Monday, April 30, 2012

for the birds

The last ever of the crazy Mondays. In a bold move, I bike to work. But I haven’t the time! Make time! I’m tired – Isis was at it all night long. Such excuses! Get going!

You know I haven’t the time to write tonight. But, don’t you think it's curious how I was not alone on the morning and then evening ride? How I was always in the company of these winged creatures? 



Beautiful birds. On, off water, watching, taking off. My escorts today.





Step aside deer. Not your turn. This last April moment is for the birds. 

Oh fine. You too.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

growing things

Despite the chilliness in the air, Ed and I are ready to do some catch up work in the yard. For me, that means, finally, filling in some of the flower pots and putting in new ideas into the shadier portions of the garden.

It’s all about the entrance, I tell myself. How you enter your home sets the stage for how you feel once inside. So the path up to the front door (which is really the back door, but remains our main and only functional entrance) has to be aglow with welcoming blooms.

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But I have to work around what’s already there. Tiger lilies to one side. A rhubarb plant that is out of control, producing far more rhubarb than any sane person is likely to want in her lifetime, let alone a summer season. And yes, I know about rhubarb pie and rhubarb compote and freezing rhubarb and I have bags of it still from last year, which surely indicates that we like rhubarb in theory, but have trouble understanding its usefulness, being less dessert inclined than the average rhubarb loving person out there.

And I have to work with cracking clay pots. Until they can no longer sustain their pot like shape, we keep them. Even if they look live been through a couple of cyclones and at least one major hurricane.


Come summertime, life, my life, our life is all about looking out at the world from behind the screens of the porch. That’s been an elusive thing thus far, since the burst of hot March air has been trampled over by its polar opposite. But the day will come when we will sit out there and admire all that’s growing just beyond the fine mesh. I think about that now, as I continue to plant.

Ed adds an extension to the raised flower bed, I put in 48 annuals into the clay pots (because that’s how many you can buy for $17.95 at Johannsen’s) and half a dozen remaining perennials elsewhere. Another batch of perennials will come from the east coast in a couple of weeks. Why I need to order perennials from Connecticut when we have, within a half dozen miles, enough perennials to fill every yard in Madison is beyond Ed, but tradition has it that I say my thanks to the place out east that pushed me to love perennials and so I buy some plants from the people at the White Flower Farm as well. Just a small batch. But I look forward to its arrival. 

So it continues, this wonderful protracted planting season. With pauses. To twiddle thumbs, listen to the sandhills, play with Isis. 


Things have settled down somewhat. Planting continues. And that’s a good thing.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

different strokes

My mom sent a New Yorker clipping of an article on couch surfing.  Here’s what happens: you join an organization of couch surfers and you’re given a list of places where you can spend a night on someone’s couch. At no charge.

I tell her that not only had I already read that same piece (with amusement), but, in fact, Ed has been talking of couch surfing, house swapping and all things similar for years now. I've listened to him, but without great enthusiasm. My response to him has been -- There’s no free lunch! You’ll be reading a book and I’ll be left to make idle conversation with the lonely people of this world (by which I mean the hosts: why else would you otherwise put up with random strangers on your couch...). No thank you.

Today, Ed is at it again. He’s showing me another site – The idea is the same, except you don’t stay on a couch, you pitch a tent, with access to bathrooms, sometimes kitchens, always with a beguiling green space for your overnight respite.

Here’s one in Italy! You like Italy! He brings up a link to someone’s beautiful garden, overlooking hills and olive groves. At about $15 per person it’s not exactly free, but nor is it up there with summer room rentals.

Next year maybe, I tell him, figuring that by then I’ll probably be in a wheelchair or otherwise incapacitated and he’ll have to reconsider. “Next year” has always felt, for me, like a long time away.

Ed counters -- When I finish building the writer’s shed, we could reciprocate. Have people stay there if they want to come to Madison, or go kayaking on the lakes.

I see where this is heading. I’m quickly becoming a b&b proprietor, only without the benefits of – well, income, for one thing.

I shake my head and say nothing more. Time is always on my side. Ed doesn’t finish projects quickly. There’s still a dormer of the farmhouse that is pinkish brown instead of Caribbean yellow.

It was a cold Saturday. Ed and I filled cupboards with Woodman’s groceries. He noted that I wasn’t smiling much. He was right.

