To Tell Our Truth, pt. 1

It’s like hearing a song from your past in the car speakers beside you at a stoplight, or when a favorite book cover winks at you from behind the fingers of a fellow traveler.  An artificial familiarity, but comforting just the same.

A table of professional African American women, still in their heels and lined skirts, sit at a high cocktail table in Mason Street Grill.  

I greet them with hugs right away. We’ve worked, volunteered or socialized in many overlapping circles through the years.  In spite of Milwaukee’s size, I always describe our city as a “big small town.”

I excuse myself to the bar, wanting to survey and observe the room for while.  To my left, two co-workers compare gossip notes about a mutual colleague. Both have their elbows folded on top of the bar, one with his button down oxford folded back at the cuffs. A group of men in polo shirts to my right boom at one another about sports scores, tee times and microbrews. In the back, I count ten hair tosses and three cackling laughs by a voluptuous blonde and wonder if the guy she’s with might need rescuing.

Near the front entrance, a woman stands alone peering out onto the street.  She’s dressed simply but elegantly in a pencil skirt and patterned chiffon blouse.  Ten minutes, twenty minutes pass and she’s is still standing there, waiting.  I weigh the logistics (and crudeness) of chatting with her until her date arrives, or not. I take a photo of her silhouetted against the sunlit window, crafting a story outline in my head.

But the table of sistas gathering behind me tugs at my attention like a moon over ocean tides.

I finally give in to my indulgence and head over to their table. Michelle Hinton, the common denominator of these friends, is in the middle of an animated story about a recent fundraising event.  She has a rich, dark complexion and razor sharp wit.  I ask her about the last time her group got together.  She’s beginning to tell me about the Wig Brunch she’d recently held for her birthday when the waitress comes to check on us.

“You guys should really put the sliders on the happy hour menu,” Michelle says sweetly.

“One of our other favorite spots, which shall not be named, has their sliders for happy hour,” agrees Johnna Scott, her voice filled with good humor. “Can you see if we can get them anyway?”

The waitress cheerfully agrees, also confirming their order for another round of mimosas.

Michelle is a state director for the American Cancer Society and Johnna is an executive for Mosaic Communications, a boutique PR and marketing firm. “All of us travel a lot for work so getting together is tough sometimes,” Johnna says. “It’s not always the same group.”

“I make it whenever I can,” adds Azure’De Williams, a communications manager for the American Heart Association.  “This revives me in a lot of ways.”

The fourth woman, Michelle Mason, is a managing director at ASQ.  She has been in Milwaukee for only a few years and came to rely on informal gatherings like this one to get her true bearings on the city.

“Networking for work is one thing,” she said, “but I need a network of black women when I’m off the clock to help give me balance, too.”

“I need this,” Michelle says.  “I don’t know how other Black women get by without reconnecting like this, but I need it.”

Then it hits me.  I’d resisted joining their table because it felt like an “easy win.” As we begin to thread one topic to the next, I realize that relaying this experience will be more challenging that it initially appeared. How could I recreate the true pulse our broad conversation without also communicating the subtext? That would be like reporting from some family’s holiday dinner about Uncle Jimmy having a new wife.  If only the family understands that Uncle Jimmy had been an avowed bachelor, a visiting dinner guest might not appreciate the profound weight of his news.

Similarly, without some ticker tape of our shared “understandings” as black women, this happy hour round table could lose much of its depth.  Like any other demographic of people, African American women share a complex knitting of “truth” and “fact.” Truths would be our individual perspectives, as they have been shaped by our collective reality, or the facts.

 According to Department of Education, black women earn 67 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks, as well as 71 percent of all master’s degrees and 65 percent of all doctoral degrees. There are more black women than black men (24 percent to 17 percent) in the professional-managerial class. As of 2007, 70 percent of professional black women were unmarried. Black women are five times more likely than white women to be single at age 40. ~Washington Post

 The waitress returns with the champagne flutes and sliders.  The ladies are jubilant and appreciative.

“We meet up all over the place,” says Azure’De.  “Service like this will keep us coming back.”

 And they’re an attractive demographic for advertisers: black spending power is estimated to reach $1.1 trillion, according to the State of the African-American Consumer Report. ~Los Angeles Times

“She’s our foodie,” teases Michelle. Azure’De smiles and responds with a loose shrug of her shoulder. “I’m glad to have her, though. I can’t always get people to try new things, or to spend a few extra bucks. I want to do more than just go eat at Red Lobster.”

