BREAKFAST WITH SANTA | December 3, 2016 | What Do You Want From Santa? (Adult Version)

Breakfast With Santa, December 3, 2016

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Pfister Christmas tree was lit and Santa arrived to the applause of adults, the squeals of children, and the caroling of madrigals in the packed lobby.  But Santa didn’t return to the North Pole right away.  Instead, for the next three Saturdays, Mr. and Mrs. Claus (and a sledful of elves) are revisiting the Hotel at Breakfast With Santa in the elegant Imperial Ballroom.  To just call this “breakfast,” though, doesn’t do it justice.  I was able to get some beautiful shots of the holiday smorgasbord from the tiny balcony typically reserved for newlyweds, from which the laughter of families and the clink of plates blended harmoniously with the musical cheer resounding from the speakers.

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The excitement was palatable: trays and trays of delicious foods, crafts for the children, and jolly elves whipping everyone into a holiday frenzy.

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And then . . . “Can I have your attention, everyone?”  Concierge Peter Mortenson took center stage and entertained the crowd by pointing to a random breakfaster and asking, “Is that Santa Claus?”  The children, of course, yelled, “Noooooo!”  So if that wasn’t Santa, then, how could beckon him?  What else to do but to pick up a young boy, stand him on a chair, and announce that this boy had suggested singing a song.

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It worked!  In the middle of “Jingle Bells,” look who arrived!

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So, what’s a lowly Narrator to do when all the kids are sitting on Santa’s lap or making ornaments or decorating cookies? Interview the adults, of course, and ask them what they wanted from Santa.  Earlier in the week, I had gotten a glimpse of what of what kids at the tree lighting celebration had asked Santa for–electronics, toys, puppies, baby sisters, and the occasional selfless Milkbones for their current pets:
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May all of your wishes–whether you are young or old–come true in the new year!  Ho Ho Ho!

You can visit Santa this Saturday, December 10, and Saturday, December 17, from 9:30am-11:30am, in the Imperial Ballroom on the 7th floor.  Tickets are $45 for adults, $20 for children 3-10 years, and free for children 2 and younger.  Call 877-704-5340 or 414-935-5950 to reserve your spot!  

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | OCTOBER 2016 | Fear Edition | “Conquering Fears”

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A good story about fear–well, it’s kind of vain–is about when I was 21.  I conquered a lot of fears by going to school in London.  I was going to UW-Parkside and found a study abroad program through UW-Platteville.  I really had no monetary understanding or issues; I just didn’t care.  I just knew I was going to do this.

But I was scared shitless.  For one, I didn’t know anyone in the program because I was at a different school.  I just wanted to get out and do stuff–and I knew I’d have to conquer any fears.  When I was there, I had to figure out the Underground by myself–I did that.  And one time I figured out how to see four plays in one day!  LENNON, 42ND STREET, GIGI, and LES MIS–seriously, the opening night of LES MIS in London!  

When I came back from London, however, all the normal fears came back, especially since I didn’t feel, from London, like I had to make any real decisions.  But of course I did.

I want this kind of experience for my daughters.  I want them to experience a different culture and conquer their fears–at least temporarily.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | OCTOBER 2016 | Fear Edition | Pius XI High School Blutender Happy Hour

At a recent Blutender event for Pius XI High School, where I taught English for ten years, I met up with some of my old colleagues and their friends and supporters.  They were raising money for the Hank Raymonds Scholarship Fund.  When Mr. Raymonds died (he was the Marquette University basketball coach and athletic director in the 1970s), his three children, who were all Piux XI alums, created the fund in his honor.

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I’m not afraid of the unknown or the past.  I mean, I’m not afraid of death because of my faith, and I don’t regret anything in my life.  I remember taking a course called Death & Dying at Dominican; this was pivotal in my not living with regrets.

My biggest fear, then, is not having enough to retire on, especially as a single person.  I don’t fear being alone–I have lots of friends and family–but I do worry about retirement.

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I have a surface phobia: falling down stairs.  In fact, I was on the 30th floor of the 411 Building at Quarles & Brady when I found out they were going to have a fire drill in which we were to take the stairs all the way down.  I escaped the building early and came here to The Pfister and got a cup of coffee.

