Monday, August 31, 2009

one last time…

I know, I know. Move on. No reason to mope. It’s a beautiful day out there.

(remember the first time I took the bike out in April? The trail had no sign of life. One solitary robin would send me spinning! A red bellied bird! Wow!)

Still, as I bike to campus, I get that shocking reminder that the the Fall semester is in full swing.

When you say Wis-con-sin…
You’ve said it all!


Oh, I'm not the only one getting ready for school to start. I've just done it more than the average person on campus. Take this student: how many years of her life has she eased into Fall thinking that this year will be the most perfect of the whole lot of them? Fifteen? Twenty maybe? Okay, multiply that by 2.5 for me...


At the law school, no one is stuck in the season that so clearly is no more. Me, sometimes I pretend I am still drifting out there, lightly, effortlessly, leisurely, but it's not true. My table has stacks of papers, outlines, drafts. I'm not alone. We're all reading, moving forward.


In the later afternoon, I bike to Ed's. I've not done the trip much this summer. No time. When did we play tennis last at our secret tennis playing venue?

Not this time either.

As I round the curve of my most favorite stretch of the bike path, I'm thinking how grand it is that this day should have such a beautiful sky. Because if you're going to be so neglectful of the outdoors as I have been this month, when you do go out, you should do it on an afternoon of perfect sky. Here, in Wisconsin, we have a huge, beautiful sky. That was my thought when I moved here in '79 and I've never changed my mind on that one.

(I've changed my mind on a lot of other things about Wisconsin -- including how "fun" it is to struggle through a cold long winter.)

...against a field of goldenrod, with the occasional puffy cloud overhead. The most beautiful landscape.


Ed helps me fill the tires (I have got to get the bike ready.. One more day and I am in my teaching schedule...).

(For Ed, the change in seasons means that there will be more cool days and less grass to mow. All positives.)

I linger as he shows a local developer various corners of his lot. Ed takes each day as it comes. The developer considers the future of this particular tract of land. Me, I just see the tall grasses and a demanding land, where plants, especially weeds, grow with great vigor and force.


Almost evening now. In the shadows of the trail, I glance up and I see it -- the inevitable encroachment of fall colors.


I bike home quickly. I'm due at the little shop for the evening.

Yes, evening. I need a jacket now. Too cold to just dash out. A sure sign that this is the very last hour of August.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

yes, but...

It’s so often like that: a flight of fancy, followed by a calmer reality. This Sunday, it’s as if neither side won, but each made sure to assert itself.

The day begins. Even from my morning reclining stance, I can see that we're going to have a clear sky. Wonderful!

Oh, but it’s Sunday. I have to clean the condo, so that Monday can truly start with a clean slate. Bummer.

Still, as I finish the scrubbing and polishing, I note that the sky stubbornly holds on: blue, a deep, gorgeous, comprehensive blue. I suggest to Ed we head out to participate in a new (at least I think it’s new) Ride the Drive Madison event: major routes downtown have been cleared of automobile traffic, so that people can take to the streets on this one day!

Yes, but... my bike is back at the farmette -- Ed reminds me.
Okay, let’s walk the streets then! It’s not yet noon, we still have a few hours before I’m due at the shop.

But do I? No! I misread my schedule! I have a mere handful of minutes.

I'm not easily defeated. We hop on Ed's motorbike and head downtown. And I have to say, a small handful of minutes is better than no minutes at all. Because truly, it is a brilliant day. People are out and about -- great numbers of people at that. I see them up ahead, on the bridge, singing, dancing...


Closer: singing, dancing...


and biking...


or attempting to bike... or giving up and playing football with the dog...


I'm liking my home town...

Yes, but did you hear? We may strike a record low for a Madison August night: 37F. Ridiculous place!

And yet… a customer comes into the shop where I am working the afternoon hours. She’s friendly and speaks enthusiastically about the product we sell. Always a good sign. As I wrap up her purchases, we switch to reviewing the day’s weather. It's pleasantly warm inside the shop, when the sun is streaming in, but I note to her -- it’s kind of cool today, don’t you think?
Yes, but my aunt, she has been tracking these things for a long time and she heard the first cicada yesterday.
Is that a good thing? Or not so much?
Oh, it’s great! You get six weeks more of warm weather after the first cicada makes noise here. This August, the first cicada was very very late. Good news indeed!

Yes, uplifting. Wonderfully so. Six weeks of warmth? Wow. No buts. I'm flying.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

short list

It’s surprising how easy it is to downsize life. I don’t mean just shedding possessions and moving into smaller space (though that, too, is really quite easy). I mean reducing your obligations and commitments so that there are very few left. Only the essentials.

