The Key to Telling a Good Story, or The Night Jeff Daniels Killed it on Guitar and Gave Me Chekhovian Wisdom

There is a debate that I’m having with my thirteen-year-old daughter Dorothea about whether or not Jeff Daniels wanted to talk to me. She maintains that he had no interest in spending any time with me. I, on the other hand, contend that the star of stage and screen was charming, gracious and open to the prospect that someday he and I could be chums if our paths ever again cross. I am right, of course, because age always trumps youthful temerity. Thirteen-year-olds are so damned suspicious of two guys with touches of grey hair having a good jaw, you know.

My encounter with Jeff Daniels took place at the Pfister when he was recently in town lending his considerable storytelling and musical talents to the 6th Annual This Time Tomorrow Foundation (TTTF) fundraiser. TTTF is a great organization that offers financial assistance to families affected by cancer. It’s noble work, and when TTTF shows up at a person’s home who is battling the disease they do so with a check in hand that the family can use to help offset medical bills or other pressing needs.

Daniels was part of a whole musical storytelling evening that included performances by The Ben Daniels Band (his prodigiously jamming son), a supremely harmonic Lotus Crush, and the very funny Mark Eddie. The whole affair was hosted by C. Thomas Howell, who in recent years has shined as a smart director and actor but may forever be remembered by teenage girls of a center era as Ponyboy in the film version of “The Outsiders.”

Given that my teenage daughter is developing some serious chops as a guitar player and writer, I was very grateful to be able to bring her along as my date for the evening. But, I let her know that this wasn’t just going to be fun and games. There was work to be done. I had a simple burning question for all these troubadours with tales: “What is the key to telling a great story?”

My grinning daughter and I first bumped into Ben Daniels and his band mates (one of whom recently agreed to be Mrs. Daniels, I found out). These slouch and cool musicians drip with the aura of good storytellers, the kind of guys and gal who spin yarns that look like your most treasured ironic Christmas sweaters. I put my question to Ben and his compadres and they threw loads of thoughts my way. “Keep it from the heart…be brutally honest…mix it up…talk about what you know.” Daniels’ guitar player George also showed me an elaborate handshake that a fella like me who is challenged by rhythms beyond pat-a-cake has no chance of ever remembering. I chalked that one up to visual aid.

Mingling through the crowd, we came upon Terry McDermott, lead singer for Lotus Crush. Lotus Crush had just freshly recorded what you might call the TTTF anthem, the tune “This Time Tomorrow” that has been covered annually by different artists since it was first penned by TTTF founder Cory Zimmerman as an emotional response to his friend and business associate Dick Ticcioni’s cancer diagnosis. I might mention that I had the great honor of meeting the happy and healthy Ticcioni at this event, and he is decidedly kicking cancer in the keester.

McDermott struck me right away as a man blessed with two remarkable gifts that put him in rarified air as a storyteller. First, there’s the hair. Oh, how I wanted to reach out and tussle his divinely fashioned rocker locks. That sort of eye candy is just money in the bank for presenting yourself as a tale teller with sticking power. But this chap also totally brings it with one of the smoothest, sweetest, Scottish accents ever to pass scone-scented lips.

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The hair style of a great teller of tales.

On top of his killer do and honey vocals, McDermott was full of heart, smiles and charm. I asked him his recipe for telling a great story, and he brought it back around in the best way possible–he told me a story. Terry talked of a friend of his, a fellow Scot who moved to New Orleans and now does things like make amazing ice cream. He also is, according to McDermott, an undisputed master of telling a good story. His advice to Terry, and a good nugget if I’ve ever heard one, is, “Make the fish just a little bit bigger.” In other words, we all have a story in us, and there’s no shame in telling it the way we “want” it to be told as opposed to the way it might have really happened. I’ll fess up to loving this one, and you can trace my affection for that statement back to any of my writings that are laced with the faint smell of a nice fat tuna that can be caught jumping off the page.