Even so, I have never known Ed to lay claim on me, my mood, my preoccupations. He has never objected to days like this – when I spend a significant chunk of time trying to ascertain how someone else, not him, but someone else is getting along. If I had to scoot down to help a person from my past, he’d help me figure out how best to do it.

Later in the day, Ed and I sit at the lemon-draped kitchen table and I tell him -- thank you. And, too, for letting me do what I have to do, for letting me write about him, here on Ocean. Ed has had to adjust from being a completely private guy, more so than perhaps anyone else I know, to being part of my story here.

He munches his prepared by me peanut butter sandwich and says – don’t you think these are all small things? What you said, whom you described on Ocean – when we’re dead and gone, will it make anything worse for anyone? No? Then stop fretting and write what you want to write.

Out of eight years of blogging, only three times have I agreed to reword a post upon someone’s request. I did it earlier today. I’m thinking unless I make a gross error or cause someone great harm, I’ll never do that again.


Friday, April 27, 2012


Friday mornings Ed goes off. Call it a work day. Tech meetings, business meetings – compressed into this one day at the place of his business venture.

Soon Fridays will be, for me, no different from any other days. Classes end this coming week and my trips to campus thereafter will trickle down to few and far between. I took a pay cut and stopped working summers last year and it was the best decision I ever made. After exam grading, the summer months are my own.

But today still blends with my class days and my thoughts glide back and forth between work, non work, and all things in between.


When I wrote my first post on Ocean, now more than eight years ago, my then husband asked me to consider not writing about, for example, him. Not an uncommon request. People don’t like being described by others. The writers often get it wrong, even as, arguably, they are not writing about another, they are writing, in a roundabout way, about themselves.

When I was in the thick of my divorce, many Ocean readers did not even know I was going through a divorce. That couldn’t happen in the more modern incarnation of Ocean. I no longer avoid the difficult topics, even as I don’t tend to dwell on them.

I tell myself someday I will dwell on them, putting the perspective I often find missing when people recount drama in their lives. Someday. When I learn to trust my own instincts as to what is right for Ocean.

But, for now, the “take charge” impulse that always, always pushes me forward has me in the garden today and I attack the raspberry patch with zest. I don’t want order, I don’t want neatness, I just want to clip and remove spent growth because it’s too ghostly in there among twigs that no longer want to sustain life.

In the morning, at least there are rays of sun.


In the afternoon, skies are gray.

I huddle indoors with my computer and think about how you can never avoid the twists and turns in life and then I stop thinking about it all and turn my attention to thoughts of summer and ferns unfurling, etc etc.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012


An email pops into my mailbox: the countdown begins! Your classmates, teachers (and sundry others) will be coming together on May 4th! It’s an invitation to take part.

But here’s the thing. I went to grade school at UNIS – the United Nations International School in New York. This is a reunion of our lot. But my classmates wont be there! They’re scattered in all parts of the world. They come from faraway and they return to faraway.

And here’s the other thing about elementary school reunions: they should not suggest that I’ll be among my pals and teachers too. My teachers are likely dead. Or with dementia. My favorite teacher (math, from Denmark, Mr Rydstrom) was forty when I was eleven. Do the arithmetic. That would make him now 88. At best he is at a pleasant retirement home overlooking the North Sea doing sudoku. No way will he be at the reunion.

We are almost in May. Yet, when I biked to work, the cold wind knocked me around so much that I explained to my morning class that at least at the outset, I could not see them. My eyes were glazed over – and this from a person who always wears glasses.

May (and I know we’re not actually in May, but close enough) – it’s a peculiar month. It’s dealt me some punches. May – the month of near death in infancy, the month of major surgery at age 12, at age 21, at age 24 (indeed, I have had no surgeries outside of that month), the month of my brain hemorrhage, the month of break up, of a friend’s death, of weird acting out, of lust, of greed, of wanting.

May’s a regular bell ringer!

I’m calmer now. It takes a bit more to rile me.

Today (true, it’s April still) I come home tired. I had biked to work, there’s that.


It’s the end of the teaching week – there’s that as well.
At the farmette, I plant, pull, and then, exhausted,  I fall back on the couch and Ed and I eat scrambled eggs for dinner. True, with asparagus, but still – eggs. I worry that  it is a mark of inspirational decline.

