Tuesday, May 31, 2011

the law

1. movers
2. shakers
3. buyers
4. bakers

It was a day where I contemplated the way the wind blows. Actually, there was a lot of unexpected wind. Gusts of it. Plants shuddered, then wilted (it was a hot day – and you’ll get no complaints from me on that). Those who worked hard at tearing down rotten porch boards wilted as well.

But really, the day was dictated by legal matters.

First, (or third on my list above) was the final stage of the condo sale. I get a phone call early: Nina, the buyer wants to know....blah, blah, blah... Sure. Here’s the scoop. I provide answers, tired answers. I’m done with the place. But the new owner is still signing, obligating himself, wondering. Still, I’m done. And indeed, within minutes, I get an email – congratulations, you are no longer a condo owner!

I’ve switched from being beholden to a bank to being beholden to a Landlord. (Who is, at the moment, ripping rotten boards off the back porch.)


Later, I hear from a friend who had hired movers who basically lost or damaged much of her movables. I think about the options available to those who have been poorly served by one company or another. Basically, if you have time, you can accomplish a lot. There is, after all, The Law. (Contracts, first semester.) If you don’t, you can’t.


And late at night, my Landlord receives word that the judge who presided over the New York court case (October, 2009) that required his participation has finally handed down an opinion.

We read it carefully. It’s an interesting and not unreasonable piece of legal analysis. There were so many complicated issues at stake. The judge took note. In fifty-five pages, she provided a thoughtful perspective. One that certainly should make Ed feel proud that his role in the tangled mess was diligent, honest and, well, faithful to those who needed someone to do good work for them. So, I guess I’m glad I’ve entrusted in him Landlord duties from now on.


All day long I grade exams. I feel I ought to be tough. Because today, it’s just a quick answer to a basic and predictable law school question. Tomorrow, someone’s well being will be on the line. The bread they learn to bake today... Oh, alright, bad metaphor. Sometimes it’s all about the rhyme.

Monday, May 30, 2011

see-saw, porch and morning walk with cat

What’s see-sawing is the weather. From a cold foggy Sunday to hot sunshine today, gray skies turned brilliant blue, with a wind whipping the sticky air around so that everything feels suddenly vey very warm. If this doesn’t feel like a summer day then I don’t know what does. And blessedly without the mosquitoes.

I’m up early. I can’t resist it.

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A morning walk around the perimeter of the farm. With Isis, looking awfully cool strutting along the brick path to the farmhouse door, then, too, in the tall wet grass that grows madly and competitively everywhere.

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...and back again. To settle in on the porch.

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Oh, it’s an outdoor eating day alright. Breakfast – oatmeal, fruits (including the much talked about rhubarb compote), honey, frothy coffee. A good beginning.

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Ed has a never ending catalogue of chores around the farmette (plant the remaining tomatoes already, clean up the place where we compost – because the number of trips I make to the pile is actually quite large, and most importantly: start hacking away at the rotten wood that currently is what defines the porch. The maybe soon to be screened porch. The porch that has so many problems and yet offers so many good possibilities if done right, in the months where the bugs are too horrible to confront without protection.


I, however, am physically inactive. I sit in a chair that has a half-rocking sway to it and I read exams. My goal is to be done soon. I cannot take lovely summer breaks yet. I cannot.

I listen to the sounds on the road that runs past the farmette. Sundays are the noisiest by far. We are a shortcut to the boat ramp onto the lake and the number of happy people speeding by with radios on and trailers hauling heavy boats is significant.

That’s them. I stay with my papers.

...Until the light grows golden and the breeze cools the air and I light up the grill – on the porch still, same old porch – I’m stuck to it today, for our own brat-fest, alternative indeed, with chicken spinach and feta brats piled high with sauerkraut and mustard, and roasted veggies and salad greens and all the good things that spell summer. Ed says he's never felt so suburban. Me, I feel all-American. Our images are very predictable.

