Monday, February 28, 2011

public transportation

So another week begins. A little unusual for me: I wake up in Chicago and I hurry to the El so that I can catch the early bus to Madison.

I’m going against the traffic. The people on the other side are heading downtown. My bus leaves from the airport.


I think how luxurious it is to be so completely relying on public transportation. On the El, I close my eyes and let myself go limp as the train sways one way then the other. Then, on the bus to Madison, I open up my breakfast (granola bar, banana, coffee) and take out my computer and get to work. The sun, streaming to my right, is pale, in the way that morning suns are, but so very lovely. It’s doing its job well – much of the snow in southern Wisconsin is melting.

Monday is a long day for me. I don’t end classes until most everyone in the building has left for the day. But it’s not dark outside when I leave the law school. On the busride home I close my eyes again and exhale. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a bus pick them up and carry them home. Almost to the doorstep.

Lovely rides. Someone drives, I review the day and think about the next hour. I’m almost sorry when my stop is the next one and I have to make my way to the exit.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Late Friday. We continue to eat our way through the evening...


...and we catch up.

But it becomes late for me, even as it is still so very early for her. On week-ends, the overlap in the waking hours of my daughters and myself is actually quite limited.

Indeed, I wake up Sunday morning at my usual six, force myself to stay sleepy until seven and then settle in to do work after that. By ten, I think surely my family will want to get going. No, not yet. And so I set out for a long walk alone.

I take the El downtown and I do what I most love to do Sundays – I go to a public park.


In these morning hours, the sky is brilliant (it does not last)! Truly stunning.

I walk over to the Art Institute, toy with the idea of paying their hefty entrance fee, and decide against it today. I just want to walk. The city is spinning a little in my head. It’s reminding me of years when I lived here.

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Across the river, down Michigan Avenue, but then I hesitate. I don’t need to go to Chicago's retail heart. Let me head back to my daughter’s neighborhood. I cut across one street, then another and as I back away from the downtown, I crisscross blocks and communities that seem almost forgotten.

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When I moved to this city in the early seventies, I thought the place was ... difficult. Now, I’m a tad more optimistic. Much has changed. To a degree.


I keep walking. Up Grand, north on Milwaukee.

I pass the Polish Museum. I’d spend some time there thirty-five years ago, when I thought I’d be writing a dissertation on the transformations within the Polish community. Today the place looks sadly neglected. Not surprised. The Polish community is dispersed. Even as, within minutes, I hear Polish from the one passerby who is, as I am, walking the streets of West Chicago.

There isn’t a concentration of Poles here anymore. The one sign of a Polish presence is probably imported from elsewhere in Chicago. Funny to see a Polish film festival here on this day of America's big movie awards.


Evening comes. Oscar night. We open boxes of Thai take-out and settle in for the show.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

red shirts and huts of Wisconsin, white flakes of Chicago

As I make my way from the local bus to the Library Mall (where I hope to catch the Chicago-bound bus), I come across two dogs that support Wisconsin.

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I’m not sure if there is one special aspect of Wisconsin that they especially want to stand behind since the t-shirts proclaiming their loyalty appear a tad bunched on their backs and so I can't read everything on them, but these dogs are so lovely to behold, all in scrunched-up red, that they are almost as popular among the crowd as the main speaker.

Almost but not quite. The speaker is our Congresswoman, Tammy Baldwin, and she is addressing a crowd of members and backers of Fair Wisconsin (the advocacy organization that stands behind LGBT rights – a word of fair disclosure: I have contributed money to this group).

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Fair Wisconsin is about to lead a march down State Street to the Capitol, to express solidarity with the unions under attack here, and probably with unions in general. I listen for a while and would have listened longer (again, fair disclosure: I voted For Tammy Baldwin and I like to hear what my representatives have to say on any number of issues, and I, too, support unions), but I do have a bus to catch and so I leave the group and head toward the stop.