This info grabbing was all fascinating for me and thrilling for my hanging-on-every-word daughter. She pointed across the room to a man with an unbelievably wide grin on his face and said, “I’m guessing that’s the funny guy.” Her attention had gone to Mark Eddie, and I’m proud that my gal can pick the good-humored gents out of a crowd.

Mark and his wife Cyndi were delighting guests with joy flecked talk and cheery self-portraits that Cyndi was snapping like a happy turtle with her arm length selfie-stick.

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Mark Eddie and wife Cyndi. Oh, those smiles.

I approached and introduced myself and told Eddie, “My daughter noticed you and told me you must be the funny guy. I think she’s right.” Eddie laughed and, a dad of daughters himself, kindly made Dorothea feel like a critical part of our conversation. Mark is a man who makes his living telling stories and I knew he’d have great advice for me on how to really tell a great tale.

“Well, I got a great bit of advice from a Hollywood producer a few years back that I think is really smart,” he said. “The key to being a great storyteller is to be completely sincere. And once you learn how to fake that, you’re set.” I’m a sucker for a good one-two punch line.

Mark continued on and on, demonstrating his belief that joy and sincerity are keys to telling good stories. He stressed the importance of being authentic, being the full “you” and not worrying about trying to be something you’re not when telling a tale. This authentic guy’s story is one of toothy grins and good cheer, and if we had four more hours together, I shudder to think of the number of groaner jokes the two of us would have come up with together.

We thanked Marc and his wife for a lovely chat, and started across the room when Jeff Daniels started walking our way. It’s with a sense of nerd pride that I lay claim to being a big fan of Jeff Daniels–the playwright. I’m not discounting his work as an actor, of course, because he’s just damned compelling on screen and, for those of us lucky enough to have seen him on the stage, a force to be reckoned with. That was my special way in, my secret handshake. “Hello, Jeff Daniels. My name is Jonathan West, and I just wanted to tell you how much I like your plays.”

Now, as I mentioned at the top of this story, my daughter and I have a different take on the moments I spent learning lessons on storytelling from Jeff Daniels. She’ll forever poke at me, but I’m telling you true that we had a lovely chat. And if you’ve taken anything away from the tips I was given by the others in the room, you’ll know that what my fish is sincerely authentic and there’s no fakery involved. Honest, I tell you, from the bottom of my heart.

I share a particular fondness for one of the key figures in Jeff Daniels’ career, the playwright Lanford Wilson. Daniels’ work in his early plays helped to launch his long and varied career. When I asked Daniels’ his thoughts on how to tell a great story, he paused a moment, reflected and then laid it out straight. “Build the structure and then make it look like there’s no structure.”

I admit to overthinking things at times, so these types of simple, plain-spoken lessons are like gold to me. Work hard, but no need to show off. Daniels summed it up in a second. Keep it simple, stupid. He also talked about the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and muttered a couple of swear words about his ability to build a great house but to never show his reader the framing.

And if you ever had any question about Jeff Daniels’ musical abilities, well feast your eyes and ears on this snippet.  He’s got game.

All in all, it was a spectacular night of music and great tales all told from the heart by masters. And for me, the storytelling take away for the night was crystal clear. Take the time to be as honest as you need to be and you’ll land a great tale. That fish, my friends, will always arrive fresh on the line and a few inches longer than you ever expected it would be.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

 

 

Thirteen Going On Winner

My thirteen-year-old daughter recently recounted a story for me about a disruption at her school involving a classmate that required administrators to respond to a sort of “Code Red” emergency. Weighing life’s major moments of civil unrest, online this one sounded fairly tame on the terror threat scale, but it still landed hard as a story of a disruptive teen who was clearly struggling with the challenge of finding a way to appropriately express an emotional response to something that had gotten under her skin.

I couldn’t help but think of this tale as I took my seat next to Tamia, her mother LaQuanda and Tamia’s Big Sister Denise at a recent gala held by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Milwaukee in the Pfister’s Grand Ballroom. My mind didn’t turn to this tale of troubled teenage drama because of anything happening over plates of chicken, drugstore fish and dinner rolls, but instead because I found it hard to believe that thirteen-year-old Tamia could have once easily been cast in the role of the disruptive girl in my daughter’s story.