Johnna gasps, “Girl, I love Red Lobster…”

We all laugh, adding our own ad libs and funny footnotes. Soon, the jokes unfold into sobering social commentary.

“We’ve just gotten so used to settling and recycling the same ideas,” Azure’De says. “It makes me think I’m crazy for wanting something more.”

I say, “I agree.  What’s more frustrating is that our young people grow up thinking that the way things are is they way things will always have to be. Complacency breeds some of our biggest problems.”

 African Americans have the highest rate of total TV usage, according to a 2011 Nielsen report — translating to an average of seven hours, 12 minutes each day, two hours above the U.S. average. ~Los Angeles Times

“It’s tough to expect folks to care about ‘being part of the solution’ when they’re struggling to pay their bills and can’t find a job,” says the new Michelle. “It’s rough out here for black people.”

 Since the end of the recession, the overall unemployment rate has fallen to 9.1 percent, while the black unemployment rate has risen to 16.2 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Unemployment for college-educated whites is 3.9 percent; for college-educated blacks it is 7 percent.~Chicago Sun-Times

“We’ve got to stop accepting status quo as a standard,” I say. “We’re raising kids who won’t know how to fight for what they want.”

“I say it’s the community’s fault that our education has deteriorated,” says Michelle. “We used to show up at the school, stay on top of our kids.”

 Black students are more likely than White students to have lower-quality teachers. In high schools with 50 percent or more Black enrollment, 25 percent of the teachers have neither a college major nor standard certification in the subject that is their main teaching assignment (math). The percentage for schools with White enrollment of 50 percent or more is 8 percent. ~Educational Testing Service

 “We have to stop being victims, too, though,” says Johnna.  “I’ve still got that ‘hood girl in me but, at some point, you have to decide what you want for yourself, and not just accept what’s handed to us.”

“Or what’s not handed to us,” says Azure’De.

 The rules remain the same as in 1956 when C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite described the exclusively white, male, and Christian makeup of the leading members of America’s political, military, and business institutions. Indeed, the diversity “forced” upon the power elite has given it buffers, ambassadors, and tokens through the women and minorities who share its prevailing values. Discrimination is still widespread, and the ascension of different groups, albeit uneven, depends on four factors: class, education, assimilation and skin color. ~Mother Jones

 Continued…

To Tell our Truth, pt. 2

…continued from “To Tell Our Truth, Part 1”

 

“We have to do more of this!” new Michelle says, gesturing to our tabletop of appetizer plates and empty glasses. We nod and toast in agreement.

 A 2007 American Bar Association report titled “Visible Invisibility” describes how black women in the legal profession face the “double burden” of being both black and female, meaning that they enjoy none of the advantages that black men gain from being male, or that white women gain from being white. ~Washington Post

“When I first moved here I was baffled to find out we have three black chambers of commerce,” says new Michelle. “I was, like, ‘Really? Three? Is the city that big?’”

“No,” says Azure’De. “It just feels like our only choice is to fight for a small slice of pie instead of sharing it.”

“The old black guard needs to get out of the way and make way for these young professionals coming up,” says Michelle. “The more they hang on, the more good talent we lose to other cities.”

“Where would they go?” I ask, referring to our veteran black leaders. “There’s no succession of power for them. They don’t get invited on to boards, absorbed into corporations or get to reinvent themselves into consultants.”

 In the last decade, 98 percent of the nation’s population growth was due to increases in the black, Latino and Asian populations. Together, women, racial and ethnic minority men already comprise 66 percent of the nation’s population. White men overwhelmingly dominate boards of Fortune 500 companies, holding three-quarters of all seats. Fortune 500 boards are less diverse than Fortune 100 boards. ~Huffington Post

“I had a woman crying in my office once,” says Michelle. “She was so frustrated that she couldn’t get the information and support she needed. It wasn’t from whites, though.  It was black women who wouldn’t give her the time of day.”

“Let’s be honest,” Johnna says.  “When we do try to connect and support each other at the job, we get followed around and looked at funny for having ‘secret meetings.’”

Secret meetings! We all shake our heads at the familiar suspicions.

“Remember, when I told you about the woman walking back and forth past my office when we were in there?” Johnna says, referring to her previous agency. “She wanted to know soooo badly what we’d been talking about. I should’ve told her ‘you.’”

“I’m tired of folks asking me if I’m mad, too,” Michelle says. We shake our heads a bit more, laugh a bit less.

