HUMANS OF THE PFISTER Teaser (Guess the Human!)

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER

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I met some fun Humans today at Blu and the Lobby Lounge.

I’m preparing their stories for the next installment of HUMANS OF THE PFISTER (HOTP): LIFE, LIBERTY, & HAPPINESS,

but for now, here’s a preview of their beautiful faces.

Can you guess which of these HOTP said the following?

a. “I feel most alive when I’m at my peak, with my home life, my love life, my work life.”

b. “I just want to feel like I have a nice strong deck of cards in my hands.”

c. “Singing with the band was like my therapy.”

d. “My country song would be an adventure song, with travels, sunshine, and good people.”

e. “Our daughter was four years old when we moved from Milwaukee to Sussex.  At first, she’d cry and say, ‘It’s too quiet, mom.  Where are the sirens?’  She got used to it.”

f. “I’m a doo-wop girl.  Or a roadie.  I like to help people shine.”

g. “I love the beach because it lightens you, frees you, and oooh, it’s invigorating to me!”

h. “Life is about dancing and singing.  They’re the two biggest cures for illness.  If we don’t live, we’re not accomplishing anything.”

i. “I try to lighten things up.  I write a monthly newsletter–18 pages long–for the support group.”

j. “We just watched a documentary about how we need a ‘shift in our moral imagination,’ so that we can have personal satisfaction that we’re doing something morally right, that we’re doing what we want to do as human beings.”

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | JULY 2016 | Life, Liberty, & Happiness

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER

JULY 2016 EDITION

This month, I am beginning a series called Humans of The Pfister (or HOTP for short), inspired by the prolific Brandon Stanton and his blog series Humans of New York (HONY), which captures the lives and experiences of hundreds and hundreds of New Yorkers in stunning photographs and anecdotes.  His HONY “photographic census” has expanded to tell stories from different countries–including Pakistan, Iran, Uganda, India, Vietnam, and Mexico–and collected stories of inmates and refugees and individuals with pediatric cancer.  Since the success of HONY, especially via social media, two books have collected many of Stanton’s photographs and stories, Mario Sinclair’s Humans of Milwaukee website has amassed an impressive over the last year and, to be expected, numerous spinoffs and parodies have emerged.

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Each month, I will explore a different theme.  The month of July I will dedicate to–you guessed it–life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I will ask guests and associates questions like these:

LIFE

  • When have you felt most alive?
  • What is your secret to living a fulfilling life?
  • What is the number one thing that has gotten you to this point in your life?
  • What is one thing that you are still working on in your life?

LIBERTY

  • When have you felt the freest?
  • What have you felt the least free?
  • What is the most liberating thing you have ever done?
  • Does freedom come with a price?

HAPPINESS

  • How do you pursue happiness?
  • What was one of the happiest moments of your life?
  • Who or what makes you the happiest?
  • What is your definition of happiness?

Please enjoy the first set of HOTP, who I met on the afternoon of July 1st:

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“I felt the most alive and extremely, extremely at peace after my nine-year-old daughter was ill and needed a kidney transplant.  We went to two different doctors in southern California, both of whom said she also had cardiomyopathy and recommended both kidney and heart surgery.  One of the doctors told us, “Your daughter’s life is finite.”  Devastated, and wanting another opinion, we went to a doctor in Brazil (my ex-wife is Brazilian) and he told us to convince the American doctors to just do the kidney transplant.  So now she has my kidney and is 17 years old. Her life wasn’t finite.  After the surgery, I felt super, super peaceful.  I felt such presence and non-resistance–so free, so alive, so at peace.  I began meditating, which brought me clarity, a sense of letting go, without attachment.  I also felt joy, felt connected.  I was able to live with this life energy for some time (it’s like we need to go to a mental gym where we make ourselves aware of all our attachments, then let them go), but it’s a difficult thing to maintain, just like working out.  I’m still working on it.”

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“I feel the freest when I’m hiking out in the woods, especially in Northern Minnesota where I’m from.  Out there, you can’t hear anything from the city.  One of the most intense hikes is in Devil’s Kettle, where you have to go down 400 stairs at the beginning, then, of course, hike back up them at the end.  And out there, I don’t have to worry about my make-up.”