I read the story in the Times today about a suddenly unemployed fellow who, at the age of 58, could not find a job and, therefore, experienced an emptiness that comes not only from an absence of work but also an absence of things to do.

Of course, I do not lack things to do. My work plate (broadly baked) is heaping. My daily tasks are finite, but demanding. And, I still worry about cooking a good meal at the end of the day.

But the list, while bloated and bulging in what it asks of me, has very few items on it. Numerically speaking, it is quite short. The inconsequential social engagements, the endless to-dos and should-dos are almost entirely gone.

And for at least a brief period (say, between age 56 and 56.75), I want it to be quiet.

As the late August day begins, with more clouds and insanely cool temperatures (did I ever feel hot this summer?), I think – time to go to the market. And it is the only thing that I do of note. The conversations I will have there may be the only face to face encounters I have all day (Ed doesn’t count, if only because the man’s face is hidden behind text or screen for a good number of his waking hours).

So, in celebration of humanity on this blustery day, here are the colors of the market. Inadvertently, I seem to have picked out the reds of the day. Who could blame me. Did I mention it is an October-like day here?




Friday, August 28, 2009


It’s a French word for “full.” It can be a disappointment: the hotel is full; sorry. But I see the warm and fuzzy side: the day is full, the preparations – completed, done, all fully accounted for.

I’m ready for school to start. My summer was full. All is where it should be. Fully accounted for. Ready for the plunge.

One last detail, taken care of this afternoon: shopping for school clothes.

It can be tough when your budget is dictated by your part time retail earnings. But, I succeeded. Down to the hairband.


While in the shopping neighborhood (it’s quite generous of me to call the big mall area a neighborhood, but I’m feeling complet, and therefore generous), I returned to the place that keeps me happy – La Baguette.


The family of bakers is back from les vacances (only three weeks: I worry that they’re succumbing to the American pressure to cut back) and the store is buzzing!


I stand in line, happy to have the luxury of their baguette, their quiche (best anywhere), their predictable wonderfulness (in the way that one’s neighborhood bakery should always be the epicenter of your world of bliss). I sigh, but my sigh is that of deep contentment.

I am handing over the bills for the baguette when madame tells me – we are selling a new loaf now. Perhaps you would like to try it? Le pain complet…*

Well of course I say yes. In the future, when life is as it always is – imperfect – I’ll pick up a baguette and I’ll break off a piece and have it with whatever chunk of cheese I have at home and my wounds will be (temporarily) healed. But today, buying a pain complet is so…right.

* wholewheat

Thursday, August 27, 2009


The day was a blur. I’ve been nursing a cold (what a ridiculous phrase – nursing a cold – as if I wanted to bring it out in its full glory) and today, said cold decided to respond to my kindness by expanding its reach.

Naturally, I was grumpy (so Ed tells me).

By late afternoon, I had read one case (3 pages long) and I had responded to five emails (two of them not work related). I felt I had done a lion’s share.

Part of me wanted to be in Vancouver. [Conversation from a few days back: Ed, I have a three day lull, free from work. Let’s go to Vancouver! I’ve never been to Vancouver! You want to go to Vancouver tomorrow? Yes! Don’t you have cases to read?] Part of me wanted to sleep.

I did neither. By early evening, I felt strong enough to head down to Borders. I know I drank coffee and, in addition, I rejected all the books that crossed my visual path. (Who’d want to read that? And that? Or that?) Everything else is, as I said, a wicked rush of unmarked time.


But let me suggest something: there has been a change in weather. See it? See her scarf?

Maybe I’m simply adjusting.

Later, I baked that huge head of cauliflower (in an Kalamata olive-lemon vinaigrette), and cooked up some eggs, and made myself a very powerful glass of kir (white wine with cassis; I double dosed the cassis tonight).

It killed whatever malaise had crept up my spine today. Thank God.

I went back to work, to writing, to the rituals of any evening. And I felt terribly sad for those, whose illnesses could not be pushed aside so quickly and effortlessly.

Time for an admission: as my sidebar indicates, I am in favor of healthcare for all. No ifs, no buts. Life is very different for those who are sick.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

school days, fall days

The glorious beginning. Not for everyone on campus just yet. It’s still mostly empty on Bascom Hill (right outside my office).


But slowly they emerge. An early trickle of students. She’s stretched out on the long expanse of green with a friend. It feels so leisurely now, in August…


At the Law School, the orientation program brings all first years to campus. Since I teach two classes for first years, I’m there as well, with introductory classes today.


