In today’s edition of Plume Service Vol. 1, you’ll read different stories inspired by the same painting.
The Olive Branch and Stone by Zoë Lindstrom (aka Countess Zoëlla Germaine)
Yesterday you were our enemy.
We rolled our hearts
with the old sea–
the nets yielding unspoken things.
Ochre sun and stone,
such strangers you became–
the church bells chime,
olives and grapes and girls are crushed
Too rich a lie, too small and shrill and bustle–
Welcome to shore
my ghost captain,
though you belong only
to the line
between sea and sky.
A View of Venice by Alexa Hollywood (aka Madam Odohata)
As an old woman, I live as much in my reveries as my real life. Venice . . . a friend once called it a beautiful city and an open sewage system. I remember Venice, indistinct, as if in a haze.
In this painting, I see the ship, Venice as a major power, a crossroads of civilization. And I remember the Doge’s palace. I remember all of the Hieronymus Bosch paintings. One of the most powerful men in the world collected and contemplated visions of Hell.
I walked the narrow sidewalks along the canals, crossed the tiny bridges. For the uninitiated, it was a maze to get lost in, briefly recover, and get lost again. The sidewalks were wet, sometimes with dog poop, sometimes not.
I was with two Jews. They did not want to visit churches. I understood. I also understood the Renaissance and earlier about art in churches. I missed so much. But I reveled in modern-day Venice.
But I reveled in modern-day Venice. The Venetians could be rude. We jumped on a water taxi. The operator closed the gate as someone tried to jump on. One Venetian began to argue with another Venetian about civility. Drifting down the canals, we could see the magnificent palaces. Now, I wish I had visited Peggy Guggenheim’s palace. It seems visual art is a recessing gene in me that has emerged in old age.
And so this is Venice, to me, an old woman and a diarist. And the old woman notes the artist’s lifeline: 1870 to 1906. Child, what could you have become?
Here’s one more inspired by a more zoomed-in Bondietti painting of Venice’s canal shoreline:
Venice by Aimee Sellon (aka Salvadora Hemisphere)
Venice is sinking, you know!
And yet so much has remained
happy bird stalking tourists,
children refusing to end their play,
young ladies deep in conversation,
ocean wind and a pleasant salty scent
with the hint of fresh fish.
Although the sun shines,
the air is cold. But this place is
warmth. The buildings are
kind, the water is
honest, the stone streets
remember your face, the wind
knows when you are feeling
sad, and will gently touch your hand
until you are feeling better.
Coming soon: Men curl, kittens mew, and moonlight pierces the night sky!
The next Plume Service will be Saturday, December 10, 12-2:30pm, in the Mezzzanine!
Sign up on Facebook (search “Plume Service”) or contact me at email@example.com
Over 80 Victorian paintings and other art pieces grace the walls of The Pfister Hotel, an impressive art collection worth more than the original cost of the Hotel in 1893. It is considered to be the largest collection of Victorian art in any hotel in the world. Each art piece captures people, animals, and nature, sometimes posed, sometimes in medias res, in the middle of some exquisite, or mundane, action. Very often, the carved and gilded frames are artworks in themselves.
On Saturday, November 12th, from 12 noon to 2:30 pm, you will have the opportunity to join me for PLUME SERVICE, the first in a series of free writing workshops that will have you not only staring intently at the paintings but stepping into them (well, not literally–I don’t think the Marcus Corporation would appreciate that!) and imagining what it would be like to exist in their worlds. If not stepping into them, then stepping back and contemplating the bigger picture, the world just outside the frame. What’s to the left and the right that the painter’s eye has cropped out? What’s happening above or below? What is that figure looking at beyond the boundaries of the canvas and wood? If not stepping into or stepping back, then stooping a bit closer to the oils and watercolors to notice details you might have missed. If not stooping to look, then bending an ear to listen, perhaps imagining the taste of a fruit, even breathing in deeply through your nose to smell the salty air (no one will judge you!).
What is Diana telling to her women at the beginning of the hunt? What are the two women talking about at the altar of Athena? And what is going on in the head of the nude figure at the edge of the pool?
The paintings offer us intriguing compositions and perspectives and colors, but since Domenichino, Bompiani, and Mayer are no longer here to give us the scoop, we’ll become art (and artistic) sleuths uncovering the stories these paintings tell and expressing them in our own words, through flash fiction, poetry, and other written forms.
I want to know how the girlfriends in Scadrone’s painting met, what’s going to happen after the chianti is bottled in Giachi’s, and who loses Lesrel’s card game. I’m curious to know the words to Peluso’s romantic serenade or how the woman in Grolleron’s piece is going to get that man to leave. her. alone!
Speaking of which, there are plenty of, uh, amorous scenes–I’ve never seen someone so happy while cutting an apple.
I also wouldn’t mind hearing your vivid descriptions of the horses in Schreyer’s “The Wallachian Post-Carrier,” the title of which fails to capture the raw intensity of hoofs and sweat and earth. Or of Lindsay’s “Mahomet,” the noble lion (who actually looks a bit perplexed), and even of those too-cute kittens in a basket by LeRoy. Oh, and the monks–very amusing!
I envision the pieces we write together becoming placards that will accompany the paintings on the walls and, quite possibly, becoming audio recordings that will be available to guests who would like to take an art tour. Imagine: your words becoming part of the life of The Pfister Hotel.
So please join me on November 12, bring your favorite notebook and writing utensil, and prepare to bring the Pfister’s art alive in a new way!
NOTE: The December workshop will be on Saturday, December 10. We will continue our work of storytelling. You can certainly attend both–there is a lot of art!–but you do not have to attend the November workshop in order to join me in December. And stay tuned for early 2017 plans!