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We, up in the northern Midwest, are a happy people when the days explode with summer warmth. Even those stuck on the porch grading papers.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


You get more cautious over time. For example, it takes me a while to work up the courage and enthusiasm for moving to a farmhouse of an occasional traveling companion. Make that landlord. Or something. It's true, too, that I'm going to hesitate about forging ahead with projects that involve others, even if “others” means animals. Isis continues to have limited access to the farmhouse, I continue to be skeptical about raising chickens or goats or pretty much anything that lives and breathes.

And, too, we’re both hesitant about turning over some of the land at the farmette to truck farmers.

Our neighbors have done it. On two sides we have Hmong farmers growing market crops now for the third summer in a row. But these are vast stretches of farmland and the owners live a ways away. Then, across the road, a few hundred yards west, a neighbor (is he a neighbor if he lives a quarter of a mile away?) contracts directly with five farmers who grow beautiful rows of the most in demand market crops – peas, berries, asparagus – just at the side of his home.

So why not hand over half the farmette land to farmers? Why not? Oh, so many reasons. And so we mull and consider and ask questions.

It’s a good day to think and speculate.

A day that begins with a heavy fog advisory.


I take the bike out just after sunrise. It’s quiet on the country roads. I watch turkeys pick on the cornfields and deer reach for the young leaves on overhanging trees.

The fields and meadows are still now. Except for the occasional bird.


Afternoon. We visit our “neighbor” and talk about turning grasslands – easy, free flowing, prairie like and pretty grasslands – into farmland.

I set standards – he tells us. No garbage. No heavy machinery. Gotta have insurance. I give water, I provide shelter for their tillers. You have to want to do this for reasons other than collecting a fee.

Yes, we understand that.We're not going to get into it for the money.

In the afternoon, we go to my condo. I don’t want to go inside, but I forgot to hand over the mailbox key. Ed volunteers to take it upstairs.

We run into my condo neighbors – and maybe I never mentioned this, but they are my all time favorite neighbors ever. And I have had, in my life, a lot of neighbors. I come upstairs, because visiting with them is worth it. We talks farms and wine and dogs and, well, stuff. Ah well... you can’t continue to live in a place because your next door neighbors are superb.

It’s late. We approach the farmette from the backside. I often see deer here and this time is no different.


I tell Ed – if you cut into the fields just to the south, past the truck framers’ huts, you can get a sense of what they grow and how they tend to the land. Ed swings the old Geo into the dirt path. It’s a wet day and the lane is slick with mud. I have no traction – Ed says. We are nearly spinning in the fields. Trying hard to not harm anything. Clumps of mud hit the windshield. Hard going. Another thing to add to the list of considerations: how to get close to the farmed land.

We’re home. Isis is there, in the driveway. Earlier in the day, I’d seen a chipmunk attack a squirrel right in that spot. The squirrel won. Maybe, in the end, Isis won. He seems in control. Doesn’t deliberate, hesitate, mull things over. He just is. One can envy that.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

to farm or not to farm...

I’m on Capitol Square early. The original Madison farmers market. I am making the circle (can you make a circle around a square?) with my daughter before she takes off for the east coast. My younger girl is already a thousand miles away. Memorial Day week-end creates travel opportunities. Not for me though. Not right now. I'm here in Wisconsin, where the flowers are too brilliant to let go of just yet.

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At Matt’s stand I meet an Ocean commenter. It’s terrific to come face to face with someone whom you sort of know but not really, even as you sure as hell like and have always liked his writing (and I don’t mean only that on Ocean). Hi george h.!


A good start to the day.

All other waking hours I spend toddling between exams and Ed’s land. I weed one space, then another and another. Whatever muscles are used for pulling out stubborn growth are going to be well developed by the end of the season.

I attack the asparagus patch, completely overgrown by, well, everything.
I grade exams.
We transplant offshoots of the lilac.
I grade some more.
The hostas: we transplant those as well.
Anthills on the raised bed, quack grass chocking flowers.

Ed tells me – go write your novel. (I’m not really writing a novel, but I get the point. I am spending an awful lot of time, too much time improving his land.)