To me, being in school again is not unlike being at a family reunion. I know the analogy fails somewhat: I have never met my students before, I see very few of my colleagues in the course of the summer. But come fall (and it is fall now, for real… see this on my walk home?)...


…come fall, I am more than ready to plunge into this new, expanded family halfway up Bascom Hill.


Those of us who love the raw challenge of teaching can never have enough of the first days of fall. I’m one of them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

dressed in black

Troops of retail. I see them everywhere now. I can’t shake it, they stand out for me: women and men, but mostly women – walking, sitting, taking a caffeine sip, a nicotine puff, before the inevitable return to the smile from behind the counter.

All dressed in black. As if some supreme marketing wizard decided that customers will buy more from a person who looked funeral-bound. Wear black. Only black. Crisp black.

That’s not true – someone will say. I saw you: you wear an olive apron.

Indeed. I hide my real self underneath all that black and then, to make sure I am well hidden, I happily add on the apron.

Hidden from what? – you ask. Oh dear, let me think…


Monday, August 24, 2009

why me


People ask this question when small stuff (meaning, not life threatening) hits them in the face – why me? And I think (but I don’t say it) – well, why not? I mean, join the club! You think you’re doing the right deed, more, you think you’re doing over and beyond the right deed and there you have it: slap, bang, straight from some punk who can’t wait to scorch you alive by virtue of your mere existence.

I had two (three, if you wish to count me, talking to myself) dear to me people ask this question today.

Little rugs get pulled from under the feet of innocents all the time. You’re left standing on the bare floor while others still have the warmth of a wooly carpet and you ask – why me?

Because, world! It is the way human beings behave toward each other. Recklessly, mindlessly, stupidly.

Since the two stories from today are not my stories to tell, and the third one – my own – could also put me in peril’s way (picture this: wee little person buys something from big hunky company; product is defective; wee little person wants product fixed; big hunky company agrees, up to a point and then stops; wee little person sends final bill for attempt to fix defective product, big hunky company says no and throws in a round of insults. Best not to write about it all on the Net, right? Especially if the product is something big, like a... no, no, shhhh) it's best to stay quiet on the details, right?

But take heart all you why me’s. You have to believe that it all comes around, full circle. The ones who punch, eventually will nurse a black eye.

In the meantime (and unrelatedly), thanks, Ann, for the link to the funniest jokes competition in Edinburgh. I feel like someone could tell me this one (among the top ten picks), to my face:

"To the people who've got iPhones: you just bought one, you didn't invent it!"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

halcyon days

I would like to say that biking back from a coffee with a friend brought to my mind the words of Walt Whitman, but that’s not exactly a correct recount of my thinking.

Instead, it went something like this:

The day began early (6 is early by anyone’s measure) and soberly. Cleaning house. Finding a leaking washer, wondering if there is a more boring expense on this planet than fixing a leaking washing machine.

A beautiful day outside, but I was slated to stay indoors. Good thing. Getting that thing repaired is bound to cost a small fortune. Is it ever otherwise? If I thought my moonlighting would pay for a late end of year trip to that other continent, I understood today that it would not. Instead, if I’m lucky, my washer will no longer leak by the end of 2009.

But here’s where the story changes. After work, I biked to meet up with a friend over a beverage. [We couldn’t decide if a 4:30 meet up was wine time or coffee time; she settled for a soda; I settled for a… oh, I bet you got that one wrong! Early wine is a vacation thing. I am not on vacation. Coffee. I had coffee.]

We drank (soda and coffee), we reviewed the imperfections that are thrust upon any ordinary citizen and soon after, I cycled home.

I followed the bike path past late summer gardens -- half vibrant, half late August dry…


… and on toward my condo, cutting through neighborhoods and parks, past Madison scenes that no longer surprise me (these two parked their car at the curb, took out their ladders and began picking. What are those? I asked. Sort of a wild cherry. Very tart unless you cook it).


At home, I sat back and considered my handful of photos: late in the summer snapshots of halcyon days. End of the season. End of sending kids off to school. End of the day. Trees spilling wild cherries onto the sidewalk. The only thing that remains is to pause, watch, ponder. From there it doesn’t take long to get to Whitman.

Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of politics or war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

22, 23...

There is always a day that becomes an endpoint (or a beginning, depending on which side you take) – a day from which you move forward. Of course, it’s always forward, because last I heard no one is able to step back. From August 22, the only way to move is toward the 23rd.

This morning was so poignantly bright that again I brought out a thinly strapped sundress to wear. This became a topic of conversation as people would nudge me and ask – aren’t you cold?

