The Hard Part About Living In Costa Rica

I meet her in the elevator and she says she recently moved to Costa Rica. I ask the Costa Rican ex-patriot for a story and she tells me that she is not a very interesting, site story-rich person. I whine, “Come on, you live in Costa Rica! Haven’t you seen some crazy wildlife down there?”

“Oh yes, monkeys, sloths…” and lists a few other fantastic creatures I have never even heard of. Then she stops. She has nothing more to say. I ask her, “What’s the hard part about living in Costa Rica?”

 

The hard part about Costa Rica:

 

It is not the U.S.

You have to adjust what your cultural expectations are and accept what is different.

If you want to go to Costco it is a 3.5 hour drive.

It is warm all the time, clinic unceasingly.

 

The last point surprises me since the Costa Rican tells me that before she moved there she lived in Los Angeles, a place I would assume to be a year-round temperature inferno. I want to ask more questions and take her picture but she disappears. I wonder if I have disturbed a famous actress. She was casual but had an undeniably photogenic presence. Speaking of which, I think I see a large, multiple bride wedding photoshoot taking place on the stairs.

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I ask a man, standing apart from all the hubbub of mothers and aunts frumping their daughters gowns how many of these women are getting married today. He tells me they aren’t. It’s prom.

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I suppose they do look rather young. When I ask them what high school they represent they tell me “Pius.” My own alma mater! They are all junior girls, about to dance at the Renaissance Place. I instantly recall the picture of myself as a Pius junior attending the “Winterlude” school dance at the Renaissance Place.

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Outside the elevator I meet another young woman in a nice dress. “Prom?” I ask her. “No,” she says. She is volunteering for the Autism Society’s Gala. “This is just my sister’s Sadie Hawkins dress.”

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Near the ballroom I ask the woman in a nice hat how she became involved in the autism community. “I’m not,” she says. It turns out she is here for the Bel Canto Chorus’s 22nd Annual Fundraiser Gala. I can’t get anything right.

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So is she.

 

To end my day, I watch resident artist Todd Mrozinski do an old school pre-camera photoshoot of Brittany-the-barista.  Before starting a piece, Todd rubs his hands together and whispers ” Hah hah hah hah hah” to himself.  As he paints there are a lot of noises that sound like a kindergartener scrubbing a marker against a rough piece of construction paper.  Two hours after the initial tracing, he is done.

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She Pauses To Nibble On Her Pickle

“You have to travel with people who want to explore

otherwise everything is constructed, pills

warns Louise.

She pauses to nibble on her pickle,

and contemplate those frequent trips

she has made to visit her family in Barbados.

The last time she went down there with non-explorers

they whined every time they left the hotel, find

“Can’t we just take a cab?”

The non-explorers carefully followed their itinerary,

rushing through the locations of designated interest

and afterwards they would state,

“We’re done now. Can we go back to the hotel?”

Louise was appalled,

“American people traveling,

they don’t get it.”

She prefers to take it slow,

by walking or bicycling,

discovering the unknown island.

When she returned to Milwaukee she felt,

“I had to take another vacation.”

Just to counteract the energy she expended

on frustration with her boring companions.

“It costs too much to go to Barbados to sit in the hotel room!”

But I think she feels the same way about life in her own city,

having lived in Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee,

she tells me with confidence that she has never seen a city

more segregated than Milwaukee.

“You can’t just stay in that little neighborhood you live in.”

She talks boxes

she talks fears and safety

that make the boxes

that we call our neighborhoods.

She believes that the east side of Milwaukee is the most diverse

but even then it is all young people,

not old.

“And brown-skinned people are less likely to be seen

walking along the lakefront,”

where Louise bikes on a regular basis

amongst countless light-skinned people

who do not notice the lack.

“I think people as they move around the city

they need to open their hearts and minds.”

She tells me the best way to expose yourself

to variety in Milwaukee

is to attend gallery night

and Summerfest.

“Here in America it’s like,

what race are you?