At the café, Ed is thumbing through a local newspaper. He shows me an article that describes the work of an organization that helps immigrant or otherwise disenfranchised people with farm talent and an interest in organic farming in Dane County. Maybe some of the acres of the farmette could be put to good use by these people? Ed and I walk the land and consider the possibilities. Maybe. He makes the initial contact. I’m hopeful.


In fact, overall, I’m very hopeful.

Friday, May 27, 2011


The beginning of Memorial Day week-end. One of three – the others, of course, being Fourth of July (which isn’t technically a week-end, but so often feels that way anyway) and Labor Day – that are, in my mind, quintessentially American. In a good way.

And they wrap summer, snugly and securely: school ends after one, the grill is in full swing on the second, and school begins again after the third.

The best, the beginning of summer, is also the saddest of the pack. Celebrate, commemorate, remember, look forward.Ufff!


Sort of like life itself.


I branch out in my work beyond the space that abuts the farmhouse today. I attack the strips of land at the sides of the dirt driveway. In my mind, this stretch ought to be pretty. It’s the welcome sign: hey, glad you drove up! Instead, it has last fall’s dry leaves, long strands of crab grass and a heap of tarp covered dirt...
Ed, can we remove the heap of dirt? 
I may need it someday... 
Can we MOVE the heap of dirt? 
Where to? 
Anywhere, just not here!  
I’ll put it on my list.

There are exams to grade, a coffee to bike for, more weeds and crabgrass to pull out.


Memorial Day week-end. May you have a good one.

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I make one last trip to the condo today. To make sure all is clean and ready for the move-in of the new owner. I note that someone has been there in the last couple of days (I have my way of knowing). The door is locked after and so it would have had to have been someone with a key. Odd.

Not surprisingly, I run into another condo owner in the elevator. So, after downsizing, you’re upsizing? -- she asks. But I’m not! When I took out a new policy for my worldly belongings, the sum total was very small. I was happy to note that. The premium was small as well. You have nothing of value? The insurance agent asks. No, really, nothing at all. Even as, it’s true, I am living in a larger space now.

At noon I hand over a check for a million dollars (or some such large figure) to the Title Company. It’s odd to be selling property and not only not getting any cash for it, but having to pay someone to take it away from me.

So I’m done with the condo. A place that was to be forever, but lasted only not quite four years.

Will the farmhouse be forever? The way the realtor shook my hand, the flowers she gave me made me think that she’s looking ahead. You’ll be back, she might have been thinking. And I’ll be here waiting to show you the next set of properties.

She would be wrong to think that way.


Ed pays a visit to a neighbor – a woman who once owned much of the farmland around us. She lives across the road, just next to where these truck farmers now work the land.


She is old and knows more of the history of our farmhouse than anyone else here. Indeed, she grew up in it. Let’s see... she thinks back. There were the Lalors – farmers, but he also worked at a gas station on Park Street. He was killed in an explosion there. His wife died soon after. Then we moved in – bought it off the court house in 1946. Yes, I’d say the farmhouse was even then at least forty years old.

So that makes it more than 100 years old now? I ask.
Seems right.

When I’m “in town” I go to the various favorite grocers and stock up. I don’t come to Madison very often. I’m learning that it’s not hard to shop infrequently.

And now it’s the afternoon and I am peddling hard to get to our favorite (and closest) café before it closes.

Just me today, I tell the barista (who is so often assisted by his dad, just because) – Ed regrettably has a conflict. In fact, realizing that he can’t go to the café, he said this morning – damn. That’s my favorite part of the day. I wasn’t sure if I should feel pleased or insulted.

I find out that the barista’s dad has spent a good amount of time in Italy. And so we talk about Italy – about how best to describe and distinguish an Italian from, say, a Greek or a German.

And somehow, very quickly, we get to the theme of community. And it’s clear as anything to me that the best thing about coming to this café each day is that we now know the proprietors and they know us. And we recognize the flow of the place and watch the last customers come and go just before the place closes for the day.

It’s after 3. I pedal just a short distance and I am at the Fitchburg weekly Farmers’ Market. I know – weird to have a market on Thursdays, from 3 – 6. But it’s fitting, too. A place to go to after the afternoon espresso.