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“I’ll tell you, in my most humble opinion, that I feel the least free in today’s culture.  There is so much constraint.  We live in the greatest country and culture ever devised, but there are too many rules and regulations.  I’m not just talking about government.  I just think that people are not as flexible to do the things they want to do.  Yes, there are lots of opportunities on the creative end, but there’s a pervasive ‘political correctness’ that makes people almost fear retribution if they say or do something that other people don’t like.  I would say that I’m one of the most open individuals you can find–it doesn’t matter to me your religious orientation or sexual orientation, for instance.  That’s why the three things I try to hammer into my sons are these: (1) Stay out of debt (you lose part of your liberty when you’re in debt), (2) Follow your passion, and (3) Do what you want to do.  You don’t have to be rich to be happy.  If you want to be a janitor, then be the best janitor that you can be.”

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“Life is all about love, family (my son, of course), and friends.  Outside of career and money, those are the secrets to living a fulfilling life, a ‘successful’ life.  I have unconditional love for my seven-year-old son.  He just loves me to death, too.  My little sweetheart.  Also, what’s sad about seeing these questions is that I can’t honestly remember the last time in, say, the past five years, that I felt truly “free.”  Life seems to get in the way.  But there was that time I went snowboarding down a mountain and felt totally free.  And that time when my colleagues and I were in Beijing, riding bikes through the Forbidden City–and that was free, freeing.  We had to book it through Tiananmen Square because it’s illegal to do that.  But that was freeing, too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Make This Blog Dynamic: Join Me In Conversation

Hello, readers!

Thank you for following my blog on The Pfister Hotel website.  I hope you’re enjoying the variety of stories: jazz and graduations, art and hearts, jazz and justice.  There are many more to come, so stay tuned!  There are also a few things that you can do to make the blog more dynamic, more of a conversation:

  1. RECOMMEND a post you like by clicking the little heart at the end of post.
  2. SHARE the posts on your social media (and direct them to potentially interested readers).
  3. JOIN ME in conversation about the stories that emerge from my time at the Hotel.

One of my goals in the next twelve months is to create conversations and connections between guests to this blog. I invite you, then, to RESPOND whenever you can to the questions I pose in the Comments section at the end of each post, typically a question or prompt inspired by the people I’ve met.  I want to hear your stories, too!  To date, here are the questions I’ve posted, with a link to the posts.

I hope to hear from you soon!

Your Narrator,

Dominic

Synergy: Performance, Art, & Service (June 20, 2016)

What lessons does Milwaukee need to learn in order to achieve peace and equity? What can we do individually and collectively to bring change?

“It Doesn’t Take a Lot of Money to Be Nice” (June 16, 2016)

If you could do anything or be with anyone for 65 years, what or who would it be?

Jazz Virgin (June 12, 2016)

What’s one thing you can teach me about jazz that I don’t know?  I know nothing!

“You Can’t Take My Bones” (May 30, 2016)

What do YOU hope to still possess when you’re older?

“It Takes a Village to Raise a Dentist” (May 22, 2016)

You’re giving a commencement speech to this year’s graduates (of any class). What’s your theme? What’s your advice?

15 Simply (But Often Difficult) Courageous Goals for Charging Our Hearts (May 22, 2016)

How will you (or do you) listen to the “hearts inside you” and re-charge your heart and life?

What Did You Create Today? (May 18, 2016)

How do you define art?
How does art define you?
How is art a joining, a fitting together?

How are you an artist?
What did you create today?

How are you a performer?
What do you provide the world?
What do you produce?
What have you helped make come true?

Who or what inspires or inspired you?
Who or what do you inspire?
Who or what sustains your daily breath?
Who or what lights a fire in you?

An Introduction: Prequel No. 2 (May 2, 2016)

Who or what inspires YOU? Who or what has most influenced YOUR vocation? How would you describe your OWN voice, or unique style? What was a time when YOU were brave, creatively speaking?

An Introduction: Prequel No. 1 (May 1, 2016)

When have you, perhaps in a moment of weakness like mine, made an assumption about another person that surprised you once you learned the truth?

 

 

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.

What Did You Create Today?

Everywhere I turn in this cozy room, I encounter a new artist.  

Pamela Anderson, The Pfister’s new Artist-in-Residence, is on the west coast during this event, and her fellow artist, Melissa Dorn Richards, has taken up temporary residence in the studio, carving the thick white paint on her square canvases to re-imagine industrial mop heads in surprising ways.  