But my actual fear is this: my sixteen-year-old son goes to Pius and he’s physically disabled.  I’m constantly trying to provide opportunities for him, and I know that he doesn’t want to be different.  So my biggest fear is dying before I know he’s “set.”  I want him to have insurance and money so he can take care of himself.  I don’t want to die before him.

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I’m afraid of not being liked.  Well, maybe I shouldn’t use the word “liked.”  I mean, teachers are the most insecure people.  Teaching is our chance to be in power, but sometimes, when I think I’m doing well and I’ve nailed it, there’s this one kid out of thirty that tells me, “That’s crap.”  That’s being a teacher, though, huh?

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My biggest fear is being up this high on the 23rd floor.  If you paid me a million dollars to press my face up against the glass, I wouldn’t take it!  I used to take the kids to Great America and go on the highest roller coasters, but for some reason I’m afraid of heights now.

When I was coming up the elevator, I kept telling myself “You can take it!  You can take it!  I’m a big girl . . .”

See that guy by the window????

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HE’S FREAKING ME OUT!

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Cordial of Wisdom | August 2016

This is Thomas, one of the bartenders in the Lobby Lounge. He is full of cosmic love.

Last month I offered the first “Cordial of Wisdom” from behind the bar in the Lobby Lounge, featuring the imaginative, pun-laden, talismanic words of wisdom of Val, who has been with the Hotel for decades.  Today, I offer you Thomas.  At first, he smiled and said, with so much conviction, “I think I’m too young to be disseminating wisdom.  I’m still learning so much.”  I was patient with him, which was good because he tilted his head up slightly, his eyes glazed in contemplation, and with clarity and conviction that belied his age (which he didn’t reveal), began to talk about love.  We joked that I would call this post “Love Letter to My Wife,” but I think it’s really a “Love Letter to Love.”

Love is the most significant, energetic attribute we possess in life, but it is so elusive.  Every time I’ve grasped a taste of it, I’ve realized that its flavor is so much more vast.  I get overwhelmed–like I’m a cell in a giant of love.  Every time you taste it, there’s some new flavor.  I guess I’m a crazy, hopeless romantic, but I’m truly obsessed with this experience.

I’ve made some of the most significant life choices in the quest for this “Love.”  And it’s an experiential kind of love–not the printed card type of love.

Speaking of cordials, I feel like love–whatever it is–is truth.  It’s flowing from one ancient vine of grapes, and every grape is a different kind of love, and these flavors of grapes are all connected to the vine, and other vines–and they all connect to one source, one that goes below the ground where we can’t see it–and beyond.  What’s beyond is so mysterious, but all this love is connected to it somehow.

We got a kick out of taking this photo.

“Checking In With” Carol, Our Sunday Brunch Host | August 2016

You can’t tell from the photo (or maybe you can), but Carol possesses a quick wit! Watch out . . . or your smiles will make your cheeks start to hurt!

“Checking In With” Carol, Sunday Brunch Host

Here at The Pfister, I treat everyone the same.  I know they’re human beings: they all put their pants legs on one leg at a time.

I have been in hospitality for thirty years–I started out in banquets here at the Hotel–but I also have a huge theater background.  I did theater as a kid and in high school; I also did Student Congress and debate, both of which helped me talk my way out a problem.  Then I did community theater in my hometown.  There, I found myself backstage more–I was good at telling people what to do, where to go, what they needed–and was stage manager and producer on some of the productions.

Some of my favorite productions were Nunsense (I loved the amazing banter between the nuns, and the character I played had to do a song and be on pointe the whole time–yes, in ballet shoes) and My Fair Lady (I loved the dances).  What I realized is that theater is really about the people: we eat and sleep together for a few months at a time.  We become family, one that understands the stress and wear and tear that theater can inflict.  I mean, in a regular family, people can say, without really knowing your situation, “Oh, you can get through this” or “Why are you stressing so much?”  But in a theater family, everyone understands–and it can be more comfortable being with people who understand.

Hosting the Sunday Brunch at The Pfister is kind of my outlet for theater now: each guest is a new audience.  I feel trusted by the Hotel to take care of guests–all of the Associates do–for the good of the company.  It’s nice being able to make someone’s day a little better.

