The Pfister Films: DIALED IN

Today in the Pfister Film series, I bring you DIALED IN.

Here’s the simple truth about hotels—some days, many days, there is next to nothing happening at a hotel. The Pfister is not exempt from this stasis mode. I’ve seen it all as the Pfister Narrator…packed conventions, overflowing weddings, plenty of hustle with lots of bustle, and, yes, the quiet days.

The idea for DIALED IN came to me during one of those quiet times. It was the dead of winter. I was sitting on a sofa in the Lobby Lounge in the early afternoon. There was no one in the lobby with me but one other man. This man was perched on a bar stool with two or three glasses of Scotch backed up in front of him. He was in full swing, and with a wide-open park, he could shoot for the grandstands.

I listened as he made call after call on his bluetooth headset. He would tap the earpiece, launch into a call, and tear the person on the receiving end to shreds. These were clearly business calls as I kept hearing things like “fourth quarter” and “sales force” and “we’re in business”, you know, all the regular kind of corporate speak.

As this man would wind up a call he would sort of slow down, take a brief pause and then put a button on his call with a clear and very distinct wrap up. The thing about the bow that he tied to end his calls was that for a guy seemed to lust for blood in the world of business, he sure did throw a curve ball as he was hanging up. Time and time again he gave the same closer, and time and time again I was left feeling pretty agog.

I hope you enjoy watching DIALED IN today as film number two of four. I certainly enjoy thinking about this character every time I watch it.

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Pamela

And now, we turn to Pamela.

It’s Pamela Anderson’s first day as the Pfister’s new Artist-in-Residence. I will endeavor to answer all the questions that come along with Pamela’s name.

No, she does not know David Hasselhoff.

No, she does not tease up a mane of golden blonde hair.

No, she does not run down sandy beaches in her swimsuit saving wayward surfers…well, at least I’m pretty sure she doesn’t.

And, yes, Pamela is a painter who is bold, expressive and the first of her kind for the Pfister. Pamela is the first abstract painter in the Pfister’s roster of artists who have made the ground floor studio their home.

Here are a few other things to know and adore about Pamela.

She’s tough. She’d never talk about it, but health issues have tried to slow her in recent times. Pamela brushes all that off and simply keeps getting back up when she’s knocked down.

She’s persistent. Pamela has such obvious joy over having been selected to be the Pfister’s Artist-in-Residence. She comes to the role after showing that commitment is not defined by overnight success but by what you do in the face of rejection to show that you really want something.

She’s super talented and charming. Her paintings brighten spaces all around town, and now we’re blessed to have them showcased at the Pfister. I’ll give guests wandering into her studio a warning shot…give yourself some time to stop and chat because you’ll find it’s hard to pull yourself away from the great conversation you are bound to have with Pamela.

She’s got great taste. Her studio is going to shine because of her great eye for style. She’s one well-put-together lady, too. When I see her coming, I’m happy to straighten my tie and step up my game.

Pamela and I got to spend some time together chatting about what it means to be an artist in service to the Pfister, and I know she drank deep from the well of knowledge that is our outgoing Artist-in-Residence Todd Mrozinski. Pamela is primed and more than ready to define the next twelve months in her own terms. Watch as she bursts on the scene at the Pfister and takes us all on an artistic journey of thrilling twists and turns. I know I’m tickled with excitement about what’s about to come.

Have a happy day one, Pamela. What a joy it is to have your splashes of color and wit adding new dimensions of life at the Pfister. Make the experience your own in each and every way and everyone will win big.

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Coffee Guy Gets Tea-ed Up

Almost exactly one year ago, I spent six long weeks denying myself coffee. I did it as part of a dietary change, and as a substitute for coffee, I was allowed to drink green tea. That’s sort of like replacing 100 pounds of the world’s finest Swiss chocolate with a pair of damp sweat socks. After six weeks, the first thing I did was drink three pots of coffee. I have not turned back since then and couldn’t be happier or more jittery.

The effect that this period of coffee abstinence has had on my appetite for tea is brutal. That’s why, approaching my recent planned outing for afternoon tea at the Pfister I had one anticipatory feeling.

Meh.

Oh, what a silly fool I was. “Meh” was simply the wrong feeling to be hanging onto as I got ready to have the full Pfister tea experience. “Meh-gnificent” would have been a more apt expression of brewed awakening, for I now know that the Pfister tea ceremony has the power to wash any taste of indifference out of the mouth of even the hardest core java Joe or Jane.

