to tumble and damage his knee. Poor dude. Just wanted to impress his girl and down he goes. But, all this resulted in a wonderful court case and a colorful opinion that graces law school texts, so all was not lost.] Me, I’m just trying to stay steady on this crazy moving belt of brisk summer days, even as it's all speeding way too fast for a person of my inclinations.

No, wait. One element of this day at least is very calm: the waters of Lake Mendota. No big waves out there. The evening is gentle and quiet.


Each year, Ed’s business partner organizes a supper cruise on the Betty Lou for the company men and women (their company is Tormach). Tonight I am on the cruise – sort of as a proxy for the absent Ed.

A lake sunset is extraordinarily magical and I have the photos to at least give you an idea of what it’s like out there at dusk.


It was a fine cruise.

And here’s one thought that I had out there on the boat. It’s been on my mind lately, so I wasn’t surprised when it came back tonight as I watched the company head and his wife at the helm – it’s about the importance of standing close to the person you love. Not easy always, but always important.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

little deals

When you work most of the day, in the minutes that you are not working, you exaggerate everything. Everything!

For example: I suffered terribly the pain of not liking my haircut (Jason, you are a haircolor genius, but as for the cut – do I really look like I am that kind of a person??). And, at the moonlight job, the moon was significantly up and running by the time I finished for the day. The computer system had crashed and nothing appeared as it should. Miserable. The phone at home rang at all the wrong times: phone calls that I would have wanted to miss reached me and those that I wanted – passed me by.

(My traveling companion is away on a wilderness trek that sounds worse than hell to me and so I am at least grateful that I am not suffering the conditions that I know he finds quite tame (the boundary waters of Canada and Minnesota).

I look up at the sky – a gray, wet sky, with one or two threatening clouds and I think – this summer is different from the others. Something to do with the weather maybe? Too cold? Or is it something else?


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Madison home life

My younger daughter is spending time here and by the week-end, my older daughter will be here as well.

Sometimes I wish they would become boomerang kids – the ones who return as adults, just for a while, until some event pulls them out again. At other times, I am happy that I see so much of them during their vacations (rather than during their periods of work stress). I get the very best then – their smiles are radiant, their conversation – intimate, yes, and at the same time shockingly honest and youthful. It becomes clear that I am of the generation that, all yoga and camping notwithstanding, is no longer at the cutting edge of the mainstream. I am a wee spring that feeds into their mighty river. They are in charge. (And that’s a good thing.)

I sit on the couch and I pick up an address book. I want to call my mother to tell her about Cross Village and I cannot remember her phone number. My daughter looks at me with wide eyes.
You still have that?
What, the address book? Yes, yes, I mean to update it… I know, it looks ratty with all the new addresses stuck in on scraps of paper…
No, I mean, you still have a physical address book? That’s so retro!

I recount all this to Ed later in the day.
Hey, I have my appointment book on line -- he tells me proudly.
Then, after a minute of introspective reflection: On the other hand, I'm totally into my rolodex.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

island quiet: Michigan

If you were ripped away from your routines and dropped on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, with no phone, no electricity, nothing to link you to your life on the mainland, if you were surrounded by pristine beaches (sorry for the much overused attribute, but it’s apt) and clear (yes, very clear) waters, how would you handle it?

It’s not an easy question. I am almost never so completely cut off from the world, without an option to return to it.

The ferry bounces over to the island (Lake Michigan can have bouncy waters) in the morning, and not every morning at that; it dumps its cargo and returns to mainland.

North Manitou Island is, as I said, a National Park Service island and a designated wilderness area. But at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a small logging and farming village here and some houses from that period remain. So if you need civilization, you can explore the remains of a once thriving community.




Wilderness, to me, brings forth images of wild things. I was told to look out for deer (they were brought to the island about 100 years ago, for sport, but since every few decades the lake does freeze as far as the island, I imagine some can still move from the mainland to North Manitou – a ten mile journey). And there are, they say, coyotes. I didn’t see either. But if you move around slowly (we do that), you can see the small details of island life. And they are wild.