Am I? No, the sun is out! But it does feel more like fall…

No, no, don’t rush the season for me. Just because tomorrow is no longer the 22nd and the next day is the 23rd and so on, still, it’s August and some people haven’t even taken their summer vacations, I’m sure of it!

But I have.

The Westside Community Market has been neglected by me this year – I’ve been away so many Saturdays, that I never even noticed that my old baking friend Mary has a stall here (Honeybee Bakery). And she has been here the entire market season. Remarkable!

Mary used to be the head baker at L’Etloile, at the same time that I did my week-end baking stint there. She now has her own ovens and I was told by another shopper that I must buy her peach cake, but by the time I got to the stand, her peach cake was history. So instead I admired the tarts. They look exactly like the freshest homemade tarts should look.


I was nudged also to the Edelweiss Creamery stand, because they were, for the first time I think (or is it because it is the first time that I noticed?) selling butter. You have to sample it to understand that there’s butter and then there’s their butter. Great butter is like a cheese – something that can stand alone on a slice of bread.


But I think these heirloom tomatoes, sliced thickly, would add another dimension to a slice of bread and butter. Yes, I picked up three.


And a head of cauliflower, because just this morning I was reading about how good cauliflower can be when sliced lengthwise and roasted.


And corn. You don’t walks away from corn in August.


And of course flowers.


By the way, you know what the saddest moment of the day was? When I realized I had to put away the extra bike until next summer.

But, the morning begins gloriously. Or at least half of me believes it is absolutely splendid.

Even as the clock moves forward, closer toward the 23rd. And the closer I get to the end of this day, the emptier the house will be.

Ed, coud you run upstairs and get me my yellow sweater? It feels too nippy for the sundress after all.

In the late morning, my little girl (okay, not that young) and I, together with Ed, go to the downtown market. Both daughters have such a sentimental attachment to that place that it’s impossible to focus their attention on the splendid market just across the street. Yes, yes, do your shopping there if you want, but can we also walk around the Square? They have such magnificent pan fried cheese curds there to sample!


The downtown market is crowded – is it that it’s the week-end before the university wakes up from a summer nap? Is it that everyone has really returned from vacation?

At the shop where I work tonight half the customers are parents with university bound offspring. At least I'm past that now. This day is memorable in that it is the last time that I am sending my child back to school.

Did I mention that my daughters live too far from home?

It's dark now. Late. My shop hours are behind me. I take out an ear of corn, an heirloom tomato. I put them back. I turn on the TV, I turn it off. Music? Nah. Maybe a quiet listen to the clock move closer to the 23rd.

Friday, August 21, 2009


We’re in the grocery store just down the hill. Ed is on the floor, peering into the depths of the shelf where his discount cheerio-like cereal should be.

Let me go ask. He goes off to find a clerk.

My daughter and I wander up and down grocery aisles, looking for nothing in particular. Dinner is half done – I started it before the movie we'd just seen. We’re now walking back (via the grocery store), picking up Clif bars for my daughter and cheep Cheerios for Ed.

Five minutes later I ask the grocery clerk who is passing through the same Cheerio aisle, looking at the same empty shelf – are you checking for the cheap Cheerios at the bequest of the tall guy? No, not really. He’s out back in the store room, hoping to find them there.

My daughter and I continue to stroll down the aisles. I’ll miss her arm in mine when she leaves tomorrow.

Back at home now. Ed and my daughter are dueling with country music on their computers. Cole Miner’s Daughter trumps the Six Days on the Road. Tomatoes, pre-cut early, are bubbling away for the risotto.

Earlier, we pass a car in the grocery store lot. The car had ducks on it. Lots of them. I think about writing a duck post.


But we’re listening to country now and I am cooking dinner and my older daughter (who, unfortunately is not here tonight) loves country and life is very intertwined that way. Ducks are so yesterday.

In the movie (you’ll guess which one if you’ve seen it), there is a character who is hopelessly romantic and one who is cautiously pessimistic and I try to fit myself and my world into one of these two spheres, but of course, it doesn’t work. What a surprise. Even as I like the movie, because everyone else’s romantic problems seem so beautifully young.

It’s almost fall. I know it. Asters. Cool rains. Emails from incoming students. Tomorrow I’ll make sure my daughter gets on the bus to O’Hare. And then I’ll go to my moonlighting shop. And return home late to a very very quiet place.


Thursday, August 20, 2009


During my teens and for a few years after I passed the point of no more childhood (it was long ago) I was troubled by uncertainty.