On the upside, I pour an Aperol spritz into a tall glass and watch it disappear. How so? Well, Ed, who dislikes most any alcoholic beverage (except the once a month dark beer) took to this bitter orange fizzy concoction like someone raised on it. Weird.

I love this time of the year, of life, of dreamy expectations. But there’s a challenge to love. I’m well aware of it.


Such a complicated existence this is. No wonder Voltaire stood committed to growing one’s garden. It is an “extraordinarily effective way to keep busy.”

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

shift focus

This afternoon I was in such a hurry that I banged the nonexistent front fender of the red hot lover on the parking garage cement post. The tape that is on the car, hiding the fact that it doesn’t really have fenders, was torn to shreds. The beauty of having a terribly ugly old car is that you don’t care about any of this. When I park the car next to Ed’s truck, I routinely let the door swing open so that it bangs into the pickup. It’s a very satisfying sound.

I know what made this an especially edgy day – I was tired. Isis decided to spend the night in and out of the farmhouse. Happy to sit on the couch with us. Restless once we retired. Wants to go out. Wants to come back in. Out. In. And so on, all night long. (The cat door would solve all Isis issues, but I resist it nonetheless. For many reasons.)

Late in the day, at Paul’s café, I contemplate taking a nap. No. It’s my email catch up time. I cannot.

But when we finally come back to the farmhouse, I know I need to let go of it all. Ed takes off to ride his Wednesday Night bike ride and I lose myself in the flower beds. Dig this weed out, move that plant over, scratch the earth, stomp the soil – finally, relief!

An hour later, I feel whole again.

I look around me with the older camera in hand. Yes, this is the last of early spring. 

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The last of the lilac season. Let me frame the farmhouse one last time in its majestic purple.


What’s the sequence? Which plants bloom next, after the bulbs, the fruits and the lilacs? There’s always a bit of mystery to it. No matter how many spring seasons you’ve gone through, you can never quite predict what’s next.

Maybe the lilies of the valley?



I go inside and reheat the vegetable soup. Ed will say it's always best the second day. Like spring, like flowers, like anything else that feels good. It feels even better the second day.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

growing things

There’s a time when I think cursing is permissible, indeed, warranted. For example, when your hours of work are on a day that promises sunshine, gentle breezes and that perfect spring combination of cool and warm. And here’s where you can really sound off – when you read that by the time you get to your days off on the weekend, the sun will disappear, the rains will come and the deep chill will set in. I mean, really?

After work, Ed and I meet at Paul’s and that's fine, quite nice in fact, but I am depleted. You could say that the high point of the work day had been bringing coffee cakes from Florida to one of my classes. (Each of my classes has had a treat moment – this was the day to honor the morning bunch.)

It's early evening. I tell Ed we should be going home and putting in the last of the blueberries. The rains are coming. We want everything to have a home by the time the soil turns to clayish mud.

We make our way home. 
Huh?  What’s that?

We see the Dan truck (Dan is our guy with the heavy machinery that will transform every deranged acre of weeds into usable land), and the telltale white van belonging to Lee (she’s the truck farmer working the fields across the road), right there at the farmette.


Well now!

Dan has plowed the field out back and now he’s rototilling it. Lee is standing, hands on hips, keeping an eye on things.


We have a resolution! It's done now. For better, for worse, we've embarked on this farming project and now we have tilled land and an orchard sprouting buds and it all feels very right, very fitting. 

Dan’s an affable guy and if you hire him to do your tilling (and you should, he’ll haul that piece of machinery over land that I swear looks like no good thing could ever grown there and make it look suddenly farmable)...

DSC01081’ll hear a few jokes, a story (or two), and you may get a grandchild (or two) accompanying him and it all makes you feel deeply satisfied – as if you’ve finally figured out where those missing puzzle pieces are and now you’re on a good track, doing something that adds value – perhaps not to your land, but surely to humankind. Last I heard, there’ll be an acre of cucumbers growing there for Wisconsin farmers' markets. Or was it beans? Or strawberries? It’s in Lee’s hands now. We stay out of this part of farming.


But we don’t stay out of our own plots and plans. We put in two more blueberries this evening and we'll transplant three others to our newly forming blueberry patch. Ed’s bringing in something to mix into the soil – to make it more blueberry friendly, as it were.

