Rocks in their Pockets

They were like the prologue for a coming of age film, an assuring glimpse at how adulthood will frame their childhood adventures. John, with his salted hair, and Perry, with laugh lines softening his eyes, fell into the couch beside mine talking and laughing with the fluid shorthand of longtime friends and the loosened inhibitions of Summerfest beer. They were neither obnoxious nor loud, but generated an energy that pulled me in like static.

“Ours is a timeless tale,” John boomed when I asked them to tell me their story.  His smile was confident and his blue eyes were sharp behind his glasses.  That he answered me with his best movie announcer voice signaled that he was also a seasoned wise guy.

“Not timeless,” Perry said, admonishing John with a shake of his head.  They were both dressed casually in short pants and short sleeves. Perry’s shirt was neatly tucked. He turned to me to repeat, “It’s not timeless. You can’t say it’s timeless.”

“We’ve been coming up here for years,” John said, his thick hand slicing the air in front of him. “It used to be, like, an enormous pack of us back in the day.”

“Not a pack,” Perry corrected with a sideways smile.  “It was, like, eight of us.”

“Eight can be a pack,” John said, turning his shoulders to face Perry. After they exchanged a few rapid rounds, John sliced the air again, his vintage Schlitz t-shirt sloping the curve of his stomach “Okay,” he conceded, “we were a large group.”

They were practiced in this sharpening of one another, this joust. They’ve been friends for more than 25 years, meeting in high school at the northern ends of Chicago. They agreed that they had become instant friends.

Even after handing me this point of fact, I couldn’t help imagining much younger snapshots of them: knobby knees with scratched and examined scabs, bicycle races, rocks in their pockets, swapped comic books, and exploring together.  Always together.

“He’s been my best man twice,” John said.

“I did a pretty good job both times,” Perry said when I asked for which wedding he had been the better Best Man.  “Although, I might’ve done too good of a job the second time.”

Perry snickers at a memory and John cosigns by looking back over his shoulder and tossing a laugh to his friend.  John had been engaged in a separate lively discussion with the couple just joining our circle-of-couches community, but still managed to train an ear for one of their private jokes.  Always, always together.

Within the span of thirty minutes, John and Perry had turned our sitting area into a studio party. There’s a talent agent charting the arc of his career.  A young couple sighing that they’d been awkwardly confused as siblings all night. The mysterious would-be emcee wrapped in a head scarf and unseasonably heavy clothing. The managing editor with a love for comic books. And we’re all laughing. We’re all letting loose. We’re all at ease. We’re all drawn to the alchemy that is Perry and John.

When they return to their suburb, they’ll return to their very grown up selves as executives and family men.  They will commute.  They will negotiate.  They will work in the yard.  They will consume news and media. They will manage their expenses. They will plan for another summer.  They will navigate new scenes in their endearing, “timeless” tale. Always, always together.

Co-Conspirator

Co-Conspirator

I’m on a stakeout.  Granted, I’m not disguised as a delivery person or hiding behind a newspaper. There are no binoculars or dark shades involved. No two-way radio tucked into my sleeve.  Although the excitement tickling my gut might suggest that I’m crouched behind a dumpster aiming a telephoto lens, I’m actually perched on a low bench in Blu.  It’s a handsome crowd and most are here to watch the fireworks.  One person is here to rewrite history.

Larry is at a table with his girlfriend, Stephanie. I’ve known her for a while, and Larry has been like a little brother to me for more than 10 years. About a month ago, he called to ask if I could be on hand when he proposed.

“She’s always loved fireworks,” he said. “Last summer, I remember turning to look at her and her face was all lit up with lights and she was smiling like a big kid.  I remember thinking, ‘I absolutely love this woman.’”

Of course, I coo.

“I didn’t tell her in that moment, though,” Larry said, disappointment still lacing his words. “I don’t know what stopped me.  I told her, maybe, the next day. But at the fireworks?  Man, that would’ve been perfect.”

The missed opportunity nagged at him.  When he was ready to propose almost a year later, he was determined to create an unforgettable event.

“If I pull this off,” he said, “History just might smudge away that fact that I dropped the ball that night, and she’ll always associate my ‘I love you’ with fireworks.  Maybe our kids will even retell the story that way.”

A conspiracy in the name of love and posterity? I’m in.

I’m at my post, crammed awkwardly between the bar, a married couple to my right and an adult family of six to my left.  Everyone faces the window, watching the steel-grey sky surrender to nightfall.  I’m making notes in my journal about the crowd, the mood, the floating constellation of lights from boats in the marina and, of course, Larry and Stephanie. Like many other couples, they’re sipping champagne, holding hands, planting kisses, listening to the jazz band, enjoying a romantic evening. I look at my watch. 9:05. My stomach begins to flutter.