Copulating, fishing for a meal -- sex and food: how important is that?!



One morning it rains. We had pitched our tent under a large oak, next to a meadow of purple flowers. (The beach was 300 feet away – 133 of my steps; I counted.) Waking up, I know there is no reason to get up. And so I sleep some more. It is the longest rest I remember having.


Another morning, the sun came out. Slowly, because that's the way we all move around the sun. The swans were there, bobbing.




We don’t cook much. Boil water for our morning oatmeal. And once, we heat up a packet of spicy rice. Cheese and crackers and wine are a dinner staple.

Bugs: people always want to know about the severity of the bug problem at a camping spot. We have some, but not too many. We eat outside in the meadow – something that would not happen if I were swatting at little flying things.

We did have no see ‘ums. I ask Ed about them: what are these little things? No see 'ums. What's that? Any small biting insect you have a tough time seeing.

And here’s the sublime part: we walk the empty beaches and we swim. The northern Lake Michigan waters can be cool (topping at maybe 65 degrees), but somehow it all looks warm! And once I take the plunge, I give it a good few submerged minutes before running out into warmer air.



And let me close our island stay with this: the feeling of absolute peace and freedom. We are taking a walk maybe an hour before the ferry is to come and go and I tell Ed that flapping my arms and leaping in the air feels right. And so I do just that. And then I think we may want to take one last dip. And we do that as well.

The ferry comes, we board and return to the mainland. Eventually, everyone leaves the island. This is the way things are.


The drive to Chicago is long – maybe six hours. We pick up a daughter there and return with her to Madison just before midnight.

So I'm back now. Happy as a clam. Because if you take a leap on a beach, it stays with you afterwards.


Monday, July 27, 2009

passing through: Michigan

In the course of my six childhood years in the States (I was here not as an immigrant, but because of my father’s work for the UN), I went to summer camp twice: once at a “private, but what’s unusual about us is that we tolerate children from communists countries” camp near Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (the camp directors had lefty world peace leanings at a time – in the fifties and early sixties – when this wasn’t so fashionable), and a second time at a YMCA camp in New Jersey.

I don’t know what children are singing in camp these days, but in both camps, as in my UN International School, I learned a lot of ditties about harmony and getting along. And the counselors (and teachers) sang these as if they meant it.

Most of the songs are stuck in my memory (as my daughters will attest – they had to listen to them). One sweet song gave the title to this post – passing through... it was such a favorite! A tribute to all the fleeting moments in life which, in the scheme of things, seem trivial. Except that they’re not. Of course, the song said it all in less fussy words.

As we leave Cross Village, the place where my grandparents lived in the years right after the Second World War, I slowly begin to take in the Michigan that is today’s Michigan. The place of cherries and roadside cherry stands…




…the place of coastal tourism (this is in Charlevoix, where we paused for obvious reasons)…


…and the place of great summer camps.

Oh, now I’m running back in time again. Because we’re passing through the part of Michigan where for five consecutive years I had one, then the other daughter go to summer camp. (Interlochen Center for the Arts.)

The place is open and welcoming to the casual visitor and this time Ed and I are nothing more – just visitors. He’s curious about it (though honestly, Ed is curious about the functioning of pretty much anything – from machines to fisheries to corrupt banking systems to art summer camps) and so I show him the bits and pieces that once defined summer for my daughters – the concert auditorium, the lake, the practice huts, the place where uniformed campers congregate for a song (something more sophisticated than passing through).




It’s been ten years since a daughter was left here for a month of arts (and isn’t it nice that there is this place that gives balance to the emphasis on sports at most other camps), but it most certainly feels less remote and dusty. Unlike in Cross Village, this past was my past.

It’s after eight. We still have a short drive to the coast. The ranger station at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park closes at ten. We need a permit to set camp for the night.

Predictably, Ed opts for the backpacking camp sites – the ones that require a hike into the wilderness. Also predictably, these wilderness sites are unclaimed and available (at the same time that the ones clustered around the parking lots are booked solid).