As a high schooler in Poland, it bothered me that I could not imagine a professional future that I liked (this had much to do with the fact that I entered the university too early – without a clue as to what I wanted to do afterward).

And it bothered me then that the boy I liked and deemed worthy of husband material really didn’t like me nearly enough. And, though you’ve heard me say now that my occasional traveling companion and I have little in common, I think it has become clear that at some level, Ed and I share some vision of what a day ought to look like, where as my teen love and I, at a fundamental level, did not.

Moreover, I hopped about, with nerve racking frequency between Poland and the States, uncertain as to which should be my home for keeps.

And so I was at an impasse. With lots of question marks about what came next.

My own indecisiveness drove me nuts. And even as I (eventually) made life-altering decisions that narrowed things down a bit, there was still so much that I could not control! I was deeply troubled by the uncertainty of where my then husband and I would settle down. All my Polish friends knew that they would wind up exactly where they began – in Warsaw. Here I was now, considering such off the wall (off my wall at least) places as L.A. and Wisconsin to call home. I knew no one in either place. At least Wisconsin had birch trees and farms. I could relate to that.

Eventually, kids were born and my work life stabilized and the fear of uncertainty morphed into the fear that too much certainty had now entered my days. It was a certainty of what would not be: I knew I would never have a summer home in France where my kids could learn to be fluent in French. I knew that the climb toward professional success would be neither fast nor lofty.

I knew, too, that the minute I finished weeding one end of the too-large-for-one-person-to-be-doing-all-the-weeding yard in our suburban home, I would need to start again and that, at the rate that I was weeding, I would lose the weeding war before the age of social security eligibility.

Much can be said about the years where uncertainty turned into certainty and even more could be said about the years where certainty was destroyed and I entered into a new period of uncertainty (let’s put that last jump in a time frame: say about four years ago). But in this post, I’m not interested in transitions. I’m interested in the juxtaposition of certainty and uncertainty and in declaring myself to be, as of this summer, once again, quite close to a certainty that has some peculiarly pleasing elements:

First of all, I am certain that where I am in life now, is where I am likely to be 'til I have my conversation with the governmental death squad (just kidding!). [This assumes no cataclysmic events of course; cataclysms cannot be brought into this conversation because by definition, they cannot be predicted.]

And, the essentials have been taken care of: I know the family I had is the only family I will ever have and the job I have is (again, barring cataclysm) the only one I will ever have, and I know who the important players have been in my life and though I expect to add a few more, they will be mine by attachment – procured perhaps by daughters (their partners, children, etc.). And I know I will never live in L.A. (thank God).

What uncertainties remain are of the joyful kind. They are potential door openers: I may still finish my book. And even write another. Maybe from the writer’s shed. Which may, someday, get finished. Or, I may spend an entire summer on a houseboat. Or not.

I write this toward the end of a year riddled with open ended questions about who will live where and for how long and doing what and with whom. But I realize that these are not my questions. I have run through my big ones. And I’m fine with that.

younger daughter's next to last night home

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

broken down into little pieces

It is the summer of small pieces of food. Last night, as we chopped roasted vegetables and mixed them into little kernels of bulgur along with a chopped tomato vinaigrette, I thought the cutting board was getting a healthy workout.

Today, as I strip the corn cob of its kernels and chop tomato and onion and garlic and who knows what else, I’m thinking chopping is become as frequent an exercise as riding a bicycle. The summer of chopping and pedaling.

Did you ever notice that small pieces – slices, morsels, kernels – invariably taste better than large chunks of anything?

It is also the summer of chocolate covered raisins. And granola and berries. And fragments of a dream where I link together all the unmatched pieces of life’s puzzle and come out with a sensible, finished whole.

[On a more prosaic note, it is also the summer of market flowers.]


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


When authors Eggers and Russo write, I listen. And this month, both have come forth with shiny new books for me to really really want to read (well, Eggers’ cover doesn’t shine, but it sounds good to say it does).

But this isn’t merely a rhapsodic post on books (even as I admit to loving previous books by both authors). Instead, this is an admission that I have now lingered over coffee at Borders, long enough to read through the entire Eggers book (“Zeitoun”), and I have exercised excessively today (hours!) because the deal was that I could pause from work and read That Old Cape Magic (Russo’s new book) only if I pedaled like crazy on a machine.

I know many of you wont buy this, but the truth is I love good books much more than the average lover-of-good books. It has to do with the written word.