Cordials of Wisdom | July 2016

She works Tuesday through Saturday behind the bar in the Lobby Lounge, but in one sitting dispenses enough wisdom for an entire week (although she would probably chuckle her inward chuckle at me calling her quips and quivers “wisdom”).  She moves behind the bar with grace but always looks like she has a trick up her sleeve (she had several this afternoon, actually!).  Here is the first of multiple installments, I’m sure, of Valerie’s Cordials of Wisdom:

 

  • On the Art of Conversation.  “Allow the other to begin in one direction, like a straight arrow; allow them to take the lead.  Create the space where this freedom is possible, then begin to fill in the open spaces with yourself.  Follow the arrow down one path or the other path.”

Valerie has a quiet way of making you feel comfortable in the Lobby, waiting patiently for spaces that she can fill with wisdom, humor, impromptu insights, probing questions.  

 

  • Keep It Simple.  “Too many ingredients in a drink confuses the tastebuds.  Too many ingredients with dozens of other ingredients in them creates mud.  To avoid the muddle, in a drink (or life), keep it simple.  Complement simple ingredients with one or two others so that you can taste each one separately; if you’re lucky, then one flavor delight at the beginning, then give way to another, with a flourish at the end.”  

I learned this with her cordial of berries, coffee, and an ingredient that I’m not sure is secret or not, so I don’t dare mention it here lest I suffer the quivers of her “quips and quivers.”

 

  • Represent Your Places Well.  “Whatever places you represent, present them well.  Creating a relaxing atmosphere, a cordial experience, an unforgettable memory–this is who we are at The Pfister Hotel, for instance.”  

If you represent a school, present in every place you go as an ambassador.  If you represent a household, model for others what kind of family you are.  The same goes if you represent a company or a religion or a political office.  You are a synecdoche, a part that represents a whole.  It’s so easy to forget this, isn’t it?

 

  • Your Perception Directs Your Course.  “If you think that that black cat crossing your path is going to give you bad luck, then it’s more likely that you will have “bad luck.”  Your belief will affect the course of your day, making you more apt to identify “bad luck” when you might not have before.  Have you ever heard, however, about someone looking forward to a white cat crossing their path?”

Perhaps if more of us did . . .

 

  • Your Doubt Will Blind You.  “Here are three quarters separated by two dimes, all in a row.  Can you move two adjacent coins at a time, left or right, in three moves, so that the three quarters and two dimes are next to each other, with no spaces between any coins?”

I tried.  And tried.  And retried.  The answer to her question was a frustrated “No.”

“You doubted yourself.  You had it–the third move was right in front of you.  Many times.  But you doubted yourself.”

After whining a bit, I think, she calmly moved two coins, then two others, then two others.  And the coins aligned.  Then she brought out the cocktail napkin, ripped it into shreds, blew on it, and waved it in front of me like a white flag.  But it was me who was surrendering!  Magic . . .

So if you’re downtown when Valerie’s working and you’re feeling all quarters and dimes–or even worse, feeling like a shredded napkin–then step into the elegant Lobby Lounge, pull up a chair, bend one ear to the piano and another to Valerie, and get ready for some true Cordials of Wisdom.

 

“It Doesn’t Cost a Lot of Money to Be Nice”

For their 60th wedding anniversary, they went to Bora Bora.
For their 61st, Niagara Falls.
For their 62nd, Nashville, their 63rd Dallas.
They had a staycation in a Kauai Hilton last year.
And for this, their 65th anniversary, Joanne told Jim to surprise her.  

Even a couple of hours before her anniversary dinner at the Hotel where it all began, she still didn’t know why they had traveled all the way from Kauai.  Jim had arranged to have them renew their vows among family and friends, including two of their three children and Joanne’s brother, who lives in town and whom she hadn’t seen for about five years.  He had scheduled a late morning appointment for her at the WELL Spa + Salon, so, of course, she was suspicious, but Jim and the associates at The Pfister had done an excellent job of keeping the secret.

Colleen Maxwell, our Social Media Manager, and I got a chance to sit down with Jim before the big night to hear about his sly plotting and planning, but more importantly, for me at least, about his answer to this question:  What is your secret for staying married for so long?

Look at that sly smile. His wife still didn't know why they were at The Pfister!
Look at that sly smile. His wife still didn’t know why they were at The Pfister!

Answer: Start planning in junior high.