The broad smile across Tamia’s face didn’t seem like the mask of a troubled kid. But I discovered in talking to this bright young girl and her caring mother and Big Sister that trouble had seemed to follow Tamia everywhere she went during her preteen years. As an elementary school student she had difficulty focusing in school. She caused her fair share of incidents and was the central figure in many stories like the one that my daughter had shared with me about her recent particularly eventful school day. All that began to change when her mom LaQuanda decided that she, as a single mom trying the best she could, would not be able to tackle the Tamia problem alone. LaQuanda did what any loving mom would do—she reached out for help, and in doing so found a sister for Tamia; a Big Sister to be exact.

Denise has been Tamia’s Big Sister going on some five years now. She and Tamia have a relationship that is now forged in steel, but according to Denise was once more like a pile of fresh clay ready to be shaped into a symbol of strength.

Denise remembers that when she first met Tamia, the little girl was timid and scared, a young lady who hid behind her mother and barely spoke. I look across the table at Tamia who scans the ballroom with a gentle, open, honest, and inquisitive gaze. She’s chattering away with her mom and confidently answering the questions that the couple who are seated with us as our tablemates are asking her. It’s impossible to imagine that this poised and charming young woman was once the type of kid that could turn a sunny day dark. She’s now the type of child who will pick up the phone and call her Big Sister for help with her math homework even when Denise is traveling in Asia for business. You know that Denise adores Tamia because she tells me that she took that call at 3am so she could work out some tricky word problems with her Little Sister across time zones.

Denise and Tamia are special honorees at this evening event, recognized as the Big Sister and Little Sister match of the year. They are shy about the honor, almost embarrassed whenever anyone offers them a nod of congratulations. They seem to realize that they’re just lucky to have found each other, one of the many success stories from the 1,300 matches that the Milwaukee Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter makes each year.

LaQuanda takes another approach to celebrating tonight’s honor. She’s gaga about where her daughter is today. LaQuanda is playing the role of the proudest mother in town and she does what any fierce, strong mom would do on a night that her kid is publicly recognized for something great. She takes as many pictures as she possibly can and claps and cheers louder than anyone.

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Tamia and LaQuanda out on the town.

As I watch LaQuanda standing in a crowded room taking pictures of Tamia and Denise receiving the recognition they deserve, I think of my own thirteen-year-old daughter and how blessed I am to not be a single parent, but to have a superbly supportive and wise spouse to help me raise my two children. I don’t know if I would have been as smart as LaQuanda to reach out for help if I found that my daughter was headed down a rough road as a young girl, but I’m wise enough to know that LaQuanda deserves her own round of applause.

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The proudest mom in town capturing the Big and Little Sister getting some serious props.

LaQuanda and I end up talking about options for high schools for both our daughters, a dynamic concern we both share about making sure we get our children in the right environment for success. I catch Tamia and Denise bantering back and forth across the table about the food at the event, and they absolutely look like there’s a blood bond between them with the obvious love they show one another. Our table hoots the loudest as Tamia and Denise get their moment in the spotlight, and then we all conspire over how we might trick our server into bringing us double dessert. Just your average night when you’re seated with the coolest people in the room at a fancy affair.

As our night winds down I promise to take Tamia and LaQuanda to see the top floor swimming pool at the Pfister. Before I do I pull Tamia aside and tell her, “You know, my daughter is thirteen-years-old, too, and she’s ALMOST as nice as you.” Tamia gives me a chuckle and flashes a smile to make your heart melt, and I know that my own child wouldn’t even roll her eyes over that corny bit of dad humor. Tamia is all winner, and thanks to a mother and Sister who have her back, she’s ready to tackle any mountain that might get in her way.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

A Dearth of Drips at Water Summit 2015

Today, the Pfister Hotel is swarming with guests who are excited about the opening day of Summerfest.

So, let’s talk about the most important thing about Summerfest.

Water.