We pay for the permit and set out with our gear along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan.


It’s after 9 and the light is fading. And so is my confidence in our ability to get to the designated area in time – before dark and before the rain comes.


And it is unfortunate that I am right to be worried on both counts. The sky grows dark and the rain comes down. And, to add spice to the mix, the lightening starts just as we are beginning to veer into the forest.

I’m a coward about storms. I knew one might crash down on us this week-end, but Ed went to great lengths to convince me that we would survive and that I would not be burned to a crisp by a bolt striking close by. Indeed, he did a Net search to demonstrate his point: 600 deaths in Wisconsin last year from automobile crashes. 12 deaths in Wisconsin in the last thirteen years from lightening. (And 13 in the last thirteen in Michigan.)

Yes, fine, data on the Net are convincing when you’re studying them on your computer screen in your condo. In the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, they’re random numbers that mean nothing at all. With each crash, I pick up the pace, so that I am running (some would say wildly, frantically), in search of a place where we can pitch a tent.

You wont get hit.
I have a camera, that’s metal. I’m a target!
I’m carrying tent poles, that’s metal. Neither of us is a target.
Last year, I heard….
I told you, you wont get hit.

I didn’t get hit. But the torrents of rain made sure that we would remember the storm. Sleeping in wet clothes is memorable.

But, on the up side, our tent is an ingenious little number that assembles in two minutes flat and stays dry no matter what. Of course, what goes in wet, stays wet. But the sleeping bag is warm, the sound of rain on the tent cover is soothing (just as it was on the roof of my grandparents’ village house in Poland: you can spend a whole night interpreting the comings and goings of rain clouds, basing it on the sound of raindrops on a roof). And, some part of me feels happy that the day ended on a wild note. As if something more had to be added – a calm end to a sentimental search for family would have been too tame, too inconsequential.

Our night at the Dunes is short. We know we have to be up by 6 so that we can hike back to the car and drive up the coast to Leland, where a ferry leaves at 10 (and they don’t wait for no one! – I’m told) most of the days of the week for North Manitou Island.

We’re packed and hiking along the shore by 7. No sign of a storm now. Only the wet sand tells me that heavy rains did pass through here.



We load the gear in the car and head north. It’s a pretty strip of land (the Leelenau Peninsula), but I hardly notice. I’m typing away at my computer, anxious to put something up on Ocean before we board the ferry for North Manitou Island.

The island is currently part of the National Park system. It’s not a large swat of land: maybe 8 miles by 4. What’s unusual about it is that it’s part of the declared American wilderness. I’m told that only 5% of federal lands are wilderness, and half of these are in Alaska. So it’s a rare thing. And a good thing. Because wilderness means that you are permitted to camp anywhere. And there are no motorized vehicles. No commercial enterprises. No pets, no RV’s. Nothing: just you, your tent and nature.

We board the ferry. As the little boat fights the waves of Lake Michigan, I look around me at the mix of passengers. A girl scout group (I’m guessing here).


A dad and his very young son. The dad has been to the island many times but this is a first for the son. The boy is so very shy. But he has plans. He wants to camp near the old cemetery. And swimming: he would like to do that right away. And maybe pick some wild raspberries. If they’re ripe.

I know that the boy is from a split family. I hear it in the way he weaves his mother into the conversation. And I want to pat the dad on the shoulder and say – the boy will be okay. But how do I know. He’s barely six. There’s a huge chunk of life before him.

On the island, we attend a mandatory info session, given by Ranger Hunter.

Three things I care about: your safety, preservation of resources and your fun – he tells us.

The guys loves teaching. You can tell: he wants us to learn.

Here are the rules: camp 300 feet from the shoreline, take out trash, bury your b.m. 6 inches, don’t light fires. I spend the evening and half the night checking for violations. This is federal land. Your land. But it will outlast you. You and I, we’re only passing through.

He reads us a lengthy quote to that effect. I swear, he's choking up on it. Probably from Teddy Roosevelt, Ed whispers.