As Jim told it, “I spotted her when she was twelve, when I was in 7th grade.”  Well, that’s an early start.  “I was part of the CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization.  They would let the 6th graders take a look to see what was in store for them.  And one day I pointed to my friend Bill and said, ‘That girl in the white shirt and black and white checkered shirt–she is beautiful.’”  Needless to say, Bill reminded Jim that she was “only twelve.”  That didn’t stop Jim, though, from watching and waiting.  

His mother had wanted, as many Catholic mothers in his era did, her son to become a priest.  He attended Marquette University High School, doing his mother proud.  From afar, however, he watched Joanne grow up.  Then, about two months from his sixteenth birthday, in the year of our Lord 1947, the phone rang: it was Joanne.  They agreed to go on a date to a Saturday party, but not before Joanne laid down some “ground rules.”  (She knew about the crazy house party he’d been at a few weeks earlier at his cousin’s place while the parents were gone: “I was a victim,” Jim insists.)  Even though she was dating other people at the time, Jim couldn’t refuse such a bold offer.  And neither could her parents welcome strapping young (and Catholic) Jim into their lives.

Answer: Remind them how beautiful they are.

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Thank you, Google, for the many faces of Dorothy McGuire.

Jim’s voice crackled with sheer disbelief that anyone so beautiful could have come into his life.  “She was and still is very beautiful.”  He said this several dozen times (and wouldn’t tire, I’m sure, of saying it again.)  People used to come up to her and ask for her autograph, because she was the spitting image of Dorothy McGuire, a star of radio, stage, and screen, especially in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Just the other day,” he adds, jumping ahead many decades, “we were having brunch at a hotel after Sunday Mass.  Two women came up to us and told my wife, ‘We can’t get over how beautiful you look.’  This has happened so many times when we’re out to eat.  I always want to tell these women that I’m sitting right there, too.  Whatever happened,” he joked, “to saying, ‘Hey, this fellow doesn’t look that bad either’?  What am I?  Chopped liver?”

Five years later, they were married.  Jim referred to The Pfister Hotel as the “first place we ever shacked up in Milwaukee after we got married.”  As we all know, of course, The Pfister is far from a “shack.”

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This is the photo that reminds Jim of Joanne the most.

Answer: Tolerate each other and accept each others’ individual talents.

They started what he kept calling an “interesting” and “supportive” life together.  One of the keys to their marriage, it seems, was allowing each other to be their own persons, to follow their own paths–but together.  He called it “tolerance,” but it seems much more than that. A very early indication of their acceptance of each other was when she had to practice her tennis game to defend her CYO championship at the resort on their honeymoon, something that got their friends wondering whether Jim and Joanne understood what was supposed to happen on a honeymoon.  But play she did, and Jim, in love with his new partner, didn’t think twice about it.  

They would go on to adopt three children in their early years, two sons and a daughter.

He eventually opened his own office supply company, with three employees.  For someone who didn’t even know how to use Liquid Paper, this was a risk.  But they made things work, with Joann helping in the store, too.  But it took Jim a while to realize that she possessed a not-so-hidden talent.  “She was always bitching about salesmen who didn’t know anything about sales,” he says.  She was a fierce critic who knew how things should be run, so he got her set up with her own office furniture business, which is still successful, now run by their daughter, with Joanne as chairperson of the board.  

Jim talked at length about his other career choices, all of which Joanne supported.  He once worked for the Texas Rangers selling season tickets to businesses, traveling once a year with the ball club because his sales were so good.  He worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in charge of state-wide distribution.  But most interesting to me was his three-week-a-year stint as Santa Claus for twenty-five years.  Jim was no mall Santa; instead, he dressed up for friends, especially friends with children, and Joanne would accompany him as an elf.  Free of charge.  He did it out of pure joy, making sure that his friends got at least one gift from their children’s wish lists–and to let him know what they had gotten.  That way, he would know that a boy had gotten, say, a G.I. Joe for Christmas, and armed with this knowledge, the following year “Santa” could tell that boy, “Remember when you wanted that G.I. Joe last year.”  Kid’s mind blown.  Jaw dropped.  Santa is real.  

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The private dinner and renewal of 65-year-old wedding vows.

Answer (the most important one): Enjoy life and be nice.

Jim’s philosophy of life?  “When I die, I don’t want people to stand at my casket and say, ‘That poor guy didn’t enjoy life.  He didn’t use enjoy every minute that God gave him.”  He added, “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to be nice to people,” he told us.  