Where did you get that? – I ask.
Oh, well, you know.
Ed, how old is that bag of..whatever?
Sulfur. It's agricultural sulfur. Maybe ten twelve years...
You think it’s still potent?
Look at it!
That tells me nothing at all.
You know we should have improved the soil months, many months before putting these blueberries in...
Would that have changed our planting habits?
Maybe you shouldn't admit on your blog that we planted blueberries. My meter tells me we're still at pH 7 (an unacceptable level for blueberries).

I’m smiling at this exchange. So Ed. So me.

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Night time. I make soup. Vegetables. Onion, garlic, cabbage. Mushrooms, carrots, parsnips. Frozen tomatoes from last year’s garden. Frozen corn from last year’s market.

It’s as if I can’t even remember how horribly tired I am from 48 hours of tough work demands.


The wind, or something (what?) caused shirts to set sail.


I wish I had found my gloves before revving up rosie.
I wish, too, that the work day ended gracefully, with a fine meal, instead of clumsily, without the prospect of good food. In the end, takeout sushi saved the night.

At home, we remain befuddled as to who, why and when wants to farm the acre out back.
I have no more insights on this. It’s Monday. I’m stumbling through the hours, wishing there were just a few more so that I could take a break. With a nap somewhere in there maybe. 

Yes? I can you say?


Sunday, April 22, 2012

events and returns

The past twenty-four hours were richly decorated by the presence of my girls, their guys, and my landlord. (That would Ed, who remains, otherwise, without title. Or, who allows me to make up titles as I see fit. Same difference.)

Glowing moments. I’m at an age where daughters are so enjoyable that it hurts – like it does at the side of your ribs, when you’re laughing too hard.

I'm the parent still, but there are no more corrections to be made, instructions to be conveyed. I remember sitting at the Cuban café in Miami Beach. A rather young woman, with a baby straddling her hip was saying goodbye to her own mom (the baby’s grandmother). The grandmother smiled down at the kid, then instinctively pulled her daughter’s loose and revealing shirt up higher, so that it would reveal just a little less. Oh! These are such familiar impulses! Pull down the short skirt, pull up your shirt, up, down, up, down – look after yourself, please, look after yourself!

That's not my role now. Suggesting, prompting -- it's all much more subtle and nuanced when they're adults and you're even older.

I came back to Madison in the early Saturday afternoon. Ed picks me up at the airport and together we make our way to Monona Terrace. There is an Earth Day event and we find seats to listen to the featured speaker – Mark Bittman. In the older days, Ed and I were quite taken with Mark Bittman's video clips on the NYTimes website.  He cooked up simple meals, always with a sort of nonchalant manner, as if failure was not possible because, after all, it's all in the eyes of the beholder. Lately, he’s moved away from food writing in favor of food advocacy and I suppose he agreed to speak in Madison because we're the kind of place where he'd be well received. 

And he was.

He spoke more about the rather obvious food evils out there, but that’s okay – this is what he's focusing on, this is what draws out his passions these days.


Home now. Ah, home! Movies are made, books are written about this fact of going home: it feels good! familiar and grand, all at once. The Madison skyline is luminescent, the truck farmers are working in the fields around us (not our field -- that project may have to be stalled for a year)...



Yeah, home.

Where good kids make good things happen.


she's hearing good news about their future home

The day is cool but clear and bright. I'm up for a country walk, though not before I show off the progress in our various gardens. It's spring -- the time where you see few failures and lots of hopeful signs of growth.

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We take a walk. A country stroll that belongs to my favorites around here.
Out beyond, where deer scamper and birds croon, life feels good. Sweet and reassuring. A quiet world where you can hear each distinctive bird and wonder at its song..


In the evening we eat. It’s a jovial birthday meal and Ed only looks like he’s skeptical about the whole enterprise. Ah yes, there's that arm... and a sweet treat with a candle...



Happy birthday? Yes, very, very much so.

Sunday morning brunch at the farmhouse. Cookies from Miami Beach. With guava jam in their centers.


Frittatas with spring veggies, mango, sweets. And good, strong coffee.


Final moments: we visit the house my older daughter and her fiancée are soon likely to call home. One more, just one more photo where I have my two girls at my side, before the little one and her guy head home, to Chicago.


