Wednesday, September 30, 2009

moments of nothing

At the end of the day, I stopped by my colleague’s office. Having the room right next to mine forces her to listen to my sudden and extravagant recounts of … whatever I need to recount.

She was sympathetic. She admitted that I had a lot on my plate. I felt better and retreated to my own room.

What I think is toughest for me right now is that I have no time just to stare and interpret. It’s my way of passing time. Many watch mindless TV or do Sudoku. I would if it would calm me. What does calm me is doing absolutely nothing at the same time that I throw an occasional glance at others doing something.

Tonight, I have my chance. My classes end at the usual evening hour and for the first time in months Ed and I have arranged to eat dinner out. (Lest you think this is a sweet moment of romance, think again. It is merely the 30th of September and our coupon for a free entrée at Brasserie V expires after today.) In between, I have time to kill.

I stroll (briskly; it continues to be rather chilly here) to the café-bar on Monroe Street and settle in for a period of watching.


After, I walk over to Brasserie V and, while waiting for Ed, I look around some more. I make mental notes of one thing, then another...


All this isn't perfect. My head doesn’t clear, the work for the rest of the week doesn’t diminish, but I feel I have had at few profitable minutes of doing nothing at all.

Really. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I did it, but I can't say that I liked it

In searching for a bit of information about my last year's schedule, I looked back on an Ocean post from last October. I was shocked to see there that I had biked to work throughout October. Whereas this year, I take one look at the chilling readings on the thermometer today (low forties) and automatically assume that I should take the bus.

What happened between last year and now? Is someone telling me I should accept old age? Accept the fact that I do not want to bike beyond September 30th? And next year, will I be using a cane? With mittens pulled tight by September 15th? And a hearing aid turned to loud?

Oh, I haven't a problem with any of that. In fact, I'm slowly imagining myself giving Jason notice and embracing speckled gray as the hair color of choice. Old is good. Less fickle, less anxious to please. But old is not good if it means giving up on training for the Olympics or failing to engage in vigorous physical activity. (I mention the Olympics just to let you know that I am waiting anxiously for 12:30 EST on Friday. I think an Olympic biking event in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin would be fantastic!)

So I took the lake shore path to work today. In my black coat. It brings forth an image of a flying nun, or the devil, depending on your inclination toward me, or Ocean, or both. And it felt very very cold.


deconstructing food criticism

I know I’ll get rapped for this post. I always do when I venture into the jungle of “the critically inclined.” But I can't take the safe path here. I feel I should speak out. On behalf of all the cooks out there who try to do the right thing but fail with the unforgiving public, for (according to me) all the wrong reasons.

Here’s my point: it's too easy to lay on the negatives onto a dining experience. Admittedly, we all like to stab away at someone else's craft. It makes us appear that much better at our own.

And we all want to be the ultimate judge, the critic par excellence. We never understand why the newspapers don't want to pay us for our brilliant insights on what we eat. We can find fault! Just listen! (And suddenly we imagine ourselves to be quite in league with those who are paid to come up with something that is off-putting about Le Bernardin (top rated seafood restaurant in NY). We forget that there's good reason why you and I are not paid to offer our opinions on Le Bernardin.)

Maybe you are different, maybe you want the world on your plate every time you eat out. Not me. I want this: I want the cook to use fresh ingredients as much as possible (so I hope you'll feel free to criticize places that use canned or processed foods, unless we’re talking about very cheap meals). I want the cook to offer me something that I cannot easily whip up at home. And here’s the final one – I want to enjoy the meal.

Now, granted, I have been a relentless critic of the American dining experience and so who am I to now plead with others to lay off a bit on the knocks and punches?

I think it’s for this reason: I wish we would be in agreement about the basics! I wish we would judge eateries first and foremost for the ingredients they use (and if the place doesn’t measure up at this level, I wish we would explore the reason why – because often times it says more about us and what we have come to expect, than about the restauranteur). After that, I wish we were more forgiving.

