HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | NOVEMBER 2016 | A Month of Gratitude

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So far, HUMANS OF THE PFISTER has captured stories of life, liberty, happiness, augustness, education, and fear.  The Humans have been so willing to share their stories, whether happy or sad, simple or philosophical, funny or serious, unique or universal.  So I can’t wait to hear what they have to share with me and you this month.  Our theme?

A month of gratitude.

I will be asking Humans this month for three different kinds of gratitudes: 

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Thanks for something that can fit into a 1’x1′ box.

Thanks for a human or group of humans.

Thanks for a something non-physical

whether it’s an idea, a value, a force–

as long as it’s something we can’t see physically.

If you don’t get a chance to come to The Pfister and talk to me, then please leave your three stories of thanks in the Comments Box below or on Facebook (my or the Hotel’s page).  I’ll publish them on the blog as they come in!

Without further ado, here are your first three thankful Humans of The Pfister:

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This gentleman visited Pamela’s studio while I was there, genuinely interested in why she was intrigued by the architecture of the Hotel (he had stopped to read the sign outside her studio).  He was at the Hotel to volunteer at an entrepreneurship awards ceremony for BizStarts.

lunch-box-clipart-black-and-white-clipart-panda-free-clipart-18i8wh-clipartI give thanks to my eyeballs, my sight.  Just imagine trying to describe this hotel.  It’s so beautiful.  Try describing this, for example, to Stevie Wonder.  I don’t take my eyesight for granted.  One of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever seen?  Just people, I guess.  Just people.  And the act of love.

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I give thanks to lots of people.  I was literally raised by Milwaukee.  I grew up in the foster care system, so I bounced around a lot.  Even as an adult, I struggled with homelessness.  But you know what?  There are a lot of good things in this world.  Even in the crevasses.

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I give thanks to Love because when you think about it, what’s life without Love.  I mean, even Hitler loved somebody.  Didn’t he love that one woman?  You know, people in the urban community have a saying: “Love, bro.  Love.  Just Love.”  I don’t know, we just say it to each other.  Maybe that means solidarity?  I deal with a lot of non-profits and their favorite word is “unity.”  Everyone’s about unity.  And that’s because you need love.  Even though yesterday I was dealing with some stuff, telling myself “You don’t need love,” I know that I really do need it.  Think about it: when you were two years old, you couldn’t do anything.  You needed someone to love you, right?

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This gentleman just lost his mother last week and was dealing with a viable mixture of grief and regret and second thoughts.  At the time I approached him, it was difficult for him to open up, but he did share a “stick figure” gratitude about his mother.  There is more that we talked about that is not recorded here.

stick_man_clip_art_24915I give thankfor my mother.  Over the past year, I realized that one of my main personality traits is that I love helping people.  I’m a software engineer by trade, but now I’m what you could call a sales engineer.  I’m the “architect” that helps engineers with their problems.  My mom, well, she touched a lot of people, too.  I have five biological siblings and count thirteen total as my brothers and sisters.  But all told, I’d estimate that she had at least twenty-five foster kids over the years.  She was a good person.

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This gentleman was volunteering for BizSmarts.  Alex introduced me to him.

lunch-box-clipart-black-and-white-clipart-panda-free-clipart-18i8wh-clipartI give thanks for belts.  You know, we need a belt to hold our pants up.  You present yourself as an example to others when your pants are held up.  There are some people, though, who walk around with their pants down, pants sagging.  In other people’s eyes, they lose respect, even if they don’t deserve it.  I don’t disrespect people who don’t wear belts, but perspective is a big thing.

stick_man_clip_art_24915I give thanks to my mother, my father, and God.  If these didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist.  The greatest thing they have given me is my life.

 

thought-bubble-student-think-bubble-clipart-free-imagesI give thanks for my visionary thoughts.  I think outside the box.  I think of the impossible.  If someone says “No” I say “Yes.”  I do almost the opposite.  If someone says “Why can’t we do this?” I say “You’re not doing enough.”