But here, in the former space of the upscale Rogers Stevens menswear store that has been transformed for a United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) event hosted by the Marcus Corporation’s managers, the unsung artists of The Pfister are emerging.

  • The bartender, Luther, creates music, mainly percussion, out of anything he can find, having recently elevated a washboard to create a wicked sound and acquired a tuba (I reminisce about my college girlfriend and I foxtrotting to “Moonlight Serenade” played by a Seattle street musician with a tuba).  We chat about how he’s seeking new creative ventures for himself, much like I am, adventures that will allow him to create for himself and others, especially after years of raising his children and cleaning their creative peanut butter smears off of sofas.
  • Also at the bar is James, a rep from Copper & Kings American Brandy stationed in Butchertown, Louisville, Kentucky, who regales me with a language still foreign to me, but one I would willingly learn: non-chill filtered, copper pot-distillation, pure pot-still, full integrity, extraction, palatability (that last one I get!).  I enjoy his spirited Absinthe Blanche creation, a double-distilled Muscat brandy with traditional absinthe botanicals, and his company’s neighborhood’s namesake, Butchertown Brandy, described on their website as “bad-ass brandy . . . non-chill filtered without adulteration by boisé (oak flavor or infusion), sugar or caramel color for an uncorrupted natural flavor and natural color.”  Of course, I detect all of those characteristics. . . I’m an art connoisseur.
  • Joe from Milwaukee’s own Great Lakes Distillery shares the new Rehorst Barrel Reserve Gin, oak barrel aged to give it a creaminess that complements the botanicals and a golden to amber palette that delights my palate.  I share with him how my friends and I created a couple of summers ago the “Walkers Point Trifecta,” which begins with a tour of the distillery, followed by an affordable meal at Conejito’s Place Mexican Restaurant across the street, and washed down with cocktails at The Yard across the roundabout.  Good times.
  • After a little while, Peter, the Hotel’s food & beverages purchasing manager, is kind enough to introduce himself and engage me about his art: at work, he says, keeping food and beverage costs down is an art, and at home, he claims to “create masterpieces” (out of leftovers, that is).  I don’t doubt his culinary skill.  He wears it like a badge of honor and gets philosophical with me (I love that), agreeing that any time we take nothing and create something, or take something and transform it, we’re making art.

So why are all these artists gathered among the emptied wooden clothing racks bedecked with hors d’oeuvres and rows of wines for a cork pull and bottles of spirits for silent auction?  This May 10th event is one of the many UPAF events that are held at the Hotel throughout the year (and one of many just this month!), a testament to the company’s commitment to the arts and artists.  Begun in 1967 to support organizations like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and the Florentine Opera Company that would be performing in the new Performing Arts Center, UPAF has endured to this day, raising in 2014 over $12 million, due in part to co-chair Peggy Williams-Smith, Senior Vice President of Marcus Hotels & Resorts and SafeHouse Restaurants.  The Pfister Hotel’s commitment to UPAF ensures that “funds to ensure entertainment excellence” are raised, that the performing arts are a continued “regional asset,” and that donor gifts are “responsibly steward[ed].”  

As the Narrator, I have set up a table in the corner with Pfister cocktail napkins and colored Sharpies, with an invitation to join past writers in the esoteric art of napkin brainstorming.  

Prepared to hear from the artists!
Prepared to hear from the artists!

As guests approach my table, I greet them with a series of questions to answer about art, artists, inspiration, and performing.  Guests find some of them easy to answer, confident in their support of the arts and their opinions about why they’re important: How do you define art?  What inspires you?  Other questions stump them, which is my intention.  My favorites, and my go-to questions of the evening, are “How are you an artist?” and “What did you create today?”  I’ve found throughout the years that if we don’t paint or sculpt or play an instrument, most of us don’t consider ourselves to be “artists.”  But, as Peter and I agreed, any time we take nothing and create something, or take something and transform it, we’re making art.  We are artists–all of us.

As an English teacher and lover of word origins, I also share with guests that the word art derives from a Latin word meaning “joint” or “to fit together,” that inspire comes from the Latin “to breathe upon,” “to inflame,” or “to put a spirit into,” and that perform hails from the Old French “to provide completely” and the Middle English “to make dreams come true.”  For me, knowing the etymologies of short words like these that we take for granted opens up new avenues for understanding.  If art is a “joining,” then what is it that it joins?  If inspiration means to “breathe upon,” then who or what is breathing, what is being breathed, and upon whom?  And if every time we perform we’re “providing” something that “makes dreams come true,” well, how cool is that?