In years of travel, especially within France (you know France: that ridiculously fussy country as far as food goes?), I have rarely seen anyone show signs of displeasure when eating out. Maybe it’s the wine that knocks out their senses, but really, I think it’s something else: the French seem to approach things with perspective. The food's not good today? Well, does the cook shop at the local market? Yes? You’ve seen him there? Then we won't complain. We'll eat and enjoy and look forward to an even better meal tomorrow!

I like that attitude. It’s filled with hope and compassion. Of course, if tomorrow it all tastes wretched again, and the week after he (it's rarely a she, but that's another story) fails yet one more time, then there’s the ultimate revenge – the patron doesn't return. The place stands empty and eventually the cook will try his hand at something else. Maybe basket weaving or velo maintenance. But until that day, he’ll have had the locals stand behind him. Willing him to do better.

Uff. That was hard. I hate to sound so critical, even if the criticism is against those who choose to write critically about the efforts of others. Let me finish off with something innocuous. Like the weather. Sure was windy today. At the bus stop, I watched her amply twirled and twisted hair blow in every conceivable direction.


Sunday, September 27, 2009


If I ever look back on this week-end, I’ll recall it as a time when I did what I long believed needed to be done: I latched on to a useful narrative and stayed with it.

It was, thank God, handed to me by circumstance. Ed wanted to work on the Ice Age Trail. I like the Ice Age Trail. I will, this week-end, think about little, beyond the Ice Age Trail.

Yesterday, we worked on building it. Today – well, actually today I cleaned the house and then worked at the little corner shop. But for an hour stuck between the two, and for several hours after work, I thought about National Parks.

Let me just focus on the noon hour. A brilliant noon hour. Almost threatening in its strength and magnificence. Still, anyone can tell that we are way past summer. The air is moving from warm to crisp. I feel the desperation that fills me when I am about to leave a place or time frame: is there something that I can do to keep a fragment of it after today?

It’s a good day, an important day, and it’s passing me by.

Noon hour. Ed and I drive west. Toward the narrow rural road that I regard as near-perfect. If anyone were to ask where, in rural Wisconsin, would I agree to live and prosper, I’d probably say somewhere close to here. (Alright, forget about the prosper. Prosperity is ephemeral.)


A few more twists to the road and we come to a place of future Ice Age Trail activity. And on the other side of the road we find a path leading … somewhere (not clear where).

We haven’t much time, but we follow it. Because, well, there’s so little of the good season left.


Yes, the emergent rusts and reds are beautiful…


…but the meadows are dry, verging on overpowering you with too many earthy tones. Still, can you see the goldenrod? The little daisies? The bee on the violet thistle?



This is where I want to hide, in days that I am running away from all that I should run from.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

swinging high, straight down

Don't you now how to carry a pick mattock? Sharp side down!
(Later) can you run over and get a McLeod? And a sledge? And a bucket with a couple of gallons of water for the cement?

My day.

Maybe you're not tool-savvy? Maybe you don’t fight forest fires or break up roots of invasives?

Earlier, my morning began at the Westside Community Market. Truly, I feel a gut-wrenching sadness at seeing the stalls now. It'll all be over so quickly. And how can that be, given the load of strikingly beautiful food on display on this end of September market?




After filling my basket, I hesitate. Should I work? I have no corner shop hours today, but I have lots of law work on my plate.

Or maybe not work? Or maybe work in an entirely different fashion, alongside a group of volunteers building the Ice Age Trail? I’d done that once before, clearing brush, but today’s agenda for the Ice Agers is way more ambitious.

We're southwest of Madison. The rain that was to hit us today stayed away. I mutter -- You don’t carry the pick on your shoulder? Like in Soviet Russia?

I notice that I am the only one in regular old running shoes.

Are you able to swing a pick ax over your head? You can’t swing sideways, because if you miss, you’ll take off both your legs. Right above the ankle. Next time wear sturdier boots.

I don’t have trail building boots. And I’m not sure I can now, at 56, effectively swing an ax. But I hardly ever say “no I can’t” and so I do.


And I dig holes.


