We’re making a book

Pfister artist-in-residence Stephanie Barenz is compiling a book that will include the works that she created / creates during her one-year tenure at the hotel and I am excited and honored to contribute copy.

“My intention for the book is to visually record the stories that walked into my studio as well as communicating themes of memory, travel / transience, personal and public histories, folktales and storytelling,” says Barenz. “I wanted it to be more than just a catalog of my work and that is where the idea of collaborating with the Pfister Narrator came from.”

Stephanie says she has always loved collaborations – and so have I. Also, I really adore that Stephanie’s paintings are visual stories. I live for stories and rarely think of them told in a way that doesn’t include words. This is one of the many reasons why Stephanie’s art blows my mind.

Originally we talked about me writing poems or haiku as reactions to the pieces. We also considered lifting excerpts from my blogs and articles. Maybe a mix of all of the above. But one recent Friday night I could not sleep and I was awake for hours in the early morning blue light of my bedroom thinking about the project and finally it dawned on me.

Stephanie’s paintings are stories. I write stories. And so the copy for the book could not simply be my interpretations of her art. No.

The copy must tell stories.

And with that, a new voice sparked from my creative flame and singed the edges of my creative vision. The voice is strong and sweet and hopeful; playful and melancholy and matter of fact.

Stephanie recently told me this:

“It has been really fascinating to see how you have taken the storytelling / narrative theme that I have been using in my work and have created text that is a lot like the artwork itself. It is poetic and descriptive, while leaving a lot up to the imagination and the viewer/readers interpretation. I think it is really beautiful and love the way you have strung the paintings together to tell a whimsical story.”

For three weeks now the collaboration is in full swing. Stephanie tells me the story behind the painting and then I unfurl a retelling.

For example, she told me that her painting, “Omniscient Narrator,” was created before she knew if she had won the Pfister residency or not.

“Everything was kind of intimidating but I felt very excited and thrilled at the possibility of being chosen,” she said. “The omniscient narrator refers to the Pfister narrator position as well – the idea is that the chandelier sees all and knows all. I personified these ornate, opulent objects and to me they appeared much like a chorus from a Greek tragedy.”

I thought about this. I looked at the painting. Then I grabbed two sticks, rubbed them together and sparked this:

She created the chandelier before she knew she had won the competition. She felt its life force and she wanted to capture it like a firefly in a glass jar and give it breath through brushstroke. She knew the chandelier beheld all of the beauty of the lobby: the celebration flowers, the damp rings on napkins, the silk linings in suitcases and the sparky moments when strangers became acquainted. And she knew if she could ignite her canvas with the chandelier’s warm stories and secrets it might flip the switch on a brand new dawn for her as a creator. Please, she thought, please let there be light.

The book, with the working title “The Carriers,” will be available in 2014. I will keep you posted.


Painting "Omniscient Narrator."
Working on “Omniscient Narrator.”


Stealing sips from drinks and other stories

Since I started my narratorship at the Pfister in May, for sale I have become a master eavesdropper. It’s true: I can be sitting on the other side of the lounge or the cafe and if someone starts to tell a good story, I swear my ears double in size.

This happened recently when I was hanging out in the lobby, trying to feel out who might have a good yarn to tell, and I suddenly heard Bob Ellisor, who was having a drink with his daughters and friends, share a story with a server about his father.

His story ended with a group laugh and within seconds, I was at the edge of his table, introducing myself and asking if he would retell the story to me.

“I would love to,” he said.

Bob went on to tell me he was from Adams, Wis. but he hoped to live in Milwaukee someday.

“Moving to Milwaukee has been a part of my five-year plan for 15 years now,” said Bob. “It’s a cool place to be and, also, it’s where my parents met.”

Bob’s parents met at Cass and Juneau Streets right after World War II where they both lived in a boarding house.

“It was a beautiful building with lots of ivy,” Bob said.

His parents had an unconventional first meeting. “My dad met my mom when my mom’s brother, who would later be my uncle, accused him of stealing a suit and called the cops on him,” he says.

Whether or not he stole the suit is unclear, but one thing’s for sure: he fell in love with Bob’s mother.