My mother used to like to recount how one day in preschool, a classmate approached me and asked me, “What are you?” Yes, “what” not “who.” As my mother and teacher eavesdropped, I’m told that I (and this is all my mother, I’m sure) tilted my head in contemplation like some kind of mystic saint (okay, now I’mmaking stuff up), looked him in the eye, and exclaimed, “I’m Dominic. Just Dominic!” I love this story.
I was acutely aware of my identity from a young age. I just was. Nothing more complex than that. I didn’t need another name, another label. Thanks for asking.
As I grew older, I used to spend my weekend afternoons playing in the yard. I wasn’t throwing a football to myself in touchdown simulations or practicing backflips so I could impress my friends. Instead, I was often crouched with my Matchbox cars at the foot of the dogwood tree or in the earthquake-proof huddle of massive bamboo. From this perspective, my cars were life-sized, the holes in the trunk caves for them to hide, the rough bark slats dangerous roads for them to traverse, the water trickling from the hose a potential cause for a spin-out. If a one-inch black beetle or four-inch slug–both are common in Seattle–happened to scuttle or slime its way into the path of one of my cars, then a battle was sure to ensue. (Note: No beetles or slugs were harmed in the writing of this blog.) Sometimes, in the shadow of the bamboo, I would examine the nodes that punctuated the hard stem wall–and, I kid you not, I distinctly remember one day musing to myself something like, “Those are like the positive or negative events in our life that really stand out, that mark important things and make us who we are.” I’m pretty sure I wrote that down in one of my short-lived diaries.
I was still “just Dominic,” but, as I look back on myself, I began to develop a sense that there was meaning outside myself, outside what things “were.” No one taught me this directly. It felt more innate, something that revealed itself over time. Books could have contributed (Scott O’Dell, C.S. Lewis, the Serendipity series, Old Testament woodcut coloring books). Religion might have contributed (transubstantiation, forgiveness of sins, stained glass windows, incense smoke signals to God). But neither books nor religion told me to focus my perspective and imagination and make tiny things large, or told me that bamboo stalks contain poetry. No one taughtme how to interpret (in Latin, “to translate”). Meaning-making kind of just happens, I think.
On July 22nd’s Gallery Night, then, when I dug myself (metaphor) out of my lethargy after a week of some sort of horrific stomach bug (metaphor) contracted in Canada and dragged myself (metaphor) to The Pfister again so that I could enjoy the two new Pop-Up (metaphor) Gallery exhibits and Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson’s painting to the music of Nineteen Thirteen–it wasn’t surprising to me that my interpretive antennae went into overdrive.
. . . . .
TRANSFORMATION: AN EXHIBITION
An initial browse through the Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) presentation of Transformation: An Exhibition revealed to me a stunning array of interpretations. I went in with no preconceptions or knowledge about the exhibit other than the expectation that I would experience photographic expressions of “transformation,” which CoPA defines on their site as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis, renewal, a revolution.” I wasn’t aware before Gallery Night that the exhibit also had a civic component–
“Our city is working hard to reinvent itself, and as individual photographers we endeavor to move outside our comfort zones–to transform the way we interpret subjects.”
–nor was I aware of the process by which photographs were created, juried, and displayed.
It was curious to me, then, why all the placards mentioned the surfaces or substrates on which the photographs were printed: “the toothiness of the paper” (nice metaphor!), “the canvas substrate,” “the rich, elegant surface,” “the high-tech, rigid, durable feel of the material.” Even more curious, coming from an educational background, were the descriptions of each work that struck me as quite similar to assignment or learning objectives: “This assignment will ___.” “The student will ___.” Each followed a similar template:
“The paper will enhance the graininess of the photo.”
“The high-tech, rigid durable feel of the material will match the industrial subject of the photo.”
“The cold look and feel of metallic relates to the cold feel of the image.”
“There is a soft, dreamlike sense to the image that fits with the sophisticated look and feel of the paper.”
I learned that photographers submitted their work to CoPA, and selections were juried by the Haggerty Museum of Art, who determined how Prime Digital Media (PDM) should print each work. Pam Ferderbar, CoPA president, explained it this way in The Shepherd Express:
“The transformation occurs when you take a digital image and apply it to a surface that has the ability to not only provide a tactile experience, but that literally conveys the emotion of the subject.”
I studied Melody Carranza’s 3 Kings, Ruth Yasko’s ethereal Mannequins, and Dennis Darmek’s watercolor-like Swimmer. I wondered how 3 Kings would change if it were applied to something other than Sunset Metallic Photo Paper, whether some of the dreaminess of Mannequins would be lost on something other than Luster Premium Photo Paper, or if the liquid sunlight in one my favorites, Swimmer, could be achieved only on Big Jet Universal Photo Gloss Paper. I have every confidence that the Haggerty jurors chose wisely, because these three photographs and the dozen others are revealed in dramatic and moving ways by their surfaces.
I started thinking about how our daily lives are affected by the “surfaces” and “textures” in them: the ones we apply ourselves, the ones that others bring, the ones that pre-exist as part of our daily landscape.
If your day is textured from the outset by insomnia and an annoyingly blaring alarm, then God help the poor co-workers who will experience your rough demeanor the rest of the day. If your day, however, is textured with sunrise yoga and perfectly brewed coffee, then those same co-workers might be smiled upon by your yogic brightness. It matters, doesn’t it, whether others intentionally or unintentionally texture your day with nettling emails or mean gossip rather than meaningful conversation and positive reinforcement. It matters whether the sky is sunny or rainy, whether the news is uplifting or depressing, whether the pavement is rough or smooth. Most of all, I think, everything depends on what surface or substrate wechoose to apply ourselves to each day–no matter what the world has determined for us.