The wait staff hustles to and fro delivering champagne and towers of hors d’ouerves to the tables. When a waiter appears beside him, Larry looks alarmed and I imagine his heart thundering beneath his shirt. He’s made arrangements for a custom dessert with “Will You Marry Me” written in chocolate. Not yet. Almost, but not yet.

9:20

The band is back from a mini-break. The singer begins “I Will Always Love You,” and the banquet staff approach Larry and Stephanie with their dessert.  It takes a moment for its true sweetness to register, and Stephanie begins to smile and giggle.  Larry produces the ring box and lowers himself to one knee.  I’m not close enough to hear his actual proposal (should’ve invested in the wire tap kit, after all) but I could hear the whisper rippling around us, “Look, he’s proposing!”

Exactly –seriously- exactly as Larry and Stephanie stand to embrace and kiss, the sky erupts in light and fire.  Larry turns to the crowd and confirms, “She said yes!” The entire lounge cheers.

Later that night, I ask Stephanie if she had any idea.  She said she had none.

“I called her parents and all of her girlfriends to make sure this went off smoothly,” Larry said.  “I even made sure that we were dressed up so all the pictures would look nice.”

“You really covered your bases,” I said.  “When did you start planning?”

Larry recounts how he met with her parents early in the year, requested time off from work back in March, started scouting locations in spring, engaged accomplices in early summer, etc.  All the while, Stephanie is admiring her ring.  Our eyes meet, and she laughs.

“Don’t mind me,” she says.

“So, how’d he do? I ask.

“This was perfect,” Stephanie said, planting another kiss on Larry’s cheek.  “It was everything, and it was perfect.”

Stephanie rested against Larry’s arm, smiling up at him as she draped a wrist over his shoulder. We were all silent, indulging in the gaze. The ring dressed her hand beautifully. Stephanie radiated. Larry beamed. The diamonds winked with fire and light. I am still smiling after we hug goodbye and they have head to the elevators. Smiling, and I have no doubt that their children will long tell love stories about fireworks.

The Society

There are rules, and there are rules. The first kind, we largely agree to be hard fast: stealing is wrong, kindness is good, unhealthy eating creates an unhealthy body, and cutting off someone in traffic fills your rear view mirror with crude hand gestures.

The second kind of rules, even italicized in our minds, are the ones we might conveniently recast as “guidelines:” wearing a helmet, copying your supervisor on every email, visiting the dentist twice a year and waiting until Happy Hour for an afternoon cocktail.

I brush away these mental italics and sip my whiskey.  It’s almost 2 pm here in Milwaukee, which means it’s almost 5pm in Portland. Or Reno. Or San Luis Obispo.  I sip, then, in solidarity.

Looking around the lobby lounge, I count two cups of coffee, one tea, one juice, two cokes and five bottles of water.  To my delight, however, a handful have also dismissed the italics to enjoy a midday toast:

Margarita

Mary is waiting for her airport shuttle.  She’s traveling back to Tucson where she works in TV advertising. “It’s the only thing I know how to do and, thank God, I do it really well.”

She is originally from Milwaukee, but hasn’t stood on the city’s soil since leaving 30 years ago.  A wedding -her favorite niece- lured her back, so she made a point of visiting her old Bay View neighborhood

“It turned out to be a highlight of my weekend,” Mary said.  Her skin was tan, her eyes were piercing and her dark hair was collected into a loose bun. “Milwaukee has turned into a hip, forward-moving city … but I can’t wait to get home to my own bed.”  We made a toast to Our Own Bed.

Pinot Grigio

Two young women, a blonde and a brunette, are curled to face each other on a couch. Both are attractive, both are in their late twenties and both had plenty on their minds. As I approach, their conversation feels dramatic but not intense. Facial expressions and hand gestures suggest the retelling of some unfortunate transgression by some unfortunate third party whose ears should be, unfortunately, burning at the moment.

The potential plot of their discussion exploded in my imagination once I learned they were political organizers. They met early in their careers during a campaign in Memphis. Brittany, the brunette, lives in Milwaukee now but hails from Seattle. Raven, visiting with her friend while in town from Washington DC, is originally from Houston.

“I’m sorry we were so cold at first,” Brittany said, reaching for her wine glass.  Raven only had water. “It must take a lot of guts to approach strangers.  Definitely wouldn’t happen where I’m from.”