“My dad, his name was JD, was quite a character. He was like a 1940s movie character – sartorial – and he had a lot of flair,” he said.

JD, originally from North Carolina, went on the GI Bill after the war and found himself in Milwaukee attending the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

“He was something he would never call himself: a war hero. And he was a very intelligent man, but after everything he went through – all those horrific experiences – and then to come back as a civilian again … it was tough. He didn’t have any money and yet he was starting a new life,” said Bob. “He had a very fish-out-of-water story.”

Bob said JD took a job at the Pfister Hotel and would tell stories from that experience for the rest of his life.

“He always told us it’s one thing to have your coat brushed and put back on but a whole ‘nother thing to brush someone else’s coat and put it back on them,” he said.

JD also supposedly delivered cocktails to hotel guests. “He used to go downstairs to get the drinks and bring them to the upper levels and he would always take a little sip out of each one … I don’t know how long he was employed here.”

Bob’s parents moved briefly to North Carolina, but there was a housing shortage, and so they moved to the upper peninsula in Michigan.

“My dad was the only one in the UP with a Southern accent,” said Bob. “That voice. Oh, he was loud as hell on the phone. My brother used to say dad didn’t think phones actually worked.”

JD worked as an electrician and appliance repair man. He fathered eight children and passed away at the age of 63 in 1986.

“He was a guy who celebrated the simplest things,” said Bob. “When he took the whole family out, he would put on a little aftershave and make every single one of us smell him.”

Bob stopped talking then, thanked me for listening to his story about his dad, and referred to our interaction as a “happy accident.”

“I come here because there’s a lot of nostalgia here,” said Bob. “But I also come here so I can repeat those stories and to celebrate the little things, like my dad. And by the way, when you weren’t looking, I took a sip out of your drink.”

Finding our voices through zine-making

Many years ago, standing in line at the grocery store with my mother I wondered why the same faces were always on the covers of magazines.

Meanwhile, I had notebooks filled with words and drawings, none of which I thought were good enough for public consumption. I mean, after all, I didn’t look like any of those people on the covers of magazines, nor was my life anywhere as interesting.

Or was it?

I started to read about independent media and self publishing and a big door opened for me in the world of zines. I realized that I do have a story to tell. Everyone does. And it’s just as important as anyone else’s. Even those actors on “Friends.”

Zines are, basically, booklets ranging in size that are usually (but not always) made by hand – as in pen and paper – and photocopied and distributed for free or very small amounts of money.

Zines can be about anything. Many are written about bands and music – these were once called “fanzines” – which is where the word “zine” came from.

I have written zines about New Orleans and Bjork, among others, and I have read zines about parenting, ketchup and the future of human existence.

For me, it is just another way to express myself through writing and a fun world without borders or rules. I love to share this with other people. Especially children.

I was thrilled when Pfister Artist-in-Residence Stephanie Barenz asked me – and my partner, also into zines – to teach a zine workshop for seven students from St. Marcus School in Milwaukee as a part of her and her husband’s Our Story Arts program. Her husband, Zach Wiegman, is a full-time teacher at the central city school.

My partner, Royal, and I have taught zine workshops for kids at Milwaukee Zine Fest, held every November or December at the Polish Falcon in Riverwest. (This year it is Saturday, Nov. 9.) We have called the workshop “Z is for Zine” and have also taught it out of our home.

Teaching a zine workshop at the Pfister Hotel was definitely a beautiful collision of my worlds, but that isn’t what inspired me last week during the workshop.

It was the kids. Those kids!

They were attentive, engaged and incredibly creative. They understood the zine concept almost immediately. We showed them how to fold a piece of paper into an eight-page “mini zine” and they had ideas for their themes within minutes.

Tanya’s zine was about saving the world and featured a character named Destiny. Gabriel’s zine was centered around a rooster with tap shoes who did not tap dance (although he said he was making a sequel zine during which he might actually tap dance, but he might not.)


Joel made a stick figure Superman zine while Gavin made a zine with drawings of food items dressed up in clothing. You know, like a slice of pizza wearing a shirt and such.