And then, the wild weekend with all those good elements winds down.

Wait. A small errand still. Ed and I drive up to the Flower Factory, for replacement flowers. Just a few. The place of Midwest's best perennials is quiet now. As if the cool weather scares people away from thinking about flowers.


And now, finally, we're back at the farmette. Ed and I walk the land. Taking stock of the orchard, thinking, scheming -- contemplating possible expansions, or no expansion at all.


There's something to be said for growing within what's allotted to you at this moment, rather than expanding your options. Keep it simple. Do well with what's there. Maybe. 

I've always regarded my birthday as the first real initiation into spring. Daffodils and tulips -- the first good cut flowers. It's just so remarkable that the best growing months are still ahead of us. I'm humbled by that, really I am.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

April 21

But I like my birthdays! I say to Ed, even though I know the whole topic makes him nervous. He can’t drop his life’s conviction that celebrations are ridiculously bloated and overdone. That may be, but I think back to my day of encountering birthdays in Italy -- when I had the pleasure of witnessing three such celebrations – familial events mostly and all I remember seeing is grinning and laughter and it didn’t seem that bloated to me at all.

When I scheduled my Miami trip, I could have stretched it through the week-end. People do that. Conferencing is over, you take a day to do some fun things. Me, I was in a hurry to get home.

When I was a kid my mom told me that what I did on the first day of the new year (calendar or birth) would be my destiny for the remaining 364 days ahead. I doubt she believed it and I didn’t either except that if this day represents, as any day does, your life, your peculiarities and inclinations, it most often is going to be suggestive. And so I am not surprised that I am traveling on my birthday. My restlessness, insatiable craving for that glimpse of life elsewhere, has been with me for as long as I can remember and I see myself as being one day wheeled onto a flight to Paris, then wondering how I can get myself out of the metro system where not all stops provide access for the elderly and disabled.

I got upgraded on the flight from Miami, which is odd, because, as an Air France frequent flyer (they give benefits faster to American passengers) I am the lowest priority for Delta upgrades. On the flight down, I was number 26 out of 26 waitlisted for upgrades and they only gave out two. But this time, I was number four and they gave out four and there you have it. Birthday luck. I wanted to thank the attendant and explain that I was especially appreciative because it’s my birthday, but that felt like I was asking for something – perhaps a rendition of a Happy Birthday chorus and so I said nothing. But I smiled gratefully at the free cereal and tea with lemon.

By a stroke of great fortune both my daughters and their guys are able to join Ed and me for dinner tonight. So we’ll be a table of six and I think that’s pretty close to those tables in Italy where people casually leaned over each other and put an arm around the shoulder of their neighbor.

I have hopes for myself for the year ahead. To be less discouraged at the end of long work days. To take that smile from tonight’s dinner table and, as Ed would say, keep it going. As if every day was indeed my birthday.

Readers, Ocean friends -- I want to thank you so much for the good wishes variously sent on this day, on all days actually. I truly value each kind word, each greeting and thoughtful message from you.

So, fifty-nine today. Pretty good for a person who got stuck in some tricky situations early in life and almost didn’t make it past four months.

photo taken by a stranger, on April 20

Friday, April 20, 2012

the familiar trail

It doesn’t take long to develop an ant track. You know how ants are – they follow their established trail and don’t stray from it. Into your kitchen they march, along that one preferred path. You have to use vinegar and other deceptive tricks to confuse and waylay them.

I’ve gotten my preferred trail working for me in Miami Beach. With variations, sure. But still, there are the basic repetitions.

Guava pastry and con leche in the morning.

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I can’t walk up north – I have a workshop that starts at 9. So I take the bus. I look with longing at the skies outside, but I am not here for the skies, I’m here for workshops. Sigh. Goodbye beautiful skies.


...and beach umbrellas.


I know there is to be rain in the afternoon. So be it.

But as the sessions end, I step outside and see sunshine! The promised afternoon storms are stalled somewhere. Not at Miami Beach.

And here’s a little variation: if yesterday I walked on the upper beach, away from the water, today, I splashed my way south. All five miles of it rinsed by the wonderfully warm waters of the Atlantic.

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Because it is a week-end, the beach is... well, not quite Coney Island packed, but close. All the more reason to do some serious people watching.