Ever since I have taken on the role of Pfister Narrator I have imagined what a sweet experience it would be for my daughters and wife to enjoy afternoon tea. It’s just the sort of thing they like. They actually really enjoy tea. I’ve seen them drink it many times, always with smiles on their pretty faces. I also have it on good authority that they like desserts that you can pick up with your fingers and pop easily into a mouth. Basically, afternoon tea is firmly in their wheelhouse, so I knew even though tea wasn’t my thing, it would be a rare and wonderful treat for them to enjoy.

The day in question of our recent tea experience was something of an occasion for gluttony for me. In fact, I had chosen this day to have afternoon tea with my family expressly because I was intentionally keeping things on the light side in terms of caloric consumption during the day. In my mind I was warmly planning to back off the tea service so my wife and daughters could really lean into it. My calendar was booked with an annual dinner with friends later in the evening, the sort of thing that you prepare for by not eating for about fourteen days prior. I would leave afternoon tea with my family and order a 72 oz. steak covered with buttered mushrooms. So, attending tea with my girls, something that I wasn’t particularly on the edge of my seat to drink or nosh upon, seemed like the perfect diversion where I would easily back off on sating myself.

Believing full well that I would demure from more than a nibble and sip at tea, I ordered an appropriate amount of sweet and savory treats for the four of us. I remember actually saying to my family, “I’m sure that I won’t actually eat anything…you know, I have to eat all that beef later.”

That statement set me up to prove one very important fact about my culinary leanings. When I am presented with food that is glorious to gaze upon and seeping pots of delicately and colorfully flavored aromatic beverages, I have absolutely, positively no restraint. Those tea sandwiches, scones, and last drops of hot tea never knew what hit them.

I now understand from first hand knowledge that there is nothing more genteel than enjoying afternoon tea at the Pfister. My family and I arrived at the 23rd floor and were escorted to the sofas arranged in front of the fireplace in Blu. I looked around at a roomful of graceful, happy people with arched pinkies sipping piping hot cups of tea. A pair of ladies sat behind us lingering over a long conversation.

“You ladies look like you’re having a wonderful afternoon,” I said, noting that there was the air of celebration about their mid afternoon clatch.

“It’s her 70th Birthday,” said one of the women, as she slipped some leftover treats into a carry out container that the attentive staff has provided her. “We get to take some of these treats home to keep the memory of a perfect afternoon going.”

My family wished these two charming women well as they gathered their belongings and made their way out into the afternoon sunshine. I thought it sweet that the women had taken a tea-time doggy bag home, but as we launched into tea, I also felt safe knowing that there would be plenty of treats for my ladies, perhaps even a skosh too much since I had plans to keep my hands to home and my lips pursed.

Then Juan showed up. If you have the chance to enjoy tea service at the Pfister, you have a great opportunity to be guided to the tea bar by an expert. Juan is the resident tea butler, and as he presented 15 different choices for tea to my family and me, I felt all tea inhibitions melting away. If Juan had told me to drink tea out of my elbow, I’m sure I would have done it, because his description of the body, fragrance and luxurious notes of every flavor of tea presented was better than the next.

I chose to have a pot of Earl Grey tea because I came to understand it had the most caffeine, therefore I took the leap to translating this fact into, “It’s the most like coffee.” My wife and daughters, true warm-blooded tea drinkers chose adventurous and fruity herbal varieties. They weren’t trying to cover anything. It was tea they had come for, and it was tea they were getting.

When the tea came in stunning sterling silver pots, I felt my knees weaken. This tea looked pretty good. What would it hurt to try a cup, right?

You’ll understand this if you have the beautiful chance to enjoy afternoon tea at the hands of the Pfister’s masterful staff, but after the first sip of perfectly brewed tea you are presented, your taste buds open and you immediately desire some delectable snack. There is no problem in this regard, of course, because at afternoon tea service on the 23rd floor of the Pfister, treats appear before your eyes and they are as pretty as jewels and as scrumptious as anything you’ve ever put in your mouth.

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My tower of gut busting destruction.

How I know this, me, the one who had such heavy resolve going into this event to not partake of too much that was put in front of me so I could save room for all the steak in the world later on in my day, has to do with the fact that I have what you can call a true lust for life. In other words, I’m a pig of the highest degree.

The gateway food to my ultimate demise on the tower of treats presented to us was a beautiful little crab salad finger sandwich. My family does not like crab, so they suggested I take those for a little snack. I obliged, wanting to be polite, but half an hour later I lost all sense of time and space as I was lathering mascarpone cheese on my third scone and my daughters were realizing that there would be no carry out containers to take home like the lovely women we had met earlier in the day.

My youngest daughter, Carmela, had been watching me lap up my tea and recognized something in each sip I took. She said, “You look just like you do when you drink coffee, Daddy. Like an old man with a scrunched up face.”