Astashia loved typing out her zine ideas on our vintage Royal typewriter – she said she had never typed on a manual typer before – and she contributed the tap-tap-tapping sound to the workshop. Nikayla’s zine was a story about living in a house with 10 kids and two adults.

We brought with us stacks of different zines and at the end of the workshop, the kids asked if they could each have one. We said yes and, interestingly, two of the seven picked one of our favorite zines of all time, “Write Now,” written by a Chicago artist and zinester named Neil Brideau.

If there’s one message we hope the kids took away from our zine workshop, it’s this message that Neil illustrates inside his entertaining and empowering zine.



In search of Uncle Sigurd’s story

It was research and the love of family that brought Norwegian genealogist Egil Johannessen to the Pfister.

Egil visited the hotel with his wife, Jeanne Marie, and their 12-year-old son, Trygve Johann. The family lives in Larvik, Norway, a small town in the southern part of the country.

They took a vacation this summer to the Midwest to visit Jeanne Marie’s family, she is originally from Indiana, and to attempt to find more information about Egil’s great uncle, Sigurd, who had a connection to the Pfister.

Sigurd was the brother of Egil’s great grandmother, Johanne, and he traveled from Larvik to Milwaukee in 1907 on the Hellig Olav. He was 17-years-old.

SS Hellige Olav

According to the U.S. City Directories, Sigurd started working as a department manager at the Pfister in 1933.

“And thus I wanted to see the place and had hoped the hotel had some more information about him,” says Egil.

It turns out the hotel does not have personnel files from that long ago.

After leaving Milwaukee, Egil and his family traveled to Racine and then to Plainfield, Ind. to visit Jeanne Marie’s relatives. They visit the United States about once a year, but Egil remembers when he was familiar with the US only as a return address on packages.

“Growing up, I remember I got presents for my birthday and Christmas sent from the USA, including the gown I was baptized in. This gown is still in good shape and my son, my sister’s children and her grandchildren were also baptized wearing it,” says Egil.

Sigurd's draft registration card.
Sigurd’s draft registration card.

But perhaps visiting the Pfister was a blessing in disguise for Egil and his family.

“We met a very nice gentleman, the concierge – unfortunately I don’t remember his name – and he was kind enough to listen to my story and then told us the story about the hotel and gave us some written, useful documentation,” says Egil. “He also told us we could stroll the hotel as much as we would like, take pictures and enjoy the culture and art. We had an exquisite lunch at the cafe and toured the hotel with joy. We took some wonderful pictures and also met the lovely Stephanie (Barenz) and admired her art.”

Sigurd Mathison Gravestone Wood Nat Cem

Unexpectedly rolling through life

Like many Pfister guests during the summer months, doctor Chris and Jan were in Milwaukee to attend a festival.

For the ninth year in a row, the St. Louis-based couple came into town for Irish Fest. And this was their second year staying at the Pfister.

“We walked by the Pfister multiple times and always said what a great hotel it looked like from the outside, sovaldi ” says Chris. “And finally one time, we walked in, took one look at the lobby and said, ‘We’d love to stay here.’”

Unfortunately for them, the hotel was booked, but the next year they reserved a room in advance and it’s now become a tradition.

“We love old, nostalgic things,” says Jan. “We have an old, nostalgic home we’ve rebuilt.”

Although it was their second visit to the hotel, it was their first visit with Jan confined to a wheelchair.

Four months ago, Jan twisted her ankle. One thing led to another and she wound up in a wheelchair.

“I’m a little ticked off,” she says. “And I cannot even watch a shoe commercial or look at a pair of platform shoes.”

Chris says they’ve had a lot of challenges and insights since Jan needed the wheelchair.

“Like most people, we never thought about it until it happened,” he says. “Life, now, is very different.”

Jan says the most difficult aspect of being in a wheelchair is recognizing how many doorways aren’t wide enough – including one in their own home.

To raise spirits, the couple recently took a vacation to Washington, D.C., and while sitting on the mall enjoying the sights, Jan suddenly saw a woman walking very quickly toward her, clearly absorbed in her phone and texting.

“I was hollering at her, asking her to look up and stop walking, but she never looked up from her phone and she ran right into me,” says Jan.