And what a surprise – my favorite bakers (La Baguette) on either side of the Mississippi have a stand here!


Familiar faces and familiar breads and baked goods – so important to make you feel like where you’re living is not just a village without a post office (see previous post; note, too, the farmette in the photo below -- it's where the distant clump of trees is).


In the evening, I stir-fry shrimp, peppers and asparagus. Lots of local asparagus. After, just as the sun sets, we go out and work in our set areas. Ed dumps woodchips around the fruit trees, I plant a hollyhock I’d bought at the market. What’s a 100 year old farmhouse without hollyhock at the side. Not too far from the lilac.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

where am I?

I no longer live in Madison. From my first day at the farmhouse, when I downloaded photos, I realized that I had to change location labels from now on. I’ve begun labeling things “Dane County.”

But where is it that I live? What town, or village? You say – that’s easy. You can tell by the zip code. But no, you cannot. My town or village or whatever this place is hasn’t a post office. The town further south steps in and handles mail for some of this “area,” another town handles mail to the west of us and Madison fills in pockets elsewhere. So for my address, I have a choice: I can call myself “Oregon” because that’s what the Post Office recognizes for me, or Fitchburg, because that’s what businesses prefer.

Let’s say I really am in Fitchburg – the place without a post office.

It’s a vast expanse of... something. Where we are, it’s all farmland with a sprinkling of homes. Unlike in so many other countries, where homes cluster around the village heart, American homes hug their rural property and this place is no exception.

So, this is Fitchburg just north of this farm.


But the vast area of Fitchburg – a place of about 25,000 inhabitants and some 35 square miles, also includes the development that streams southwest of Madison – a (thankfully) far five miles from where I am. That Fitchburg has a monstrous cluster of apartments and condos and commercial places. You get more bang for your buck than in Madison’s inflated downtown market and so you find a lot of young adults moving there. You’ll see a sprawling Great Dane Pub, and it is always packed.

Is it the heart of Fitchburg?

No, Fitchburg has no heart. The place has no main street, no square, no center. Even as it has the idea that it should. In the next few years, land a couple of miles to the west of us is slated for that kind of development – with commerce (Promega is already there) and residences coexisting in some fashion that hasn’t been exactly figured out yet. All I know is that I doubt that it will give Fitchburg a “heart.”

In the meantime, when people ask where I live, I pause, then say – on a farm just south of Madison. That seems right. Even if it says nothing at all.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I look at the never ending flower borders at the farmette. Borders without borders. Unlike anyplace where I have planted, they don’t have definition. They’re not strips, circles or kidneys. They start at the house and shoot outwards. As far as my time and budget will allow.

Which means I will never stop. The “just one more” syndrome. I got work to do. Oh, let me plant just one more! I have no money left for the month. Oh, enough for just one more flowering perennial!

No... no... Self restraint. Remember where this kind of thinking lead me a few years back? (No? Good. Mistakes of the past.)

Today I go for the poor man’s solution: I raid the hostas growing under the boxelder tree by the old barn. They’re smothered by weeds, raspberry canes and invasives I cannot name. Transplant time.

Ed sits under a tree and watches. Isis suns himself in the lily border. And we spot the first green frog of the season, hidden. Her color so perfectly matches the green of the flower leaf, that she cannot be seen, unless you look for her.


I can understand why, for a while, some frog (or person) might want to stay hidden. Retreat, see no one, take in the sun and the fragrance of the season.

Monday, May 23, 2011


I am at the café up the road from the farmhouse. I’m reading about the life of a Russian poet who was exiled to America not too long ago. How difficult is it to write a short but excellent poem every day?

At the café, the barista – an earnest and kind young man who wont chase after you if one day you leave having forgotten to pay – is talking on the phone about the storms that destroyed homes and lives over and beyond what is normal for the Midwest. How could it be, how could it be...

I’m glad in writing small daily posts here, I do not have to report damage and destruction. Our storms yesterday evening threw down sheets of rain...


...then the skies cleared and we ate a Sunday dinner without a trace of wetness outside.

I’m glad, too, that I have the last of the apple blossoms to admire...