You can’t just claim one,

I always check the box that says ‘other,’

and write ‘black-Indian-Island-Scottish-French.

Nobody’s white, you’re light skinned.”

Louise pats the marble under her plate,

“I’m not black, this table is black,

I am brown.

But we just need to get past it,

we won’t in this lifetime

but I go to Barbados and Trinidad a lot

and they don’t talk that way there.”

She waves her French fry in the air,

advising,

“Go somewhere and get lost,

just walk and explore.”

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I take her advice.

 

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Louise.

 

This Is Not The Real Dance

Sisters came in from New York

to attend the wedding and to show off their Wedding Dance.

They are choreographing their piece right now

on the exquisite carpet that urges all who come here

to at least sashay at least slightly

even if it is so slight that no one notices

because you are an adult.

The younger sister warns me

not to succumb to any false illusions,

“This is not the real dance.”

I agree to accept the following staged movements as not real,

and then I stand back to accept them

whatever they are.

Their mother tells me that the older sister, who leads,

is enrolled modern dance classes

and the younger one, who follows but also improvises

is currently taking interpretive dance.

Yes, I can see the professional training

in their deep dips,

the poised regal avian gestures

of two students who absorb

what they are taught.

“This was not the real dance,” the younger sister reminds me,

after their performance,

but it was very good,

so I tell them,

“No, what I just saw was real.”

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Maia has come up from Chicago for the weekend. I am told she will be eight soon.  She wears a wristband because today she explored “The Streets of Old Milwaukee” at the Milwaukee Public Museum.  When Maia types, she does so with only her right hand.  Her Grandma watches her through the window of Todd Mrozinski’s new art studio in the Pfister. DSCN1179
Todd lets both Maia and I type in his studio. Maia does not want to leave the instant clack-word device.  She is writing a story.  Her mother has to call her three times before Maia gets to the part about “The End.”

By hanging out in Todd’s studio I meet a lot of interesting people, like Luis and Ruben from Los Angeles.

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Luis, Ruben and Todd.

Luis and Ruben are artists for Kohl’s Department Stores.  Their apparel design work has brought them to town.  Pictures of Ruben’s private art portfolio are kept on his phone. He does oil paintings.  The one I see depicts a motorcyclist.  He had to come in here to the artist studio and show us his work.  He also shows us his big bag of cheese. Tomorrow Luis and Ruben are going back home, and they are taking back as much gouda and cheddar of Wisconsin as they can fit in their suitcases.

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Bag of Cheese

 

 

Two Texans

Two Texans,

architectural engineers,

college students,

conference attendees

named Shannon and Michaela

want me to write them love letters for their boyfriends.

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Shannon and Michaela

 

Shannon lovingingly describes her boyfriend, Ryan, as

“a sarcastic ass always picking on me and my big head!”

She goes on to say she met him at a country club dance hall

four and a half years ago

and she’s “still waiting for the proposal

and make sure you put that in the letter!”

I ask Shannon why Ryan is holding back

she says Ryan claims he needs to “make sure it’s the right go” first

and that he is “still checking things out.”

Ryans passions?

“Trucking, working, and mudding in his ’97 blue Ford.”

She also adds “Shiner bock” and “Ziegen Bock,”

beers you can only find in Texas, apparently.ryan

 

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Michaela’s “goofball” is named Justin,

and he is “the weirdest person you will ever meet,

a shy country boy who loves hunting and fishing.”

A little over a year ago Michaela asked him out,

and later on she had to ask Justin

to confirm if we were dating,

and his reply,

“Do I really need to?”

Michaela and Justin have two dogs,

June and Avery.

Michaela tells me she imagines that her boyfriend

is crying in bed and holding June now

that she has been gone for two days.

Typical behavior for the industrial technology student

who loves Fords but hates his own Dodge truck,

who loves Ziegen bach and Shiner beers.

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I am given a third assignment,

to write a letter to their friend Tate,

a “ditzy fashionista,

the owner of a wiener dog,

a smart, outgoing blonde”

who’s also studying architectural engineering

in Kingsville Texas

and is planning for her elaborate wedding

“which is not happening anytime soon.”