From the Mezzanine: Milwaukee Art Museum Teens Descend on The Pfister

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Windblown and soggy, they escaped the dark cold.  They entered the bright gallery space where new art was being hung for an upcoming exhibit, one girl wrapped in a beach towel for warmth, others with curls worried about frizzing.  One boy shook his purple hair, others nudged each other as they talked about their day. Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin their experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally, if “formal” means taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin the experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally–if by “formal” I mean taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Helene Fischman, the Manager of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Teen Leadership Program, had arranged to bring these twelve teenagers to The Pfister, a few blocks west of where they typically meet, to learn about the Narrator program and to practice their writing by responding to their experience of the Hotel.  This special Teen Advisory Council is, according to MAM’s website, “designed to develop teen leadership skills, build teen career connections to museum- and arts-related professionals, and bring about systemic change within the Milwaukee Art Museum.”  The teens–who attend schools as diverse as Marquette, Rufus King, and Milwaukee High School of the Arts–were invited to serve on the Council based on their demonstrated leadership and enthusiasm for the arts in previous MAM programs.  Helene takes them through intensive exercises that focus on how to respond to the world around them in different ways.  And, as was clear by how they acted with each other and with Helene and me, she teaches them how to respect that world and the people with whom they interact.  They are currently creating a monthly eNewsletter–with articles about goings-on at the Museum and around the city, recommended pairings of art and music, comics, interviews, and more–and getting ready to set up a Teen Art Exhibition.

Before most of them got a chance to view the magnificent lobby (only two of them had visited before), I offered them a mini-history of the Hotel as we relaxed in the Pop-Up Gallery.  I’m not the greatest historical storyteller (aka I’m no Peter Mortenson), so my histories usually get reduced to timeline highlights.  However, the teens listened dutifully (and with what seemed genuine interest).  In fact, we even had some good laughs.  For instance, once I told them that a fire destroyed the grand Newhall House in 1883, everything after that became, for the teens, about fire.  They guessed, incorrectly of course, that Guido Pfister died . . . wait for it . . . “in a hotel fire!”  That four days after the Hotel Pfister opened in 1893 . . . wait for it . . . it, too, “burned to the ground!”  (The correct answer?  The stock market crashed.)  So we had a little fun and took some liberties with the history of the “Grand Hotel of the West,” amused by Dick and Harry (the stately lion guardians), awed by the idea of the glass ceiling, tickled by the fact that someone wrote a march just for the Pfister Hotel, and, well, I’m not sure what they were thinking when I told them there used to be Turkish Baths where the WELL Spa + Salon is now.  I detected a smirk or two.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

We made our way to the Mezzanine, got ourselves settled on the floor again, and I talked to them about the joys and difficulties of being the Pfister Narrator, in particular what it’s like approaching strangers.  “Sometimes, honestly, it feels like I’m looking for a date,” I tell them.  “I know, that’s creepy, but it’s kind of true.”  I give them my best Joey from Friends: “How you doin’?”  Sometimes, I add, it takes some coaxing and getting over inhibitions or even language barriers.  Sometimes it’s about seeking out the “loudest” person in the room, whether that means volume-loud (like the LSU fans when they were here to go to Lambeau) or appearance-loud (like the one person in the room that looks like he works on Project Runway, covered in tattoos and incredible floral skinny jeans).  I admit that sometimes I’ve prejudged people unfairly (“too sporty,” “too quiet,” “too north woodsy”–whatever those things actually mean, which is nothing) and that I’ve more often than not been humbled by what people are willing to share with me.  I meant to give them these examples in particular: the “too sporty” guy who I thought was just going to talk about golf but who told me that the time he felt most alive was after he gave one of his kidneys to his eleven-year-old daughter and started embracing Buddhist values; the “too quiet” woman who wowed me with her photography and oil paintings, embracing her inner Bohemian; and the “too north woodsy” guy who talked about fishing like it was a spiritual experience.  I do share with them one of my most recent Humans of the Pfister, Claudia, an Associate at The Pfister who was serving wine and hors d’oeuvres at a recent function that I was at.  I told Claudia to take a break from pouring us wine–we could do that ourselves–and tell me a story about a fear.  After breaking down her inhibitions a bit, I got to hear her moral philosophy on the light and the dark.  I’ve come to not be surprised when eloquent wisdom comes from the mouths of anyone I talk to here at the Hotel.  I think I used the word “humbled” at least a dozen times.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

It was time, then, for the teens to do what they were here to do, which was to explore the Hotel and respond to it.  Helene and I had decided to offer them three main observation subjects: Painting, People, or Pillars (a third “P” that meant any of the architectural details of the Hotel).  I invited them to imagine what was to the unseen and unrepresented left or right each painting’s scene, or above or below, beyond or in the foreground.

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I suggested they observe guests’ and Associates’ characteristics and eavesdrop a little, or even talk to them if they seemed willing.

Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And Helene asked them to consider what the pillars or carpeting or handrails had to say to them, or imagine who had constructed or walked or touched these elements in the Hotel’s past glory days.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And then they were off.

Some of the teens headed directly to the third floor, others ventured down the stairs into the lobby, gazing up at the ceiling or walking down the hallway toward Mason Street Grill.  At least one remained in the mezzanine, contemplating the rendition of Domenichino’s The Hunt of Diana.  Jack West and I were doing some serious art criticism about this piece!

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Jack West (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

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Helene had encouraged them to be patient and take some time to look around, observe, and listen before they took their thoughts and imaginations to paper. As Helene’s beautiful photos show, the teens took her words to heart and also embraced the Hotel’s offer of “Salve”:

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Josiah Grabber (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Marcelo Quesada (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Tom Krajna (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sarai Van Leer (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Joicelyn Brenson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Suvan Praseutsack (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sheyenne Wilson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Margaret French (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

When they all returned, we took a break, ate some boxed dinners prepared by the MAM chef, and talked about, among other things, the seniors’ college application process (two of the teens were still juniors), where they were applying, what their dream schools were.  The teens enjoyed each others’ company, clearly enjoyed having Helene as their leader, and welcomed me into their conversation with ease and delight.  In particular, talked a lot with Montaser Abduljalil, a polite and inquisitive young man.  We talked about art at his school and the school where I used to teach, about my photography project called ZIP MKE, and about how marvelous the Hotel is.  Monty, as people call him, loves that “one of the Pfister’s goals is to make your stay feel as cozy and home-like as they can, with carpet and marble everywhere and the welcoming staff.”

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

When we moved back to the Pop-Up Gallery where there was more light and less noise (the lobby was hopping!), I learned that some of them had talked to Pamela in her studio and that Monty had approached Dr. Jeffrey Hollander at his piano and talked to him for awhile, learning how Hollander remembers every song that anyone has ever asked him to play.  (In fact, before we left for the evening, Monty asked him to play Debussy’s Claire de Lune–and was simply in awe when he heard Dr. Hollander play it.  We had to stay to hear the entire piece.)

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Dang, these kids were good!  And then, again gathered in a circle on the floor, Helene and I heard each of the teens share what they had written.  Each was written in a different style and form.  Some were poems, some were lists of observations, others were dialogues imagined or overheard, still others were written from the perspective of, say, the carpet or an empty display case, as with Sarai Van Leer’s insistent poem:

Empty
A space waiting to be filled
Hollow, for decoration?
They are saving me for something special that’s why there is nothing in me yet.
Every other one is filled with careless objects,
Just things to look at
Never to take note of
Wine, conditioner, advertisement, glasses, and more liquor
Why am I empty?
They must be saving me for something special, right?
I mean they must be!
I won’t be just something to pass by and look at,
Never to take note of!
Yet, I am special.
I am not filled
Nothing is there, my beauty is too precious
Too beautiful to be filled with nonsense objects.
I am something to take note of!

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Sarai’s inspiration

Or Thomas Krajna’s elusive “Vending Behind Closed Doors”:

Fitting in is obsolete.
Practicality and manner outweigh her. Endless possibilities of consumerism.
One action outweighs your trust.
The windows can’t see.
The doors can’t see.
Technology inputs and uneventfully changes history.

And Marcelo Quesada’s vision of the lobby:

The people mingle. The walls tower, a rich light brown of milky coffee. They curve in a heavenly, sweeping motion towards the ceiling, switching to a creamy baby blue that sings of church hymns and lullabies from my mother. The angels, depicted as children–soft, floating, just like the warm mumble of the lobby conversations. The piano is distant–the notes drip and sing and dance off the mocha walls, giving dead paintings a kiss of life. Glasses of ice and liquor clink and swish in a familiar gesture. Soft, dim yellow lights warm the space. It is full.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Monty (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

All the pieces were rough drafts, but each held a new an interesting insight into the life of the Hotel–and each was read not from the floor but from a ceremonial chair, holding the ceremonial Nerf skull.  And, more important than the writing they had accomplished, after each reading the teens snapped or clapped for each other and rolled an orange to someone who would be the designated reviewer, offering one thing they liked about the piece their Council colleague had shared.  This was no time for critique, just celebration and positive response.  It was a pleasant bookend to the evening, which had begun in a circle of warmth from the cold and warmth in each others’ company.