To me these manuscripts demonstrate where I could be, had I the talent and time to be there: creating Eggers-like sentences that are so evocative (in his newest work, for example), even as they use few adjectives to describe, say, a horrendously difficult life event (Eggers would not have had to put in “horrendously” nor “difficult”); or producing absolutely brilliant phrases in the way that only a brilliant Russo can write.

I am not jealous of talent. (Jealousy is an odd bird anyway: how can you envy something that belongs to another? I cannot understand this.) But I love being exposed to greatness, especially when it touches on my own dabbles (writing, of course; photography, cooking – the obvious culprits). These two, Eggers and Russo are that: great. Not loud. Rather – understated. Perfect.

My youngest daughter is here again. Just for a few days. We cook and roast vegetables, and we spin tales about events that most likely will never take place.

I look at the weather channel and note that for the rest of the week, we may have rain.

We eat, I clean up the last oil splattered surface. A ride on the stationary bike would be good now, don’t you think?

Monday, August 17, 2009

the ship that has sailed

I’m not beyond writing in clichés. And I admit it: it's difficult to take uniquely original photos when the day is filled with work.

But, on my ride back from campus, in addition to seeing the sky unfurl its great gray masses of cloud over the lake, and watching the summer sailboats take off from the UW sailing club, seemingly indifferent to the iffy skies, I thought for a long while about boats in general. Metaphorical boats – the once that take off with your past and never come back.


My kids stayed in the same public school district their entire elementary/middle/high school years. Most of the kids they knew in second grade were still around for the high school graduation. And so it does not surprise me that they should now keep tabs on who’s doing what.

My sister and I had quite a different and confusing educational trajectory. I did first grade in a Warsaw public school, second through seventh in New York, eighth nowhere at all, and finally ninth through eleventh in two different public schools back in Warsaw. I’ve been able to trace two friends from my New York school, and I’ve been in contact with one kid from my first grade.

But these are exceptions. Most of my school classmates have sailed off and I would not be able to locate them if I tried.

And maybe that’s a good thing. I thumb through photos of my end of Warsaw first grade school party (the year: 1960) and I don’t feel any special pull toward the girls I’m standing next to. (It could be that the pain of not being dressed like the others – in lacy fairylike stuff – is still coming through; I can hear my mother now – oh just wear the dark tights. They’ll be fine. That, and the unfortunate reality that I appear clueless on how to daintily hold up a dress corner.)


I write about this because I heard from my sister (who lives on the other side of the ocean) just today. She writes about a meeting she had this week with her best friend from first grade. Imagine sitting down to coffee with someone you haven’t seen for fifty years…

I wonder if connections we make at an early age can be significant -- more meaningful than we would like to believe. As a parent, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility that either daughter’s first grade playmates were anything more than, well, playmates. Relevant to that hour, not beyond.

So I’m biking along the lake shore path and I’m wondering: does something profound happen in that hour of play between very young friends? And therefore, discoverable again after many decades? Or is it that the early friendship is only an excuse to have a coffee later? Creating a platform from which you can ask someone their life story (because people are otherwise reluctant to open up about themselves)? (Except, apparently me, here on Ocean.)

Big clouds outside now. Who knows – it may even rain.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Did you know that most dictionaries regard slaw as a synonym for cole slaw? But that if you dig deeper, some will tell you that slaw is shredded cabbage? While the historically thoughtful few will explain that it’s a nineteenth century abbreviation for salad (as in “sla”)?

For some reason, probably traceable to the erratic manner in which I acquired the English language (on again, off again throughout my childhood), I thought that the word slaw was also a verb. And that it was shorthand for slaughter. You know, you can chop up somebody well and hard. Slaughter them. Slaw them.

I thought, therefore, that slaw would be an apt heading for a post on a day when I learned that a slaughtering may take place at my place of moonlight employment.

As the story goes (and believe me, I am not about to give more than a shortened and squeaky clean version of it), a co-worker did something that is not within company rules. And it was, most likely, an intentional act of defiance. For this she may suffer (appropriately, I think) the slaughtering I mentioned above.

This in itself is not an interesting Ocean story (especially since, due to privacy issues, I wont say more about it here). But what is interesting was my immediate reaction. I said this: how utterly foolish of her! Didn’t she realize that she would get caught?

Now, that may seem like an okay blurting of my incredulity at the lack of foresight on the part of the employee. But note that I did not say this: didn’t she realize that what she did was wrong?

I have two thoughts on my own reaction: the first is that I have joined the ranks of the fearful: our goal is to stay employed. That’s it. Do the job and stay employed. Don’t get in trouble and get fired. Hence the incredulity: how could you do this, knowing that you may be fired????