“It’s true,” Raven said, mentioning a trip she’d made to Seattle. “They’re polite, but they don’t talk to anyone.  In the south, we talk to everyone.  The mix of those is probably why the Midwest is so confusing.” We laugh and toast Talking to Strangers.

 Beer

The couple chatted easily across their café table.  She had a tea and he had a tall stein of beer.  As I explained the Narrator appointment, Theresa listened enthusiastically. I quickly decided that joy and delight were essential elements of her world. She was effervescent, her eyes sparkling when she thanked the waiter, when her husband, Marty, described how they met, when they spoke of their children and, especially, as she remembered their travels.

“We’ve been to 70 countries,” Teresa said.  They live in northern Idaho out in the “extreme country.” Soft curls of honey wheat have been pulled away from her face.  She is a striking woman.  “Our kids have been to 22 or 26.”

“And 48 of the 50 states,” adds Marty. He is tall and bespectacled, sporting a boyish cut to his silver hair, and brandishing an endearingly mischievous grin. Turns out Marty is “America’s favorite veterinarian,” appearing regularly on Good Morning America and Dr. Oz. They’re visiting Milwaukee as part of a book tour.

Although they travel the world –logging Egypt and Bali as past favorites– they’re most looking forward to an extended family vacation in Oregon.

“We love it there. It’s beautiful and simple,” Teresa says. “Perfect.”  Toast to Simple and Perfect.

Malbec

When I explained my Five O’Clock Somewhere Sip Society to Don, he immediately raised his glass in a toast.

“To five o’clock!”

From Ontario, Don publishes a national magazine called Construction Canada.  He’d been pecking furiously at his keyboard when I started my Sip interviews.  I almost didn’t see his glass positioned behind the laptop.

“If you’re going to be parked somewhere working,” he said, “no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a glass of wine.”

I told him of my nascent knowledge of wine, that I purchase bottles based on clever names or handsome labels. Don’s passion for wine was sparked by his passion for food.  He became interested in pairing wines after his first trip to New Orleans.

“Cajun and Creole foods were every bit as good as I’d heard,” he said, “and the flavors were even more enhanced by the wine.” Don and his wife have been students ever since: traveling to vineyards, attending classes, even making their own batches. They get together with friends often to enjoy one of Don’s gourmet meals and sample a complimentary, new wine.

“Wine is best when shared with people you love and care about,” Don said. He and his wife will be empty nesters soon and have been unwavering about maintaining balance in their lives.

“It’s all about quality of life and enjoying the life you’ve made,” Don says.  “At the end of the day, nothing else matters.”

I’ll gladly drink to that.

Prizes

It’s like a Couples Wonderland in here tonight.  Practically every chair in Blu is filled with someone’s better half or, perhaps, better halves to be.

Beyond the south wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, a starlit and indigo sky stretches across the view, mirroring the dim hues and flickering candles inside. I take a slow lap around the room and then stand by the bar. I greet the bartenders and wait staff as they flow back and forth, but keep a keen eye on the room. I’m watching for any movements to suggest the imminent surrender of a seat.

I soon spy a couple preparing to vacate their couch near the fireplace.  I weave through the room and deposit myself into their seat before the plush cushions can reshape themselves. My couch and another loveseat are positioned next to the featured musician, a singer and guitarist named Ryan McIntyre. I look about and see couples knotted together in various stages of flirt and familiar:

The Just Mets — she speaks without affect, but corrects her posture each time she pauses to touch her tall drink.  He is leaning forward, just close enough. He nods his head to her words while his eyes tour her face and hair.

The Torch Bearers — effusing a well-stoked passion, even in their casual affection. He cups the curve of her knee as he orders from the waitress and she twists the curls at the nape of his neck once his attention is returned to her.

The Favorite Sweaters — well-worn and familiar, they are comfortable in each other’s company. Her face glows blue from her phone screen, his expression is blank, content to have her tucked safely in the nook of his draping arm.

The lounge hums with conversation, clinking glasses, laughter and Ryan.  He strums the final chord of a John Mayer song and a sound of distracted applause ripples through the room.

“David Gray!”

Ryan had just begun the charming, between-songs banter, when the man seated on my neighboring couch blurts his music request. He is deliberate, his volume just decibels under shouting and landing squarely between the settling applause and throat clearing. He’s dressed in khakis, a striped button-down, loafers and a blazer (yes, blue) drapes across the back of the couch. His seatmate is dressed in a soft and scalloped blush colored dress.  He raises his eyebrows in her direction and she smiles back approvingly as Ryan starts the next song. This must be David Gray.