YOSEMITE & THE TETONS
I made my way to the back of the gallery, where a companion exhibit, Yosemite and the Tetons, features the photography of CoPA founding member Tom Ferderbar. A celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, these photographs capture the majesty of two of our national treasures, both on a small scale (as in the rock at Mirror Lake or a black barn in a field at the base of the Tetons) and a large scale (as in Bridalveil Fall or Tetons #5). I got a chance to talk to Mr. Ferderbar, who studied under Ansel Adams in his Yosemite National Park workshop. He began by describing the difference between amateur photographs (like the ones I took on my recent visit to Yosemite) and professional ones:
I’ve been to so many other national parks, but the photos I took there were just snapshots. To shoot a particular mountain or scene, you have to think about the purpose of shooting it and go without your family, camera out the window. You have to go by yourself or with an assistant.
Getting more specific, Ferderbar pointed out two of the photographs hanging in the exhibit, Teton Moonset #1 (July 2012) and Teton Moonset Black and White (July 2012):
Thanks to the Internet, I could find out exactly when the moon would still be up even after the sun had already risen. By the time I took the photo, unfortunately, smoke had moved in from a forest fire. I had taken into account the topographic quadrangles, gotten to my spot an hour before, watched the moon moving down, sometimes having to move 100 yards or so to get the right angle. By the time I took the photo, unfortunately, smoke had moved in from a forest fire–you can see the glow in the clouds. The sun wasn’t right.
He rendered the photo in color andblack and white, saying he prefers the black and white because it obscures the glow from the clouds that he hadn’t been going for, but also because it creates a wholly new texture and mood. The white of the snow pops out differently, the moon creates a sense of mystery as it punctuates an otherwise dark landscape. As Ferderbar described this process, which I hope I’m rendering correctly, I couldn’t help but think about how he was describing the effect that atmospheric textures–and the time of day and I imagine even the temperature, as well as the forest fire, whether natural or man-made–had on this piece.
When I asked him what his favorite non-plannedphotographs were, he pulled up his website on his phone to show me a few from his Miscellaneous collection.
He likes the striking colors and textures in Record Shop, San Francisco CA (1968), the criss-cross of red and green framing the windows, the rusted cream fire hydrant in the foreground, the confetti-like litter.
A photo of his uncle is titled Soldier on WWII Furlough and it seems like a pretty straightforward portrait, but he appreciates the peculiar heft and angle of the cropped car on the left, his almost silhouetted uncle, standing stiffly with his right foot resting on the door ledge, a dog, left foot in motion, trotting toward him in the snow, with a weathered barn in the background against a white winter sky.
He took Dusk, Melcher Hotel, Milwaukee WI (1958) with a 35mm wide angle lens. Because the photo is way underexposed and the picture so tiny, it looks like blue film grain. It appears almost pointillistic to me. Ferderbar likes that there is a human component to the otherwise static photo: two guys sitting on the brightly lit steps to the hotel, which is where the Performing Arts Center is now.
Finally, when he showed me Plane and Birds, Milwaukeee WI Airport (1975), I told him how much it reminded me of the photo stills that make up the 1962 French classic La Jetéeand he mused about how he knew the guy that was in charge of Midwest Airlines at the time and he let him sit at the end of the runway in order to get his shot of a plane landing, a flock of birds peppering the sky in front of it just as he took it.
Just like the photos in Transformation are transformed by the surfaces and textures to which they’ve been applied, Ferderbar’s photos express to me a similar metaphor: Sometimes we can plan for hours, days, even months for the perfect shot or experience, and sometimes we are pleased with the product, sometimes surprised by the unexpected outcomes. Sometimes, too, that shot-on-the-fly or that spontaneous experience can reveal shapes and patterns and textures that we could have never planned.
I like that Ferderbar shared both kinds of photographs with me.
PAMELA M. ANDERSON, FEATURING NINETEEN THIRTEEN
I rounded off my evening in the Rouge Ballroom by experiencing a unique texture experiment that synthesized the experimental music of Nineteen Thirteen and the abstract painting of Pfister Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson.
I could try to do justice to Nineteen Thirteen musical stylings, but feel I should simply quote from their website’s homepage:
A cello crafted in Romania in the year 1913 is processed through today’s technology and framed by the percussion of Violent Femmes founding member Victor DeLorenzo.
Cellist and composer Janet Schiff creates multi-layered, electrically amplified cello loops to the solid pulse of stereo drum rhythms. They interact in a sassy and superb fashion.
The cello is from 1913 and the music is from today.
Sassy and superb indeed. At one point DeLorenzo drove–yes, like a car–his Zildjian cymbal, eventually using his snares to accompany Schiff in a plucking, strolling ostinato rhythm. She began layering on top of that a Spanish dance melody which I soon realized was Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.
In another sassy move, DeLorenzo tipped over one drum, then his cymbals, then the other drum, lifted each and dropped them, stamped his feet on the stage to rattle them, tapped the side of the drum, and used untraditional parts of each instrument as Schiff worked in tandem with the languorous bowing of her cello.
When it came time for Anderson to paint, Schiff’s plucking reminded me of the Japanese koto Sakura, her bowing more classical, and DeLorenzo would lightly tap the drums for awhile, then his snares would sweep the drum head in long circles, then rattle the sides with expressive bursts. The audience witnessed–perhaps for the first and only time–Anderson’s entire creative process, one shaped and textured by the music that Nineteen Thirteen was inviting her to interpret on paper. In fact, Anderson used as one of her painting tools some of DeLorenzo’s snares.
Anderson was most influenced, she says, by “Victor’s drama and wanting to end the painting with a flourish.” Her flourish? The sudden and surprising addition of periwinkle blue.
This was a perfect example of how texture–this time,musicaltexture–could influence how a person created her world. If Schiff’s cello or DeLorenzo’s drums had performed any differently, would periwinkle have appeared? Where would the red have emerged–and how? The black diagonal?
. . . . .
It is what it is.
It is what it is not.