Oh, and did I mention that Monty was taking photos the entire time?  A few of his photos are above in the article, but here is only a handful of the nearly 75 that he sent me.  I don’t think that last Wednesday will be the last time that Montaser Abduljalil (or the other teens*) will be visiting The Pfister Hotel!

 

PLUME SERVICE: Bringing the Art to Life

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If these walls could talk…

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!).

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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.

 

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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.

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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!

You can RSVP by emailing me at hotelnarrator@gmail.com or by visiting the Plume Service Facebook Page.

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!

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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Getting HAPPY at The Pfister: A Story of Loss and Recovery

Suggestion: Turn up the volume on your device, click play, and prepare to get happy!

Photographs from Guillaume Duchenne’s 1862 book Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine

One of the many privileges of being human is that we experience emotions.  While some might argue that other creatures express emotions, too, or that it’s not much of a privilege that we have to experience the painful ones, no one can argue with the fact that we are indeed “moved out of ourselves” (Latin emovere – “move out, agitate”) by a myriad of complex feelings stemming from the four basic emotions of happiness, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust.  These emotions, each registered by different combinations of our 42 facial muscles, can cause us to love, cry, scream, or punch.  Sometimes we bottle them up or keep them hidden; sometimes we let loose and express them with reckless abandon.  And in our digital world, we don’t just register emotions with our faces: think of the billions of emoticons and gifs and memes that we use now to express our feelings.  Emotions are the stuff of our lives–and the building blocks of the stories we write about ourselves.  One such storythe directorial debut of Michael Patrick McKinley–hit the screens during the recent Milwaukee Film Festival.

While the festival is over, if you missed the Milwaukee premiere of McKinley’s delightful documentary Happy, don’t fret.  Just put on a happy face and head over to The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery for a glimpse into the sketchbooks of the subject of the film, Leonard Zimmerman.  Curated by Steven Uhles and hosted by Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson, “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” features numerous prints from Leonard’s sketchbooks, an enormous collage of 32 photographs with Happy stickers in them, and an extended trailer of the film created just for this exhibit.  

20161004_140539Uhles describes Leonard’s art, with its whimsical robots and recognizable motifs, as “art as memoir.”  Even though this exhibit can only offer visitors a miniscule, microscopic fraction of his sketches, one can find even in it Leonard’s story of love and loss, depression and recovery–a story of falling in love and creating a life with Brian Malone, then losing him to cryptococcal meningitis.  The sketches depict Leonard’s subsequent depression and how his art became therapy, how it helped him hold on to his love for and memories of Brian and recover his capacity for boundless happiness.  Additionally, as with all good memoir, one can find in the sketches echoes of one’s own life events.  

The collage of Happy stickers–created by the Coalition of Photographic Arts–speaks to the participatory nature of Zimmerman’s art: the ubiquitous stickers of his Happy campaign, with the endearing smile and flashing bulb that people all over the world have attached to parts of their cities then shared with Leonard through social media.  While the yellow smiley that appeared in 1963 stares blankly ahead, this smiley tilts its head, its eyes have life, its bulb flashes a message of happiness.  Anyone can get free stickers by sending Leonard a self-addressed stamped envelope.  

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Gallery visitors consider the Happy collage.

One of the first things we hear about Leonard in the film comes from Alex Wier of Wier/Stewart, the branding, advertising, and graphic design company where Leonard is a designer.  Alex says, “Leonard comes from a different planet.”  Yes, Leonard’s infinite number of smiles and laughs are contagious, and yes, he can bring “childlike enthusiasm” to seemingly bland ad campaigns like ones for banks.  Yes, Leonard loved Christmas so much as a child that his tinsel and light displays rivaled, surely, Clark Griswold’s, and his parents even wondered, “Where does this child get all these things?”  But I have an inkling that Leonard is not really an alien from outer space, that his story is the story of being human on this planet.  One of wonder and delight, and one where there’s room for pain and suffering.  

We embrace our pains in different ways.  Leonard seems to have embraced it in every way possible.  In the film, we hear him embrace it with raw honesty, as when he describes for the camera the spinal fluid from Brian’s first spinal tap.  He describes how he embraced it with confusion and disorientation after Brian died, as when he would walk into the grocery store only to abandon it in tears because Brian usually did the shopping–he didn’t know what to buy.  He embraced it with self-medication, too, (“I didn’t think I would hurt”) and eventually had to move back home to Augusta after he lost his job and the house that Brian and he had bought together in Savannah.  