The bus stops at Memorial Union, which, most of you will know, is by Lake Mendota. If ever spring felt distant, it is in that one long glance over the frozen waters of the lake. I see that the ice fishermen are still sitting in their red Wisconsin huts. Fair disclosure: I’m hoping that their season of ice fishing will end very quickly and that with one big heave, the ice will soon melt and we’ll be done with this nasty stretch of cold weather.


But, I know better. It’s my 32nd winter in this state. March does not necessarily bring with it real spring.

So, down to Chicago I go, to visit my younger daughter. The excuse is to watch the Oscars together tomorrow. The real purpose is to be in her sweet, gentle company for a day or two.

I get off the El. There is an ever so light snow falling over Chicago.


My girl and I sit down for a late lunch. It's so much better to talk across the table than by phone!

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The room empties. The place is ready to close. We walk home, dusting off white flakes off our coats.

Friday, February 25, 2011

loaded down

If you’re going to do farmhouse restoration, expect to do a lot of lifting and carrying. Heavy things. Boulders in basements, beams, old tubs come down, pails of dirt go out. Bricks. Lots of old chipped bricks. Floor boards, cement bags.

Ed’s done the bulk of it. At sixty, he can still lift things that three of me could not lift.


It’s hard work. Soon to be replaced with dull work as we take on the electrical switches. But, it’s good to see the house propped up and nailed back together. And we have a good team with a hefty amount of experience. Andy and his grandson have done construction work all their adult lives. They know their nails.


(How is it that Ed’s the worst dressed of the lot? He tells me that the jeans are only now coming into their own.)

And speaking of nails, I admired a set. In rows. For a nail gun I’m told. Here, next to the bronze statue.

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Ed’s mother was an artist and her art – paintings and sculptures – at the moment is propped up in various rooms of the farmhouse. Bare rooms, unfinished rooms. Now with construction tools and figures made of bronze.

Having never gutted a building this old (okay, having never gutted any building), I didn’t realize that it is much like going for your medical checkup when you haven’t seen a doctor for decades. One thing leads to another and before you know it, you need tests, surgery and two limbs removed, or at least replaced in parts. At the farmhouse, the chimney’s out. This reveals the inadequate support that has always characterized the building. As walls come down and warped door frames are removed, a rotting floorboard comes out of hiding. And so on.

You cannot be in a hurry. The house wont let you rush through the job.

But, the day is delightfully buoyant. That late February light is playing across the fields and you can’t help but be thrilled at the sight of this older farmstead, there, in the grove of fruit trees and weeping willows, with a tall silo, plainly visible through the bare branches.


They say the sap will start running in about two weeks. And soon after, surely a few crocuses will sprout. Thrilling thoughts. Energizing. For all those hauls with heavy loads.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

switches and such

We are in that period of farmhouse renovation when things look a lot worse, so that, if all goes well, things will eventually be better.

Classes ended for the week and I hurried – literally ran – to get home so that I could make the drive to the farmette before Andy quit for the day. I missed him by 5 minutes. And maybe that’s a good thing. Ed tells me that Andy is limping badly. I think he’s working too hard. At the same time that I’m thrilled that he’s putting this much effort into the project.

Since Andy was gone for the day, I walked through the house slowly, quietly, taking in the progress of the past two days.

The floors have all received additional support, which means that with the hoisting of the house, the walls have all cracked substantially. Which is a good thing, in the long run.

Upstairs, the wall surrounding the former chimney is so brittle and thin that you can take your pinky and bounce it around some.

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Hey, at least the outdoor birds are crazily chirpy... A nice momentary distraction from the work at hand.


I take out my pad and Ed and I walk through all the rooms and take note of electrical outlets. They need to be changed. Eliminate this switch. Replace that one. Definitely change that one. And so on. Such a small farmhouse, and yet there are 19 switches (some double, some single), and 29 outlets, most of them it seems to me, concentrated in one room, unfortunately not the bedroom.