I’ll always live in the first. But I’ll always prefer the latter, because interpretation has allowed me from a young age to see my world differently and wonderfully. It has allowed CoPA to transform photographer’s visions by layering them on one substrate versus another. It has allowed Tom Ferderbar to capture mystery where there might not have been or beauty in what would normally be ignored or passed by. And it has allowed Nineteen Thirteen and Pamela M. Anderson to create newness with every bow, pluck, snare, or stroke.
This is Part 3 of “Synergy: Performance, Art, & Service.” In the first two parts, I recounted my experiences at 371 Productions live performance of their radio/podcast show Precious Lives and how their call to stem the tide of gun violence intersects with the Origin8 abstract art show in The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery in surprisingly beautiful and meaningful ways.
In today’s post, I bring you Jewish Family Services and their own distinct (and distinctive) work to make the world a better place, grounded as they are, I discovered, in the Jewish values of tzedaka(צדקה“charity”), chesed (חֶ֫סֶד “loving kindness”), and tikkun olam (תיקון עולם “repairing the world”). I attended JFS’s Luncheon of Champions last Thursday, which honored recently retired JFS President and CEO Sylvan Leabman. The luncheon’s program booklet featured prominently a quotation from Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, who sums up succinctly these three core values: “All are entitled to live with dignity and respect. All are entitled to live without fear or pain.”
On the eve of its 150th anniversary next year, JFS gathered hundreds of its key supporters, allies, staff, and volunteers to celebrate its history and the legacy of Sylvan Leabman, which includes the 2015 opening of the Bradley Crossing Supportive Housing Community, an impressive campus community that “helps low- to moderate-income families, including those with disabilities or mental illness, live safe, independent lives,” which added even more services to a JFS legacy list that includes the Deerwood Crossing Senior Residences, a homelike environment that “offers income-eligible adults age 55 and over both independent and assisted living,” and the Sojourner Family Peace Center, which has worked since 1975 “to ensure the safety of victims of family violence and provide a pathway out of violence for victims and abusers through opportunities to make positive and lasting changes for themselves and their children.” Called “risk-taking” and “perspicacious” by Bonni Bocki Joseph, JFS Chair, Sylvan Leabman is certainly a well-loved model of transformation and justice whose values are inextricably linked to those of the Precious Lives performance and the artistic expression at The Pfister.
Rabbi Ronald Shapiro of Congregation Shalom commenced the luncheon with the d’var Torah (דבר תורה), literally a “word of Torah,” or an interpretive lesson from the sacred text. The mission of JFS, he proclaimed in an extended metaphor that others latched onto throughout the luncheon, is “to affirm that which is noble and good” by being “agents of stability and calm” when “waves of change cause upheaval in tumultuous seas of life.” To that metaphor he added one inspired by Leabman’s first name: sylvan describes anything “forested or wooded.” Sylvan Leabman believed that one should “build all that one in his heart believes are significant endeavors.” Build he did, showing people how to emerge from the “dense, wooded areas of life” into the “light.” Before he recited the meal blessing, Rabbi Shapiro added one more poignant metaphor (I love etymologies, by the way). If you didn’t know, our word companion derives from the Latin panis, meaning “bread,” so that companion literally means “bread fellow.” To break bread with another, to share “sustenance and strength of body” with another. That is what JFS is all about, according to Rabbi Shapiro.
This was a fitting segue from his d’var Torah to the hamotzi (הַמּוֹצִיא), or the traditional blessing over the bread:
Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
Our praise to You, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.)
As the lunch began, guests enjoyed the meal at tables with a different kind of centerpiece–potted herbs and vegetables that were donated by Luxe Events and are eventually to be planted by the residents at Bradley Crossing and Deerwood, who will tend and harvest them.
JFS Chair-elect Steve Zimmerman invoked the values of tzedaka (“charity”) and chesed (“loving kindness”) that I mentioned earlier, inviting guests to meditate and act: “Think about the type of community you want to live in. What is possible here in Milwaukee? We can’t do it alone. Join us.”
Current JFS President and CEO John Yopps reflected on the evolutionary progression of tikkun olam: “Repairing the child creates repairing the family, creates repairing the neighborhood, creates repairing the community.”
Robert Habush, of Habush Habush & Rottier S.C., whose name graces the Robert & Mimi Habush Family Center in Milwaukee, paraphrased and condensed two popular maxims: “A man is only as tall as the sum of his deeds” and “ A man never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child.”
And finally, the luncheon’s honoree himself spoke, reminding everyone that suppporting everyone is a social obligation (the word is mitzvah orמִצְוָה). Someone asked him recently, “Why does JFS serve non-Jewish people?” He replied, “You serve non-Jewish people because you are Jewish.” He insisted, though, that supporting those in need at all moments in their life cycle is “not a JFS problem. It’s a community problem.” Mr. Leabman, as my mother used to say, “Bravo.”
In a world that is always in need of repairing, I was thankful to learn about these beloved values that can and should apply to all of us. I would follow up the positive energy of these two days–Precious Lives, Origin8, and Jewish Family Services–with an afternoon of positive community celebration at Sunday’s Juneteenth Day and Monday’s summer solstice Yoga for Peace. Keep the good vibes and compassionate work coming Milwaukee–and you, too, Pfister Hotel!
I was sitting at my little bean-shaped Narrator table on the lobby landing today, finishinganotherstory, when I noticed the tell-tale signs that a graduation had just occurred: flat black boards and flowing black gowns. Then the inevitable hat hair (only on the guys, of course). I couldn’t tell if they were high school grads or college grads, but then a young woman entered the lobby holding an oversized Crest toothpaste balloon. Marquette University’s new dentists. Because I know a good handful of dental students there, I headed up to the Grand Ballroom.
“It takes a whole village to raise a dentist,” proclaimed the new Dr. Zazell Staheli to a packed crowd in the ballroom for the School of Dentistry’s graduation luncheon for the Class of 2016. Dr. Staheli and eighty others graduated with everyone at the BMO Harris Bradley Center this morning, then were presented with their School of Dentistry diplomas at the Pfister luncheon.
