Ten Times the Marriage

My grandparents recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, while my husband and I just celebrated our 6th. Ten times the marriage.

Photo by: a.joy photography (http://a joy-photography.weebly.com)

Children, so absorbed in their own little worlds, don’t realize that the adults they love had lives before them and outside of them. I’m awakening now as an adult to the reality that, like a bird nest meticulously padded with small twigs that together create a nurturing place to soften the world’s blows, the marriages of my parents and grandparents, though mostly mysterious to me, have given me a softer place to live and have fed into my own marriage in untold ways.

My grandparents have always loved Milwaukee, and especially the Pfister. My grandpa worked at IBM for 30 years, in what is now the Quarles & Brady building. He would often park a few blocks away from work just so that he could walk through the Pfister to enjoy its signature beauty, especially at Christmastime. IBM would host their many employee parties at the Pfister, soirées my grandparents say were marvelous, and they do sound romantic: carriage rides, portraits taken of the dressed-up couples, big bands playing for everyone to dance.

They also reminisce about the English Room, the Pfister’s formal restaurant for 76 years. They both remember it as “the most elegant place in town”, featuring a harpist, extravagant food, and a friendly and large maitre d’ who would circulate amongst the tables. The English Room was where my grandparents first tried Banana Foster, flambeed tableside. It was where they left each meal bearing a keepsake of an elegant black and silver matchbook that had been engraved with their last name while they were dining. They love that restaurant, even now. I am reminded that a long marriage is a vault of shared memory that nothing can tarnish.

And my grandparents each have a cherished moment when they stumbled upon a celebrity they admired in the Pfister. For my grandpa, it was Red Skelton, radio and television comedian. Red was eating lunch with his daughter in what was then Café Ole and noticed that my grandpa was noticing him from across the room. He waved a flittery, funny little wave that was his trademark, and thus effectively told my grandpa, “he knew I knew him, and he was a real sweet man, but he didn’t want to be disturbed.”

Red Skelton

My grandma knows the very day the Pfister offered up a fortuitous meeting to her: September 26, 1984. She and my grandpa were coming to the Pfister for lunch, and they were walking in the hallway outside the café when they saw then-President Ronald Reagan coming towards them from the lobby. Now, my grandma had had a crush on him for years, since he was an actor who looked like this:

Ronald Reagan

As he was getting on the elevator, President Reagan stopped for a second, looked straight at my Mimi, and smiled at her. She must have been glowing then, because she glows now at the memory.

Tonight, 33 years later, I took a photo of my grandparents on the same stairs where Ronald Reagan smiled, and they proudly took a photo of me next to a Pfister Narrator display that has my name on it. I hope that I’m learning to listen to their stories better, to hear the full life and long marriage their memories float through. I stand still for a moment to try to crystallize this evening here, with them.

Six Words, Six Years


Tintypes by Margaret Muza

It was snowing that night. You can understand that recently out of a long marriage, she didn’t want to go to the Christmas party. Starting over isn’t merriment; it’s lonely, terrifying.

But she spoke to herself with resolve. You have to get out in the world now, by yourself.

That is how she came to be walking into her friend’s kitchen at the same time he did.

And that was six years ago.
She says now that her six word memoir would be I met him in the kitchen.

We call each other “sweethearts”.

This is a bird’s eye view of their home most nights:

A large couch, mostly empty,
because they are curled together
in one small corner,
watching public television
and holding hands.

It is just so fun, at this age, to be sitting around holding hands with someone.
This is underscored with grateful tears.


A behind-the-scenes look at Margaret Muza taking a tintype photograph.

You can schedule a tintype photography session with Margaret Muza, Pfister Hotel’s current Artist in Residence, by emailing her at margaretmuzaphoto@gmail.com.

One for the Books

Last night, 30 of us gathered together for the first ever Pfister book club.

It felt like the start of something rich.

There could not have been a place more perfectly suited to discussing Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which is completely set in a grand hotel, than the historic Pfister Mezzanine.

We, like the Count in the novel, sipped wine and dined on exquisite Mille-feuille.

We spoke of our favorite books as children and now as adults.