Okay, enough. Who would possibly care... except we care. Deeply. Why else go through all this? A pause at the sheepshed for a cat greeting...

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...and onto Menards, where we try to pick the right switches and plates for all outlets and it is a damn complicated task and I’m sure we got it all wrong and half the stuff will have to be returned. So be it.

I had wanted to cook up a storm for dinner tonight, but I have no energy left. Chipotle burritos it is, yet again.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

rushing toward spring

The farmers who supply us with spinach every two weeks all winter long sent an email with these words: spring IS really just around the corner. The birds are singing and the air is moist. I’ll take a farmer’s word for it.

I can’t say that, in the late afternoon, walking to pick up that spinach, I experienced that feeling of lightness that I would expect from an early-signs-of-spring kind of walk, but since the farmer mentioned moist air, I did take note of it – a sense of dampness, of snow melting. Slowly. In some places.

Surely we are inching toward March!


No time to go to the farmhouse today. But for Ed and me, all conversational strands lead to talk of the building project.

The track for the kitchen lights is too short.
The smoke alarms we picked up at Farm&Fleet aren’t as well rated as the ones on Amazon.
Craigs list may have a good armoire for sale one of these days. In the meantime, there’s Walmart. I cannot believe I am arguing in favor of Walmart.
We need to rethink the tiles in the vestibule. What is a vestibule anyway? Any different from a mud room? Or a foyer?

And this goes on, all day long. As if somehow the farmhouse has become my spring hope, my vision of breezy evenings and birdsong mornings. Spring comes earlier out at the farm. That, at least, is what I want to believe.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

at the end of the day, there's always spinach

As I walk to the bus stop early this morning, I’m thinking – surely it is the last time this season that I will be seeing this?

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After classes, Ed drives me to the garage that had been attending to the door issues of my bright red Ford Escort. Insofar as his car (or truck) experiences problems that he cannot fix, he takes them to J&K Repair and it is always the lowest bid and the best work in town. The door now opens on my Escort, the engine light has quit flashing, and the charge is all of $30.

Unfortunately, J&K is close to Farm & Fleet and so we have to stop there as well. To pick up a steel flat stock, and also a trowel for the cement job that needs to be done to support the jackposts in the basement of the farmhouse. Enough construction talk for you?

I am a tad concerned when Ed tells me that smoothing cement is a first for him. Mixing it? Working with it? Fine, but apparently smoothing it is an art form that doesn’t come easy for the novice. Why does it matter that it’s not smooth – I ask him. You don’t care what the basement looks like, but I do. Why? I know I’m not likely to get much of an answer there and indeed I get simply – because.

We stop at Menards as well. There, we pick up more lighting fixtures and we examine switches and tracks and all forms of electrical fittings. Loaded with all good deals, we head out. It’s been a long day. I haven’t the oomph even for a trip to the grocery store.

We eat eggs and defrosted bagels and the few shreds of CSA spinach left in the refrigerator.

Monday, February 21, 2011

transitional times

It’s good that in travel, you do not know what awaits you or else, quite likely, you’d never leave the soft cushions of your couch.

In Atlanta, the Delta agents put me on so many flights that are then canceled or delayed that when I finally appear at the gate of one that is to soon leave for Chicago, the agent takes one look at the record before her, then passes me off to her supervisor.

The flight itself is a riot of missteps and malfunctions. Long delay in departure because the incoming plane -- a flight from Cancun -- is late. (Who could blame them. Stay with the warm weather as long as you can.) Then, a pull away from the gate and a quick return, because the auxiliary engine dies. One could say that it’s good to find this out while still on the ground. One could also say that sitting for over an hour in a plane where nothing works, not even the air flow, sucks. And when the captain says he believes it is now okay, you wonder if he’s making it up to keep you happy. And you suddenly remember that the copilot looks like she is half the age of your younger daughter, and that was fine and charming when things were going smoothly but now you wish she looked more like Captain Sully.