There was a lot of couch real estate between them.  I believe scoring her favorite song should’ve prompted a wink, a touch, a kiss on the cheek or, at least, move them closer together.  Instead they tap their feet, bob their chins and enjoy the music.

The couple behind them, however, is fully committed to a bit of PDA.  She’s someone’s bridesmaid, liberated from the pack. Her hero, dressed in jeans and a sultry fitted tee, leans across their small cocktail table for a long and fluttering kiss. The pair of couples at the table next to them surround a small fountain of chocolate fondue.  All four are dressed casually, but the fellas somehow strike me as the least likely candidates for fondue.  Watching them all smile and laugh and dip, I suspect the ladies are applauding themselves for introducing another good idea.

Cold Play! a voice calls from the other end of the room. As Ryan chats with the audience again, a man comes forward to drop a bill into a large glass tip jar. “Yellow” is Ryan’s next song.

Dave Matthews. Michael Bublé. John Legend. Kings of Leon.

Between each song, men stand at Ryan’s tip jar in twos and threes, waiting to toss their tips into Ryan’s jar and win their dates’ favorite tune.  It reminds me of the carnival, when guys would test their skill and valor against moving ducks, falling balloons and stacks of milk bottles to win their ladies an over-sized stuffed toy.

My couch neighbors are smiling at one another again.  She sweeps hair from her shoulder, laying bare the sanguine curve of her neck.  He flags our waitress.  In the center of the room, The Worn Sweaters have tucked away the cell phone and cuddle tight on their plush chair. The Just Mets are still at the bar, facing one another on their stools now.  Her back and gestures seem more relaxed, his eyes are pinned to hers.  The Torch Bearers are gone.  She’d led him away long ago with barely the tip of her pinky finger.

My neighbors are on their feet.  We smile good night as they move past me.  I’m relieved to see him stop and deposit a tip in to Ryan’s jar.  Carnival prizes, after all, are never actually free.

Widgets

This isn’t what I expected at all. Where’s the fast talking guy with the water purifiers? What about the charming woman in the quilted vest with the doggy spa? The tall, awkward man in a bowtie who brews “savory” beer?

When the elevator doors slip open onto the seventh floor ballrooms and the Tenth Annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, I Marsha Barwickexpected a labyrinth of skirted tables, exhibition panels, tabletop screens with looping videos and eclectic characters barking passionately about their business venture.  Instead, I arrived to find 500 business suits listening intently to a tailored keynote speaker.

What tha…?

According to Wisconsin Department of Economic Development, the state has 450,000 small businesses, but it didn’t seem like any of them were here. I will eventually think of Richard Branson, Sara Blakely and Valerie Daniels Carter when I think “entrepreneur.” More often, I picture a father-and-son landscaping business first. The middle school teacher who threw everything behind a miracle cream. The college drop out who needs a commercial oven to advance her growing cupcake business.

There wasn’t a promotional tee-shirt, refrigerator magnet or free sample of cranberry cheese anywhere in sight.  

At the perimeter of all the meeting-and-greeting going on as the luncheon emptied into the gallery, I found a modified corporate type– dress shirt with no tie—casually checking email or text messages on his phone.  I dropped on to the couch across from Kyle, frustrated.

“Where are the real entrepreneurs?” I blurted.  “You know, the folks who make widgets and better mousetraps and open hookah cafes?”

Kyle laughed a little and clarified that he, and most of the attendees at this conference, were focused on high growth technology businesses. He was young and composed, with a genuine and appealing smile.  A lawyer. The firm he represented, AlphaTech, specializes in supporting “the entire life cycle of a business.”

“So, you get to be the button-down shirt in a room of fun people?” I asked.  Kyle nodded, laughed again.

Then there should be a shock of white hair, some green suspenders, or at least a pair of jeans in this crowd. 

Then, I spotted the white, pointy-toe dress shoes.  Open collar. White linen jacket. High tidal wave of thick hair. Balbo beard. Funky eyeglass frames.

There he is.

I watched him light about the room until we were seated beside one another on a sofa. I told him of my quest and asked if he, perhaps, was a real entrepreneur.

“I introduce big companies to the next great ideas for commercializing clean energy,” he said.  His name was Jerry and he described how he helps inventors get beyond the test run.  He was starting to explain how big companies scale new technology to the larger market when he sprang from his seat to intercept one of the conference presenters. From reading their body language, what started as an awkward ambush had been deftly shaped into an exchange of qualifiers, tidbits, insights, chuckles, business cards and parting appeal from the presenter for Jerry to sit in on his next session.