And we discussed A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel written so magnificently that after I finished it, I couldn’t stop telling everyone around me what a master Towles is. For me, it was that rare and cherished book that will give everything I have yet to read much more to live up to.

This novel was full of beautiful and memorable scenes, enigmatic characters, surprising twists, and the world of the revolution unfolding outside a sophisticated hotel.

We had a whole kaleidoscope of ideas to discuss.

Thank you so much to all who came!

Please join us on August 10 at 7 pm, when we will be discussing The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel.

Reina Castillo’s beloved brother is serving a death sentence for a crime that shocked the community – a crime for which Reina secretly blames herself. When she is at last released from her seven-year prison vigil, Reina moves to a sleepy town in the Florida Keys seeking anonymity.

There, she meets Nesto, a recently exiled Cuban awaiting with hope the arrival of the children he left behind in Havana. Through Nesto’s love of the sea and capacity for faith, Reina comes to understand her own connections to the life-giving and destructive forces of the ocean that surrounds her as well as its role in her family’s troubled history.

Set in the vibrant coastal and Caribbean communities of Miami; the Florida Keys; Havana, Cuba; and Cartagena, Colombia, The Veins of the Ocean is a wrenching exploration of what happens when life tests the limits of compassion, and a stunning and unforgettable portrait of fractured lives finding solace in the beauty and power of the natural world, and in one another.

I’m so honored and excited to discuss books with you in such a stunning space.  Enjoy The Veins of the Ocean, and I hope to see you August 10!

Local Charms

Too many Milwaukee natives are living right outside the Pfister’s famed red awning and miss out on the history, fun, grandeur, and amazing food, art, music and cocktails this place is packed with. Maybe we don’t think to stay in a hotel when our own bed is a few miles away, we mistakenly think Blu is only available to overnight guests, or we don’t take the time to be courted by our own city’s history, but I’ve made it my mission to tell my Milwaukee friends that not only is the Pfister worth coming to if you live in Milwaukee, but you’re not truly getting the full Milwaukee storyscape if you don’t.

So I’ve been inviting my friends and family to experience Margaret’s incredible tintype studio, eat with me in the café, drink with me in Blu, wander the halls, and attend our book club (the first meeting is next Thursday!!!)

My friend Rhonda didn’t need to be told how amazing the Pfister is—she’s been coming here for years, since she discovered its charms in her early 20s while taking a hotel tour with friends. She loved the Pfister’s “homey classiness”, and soon after the tour she booked a room for a girls’ night, which was so much fun that a few years later she booked another overnight to celebrate her mother’s birthday.

Snuggling up at the lobby fireplace with a hot cocoa dashed with mint liqueur became Rhonda’s favorite cozy way to relax in winter. She started bringing friends to Blu after concerts. When she discovered how magical the Pfister is at Christmas, she began coming for the tree lighting and now brings her three year old son to visit the festively adorned “Christmas lions” in the lobby every year.

But it was three years ago, when she discovered Mason Street Grill, that Rhonda really fell for the Pfister, asserting that the restaurant has one of the best happy hours in the city.

“The quality of the drinks for the price is amazing. And those clam strips!”

The Phil Seed Trio on Friday evenings, which she describes as great R&B soul that gets people dancing, is what impresses Rhonda most: “Look at the Pfister, rocking up in here!” The Trio is what brings her back over and over.

Rhonda is an honest and insightful person to talk to about pretty much anything.  This morning, we chatted about theology and churches, raising our children, social justice, her travels, prayer, community, what’s next for her professionally, and living authentically. Rhonda is someone who refreshes your spirit just by her proximity, and I leave glad to know her, glad to be able to spend time with her in the Pfister we both love, and determined to head to Mason Street soon to dance and devour some clam strips.

These Small Details

If a writer stops observing, he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.
-Ernest Hemingway

I think of Hemingway tonight, a larger-than-life character who penned such simple and astonishing sentences. I imagine him keenly observing the life happening around him in bars in Key West, Cuba and Paris. I sit at the Pfister’s lobby lounge bar and watch the flurry of people around me, dashing off page after page of observations in my notebook and realizing I am rarely this aware.

A couple in their seventies shares an hor dourve near the piano. They lean in at the same moment to dip bread. How many times have their fingers brushed through the years? To eat with the same person for that long is to have a second skin.