We do take off though and of course, we hit the terrible weather in Chicago just in time. So we are now in a holding pattern. Until cleared for landing. Which happens far far later than what was promised. Then, with a thud, we are on the ground. I know, I know, everyone needs to have their first difficult landing.

It is then 5:30 and I say to myself – well, at least I’ll easily make the 6:30 bus to Madison. That’s before the long taxi: for some God knows why reason, it is taking 45 minutes for the plane to find the gate. It is as if I were driving with someone who could not find a parking space in lower Manhattan. We canvass the entire airport and then some.

But, I make the 6:30 (running) and I make it back to Madison just in time to see the wet mush turn into ice on the pavement. There is so much of it that it freezes quickly over strips of wet snow. Ed says that driving isn’t too awful: at least the road has texture (of a frozen sort).

This morning we go to the farmhouse to study the progress.

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Ed has removed all traces of the chimney and has also moved out great boulders (note these at the bottom right) that had been used to support it.

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He is digging a hole to pour in the cement and I am reminded of a problem I gave my Fall Semester Torts class about a building that toppled because (maybe) the proportions of liquid to cement were not right. I hope that my traveling pal knows his proportions.

Andy comes – poor Andy with the possibly sprained knee. We could have talked about our various ailments but we didn’t do that (too much). Instead, we talk building talk. I love it all – hearing the banter about beams and switches, I even do not mind that Ed weighs in now on how he would have done the kitchen in a completely different way than what I have planned out. He is given a free pass for poor behavior just because I am so grateful for the work he did in moving all the boulders and dirt out of the basement.

I have to leave eventually to teach my many hours of classes. I tell the students how hard I worked to get here from Albuquerque on time, but they probably wish that I hadn’t been quite so successful. A free day is a free day, after all.

Outside my office, the walk down Bascom Hill remains completely iced over.

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It’s as if at this point we’ve all given up. Forget it, we’re done. It’ll melt eventually.

I have a dinner meet-up just off the Square (at the cozy-wonderful Kitchen) and I pass a Capitol that is unusually busy and unusually beautiful, what with the people there at these late hours and the swirling snow.


But I have this to say about being back in Madison:  at this point, I am officially sick of winter.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

from Atlanta, but it should have been Minneapolis

The winter of travel discontent. Except, truthfully, I am not harmed nor even frustrated by all the flight disruptions that continue to plague me this season. I am merely taking it in. And this latest pickle – a snowstorm, or wintry mix storm, or some kind of meteorological chaos now in the Midwest – was already in the works many days back. When the inevitable email came in Saturday midnight, just as we were winding down one last talk around the kitchen table and I read the announcement that both Minneapolis and Madison had canceled flights for the next day, I was not surprised.

I was also not surprised that I could not reach Delta right away, that it took many many tries and that I was put on hold for 1.5 hours – taking me now to 3 a.m. and still without a seat to the Midwest for the next day.

But, luck was surely with me and the beleaguered night agent finally found a seat on a terribly early flight out (in just a few hours!) -- to Atlanta. And from there to Chicago. Maybe. And from there we’ll see.

I am in that state of contentedness that comes when you thought you’d have yourself a tortuous journey and instead you’re put in a comfortable seat on a smooth flight -- all this, on the tail end of a most wonderful Saturday in Santa Fe.

Lovely Santa Fe. Even as, I have to admit this – the town is different than I had imagined it. Which only tells me that I shouldn’t wait until I’m good and old before I visit places because when I finally do go, I have to wipe out all past images and work hard to start with a clean slate. You rarely travel with a clean slate once you get older.

What I find now is a sprawling town, high up in the hills, but quite flat actually. As if someone had carved out space for it up there where the sky seems very very close and, at times, very very blue.

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We start with a look at the Farmers’ Market (which is quite near the Flea Market and so we cover both).