Originally, I was going to title this post “Giddy as a Frickin’ High Schooler,” a phrase Jim repeated to me numerous times on the phone and during our interview.  Giddy.  Young.  Enjoying every minute that God gave him.  

However, in the wake of the senseless tragedy in Orlando this past weekend, I’ve decided to use Jim’s more relevant and ridiculously simple words as my title:

“It Doesn’t Cost a Lot of Money to Be Nice.”

Jazz Virgin

I admit it.  I’m a jazz virgin.

But The Pfister Hotel is going to initiate me.

At the Mason Street Grill on Wednesday evening, after listening to part of a set by the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, I snuck up to a table where a woman was sitting alone.

The Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo

Her companion had just temporarily vacated his seat to chat with Jamie and Mark.  This seemed like a good opportunity to see what she knew and thought about jazz.  I introduced myself (her name is Sheryl) and remarked about how smoothly Jamie’s embouchure and Mark’s fingers communicated with each other, almost telepathically (I didn’t use the term “embouchure”–I had to look that up!).  I was really bemoaning the fact that I’d never been able to tear my eyes away from the sheet music and just, well, jam.  Improvise.  Instead, my classical and acoustic guitar playing was always literally by-the-book.  Sheryl conjectured that improvisation was like telling each other, “We’re going to do this together–but also separately.  Let’s just agree to play in this key, this tempo, this style.”  Then I’m going to play, then you’ll come in when it seems right.  I’ll listen to your notes, you listen to my rhythm.  We’ll build off each other.   Communicate and create with a look, a beat, a tone.  We’ll build off what we know and take it from there.

20160608_214806Sheryl’s husband, Kurt, whose seat I had taken, is an accomplished pianist, composer, and arranger.  When Kurt returned to the table, I learned that he had arranged the music this spring for James & the Giant Peach at The Prairie School, where Jamie and I just got done teaching for the year, and had also just performed with Aretha Franklin at the Riverside the previous Friday.  When I told them that one of my missions as the Narrator is to uncover the story of jazz at The Pfister–and educate myself on the genre–both Sheryl and Kurt recommended that I begin my instruction with Ken Burn’s famous Jazz documentary series.  Sheryl admitted to knowing about as much as I do about the technical side of jazz, but it must be nice having a jazz expert to which to defer when jazz virgins like me ask questions like “How do Jamie and Mark know when to come in after the other one solos?” or “Are there many female jazz musicians?  Have there ever been?  If not, then how come?”  or “Were they just playing Coltrane or modern jazz or Monk or someone else?”  She was able to help up to a point, then she and I were in the same boat.  I hope we’ll find ourselves in that boat again during my year-long Pfister initiation into the world of jazz.

This pleasant conversation seems like a good starting point for my initiation–that and Ted Gioia’s Jazz Standards, which I had tucked into my bag in case I had time to read while listening to Jamie and Mark.  I wouldn’t have time to read, but I would go on that evening to meet several other people who undoubtedly will become some of my jazz mentors this year.

Jamie made sure to introduce me to August (Auggie) Ray, vice president of Jazz Unlimited of Greater Milwaukee, whose mission is “to support the art of jazz in all its forms and encourage local jazz musicians, composers and venues by cultivating an interest in jazz through local live performances, youth scholarship opportunities and community outreach throughout the Greater Milwaukee area.”  Auggie sat near the piano and typed prodigiously into his iPhone, posting to Facebook a photo of the Duo, some notes, and the location.  He calls The Pfister “one of the best promoters of live music in the city.”  With live piano seven days a week, live music in the Mason Street Grill six days, and live music at Blu at least two times a week, I couldn’t argue with him.  The Pfister is not alone in promoting live music, especially jazz.  Auggie moves from one live music venue to another throughout the week, averaging two a day, although his personal record is six in one day: Amelia’s at 5:00, The Packing House at 6:00, Caroline’s at 8:00 (mostly blues), Mason Street Grill at 9:00, then the Jazz Estate for until 1:00 am (reopening in July!).  At each new place, he posts to Facebook.  He is a constant presence in the life of jazz and blues in Milwaukee.  We only got to chat for a little bit, because he was headed up to Blu, but not before he gave me a Jazz Unlimited newsletter (this is going to be invaluable!) and told me that Dan Albrechtson, who plays piano in The Pfister lobby, has a steady gig–on every second Monday at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, where I live–giving a concert and jazz history lesson with Pete Wood, Bruce Yeo, Don Shesky, and Rob Moore.  (I’ll see you there soon, Dan!)