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Carmela mirrors my tea face, but much more cute, of course.

The little tea hugger was right, of course. Because of my trip down the tea road at the Pfister, I now see no difference in the pleasures of a good cuppa, be it coffee or tea. And, oh, if you’re wondering, no fears–I ate all my steak later that evening, and washed it down with a nice hot cup of black coffee.

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Deconstructing Gingerbread Town

In the final moments of 2015 as the holiday season wraps up, treatment I ask you this question…how much do you really know about Gingerbread Town?

Gingerbread Town (that’s the name I alone have given it, of course) is the impressively sugar stacked collection of chalets and free standing dwellings that has been on prominent display in the Pfister Lobby during the full extant of the holiday season. It is literally eye candy.

It’s unclear to me if my fascination with minutiae is a blessing or a curse, but for the purposes of a tour through Gingerbread Town let’s just call my obsessive tick a seasonal mitzvah. I’ve spent some considerable time gazing at Gingerbread Town this year and I’ve determined without a shadow of a doubt that it is a particularly charming place to live. But trust me, there’s more going on there than meets the eye.

You may not be aware of this, but Donner the Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman are comfortable to proudly show their love for one another on the streets of Gingerbread Town.

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I’m thrilled about a place where the streets are lined with cotton candy and the air bristles with open and affirming love. It’s hard to see in this picture, but Frosty is blushing (which, truth be told, is not the best of things for the old snow puss as that sort of romantic heat sometimes melts his cheek right off onto the floor).

At Amber’s Café, you know you’ll always have a great meal.

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Look at Joe and Marla Stinson, longtime residents of Gingerbread Town, bellies full as they relax on the bench outside Amber’s. They just finished a nourishing lunch of gingerbread cookie beer, gingerbread cookie casserole, gingerbread candy, and a warm gingerbread tea. They were celebrating their anniversary, so Amber sent a special delivery to their table, of course—a gingerbread cookie cake. Joe and Marla can’t get enough of Amber’s and they told me that they’ll probably be the first in line for the evening gingerbread cookie hot buffet and gingerbread cookie salad bar. They proudly showed me their AARP cards and said, “We have a coupon!”

You’ll always catch customers from Amber’s Café stopping into Jen’s Clothes to buy a new scarf, pair of winter boots or wool cap.

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Jen’s once tried stocking swim trunks and bikinis, but the only one who bought any of those was Gundry Henshaw, and everyone has always had suspicions that the time Scotty Knorwald hit him in the head with a snowball left him a little off.

If I lived in Gingerbread Town, I’d absolutely want to live in the Gingerbread Village Condos.

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It’s an impressive high rise, don’t you think? And who can argue about living in a place that promises there’s a live-in super who spends his day chopping wood for every resident’s wood burning stove. Plus, I understand they’re pet friendly and every unit has a Lake of Gumdrop view, and those are so tough to come by these days.

You don’t live in Gingerbread Town without making a visit to Michelle’s Skis.

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It’s really the only way to get around town, what with hoverboards now being outlawed by Mayor Shimble out of fear of scorched cookie roads and cotton candy lanes.

One sort of sad story I heard as I talked to Gingerbread Town residents was that after who knows how many years of business, Chrissy’s Sweets is closing up shop.

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Chrissy made the decision to retire and move South after she decided she wanted to go gluten free. Candy is okay, though. Chrissy has handed over the keys to the candy castle, and there’s a new owner moving in who promises to carry on Chrissy’s traditions with his own special twist for modern palettes. I’m excited to see what Carlos’ Organic Gluten Free Sweets and Kale Juice Bar has to offer. All eyes are going to be on Gingerbread Town in 2016…who knows, they might even get an IKEA this year.

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A Global Union

Admit it…when you think of families coming together to enjoy the holidays, ambulance your mind has a better than average chance of wandering to images of a mother, dad and children who all have the same color skin and look like they share some DNA. Throw in a good dash of wool and a roaring fire, and it’s a painting that Norman Rockwell himself could have created.

After meeting some new friends at the Pfister finishing their holiday lunch next to the fireplace in the lounge, check I’m happy to add another image of familial harmony to the old grey matter. My mind will now invariably start wandering towards the charming image of a Norse father, a Finnish mother and their two delightful Chinese daughters.

Setting out to start their holiday celebration, Hallgeir, the dad, and Marja, the mom, had put together a day of fun with their daughters Juliette and Claudia that had started with a trip to the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. I had the pleasure of meeting the family as seven-year-old Juliette and nine-year-old Claudia were finishing once full lunch plates. There were no phones on the tables, no tablets distracting this scene of togetherness, just a foursome full of inquisitive looks and open ears.