A two year old girl with a pigtail spraying from the top of her head toddles over to the lion statue. Without missing a beat, she kisses the lion’s foot.

Three men in tuxedos flank a woman in a searingly coral dress. Another observing guest chuckles, “You look like you have three bodyguards.” I think about how the men are probably her brothers, which of course is just another way to have bodyguards.

A woman in damp running gear powerwalks by and looks longingly at the bar.

A peal of laughter from behind a majestic potted palm, and a bellhop spreads his arm wide as wings and takes a bow.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair is pushed past me. I’ve been sitting here for an hour, and she’s the only person I’ve seen who has craned her neck to look at the marvel of a ceiling.

A woman in a floor-length black gown heads towards her date. Seeing him, she curves her neck low as a preening swan and smiles. He rocks back on his heels slightly at the sight of her.

Someone at the front desk has brought their personal pillow as they check in. Maybe she needs the smell of home, the sleep that only comes in your own bed.

A lady in scuffed teal Converse sits next to me, and her pants lift slightly to reveal socks adorned in bright ladybugs. I think of my son’s adoration for ladybugs, and how he will call his grandmother to ask her to save the dusty carcasses she finds on her windowsills so that he can tenderly put them in his bug house and watch them “sleep”.

The tiny girl is back, running unsteadily right past the lion now–they are old chums and don’t need to constantly acknowledge each other.  She shrieks in joy.


We Told Too Many People!

Kris is lamenting a traffic jam in paradise.

She and her husband recently drove Maui’s Road to Hana, which is 64 miles of hairpin turns around a cliff edge. If someone is barreling the other way or if you just aren’t entirely comfortable maneuvering a rental car over a harrowing, razor-thin one-way road, you stand a very real chance of free-falling into the azure sea below. It’s breathtaking in more ways than one, and Kris says it’s steadily becoming a tourist trap.

Kris is the kind of person who wants to swallow the world whole, and she is a trove of hilarious travel stories. Tonight she is on a roll about all these dang other people swarming everywhere good, making once-pristine wilderness into a constant crowd. “It’s the conundrum of too many people ‘looking at the cool’”, she bemoans. Part of her longs for a time when to find an exotic location of stunning beauty, you had to have a travel agent direct you there, or purposefully look it up at the library. Now the internet can make travel as easy as following a litany of other cars to an overcrowded sight-seeing spot.

Which somehow reminds Kris of another crazy thing Hawaii has been up to lately. “Plus, in Hawaii, they brought in those mongooses? Mongeese? Mongooses. And they thought they were going to take care of the rat problem. But they forgot to find out that mongooses are awake in the day and the rats are nocturnal, so they never cross paths, and now we just get them both. Double the vermin.”

But to its credit, the state of Hawaii may be as irked as Kris when geologic wonders like blowholes formed by volcanic lava tubes become a beacon for daredevil tourists to try to belly flop down wet rocks. This trip, she noticed signs posted near the blowholes deadpanning, “This Is Not a Water Park.”

Kris predicts Venice may be soon lost to this consuming tourism and says if they go back there again someday, she will first try to call up the city itself first to ask, “Is there anyone there?”

So which corner of the globe still tantalizes her?

New Zealand, with its glaciers, its seals and penguins, its stillness. You will feel like you are in a 1950’s National Geographic, she says. You will go to bed at night and suddenly realize you didn’t see another human besides your husband all day. This truly far flung still has the power to make her wide-eyed.

She jokes that to preserve this, she may campaign to cultivate a sort of nation-wide tourism Bar Time in New Zealand, telling all would-be polluters and tourists with blaring car horns, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

Kris understands that, ironically, her own desire “to just look at the earth” is the same one that compels so many of us to travel, and all too soon a secluded jungle trail becomes a rush hour. She knows she’s definitely part of this problem too. If only we could all go somewhere no one else is, we think, but we’d all probably just end up wanting to show it to each other anyway. “Oh no, this was amazing and we told too many people!”