This short post is about two villages. The first, of course, is the one Dr. Staheli spoke about when she thanked everyone who helped her juggle dental school and raise a family, everyone who ever got her coffee to keep her going, everyone who helped her survive the “stressful rubber dam final.” To her classmates and the hundreds of friends and family present, her challenge was to “be involved,” whether that meant mentoring, volunteering, giving back to the community, or something entirely different. She called her new title–doctor–a “leadership title” that charged her and everyone else to lead by example, to “be the difference” (echoing Marquette’s motto). I learned from the Marquette Magazine that Dr. Staheli hails from Kiana, a small town in Alaska of fewer than 400 mostly Iñupiaq Eskimos, surrounded by remote villages that are 30-150 miles away. She will be returning to Alaska and will be providing her hometown and its neighboring villages with dental services, something that used to be difficult to come by. Talk about giving back to her community. It helps that she’s a commercial pilot. Here she is being featured on National Geographic’s Alaska Wing Men.
Now, onto the second village. One of this year’s graduates is Dr. Ben Schwabe, who will be leaving soon to serve in the Dental Corps at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. Today, he was commissioned by Capt. Brian Hodgson, DC, USN, as part of the ceremony.
In a moment of insight and profundity, he recalled his first time actually “getting in there” (my quotes). “It was our Dentures course. These people, of course, have no teeth, which is kind of funny. At first, we’re all timid, holding the patients’ jaws open, kind of looking there.” He bobbed his head around as if searching for something to polish or pull out. “Now, we can just pry their jaws open and move in. No problem.” In all serious, though, Dr. Schwabe is going to miss being part of the village of classmates and teachers. He said, “Going through hell with people who are going through the same thing as you–that’s what I’m going to miss the most. And not ‘hell,’ really, but rigor.”
I know Ben as a former “tribe” leader (along with Daniel Birk Graham) for November Project Milwaukee, a free and fun fitness group that meets every Wednesday and Friday at 6:26 am for cardio and strength training that always ends with sweaty hugs and high fives.
When Ben learned that he’d been offered the residency at the Naval Station Great Lakes, he passed the torch to a new leader. For almost two years, I have been “raised” into something close to my best self by Daniel and Ben (now Roger). Here’s an example of our November Project village’s farewell workout for Ben (I mean “Dr. Schwabe”), a testament to how much he means to our village/tribe:
This month, I’m teaching Homer’s Odyssey for the last time in a great while. My freshmen know the Hero Journey, the Greek hospitality code of xenia, and the value of nostos (or homecoming), and are learning life lessons about survival and courage from the adventures of Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and his partner Penelope, each of whom references “the heart inside me” many times, a way of expressing their emotions, whether joy or sadness, nostalgia or fear. They also know the etymologies of the word “courage”–which derives from the French coeur, or “heart”–and of the word “survive”–which derives from the Latin supervivere, or “to live beyond.”
On Friday the 13th this month, I had the pleasure of attending the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women luncheon in the Grand Ballroom of The Pfister. You may know Go Red for Women from their iconic red dress logo. A red dress might seem a far cry from the Greek armor of an ancient epic hero fighting Laestrygonian cannibals, outwitting the fearsome Cyclops, or traversing the deadly Scylla and Charybdis, but maybe not: the red dress symbolizes the work the AHA is doing to educate women, raise awareness, and expand research into the leading killer of women in the country: heart disease. This afternoon, thanks to the enthusiastic leadership of director Laura Bolger, the Passion Committee, Little Hats, Big Hearts, and many others, the ballroom was a sea of red, a powerful image of solidarity and coeur.
Over a delicate chicken salad with black beans and tortilla strips, then over champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries up in Blu, I learned that “more than 2 million women have learned their personal risk of developing heart disease” and “more than 900,000 women have joined the fight” against a disease that even at the beginning of this century was often dismissed as an “old man’s disease.” I also learned how important knowing four little numbers is for preventing heart disease for women (and men): blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and body mass index. Every woman I spoke to–whether a heart disease survivor or someone with a family member who died of heart disease or someone who was there simply to support the effort–mentioned these all-important numbers.
Even the lyrics of the luncheon’s theme song, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” was reminiscent of Odysseus’s tumultuous Mediterranean Sea adventure: “Like a small boat / on the ocean / sending big waves / into motion.” That’s exactly what Go Red for Women is: a small boat making waves. Waves of awareness, waves of positive goal-setting, waves of funds going to research (Go Red for Women Milwaukee raised $163,000 this year!). The keynote speaker, Sally Lou Loveman, added to the heroic tone of the luncheon when she said, “I believe in angels. I believe in signs, especially since we’re holding this event during National Women’s Health Week.” Loveman, a well-known former Audience Producer for Oprah and the founder of lovespeaks, brought to mind the good omens and prophecies of The Odyssey, the ones that let the characters know that the gods were on their side and that things were looking up. Loveman added, like Athena to Odysseus and Telemachus: “You showed up. In order to do the work we do, we have to just show up.” Be there. Get off your butt and do what you know you need to do. Have courage and survive. Platten’s lyrics affirmed this attitude (“This is my fight song / Take back my life song / Prove I’m alright song / My power’s turned on”) and Loveman reminded the hundreds of women in the room, many times, that our hearts are “the #1 tool” we use, that we need to “keep our hearts at full capacity,” that “the more we use our hearts, the more they charge.” The calling, then, for the heroes in the room, was to listen to the “hearts inside them” and to be heroes for themselves and others–and to re-charge their hearts and their lives every day.
I leave you, then, with 15 Simply (But Often Difficult) Courageous Goals for Charging Our Hearts, created by the guests at the recent Go Red for Women luncheon at the beautiful Pfister Hotel:
I will make regular appointments with my physician.
I will now the red flags and recognize them.