Even without widgets, this dude was for real.

Turns out, they all were real in a forward-thinking way. Although the tow truck fleets and gourmet fudge and pawn shops and gymnastic studios will always be essential to our culture and commerce, the explosion of “knowledge-based” industries may prove to be the tipping element for our nation’s economy. The biosciences are a $6.8 billion industry in Wisconsin alone. Our institutions conduct more than $1.25 billion in academic research each year according to the National Science Foundation. With $3.2 billion, we rank 13th of all the states in high-tech exports and we’re consistently among the nation’s leaders in the numbers of patents issued.

Oh. Those entrepreneurs.

In his welcome, Paul Jadin, CEO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation wrote that the agency is “committed to encouraging the continued rise of the state’s early stage economy.” The State’s Annual Business Plan Contest for start ups in high-tech and high-growth businesses is juried at this event, with winners earning the support of investors, government contracts, research support, and startup cash.  One of the judges, Marsha Barwick of Marshfield Clinic Applied Sciences, said she was “blown away” by this year’s submissions.

“There are lot of great ideas out there,” she said.

As I make my way to the elevator to leave, I think of something Kyle, the attorney, said.

“I like working with entrepreneurs. They have so many stories, so much passion, and they’re never the same. I feel lucky to be surrounded by people in love with their dream.”

As the elevator doors open, I realize I’m satisfied.  I didn’t meet any ice cream makers or motorboat repairmen, but I experienced the tradition and future of Wisconsin’s industrial growth. Much better than a t-shirt.

Going Somewhere

It’s early evening. The downtown streets are still basked in sunshine and summer dresses. Bursts of citrus colors, flirty fabrics and bare shoulders breeze past the open patio windows of Mason Street Grill.

Inside, the lounge hums with an eager energy. Friends fill the space with animated banter. The largest group, four well-dressed couples, cluster along the bar. I imagine them relieved to abandon To Do lists and attaché cases for the evening. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a steak dinner inside the restaurant.  Maybe they’ll go dancing.  However their night unfolds, it is clear they’ve decided to do something.

The jazz trio reaches the end of its first set, and the crowd begins to thin. I notice them then, seated at a low table.  They are absorbing the entire room now: the mahogany paneled walls, the grand piano, the sumptuous curve of the bar, the glint of men’s expensive watches, the dimming light and the pervasive sense of Going Somewhere.  They were just a couple of teenagers.

Onteria and his girlfriend, Victoria, are graduating seniors heading off to college in the fall. They were being treated to a well-deserved celebration by one of Onteria’s mentors.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Onteria tells me.  Clearly, having earned a full scholarship to prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta.  He is handsome with an infectious smile.  He tells me he’d like to study Psychology or Physical Therapy.

“How about you?” I ask Victoria, who’s heading to Tennessee State University, another HBCU favorite.

“Nursing,” she says without effect, “if I don’t change my major or something.”

“Don’t stress about that now,” I say. “Sixty percent of college students change their major at least once.” The handy stat was lodged in my brain from years of delivering college readiness presentations to high schools and college freshman.

Victoria regards me thoughtfully.  She’s slender with elegant features.  Her eyes are sharp, and I’m not sure if she’s assessing or evaluating me.

We talk about plans for their last few months in Milwaukee before landing on the topic of all the uncertainties waiting for them at the edge of summer.

“I’m not sure what I’m afraid of,” Onteria says, that smile curling around his words. “It seems like we were just in 10th grade.”

Victoria considers before speaking, “I hope it’s all going to be worth it.”

Like 60,000 other Wisconsin graduates, Victoria and Onteria will decide whether their studying, late nights, aggravating teachers, deadlines, stressful rules, afternoons and weekends spent in workshops, tournaments and clubs and worrying about every possible thing in order to spend years away from home under grueling university study and agonizing personal reconstruction will, as promised, be worth it all.

Her statement hangs in the air.  Onteria looks at Victoria and Victoria looks at me.  This is not the time to fan out platitudes.

“I won’t lie, honey.  You might go through years of school and still not find a job. Or get a job you might have gotten without the degree.  But luck is really about being prepared when opportunities happen.  College puts you in the path of ‘lucky’.”

I pause.  She keeps her eyes on me.  I continue.

I tell her how the most fantastic lessons will happen outside the classroom:  dealing with that one chick in her dorm, negotiating extra credit, managing family drama from a distance, really stretching a dollar, surviving a breakup with the one, competing for internships and balancing heavier counterweights and freedoms.