Maybe Heaven will be like a bioluminescent bay we haven’t ruined with our collective body lotion, a Great Barrier Reef we just can’t kill. For now, Kris’ husband John bikes everywhere he can. It helps him slow down and breathe in his surroundings differently. And whenever possible, Kris and John try to trek past the trails matted down by crowds, hiking down farther to find places still wild. She tells me that on a memorable day in Zion National Park, “we went where the cement ended.”

Kris would urge all of us to start there, to see as much of the rarely-seen as possible. (Just don’t all come at once.)

If Kris was the Narrator, which she’d love to be, all stories would be hilarious and some of them would be typed on wallets.



The Pfister and I are Getting Serious

Have you run into me yet?

I’m burrowing deeper into this narrator role and already finding a few favorite haunts and pasttimes at the Pfister.

I’m likely to be found in one of these spots:

– Clutching a snack mix trio in the lobby, not sharing well with others, slathering my breath in garlic right before I chat with guests. Many a narrator has praised this snack mix, but until you’ve tried it, you just can’t imagine the trifecta of spicy wasabi, garlic rye and those delicious seasoned breadsticks. I plan to eat my weight in them this year.

See? I devoured the rye chips and all the garlic pretzels before I remembered to take this photo.

– Margaret Muza’s tintype studio. I’m in utter awe of Margaret and her stunning tintypes. I lurk around her hemlock-hued studio whenever I can, hoping some of her creativity will sink into me.

– Breakfast in the Café. I love to escape to do some morning writing over a creamy Eggs Benedict with all the other sleepy-eyed guests.

– Blu, anytime of day. The view is marvelous, every single time.

– And last but not least, the antique desk on the lobby stairs that is the perfect perch for a narrator.

I’d like to invite you all to write with me at that desk. How?

Beginning very soon, I’ll offer a monthly thought-provoking question and post it with a box at the desk. Please jot down a few lines and pop your words into the box. I’ll compile them into a piece each month. We’ll have written something interesting together, as a vast array of very different people roaming around this beautiful old hotel.

So to start us out:

What is something you are afraid of and intrigued by at the same time?

Visit the narrator desk, even if I’m not there, and you’ll quickly understand why I love it so. Pen a few lines and add them to the box,

OR comment with your answer below,

OR email me at


And please, if you have a favorite Pfister nook or painting or view or cookie flavor or fireplace or cocktail or event or sitting spot, let me know. I’m on a mission to soak it all in.

When You Know, You Know

If you’re married, chances are there was a Before and an After for you, when the gradual movement towards a wedding suddenly felt inevitable. Before that moment, or that conversation, or that subtle turning of your heart, you weren’t sure if this relationship was any different than the others before it had been. After this turning point, you were somehow willing to bind your life to this person in joy and in sorrow.

For me, I don’t know the exact moment I decided I’d marry my husband, but I do clearly remember the moment I realized my heart had quietly decided this while I wasn’t paying close attention.

I was with my father at a very loud Buffalo Wild Wings, and he asked in a casual tone if I thought I’d end up marrying the guy I’d been dating. (Now a parent myself and a little wiser, I understand that the question asked in that noisy restaurant was anything but casual for my dad.) Without having to think too hard, I said, “Yeah, I think I will.” Hearing my own voice say those words with such surety halted us both, and we cried into our chicken wings.

Today in the lobby, my eyes follow an excited young couple. She is wearing a beautiful white sundress that is special enough to seem like she may be headed to a rehearsal dinner. Sure enough, Carlye and Mike are getting married—tomorrow! On the eve of the day that changes everything, I ask them what that moment was for them, the one that veered them inexorably toward tomorrow’s alter.

Carlye tells me about a stuffed animal she still has from her childhood, a rare species maybe called a Puffalump, that is tattered from love. (Carlye’s brother is all-too-happy to report how “utterly disgusting” Puffy was–“That thing should have been burned.”)

Brothers may not have a lot of tenderness in their hearts for their sister’s precious toys, but true love is strong enough to sail seas, scale walls and even care about ugly stuffed animals. Mike saw that Puffy was looking especially bedraggled, so he got out a needle and thread and stitched him up for Carlye. She says she knew then that he’d eventually be her husband.