The guests’ napkin responses reveal to them and me new ways of thinking about ourselves:

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“I provide the world with an open ear.” “I assisted guests with reservations today!” “I try to make someone say Wow every day.”

Before the event comes to a close, I have the pleasure of chatting with Mary and Kathy, guests of Donna, Executive Assistant to the General Manager.

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Mary and Kathy, two artists.

At first mild and reserved, these two handsome women proclaim that neither of them is an artist.  However, with a little encouragement and inquiry, Mary tells me that she once took an art class to maintain her teaching certification.  “You wouldn’t believe that I made these things,” referring to the art, in different mediums, that she produced.  “I kept looking at them and saying, ‘Did I make that?’”

Hearing this, Kathy admits, “I guess deep down there’s something in each of us that’s artistic.”  And then she opens up: “A neighbor at my residence invited me to join the drama club.  We do little one-act plays mainly.”  So you are an artist, Kathy.  “Well, not really.”  Mary reminds her that she was the narrator for The Wizard of Oz.  “Oh, yes.  I had to get everyone involved.  And we made our own costumes.”  So you are an artist!  “Well, not really.  I did once play a teenager going out on a date–and then my parents interrupt the date. But I’m not an artist or performer.”

Indeed you are, Kathy.  Indeed you are.

 

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!

My Door Was Always Open: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part III

Continued from the previous post entitled “We Are a Corporation”:

MERCEDES, who now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has been coming to the Pfister for many years since her daughter MARIA moved to Milwaukee from the South Bronx almost twenty years ago.  This winter, she came to Milwaukee to support MARIA through back surgery, then stayed on through her recovery (interestingly, MARIA lives on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side).  This Mother’s Day Brunch is a good opportunity for “the corporation” to enjoy a meal, memories, and laughter together.  The hotel Narrator, DOMINIC, has soon become less Narrator and more “guest family member.”

The lively exchange–and by “lively” the playwright means LOUD, EXUBERANT, VOCIFEROUS, CLAMOROUS, EMPHATIC, all in the best ways–rises above the surrounding tables’ gentle fork-scraping and mild conversation.  Surprisingly, DOMINIC doesn’t care that more than a few heads turn toward the table, wondering what could possibly be so interesting or funny.  Some probably find the volume rude.  But the brunch continues uninhibited.

MARIA: I moved to Milwaukee in 1998.  I loved a man who brought me here for his job then dumped me six months later.  I had moved for work, too: I was an immigration officer.

MERCEDES: She’s retired now.

MARIA: Unfortunately, after he dumped me, I knew nobody.  But the minute I wandered into the doors of the Pfister, I knew I was at home.  

DOMINIC: So you just wandered in?

MARIA: Yeah, it must have been hot.  Or I was looking for a place to rest, maybe stay.  I mean, I was a poor Puerto Rican from the South Bronx, but (slowly) I like high-end stuff.  So, I knew that this was my kind of place.

MERCEDES: And everyone was so nice to you, too, right?

MARIA: Yeah.  First, I met the bartender, then the piano player.  I loved to just sit by the fireplace and read the newspaper.

MERCEDES bends over and whispers to me.

MERCEDES: She would get high enough that she would stand on the piano and belt out songs.  

MARIA: I heard you mom.  Yes, I’d get “high enough” to get on a piano and sing.  I made people laugh.  Our family believes extremely in “Live for the moment,” you know.  I mean, I could walk out of here and get hit by a bus, so, it’s important.  (looking at DOMINIC) It’s so important that you are so cute that I want to . . .

Strategically, someone at the table starts humming a tune from West Side Story again.  

KELLEY: Well, we are an honest bunch!

Just then, MUNY, one of the banquet servers, approaches to refill our champagne and water.  She stands directly behind MARIA, who grasps her by the hand.

Muny and Maria, a match made possible by The Pfister Hotel.
Muny and Maria, a match made possible by The Pfister Hotel.

MARIA: Me, I like to go into the interior . . . you know, the people and stories in the background.  To know that the service is so good wherever you go within the Pfister, especially from Muny.  She was Muñeca when I met her fifteen years ago.  Muny’s mom, auntie, and more–they all worked at the Pfister, too.  You know, she’s the heart and soul of this place, of this brunch.  It’s not only about the atmosphere and the beautiful things.