I am in the southwest. Yes, there are apples and heirloom tomatoes and quite a number of vendors sell goat cheeses and honeys – even the south has its winter season. But the colors are different here (even the fresh eggs have a palate of soft hues I hadn’t seen before, except maybe in an Easter basket).


And some foods just shout New Mexico. The chilis, the posole, the lavender. Woolen goods, yes, maybe I could find those in Madison (though one vendor says this about her products: I sheer them, dye them and knit them myself). But not prune flatcakes and certainly not the beads and buckles and boots that I see here.

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There is a strong tribal presence among the vendors. And an even greater number of American Indian sellers up on the Square. The Plaza. A nod to Mexico, I'm told,  in the layout and the style of housing along the perimeter.


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Do I buy anything? Well yes. A tiny turquoise bead, lavender soap, chipotle chocolate fudge. We are a frugal bunch, but when we are together, something within me loosens up and it’s all that I can do not to buy another carpet, for example.

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I say another, because on two of the previous reunions I came home with carpets. And now, in Santa Fe, we meet a most affable fellow from Morocco, and I begin to think that there is something about carpets and these friends of mine that fits too well, as if I’m looking not at carpets at all but at warm patterns woven in places that are distant and dangerous – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuba on the Caspian Sea ... On and on, we listen to our man talk about the places where he can find the most fantastic carpets and I can almost see him, dark with a long and lovely pony tail, placing silver coins into the hands of tribal men whose rugs flank the backs of mules or maybe even llamas.

Santa Fe has, of course, less exotic but no less beautiful art too. Lots of it. Gallery upon gallery. Lovely places and so terribly expensive that really, I feel sad for the artist and the gallery owner because surely a sale does not happen frequently here.


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We have a southwestern lunch – posole stew for me, and somewhere in the late afternoon we stop for an espresso and it is sublime to sip this outside and to eat raw chocolate even as I never recall having had raw chocolate before.

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It’s a blustery day. The wind kicks up the dust and blows balls of brittle brush across the highway. We talk about how dusty New Mexico can be – all gray and brown now – nothing’s green yet, if indeed it ever is green. When rain drops come for a brief second, I hear from all corners – we’re grateful for every bit we get. (Albuquerque’s annual rainfall is 6 inches; how about that, Seattle!)


We have dinner back down in the valley, not far from the banks of the Rio Grande. It’s a lovely restaurant. Our hosts ask us if we have had enough of the spices of the southwest and I think – no, not all. Only can you please refill my glass of water? And lots of ice?

And then it all ends – this very brief week-end far from the blizzards and snow piles and icy walks home from the grocery store. We grow older, my friends and I, at the same pace – how remarkable is that – we’re all the same number of minutes closer to our various looming retirements and pensions and all other things you hear mentioned by people who would not be your parents but grandparents. And it is quite satisfying to know that we can fret about access to health care for all and then move on to a review of who dabbled in what art or travel in the year that just ended.

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So, now, let me face the Midwest and the blizzards. Surely there is a way to get back to town in time for classes tomorrow. Surely there is.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

on the road to Santa Fe

Morning in Albuquerque.


It’s as if I am playing catch up this week-end. Appearing in places I have long wanted to visit and, too, spending time with friends who live nicely south, yes, so very nice that it is indeed south, but south is far from north and so we haven’t much in the way of face to face contact in the course of the year. So we catch up now.


And we take a day trip to Santa Fe. I’m the outlier here – I’ve never traveled here. Yes, I know of its fantastic reputation. Some say it is the second most important art center in the country, after New York. A place of O’Keefe paintings (though she lived mainly just outside the city) and of adobe and faux-dobe houses, all high, where the air is thin and clear and the skies can be a raging blue.

All that.  A mere hour's drive from Albuquerque.


I'll say more tomorrow, during the delays I'm sure to have at Midwestern airports as I fly north again, straight into the snowstorm back home.

Friday, February 18, 2011

from Albuquerque

If ever there was good luck, I have it in this: my best pals from law school days (when I was a student), all three of them, have settled in the south (in the case of one, only for the winter). Arizona, Florida, and now also New Mexico.