One thing that you pick up on after spending some time at the Pfister is that this hotel is not just about luncheons, business travelers who use their expense accounts to buy gin and steaks, and pretty bridesmaids. Nothing wrong with any of those, of course, especially the pretty bridesmaids (so sue me, I’m smitten with the bridesmaids). But what you really quickly understand about the Pfister is that on a very regular basis, there is some pretty progressive stuff happening in our hallowed halls.

Which brings me back around to the most significant thing about Summerfest, and that, my friends, is water. Some would argue that music is what defines this mega watt festival, while others would pick a fight with me over beer and food. I’ll admit I’ve been touched by the significance of enjoying a fried eggplant strip or 37 over the years, and I remember being there reeling at the end of a Violent Femmes concert many years ago as my high school girlfriend discovered she had lost her car keys. But I know that all these superb characteristics of a world-class music fest can’t hold a candle to water. Water would even put that candle out in one swift dousing, and easily, like a boss.

This week, the Water Council has gathered at the Pfister to discuss the water and its global impact during Water Summit 2015. To my mind that’s sort of like having a meeting to discuss the future of breathing. It’s elemental, it’s important, it’s necessary to daily life, and Summerfest would just be some dusty festival under the baking summer sun if it weren’t for the refreshing cool Great Lake breezes that pierce through the mass of humanity enjoying the world’s biggest music fest. You take away its fresh water setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, and Summerfest loses something basic, a sense of connection to the greater universe, an openness that really is defined by the eternal passageway of water. The beer is cold and nice, for sure, but water is where it’s at.

It is, for me, a great source of comfort that while revelers press against the starting gate to enter the Summerfest grounds, there are meetings happening at the Pfister in which visionary global business leaders, scientists and engineers are thinking about best uses for water and the communal impact of conservation, innovation, and sustainability practices. This is some high minded stuff happening as Water Summit 2015 brings together great minds from around the world to discuss, debate and challenge assumptions on the world’s relationship to water and how we humans use it.

I spoke to some very fine experts who seemed to be rushing from one discussion to the next as they dug into important ideas surrounding water, its sources, and its applications through all areas of life. I find myself wrapping up chats with these men and women by saying, “Thank you for the important work you’re doing.” Like typical engineers and scientists, the good souls discussing new ways to study and think about water seem to shyly shrug, not really wanting to bask in any sort compliment, but quickly wanting to delve back into work surrounding solutions to global water challenges.

In the midst of the ebb and flow of the Water Summit, I met some young people who are going to eventually shape and change our world, and I’m happy to know that they are smarter than smart and also poised and know how to clean up nicely. As part of Water Summit 2015, college and university students from around the globe are participating in a learning opportunity called, Wetskills. Wetskills is an international movement that allows students to work in four person teams to tackle water related challenges. Thomas, Jessica, Matthew, Ferris and Paul were snapping pictures in the lobby of the Pfister when I suggested I take a group shot of their posse. I also wanted to hear about the work they were doing as part of their two weeks of immersive learning and team building.

They explained that they were prepping for a pitch contest, a sort of Shark Tank kind of experience where all the innovative ideas presented had to do with solving some water related challenge. Paul gave me his pitch in under a minute…he and his team want to bring garbage disposals to the Netherlands, and he compactly told me that there are issues related to this that he and his team address in some creative ways.

Jessica told me that her team was working on supporting farmers and their water issues related to run off from growing cycles. She and her team have plans to help communities get engaged in the process of evaluating and monitoring run off levels by a series of simple and effective implementation tactics. I asked if any part of their plan involved giving locals surrounding farms rulers so they could measure the depth of water in ditches. Jessica was kind and smiled rather than slapping my face.

On the topic of Summerfest, I asked if the gang was going to be able to visit during their stay. They hedged a bit, mentioning that they hoped to have the time. But at the end of the day, they all seem to be fully underwater with work, and for now, that’s a really good thing.

Of Fathers and Sons and Hugs

Joe and Simon hugged themselves into a booth at the Café at the Pfister on a Saturday afternoon. They stopped for a quick nosh before scrubbing up for a wedding on the 7th floor. These gents looked like they had invented hugging, viagra and I was immediately impressed.

