Monthly Archives: February 2011


photo from the Christian Science Monitor

WI State Capitol February 2011

It’s maddening that Madison is madder than a mad cow, and I’m not there to be mad right along with them.

This winter was too long, yet not long enough for the Republicans to give Democrats in Wisconsin adequate time to debate and discuss Gov. Walker’s budget.

So strange how I tend to leave a place right before it becomes interesting.  Now even people in New York are paying attention to Madison.

I generally admit to hailing from Wisconsin for convenience.  It’s easier than explaining where I was born, where I moved with my family, then the list of places I chose to move by myself.  But Lynda Barry once told me in a writing class in college: “Fucking Wisconsin, eh? I don’t know what it is, but it drags you back, doesn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant– in fact I usually dreaded going back to Wisconsin for the summers– but I felt the truth of what she said, perhaps for no other reason than she seemed so convinced of it herself, and so sure that I would understand it.  Lynda Barry might have drawn it better: shown the both of us, two Wisconsinites in Ohio, being dragged back by the invisible string-cheese arms of fate to the Dairyland.

But that was before I lived in Madison.  I chose to go there.  I scouted it out.  I tested out the swing dancing back when Union South was Jumptown’s Friday dance venue.  I lived on Lake Monona.  I took the buses everywhere.  I biked to the Farmer’s Market.  I wrote poems, little sketches, everywhere from the Weary Traveler to Monona Terrace.  I bought my wedding dress on Monroe Street and went down a list of best burgers in town once my husband decided that it was ok to eat beef in the U.S.  (Great Dane, Weary Traveler, Old Fashioned, Monty’s Blue Plate).  He became a regular at the Mediterranean Café.

Madison was destined to be temporary; I knew this beforehand. I’m a nomad after all.  But I couldn’t have asked for a better fit over the last two years.

And so, when I see a sea of red in the State Capit0l, and when I hear that Ian’s Pizza has been taking donations and distributing free pizza to the tens of thousands of state workers protesting on the Square, I feel homesick.

I had a drink with Ian of Ian’s pizza at Mickey’s just last September.  I met him through another Ian who displayed generous housing karma when I was in need and who also knows a thing or two about Wisconsin dragging you back.

I spot friends of mine in newspaper photos, in pans of the crowd, holding TAA banners high; some aren’t even from Wisconsin but recognize the importance of benefits and bargaining in their graduate education and livelihoods.  They have responded to and embraced the  People’s Republic of Madison.

I am not there, but this fight feels like my fight.  Yes, it directly affects my mother’s job. Yes, I was a TA and a member of the TAA Union which provided me with tuition remission and benefits that allowed me to graduate with minimal student loan debt and maintain health insurance.  Yes, I have the usual personal connections to the State that makes me invested in the outcome of the Governor’s proposed union-busting, benefits-cutting budget.  But that doesn’t account for this nostalgic  homesickness, for me feeling like I missed my fight.

The union here will probably face similar challenges (although certainly not a threat to our very right to negotiate; New York is too Democratic and unions too entrenched here for that), but the fight won’t feel the same to me.  I hate small towns, but I like small cities.  I like that I am two Ians removed from the protests on State Street.

WI State Capitol April 2010

The State Capitol building is where I went to pay a sort of dorky, secular homage in November 2008 the day after Obama won the Presidential election, when I was full of hope and pride for the democratic process.  I used to walk through the rotunda casually on blustery days to take a shortcut across the square from Main Street to State Street.  On one of the balconies, almost one year ago, we were married by a judge.

I can’t help but see the signs and crowds camped out in the Capitol Rotunda and think of all the couples who have had to postpone their weddings there this week.  In my mind, they are not upset.  They say their vows in solidarity.  They raise their red heart banners in anger and in love.

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breakdown haiku

Car in the shop.
My independence shaken.
No one to call here.

Internet mechanic, I’m
not looking for answers
just someone to trust.

I think we’re ok,
then I’m canceling appointments.
Life is expensive again.

Doctor up my car
Doctor up my body
Life coughs, relentlessly

Winter is too long
Minutia is the trap of minutes
Let’s go home. Please.

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the tunnels

Always a tunnel or a cage
or a storage elevator
with clanging metal parts
hides in a secret spot.
Part relic, part omen.
All libraries- if they are real ones-
contain such mysteries
of a dystopic future-past.

I am not making metaphors for books, for armchair travelers and pocket Einsteins.  Libraries– if they are real ones, which is to say physical– have secret corners, hidden depths, halls of shame and smorgasbord.

My current library has a Valley of Dead Chairs housing defunct equipment: a morgue of murdered upholstery, vagrant tables slashed and scarred in a bloody pen/knife fight, a graveyard of computers done in by a deadly viral epidemic or, in the case of some poor saps, by the great coffee spill of 2003.

My former library had a basement where newspapers yellowed themselves into dust, stacked in floor-to-ceiling cages.  Student workers packed inter-library loan books into recycled padded envelops then filled gunny sacks emblazoned with the logo of the All-Mighty Cooperative.  A radio was always on, playing the campus station, but oddly this basement workroom was even quieter than the library stacks.

There were rumors the Old Library (the Carnegie building of course) where the new library stored older unused volumes off-site, had glass floors.  Supposedly these floors were illuminated at night.  Student workers charged with fetching requested items out of storage were unanimously tight-lipped about their forays into the hallowed Old Carnegie Library. They toted mothballed books across campus in red radio flyers, pretended to be listening to music when you asked where they had been.  Legends formed of fornication in the stacks, steamy glass floors turning slippery.  Little was known about this magical archive, thus its magic was preserved.