When we have our annual reunion, typically in February, we toss around ideas as to whose house we should visit. Madison never makes the short list. We don’t even pretend.

And so I’m in Albuquerque for the week-end. Two nights only, but my work schedule is such that it’s all I can spit out in the middle of the semester.

I’ve never been to Albuquerque before. I vaguely remember driving through some bit of New Mexico on a family road trip when I was eight, but we hardly paused. We were in a hurry to get back to New York, having spent too long in Las Vegas. (No, no, my parents did not get hooked on slot machines. My dad says some speed demon ran a light and rammed right into us, and in the early sixties it seems that the person who spoke with greatest conviction prevailed. In any case, the car needed a new front and we had to wait for it.)

But even without having ever seen any of it, I have often said that if I ever moved south, I’d probably consider New Mexico. I spoke in hypotheticals as I am certain I will never move away from Wisconsin, but still, in my imagination, New Mexico has the great combination of a decent climate and exquisite light, especially in the cold season.

My friend tells me that Albuquerque has 300 days of sunshine annually and that we should get a good share this week-end as they’ve had a great number of the nonsunny ones already. I don’t pay attention to those statistics anymore. I’ve been in too many places where they say that THEY have 300 sunny days and I’ve concluded that this means nothing at all, except maybe that someone who counts such things is rounding up to the nearest hundred.

But in fact, it is a tiny bit sunny now. And oh, so very lovely!


a detour to Los Poblanos

among chickens and goats

a walk along the Rio Grande

Light in Albuquerque: at sunset, the hills turn red.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

and so it moves forward

Early this morning, I nudge Ed to get going. No time to waste. I want to go out to the farmhouse before my morning class. I want to take one last look before the official reinvention of the interior begins.

And it is a reinvention. Not entirely a complete rebuilding  – the price for that would have been too high, but a reinvention and completion of the spaces we’re stuck with.

I admire now Ed’s work on the chimney removal – from the roof, all the way down to the basement (so many chipped bricks tossed out the window for now! What do you do with charred and chipped bricks?) and I see now what he meant when he said that at this moment, the floors are being supported by two clumsily placed wooden poles. Dismantling the chimney revealed what he had long suspected -- there's not much there to brace the floors above.

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And so the very first task for the construction team (Andy and his grandson, with an occasional assist from Ed) will be to support the floors. Right now you could say that they sort of undulate. More like an ocean on a breezy day than a floor in a solid farmhouse.

Andy comes and I listen to them talk about this point load and that microlam. Reassuring builders’ talk. Like we all have a game plan going.

Me, I’ve been the one that has taken on the job of reinventing a livable space (with an occasional assist from Ed). I made the call on what we can live with and what has to be scrapped or resurfaced.

In the meantime, the bugs, especially the box elder beetles keep popping up from from the cracks in the walls and ceilings – a whole new batch waking up to the almost spring air. I haven’t time to vacuum them up today. I cast one quick hungry look at the spring-like landscape – those are berry canes to the left, and fruit trees, and there is a patch intended for mushrooms underneath.


I hurry off to teach.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


(On the Square today) People to admire: so many who, in their daily working lives put forth an effort, over and beyond what you’d expect.


It was gratifying for me to see support for people who work.


I couldn’t witness this for long because, well, I had classes to prepare. But still, it was a good noon moment. Workers of all yoke, supporting rather than fighting one another.


And as long as I am on the subject of work, I want to also state here my deep appreciation for someone else who, in the last weeks has worked tirelessly to reconfigure the interior of a farmhouse, so that it could be the fresh and open space I would like to see there.

My traveling companion has been covered by construction dust and bits of crumbling cement for days as he has chipped away at the chimney, and then studied the place to understand what's needed to support the floors (which right now have some possibility of falling, one on top of the other).

People doing good work. I admire that.

Now, back to my textbooks.