“No matter what happens, you will be more,” I say.  It’s one of my mother’s favorite affirmations. “At the end, you will know what you’re made of. You’ll have struggled, stumbled and stood up over and over again.  And, yes, you’ll make lifelong friends.  Job or no job, you’ve earned the chance to have a college experience strengthen you.  That, I promise, will be worth it.”

Those eyes, they were glistening now.

“Please tell me those are happy tears and I didn’t make you feel worse,” I say.

She finally gives me a shy smile.  “I’m okay,” she says.  “It’s just kindof a lot to get used to.”

“You will,” I say.  “No one expects either one of you to be expert college students in the first week.  Figuring that out is part of the journey.  Make sure you enjoy it, though.  College is your last stop before full-grown adulthood, and let me tell ya …”

We laugh and guide the conversation back to summertime, me eager to be the listener again. The kids drift back to their own conversation and I fall into one with the mentor. As she talks, I watch Onteria and Victoria chat and tease near the patio windows.  It’s dark outside now, yet they are still two bursts of sunlight.  They, too, are filled with a sense of Going Somewhere.

Laws of the Ladies Room

“I’ve lived in Milwaukee my whole life and never been to the Pfister.”

This is how Dana and I became best friends.  Okay.  Not really. We were more like Spontaneous BFFs, the kind you experience at intimate intersections, such as the ladies room.  What begins as a comment about hand soap, or the hour, or a fierce pair of shoes could  bloom into a confessional, a counseling session, a health consultation or even a plot.

The Laws of the Ladies Room do not reflect those on the other side of our door.  First of all, time stands still. We can exchange full biographies, transcribe a complete cell phone directory, or annotate entire relationships in the time it takes to tinkle, lather, primp and adjust our pantyhose.  Second, judgment and the concept of “TMI” is suspended, like zero gravity on the moon. Finally, as quickly as we are seized with the pull of “sisterhood,” we accept that the bonds will fall away from us like whispers once we toss our paper towels and exit.

I am drawn to the floor-to-ceiling window as I emerge from my bathroom stall.  I gaze down at the city’s glitter and shine when my new best friend leaves her stall and joins me to coo at the view.

“This is amazing,” Dana said.  “Milwaukee is so beautiful.”

I agreed and said she’d picked a gorgeous night to take in the view.

“It’s my anniversary,” she said.  “Seven years.”

“Ahh,” I said, raising my eyebrows, “the itch.”

Dana laughed, giving a little shrug with one shoulder.  She always does that thing with her shoulder.

“Whatever this year is called, we’re glad we made it,” Dana says, turning away from the window and heading to the basin to wash her hands.  I follow her.  Me and my homegirl, Dana, have always been big on hygiene. Like, this one time…

As we dry our hands, Dana explains how she and her husband wanted to do something different tonight, something they’d never done.  “We’re both homebodies,” she said. “If we do go out, we go to our regular neighborhood bar.  We never come downtown.”

She’s drawn to the window again.  Quietly, she repeats, “So beautiful.”

I offer to take her photo, apologizing in advance for the camera on my less-than-smart phone.  She’s been teasing me about this phone for the longest…

“I don’t like taking pictures,” Dana says, interrupting my disclaimer.  “They never turn out good.  I never look right.”

I look from her face to the sparkling night scene beneath us, and back to her.  “Look, I don’t about ‘looking right,’” I said. “I think you look like a woman enjoying her seventh wedding anniversary.”

I smile at her.  She knows we’re taking this picture.

After our 45-second photo shoot, Dana’s shoulders relax and the loose smile returns to her lips.  Intuitively, I know to feel profoundly happy for her, like a best friend would. We stop in front of the mirror one more time.  She pulls a panel of long brown hair behind her ear and I check my teeth for lipstick. We emerge from the ladies room adjusting our expressions as if masking traces of mischief. Classic.

I follow her in to Blu, wanting to congratulate her husband. (I wonder if he’s going to ask me about that …)  Watching his face strain to process the two of us approaching, all chummy and grinning, snapped us both back to reality. He would not be interested with the Laws of the Ladies Room, not our secret handshake, not our You-Go-Girl cheer, not our list ranking of sexy movie stars.  Not even the best places to find that brand of hair conditioner.  Instead, his face asked, “What took you so long?”

Dana and I let our giggles deflate into cordial pleasantries.  She introduced me as the hotel writer. I offered to buy their next round of drinks.  We all bid good night.  I made my way from the twenty-third-floor view and into the clear and real night. Dana and I were best friends for only six minutes but, by Law, it was all the time we needed.