I watched this small miracle take place as I chomped a veggie omelet. Call me a sap, but watching a sloppy looking guy hugging his imp of a six-year-old son in public is kind of beautiful.

Simon reminded Joe, buy cialis “We gotta make this quick pal…Mom wants us to get upstairs and shower.” I saw that Simon believed in the HAPPY WIFE=HAPPY LIFE principle. Smart man that Simon.

Joe had some important stuff to discuss with his father.

“Why do you think I don’t like Mickey Mouse?” asked Joe?

Simon was surprised. “You don’t like Mickey Mouse?”

“No, tadalafil I don’t like Mickey Mouse,” Joe answered flatly.

Joe had it all as he ordered his mac and cheese—someone to talk to who buys lunch and gives you hugs. It made me think about the recent hugging history between me and my dad. Our pre meal hugs have been a matter of diminishing returns for years.

Simon helped Joe sort it all out. “You like Pluto. You like Minnie Mouse.”

“I do like Pluto,” said Joe. “But I DON’T like Minnie Mouse.”

Simon scratched his head. “Why do you think you don’t like the mice?”

“I don’t know,” said Joe.

My dad and I used to chat this way over Saturday morning pancakes and sausages. We now struggle to talk, but not out of a lack of love. We have just become men who rarely find time for having as much syrup as you want and telling bad jokes.

Joe shifted gears between nibbles of mac and cheese. “Dad, can a good knife cut anything?”

“Well, it depends,” said Simon looking at Joe’s butter knife.

“What about candy?” asked Joe. “Could a good knife cut candy?”

“That would be hard,” said Simon scooping a bit of Joe’s noodles into his mouth as he waved the waitress over for their bill. My dad used to finish my sausage. It’s clearly part of the good dad DNA.

Simon and Joe paid their bill and scurried out of their seats. Simon swung his arm around Joe’s shoulder in what can only be called the perfect walking hug. “Show offs,” I thought. I shared the smile that had come over my face with Simon as I caught his eye.

Joe lit up as he walked past my booth. “A jawbreaker would be hard to cut.”

“A jawbreaker would be impossible to cut,” agreed Simon.

I don’t know guys, watching you makes me think nothing is impossible. Consider for instance a future Saturday at the Café at the Pfister when me and my dad hug our way into a booth and let the syrup flow. But no way, no how is dad finishing my sausage this time.

Regular Regulators Regulating Regularly

There is a certain juvenile streak in me that really, treatment really makes it hard to stop from asking one of the participants at the Mid-America Regulatory Commissioners Conference, “So what do you do to keep everyone regular?”

But, I have a sense of decorum. I wear bow ties. And, yes, I’m just a little afraid that someone might actually answer this question. Then all bets are off on what would go down from there.

Instead, as I see the waning moments of the conference on the 7th floor at the Pfister, I approach one of the kindly event staff so I can figure out what in tarnation has gone on at this multiple day conference.

I freely and openly admit that I am sometimes (okay, often) dense. In approaching the kindly event staff worker I decide to get to the meat of the matter right away.

“What is a Mid-America Regulatory Commissioner Conference and what do these Regulatory Commissioners do?”

The kindly event staff worker is the consummate pro and doesn’t tell me I’m a dolt for not knowing, but nicely explains that its all about public utilities—water, power, energy—that have regulatory standards attached to them. I decide it’s kind of like a conference you might see on PARKS AND RECREATION, and as I talk with the helpful event staff worker, I look over his shoulder to see if there are more Ron Swansons or more Leslie Knopes at this particular conference (there are, by the way, a lack of bushy mustaches on display).

The conference annually rotates between the Mid-American states that participate, and in Milwaukee this year as the Pfister for home base, the event has attracted about 300 participants. The event staff anticipated families coming along for the ride, so they planned tours to the Harley Museum and breweries and Discovery World. It’s nice to think that you get a well-rounded motorcycle, science and lager experience when tagging along for this kind of event.