However, there have been a few fun wheelchair moments. Chris says, sometimes, he pushes her really, really fast.

“But you gotta be careful. We hit a curb once and it was a real disaster,” he says.

The couple say they find the Pfister wheelchair-friendly. “Jan likes the way the room is set up,” says Chris.

Although this year’s Irish fest visit is not the same as Irish Fest outings of the past, the couple are managing to have a good time in a city that they find, for the most part, wheelchair accessible.

Chris says the experience has made him more reflective and he can see the faint silver lining, but, of course, he is eager to see his wife get out of the chair for good.

“Something like this makes you think twice about your life. How things happen and why they happen,” he says. “And I’m getting a lot of exercise.”

350 pairs of shoes

She told me she had 350 pairs of shoes.

I believed her. The pair she was wearing looked brand new. Everything she was wearing looked brand new. (She would later disclose to me that when I first approached her at the bar of the Mason Street Grill she thought I was a credit card collector.)

She had been drinking. She was waiting for a friend who was 50 minutes late. I sat down next to her and we talked for the next hour. She told me she loved to shop.

She told me she was a retired school teacher and this was going to be her first fall not starting school in more than 30 years. She was sad by this fact. She never had children. She told me her students were her children.

She told me shopping depressed her these days. Too many back-to-school reminders.

She asked me about my children. She told me she never married, sale but she was once engaged to a man who owned a jewelry store for four months which was “four months too long.” She couldn’t break it off because she couldn’t bear to give back the diamond.

Her friend arrived. The friend told me that she had been married for 32 years, then left her husband and met another man. She lived with him for a few years but left him eight weeks ago. He had told her, three times, that he took “the test” and he was not gay.

“There isn’t a test!” we said.

This made her sad. She looked away. She asked me if I knew any men her age. (They were both in their sixties.)

They told me about a dating service. Not an online dating service, a walk-in service with phones and files. I did not know these still existed. But, apparently, they do and they charged the women $1,600 each to join the service only to set them up on a few dates with men who were not at all like what the women requested.

One put his briefcase on the bar and said his son made him sign up with the service. Another was very large and they had requested fit. One date said, “I hear you are a rock climber and well traveled.”

Neither of these things were true.

They told me they had recent run-ins with the law. One drank too much at a piano bar and was taken by police to the station. The other said she drove the wrong way on an entrance ramp and was pulled over by police but not issued a ticket.

I was a bit overwhelmed by all of the information. I was used to getting people to open up to me, not to completely spill their beans on my lap. But I liked it. I liked them. They were raw and sweet and sad and real.

I ordered a beer. I thought to myself, “I am afraid to grow old.”

I told them I needed to move on. They told me they needed to go, too – somewhere with more older, available men. I asked them, before they left, if I could take their photo.

“You can photograph our shoes.”

Some talk trash, Timothy Westbrook picks it up

I finally met and spent time with Timothy Westbrook yesterday. Timothy is the former Artist-In-Residence at the Pfister and was a contestant on this season’s “Project Runway.”

Timothy is a sustainability-focused fiber artist which means almost all of his work – his fashions – are constructed from recycled or discarded materials from plastic bags to the tape inside old school cassettes.

I have heard Timothy, cialis both on television and in person, speak about his commitment to the environment by reusing and recycling materials, but yesterday I saw him truly practicing what he preaches.

While walking around in the sunshine on our way from the Pfister Hotel to his studio in the Shops At Grand Avenue – about four blocks – Timothy picked up every piece of trash he saw on the ground.

Without a pause in conversation, ampoule he continually bent down, grabbed a torn candy wrapper or squashed chip bag, and tossed it in the next garbage can.

He demonstrated how easy it is to do this, how it takes virtually no extra time out of our day at all. And I loved that he did this without hesitating, without fear that it was dirty or germy.

Timothy told me he was inspired to do this, in part, by the staff at the Pfister who he witnessed often stopping to pick up the smallest pieces of paper in the lobby or the cafe or the hallways just to keep the hotel in tip-top shape.

Timothy called it “pride of place” and said he was attempting to apply it everywhere he goes, not just his apartment and studio.