...that a trip to town today is delightfully cool and balmy so that our Madison skyline looks luminous and honorable.


There had been some gunfire in the neighborhood we traveled through and police redirected us to back streets to avoid any danger. But we never knew what the danger was and indeed, like the storms, the danger seems to have traveled elsewhere.

Tragic poems are born of tragic circumstances. I’m so glad that today I get to report that Ed finished replacing rotten boards outside, I continued to experiment with ant discouragement (the latest: coffee grounds from the café up the road), and the sun shown on my tulips inside. Nothing more.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

country days

You could spend days, weeks even, at the farmette and not see or talk to anyone at all. We don’t do that. The daughters visit, I check in with my office and we have a rather steady habit of going to the café up the road, just before it closes at 3. And, of course, there are the deliberate visits with friends in town.

And still, each day begins with a sense of removal and distance. As if I put myself in exile, broken only if the will is there to do it.

Again I am up at dawn. You’d think I’ve seen all there is to be seen at sunrise, but that’s not so. Today, for instance, there are wisps of cloud that filter light in new ways. When the sun does break through, the early morning rays, paired with the lightly green of the now fully clothed tree limbs push aside the tedious stuff of the past month – the move, the mice, the twisting roots of weeds in the flowerbeds – all made small, because in the morning, I can take a solitary walk along the road and admire this:


I walk through the fields that are now farmed by the truck farmers -- all Laotian, bringing to Madison's farmers markets, as the the famously wonderful R.W. Apple of the NY Times once said -- a suggestion of bigger and better flavors than those we're so used to.




I nudge my girl to go walking with me. Her heart says yes, but her tired urban soul keeps her in the farmhouse room, the lemon room, where lilacs bend toward her window and the smell of May and the smell of pine doors and floorboards makes her sigh and drift further into sleep, unbothered by the sound of birds and sparrows, robins and somewhere, not too far, mating cranes. Apple blossoms pave the path outside, bumble bees hover around the blossoms that remain, and if this all doesn’t feel remote and far from downtown Chicago, or downtown Madison then I don’t know what does.


She is to return to the city this evening, but for now we do country things – she wants the rhubarb compote my reader noted in one of the Ocean comments and so we pick many many stalks of this pleasantly tart vegetable, chop them up and set it all on the stove to simmer.


We’re to eat a meal in town later in the morning, with others joining us, but still, this is the kind of warm day where a bowl of fruit with honey and kefir, a chunk of a doughnut, a cup of coffee, are a good excuse to stay on the porch for a while and talk about cats, old barns and jobs, and all things in between.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

a song

Spring winds are blowing, blossoms are growing, dancing like children, out on the green...

Don’t mind me. Just go about your business. I have to do this – it is the peak of the spring blooming season – I must take note of it here, on Ocean.

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I meet my younger girl at the farmers’ market. We always meet right here, by the L’Etoile (these days Graze) food cart.


She’s up north for the week-end; indeed, she’ll be my first overnight guest at the farmhouse. And I clean in preparation for this, as if the farmhouse needed cleaning, as if I didn’t make fun of my grandmother for cleaning in preparation for our visits many years ago.



We walk the market, drinking in the lilacs, the lilies of the valley, all of it and no, I do not need to buy flowers – I have plenty back at the farmette, but my favorite vendors are showing off blooms proudly, inexpensively and so I sample some of theirs, to compare, to enrich what is at home.

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At home. Ed and I are tackling issues in the garden. Ant hills in flower beds. Weeds, always the weeds. The horribly invasive bramble that crawls underground, looking for a place to poke through. Ed is dumping shredded bark (free, from Madison; thank you Madison!) in great amounts in any number of places. I dig, plant, pull out – all of it, until it’s time for supper.

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At the farmhouse, I am honoring the spring trilogy – the flowers that are such a gift now, a heady mix of – yes, of course, lilac, and (from our yard) lilies of the valley. Childhood pals of mine, now again growing under my nose. And tulips. Don’t forget the tulips.


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Together at last.


Okay, done posting about May flowers. Tomorrow, I’ll try to look beyond the garden. It’ll be hard.