Before the night ended, I joined Mark Davis and his Wisconsin Conservatory of Music colleague, guitarist Paul Silbergleit, at Blu, where, it turns out, Mark Thierfelder had booked The Julie Lyon Quartet from New York City to play a special show with his Mark Thierfelder Trio.  (Of course, Auggie was up there already, posting away!)  Among other musical combos, Mark also plays with The Jazz Corporation, joined by Greg Marcus and Bill Bonifas.  While Julie sang the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version of 1945’s “Frim-Fram Sauce,” popularized by The Nat King Cole Trio, Paul and I discussed my earlier regret, the one I’d shared with Sheryl, about never being able to improvise or jam.  In something of a consolation, he assured me that there are musicians who only improvise but who don’t really know music, and that there are musicians who can only read music, who know notes on the page and perhaps music theory, but who don’t really feel music.  He argued for a happy medium.  We also talked about how one’s environment can come out in one’s music, just as it can emerge in writing (Paul referenced Hemingway and Key West).  

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The Julie Lyon Quartet

However, as interesting and cerebral as our conversation became, these are things I’ll have to think about later as I try to learn more about jazz, as an art form and as a source of stories here at The Pfister Hotel.  Sometimes, at midnight, in a crowded bar with interesting gentlemen and songs about pork chops and bacon, oss-en-fay and shafafa, one just wants to enjoy one’s Old Fashioned, nibble on wasabi peas, tell stories, laugh–and listen.

“You Can’t Take My Bones”

Last Thursday evening, I had an hour to kill before I met a good friend and colleague for dinner in Bay View.  Dressed in my “Pfister casual,” as I’m calling it–dark denim and an almost black-blue and silver short-sleeved shirt–I settled into one of the sofas in the lobby, ordered an Old Fashioned from Ellie, and pulled out my notebook.  

Two men at one end of the bar, two at the other, two women in front of me, a man and a woman at the far end to my right–all deep in conversation, or glasses of post-work wine, or, in one case,  a pile of wings.  How to approach them?  I’ll admit, the hardest part of my job as Narrator so far is making the first move.  In my dating days, I used to be a wallflower who waited for people to approach me, but here I was, hanging out in the lobby of an elegant hotel, navigating the gray area between friendly and intrusive.  

I passed a little time by roughly (I say roughly because . . . well, I’m sorry!) sketching the two women while I waited for my drink (expertly made by Jeff, by the way), continuing to scan the room for a potential story.  What was their story, I wondered.  Why were they there tonight?  What would they be willing to share with me?

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Enter: a deus ex machina!  Piano music from the sound system.  

No, it seemed live.  From the cafe?  That would be odd.  From Mason Street Grill?  Too far away.  No, it was coming from inside the lobby.  

I peered past the two women I had sketched and the god who was not really in a machine materialized: Dan Albrechtson, playing a rendition of “Stand By Me.”  From where I was sitting across the lobby, he appeared to be in his 70s, his black jacket curved over the keys, his wispy white hair and wire glasses hanging low.  I was amazed, even from as far away as I was, by the effortlessness and grace with which he played, his hands sliding back and forth across the keys.  When I sat down with Dan a little bit later, I would get to see how youthful his hands look and how wide his fingers can stretch from key to key.  He would play for me a regular 1-3-5 major chord, call it “ugly,” then play it with the 3 in the next higher octave.  He would tell me how he used to sit in school, writing with his right hand and stretching his left fingers against the table edge.  “Like a gymnast learning how to do the splits,” I would muse.  He would also share (though I’m not sure how it came up!) that he used to run half and full marathons, and he would wow me with his mile times when he was my age (let’s just say he was faster).  While Dan’s running is now all on a treadmill, I’m impressed and inspired: I hope that in thirty years I’m still running and doing my own version of Dan’s 10-key finger span with something I’m good at–perhaps writing or teaching or something new.

