For anyone who might read this in future:
Recompiling the kernel was learning process. After following the instructions on how to do it in order to prepare for installing Intel's older but mature & functional ipw driver, I discovered I could not compile the kernel module. Intel's make file only produced lots of errors. linux/config.h no longer exists, for example, in the kernel source...that can be just commented out...other errors are beyond me. I found a thread somewhere in which someone tried for a long time to get it to compile and no luck. It is impossible.
I went back to my 686 kernel and installed wicd. It works. It appears there are bugs everywhere, not only in the firmware but also in Network-manager, regarding wireless. Don't bother with a kernel recompile or the older Intel firmware and drivers--it would be nice to go back to something that works but perhaps others have decided otherwise.