20161004_140530“My best friend was my notebook,” Leonard says in the film.  His sketches, some of which can be seen in the Pop-Up Gallery, allowed him to express his early love, the loss of his love, and the love that remained after his loss.  What emerged were lovable robots, some distinctly Leonard and Brian, others distinctly masculine or feminine, but more often than not, his robots eschew gender or race or sexuality.  Which brings us back to memoir as art: he has interpreted his life for himself, then shared it with us so that we can interpret it and interpret ourselves into it.  As one guest at the gallery’s opening night says, “His art is refreshing.  It makes you think about your own emotions, where you go through break-ups, life, death.  This one is about holding in that bad and not wanting to release the negative energy.  And in this one he has an indifferent face–but he has a bag puppet which suggests that he still has emotions.”

When people like his sister and old art teacher got him canvas, encouraging him to take his sketches one step further, he started painting again and Leonard was born again.  His paintings became a timeline of his emotions and experiences, his process one that echoes his own life: “I always paint messy, then clean it up along the way.”  

One of the best sequences in the film, for me, is one in which we watch Leonard painting in his studio, a soft spotlight on him and his easel in the middle of the room, the background darker.  With headphones jamming–probably to Sam Smith or Telepathic Teddy Bear, both featured heavily on the film’s soundtrackand red Chuck Taylors on his feet, he swoops around his painting with gusto and giddiness, with bright, broad brushstrokes and thick black outlines.  We see his messiness and what he does to “clean it up.”  Ane we can only imagine what he’s thinking as he paints.  Probably something like the quotation from Mother Theresa that he used during a TEDX Talk in 2014: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

Seeing the TEDX Talk for the first time brought director Michael McKinley to tears.  He says that something stuck with him, until six months later, while he was in Las Vegas and had his “epiphany”: to make a documentary about Leonard’s story.  An audience member at the film’s showing that I attended asked Michael why directors don’t make more inspirational movies instead of ones that leave viewers feeling ambiguous about their feelings or just plain empty.  He replied, “There need to be more movies that do the opposite of movies that make you feel sad and crummy.  Now I’ve got the bug.”

20161004_140548Another audience member wanted to know when she could see the film again so she could share it with her family and friends, but Michael reminded her that releasing a film to DVD or streaming while it’s still going through the film festivals gets tricky.  It could be another year, he said, to which she replied, with an apocalyptic tone, “The world doesn’t have twelve months.”   

Well, you’re going to have to wait awhile before you can see the entire documentary, though, because Happy is indeed enjoying the film festival circuit.  It premiered at the Historic Imperial Theater in Augusta, Georgia, delighted viewers at Milwaukee’s festival, and will soon show at New York City’s Chelsea Film Festival as one of only 24 North American films selected.  It will also appear, so far, at the Savannah Film Festival later this month, and the Southern City Film Festival in Aiken, South Carolina, in November.  Its likely that Happy will make it into other festivals as well.  So you could hit the road and head east or south–or be satisfied for now with the “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” teaser, which will remain popped-up in the gallery through October 23.

And in the meantime, do as Leonard does: “You can make the choice to be happy, because happiness matters.”  And visit Leonard’s website and Facebook page to follow his adventures.  And don’t forget: self-addressed stamped envelope sent to him will get you four Happy stickers all your own!

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Michael Patrick McKinley (l) and Leonard Zimmerman (r)

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HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | SEPTEMBER 2016 | Back-to-School edition | “Keep Sewing, Keep Learning”

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The course of my life and career choices has been educationally based. My senior year of high school in California, I went to beauty college.  My mom kept telling me, “You’re not going to sit around on my couch and do that forever.”  So I became a hairdresser.  I thought that it would be better if I used my talents artistically and soon I became very good at my craft.

At some point, I started doing makeup on print models.  The designers would run into snafus on the models, so I would rush in to help.  I tailored for awhile, then became a florist.  It was all design.  Everything seemed to keep looping back, no matter what I did.  Finally, I met a clothing designer at a friend’s who said, “You need to be designing and making clothes.”  She was really accredited by some of the best fashion schools.  Working beside her, I considered it an apprenticeship, even though it wasn’t.  But I couldn’t have paid for a better education.

I was a dressmaker for a few years in Los Angeles.  Then I moved to Milwaukee 14 years ago.  The demand for custom dresses isn’t big here, but I still have a group of women I design for (I always begin by asking “Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly?”).

All these years later, even though I’m not solely a dressmaker, I’m still good at hands-on work.  So when I met a master upholsterer, my direction changed.  Because I’m a meticulous sewer, it was good for his business.