We pick up our packs and search for a camp site for our two nights here.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

finding family: in Michigan

The drive through the Upper Penninsula is always a calm treat. Much of the Lake Michigan coastline is forested (the Hiawatha National Forest) and the peeks at the lake waters are enchanting. Even when the weather is iffy (alternating between rain, fog and a stuffy haze).



Two hours later, we are at the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the UP with the Michigan mit.



And now, it’s only an hour’s trip along a narrow country road to Cross Village.




Cross Village. High up on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. It was once a lumber town. But, a fire destroyed most of it back in 1918. I’m told that only the American Indians stayed.

My grandfather (“Dziadek” in Polish) was born in 1885 in a wee village in southwest Poland (not really Poland then: there was no Poland as such in 1885). My grandmother (“Babcia”) was younger and her family home was further east—in a part of Poland that is now the Ukraine. Following a convoluted history of travels back and forth between Poland and America, his short career in car manufacture and a long career in labor organizing (and hers in cleaning and baking), Dziadek and Babcia came to Cross Village.

An old friend, Stas, had opened up a tavern here (the Legs Inn). I know this about my grandfather: he wasn’t a fan of excessive drinking, card playing or organized religion (all three habits dominated village life and were as Polish as apple szarlotka). What he did love was the world of nature. He and my grandmother practiced organic farming before it had a name attached to it. Cross Village was, in his eyes, serenely beautiful. He chose it for his (first) retirement. [He would go back to labor work and construction work, but in 1945, he thought that this was it: the place to hang it up, while picking up some cash from the Polonia Guest House that he built on the bluff, overlooking Lake Michigan.]

Okay, enough family history. The point is that Cross Village is barely a dot on the Google map. With a population of not even 300, it lacks, well, pretty much everything. It has a post office where you can pick up your mail. On and off it has had a store.

Oh, but now it also has a “destination place.” So tells me the grandnephew of Stas. (I ask Ed -- what’s a destination place? He tells me – oh, you know, like Disneyland.)

But we didn’t start off at the tavern. First on my list of Cross Village places to find is my grandparents’ old Guest House. I have a photo of it – taken when my grandfather finished working on it in 1945. I show it to the first person we run into – a guy who is pushing a mower as his pals sit in the yard cheering him on.

Oh, that must be the bluff house. Sure, I know it. We come up here for vacations, but yeah, it’s down the road there.

Only later do I find out that I have just been speaking to my second cousin (by marriage).

We drive down to the “bluff house.” Yes, it’s the one.


I knock on the door. An older woman answers. Excuse me… my grandfather, he built this place. Can I look around? And maybe take a photo or two?

Mrs. Jessick has lived here since she married Louis the Polish post master, back in 1961. They bought the house shortly after their wedding. Probably from the cook that my grandfather sold it to when he decided to return to Poland in 1951.

Ed and I go inside. We exchange stories and photos and I listen to a more detailed history of Cross Village. She has a binder of information and I have one too (my mother put it all down on paper not too long ago).

As I sit in her living room, I have this infinitely sad sense of the presence of my grandparents. Because I see them here – the knotty pine, favored by my grandfather in all his construction projects; the trim above the doorway, the stairwell – so similar to the one he later built in his subsequent home in Poland, in the village where I was raised by him and my grandmother (for the first few years of my life).


And I see the land where my grandmother grew vegetables and I look out the kitchen window where she surely must have looked out repeatedly as she cooked meals for the guests who came up here from Chicago and Detroit.

There is a skeleton of the outhouse here still and I’m thrown back to the years where in Poland we used an outhouse as well. (And well water. And kerosene for light. And coal for cooking. Sounds basic, I know. Indeed, Cross Village had more amenities when they left than their subsequent house in Poland did, until the electricity was brought to that village.)

Mrs. Jessick may have wanted a longer visit, but I am on a mission. She asks me if I met the person who shares my grandfather’s name. Surprised, I tell her I didn’t know I had relatives here. Oh, but I do. The man with the mower is married to a woman whose father was the son of my grandfather’s brother. I get it – they’re my second cousins! I go back and reintroduce myself. Here he is – Paul, in the house that my grandfather’s brother began building before suddenly, he just gave up.