I thought about this concept a lot since our stroll down Wisconsin Avenue. On both “Project Runway” and in other news clips, people have referred to Timothy as “idealistic,” and not always in a positive way.

I see it that Timothy’s actions are aligned with his words – this is rare – and he is truly living his art form.

How refreshing. How inspiring.

Pfister art inspires spontaneous haiku writing

I am finally writing about a wonderful evening.

On Friday, viagra July 26, I participated in my first Gallery Night at the Pfister. My vintage Royal typewriter and I plunked down in Pfister artist-in-resident Stephanie Barenz’s studio and offered up free, spontaneous haiku on any subject to anyone passing through.

The haiku is a short Japanese poem that typically has exactly 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, buy viagra 7 and 5.

Because Stephanie’s art is, in part, influenced by Asian culture, I thought this would be a fitting form of expression for the night’s live writing.

Prior to the event, my partner made a sign-up sheet. When he originally created it, I thought it would be wonderful but unlikely there would be such a demand for haiku that I would need a sign-up sheet.

But, advice it turns out, I needed a sign-up sheet.


I wrote 24 on-the-spot haiku in about three hours on a vast array of subjects, including motherhood, Gordon Lightfoot, dreams, heartbreak, the protest singers arrested in Madison, quitting and one for a father to read aloud at his son’s engagement party the next day.

I also wrote one for the Pfister. Here it is:

Lavish yet down home
Luxury meets history
Lions, soft pillows

I have written poetry since I was a very young child, but I had never written on demand nor sent something out into the world without another copy of it, never to be seen again.

But it felt really good to unleash fresh words into the world. It was like letting go of a helium balloon and watching it float away until it’s eventually out of sight and then wondering of its fate and where it will land.

I love writing poetry, but the older I get, the more I identify with being a storyteller rather than a poet. Gallery Night was no exception. In the end, I found myself deeply moved by the stories that were shared with me in between writing haiku.

One man told me his grandmother had the same typewriter I did and when she was 93, she asked for a new ribbon for it so she could document her life story.

The man said he tried to convince her to use a laptop, but she refused. So his wife found the ribbon online, and his grandmother cranked out a 400-page memoir that was later copied and distributed to family members.

Shortly after, his grandmother passed away. Her final movement were her fingers “air typing.”

I will never forget this story.

The man then asked me to write a haiku for his wife, who he described as “the love of his life” and the one who scoured the Internet to find the right ribbon for his grandma’s typer.

My ribbon is a little dry and, consequently, I really had to type with force to make a dark enough impression on the white paper. The next day, I had blisters on my fingertips.

It was a good kind of pain.


(Send me an email and I will write you a haiku, too.)

More beer for Milwaukee

It’s rare that when I approach a Pfister guest they open with a smile and the line, “We have an interesting story for you!” But this is exactly what happened on a recent Monday night in the Lobby Lounge when I sat down to chat with Peter, Vicky and Abby.

“We own a brewery called AleSmith Brewing Company and are here to introduce the brand to Wisconsin,” says Peter.

For a second I’m embarrassed by the non-craft beer I’m drinking – a light beer at that – but that feeling quickly fades thanks to the trio’s excitement about spending the week in Milwaukee and Madison where they will work with their new distributor, host beer dinners and visit the places that will offer their beer.

Peter opened AleSmith Brewing Company with two or three employees.

“For years, our brewery was like a home brewery on steroids,” he says.

The company has grown exponentially – today it employs 26 people – and racked up awards and medals from all over the world. About 1,000 people tour the brewery every week and AleSmith is now available in 11 states as well as Japan and Denmark.

“We’re really happy to be in a beer city,” says Peter, whose mother grew up in Racine. “I think because my mom is from this area she didn’t get mad when I told her I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore, I wanted to brew beer.”

When Peter tells me he is also a cheesemaker, I demand he move back to Wisconsin immediately.

“I’ve thought about it. The Midwest has a certain charm,” he says.

The company brews about 12,000 barrels a year. To get a perspective, the Wisconsin-brewed New Glarus produces 120,000 barrels per year.