And cement poles. And break up roots. And when the going gets too tough, Ed takes the pick mattock and whacks away. So that his t-shirt clings in wet strips to his back.

The people working here today – they’re a pack that has labored on this project together before. The Ice Age Trail is a work in progress and someday the IAT will be as much part of your vocabulary as the AT (Appalachian Trail) now is.

Easements through farmland join parcels of state land to form one beautiful path through Wisconsin.



Built for your pleasure. To encourage you to hike the land. Through forests, past cornfields, up hills, across streams (they're building the bridges for you!). The undulating land that is so familiar to us, here in the upper Midwest.


Ed asks Tim, the man in charge (catch him tomorrow – briefly - on PBS, as part of the great Ken Burns epic on the National Parks) – so is it tough for you these days? To keep the project going? Given hard times?

Tim is a cup-full guy. We have the biggest volunteer base, and the hugely important recent cooperation of the National Park Service – he says this with a wide, happy grin (as opposed to the frown earlier, as he assessed our work on the small trail fragment that veers off the Badger State bike Trail (you couldn’t finish the wiring today? The man’s standards are exacting.)

You eating dinner with us? At the campfire?

We almost camped with them. Almost. But, there were veggies from the market at home and, well, an Ocean post to write.

We’ll see you on the next segment. (Before winter. Join us. Find out when and where here.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

on the bus ride home

Another lovely evening with students and another late return home.

It’s rare that I’m downtown past dinnertime. I know that this isn't anywhere near the witching hour, but I have adopted my grandmother’s hours and so I start dreaming of flannels (her preferred sleeping attire) in the hours far in advance of midnight.

My grandmother, of course, was also an early riser and now I am that too. If at 30 I forced myself out of bed in the morning, these days I force myself to stay put and try for another few minutes of sleep. It rarely comes. Forcing sleep is like forcing fertility: the more you want it, the less likely it’ll oblige.

Because there was a threat of rain, I had taken the bus rather than the bike down to the pizza place.

ah. my bus is coming down state st.

At least two of the students had parking ticket violations and hefty fines because they failed to drop small coins within seconds of when the meter did indeed run into the witching hour for them.

Sad. But I am among the lucky few who can ride home on a bus. Tonight it was one that takes the long route and I can’t tell you how pleasant it was to sit back and close my eyes and worry about nothing at all during the entire ride home.

Week well spent, family sagas (temporarily) resolved, love still felt, work still has meaning, the cold spell still not arrived.

One student commented that I give long answers to questions. A habit of a blogger – one who is used to answering even when a question isn’t as yet posed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


It’s been a long time since I biked in the pitch black night.


I really somewhat like it. On a warm night, the darkness is rather inviting. Speeding up one hill and coasting down the next, I’m thinking – this is what running away must feel like. Mmmmm…

But, I haven’t much to run from. The day was so full of good work and good encounters with students (yes, the annual pizza night at Uno’s: one section today, another tomorrow) that really, if I were to run toward anything at the moment it would be toward more work. It can be that intense. Or distracting, depending on what else you want to accomplish during your time on the planet.

I wont post photos of the evening with students – there are too many lovely faces out there and I don’t want to pick and choose. But I’ll put up this – of one waiting for the doors of the Karaoke place to open. If he looks worn and tattered, it’s because it was an even longer, even harder day for him. I at least get to declare recess when I need a break. The students have to wait. Until recess. And for the karaoke doors to open for them.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I can’t say that I am one of those who looks for “signs.” As in -- "if the sun shines in the next minute then I will get mumps"… Strange reasoning. I avoid it.

Still, what would you think if, on the way to your Torts class, you had to slow down your bike in order to avoid hitting the white-clothed men and women?


I'm biking, as usual, past the hospital and I understand that there was an emergency drill today, so, of course, there is an explanation. But I have to wonder. Is it coincidence that I am racing to be on time for my class on medical malpractice?

Whew. Too much seriousness for Ocean.