[It’s a good thing that I work for two entities (the university is my principal employer and the little shop on the corner is my secondary, moonlighting employer) whose ethical standards are quite exemplary, because I seem to rely on them to define for me what’s right and what’s wrong.]

Secondly, I’m thinking (hoping?) I was governed by a need to see justice done (“punish the guilty”) rather than by thoughts of finally rising to the second rung of the retail ladder (the bottom one being the last to be hired; if the offending employee is replaced, then I am no longer the one who knows least and is, therefore, worst at getting things right).

Retail jobs are, for so many, extremely short-lived. You get hired, you get fired, you quit, you go elsewhere. It is a world that I almost cannot understand. I'm thinking that the absence of loyalty to the place of employment is especially an American phenomenon. Though there are American company towns, where everyone and their brother work for the same employer, most of us move around as if there were infinite possibilities out there, each better than the last.

Fickle us. Tonight, I’m on the side of loyalty: do good work for the company that treats you well. (Shred and slaughter those who misbehave.)


So, I leave you with these thoughts on work, ethics and loyalty.

On the other hand, it could be that this post is, quite simply, about a boring walk home, where the only interesting thing to photograph was a crate of cabbage.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

the next day

I think the happiest people are those who can transition from one setting to another effortlessly. Pluck them out of one pond, dump them into another – they’re fine. They adjust. And chances are -- the more they had to be dumped into a variety ponds in their youth, the better they become at finding cool comforts in the next murky pond.

Put simply, a bizarre and everchanging childhood at least puts you in good stead for all those back and forths that are going to be thrust upon you later in life.

So, here I am, back home, falling into the simple routines of a Saturday – the Westside Community Market, with all the sweet flavors of late summer…



… yes, fine, I'm liking the stroll across the street, the return to dinner planning, to reading cases even, to eating granola on the condo balcony.

But that doesn’t mean that I have put aside thoughts of my quick spin into Chicago life.





Yeah, Chicago.


Okay, let me switch focus. Madison. Madison.


And tomorrow, I’ll do Sunday cleaning and shop moonlighting, and for dinner, I’ll fix…

Yes, I’m back home again.

Friday, August 14, 2009

a city day

It is again near midnight and I am riding the El from Addison up north, to Clark and Lake – the stop for my hotel. I am reminded of the tail end of my college years, when I rode the midnight subway in New York after closing down the bookstore where I worked the late retail shift. The noise of the train, harsh during daylight hours, isn’t grating now. At nighttime, nothing matters except getting home to bed. I close my eyes and think of myself moving closer to the many pillows and the cool, cotton white sheet. Mmmm…

Summer in the city. If you live there, you want to get out. Paris in August empties so quickly that it sometimes feels like someone took an eraser to the city and wiped the residents out. Stores are closed, cafes shuttered. New York on a summer week-end is the same. Walking down an avenue, you can hear your cell phone ring, it’s that quiet.

Chicago is different. Oh, I know, it’s not the week-end now. The Loop, that rectangle of office space and lunchtime retail trade will look less vibrant if I wait until tomorrow. But I’m not waiting until tomorrow. And I’ll bet anything that the places we walked through yesterday and today, will feel equally delicious tomorrow. Full of people looking to unwind in the heat of a summer day in the city.

This is what I find most thrilling about Chicago: in the last ten years, it has thrown a lot of resources into creating wonderful public spaces. For this alone it deserves the 2016 Olympics. Not convinced? Read on. And tell me if any other urban center on either side of the ocean has done anywhere near as much to change and improve the nature of communal outdoor life.

I’m waiting for my wee family to join me downtown. They’re poky and so I meander through the Loop in search of a good cappuccino. That part is easy. But what do I eat with it?

On the Daley Plaza, I happen to find the Thursday Farmers Market. It’s different than our downtwon Madison market: fewer vendors, larger quantities in each stall – that’s predictable. What’s funny to me is to watch the buyers. I'm in a city. Yes I am.




There's a Picasso at the plaza. The Picasso. It’s so fitting: a gift of steel (that would be Gary, Indiana steel which in itself is fitting). Looks like… it’s not clear what. No one seems to know. The artist’s wife? His Afghan dog? Today, it serves another purpose.


And in front, the Chicago Park District has set up a boxing ring. Welcome all, we want to present the young boxers of Chicago! The 70 pound class! The future champions of the 2016 Chicago Olympics!


I eat my oat and peanut butter baked bar (like in Madison, bakers are popular at the market) and sip my coffee and watch.