MUNY: Everyone calls me the “Brunch Lady.”

MARIA: Yes, Muny, you are the “Brunch Lady” that everyone requests.

Squeezes MUNY’s hand as MUNY exits with a wide smile that never seems to leave her face.

Growing up, our house was always filled with people, whether black, white, green, yellow.  Our house was like a revolving door.  There was always a place for Puerto Ricans, or Muny’s, or . ..

MERCEDES: It’s like it was in Little Italy–you have to visit Little Italy.  We used to go to Pellegrino’s all the time.

MARIA: We’d call it P.J.’s.  

MERCEDES: Yes, P.J.’s for short.  

DOMINIC: Is it still there?

MERCEDES:  Ah, yes.  We haven’t been there for awhile, but you should if you visit.  They would see us coming and have a bottle of wine ready, then we’d stay after with the maître d’, Anthony, until two or three in the morning. (smiles proudly)

MARIA: That’s what it’s all about.  

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.

MERCEDES:  I’ll have to go back there soon.  Back to that “open door” Maria mentioned: I couldn’t stand seeing kids on the street.  And back then, the youth had so many problems they had to deal with.  So if one of the kids was a boy, then I’d let him stay in my son’s room until he could get things together.  I never put a kid out.  My door was always open.

LIZA: Just like at Pellegrino’s.  You were strict, though.  

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.

We called you “the fly swatter.”

MERCEDES: (to DOMINIC) I was the fly swatter.  Sometimes these kids needed a (she “swats” DOMINIC’s shoulder like she were dusting it off) little fly swat.  It was hard living back then.

DOMINIC: But your door was always open. That’s what matters, huh?

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.  They make a toast to open doors and things that matter.

We Are a Corporation: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part II

Set in the Grand Ballroom of the historic Pfister Hotel, in present day Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Two gigantic chandeliers divide the room, which is framed in gold, with walls covered in Victorian art.  A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom.  The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE.  Multiple conversations are occurring as DOMINIC, the hotel storyteller, approaches in a new blue suit, a notebook in hand ready for a potential interview.  

Enter DOMINIC, who takes the empty seat next to MERCEDES.  We see them talking but can’t hear their conversation until MERCEDES speaks up.  Besides the two nieces, DANA and KELLEY, the rest of the family has a slight but recognizable accent.

MERCEDES: (points to a woman across the table) It’s her you should be talking to.  She could tell you some stories.

DOMINIC: She’s your–

MERCEDES: My daughter.

DOMINIC: (surprised) No.  She–

MARIA: People always think that we’re sisters.  But she’s almost 80 and well . . . I’m–I’m tired of the comparison.  She’s an oxatarian . . . no, an oxagenarian, oxageraranarian.  Wait.  What’s it called?  You know.

KELLEY: It’s an oxag–.

DOMINIC: Octogenarian, I think.  Eight generations.

MARIA: Heeey.  You’re cute.  I could just eat you up!  

LIZA: (gently slaps MARIA with feigned disapproval) Maria!  Stop.

NICK: (jumping in)  Ok . . . so you’re the narrator.  What does that entail?

DOMINIC: Well, I’ll be telling the stories of guests at the hotel over the next year.  People like you.

MARIA: We are a corporation!

NICK: We are an organism!

MIKE: We’re a bunch of crazy Puerto Ricans!

Everyone spontaneously toasts with champagne.

MERCEDES: That we are.  Those two are my daughters, Maria and Liza.  That’s Liza’s husband, Nick.  That there’s their daughter Dana–she’s 16.

MARIA: She goes to the Special Music School right across from Julliard.  It’s better than Julliard, of course.

MERCEDES: And that is Kelley (it’s K-E-L-L-E-Y) and her husband, Mike.  

MARIA: Kelley is in pharmacy, but she’s going to go into surgery eventually.  And Mike’s in construction now, but he’s going to be the next Puerto Rican astronaut!  He’s joining the Air Force soon.

DOMINIC: (to Kelley and Mike) Congratulations.  (to DANA) You like the school, huh?  

DANA: Yes, I play guitar–

MARIA: And sax!

DANA: –and sax.  And I study voice.

MERCEDES: She has a beautiful voice.

LIZA: Yes, you should hear her sing.  Like an angel.