I'll switch gears:

I have been (cheerfully?) complaining about how housebound I am this fall. I'm certain that I need flight in the same way that you need air conditioning (all Americans appear to need air conditioning). Let me say this: it is easier to turn up air conditioning than it is to put in place flight when your income dwindles (it’s the economy, stupid!), and supplements to it are, well, meager.

Spend your miles! – someone might say to me. (I accumulate miles in the way that people accumulate junk: constantly, without ever throwing anything away.) No! That’s for the ultimate rainy day -- when I can’t moonlight anywhere at all because I am so old that my joints don’t permit me to open the door to anything that doesn’t have a push button attached to it.

Late, on my way home, I bike to the grocery store to pick up veggies for supper. Hi, Ocean, says a fellow shopper who knows me pretty much exclusively through the blog. Going anywhere soon? I've been wondering... Funny you should ask, just on this day!

So, today, my occasional traveling companion and I purchased flights. Indeed! All those hours of post-work work (“Hello, how are you? What brings you to our shop this evening?”) have given me a flight.

Even though the flight isn’t until December.

In the meantime, I take great great pleasure in watching the flight of other winged ones. On that same bike ride to work this afternoon, I notice this guy take off. Happy travels to you. I know how cool it is to push off and head elsewhere.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

kormorany, in english

A commenter asked for a translation of the song in the previous post. I was going to do this in the comment section, but then I realized that it's Tuesday, for God's sake, Tuesday, my awfully long day, a day that is so consumed by work that I cannot write anything here at all because everything has to do with work and, well, I don't write about work.

You could have had here a post about rain. Because there was plenty of it. But that's too simple. Let me add a layer of emotion by providing (some of) the lyrics from yesterday's song. Interspersed with photos from today (hello, autumn!). A very very wet day. So wet, that no one's shoes were adequate. Sit back and just look at this (very wet) landscape as if you were Polish. Take off your socks. They're wet. I peeled off mine. And I let myself lean back into my chair, immersing myself in the words before me:

Kormorany. The cormorants.

Dzień gaśnie w szarej mgle
The day disappears into a gray mist

Wiatr strąca krople z drzew
The wind shakes off raindrops from trees


Sznur kormoranów w locie splątał się
A string of cormorants, tangled in flight

Pożegnał ciepły dzień
Said good bye to a warm day


Ostatni dzień w mazurskich stronach
The last day in the Mazury region [the lake region of Poland, where so many set sail during vacation]

Zmierzch z jezior żagle zdjął
Dusk took the sails off the waters


Mgieł porozpinał splot
That's a toughie: it's about dusk taking apart the tangle of misty air

Szmer tataraku jeszcze dobiegł nas
The whisper of sweet flag reaches us

Już wracać czas
It's time to return home...


Even pop music could not shake the poetic impulse. Songs of the sixties in Poland, even the late sixties, were so full of metaphors and poetry that the heart just swelled.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Has anyone become tired here of the ending summer theme? Really not? Honestly?

With the official close of summer (tomorrow afternoon), I put a close to brooding. The seasonal malaise, fueled by wistful rides past yellowing fields of soy has to stop. You can’t in one breath say you’re all about the colorful, changing landscape (I love a crisp fall! I love the new school year! I love living in a place with four seasons!) and in the next – tear it apart (I miss summer! I hate the gray of November! Look one last time at the barefoot women and shirtless men on the UW campus!)


Though really, I'll admit it, change is difficult. Only spring manages to gallop in without so much as a shrug of concern for all those who happened to have loved February or March.

So, let me stumble along, as I become, with each day, more and more accustomed, as we all will be, to the shift away from summer, toward the dull, cold, bleak, gray days of late fall. Can’t wait.

In the meantime, I'll be listening to Kormorany, A Polish song that I learned to love in 1966, when I returned to Poland from the States. It speaks of the shift from summer to fall. Kinga, one Polish-American reader who occasionally checks in here, this one’s for you. The rest of Ocean readers, well, you may enjoy seeing what was hot (music-wise) in Poland in 65-66. Not up to the standard of the Beatles? Oh, how little you know about what pulls at the Polish heart!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

a cigarette break

I like the idea of stepping outside for a few minutes to take stock of what you’re doing and where you’re heading. A cigarette break sort of, minus the cigarette.