What’s harder to do?  Fashion or furniture?  Well, what I’ve learned is that a body moves, changes.  A piece of furniture–it just sits there.  On a sofa, then, a line is a line, meaning if there are vertical stripes, those stripes need to go up the back, down the cushion, across the seat, and down–in a perfectly straight line.  But on a woman’s body, it doesn’t matter as much because of the curves of her particular body and how she moves.  I mean, it matters–especially to a dress designer–but not as much.

As an upholsterer, you get to know the different fabrics.  You get to be able to say, “This fabric has a good hand.”  In the industry, a “hand” means “the feel of it.”  Each fabric has a different weight, different stretch, different pattern.  All that stuff matters.

I’m still learning.  You sew, you sew.  You keep learning.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | SEPTEMBER 2016 | Back-to-School edition | “Is That All There Is?”

20160915_133845In between his sets at the Mason Street Grill this Monday–where he plays every Monday from 5:30-9pm–Chicago jazz pianist Joel Burt and I talked a little about his musical journey and, using a bit of interpretive poetic license, about the most important question any learner can ask: “Is that all there is?”

Getting here has been a life-long journey.

When I was younger, like ten years old, my mom said that I should take piano lessons.  And when mom says you’re going to take piano lessons, you take piano lessons.  But of course I wanted to play baseball, football.  I only dibble-dabbled with the piano for years after that.

I became an underwriter, but at one point I decided I’d like to try piano again.  I didn’t want to be in the front seat of the hearse; I didn’t want to be a vegetable.  So I enrolled at Berklee in Boston. Each day is a new day, right?  I always want to do something today that I didn’t do yesterday.  It’s always new–otherwise, what’s the point of doing the same thing all the time.  Like my mother used to tell me: “Make sure you go clean underwear on.”

I started off as a sideman for different bands, but now I’m pretty much in the lead.  I’ve been playing for six years at The Pfister and they finally gave me a drummer.  I mean, I’m not famous, but it’s nice getting called back.  I’m always learning, always getting better. I recently heard an arrangement played by an eighteen-piece orchestra and contacted the arranger: “You got to teach me how to do this.”  And he finally told me, “When’re we gonna start?”  Not “Here’s how much it’s going to cost” but “When’re we gonna start?”

I don’t ever want to live in a box.  Because life is like . . . a cabbage. A huuuge cabbage, with so many levels of life.  You can keep peeling it back and there’s still more!

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Mr. Burt and I ended our pleasant talk between sets by suggesting I listen to Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?”  If I’m understanding the lyrics correctly, the title line in the chorus suggests that the speaker has come to understand that powerful forces aren’t always as powerful as she perceived them to be.  Taken out of context, though, the title line could certainly echo Mr. Burt’s passionate optimism and desire for new experiences:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a fire?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my daddy took me to a circus.
“The Greatest Show On Earth.”
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away and I thought I’d die.
But I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep-

I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
“If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?”
Oh, no, not me.
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
‘Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself-

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

We’re Going to Get Out of This: LSU Fans Reflect on Fixing the Floods and More

I’ve never seen the Lobby Lounge as crowded as it was last Friday afternoon.  The night before, a streak (which is what a group of tigers is called) of Louisiana State University fans descended upon The Pfister and other local hotels, eating and drinking their way to Saturday morning’s mass bus ride to Lambeau Field.  They filled every chair, many of which were pulled together so what looked whole extended families could gather.  Once they’d staked their territories, purple and gold tigers roamed from one oasis to another.  No one seemed stuck in one place, and no one seemed to be without a drink.  The piano could barely be heard over the laughter, clinking glasses, high fives, and shouts across the lounge to new arrivals.  I was able to squeeze in at the bar–the bartenders and the servers were working double-time to accommodate everyone–but before I was able to order a drink for myself, I heard a woman with an LSU logo on her shirt tell Thomas that she was going to escape the din for a smoke.  I introduced myself, decided to wait on my drink, grabbed my notebook, and followed her as she sauntered across the lobby, refreshed vodka tonic in hand.

The Badgers, of course, beat the Tigers 16-14, but my guess is that this defeat did not break the spirits of the die-hard LSU fans.  Because what I learned from Karen (names have been changed), and later her husband Teddy, is that deeper than tailgating is blood.  From the way they described it, tailgating actually might be in their blood (“It’s part of our culture, which is a connection we have with you here in Wisconsin,” Teddy would tell me), but so, too, is a culture of self-sufficiency, generosity, and magnanimity.