Which brings me to why Dan was my deus ex machina, that element of classical Greek theater in which a god or goddess would suddenly show up just at the right moment–which was usually at the end of the play when all was chaos and confusion.  When I realized he was playing, then, I added him to my quick sketch and leisurely sipped my drink, still wondering how I was going to approach any of the people in the room, none of whom seemed “in the right spot” for a conversation with me. I wrote down in my notebook, however, the question I’d like to ask them if I could, inspired by Dan’s piano playing: What do you hope to still have when you’re 70, 80, 90 years old?  What do you hope to still possess?  

And then–here’s the Greek moment–one of the men from the bar walked up to Dan to tip him and thank him for playing.  He seemed pretty approachable, so as he returned to his friend, I approached.  They both agreed with smiles that Dan’s music was beautiful.

It turns out that DeMarco, now living and working in New York City, was visiting his old pal Justin.  When they were younger, they had shared a healthy rivalry as news reporters and anchors in Milwaukee.  Tonight, they are all compliments for each other, especially Justin, who is convinced DeMarco is headed for the big seat at the network.  But that’s not what we talk about.  We talk about growing old and being tenacious.  What do they want to hold onto into their older years?

DeMarco: I want to still have rhythm.  I want to be able to still keep a beat.

Me: What do you mean?

DeMarco: Rhythm isn’t just something physical, like being able to walk straight.  It’s that sweet cadence that you possess.  It’s music, which you get to interpret.  It’s really everything.  

Me: I think I know what you mean.

DeMarco: It’s like this: imagine your favorite band, your favorite song . . . without rhythm.  

Me: I can’t even hear what that would sound like!  What was your favorite song as a child?

DeMarco: This is going to sound silly, because I was really young and didn’t understand what the song was really about, but it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”  My father would play that song all the time.  It was good.

Me: Ha!  That’s like the kids in my neighborhood years ago lip syncing to “Baby Got Back”!

DeMarco: Yes.  Well, my father John died when I was ten years old, on Father’s Day.  But he used to say, “You can’t take my bones.  You can take away anything else, but you can’t take my bones.”

Me: That fits in perfectly with my first impression of Dan on the piano.  His fingers are still gliding across those keys like nothing at all.

DeMarco: Rhythm (snaps his fingers three times) connects everything.  Everything.  You know how when people say “My rhythm’s off”?  That means something’s not right.  Some kind of connection.  (smiling) It aligns with the universe.  It keeps everything in sync.

During my conversation with DeMarco, Justin chimed in intermittently, in between devouring a plate of wings.  With three left on the plate, he offers me the rest, informing me that they are excellent.  Not usually a wings man, and headed to dinner soon, I defer, but he insists that they are that good.  I only eat one, but they are.  “Grilled, not fried.  That’s the secret.”  I’ve never tasted wings that meaty and tasty.  I’ll be back.

But back to Justin.  

Me: What was your favorite song?

Justin: (without skipping a beat) Prince’s “Adore.”  Not many people seem to know that one.

Me: I don’t recognize it.  But I’m bad with artists and titles and stuff.

Justin: I must’ve been about 12 years old, and there was this line where he says, “You could burn up my clothes, / smash up my ride.  Well, maybe not the ride”–and he’d say it in his Prince voice. (voice gets higher) ”Well, maybe not the ride.  But I got to have your face / all up in the place.”

(When I got home, I listened to “Adore.”  What a sexy tune, especially as blog-writing background music.)

Me: And what do you still hope to have when you’re older?

Justin: I want to still be in touch with my spirit, my soul.  There are so many people who are disconnected from their spirit–or become disconnected.

Me: “Spirit” and “soul” can both mean dozens of things to dozens of people.  What do they mean to you?

Justin: My connection to humanity.  I still want to be able to relate to people all over the world.  I want to be cognizant of my connection with everyone and everything.

I am certainly glad I got the chance to connect with the two compassionate, kind, and heartfelt spirits of Justin and DeMarco, with Ellie and Jeff (I’ll be seeing more of you soon!), and most of all with Dan, whose music set the evening’s wheels and ideas and memories into motion.  Thank you!

Under the Spreading Chestnut: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part IV

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.

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The original Longfellow draft, featuring our inspiration line: “Under a spreading chestnut tree.”
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.

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.”

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Nick reads a love poem to Kelley.

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.

Happy (every day) Mother’s Day!