My biggest curiosity of all concerning the Mid-America Regulatory Commissioners Conference had to do with the single most important thing anyone who has ever attended a conference concerns him or herself with when they walk up to a registration table: “What’s in the schwag bag?”

Again, the willing event staff worker was game to address my question in a straightforward manner. He told me that a highlight was certainly the 300 hand made chocolates put together by a local Milwaukee chocolatier. That’s a sweet bag item, if I’ve ever heard one.

Then comes that moment. The button in the conversation when I have to bite my tongue as I consider my original impulse to delve into the regularity patterns of the conference participants. The event staff worker tells me that because it’s a conference dealing with public utility, and water is a big part of public utility, there are a few bottles of H20 included in all of the event participants’ schwag bags.

“Water is a big thing for everyone here, you know,” he tells me.

It’s like I’m back in junior high school and I’m thinking about making a prank phone call. I want to follow up with, “So you’re saying that water is what moves these regulatory commissioners?” But I can’t…I just can’t. I adjust my bow tie, shake his hand, and feel grateful for my indoor plumbing, electric lighting and all things that keep the world churning regulated by all these kindly and well hydrated utility players.

The Post In Which I Go To A Ladies Luncheon and Find This One Guy

There was a ladies-only luncheon happening at the Pfister last week. Lots of smart, sickness successful, gorgeous women were dressed in red and came together for the American Heart Association’s 2015 Milwaukee Go Red for Women luncheon.

And this guy.

Mike Bartell, <a href=
here "this guy", and Linda Haag at the 2015 Go Red for Women Luncheon.” width=”378″ height=”213″ data-wp-pid=”10231″ /> Mike Bartell, “this guy”, and Linda Haag at the 2015 Go Red for Women Luncheon.

I don’t mean to treat this guy like some common piece of meat. His name is Mike Bartell, and he is a world-class swell. I also feel that the scarf he had wrapped around his neck brings out all the highlights in his lovely dimples. Don’t you agree?

I love events that celebrate female achievement because it has become increasingly clear to me over the years that if men just let women run things, we would all be a whole lot better off. Plus, the world would generally smell better. That’s a win-win aspiration for us all.

The event was good natured in every way and tied into a nationwide network of Go Red for Women’s efforts. There was a lot of feel good mojo in the room, and not just from the heart healthy lunch options being served. The ladies in red came together to share stories, network and report on new steps being taken towards ending heart disease and stroke by following a smart path towards maintaining good health.

All that said, I was happy to see that there was still a chocolate dessert on the table. Way to go, ladies.

Now, back to the minority report, on this guy, Mike.

Mike Bartell is one of those guys who easily draws your eye in a room full of other guys. He’s sharp, gregarious, approachable and warm. In a room full of women, Mike is probably the first thing you notice. I know I did.

Before Mike could start another of the many conversations I saw him begin with numerous ladies in the room, I stopped him in his tracks and said, “What in the world are you doing in this room full of stunning and successful women?”

Mike gave me a big smile, one of those grins that seem to just wrap around you and give you a squeeze. “I told them they needed some men in the room. I’m the guy.”

Mike explained to me that his long time friend and business associate Lori Criag is head of the Executive Leadership team organizing the local Go Red for Women chapter. Lori had told Mike about the good work that the Milwaukee chapter of the women’s group was doing, and Mike, wearing his “I want to help!” hat, told her that it would be good to get men in the room for moral and financial support. Little did he know that there is a complimentary men’s support group that works in tandem with Go Red for Women’s groups around the country, but that the Milwaukee chapter has yet to be formally organized. Mike was already hooked into Go Red for Women, however, so good sport that he is, he willingly joined in for the luncheon and the flouncy scarf wearing.

Admittedly, it wasn’t too tough of a gig for Mike going to a luncheon with a stellar group of ladies working on ending heart disease and stroke. He also proudly told me of the good work his wife, Ellen Bartell, is doing to support health and heart awareness as President of Divine Savior Holy Angels High School. Along with Angie Hutchinson, Divine Savior Holy Angels’ Physical Education Chair, Ellen was able to make hands only CPR part of the curriculum for all their students. Mike beamed when he spoke of his wife. Not only is this guy a supporter of good causes, be he’s a true gentlemen if there ever was one.