Her passions:

Chic Fil A, naps, sushi,

her football player boyfriend, Max.

Tate gets mad at Shannon and Michaela when they jaywalk.

“Really mad.”

Lastly, Tate collects trays,

shabby chic vintage trays.

She has so many she stores them in stacks.

 

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When you look at some modern art it can stump you.

Barbara has been giving tours for the Milwaukee Art Museum over a half century.

“When I first came to the museum, there were eight employees.”

This January I started my fifty-second year.

I retired when I was 50,

but I’m still going in,

teaching and working

‘cause I don’t want to sit at home.

I train the docents

and they tour about 80.000 people a year.”

She’s taken 75 trips to Europe,

“I counted it all up when I retired.

England was the first country I went to.”

Last year she took her docents to Belgium and Holland.

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And she made her own dress.

 

Being an art museum docent is hard.

“People expect you to know everything.”

When you look at some modern art it can stump you.

“Ellsworth Kelly’s “Red, Yellow, Blue,”

that’s one people have a hard time with.

Red, Yellow, Blue II

But you have to understand,

it was hand done,

he mixed the colors, that yellow

is the yellow he wanted,

he copied it from nature,

like a bird he saw,

he didn’t just go out to Menards!

How can I make these people understand?

Their grandchildren can’t do it!

When Kelly was in the war

he asked to be in the camouflage department.

Once in a while I’ll be lucky

and a student will be in

Ellsworth Kelly camo.

I’ve met Ellsworth Kelly several times.

He’s a very kind person,

a little on the shy side.”

 

What are Barbara’s favorite areas of art to talk on?

“American History and Decorative Arts

furniture, silver, ceramics.

My favorite is probably seventeenth century colonial.”

 

“Over the years a lot of people have visited Milwaukee

and I’ve taken them around,

Madame Chiang Kai-shek.”

(I hadn’t heard of her, so I looked her up,

former first lady of China, 1948-1975)

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“David Hockney, I loved him.

“I loved this young man who is now a rock star, but when I met him he was just coming up, um, I can’t think of his name. It’ll come. He works on China, Africa and America… Kehinde Wiley!

Gilbert and George when they came from England,

I met Andy Worhol. He never talked. My brother had a friend who knew him quite well.

Mark Rothko,

Tony Randall of the Odd Couple,

he knew everything,

he was the smartest man I ever met.

I let him do all the talking and I did the anecdotes.”

Barbara has never watched Star Trek,

but she gave Dr. Spock a tour.

“He gave me a Dr. Spock ear,

I didn’t know what it was or what I was supposed to do with it.

Ginger Rodgers,

Ray Milland, he never took his hat off because he didn’t have his toupee on,

Vincent Price,

Noguchi,

Sofa and Ottoman
Noguchi!

di Suvero,

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This is what googling di Suvero’s “The Calling” looks like.

 

George Shearing, he’s blind and I got a call from him asking to take him around.

A grandmother had the same thing, I took her around.

Gordon Parks,

and when the Beatles came to Milwaukee the first time,

I held the door to the war memorial open for them.”

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“Excellent Broth! I’m going to have it every time I come.

I’ve been begging for broth here.

I like soup very much but,

I don’t like heavy duty,

I like to have broth.

It kinda curbs your appetite,

settles your stomach,

it’s good for your bones,

and I just love hot broth.

Right here at the café counter I met Shaquille O’Neill.

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Right there!

He wasn’t feeling well.

I didn’t know who he was.”

Shaq’s manager worked on a crossword puzzle with Barbara,

and explained who Mr. O’Neill was.

Barbara gave Shaq a ticket to the art museum,

and he went.

 

The Woman Who Eats Cake Every Day

Debbie was working as a pastry chef when a customer came in wanting a cake like the one they saw in Martha Stewart Magazine. The customer said they’d been to every bakery in town, but no one would do it. Debbie was shocked to hear that, but the bakery where she worked was not properly equipped to do it either. So she opened her shop where she could bake anything anyone wanted.