I will know my exact numbers, so I can measure them and either maintain them or notice changes.
I will schedule another stress test to monitor my levels.
I will catch myself when I get stressed and find remedies.
I will heighten awareness, one person or one small group at a time.
I will lose more weight.
I will instill in the rest of my family, including my husband and son, a mindset of healthy eating.
I will make sure to cook the right food for me and my family.
I will keep walking 35 minutes a day and 1 ½ hours on the weekend (the added benefit is I’ve gotten through six books already!).
I will stay healthy and stay prepared because I know my family’s history.
I will realize that heart disease can develop even at a young age.
I will enjoy the little things, the ones I don’t always think about, the simple, happy moments.
I will try to remember that I have a family that wants to have me around.
I will be proactive rather than reactive!
#10 is brought to you by Lori Craig, a board member of the American Heart Association and a member of the Go Red for Women Executive Leadership Team. Here she is fulfilling her goal for the day with a brisk walk down the hall!
Everywhere I turn in this cozy room, I encounter a new artist.
Pamela Anderson, The Pfister’s new Artist-in-Residence, is on the west coast during this event, and her fellow artist, Melissa Dorn Richards, has taken up temporary residence in the studio, carving the thick white paint on her square canvases to re-imagine industrial mop heads in surprising ways.
But here, in the former space of the upscale Rogers Stevens menswear store that has been transformed for a United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) event hosted by the Marcus Corporation’s managers, the unsung artists of The Pfister are emerging.
The bartender, Luther, creates music, mainly percussion, out of anything he can find, having recently elevated a washboard to create a wicked sound and acquired a tuba (I reminisce about my college girlfriend and I foxtrotting to “Moonlight Serenade” played by a Seattle street musician with a tuba). We chat about how he’s seeking new creative ventures for himself, much like I am, adventures that will allow him to create for himself and others, especially after years of raising his children and cleaning their creative peanut butter smears off of sofas.
Also at the bar is James, a rep from Copper & Kings American Brandy stationed in Butchertown, Louisville, Kentucky, who regales me with a language still foreign to me, but one I would willingly learn: non-chill filtered, copper pot-distillation, pure pot-still, full integrity, extraction, palatability (that last one I get!). I enjoy his spirited Absinthe Blanche creation, a double-distilled Muscat brandy with traditional absinthe botanicals, and his company’s neighborhood’s namesake, Butchertown Brandy, described on their website as “bad-ass brandy . . . non-chill filtered without adulteration by boisé (oak flavor or infusion), sugar or caramel color for an uncorrupted natural flavor and natural color.” Of course, I detect all of those characteristics. . . I’m an art connoisseur.
Joe from Milwaukee’s own Great Lakes Distillery shares the new Rehorst Barrel Reserve Gin, oak barrel aged to give it a creaminess that complements the botanicals and a golden to amber palette that delights my palate. I share with him how my friends and I created a couple of summers ago the “Walkers Point Trifecta,” which begins with a tour of the distillery, followed by an affordable meal at Conejito’s Place Mexican Restaurant across the street, and washed down with cocktails at The Yard across the roundabout. Good times.
After a little while, Peter, the Hotel’s food & beverages purchasing manager, is kind enough to introduce himself and engage me about his art: at work, he says, keeping food and beverage costs down is an art, and at home, he claims to “create masterpieces” (out of leftovers, that is). I don’t doubt his culinary skill. He wears it like a badge of honor and gets philosophical with me (I love that), agreeing that any time we take nothing and create something, or take something and transform it, we’re making art.
So why are all these artists gathered among the emptied wooden clothing racks bedecked with hors d’oeuvres and rows of wines for a cork pull and bottles of spirits for silent auction? This May 10th event is one of the many UPAF events that are held at the Hotel throughout the year (and one of many just this month!), a testament to the company’s commitment to the arts and artists. Begun in 1967 to support organizations like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and the Florentine Opera Company that would be performing in the new Performing Arts Center, UPAF has endured to this day, raising in 2014 over $12 million, due in part to co-chair Peggy Williams-Smith, Senior Vice President of Marcus Hotels & Resorts and SafeHouse Restaurants. The Pfister Hotel’s commitment to UPAF ensures that “funds to ensure entertainment excellence” are raised, that the performing arts are a continued “regional asset,” and that donor gifts are “responsibly steward[ed].”
As the Narrator, I have set up a table in the corner with Pfister cocktail napkins and colored Sharpies, with an invitation to join past writers in the esoteric art of napkin brainstorming.
As guests approach my table, I greet them with a series of questions to answer about art, artists, inspiration, and performing. Guests find some of them easy to answer, confident in their support of the arts and their opinions about why they’re important: How do you define art? What inspires you? Other questions stump them, which is my intention. My favorites, and my go-to questions of the evening, are “How are you an artist?” and “What did you create today?” I’ve found throughout the years that if we don’t paint or sculpt or play an instrument, most of us don’t consider ourselves to be “artists.” But, as Peter and I agreed, any time we take nothing and create something, or take something and transform it, we’re making art. We are artists–all of us.
As an English teacher and lover of word origins, I also share with guests that the word art derives from a Latin word meaning “joint” or “to fit together,” that inspire comes from the Latin “to breathe upon,” “to inflame,” or “to put a spirit into,” and that perform hails from the Old French “to provide completely” and the Middle English “to make dreams come true.” For me, knowing the etymologies of short words like these that we take for granted opens up new avenues for understanding. If art is a “joining,” then what is it that it joins? If inspiration means to “breathe upon,” then who or what is breathing, what is being breathed, and upon whom? And if every time we perform we’re “providing” something that “makes dreams come true,” well, how cool is that?
The guests’ napkin responses reveal to them and me new ways of thinking about ourselves:
Before the event comes to a close, I have the pleasure of chatting with Mary and Kathy, guests of Donna, Executive Assistant to the General Manager.