I also like the idea of sitting down at a café, over a beer (or glass of wine) before a sensible hour, because it suggests that nothing else has to be done that day,

I did neither. Though I did jump out of the ordinary for a bit (even as I spent very little time outdoors). Instead of receding into my usual ’09 antisocial demeanor, I drank coffee with friends, first, at brunch, with my very kind manager (from the little shop where I moonlight)…


…then at the place of the cigarette and beer photo.

It’s a bewildering day in a calm sort of way. One can invent drama in one’s head even when nothing’s happening.

Maybe it’s time to step outside again. No cigarette, just a break from an evening of thinking.

It’s truly beautiful outside – summer, masquerading as fall.

A very long goodbye to a sweet and gentle season.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

saturday morning

Suddenly, the Saturday ritual – a trip across the road to the Westside Community Market – is under fire. For three weeks in a row, I’ve ignored the market. I haven’t the time to cook – not on the week-end and not on the evenings of early week. I’m home too late to brush dirt from mushrooms or peel squash for soup. By the time my evenings clear (Wednesday), I have a the Hilldale Market down the hill offering even fresher corn, tomatoes, greens.

But this seems just so wrong. During the cold months, I’d give anything for a chance to take out my basket on a Saturday and shop for produce outdoors. If you don’t do what you claim you love doing, shouldn’t you reconfigure life so that you can get back to what once made you smile?

This morning, refreshed by a Friday of no outside obligations, I pull Ed out to the market. Dinner will be late – past 10 – but that’s the way it has to be. And anyway, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms don’t take long to roast (with olive oil and garlic, 400 degrees, ten minutes).


The rest of the morning is a blur. When you have a list of tasks, all disconnected from each other and pulled together only because they’re all just a Honda motorbike ride apart, you go through it all in a hazy state of indifference.

Only the weather continues to be anything but indifferent.

And so we motor downtown to sell some clothing, and deliver a photo of mine to the Overture Center Gallery (which photo? I choose La famiglia Romana because I love all that is contained within it), pick up a replacement laptop for Ed, a backup hard drive for me... I know. After this kind of a list, one has to ask -- why blog? Why write about life if your life has become inconsequential?

But let me finish: we settle in at La Baguette, for a cappuccino (for me) and quiche (for Ed). A dreamy quiet settles over my internal space.


I read an article last night, written by a man who, in his permanent bachelor state, finds himself with too much time on Saturdays, even as his married, familied friends find that their Saturdays are booked for years into the future. There is, of course, mutual envy.

To me, Saturdays with family or even perhaps in a newly minted love affair may appear booked, but they are booked in good ways. What should never happen is what I find to be my lot right now: free days that aren’t free, but nor are they (for the most part) putting anyone closer to anything singularly special. These cluttered times will fade from memory, because no one remembers days spent on crossing off "to do" lists. That's why we make the lists: they are surely forgettable.

On a more cheerful note, late night hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and scrambled eggs are a wonderful supper. Especially with a baguette from a bakery that now forms the backbone of my better moments.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Hi Ed. Do you think, maybe, we could soon, you and I, go shopping at Woodman’s?

It has come to this. Woodman’s is Madison’s premier discount grocery store. A place that, to me, is everything that makes for a grocery shopping nightmare. Aisles of bulging containers of godawful stuff that some would call food.

Except, there are two points to remember: 1. It’s cheap (Ed appeal) and, 2. if you look carefully, you'll find something fresh and honest. Maybe not fresh. But honest. I have to believe that Kashi crackers and organic grape juice are honest.

Life has been so brutal (meaning – busy) that we have run low on the basics. It's time for that quarterly Woodman's trip.

But walking up and down the aisles (and we walk up and down all of them), I have to wonder – cheap, yes, maybe, but at what price to the American eating habits?