All ages, representing all localities, all there, enjoying beach life.


I imagined that the entire coast of Florida is on this day swelling with beach loafers.


Many people love to just stand in the water to cool off and that’s fun to watch too. Humankind, lusting for that refreshing moment when the waves gently tickle your legs or splash against your buttocks. Conversations in the water.


In France, they’d be unpacking their glorious foods and beverages. En famille! Not so here. We tend to like to plump down on a chair or a towel and feel the sun move from one point to the next. Or, in the inevitable quest for romance, we walk the shoreline, holding hands, thinking this is forever thoughts.


Or, we flirt with romance submerged. Or up in the air.


And so life plays itself out on the shore of the Atlantic.


Always with zest and color.


And energy.

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Again, as yesterday, I feel hungry by the time I reach South Beach. I look at the lunch offerings – and there are many – but it seems somehow not right to sit down and spend money on yet another (perhaps indifferent?)  meal. 

But here’s a good deal: you don’t want to sit down and be fussed over? Go to Joe's, the Joe's. Order at the take out counter. Carry it to the bar, ask for a soda or, more appropriately, a glass of wine. And eat it there, out of the plastic container.

So, here’s my delicacy (also the cheapest item on the take out menu) – shrimp and scallop ceviche (which is very Floridian – in a Key West manner of speaking) and a glass of rosé.



And after? Remember, I’m on my ant trail. Back to Las Olas for a strong café con leche and a guava roll (their last one! What great luck!).

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And I watch people come and go.


An afternoon well spent.

Assumptions. I spoke of them a while ago. Back in Gargnano. Today, I felt I dug a little beyond the guesswork and came up with interesting departures from initial impressions.

So the hotel? St Augustine. A good one. Stay here. Just be sure to ask for a room on the second floor.

The woman who is behind the counter? Not Cuban at all. She is from Argentina. Came here to be with son, stayed. But she knows the good Cuban coffees.

But here’s a guess that proved more than accurate: so many Cubans here have no good words to offer about their home country.

And so here’s an interesting scene: Friday evening at the St Augustine: the hotel throws a wine and cheese social hour for all guests. I’m there printing out boarding passes and somehow I hadn’t known of this but now here I am and so I take my place at the “bar.”

A couple comes over. Where is the wine and cheesecake? The man asks in broken English.
Here. Wine and cheese. Here. -- answers the very friendly, very helpful Cuban-American guy who works evenings at the hotel.
The couple sits down.
Where are you from? I ask. It's what you're supposed to do at these social hours, no?
The Ukraine. And so we start speaking Polish. Ukraine people are used to speaking Polish. It’s the only country that learns my home language because they feel they have to, what with the tourist traffic and all.
The minutes roll along.
I ask our server (and friendly host person) when he came from Cuba. 1999.
Ah. By boat?
No. A complicated story follows.
Have you been back?
The Ukrainians listen, but their chins are down.
Listen, he says emphatically. I know your history. Poland. You needed the Soviet state (I would not characterize us that way, but it’s fine, I understand what he’s trying to say), but in Cuba – it was different.

He’s bitter, indeed hostile about the Cuba of his childhood. The Ukrainians and I look at each other. We’re of a different history.

When we came to America, it was by chance. She won the green card lottery – the Ukrainian husband explains. At first we thought – what are we doing here? I was a professor of engineering in Lwow. I’m a machinist here. But, we’re fine. Our son is here. He's a doctor! (I detect pride.) Our daughter – she was too old, too established to want to move. She stayed.

The Cuban American person describes himself as moderately right of center, politically speaking. But he mentions Canada and the European Union as ideal types, leaving me a bit uncertain as to his classifications.

Suddenly, the Argentine woman is bringing out a lemon pie with a candle. Say what? Ah. Today is the Ukrainian gentleman’s birthday. He’s sixty. We sing, drink, cheer. I look their way. The Ukrainian wife smiles at me. She knows what I’m thinking. I know what she’s thinking.

And so it ends. One last meal – I go for a simple (indifferent) pizza up the street, and a request for a very early wake up call. My flight leaves before they even put out the continental breakfast here at my little hotel in South Beach. I’ll be older and wiser tomorrow. Or older anyway. And home. And that’s a good thing.