Chatter

The steady pacing is a ruse.  They navigated easily through an obstacle course of more than a dozen cardboard boxes outside the Imperial Ballroom.  I’ve orchestrated large events and will confess that set-up never runs this smoothly without precision planning. I was, doctor most certainly, observing a pro team of volunteers.  The women floated amid the boxes like a quiet force before a storm.

Well, maybe not quiet.

“If we put the paperwork in first, the bags will stay open.”

“Only one perfume in each bag, not one of each perfume in each bag.”

“Watch out for the insecticide.”

Pfister Narrator "chatter"They fall into a rhythm, a walking assembly line to pull items from open boxes, place  sponsor swag into cloth totes, and move each large bag to an expanding sea of black canvas.

“How’s Amanda?”

“Did you enjoy the Chicago trip?”

“Your daughter is done with law school already?”

The next day’s luncheon is Go Red for Women, Milwaukee’s celebration in the American Heart Association’s national campaign to galvanize communities toward raising awareness –and action—about heart disease.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.  Compared to breast cancer’s loss rate of 1 in 30, 1 in 3 American women die from heart disease daily.  This equates to someone’s wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt or best friend dying from cardiovascular disease every single minute of every single day.

“What do you think about this: we could invite this pathologist I met to give a talk about the kind of testing women should get.”

“Remember that chef? I looked at her website. She gives a Heart Healthy cooking class at Aurora.  We should call her.”

“I really liked that last event.  It was educational without feeling like we were back in school.”

The women laugh.  They have grown to a team of six or eight now. They continue tossing ideas into the air.  They continue asking about one another’s lives. They continue assembling tote bags.

“How many?”

“About 300.  More volunteers are on the way.”

“I volunteered my first year, then I joined right away.”

“Yep, that’s how we rope you in.”

The women laugh again.  This is the Circle of Red Society, women who support the Go Red for Women campaign with dollars and deeds.

“We’re the passion arm of Go Red,” says Pat, the incoming chair for Milwaukee’s Circle of Red.  “This is our big annual event, but we stay active every month of the year. We try and talk to everyone about talking to everyone about heart disease.”

The outgoing chair, Lisa, doesn’t stop moving and filling bags and says, “People still are not aware.  Women still don’t know signs and symptoms.”

As I continue to chat with Pat, the machine of women offer more comments while they continue to pack and move their gift bags.

“A lot of people still think breast cancer is our number one killer.”

“It’s still considered an ‘old man’s disease,’ but women’s symptoms are just different sometimes.”

“They don’t think heart attacks can happen to a woman in her 30s.”

“I’ve had a heart murmur since I was a kid.”

“My sister passed away from heart disease. My mother did too.”

“They think you have to be overweight.”

“I knew a woman who was only 51, did yoga four times a week and, when she started having a stroke, assumed it was something else.  A friend convinced her to go to urgent care. Saved her life that day.”

Most of the Circle’s women have personal stories, Pat tells me, but all of them are inspired ambassadors.  I asked what they would tell every woman (and the people of love them) if they could and the group agreed:

“Learn the symptoms.  Do not ignore your body.  Go to the doctor for regular exams and screenings.”

Even without a snazzy tote bag, these women know that Life is our most precious gift of all.

 

Watch this clever video starring Emmy-nominated actress Elizabeth Banks:

 

Pink Frosted Dreams

I sensed them before I saw them.  A carbonated excitement that pushed aside the steady hum of the front lobby.  It was a gaggle of girls, clinic perhaps 10 or 11 years old.  They had tote bags on their shoulders and duffle bags dropped to their feet.  Their small group, roughly a half dozen, tittered blissfully, gazing up to the ornate ceiling, pointing to the chandeliers, looking around at the austere paintings on the wall.  Nearby, two mothers are digging in their handbags and collating paper printouts, waiting to check in.  A third woman stood with the Pfister narratorgirls.  Her smile seemed to relish the girls’ delight while her eyes were attentive to the other lobby guests.  Great instincts; she was not a rookie chaperone.

I offered to share cupcakes with the girls in the café while the mothers got checked in.  More great mother-chaperone instincts: she was listening for red flags and scanning my soul as I introduced myself.  I expected nothing less.  I asked her to join us and we all tumbled into the café.

They were a Girl Scout troop from a suburb of Chicago.  In addition to a camping trip, an excursion to a fancy hotel in another city had been their goal for this year’s cookie money and fundraising.