Mike can’t wait to travel with his new bride. He’s visited 49 states and the remaining one, Hawaii, is a destination they eventually plan to honeymoon to. For about ten years, just a few states languished on his To-See list, until Carlye helped him tick them off by planning a birthday surprise trip to Connecticut and Rhode Island and then another to a few places they had little desire to visit, Idaho and Montana. When days with Carlye in those lackluster states and at home too felt “seamless” to Mike, he knew he wanted to marry her.

Sometimes the decision to marry might feel fated, even catastrophic. Other times it might be much more level-headed, a careful measuring of what life would be like with or without the other.

Maybe you witnessed a tender kindness like a stitching up of a threadbare and beloved childhood companion, and you simply knew in your bones who your companion would be all your days.

Mike and Carlye’s Wedding Stats:

Time Engaged: 1.5 years

Hailing From: Wisconsin (him) and Maryland (her)

The Most Interesting Wedding Party Ever:
Best Woman- his sister
Best Man- 4th grade nephew

Men of Honor- her brothers
Matron of Honor- sister-in-law
Maid of Honor- 5 year old niece

Creativity Comes in the Morning

This morning, I return to these things: bacon, eggs, smoky coffee. The ting of fork on plate. The warming mid-morning light.

I’m sitting by myself to soak up the quiet in the café, but two tables over, Carol beams. She exudes a calm joy that I need this morning. A jewelry designer, she proudly shows me three pieces she created herself and is wearing to breakfast.

The design for her trademark “spinner ring” is clean and fresh—a wide, curved band that has been subtly textured to remind of birchbark. The “spinner” component comes from two thin bands that twirl around the larger band. After looking at this ring for just a moment, I can tell Carol knows what she’s doing. The piece is both elegantly simple and innovative, and it interacts with the movement of her hands.

She is glad to talk about the other pieces she’s wearing as well—a necklace hammered from a trio of metals and bound by rivets, a design Carol is particularly proud of. It’s begun to take on a beautiful patina. Her earrings are metal as well, hammered so they catch the light.

Carol describes her creative style as “rough organic” and says she rarely forms anything dainty or delicate. Her husband calls her a tomboy and she laughs appreciatively.

Our conversation happily hums along. As Carol tells me about the physical processes she’s learned in order to make such intriguing jewelry—enameling, soldering, and hammering metals—I wonder what it would feel like to take a piece of hard earth and tangibly bend it to creative vision.

Would it be even more satisfying than taming these flittering words?

What to Do When Your Kids Grow Up and Move Out, according to Jeff and Lisa

1. Head out to celebrate your 27th wedding anniversary. 27 years, while just the beginning for you two, is such a hard-won, precious accomplishment.

2. Run into the Pfister with your sister and niece to pick up a gift card for a friend and have so much fun that you decide to just stay at the lobby bar to celebrate your anniversary here.

3. Order Miller Lites on tap. Though there are a myriad of other fancier options, stick to what works for both of you. After all, you’ve learned that whenever you try to deviate from this usual order, you will just end up asking the bartender, “Do you have anything that tastes like a Miller Lite?”

4. Plan a trip to Hawaii. Plan it for soon, like in a few months.

5. Both of your kids have recently graduated and moved out of your home. Remind each other that you’re “dating again” and gleefully start over together. Even after 27 years, there are still so many adventures ahead.

6. Get your motorcycle license. Your son wants to get his and you’re worried about his safety. Take the class with him just to keep an eye on him but fall in love with motorcycling and buy a Harley six weeks later.

7. Start taking your motorcycle on sweet little day trips together. Wake up early to be the only vehicle on the road, dewy fields and little towns rolling by. Stop for breakfast somewhere like Madison or Port Washington, then turn around and head home. Laugh at how even after all this time, life continues to open up for you in new ways.

8. Wait, you know what you should do? Rent a Harley in Hawaii! Immediately make a plan to bike to as many waterfalls as you can with a backpack of food and an elated freedom.

9. Take time to reminisce about when you first met, about how it took seven years of dating to get engaged but once the ring was finally purchased, he couldn’t wait another minute and just proposed right in the living room.

10. Wake up each morning to the same person, the one you choose in routine and in spontaneity. Forge ahead into these uncharted days together.

What Not to Do In Marriage, At Any Single Point in Time:
– Say, “You’re becoming your mother.”