MARIA: Like an angel.  In fact, we were just going to do a rendition of our favorite musical, West Side Story.  You know–

MARIA starts humming “I want to live in America,” then others join in.

DANA: I really like biology, though . . . and I’d like to be a mortician.  I have strange tastes!

DOMINIC: That sounds pretty well-rounded to me.  I used to be a bio major, then I switched to
English.

DANA: That’s cool.

MARIA: Yes, it’s cool.  We’re all poets at this table.  And you–I just want to bring you home with me!

This time, it’s DANA who swats her aunt MARIA.  No one else bats an eyelash.

MERCEDES: She’s always like this.  Just watch.

MARIA: And Nick is Greek.  

She spells and pronounces his last name.

Greek and Puerto Rican.  Can’t you tell?

NICK: No one ever believes me, so I have to spell my last name and sing a song in Greek.  

Without skipping a beat, NICK begins singing a syncopated song, slowly moving his torso and arms in the style of a Greek dancer.

MARIA: You know, Nick’s a poet.  But he wasn’t always one, right Liza?  In fact, he once lost a whole set of love poems that Liza had written.

LIZA: That’s right.

NICK: I didn’t know any better back then.

MARIA: You were young.

NICK: Seventeen.  So I threw them in the trunk of the car–I was borrowing it from someone.

LIZA: I had gotten a whole set of stationery.  And I filled up every single one with poems.  I poured my heart and soul into them.

MARIA: And then he lost them.

NICK: But she’s still with me, thirty-eight years later.

LIZA: That’s true.  He really is romantic.

KELLEY: He would write cards for me when I was growing up.  

MARIA: Yeah, he made all these cards with crossword puzzles on them–

KELLEY: –that I had to solve.  And then in each there would be a message to me about how much he loved me and so on.

LIZA: And don’t forget he’s an amateur magician, too.

MARIA: He was always pulling a little bunny out of a hat and stuff!

DOMINIC: Everyone here sounds so creative!

MARIA: And you.  You’re so cute.  We’re going to have you over and invite the whole family!

MERCEDES: Look.  (pointing at my face)  He’s blushing!

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

* Pictured (l-r): Maria, Dana, Liza, Nick, Mercedes, Kelley, Mike

Thirteen Blackbirds: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part I

In the days leading up to the Pfister’s famous Mother’s Day brunch this past Sunday, I began wondering why we brunch in the first place.

I knew that the word was a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch.”  And I remembered gorging (I mean, feasting) on scrumptious delights in Las Vegas–filling plates with eggs benedict, haricot verts, and cinnamon toasts, then refilling with perhaps a bowl of ramen.  Or how about Korean beef?  Or when did they bring the shrimp rice out?  And that tower of petit fours and mille-feuille looks tempting.  I know I’ve enjoyed the smaller, tamer menus at Milwaukee destinations on Brady Street or the lake–and once at the Pfister long ago to say goodbye to a friend who returned years later to create her own award-winning meals, including brunch, in Delafield.  However, I still wondered why someone had reserved Sunday for bustling buffets and fancy formalities.

Was brunch special?  Was it better?  Did it have something to do with accommodating church goers?  Was it simply a tradition–and if so, what was its origin?  What was the history of this elusive (exclusively American?) eating phenomenon?  Why did we fill and refill plates and plates of food at 10 in the morning?

To prepare, I headed to Wikipedia, which taught me that brunch emerged in England in the late 19th century, perhaps as an offshoot of the ubiquitous practice of eating a large mid-morning meal in Catholic households after a day of fasting.  I also learned that its American popularity began in the 1930s when Hollywood stars traveling cross-country would stop in Chicago–presumably only between 10 am and 11 am–their stomachs demanding a hearty meal.  Post-World War II Americans saw a drop in church attendance, a rise in the working female population, and the need for new social outlets besides the church hall after Mass.  Most enlightening, however, was this excerpt from Guy Beringer’s 1895 essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which appeared in almost every article I read about this institution:

“Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting.  It’s talk-compelling.  It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

My goal this past Sunday, then, was to enter the Grand Ballroom, get the lay of the land, and engage as many mothers as possible in “cheerful, sociable, and inciting” conversation that would help them and me “[sweep] away the worries and cobwebs” of the first week of May.  If talk of worries and spiders proved too personal, my alternative was to co-create with guests a Mother’s Day poem inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Guests were certainly “cheerful” and “sociable,” but not immediately “inciting” (until I met Mercedes, but more on her later!).  After I introduced myself to several tables of brunchers and asked–in between their bites of grilled quail with couscous, dried cherries, and citrus, seafood stuffed sole with tarragon lobster sauce, and vanilla bean cheesecakes with mango glaze–if I could return in a quarter hour or so to see if they would be available for a short chat, I admit I was feeling a tad daunted.  Not too many people seemed interested in speaking with me longer than a minute, and who could blame them?  They were celebrating a special day in a beautiful place and were there with one mission: eat everything in the first row, then hit the omelet station, and end with dessert.  Two missions, I mean: eat and celebrate mom.