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People ate this recently at the Pfister.

She bakes a lot of groom’s cakes for weddings at the Pfister. I’ve never heard of a groom’s cake before. “It’s a southern tradition, traditionally wedding cake was supposed to be white cake vanilla, so they would offer a chocolate cake too so that was another flavor. But then it evolved into more fun theme cakes, to incorporate his personality a little bit into the wedding.” Debbie has done the plain chocolate cake, but she has also made one to look like a pair of Chuck Taylors. The last cake she made for the Pfister was a Star Wars themed groom’s cake: Boba Fett’s helmet.

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Also eaten at the Pfister.

 

Previously, Debbie studied sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. “When I was younger I partied a lot and would pull all-nighters. And that’s good, now I have to do the same thing. When it came to projects in school, I always waited till the last minute to do anything. And with this job I really have to wait till the last minute,” Debbie explains referring to cake freshness.

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A more traditional Pfister wedding cake.

 

The largest cake she ever had to make was for something at the Pfister. They wanted a super tall cake, seven layers separated by pillars. The cake was to be placed in the middle of the table. She had to climb a ladder and lean way over with her arms extended to install it. “Usually at a wedding the cake is cut right away, but what happened was they wanted the cake to last like the entire evening because they had some sort of slide presentation and speakers. But they had to dismantle it early because the top cake was so tall, it was so much closer to the lights, and heat rises so it just started to melt.”

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But Debbie enjoys challenges. “I remember the first time someone asked me for an upright motorcycle, and I was just like, ‘Sure!’ not really thinking about how I could do it. And then I remember watching The Ace of Cakes and on that show they said the only thing that can’t be made with cake is an upright motorcycle. I was like ‘I just said yes to that! Oh my gosh!’” So she just had to figure it out. She built an armature out of wood, and made a cardboard platform that the cake could rest on. This is her 11th year in the cake business, in that time she has had to bake three upright motorcycles.

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One time GE designed a portable EKG machine. They brought her one and she had to make five identical EKG machine cakes.

One time she had to make a surprise toilet cake for a groom who was a plumber. And yes, as Debbie explains, “You can make some realistic poop with frosting.”

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One time at the Pfister a Wisconsin woman married a Texas man. The cake resembled a hunk of cheddar in the shape of Texas. This couple had met at Marquette University and liked going to mass at the campus’s St. Joan of Arc chapel. So Debbie made a second cake, a replica of the chapel, a surprise from one of the betrothed’s parents.

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Here are some other cakes that were cut at the Pfister:

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And here are some strange cakes by Debbie:

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An Andy Worhol!

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The Berlin Wall!
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These are from the guy that ordered a cat cake every year on his cat’s birthday.

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Debbie says that it is not uncommon for the person picking up the order set down before them to sincerely ask, “So where’s the cake?”

 

Too Old For Santa’s Knee

The day after Thanksgiving, Santa makes an appearance at the Pfister Hotel the same evening as the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony.  That’s great, kids love the opportunity to tell the man direct what it is they wish for.  But what about everyone else?  Once you grow up you still want things.   And perhaps more than that you need someone to listen to your wistful yearnings.  For three hours I set up my typewriter in the cafe and scribed a dozen adult’s lists to Santa.

 

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The live poetry reading consisted of me reading the letter aloud to each adult once complete.
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Daughter and mother. The daughter asked for a new boyfriend with a sense of humor and the mom for a new hospital to replace the old one she currently works at.

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It took him a while, then he knew just what he wanted.

Her husband lost his voice after his recent surgery.  She misses hearing him sing.
Her husband lost his voice after a recent surgery. She misses hearing him sing.

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Her description included showing me with her hands how big she would like it to be.