At first mild and reserved, these two handsome women proclaim that neither of them is an artist. However, with a little encouragement and inquiry, Mary tells me that she once took an art class to maintain her teaching certification. “You wouldn’t believe that I made these things,” referring to the art, in different mediums, that she produced. “I kept looking at them and saying, ‘Did I make that?’”
Hearing this, Kathy admits, “I guess deep down there’s something in each of us that’s artistic.” And then she opens up: “A neighbor at my residence invited me to join the drama club. We do little one-act plays mainly.” So you are an artist, Kathy. “Well, not really.” Mary reminds her that she was the narrator for The Wizard of Oz. “Oh, yes. I had to get everyone involved. And we made our own costumes.” So you are an artist! “Well, not really. I did once play a teenager going out on a date–and then my parents interrupt the date. But I’m not an artist or performer.”
In this final installment of lunch with Mercedes’ clan, we write a poem together, inspired by Nick and Liza’s story about the loss of the stack of love poems decades ago. Or was the flurry of words that were floating and flinging across the table seeking a resting place? Whatever the reason, I pulled a sheet from my notebook and invited someone to propose a first line. From there, we would pass the sheet around the table so that each member of this family could lend his or her voice.
Almost instantaneously, Nick said, “Under the spreading chestnut.” We were all surprised by the “chestnut” reference (who comes up with “chestnut” in the first line of an impromptu poem?). But then he changed his mind: “Oh, no. We can’t use that. That’s from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.” I’d never read it before but discovered that it is the first line of “The Village Blacksmith,” which turns out to have a beautiful reference to the blacksmith’s mother and whose first line reads “Under a spreading chestnut tree”). Putting on my English teacher hat, I assured him that our poem would contain an allusion to Longfellow, a line lifted partially, borrowed honorably. All eight of us, with Longfellow as the ninth, would co-write a new poem.
Once the sheet had rounded the table, I prepared to recite our words to a rapt audience. But we were all surprised when Nick said he wanted to open our poetry reading with his own poem, a lengthy one he’d written for his wife Kelley awhile back, featuring a mixture of formal language and modern references to black holes and the galaxy. “He just sent it to me in a message one day,” Kelley told us, to which all of us responded, of course, “Awwww.”
This is what I finally got to read to them, a fitting end to a surprisingly intimate Mother’s Day Brunch at The Pfister Hotel:
Under the spreading chestnut a mother’s love goes far. And we breathe a sigh of relief because we know how beautiful you are. Your beauty is like the sunset– so pure and full of wonder. The love we share will never die– let no man put it asunder. Look toward the stars, behind the thunder. Hide your dreams from those who seek to plunder. But show them to the Lord above who’s under the spreading chestnut where a mother’s love goes far.
Continued from the previous post entitled “We Are a Corporation”:
MERCEDES, who now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has been coming to the Pfister for many years since her daughter MARIA moved to Milwaukee from the South Bronx almost twenty years ago. This winter, she came to Milwaukee to support MARIA through back surgery, then stayed on through her recovery (interestingly, MARIA lives on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side). This Mother’s Day Brunch is a good opportunity for “the corporation” to enjoy a meal, memories, and laughter together. The hotel Narrator, DOMINIC, has soon become less Narrator and more “guest family member.”
The lively exchange–and by “lively” the playwright means LOUD, EXUBERANT, VOCIFEROUS, CLAMOROUS, EMPHATIC, all in the best ways–rises above the surrounding tables’ gentle fork-scraping and mild conversation. Surprisingly, DOMINIC doesn’t care that more than a few heads turn toward the table, wondering what could possibly be so interesting or funny. Some probably find the volume rude. But the brunch continues uninhibited.
MARIA: I moved to Milwaukee in 1998. I loved a man who brought me here for his job then dumped me six months later. I had moved for work, too: I was an immigration officer.
MERCEDES: She’s retired now.
MARIA: Unfortunately, after he dumped me, I knew nobody. But the minute I wandered into the doors of the Pfister, I knew I was at home.
DOMINIC: So you just wandered in?
MARIA: Yeah, it must have been hot. Or I was looking for a place to rest, maybe stay. I mean, I was a poor Puerto Rican from the South Bronx, but (slowly) I like high-end stuff. So, I knew that this was my kind of place.
MERCEDES: And everyone was so nice to you, too, right?
MARIA: Yeah. First, I met the bartender, then the piano player. I loved to just sit by the fireplace and read the newspaper.
MERCEDES bends over and whispers to me.
MERCEDES: She would get high enough that she would stand on the piano and belt out songs.
MARIA: I heard you mom. Yes, I’d get “high enough” to get on a piano and sing. I made people laugh. Our family believes extremely in “Live for the moment,” you know. I mean, I could walk out of here and get hit by a bus, so, it’s important. (looking at DOMINIC) It’s so important that you are so cute that I want to . . .
Strategically, someone at the table starts humming a tune from West Side Story again.
KELLEY: Well, we arean honest bunch!
Just then, MUNY, one of the banquet servers, approaches to refill our champagne and water. She stands directly behind MARIA, who grasps her by the hand.
MARIA: Me, I like to go into the interior . . . you know, the people and stories in the background. To know that the service is so good wherever you go within the Pfister, especially from Muny. She wasMuñecawhen I met her fifteen years ago. Muny’s mom, auntie, and more–they all worked at the Pfister, too. You know, she’s the heart and soul of this place, of this brunch. It’s not only about the atmosphere and the beautiful things.
MUNY: Everyone calls me the “Brunch Lady.”
MARIA: Yes, Muny, you are the “Brunch Lady” that everyone requests.
Squeezes MUNY’s hand as MUNY exits with a wide smile that never seems to leave her face.
Growing up, our house was always filled with people, whether black, white, green, yellow. Our house was like a revolving door. There was always a place for Puerto Ricans, or Muny’s, or . ..