While I waited to chat further with the guests, I found myself strolling the perimeter of the ballroom to peruse A. Telser’s seductive painting of an “Oriental Girl” with a diaphanous veil, Ferdinand Wagner’s colorful “Royal Love Feast,” L. Berton’s sandy “Arab Horsemen,” and H.W. Hansen’s Wild West “Wild Horses,” noting the sexy dynamism in these paintings that ringed the tables of guests enjoying private conversation with their partners or lively but politely quiet memories with extended family.  I felt a little like Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, meandering the museum-like Santa Croce church, stopping, admiring, reading a placard–then moving on to the next exhibit with little feeling.  As I moved from painting to painting, however, I was reassured that the ballroom is more than its walls and adornments: it’s about the people with whom one interacts.  I met various members of the banquet service, including Muny (“Hi, Dominic!  I recognize your voice!  I like your suit, too!”), Preston (“My mother always told me to shake hands firmly and look her–and anyone else–in the eye.”), Matt (“I’m trying to bridge the gap between art and architecture as I figure out my future.”), Francesco (“I’ve been here so long that the Pfister should give me a post in front of the hotel like those guys at Buckingham Palace.”), and others.

In time, I did gather the beginnings of a shared poem and did snap a few photographs of potential mothers for my story.  But the poem remains unfinished, the photographs beautiful but story-less . . . because at one point I crouched down to ask a striking older woman named Mercedes if I might talk to her and her family, and in no less than sixty seconds my jacket was off, I was holding a glass of champagne, and Mercedes was pointing across the table as she whispered, “She has some stories to tell you.”  Indeed, her daughter Maria, had a lot to say.  

For now, I leave you with my unfinished poem and a couple photos of my story-less mothers.

But stay tuned for “East Side Story,” the second installment in my Mother’s Day Brunch story, to read more about Mercedes and Maria and their New York family and what it means to truly “brunch” the Guy Beringer way: ““Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting.  It’s talk-compelling.  It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

I
Among twenty celebrating mothers,
The only moving things
Were your arms around me.

II
I was of two minds,
Like a ledger
In which there is a deficit but also a surplus.

III
The mother whirled in the thunderstorm.
It was a beautiful part of the danger.

IV
I do not know which to prefer,
The luscious sundae of motherhood
Or the sprinkle on top,
The mother scooping up her joys with a spoon
Or just after.

V
When the mother chopped the mixed salad,
She chopped the leaves
Of one of many salads.

VI
The journey is not prescribed.
The mother must be flying.

An Introduction: Prequel No. 2

Here is the second of my two “prequels” to my first official post as Pfister Narrator, in which I will formally introduce myself and give thanks to those who have come before me.  This prequel is also adapted from a sample blog post I submitted to the selection committee.  “Window Seat” is inspired by a Saturday afternoon conversation I had with the new Pfister Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson.

Spring had finally arrived–at least for a few days–but instead of doing a long run in the 70-degree sun, I decided to wander into the Pfister to uncover a story.  Luckily, the sun followed me into the lobby and down the hall to Pamela’s studio.  Eager to meet my potential colleague, I was greeted both by geometric splashes of primary colors (can shapes be both geometric and splashes?) and by the kind, soft-spoken artist.  

Our conversation delighted and incited (insighted?) me, so I reimagined her spoken words in the form of a written letter addressed to me, from her, two weeks prior, just before she began her one-year residency at the Pfister.  For me, the art of letter writing is a dying art form, and since we talked so much about painterly and writerly voice, I wanted to hear her in a different way, from one of her favorite spots in the world: the window seat of an airplane.

Now that I know that I will indeed be working closely with her in the next twelve months, I look forward to writing her back.