Hallgeir and Marja landed in Milwaukee from Norway and Finland respectively and both work at the Medical College of Wisconsin. They live in nearby Shorewood, and the outing with their daughters was a special treat to experience some peaceful times during the crush of the holidays. The girls were soaking it in like true pros.

“I want to stay here ten days in a row,” said Claudia. Her sister’s cheerful smile confirmed that she was in on that wish. I mentioned to the girls that if they could convince their mom and dad to make an extended stay happen, that they had better take full advantage of our 23rd floor swimming pool. The girls leaned forward a little bit more as I described the pool, certainly dreaming about dips and dives to come.

Marja and Hallgeir looked on at their adopted daughters as we chatted, faces full of the most real and genuine love. I asked Hallgeir what he thought on the girls’ plan to put down some roots for a good long Pfister stay someday in the future. He smiled the smile of all great dads, shrugging his shoulders with the sort of gesture that said, “Sure, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my family.” I bet that’s true, and I bet that if Norman Rockwell were still around, he’d create a masterpiece with this global union.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hair style of a great teller of tales.

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

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

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

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Mark Eddie and wife Cyndi. Oh, those smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve Found It…The Happiest Place on Earth

I’m not sure how to accurately capture the excitement that I’m feeling about spending this season at the Pfister Hotel as its in-house writer. Walking into the hotel today, the day that I finally feel I can officially embrace the full holiday season while I’m still digesting ten thousand calories worth of turkey and pie, my heart was almost literally pierced by a holly bough.

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You guys…real gingerbread houses with shop signs that read things like, “Michael’s Skis.” Heck of a town!

The Pfister staff was busily shuttling hither and nigh with big bows of red and green. Poinsettias have been placed throughout the hotel, and beasts in need of a balm against the coming artic blasts have been lovingly prepped.

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Even kings get cold.

Rising like a tower of joy in the middle of it all in the Pfister lobby is a Christmas tree that I’m not ashamed to say brought a tear to my eye as I first set eyes on it today.

I’m confident that there are going to be plenty of stories to tell about the joys of the holiday season during the coming days of December, but today I just wanted to soak in the thrill of anticipation that is filling every corner of the hotel and share some thoughts and images for you all to start to pull back the curtain on this season of magic. I do have a slight fear, however, that Santa might swoop in and recruit all the members of our ever industrious staff to round out his elfin crew, so full of joys and smiles are they all.

There’s finery and flim flam to warm the coldest hearts here in the hotel, and if you need an ounce of encouragement to make your way through the holidays, be sure to visit the lobby bar for a brimming glass of Yuletide Glogg…don’t dare to order it anywhere else, it’s a Pfister tradition and you’ll be wise to stop by to sip your way through a long and luxurious afternoon or evening when the air is chilling and makes your cheeks rosy and bright even before the Glogg does its own hocus pocus on your complexion.

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Egg nog, schmegg nog. This is the real deal.

There’s the roaring fire, the sounds of the season, and for the first time ever, our Holiday Marketplace, a true treasure trove of local artisan creations that are way, way better than this season’s big box store deals (having spent some time with the holiday circulars yesterday after my Thanksgiving dinner, I’m mystified by how aerial drones for your camera seem to be this year’s big “must-have” gift—I promise the Pfister Holiday Marketplace is drone free.)

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Holiday Marketplace organizer Renee owning it in the best holiday debazzlement ever.

And don’t feel as if you need any more reason to make a memory at the Pfister in the coming days of cold, snow, and searching for the perfect hot cocoa than just stopping to look and listen. Rule for the coming weeks, my friends…slow down, you’ll be amazed at how it will speed up your good mood. My holiday wish is a simple one–to see you at the happiest place on earth in the days to come.

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Thirteen Going On Winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tamia and LaQuanda out on the town.

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

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

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

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

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The Greatest American

A Republican presidential candidate rushed swiftly past me in the Pfister lobby today as I was writing and nearly stepped on my shoes.

Politics became really personal for me today. I mean I’m pretty concerned about the shine on my shoes, purchase you know.

Today, the Republican National Committee organized a ball at the Pfister in anticipation of the debate being held at the Milwaukee Theatre tonight. In addition to my near shoe scuffing affair, I started my day by bumping into another one of the gentlemen that will be standing on the stage tonight and wished him good luck on his debate performance, site which is exactly what I would say to anyone who has the chutzpah to stand in the public ring and talk about his or her beliefs.

And if you think this blog post is going to be the tiniest bit partisan, you can hold your breath until you turn blue, red and eventually some lovely neutral shade of purple before ever finding out.