 

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A father wanted a green backpack.  A couple visiting from Minnesota wanted everything from the cashews to the saws advertised in the current Blain’s Farm and Fleet catalogue. A sixty-two year old wanted another twenty years of life and world peace.  Someone else wanted “joy, peace, prosperity love and vindication.”   A woman in her early twenties told me she was like a ferret: she wanted something sparkly and shiny.

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Still, the kids could not keep away from the elf lady and her typewriter, a magical object they had never seen before, but had to photograph on mama's cell phone.
Still, the kids could not keep away from the elf lady and her typewriter, a magical object they had never seen before, but had to photograph on mama’s cell phone.

 

The parents of these kids called out to their kids, "Leave her air!  She needs air to type!"
The parents of these kids called out to them, “Leave her air! She needs air to type!”

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Shrunken Heads of Old Men & Angels of Light Hibiscus

 

Each time I go to work someone from the staff is bound to show me something.

 

Once, seek Rick the bellhop tells me about his boston terrier, Mugsy.

“She grows more and more into a creature every day, and less like a dog. She has creature tendencies.”

Such as?

“She makes crazy noises.”

I assume he means noises that are not at all doglike, perhaps a terrifying gnashing of its mandibles followed by hours of venomous hissing.

“She will listen to me inside, but not outside, not when she’s in the wild, that’s when her creature kicks in.”

I imagine Rick’s tiny dog hunting for whole families of rabbits, whole herds of beaver.

“One time she came back with a feather on her nose, she ate a bird.”

He shows me a picture of Mugsy, and she doesn’t look like a creature to me. She looks much closer to something of an alien.

“I think she’s an alien,” says Rick, “She’s couldn’t have been born on this planet.”

 

One day, Helga the concierge tells me she brought something to work to show me: tiny shrunken heads of old men! Well, maybe not, maybe just metal beads shaped like shrunken heads of old men if you believe Helga’s claim. Her claim is that years ago she sculpted these heads out of clay and then cast them. No matter what the true story of their origin is, one fact remains— Helga houses these partial gentlemen in a nest she built out of coiled wire.

 

Peter, the daytime concierge, shows me what to look up on my next online image search: “angels of light hibiscus.” The pictures that come up will be of George Edgerly Harris III, a performance artist from the seventies who started a ‘psychedelic gay liberation’ theater troupe known for its outlandish and remarkably detailed costumes.

 

On my way to the elevator I run into Matt, the head engineer, and the employee whom I suspect has the quickest comebacks of all the staff.

I ask him, “How’s it going?”

“It’s going.”

“GOOD,” I say with jovially and with increased volume since he’s going one way down the hall and I the other.

“I will not qualify how it’s going,” he replies. The hilarity of this response is not evident on the blog, but it was very funny. He had a contrarian tone in his voice, one that implied my automatic friendly greeting made the mistake of trying to simplify the complexity of the saga known as his day. Lesson learned.

A Love Letter From the Man With a Kind Smile

One day I’m typing in the lobby when a man approaches me. He has a kind face, one that appears illuminated from within by what I’d guess to be a gentle, prolonged love relationship. He just looks easeful and friendly. He inquires as to what I’m doing with a typewriter. When I tell him that I write poetry and letters for people, he looks at me with approval.

 

The next day I’m typing again when the same fellow comes up to me. He explains how he is staying here a few days for a business conference and would like me to compose a love letter to send to his wife back in Detroit. After interviewing this man I learn that he’s been married fifteen years, has two kids and that his wife, Heather, takes care of them a lot. While he is on this trip, she is attending parent-teacher conferences. Heather has taught this man with the kind smile how to be more social, and to slow down so as to better appreciate life. He confesses he has a “type A” personality and has a hard time doing that. When he asks me when he can pick up the letter I tell him ten minutes. “Really?!” He looks surprised, but sure enough, in exactly ten minutes he comes back as I am typing “devotion,” the last word.

 

“Heather,

 

My succulent savorer

of all things living

of all things swaying

on this planet

made better, burnished deeper

by your focused listening.