MERCEDES: It’s like it was in Little Italy–you have to visit Little Italy. We used to go to Pellegrino’s all the time.
MARIA: We’d call it P.J.’s.
MERCEDES: Yes, P.J.’s for short.
DOMINIC: Is it still there?
MERCEDES: Ah, yes. We haven’t been there for awhile, but you should if you visit. They would see us coming and have a bottle of wine ready, then we’d stay after with the maître d’, Anthony, until two or three in the morning. (smiles proudly)
MARIA: That’s what it’s all about.
Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.
MERCEDES: I’ll have to go back there soon. Back to that “open door” Maria mentioned: I couldn’t stand seeing kids on the street. And back then, the youth had so many problems they had to deal with. So if one of the kids was a boy, then I’d let him stay in my son’s room until he could get things together. I never put a kid out. My door was always open.
LIZA: Just like at Pellegrino’s. You were strict, though.
Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.
We called you “the fly swatter.”
MERCEDES:(to DOMINIC) I was the fly swatter. Sometimes these kids needed a (she “swats” DOMINIC’s shoulder like she were dusting it off) little fly swat. It was hard living back then.
DOMINIC: But your door was always open. That’s what matters, huh?
Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles. They make a toast to open doors and things that matter.
Set in the Grand Ballroom of the historic Pfister Hotel, in present day Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two gigantic chandeliers divide the room, which is framed in gold, with walls covered in Victorian art. A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom. The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE. Multiple conversations are occurring as DOMINIC, the hotel storyteller, approaches in a new blue suit, a notebook in hand ready for a potential interview.
Enter DOMINIC, who takes the empty seat next to MERCEDES. We see them talking but can’t hear their conversation until MERCEDES speaks up. Besides the two nieces, DANA and KELLEY, the rest of the family has a slight but recognizable accent.
MERCEDES: (points to a woman across the table) It’s her you should be talking to. She could tell you some stories.
DOMINIC: She’s your–
MERCEDES: My daughter.
DOMINIC: (surprised) No. She–
MARIA: People always think that we’re sisters. But she’s almost 80 and well . . . I’m–I’m tired of the comparison. She’s an oxatarian . . . no, an oxagenarian, oxageraranarian. Wait. What’s it called? You know.
KELLEY: It’s an oxag–.
DOMINIC: Octogenarian, I think. Eight generations.
MARIA: Heeey. You’re cute. I could just eat you up!
LIZA: (gently slaps MARIA with feigned disapproval) Maria! Stop.
NICK: (jumping in) Ok . . . so you’re the narrator. What does that entail?
DOMINIC: Well, I’ll be telling the stories of guests at the hotel over the next year. People like you.
MARIA: We are a corporation!
NICK: We are an organism!
MIKE: We’re a bunch of crazy Puerto Ricans!
Everyone spontaneously toasts with champagne.
MERCEDES: That we are. Those two are my daughters, Maria and Liza. That’s Liza’s husband, Nick. That there’s their daughter Dana–she’s 16.
MARIA: She goes to the Special Music School right across from Julliard. It’s better than Julliard, of course.
MERCEDES: And that is Kelley (it’s K-E-L-L-E-Y) and her husband, Mike.
MARIA: Kelley is in pharmacy, but she’s going to go into surgery eventually. And Mike’s in construction now, but he’s going to be the next Puerto Rican astronaut! He’s joining the Air Force soon.
DOMINIC: (to Kelley and Mike)Congratulations. (to DANA)You like the school, huh?
DANA: Yes, I play guitar–
MARIA: And sax!
DANA: –and sax. And I study voice.
MERCEDES: She has a beautiful voice.
LIZA: Yes, you should hear her sing. Like an angel.
MARIA: Like an angel. In fact, we were just going to do a rendition of our favorite musical, West Side Story. You know–
MARIA starts humming “I want to live in America,” then others join in.
DANA: I really like biology, though . . . and I’d like to be a mortician. I have strange tastes!
DOMINIC: That sounds pretty well-rounded to me. I used to be a bio major, then I switched to English.
DANA: That’s cool.
MARIA: Yes, it’s cool. We’re all poets at this table. And you–I just want to bring you home with me!
This time, it’s DANA who swats her aunt MARIA. No one else bats an eyelash.
MERCEDES: She’s always like this. Just watch.
MARIA: And Nick is Greek.
She spells and pronounces his last name.
Greek and Puerto Rican. Can’t you tell?
NICK: No one ever believes me, so I have to spell my last name and sing a song in Greek.
Without skipping a beat, NICK begins singing a syncopated song, slowly moving his torso and arms in the style of a Greek dancer.
MARIA: You know, Nick’s a poet. But he wasn’t always one, right Liza? In fact, he once lost a whole set of love poems that Liza had written.
LIZA: That’s right.
NICK: I didn’t know any better back then.
MARIA: You were young.
NICK: Seventeen. So I threw them in the trunk of the car–I was borrowing it from someone.
LIZA: I had gotten a whole set of stationery. And I filled up every single one with poems. I poured my heart and soul into them.
MARIA: And then he lost them.
NICK: But she’s still with me, thirty-eight years later.
LIZA: That’s true. He really is romantic.
KELLEY: He would write cards for me when I was growing up.
MARIA: Yeah, he made all these cards with crossword puzzles on them–
KELLEY: –that I had to solve. And then in each there would be a message to me about how much he loved me and so on.
LIZA: And don’t forget he’s an amateur magician, too.
MARIA: He was always pulling a little bunny out of a hat and stuff!
DOMINIC: Everyone here sounds so creative!
MARIA: And you. You’re so cute. We’re going to have you over and invite the whole family!
MERCEDES: Look. (pointing at my face)He’s blushing!
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
* Pictured (l-r): Maria, Dana, Liza, Nick, Mercedes, Kelley, Mike