These secret underworlds of libraries are rarely hidden completely or rendered inaccessible. The storage closets, back hallways, tunnel entrances, police-taped staff-only shelves are right there. But Most patrons pass by without the vaguest inclination to explore. They go where they were meant to: the lab, the café, the information desk, the multipurpose convertible learning commons. Some venture into the stacks where, as aforementioned, they can find curiosities galore to distract their imaginings from the darker psyches of the physical library.

The Valley of Dead Chairs is not far from a rowdy computer commons and would seem ripe for grave-robbers looking to concoct a Frankenstein P.C. from scratch.  Likewise, my current library is connected through a series of underground tunnels to the social science building, mail room, bookstore, and backstage of the performing arts center.  These tunnels apparently have not yet been discovered by students. A few names of trespassers and pioneers mark the cement walls, but so far there has been no Christopher Columbus of the Library Tunnel, sailing in with horses and ne’er-do-wells from Europe.

The only real difference between librarians and patrons is that a life-long library user will contentedly avail themselves of every library resources, book, DVD, database and reading chair and yet still never plumb the depths of the library crevasse.  The patron simply does not go where he or she is forbidden.

Librarians, on the other hand, live like spelunkers, for the moments of peeking down into the secret caves in the backs and bottoms of library buildings.  Some librarians are developers, donning their hardhats and scouring every forgotten corner for space that can be refurbished, repurposed, reclaimed.

But I would guess there are more spelunkers like myself who take the journey for a different reason: We like to know about hidden places that others do not.  We relish the trip to the storage vault and will sneak off on our lunch break to read– oh let’s say Jules Verne– on a leather sofa that despite having been relegated to the Valley of Dead Chairs seems very much alive, so comfortable, and so unrediscovered.

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quotes bouncing around my day

“A book commits suicide every time you watch Jersey Shore.” -poster on a librarian’s facebook page

“Ok class, take a break and think deeply about real rapists and perverts.” -Instructor of a Women’s Self Defense class I happened to walk in on.

“The Blues is the folk music of Black people. Jazz comes from the Blues.  You can’t play jazz without the Blues.  That’s all there is to it.”  -Musician in a PBS Documentary called “Cab Calloway: Sketches.”

“If your musicians are good, you don’t need to say anything.  And if they’re bad, there’s nothing you can say.”  -Attributed to Cab Calloway

“Home is a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” -Garden State.

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mezzanine reading room

There is a spot in the library
where you can see down four levels:
From the artsy balcony above the mezzanine reading room,
past the foyer and down to the main floor,
all the way to the basement where the books are stored
and the carpet unravels, betrayed by watermarks.

Up here you get peeks into other campus spaces:
Out the windows, across a silent quad,
down the obligatory hill on which
the university is perched
less a bird about to take flight
and more like Sisyphus balancing
for just a moment between
two inevitable worlds.

An empty library is an unquiet place
full of pops and clicks– the heater
turning on after long absence.
The maintenance men, a janitor,
moving noisier than usual.
A jetliner flies overhead, visible
in blinding blue sunlight
from the same high perch
on the hill at the end of the quad.

Chairs seem to move by themselves.
Somebody sneezes somewhere
when you thought you were alone.
And although you were paid to be here,
although you got here early
the first day after vacation–
what the French poetically dub “la rentree”–
you have the distinct impression
you are doing something clandestine.

You have snuck into the library in the midst
of an architectural ritual unfit for human supervision.
What ritual is this? A winter thaw?
A sunning-out? A daily dance of shadows
as chairs cast their skeletons in streaks
across the warming carpet?

Or perhaps your secrecy, your
petite insurrection, is stemming from the fact
that you are using the library
as it was meant to be used.

No name badges or mouseclicks or meetings or questions.
You are sitting on a brown leather couch
on the upper balcony of the mezzanine reading room.
A novel by your side, you are listening
to the breathing books, and you are writing.
And this is what you are not supposed to be doing:
enjoying your library rather than improving it.

As in so many things the poet
William Stafford is right:
Even the most oppressed person
can find a few moments of rebellion
if he just wakes up a little earlier
than the rest of the world.

*written 1/5/11 8:00 a.m.

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ice snow

a sheath of ice-snow covers the world
like white fondant on a vanilla cake
and cracks like crème brulée
with a satisfying “pâck!”

ghost-grey clouds drift in and out
over an exhaling, indigo sky
and walking home I see the stars
always the most unattainable
on a cold winter night.

earlier, burdened with groceries,
I growled at my husband
for playing with the ice.
now, on my way back from depositing
him at his midnight shift,

I use my boot as a petite cuillère
and crack the ice-snow in jagged
lovely edges, feeling my foot
seep through to the soft powder below.

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snow day

We are serious about snow
in Wisconsin.
Respectful yet wary.
Appreciative when appropriate.
Never fawning.

We know there is a fine line
between beauty and severity.

Although spring always arrives
the snow never fully melts
in our prepared and weary hearts.


Once you finish school,
a snow day is no longer
a miraculous gift
from a guardian angel
who also hates Algebra tests.

A snow day becomes a sign
of incompetence,
bad city planning,
a culture of blame-shifting,
a lack of true grit.

“I came to work, why didn’t
the government?”
“Where do you think this is? Florida?”

When beauty is viewed as an impediment
you have grown too old
to deserve a snow day.

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