20160902_154558“I came to Milwaukee to escape the total shit at home.”

Karen wasn’t one to mince words.  We sat together on a bench in the courtyard outside the Hotel.  “This is perfect weather,” she sighed pleasantly.  It was indeed a comfortable 75.  “Back home in Baton Rouge, it’s 95 degrees and 95% humidity.”  Her oversized shirt, with an open and popped collar, sporting a bold LSU logo, gleamed white in the sunlight.  She removed a cigarette from her purse, but didn’t light it.  Instead, she placed a hand on my arm, leaned in, and said, “We were just recovering from the police shootings and racial tension, you know.  Then the flooding happened.”

She was referring, of course, to the officer-involved shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge on July 5.  The next day, Philando Castille was killed by an officer in Minnesota and protests erupted around the country, followed by the shooting of five police officers in Dallas on July 7.  Then, on July 17, a gunman shot six police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three of them.  The rains that hit southern Louisiana about a month later could have been poetically cleansing, but instead they dumped over two feet of rain over two days, in what has been described as “the worst disaster in the U.S. since Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012,” damaging more than 55,000 houses, 80% of which lacked flood insurance, more than 6,000 businesses, and about 30 state roads.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Karen said.  “This is three times worse than Katrina.  Noah wasn’t even prepared for it.  The rain filled up all the streams, rivers, and bayous–and then had nowhere to go.”  She realizes that what happened in New Orleans was different, of course–80% of the city and nearby parishes were flooded–but remarked that the August rain was so “unexpected” and that it “hit everyone, not one specific race or class.  It hit the upper class, the lower class, and everyone in between.”

Karen was sad that the summer had seen so much destruction.  She lit her cigarette finally and sipped her vodka.  “We’re all equal,” she repeated multiple times when reflecting on the destroyed lives and flooded homes.  “Whether we’re black, white, orange, purple.”  Inside, her husband and other relatives would reiterate this belief.

As we talked, a man who had been drinking a beer across the courtyard stumbled over and asked for some money for the bus, then changed his mind and settled for a cigarette.  Karen offered him hers, barely touched, but he indicated that he had hoped for a fresh one.  Unfazed instead of offended, she brought out two from her purse, plus her lighter.  Yes, she was encouraging a bad habit, but she did it graciously, I thought.  After he left, she sighed and said, “You just have to believe it’s all going to work out.  It’s gonna fix itself–by the grace of God–or we’re going to kill ourselves.”  I wondered out loud how much believing things will change would actually change anything–and whether the problems that both her city and Milwaukee were sharing (she, of course, knew the name of Sherman Park from the nightly news) could actually fix themselves.  I wondered whether even God could.  “The right people have to stand up,” she clarified.

“But who are those people?” I wondered again.

“Maybe that’s you and me.  But they’re going to be a lot of ‘wrongs’ that’re going to try.”  I agreed, and we agreed to try to be those “right people” who stand up.

She added, looking up to the sun, “There’s always going to be sunshine after the bad storm.”  She finished her cigarette and picked up her vodka.

Inside, it took only a few seconds after she let everyone know where she’d been for the past half hour for me to join one of those circles of chairs.  Her husband and daughter, the daughter’s husband, his parents (who were staying with Karen and Teddy because their house had been flooded), other family members and friends–about a dozen in all–had commandeered the couches in front of the fireplace.  “So you’re a writer?”  They all found this awfully interesting and jockeyed for my attention immediately.  The winners?  Teddy sat to my right sipping a Glenfiddich (I don’t think it was his first), to my left his son-in-law Ryan looked over my shoulder at what I was writing (“You wrote all that already?”), Karen stood in front of me, and Ryan’s wife Mary settled for popping in every once in awhile with a funny remark or helpful clarification.  Teddy was clearly the star of this show, however, and kept talking even when Karen, Ryan, and Mary were talking into my other three ears.

20160902_161510I say this in jest, of course, because I really was having a good time (helped, I’ll admit, by the whiskey Karen had fetched for me).  Teddy wanted me to know what had happened with the floods–and ultimately what it meant to be a Louisianan.

The first thing he wanted to make clear is that “Baton Rouge is mainly blue collar, with all the chemical plants especially.  But it’s mixed, too.  We’re all regular people, though, with house payments, car payments.”  I started writing in my notebook again, Ryan craning his neck.  “So imagine this: for the first six to eight days, we were going into people’s houses, cutting through drywall and sheetrock, piling everything, all their belongings, in the yards and streets.  I saw hundreds of people coming out of subdivisions like my brother’s–all these people.  No one’s living in their own houses.  It’s going to take one to two years to fix this.  So many people are going to let their houses go back to the bank.”