April 1, 2016

Dear Dominic,

I’m writing this from 28,000 feet.  Soon, I will touch down on the hotel’s carpeted runway and disembark in my new studio-for-a-year.  I haven’t met you yet, but I sense your imminent arrival at my doorway.  From the window seat–a must-have when I travel–I am snapping photos real and imaginary.  Right now, the sun guides the plane, a Catalan yellow sun the way Miró reimagined it (we’re actually over Lake Michigan right now, but my mind has traveled to Catalonia before).  The clouds are high, muting the sky in a pastel blue that Diebenkorn would have appreciated (I’ve traveled to the west coast with him before).  I’ve been around the world with painters past and present, Dominic, but would you believe that I’m only beginning to map my own voice now?

You will ask in a couple of weeks, “Did you not have a voice before?”  Did you lose it?  Can a painter, like a writer, have a voice?  Don’t we all have one?  

I certainly had a voice before.  I’ve been mapping it all my life, just as you have been mapping yours, the contours of your inscape, the swirls of your unique fingerprint–that’s what voice is.  Not necessarily something that can be heard or seen.  It’s always inside us, but it’s about developing it.  There’s so much in our world that we have access to visually, that for me, as a painter, finding that fingerprint has been difficult.  It’s difficult for all of us, because we have this sense that it’s all been done before.  You must feel the same as a writer.

Of course, I’ve been informed by–you can’t help it and there’s nothing wrong with it–the fluid landscapes of Diebenkorn and the geometrical, splashy fantasies of Miró, but I’ve remade myself so many times, all on my own.  I didn’t go to school for art, but I did look and study on my own, collecting images and preferences from so many sources.  And I played as a child, all the time.  That was a key to my talent.  If it was a brightly colored block or brick, or Lincoln Logs, or anything you could build with, I was creating something.  I guess you could say I had a natural talent for seeing how things fit together and how they could fit together in new ways.  But at some point in my life, perhaps after getting really good at painting floral scenes, I determined that I needed to be braver with my paintings.

by Pamela Anderson

That’s an interesting word, you will say, to describe art: “bravery.”  It sounds like the stuff of heroes and soldiers and tightrope walkers.  But if we are to transform ourselves and find our voices, then we will have to be brave, a word, I’m guessing you know, that comes from bravo, Italian for “bold and untamed.”  So I’m trying to tap into moments that speak to me from 28,000 feet–I’m looking down now and see that Catalan sun reflect off the lake’s dark surface, creating lines of yellow, crests of white, the plane approaching the shoreline of emerging green fields (we’re south of the airport).  An almost invisible line stretches across my view–the flight of a bird?  An optical illusion?  (To be truthful, I’ve already painted this, but it wasn’t of a Lake Michigan shoreline.  It was something altogether different, intuited in a private conversation I was having with my world.  In any case, I hope you’ll see it when I hang it in my Pfister studio.)

Another painting that will be in my studio when you visit me in a couple of weeks is an aerial landscape (you’re going to notice this right away, I’m thinking–we see with similar eyes): patches of primary colors like children’s blocks and elemental earth, the geometry of agriculture, the interruption of rivers, straight lines that partition (I see straight lines in nature–why?).

These paintings are informed, as I’ve said, by Diebenkorn and Miró and countless other artists, but I’m making them my own . . . I think, I hope.  Sometimes I feel brave, other times not.  You know that I applied for this position three times?  That’s ok, though; I’m glad I didn’t receive the residency those other two times.  I wasn’t ready.  Of course it was validating to be a finalist, but once I validated myself, when I heard my own voice and said, “Hey, that’s me,” that is when I decided to apply one more time.  Maybe that’s what “voice” is: that thing inside you that says/writes/paints/creates itself out of you and says, “Hey, I’m you.”

by Pamela Anderson

The plane is about to touch down.  When you come to visit me, I’ll be wearing gentle black lace and I’ll speak with a soft voice, but you’ll also notice that I speak with large scraping tools, mops, and oversized paint brushes and that my massive paintings don’t have my signature on them.  That’s because I’ve decided to be brave: to let my tools, whatever they may be, guide me and let my paintings reveal my voice.  Many people get upset, in fact, when I don’t sign my paintings on the front.  But I think it’s better when someone can say that they saw one of my paintings from across a room or even a block away and said to themselves “That’s a Pamela.”

That means my voice is being heard.

I wish you all the best as you find yours.  And I look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely,

Pamela