“This is SO cool,” said one, as we sat at a long table. They nodded to each other in agreement. They were a calico assembly of curls, ponytails, dimples, glasses, friendship bracelets and giggles.

I learned most of them were fifth graders as well as veteran Girl Scouts.  I asked what they liked most about being Girl Scouts.  They told me they enjoyed learning new things, going new places, and sharing a connection that was special from their “regular” classmates and friends.

“We only meet a few times a month, so it’s special when we’re all together.”

The girls admit that they’ve matured together too, learning how to plan things and even how to fight and make up.  When I asked them to describe themselves, they offered “funny,” “talented,” “loving,” “electric.”

When I asked what they each wanted to be when they grew up, I was prepared for Doctor, Lawyer, Veterinarian, Police Officer, the short list of ambitions that we grown ups typically dispense to children.  My heart leapt with joy to hear, instead, Trapeze Artist, Interior Designer, Teacher, Viola Player, Pilot.

Of course, I’ll have no way of knowing if the girls will land on these goals 10-20 years from now.  Still, I was excited to hear that they were already dreaming outside the box.  Don’t get me wrong, there are phenomenal careers inside the box, but you have to admire the vast number of pre-schoolers who, according to a recent Forbes poll, intend to become superheroes and princesses. They’ll realize how competitive those gigs are, eventually. In fact, a survey on Salary.com reports that 70% of us changed our “dream job” once we became adults. (Although 60% of us still wish for those childhood ideals.) Realized or not, the point is to dream.

My merry band of cupcakes began to fall away into spirited side conversations.  All three mothers were with us now, the adult business of check-ins and room keys handled. Annie, my cupcake girls’ self-appointed spokesperson, explained that they were hoping to have two adjoining rooms separate from the mother-chaperones.

“I doubt that’s going to happen,” she said with a comical twist at the mouth.

“Probably not,” I agreed, giving her a wink.  “But it never hurts to dream.”

Candlelight Vigil

As the minute hand makes its incremental sweep toward five o’clock, the atmosphere on the main floor swells with anticipation for the weekend.  A boisterous cluster of men greet one another near the lobby bar.  A young co-ed rushes to the concierge for directions.  A preschooler fingers the pink sparkles on her princess shirt as parents carry her sibling up the stairs in a stroller.  Perched on impressively high heels, a slender woman anxiously watches the revolving door.

Down the hall in the boutique, an older couple selects a tangerine silk blouse for their theater outing.  As they chat with the associate, I follow the blouses, blazers, cocktail dresses, bracelets and chocolates to a table display of candles.  I recognize the round tins immediately. I’d received one as a gift last year, but had expected not to enjoy its scent because I’m not a fan of mint chocolate.  Turns out, I loved the candle so much I’ve kept the burned out tin as a reminder to research the maker and vendor.

Here they were. Voluspa Truffle White Cocoa.

A woman neared the table to examine other tins as well: Baltic Amber, Panjore Lychee, Dahlia Orange Bloom.

“This one,” I say authoritatively, “is truly divine.” I begin to tell her about my serendipitous discovery and realize that she already has a number of tins balanced in the crook of one arm.  With her other hand, she held a flute of champagne. We strike up a conversation about candles, the good, the bad, and the cheap.

“I’ve bought them for fifty dollars and I’ve bought them for five,” she said.  “The good ones are worth whatever you spend, if you like them. I like the ones with soy and natural products best, like these.”

My new candle sister’s name is Michelle, a Milwaukee-area native who travels the country as a real estate professional.  She picks up a few candles for her stash whenever she visits the Pfister’s WELL spa. She might burn candles at any time, she says, but always when she meditates, a practice she’s adopted in the past five years. I admit to her that I’ve only been meditating for a week, after Pfister narratorseveral failed and short-lived efforts over the years.

“It’s still difficult,” she laughed, “but, now, I can tell the difference when I don’t take the time to still myself every day.”

Michelle has become as equally diligent about balancing her busy world with regular exercise, girls’ outings with her sisters, spiritual readings, and treating herself to a massage.

“At the end of any given day, we’re responsible for dozens of decisions with serious weight and consequence. The reality of our lives can be immense,” she says. “I  do my best to live well in between it all.”

Michelle takes a sip of champagne and flashes a warm and brilliant smile.  I thank her for sharing her story and wish her an exquisitely quiet evening.  She raises her glass and I head for the lobby.  The bustle had thickened with friends laughing in the lounge, business women arriving with their roller bags, and couples in formal attire weaving through a crowd of dress slacks and denim.  It is definitely the weekend, but Michelle may be off to the best start.