We stand in line at the check out. Ed tells me – I have never in my life checked out with TWO carts full of food here.

Except that we haven’t bought anything, I tell him. A bunch of bananas and a pint of blueberries – that’s the extent of the produce.

Indeed. What we have are two carts full of everything but dinner.

The experience is so (to me) depressing that I insist on a pause for air at the nearby La Baguette. There, we chat with the owners, we laugh...


...we meet the owner’s parents. We walk away with only one baguette ($2.50), but my sense of well being has surged.

In the late late afternoon, we take Ed’s ancient (is 30 years old ancient?) Honda to his farmette. He wants to feed his cats, I want to take a walk.

Earlier, I was creating space on my laptop (the way to do this is to get rid of hundreds of irrelevant photos) and I came across pictures from March and April in Madison. It is a sadly gray time of the year here.

Today is its exact opposite.


I walk over to the fields where the Hmong farmers have so earnestly planted market vegetables and flowers. They are used to seeing me with my camera. We chat in the way that people do when neither understands the other’s language.


I continue up the road, past fields of market flowers…


And further still. The sun is low, the colors are sublime. My shoulders are bare – it is that warm.


I call Ed. Pick me up on the Rustic Road. I’m ready to head home.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

one more time

Oh, indulge me! It was a week of hard work, a week of fighting off viruses that are surreptitiously creeping up Bascom Hill, a week of meetings, appointments, a week of late hours at the little corner shop.

And all I could think of was how enchanting even the hellishly busy weeks can be when the air is warm, the sky is blue and the sun dapples the bike path with crescents and obelisks of harvest gold.

I’m not going to campus tomorrow and next week promises the more typical pattern of rainy days and cool evening rides. So I give you this one last day of brilliance.

…on Bascom Hill, just outside my office…



On State Street, during my afternoon coffee break…


…and on the lakeside ride home.


Look closely at the faces: soon they’ll be hidden by scarves and turned up collars. Not today. Today the caps are decorative, the scarves – absent. Young bodies, stripped as far as decency permits. To take it in, one last time.



…while the sweaty band plays on.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Two tail ends to my day: a quick good bye in French and a greeting in Russian.

I have to say that nothing challenges and excites and depresses me more than having the opportunity to use a different language in the course of a very normal day. Let’s focus on the depressing elements of this: I am always worse than I think I ought to be.

But wait, my day started at the market. Nothing complicated about that. I try to decide between garlic.



Ed is with me so we go with the cheapest per bulb (the German).

That is the easy hour. So long as your day’s challenge is in deciding between Georgian and German garlic, you have nothing to complain about.

Then the day gets tricky. Teaching. Yes, of course, Lots of it. After, I pedal madly up hills and across excessively busy intersections for an appointment on the far far west side of town.

And now things become complicated in a pleasant sort of way. At 5:30, my obligations are behind me and the rest of the day is completely open.

I bike to La Baguette (ca va? Oui, ca va bien. – that was easy…) where a loaf of wonderful bread is waiting for me.


And soon after, I bike home. Or almost home. I choose a circuitous route. Past the Sheboygan Community Gardens. I waver. Tired, hungry, I want my home. (There are exactly 45 pounds of tomatoes waiting for me. Ed and I had gone overboard at the market.)

But I throw the bike down and go up the hill, because the sun is setting and I hear a language I hadn’t heard in a long time.

And there is a family, tending to the remains of a summer garden.


I recognize one person instantly: she used to sell bagels at Bagels Forever. I knew then that she was Russian. A very long time ago I had asked about her. They said she had a son, same age as my daughters…

I listen now, watch, inquire with my eyes if I can take photos, they (there are four of them, older, and still older) nod yes.


And then I leave. hesitating, but just for a moment. With (now, switch to Russian please) a comment about how beautiful the colors were.

Are you Russian?
No, but close. Polish. I sort of understand your language.
Yes… Polish. Polska…

And that is it.
Very lovely colors. Good bye.

And I think – I really love languages. And people who speak them well, naturally, from day one.