What I’d rather talk about is the greatest American I met today. His name is Mark. I have decided to name him today’s greatest American because he exhibited a clear master level understanding of all the best lessons of kindergarten and democracy by sharing nicely with others. Sharing is caring, as I recall my kindergarten teachers singing to me in some sweet lilting voice. Mark shares. And he cares a lot. Especially when it comes to good chocolates.

In a hotel full of people buzzing about polls, caucuses and percentage leads, Mark softly and kindly displayed the sort of spirit that I really believe the founding fathers were fighting for when they argued and debated on how to create the world’s most significant political system. I found Mark sitting at the lobby bar with a box full of Kehrs chocolates in front of him. Now I’m a Kehrs candy fan of old, and I couldn’t help but say to Mark, “Have you finished that box of chocolates?”

Mark quickly smiled up at me and said, “No…these are for everyone. Would you like one?”

This wasn’t some creepy guy offering me candy. Mark was just a kind guy who happened to have a few extra bucks in his pocket, bought a box of chocolates to share, and was making quite a few people’s day slightly brighter by sharing. I noticed a couple other folks at the bar who had chocolates laid beside their drinks, one with an RNC pin decorating his lapel, one sort of blatantly chirping about her liberal soul. Candy is the great equalizer.

I accept the fact that there are complicated issues at stake in a presidential election, but I contend that Mark was displaying all the qualities of what it is to be a good citizen though his simple offer. Mark was civil. Mark was kind. Mark clearly cared for the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness through bon bons for others. And Mark’s altruism was devoid of any agenda. There was no question about who I was voting for, what the cut of my jib was, or which direction I felt the wind blows. He expected nothing in return, and only wanted those around him to prosper and grow (sure, maybe just around the waist, but it was growth). That’s America, right? I sure hope so.

I will remember Mark’s simple question and how it rose above the din of a hotel filled with the swirl of energy radiating from the charged air of presidential posturing.

“You want a chocolate?”

I’ll pass this time, friend. But thanks for showing up and ever so briefly being my greatest American.

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Let’s Hear It for the Loud Mouths

I would like to write in praise of loud mouths. And in particular, sovaldi those that found the time and guts to come to the Pfister recently to sing with gusto. Brava, bravi, tutti, toi toi, and just a basic plan old nice job all you highly tuned loud mouths.

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre recently held what they call a Voice Lab at Café Rouge. What Voice Lab isn’t, generic is a night when scientists use shiny stainless steel instruments to dissect vocal cords under the scrutinizing eyes of the public. What Voice Lab is, is a chance for brave singers to sing for other singers, get feedback from their peers on how to improve, and receive one of the nicest and most encouraging shows of encouragement from Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s smiles and sunshine Artistic Director, sovaldi sale Jill Anna Ponasik.

The idea for the event is simple. Milwaukee Opera Theatre puts the call out for singers to sign up to sing. The company then provides a pianist and a room, and singers get the chance to dig into pieces that they are working on for performances, auditions, or just for the pure love of singing a song. Anyone can take part in Voice Lab, and the night I observed, I saw singers who were seasoned pros and others who are more on the novice scale but have great heart and will.

Surrounded by the splendor of the marvelously ornamented Café Rouge, Ponasik began the evening by turning to pianist Ruben Piirainen who gently played a series of chords as the assembled singers and spectators raised their voices together for a calming and centering group harmony. Sweetness filled the hall, and I noticed that my fellow Pfister staff colleagues who had gathered to see what was taking place were doing the same thing I was—listening with wide open ears and feeling our shoulders relax as we witnessed a group of people gathering to beautifully celebrate something they love.

The nearly dozen singers shared everything from operatic arias, a new female take on a sweet song usually sung by a man, art music, and daring new interpretations of show tunes. After singing a vocal selection for their peers and the inquisitive audience that had gathered, Ponasik moderated an exploration of each singer’s work in a three-step question and answer process that allowed for affirmations, observations, feedback and self examination. As productive as it must have been for each of the singers, it was even more spectacularly fascinating for the onlookers.

What made the whole event so special was being able to witness the risk-taking creative process at work. Everyone who showed up stood and delivered and was ready for all the good and not so good feedback that came their way. I imagine it all seems worth it when you finish your assessment and you get a warm hug from the woman leading your examination.

My first inclination when I see something like Voice Lab is to write something down, express my thoughts, and try to tell the story of what I saw. But this time, I had a feeling that trumped that one. I walked away wanting to sing. Not in my shower, not in the car, not under my breath while cooking dinner, but out loud and proud. And maybe, just maybe, I’m looking forward to one of those hugs when all the notes have landed, however and wherever they they may fall on the scale.

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