The day is turning rainy and wet. Ed and I go over to the Legs Inn. What can I say – it is indeed a destination place. Absolutely packed, for those looking for something that’s a cross between Indian folk and Polish memorabilia, with a few cougar and deer heads thrown in.


Ed and I order lunch – bigos and pierogi for me (hunter’s stew with cabbage, mushrooms and sausage, and dumplings filled with cabbage and mushrooms, and with potatoes and cheese).


I’ll admit it: when my grandmother cooked these, I remember being enthralled. I swear hers were fantastic: lighter, healthier too. But I also have to say that hers is the only Polish kitchen that I have ever loved. It could be that my experience with Polish cooking is miserably deficient. My mother never liked to cook and I don’t think she ever even looked at a szarlotka recipe.

Ed and I struggle to finish the heavy foods (he orders smoked whitefish as a nod to our Lake Michigan circuit and vegetable golabki – cabbage stuffed with rice and veggies; normally it also has meat, but hey, the Legs proudly has a vegetarian offering. It aims to please.

So this is it. Cross Village. Logging town, then a nothing place, except not really, because it’s the place of stories so closely tied to Dziadek and Babcia. In the absurdly long winters of Poland, with the help of a kerosene lamp, he told me fables and taught me to read before I ever saw the inside of a nursery school. She fed me zurek and pierogi and salads from her organic garden. I picked through blueberries with her and I watched a bee crawl up his arm as he closed his eyes to the sun and breathed deeply.

Dziadku, you have a bee on your arm.
Yes, I do.
Swat it away! It will bite you!
Why? Don’t you like to watch bees?

When I left for America (for the first time, as a kid), he gave me a book of Polish folk songs. Sing them occasionally – he told me.

I do, but it makes me cry each time.
So emotional, Ed would tell you.

P.S.: We're spending the next two days on an island off the coast of Lake Michigan. I'll resume posting late Monday.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Drive: to Michigan

Like the adolescent with a hot date after work, I watch the clock, ready to punch out and fly the minute my shop hours are up. We need to get to Escanaba tonight (five hours due north).

I’m out. Run home, Throw down my black work garb, slip on sneakers, toss pack in car. A short drive to pick up Ed at the farmette – and we’re off.


I’m driving and telling stories from the shop floor. For a man who is no longer employed, Ed completely enjoys listening to my work tales. On some days, I wish our roles were revered.

I’m so engrossed in recounting every embellished, drawn out, dramatized detail, that I am unaware of my surroundings.

Why are we in Lake Mills? – Ed asks. He's been mulling this over quietly for a while now and finally, not coming up with any sensible explanation, he poses the question to me. [For those who don’t know our geography, Lake Mills is east of Madison; we’re supposed to be aiming north -- toward Packer territory.]
Aren’t I on 151?

Twenty miles out of Madison and I never noticed that I took the wrong turn.

I make up for my deficiencies by pledging to do the driving for the rest of the day.

If you ever want to do the “around a Great Lake” trip, Lake Michigan is a wonderful choice. But if you live close to it, like we do, then the first leg of the journey – whether you start by going north, or south – is boring. Heading south, you quickly hit Chicago's urban sprawl. Heading north, you can't avoid the endless small cities, b'gosh, of the Fox River Valley.

The night comes quickly.


We bring out a laptop (the car is too old to have a CD player) and listen to books on tape. Ed falls asleep with the first chapter as I push on. Sheets of mist appear in patches as we come closer to the Great Lake. The air is cool. The drive today is mostly in the dark.

We reach Escanaba after midnight. Oh, I remember this town well. We passed through this way last summer – returning from our Lake Huron kayaking trip. Yes, I remember: we had a slight difference of opinion as to whether we should camp or find a bed and shower for the night. So little has changed.