I took note of Mike’s bright red tie, and he admitted to me that he had it in his collection prior to the event. He certainly looked like he fit in with the crimson crew of ladies. Mike really did a great job wearing his heart on his sleeve at this year’s Go Red for Women luncheon, even if he sometimes had to move his pretty scarf aside to show it off.

You see the woman in the nude shag dress?

When the professional ballroom dancers come en masse to the Pfister,

expect to find several crystals strewn across the bathroom floor,

shed from their glistening, parrot colored ensembles

that induce the ordinary citizens in the café around them to exclaim,

“Ah my god, I can’t believe it!”DSCN1320

I go up to the source, the infestation of music and extra bright spangles,

and experience a crescendo

starting from the cobblers

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The bottom of every shoe is made of rough swede to prevent sliding. This brush is sold so that you can rough up sole’s surface when it gets flat. It should not be used on cats. I asked.

moving to the bangle vendors,

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then racks stuffed with crinolines,DSCN1380 DSCN1321 DSCN1361 DSCN1316

the woman with two attendants lacing a thin string of diamonds across her back,

and climaxing to when I step into the ballroom

and watch three male dancers dragging a flashing blue pod onto the floor.

The pod unfurls revealing a woman wrapped in a blanket of LED lights.

They lift the woman high in the air,

and she raises the diode blinking blanket above her head.

After seeing that I stay, watching for hours.

Most of what I witness are eight to twelve couples

simultaneously dancing and competing

in fox trot, Viennese waltz, samba, cha cha, tango and swing categoriesDSCN1653

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I am given a guide that lists the expected components of each dance.

 

for one minute to randomly selected music,

sneaky, unpredictable music

ranging from Eurythmics hits, Country, Sinatra,

Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,

Lady Gaga, Enya and metallic rock.

The dancers do not know what they are going to get song-wise,

and sometime it takes them several seconds of standing still

before they make their first timid move to the difficult tune.

A companion joins me and points out the various doctors

that she knows on the floor,

“You see the woman in the nude shag dress?

She was my fertility doctor years ago.

She usually wins too.”

My companion points to the dancer in a black and yellow dress,

“She’s a highly regarded dermatologist.”

I admit, the tango seems the most exciting.

My companion corrects me,

“No, it’s Argentine tango,

it’s very… alluring.”DSCN1476

DSCN1482Dancers cross the aisle in front of us,

obscuring our view of the dance floor

which gives us excuse to oogle their satin

dragon embroidered Japanese robes

that encase pastel petticoats.

A few of the women pin their ponytails

to their shoulder straps so that they do not budge

when they are flipped upside-down.

Another has a handkerchief attached via elastic

to her wrist, so that when she raises it,

it hangs whimsically, mournfully, pretentiously

so magnificently that I think to myself,

‘I am going to start wearing a handkerchief on my wrist like that.’

I stay until they announce the winners at midnight

My companion tells me that some of the dancers

I just watched have been performing since 7a.m.

In the elevator

a woman with red rhinestones

glued between each of her

eyelashes

speaks to me in a Russian accent

saying, “Maybe next year you will be competing,”

and the way she emphasizes “maybe” sounds prophetic.

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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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Butter on a Plate & Hat Swapping in the Bathroom


The whole hotel is my beat so I’ve got to drift.

I’ve got to find the swirled butter on the plate.

Regard this spiraled stack of paper napkins. This miniscule, considered bit of hospitality intrigues me.

DSCN9562 DSCN9397I like to chase the shadows of bicyclists with my camera from a height of 23 stories.

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On weekends my ambulations deliver me to London.

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High tea preparations imbue the room in the rusky scent of cinnamon.DSCN9351

 

The other day as I got off the elevator, I discovered that Italy was getting reconstructed on the seventh floor.

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Is that Basilica di San Marco?

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Free gondala rides.

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What is up with that vat of plastic grapes?