AleSmith Beer offers 10 year-round beers and five seasonals. Peter says the most popular brew is the Speedway Stout, a Russian Imperial Stout, that has made it onto lots of top 10 lists around the world.

“We’re small, but we’re growing,” says Peter.

AleSmith never spent one penny on advertising – nor did it have a marketing or sales department – but they are developing these areas now to accommodate the growth.

Peter and Abby, who handles the company’s distribution, started out as home brewers and consider themselves “beer geeks.”

“We’re all about the beer,” says Peter. “And we’re honored to have so much support. We have almost a cult-like following.”

Vicky handles the company’s HR and she and Peter were married four months ago. I ask if they met over beer.

“We sure did,” says Peter.

AleSmith’s logo features an anvil with a pint glass on it which seems appropriate for the company’s mission and illustrates the spirit of Peter, Vicky and Abby who are hard working and clearly passionate to what they do.

“It signifies a hand forged product. We’re hard working guys and girls making great beer,” says Peter.

An uncanny coincidence

When I first started chatting with Chicago’s Steve and Sonya, cheap it seemed like we had a couple of things in common.

They were at the Pfister with their adorable and articulate 8-year-old daughter, Lauren. I, too, have a child this age, who likes many of the same things as Lauren: swimming, dancing and Minecraft.

We talked about the similarities and differences between Milwaukee and Chicago as well as the competitiveness of our sports teams. It was a pleasant enough conversation. Your average chit chat between strangers in a lounge.

And then I asked Scott if he was a Bears fan and things got interesting. Really interesting.

“I’m a season ticket holder, doctor ” he said, smiling. “I own a bar called the Bear’s Den, it’s about 70 miles outside of Chicago.”

This perked up my ears. “Where exactly?” I asked.

“Ottawa,” he said.

My mouth dropped. My grandparents lived in Ottawa most of their lives and my mother was born and raised there. I spent every school vacation in Ottawa with my grandparents, for sale watching game shows, counting my grandma’s pinochle change, scratching off lottery cards in the liquor store parking lot with my grandpa and singing into the fan in my mom’s old bedroom with my sister.

For a decade or more of my childhood this small working class town was my Disney World.

I tell Scott and Sonya this and at first, they are surprised – even a bit skeptical.

“I don’t believe you,” Sonya said, playfully.

I start rattling off Ottawa references. The miniature golf course, the Dairy Queen, Pinko’s supper club. My grandfather, I tell them, worked at Libby-Owens-Ford Company, a manufacturer of flat glass for the automotive industry. Sonya’s grandfather worked there, too.

Scott told me his bar, formerly named Pete’s and Curly’s, was built to accommodate LOF workers, like my grandpa, and it’s one of the few bars from that era that remains standing.

My grandfather’s favorite bar in town was the Lazy L. I can still see the sign with the intentionally backwards Ls. Scott told me the Lazy L had been torn down and the owner’s son now lives in Milwaukee.

For a second we’re silent. We’re in awe. I can’t believe I’m suddenly having such a detailed conversation about this town so near and dear to my heart. Even though it’s less than three hours away from Milwaukee, when I bring up Ottawa, people usually think I’m talking about Canada.

I then ask him about other LaSalle County towns that are close to Ottawa.

I tell them I have family in Marseilles; turns out Scott lived there until he was six.

I tell them I have family in Utica. Not surprisingly at this point, Sonya goes every autumn to the town for a fall festival called Burgoo, which I attended every year of my childhood and revolves around massive vats of stew – also called “Burgoo” – made from meat donated by hunters and vegetables donated by farmers.

The stew simmers for a day and a night prior to being sold to festival goers, and only the burgoomeister – who stays up all night stirring – knows the secret ingredient. My uncle used to tell me the town drunk fell in it one year and nobody noticed.

“Everybody has a story like that,” said Scott. “I always heard someone threw a shoe in there.”

It’s been eight years since I’ve been to anywhere in LaSalle County, including Ottawa. The last time I was there was for my grandfather’s funeral held at St. Francis Church, the same church I attended mass with my grandparents a hundred times or more.

“Lauren just had her First Communion at St. Francis,” Scott said.

Of course she did.