This time, I’m looking for my hard won spot of luxury – the super cheap Super 8 Motel. I’ve learned to stay firm on long days where nothing about pitching a tent sounds attractive.

I’m looking so hard that I barely notice the cop pulling me over. Sigh. In my mind, I run through all the things I could be doing wrong: eating a dinner of bread and cheese while driving, craning my neck in odd ways to find the motel in the dark, moving from one lane to the next in the hope that this will facilitate the search, keeping the car registration stickers in my purse, rather than on the car plates where they belong -- the list is long.

Can I see your drivers’ license and your registration?

Naturally, I can’t find the car registration. I search. Ed wakes up and pokes around, looking very much like he’s searching.

The cop looks up the car plates. He’s a Michigan guy and so he does not really care that my address on the license has not been updated, nor that this year’s stickers are not where they should be.
Your headlight is burned out.

That’s all? I mean – oh no! We do not intend to drive much tonight. Do you know where the Motel 8 is, btw?

The Super 8. Just up the road. Good night, and safe driving.

Ed, do you think I handled that well enough?
You didn’t get a ticket. Well enough.

The motel is completely full. Civilized people, driving through the UP, liking a shower and a warm room. Fellow travelers, moving between Wisconsin and Michigan. Canada too.

A few hours of sleep and it’s morning. This is the big day. Cross Village and my grandparents’ Polonia House is a mere four hours away.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Plan: Michigan

I’m setting out tonight. Right after work. With a reluctant Ed along.

The man claims his spirit is crushed because The Plan calls for one night (tonight) in a cheap motel. He had hoped for a royal flush of four nights under a tent. But I think he’s apprehensive about the entire itinerary. I’m trampling through sentimental terrain this week-end. Ed would tell you that I’m plenty emotional already. No need to stoke the fire there.

The Plan includes reaching Escanaba, Michigan by midnight (that’s at the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for those Ocean readers who think the Midwest includes only Kansas, Chicago and Detroit). Eventually, by the end of the week-end, we’ll have circumnavigated the entire Lake Michigan.

I should have Internet access on all days but Sunday. That’s The Plan.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009



Always looking to pick up extra cash, I signed up to participate in a research study. Last night, a research assistant to the study called to prescreen me for it. (Let me not keep you in suspense: at the end of the conversation, I was eliminated for failure to meet the research parameters).

The study is being conducted at the University of Wiscosnin and it is on the genetics of smoking.

This was, to the best of my recollection, our conversation:

Hi, I see you volunteered to be in our study. (She takes time to explain that the study is on families and smoking and it requires some medical tests and one lengthy interview.) To compensate you for your time, if you participate, we will give you a $50 gift card.
To where?
Target or Walmart.
You have my full attention.
But first, we need to see if you fit our criteria. Once you answer in a way that disqualifies you, I will end the interview, okay?
So, when did you start smoking?
When I was 15.
Did you ever smoke more than five cigarettes a day, for a period of at least two months?
How old where you?
Did you smoke the first cigarette upon waking, before you did anything else?
No. [Let me insert here, for Ocean readers, that I was a light social smoker for a handful of years and that I hated every cigarette I ever smoked, so that it was not hard for me to quit entirely at the age of 22.]
Did you have a cigarette before breakfast?
Did you find you had to rush to have a cigarette even when you were very sick, so that you had to get out of bed to smoke?
I was not very sick in the years that I smoked.
Did you rush to smoke outside the building in times of work, or when you were on smoke free premises?
Let me tell you something: in those days, there were no smoke free premises.
Whaaat? (The interviewer is completely thrown off here)
People smoked inside all buildings.
Kids smoked in college classes. There were little silver ashtrays on classroom tables.
Are you serious??
People smoked on airplanes. Eventually in the back of the plane, but still, they smoked.
No, you’re joking. On airplanes??
I can’t think of a space where you could not smoke.
Well then, did you rush out to smoke outside anywhere anyway?
I did not rush out to smoke.
Oh, OK. You’re not eligible. We thank you for your time.

$50 to Target, lost, because I did not rush. Weird.