Surely, Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the most beautiful and livable mid-sized cities in the world. I feel I speak with some authority, for I have lived in many cities, small and large, in a long life and have fond memories of Berkeley and Bloomington among the small and Chongqing, Sydney, and Chicago among the large. Perhaps I am biased in favor of Madison simply because it is my home for almost thirty years, exceeding by far my stay in any other city. But this cannot be the whole answer, for one can fall in love with a city as one can with a human being at first sight, and the love remains even after—and perhaps even especially after departure—for then memory sets to work, embroidering the ordinary into the extraordinary and the merely pretty into the beautiful.
Objectively, Madison has a claim to beauty. It is on an isthmus between two lakes, Mendota to the north and Monona to the south. That's Nature's contribution. Architecturally, it is anchored at one end by Bascom Hall, the University's administrative center, and at the other end by the State Capitol, the former a colonnaded building that exudes academic probity and weight, the latter a soaring dome that exudes State power. The two buildings are linked by State Street, a student haunt filled with eateries, cafes, bookstores, and clothing stores mostly locally owned and operated that, in the regular academic semester, swarm with clients at all hours, from the first break of daylight to the evening when the East Campus clock reads ten and later.
Madison is a city of extremes. That's another reason why I like it, for I am temperamentally a romantic, one with a taste for extremes of nature and culture. Let me explain what I mean. Of course, Madison's climate is extreme, bitterly cold in winter and torridly steamy in summer, a scene of ice and snow under a pale-blue sky in January and another altogether of sailboats drifting lazily on Lake Mendota and students loafing with jugs of beer on the terrace of Memorial Union in July. Culturally? What do I mean by extremes of culture? Well, here is an example. I encounter bare-foot children smiling triumphantly with tadpoles swimming in their glass jars—a picture straight out of Mark Twain but only a stone-throw away (well, maybe a couple of stone-throws away) is one of the greatest university libraries in the world, a reminder that Madison may be only a mid-sized town, but its intellectual reach is urbi et orbi.
Lastly, Madison is home for me. Home implies a comfortable and nurturing routine, which is what I have established in my apartment, going every day from bedroom and kitchen to living room with its shelves of books and videos and returning to kitchen and bedroom at the end of the day. But downtown Madison is my home in the same sense—it is my home writ large. Every day I walk from my apartment on one side of the isthmus to Science Hall on the other side, a walk through State Street that takes me about twenty-five minutes.
Friends ask, "Why do you do that?" I answer, "But you do that, too," the difference being that the corridor they traverse from bedroom to study and then back again is short. My corridor, for the same purpose of transforming myself back and forth from biological to cultural being, is long, being the length of State Street.
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