 

Even me

even sharp toothed

quick bite and run type A me

even I can say “ahhhhhhhhh”

what a beautiful

lackadaisical daisy

scented thought filled

day it is,

one in which I am glad

to walk through

because I have you

and I have your lesson

mimeographed upon my lungs:

b r e a t h e, gasp, hyperventilate

b r e a t h e ,

there we go,

it takes practice

but it is worth doing

to please the kind woman

who has mixed within her own body

two children for us to share

with the whole world.

And while I am womflinkering along in Milwaukee

my thoughts are with you,

they are sitting beside you

in the empty chair

at the parent-teacher conference.

My thoughts pat the soft crowns

of our kidlet’s heads,

splendid children.

 

While I am away

I am in review reverie

of our fine fifteen years

and even more than that

I am scheming up

fine dreams

for future cakes of ardor

to serve you, my love,

in admiration

and devotion,”

 

I hand him my pen and make him sign since I don’t know his name. He signs it “Troy.”

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The Men Still Sit With Their Songbirds

Mauriah has asymmetrical green bangs, buy viagra

but you can’t see them too well

in the shady nighttime of Blu.

She orders a moscow mule and tells me

that she felt really safe when she lived in Taiwan.

Sure, scooters and bicycles got stolen

but even then the thieves were only borrowing,

what was yours got returned to you.

 

“I was really lucky to go then

because it is changing so fast, viagra

they just want west,

western influence

so the traditional way of life is just

d i s a p p e a r i n g

for example:

the older women still get up,

do their chi gong

and their exercise in the park

at 5a.m. they rise

and they do that,

and you know the men

still sit with their songbirds

in cages and play checkers

in the park all afternoon, online

but I feel like that’s the last

generation that’s going to choose

to be in touch with those sorts of things.”

 

Mauriah has lived in multiple Asian countries

beginning with the letter ‘T.’

 

“After ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ came out

I was living in Thailand

and we’d be going up north

and then down to the islands

and you could tell

all the women

of a certain age bracket

who had really been influenced

by ‘Eat, Love, Pray’

and they were traveling

through Thailand

a lot of them would have their books

but you could just tell

that they were like

on this like

self-discovery journey

and you’re like

…”

Mauriah ends her sentence by making a face,

it is a amalgamation of pity, disgust and

wry smile acknowledging all the struggling of humanity.

 

Mauriah’s vocation?

“I make dances.”

Her verb makes confusion

to those who are trying to grasp her

for the first time,

they want to know,

does making dance mean you are a choreographer

or just a dancer?

Perhaps it means anything,

arranging and rearranging

her body and of the bodies

maybe of her students

since starting next week she will sub

a modern dance class at the University of Milwaukee.

 

Mauriah is the pioneer

for her three younger siblings.

 

“All of my brothers are athletes

(and my sister, a six foot tall twenty-two year old who plays basketball for a women’s Green Bay team.)

and they started to get to

like Warrior and the Spartan racing

They’re both now nationally ranked

and sponsored by Reebok

and they don’t work

so all they do

is they live at home with my parents,

they train,

and every weekend they go to a different race

and they race for money

and they win.

Like my brother just won the one

at Miller Park last weekend.

It’s becoming a new sport

where there’s obstacles,

they run sometimes just a couple meters

or sometimes two or three miles

and then the tougher courses are in the mountains

or in a really hilly environment

so they’re climbing up and down ravines,

one obstacle a couple weeks ago

was two eighty pound bags of stones

slung over their shoulders and like up a mountain.

It sounds terrible!

And then they’ll have to do like these

monkey bar climbs

but its usually after

they’ve been in a cold, wet water sort of thing

so that they can’t grip onto the monkey bars,

just ridiculous things!”

 

Mauriah’s dad was a football player for the Bears,

her mom was a high jumper.

Mauriah negotiates

earning a living as a dancer.

 

Does she ever think about going after the career of her brothers?

 

“I don’t want to do that, it just sounds terrible.

The girls are just like BEASTS

and they’re extraordinary,

but I just have no desire.”