The sky is a deep blue. One isn’t accustomed to seeing a clear sky like this in a city, but Chicago rarely gets the hazy pallor of a New York summer sky. The air is dry and warm and I’m ready for a brisk walk.


I’ve not done the River Walk before. I haven’t much time now, just enough to take it toward the lake and back.

I pass by the love it or hate it Trump tower…


… and, further down, I stroll by cafés and strips of green grass where office workers take their noon break. At the “river’s” edge, the Park District has set up a fishing tent. Come learn about the fish in our waters. We'll lend you a rod. You’ll catch something for sure.


Kids sit in life vests, dangling bait in the aqua waters of the canal. Surely this is a catch and release thing? Or do they take it home? Guess what I picked up downtown!

It’s my lunchtime now and I meet my family at Pastoral – a place where sandwiches and salads to go are as good as in a Provencal café in southern France. We pick up a bag of food and take it to the Millennium Park.

The Millennium is the most glorious contemporary public space of all time! When I lived in Chicago some thirty years ago, the area was a wasteland of old rail tracks and concrete blight. The 24 acre park that grew out of it is a jewel of art, concert space, gardens, fountains – all inviting, telling you to shake off your mad rush to nowhere and exhale.

And splash in the Crown Fountain reflecting pool, in front of digital images of Chicagoans.




And see yourself reflected in a different way in the Cloud Gate (or “the Bean,” the Kapoor sculpture inspired by a drop of mercury, but made to loom large, so much so that it is one of the biggest sculptures, anywhere, ever).


Each time I am here, something else about it strikes me as remarkable. Today, I take a photo from the “mouth” of the Bean, looking out, so that my horizon meets the Bean’s upside down image of it.


You know, I could do pages on the Park. But, Ocean is just a snapshot on a mood, so I have to move beyond it, past the Buckingham Fountain…


...past the Field Museum, where I deposit daughters for a short while. I’m not ready to give up on the late afternoon summer sky. I walk along toward the Shed Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium – places visited by us many times as daughters moved from young toddlerhood to childhood to teenhood. Now that they’re adults, there is nothing to explain, to clarify. No cautionary scold out here by the water either – be careful! Don’t get too close to the edge! Other parents can now take up these words (and they do!). Me, I’m focused on the fantastic skyline. Or, I'm staring at the sails out on the gently breezy waters.



And now we turn around and head back toward the Loop.


Whereas evening comes slowly back in Madison, so that you hardly notice when it stopped being daytime, in the city, it is an obvious and quick change. Shadows take over the narrow strips of sidewalk. The rush hour comes earlier here than on the east coast so that by 6, the crowds start to thin.


My daughters suggest the rooftop bar in my hotel for an evening drink. The rooftop here is, they tell me, a hot pick for young professionals. Indeed, there is a line that weaves around the block just to get in. As a hotel guest, I am allowed to go straight to the top.

This is a new world for me. I explain to them that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been to a cool city bar. And I don’t need all my fingers for the count. This, in spite of the fact that I lived in cities for many many years. By the time I joined the ranks of the professional world, I was no longer young and I had two kids waiting for me at home. The drinks I learned to mix had things like fruit and honey and yogurt in them.

Being on the young side of motherhood (at least as measured by the demographics of the urban professional set), I get to now savor the Rooftop with daughters at the helm. And they tell me what to order and how to regard the social dynamics that unfold before us.


Some readers here may counter that a glass of rosé at a café on the other side of the ocean (which I have savored more times than can be counted on the fingers of many hands) counts as bar hopping (especially since my daughters are now are asking the bartender for a glass of rosé), but I think that at café-bars, the people watching is of the world outside, where as here, I get the sense that people watching is within.

They tell me that, as measured against similar venues out east, this is a friendly, nonthreatening place. (Meaning, I think, that the patrons don’t cut each other up visually) I am mesmerized. Aided by the delicious lime-cucumber-ginger something or other. Oh, and toasts with eggs and just a hint of truffle.


Feeling utterly urban and very professional, I linger and listen and occasionally take a photo, so that the bartender asks if I am with the press. No, just with fantastic daughters and my little Ocean somewhere out there.

Dusk is now quickly merging into an evening darkness that makes the city looks extra wonderful.


We walk back to the El and head north to meet up with their dad for a late dinner at a superb neighborhood Italian place (Terragusto). The crowd is boisterous and the food is so fresh and honest it hurts to finish it. Swiss chard in custard with a mushroom ragu, inky black pasta with shrimp, mascarpone cheesecake with summer fruits.


A day in the city. Nothing more than that. But could it be more perfect?