Just as his wife had done, he recalled Hurricane Katrina and it’s destruction: “With Katrina, so many of the people affected–and I don’t want to get political–were poor.  They were the people the federal government told to sit tight.  ‘We’ll help you.’  And then the levees broke.”  But he was quick to remind me how people helped each other: “Back then and this time, I went down with my boat, pulling people out.  That’s what we call the ‘Cajun Navy’–thousands of people with boats and back tows helping people out.  In southern Louisiana, people care about each other.  It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.”

Teddy assured me, “But they’ll come back.  I’m not worried about southern Louisiana.  It’s a part of our Cajun culture.”  In between sips of scotch, he would reference “Cajun culture” many times.  When I asked him what he meant by “culture,” he started singing (then Ryan and his father started singing, heck, I started singing): “Hey, you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow, / kick off your shoes and throw ’em on the floor, / dance in the kitchen till the morning light: / Louisiana Saturday night.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” bellowed Teddy.  He added: “You can tell we like to drink, huh?”

I suspected, however, that by “culture” he meant something a little more than a “one-eyed dog” and “yonder kinfolk,” “bellies full of beer” and “possums in sacks” (the next two stanzas of Mel McDaniel’s often re-released 1981 hit “Louisiana Saturday Night“).  Teddy smiled and added, “When people came from Newfoundland–that’s where the Cajuns came from–and got down to the south, they were starving.  So the first person who decided to catch and cook a bunch of crawfish for his family–that’s when Cajun culture was born.  We depend on ourselves and each other.  That’s our heart and soul.  So it doesn’t matter if the federal government sends us assistance.  We’re going to get out of this.”

Bryan chimed in–“The enemy of excellence is complacency”–as he held up his Hyundai wristband (he owns a dealership) that said “No negativity allowed.”  Mary photobombed.  More drinking ensued, even as everyone started packing up to go to dinner.

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Before I left, amid handshakes (and many high fives and hugs from non-complacent Bryan), Karen and Mary pulled me in and told me a secret: “The ‘U’ in Louisiana stands for ‘I will help you first,’ and the ‘I’ stands for ‘I‘ll take care of myself later.’  Make sure you write that down.”

What about the ‘O’?  Mary had a quick response: “The ‘O’?  How about ‘You always owe someone something to give.'”

I told them I thought they were making that up.  “Of course we’re making that up!  But it’s true, too.”

I think that if I ever visit Baton Rouge, I just may believe that lie, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTE: 10 percent of September 2-3 food and beverage sales in the Lobby Lounge and in Blu was donated to the Red Cross Louisiana Flood Relief Fund.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | AUGUST 2016 | Being “August” | Continued

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This is a friend of the Spunky Bohemian.  She shared an august story about an auspicious decision and a funky house bar:

About 22 years ago, my husband I packed up all our stuff and moved from Madison to San Diego in ten days.  We heard that there were jobs for us out there that paid $1 extra an hour.  We thought, “Wow, we’re going to be rich!”

She chuckles: a whole dollar more!

We loved it out there.  We came back when we had a kid and figured that since our parents lived in Wisconsin, it would be good for our kid to grow up near them.

She sighs, not with regret but nostalgia for San Diego.

Now we have property here, ten acres bordering the Kettle Moraine Forest in a tiny town called Greenbush.  There’s not even a bar in Greenbush.  I know, in Wisconsin!  But there is a stagecoach museum . . .

And there is a place 5-10 minutes away that’s a house bar.  A lady has a bar in her sun porch, with red velvet wallpaper and a jukebox.  You can play Elvis for 10 cents and get domestic beers for a buck and a quarter.  And they have the best Southern Comfort Old Fashioned Sweets around.  It’s only “open” when the bar lights are on: you just have to take your chance going there!  What’s the name of the bar?  No one knows!  We just call it “The House Bar.”

She insists that the owner of “The House Bar” has a liquor license.  She must, right?

And I promised I’d include a map showing where Greenbush is located.  I just might have to take a drive in search of the red velvet porch bar!  Now “Velvet”–that would make a swanky name!

Greenbush, Wisconsin (pop. 2,773 at the 2000 census)
Greenbush, Wisconsin (pop. 2,773 at the 2000 census)

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.