DSCN9573Oh, I see.

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I tell these grape stompers, “You know, my great-grandma actually made wine that way.” They tell me, “A lot of people have been telling us that tonight!”

DSCN9583Can you guess how many olives are in this glass urn?  I thought it was 603.  Apparently not, since I haven’t gotten that phone call telling me I won the iPad.

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Of all the Italy I see here, I most enjoy the giant see-through paintings.

DSCN9553A crevice implores me to monkey around.

DSCN9558And really, this picture is much better with me added to the scene.

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Women in inflated chef uniforms and stick-on moustaches emphatically call “Bonjourno!” and “Mangia-mangia!”
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In the bathroom I run into a friend of mine and her business partner.  They run a florist company called “Flower and Bee.” They are arranging wedding bouquets.  The whole sink area smells like a realm of olfactory love and harp music.  It must be all the jasmine.

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I ask them who is getting married.

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It turns out I actually know the couple.  Sure enough, when I check out the lobby bar I recognize half the wedding party.  One of the groomsmen folds a paper napkin into his empty breast pocket.  And as long as it is dry, you won’t notice that his handkerchief is not silk.DSCN9675

I type a quick congratulatory poem for the couple.

DSCN8477The next day I get together with my friend Adam for a brainstorm session.  He tells me “Thanks for allowing me push this meeting back a few days.  I was really busy, I had to officiate a wedding yesterday.”

And yes, it turns out to be the same wedding.

Excuse me Adam, I have to use the bathroom.

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In the bathroom a lady admires my hat so much she asks to try it on.  I let her, and she likes what she sees so much, she asks me if she can buy it from me.  Before I’ve even had the chance to use the bathroom facilities, I’ve sold the hat off my head.  Additionally, she gives me her own crocheted hat.  It matches my outfit far better than the one I had before.  I soon find out this hat-loving woman is the aunt of yesterday’s bride.
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Goodbye purple hat, I will always remember the day I completed you.
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To Properly Crash A Wedding You Just…

In the lounge by the fire I meet a clump of kids and their parents. There are six empty mugs of hot cocoas and the dad tells me they all came here to enjoy the holiday décor. The nearest décor (that I suddenly notice with fresh décor searching eyes) are the stuffed stockings that hang from the mantelpiece. They look well stuffed, handsomely stuffed. Before coming to the Pfister the family toured the holiday displays at the BMO Harris bank building where the father works. I learn that the mother is an alderman for Wauwatosa. Alderwoman, she corrects me. As a fellow woman I wonder: how I could I have just made a mistake like that?

 

I catch them right before they put on their coats and leave to spend their afternoon at the Discovery World museum. Daughter Natalia tells me she is eager to rest her body on the bed of nails that is kept there. Daughter Anastasia is dreamy with thoughts of the pirate ship. “Where is Joe?” someone asks. Sometimes he drifts away from the group to investigate shiny objects, and there are an awful lot of shiny objects in the Pfister, even more so when they have the holiday display up. Knowing Joe’s tendency, his brother Matthew gets up to go find him and bring him back for a picture.

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Parents with children Natalia, Matthew, Joe and Anastasia.

 

Two of the kids are biological, one is foster and another was adopted all the way from Khazakstan. “They are all miracles and great kids,” confirms their mother who adds entirely in jest, “And they are all a pain in the butt.”

 

The family asks me to share with them a secret about the Pfister Hotel. I tell them about the peephole on the seventh floor ballroom door. The kids ask me if I have ever seen a wedding in the ballroom, and I assert that I have witnessed quite a few. The dad asks Matthew, the eldest if he knows what it means to crash a wedding and the boy nods, “You just storm in, uninvited.” I get an image in my head of myself leaping into the ballroom, wearing a cape the color of a grey cloud and holding two cardboard lightening bolts. I swipe the microphone right out of the best man’s hand and yell into it my declaration of “I’m here!” The bride and groom gasp, several guests drop their forks that clang into their plates. Everyone is thunderstruck.

 

“But I have never crashed any weddings here,” I clarify.