 Scholars at the business schools at Duke University and Northwestern University conducted a study that showed black women in a corporate setting faced less of a backlash from the survey participants for dominant behavior than white women or black men. The reason appears to be that participants expected black women to be strong and accepted that type of behavior from them. ~Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

“Dasha, how have you been received in this role for the hotel?” new Michelle asks me.  “You’re the first African American Narrator, right?”

I had to pause and give this an extra thought.

“I don’t doubt that more than a few guests have been caught off guard,” I say.  “I’m a complete stranger walking up to them in a hotel asking them to tell stories about themselves.  To be fair, I think the idea of a hotel having a program like this blows them away way more than the fact that I’m black.”

“And you speak so well,” Michelle quips, sending us all back into laughter and more head shaking.

 The problem is that popular culture and the media glorify and foreground Black women in so many caricatured and undignified ways that Michelle Obama appears to be more of an anomaly than she really is.  In the African American community, we are accustomed to seeing good looking, intelligent, well-educated Black women. ~Dr. Marilyn Mobley, Case Western University

“We should have our own TV show,” Johnna says.

“As long as you’re not talking about having us throw drinks on each other,” I say.

The majority of what we, as a community, celebrate in the media, isn’t worthy of our women. Not the ones that I know and love. ~Essence Magazine

Individual black women are more likely to be viewed as representatives of their race by the majority culture.  ~Bitch Magazine

“Listen, there are plenty of white women acting a fool on television every night,” says actress Holly Robinson Peete. “But there’s a balance for them. They have shows on the major networks—not just cable and not just reality shows—about them running companies, being great mothers, and having loving relationships. We don’t have enough of that.” ~Newsweek

 “Girl, no,” Johnna says.  “But I want to host the segment on entertainment.  I still try to keep up with what’s ‘poppin.’”

“I would want to tell stories for all the silent voices,” says new Michelle.  “Regular black women living regular lives.  That’s who gets ignored, the vast majority of black women who are living between the extremes.  Those are important stories to tell, too.”

There are menfolk circling our table now.  Michelle’s husband. A colleague of Azure’De.  The fellas in jazz trio have begun to play near our table.  It’s time for me to float away to another soft seat of the hotel.  As I hug all the women and pledge to join an upcoming happy hour respite, new Michelle asks the question swelling in my mind:

“What are you going to write about all of this?”

“I’m going to try and capture the range of everything we crammed into forty-five minutes,” I say.

Mostly, I think to myself, I’m going to do my best to tell our truth.

 ===================================

As a society, we know very little about the psychology of Black women, a group of 19 million people — seven percent of the U.S. population. The way they experience the workplace, the complexities of their romantic lives, the challenges they face as mothers and grandmothers, their spiritual and religious practices, these and so many other aspects of their lives are largely unknown to the wider community. Being ignored and poorly understood likely explains why so many Black women today still feel profoundly unhappy about their place in society. ~ Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, authors of “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America”  (HarperCollins Publishers)

The Student Whisperer

By all accounts, Timothy Westbrook is a cheerful guy.  He’s beaming whenever I see him: showing one of his fabrics to a guest, chatting with staff, carrying a cup of coffee through the halls or waving from behind the sewing machine in his studio.  Beaming.

His good mood radiates with a different frequency today. Three of us have joined him in the studio: a chick with a notepad (me), a guy with a video camera (Dustin) and the woman he credits for launching his weaving career.  I watch as he smiles and fidgets with papers on his work station and smiles some more. His professor, Sarah Saulson, is looking about the studio space, admiring his works. Timothy is glowing with unfettered joy.

“Sarah was one of the few professors who was able to tap into ‘what’s important to Tim?’ and encourage those things in me.  She was so nurturing and wonderful,” he said.  “She’s still wonderful.”

Sarah stands beside Timothy as he talks.  She is tall, roughly 5’11”, without being imposing. Poised but unassuming. She’s dressed in comfortable, asymmetrical layers of leggings, skirt, smock and cardigan.  Her ash blonde hair is also clipped into interesting angles.  Her face is kind as she watches her former student with an approving grin.

Then, I hear her speak.

It’s only halfway through her recounting of Timothy’s first classes with her that I realize I’ve been mesmerized.  Sarah’s voice is airy and measured.  Lithe and deliberate.  She speaks with the lightness of a kindergarten teacher at story time and the unwavering calm of a hostage negotiator. I imagine the gauzy softness of her voice uplifting Timothy as a frustrated student and even leveling a humbling critique.

Sarah has been a professional textile artist for more than 20 years.  Her pieces have been featured  in textbooks; she’s published articles in trade and consumer magazines; she’s given workshops and presentations at conferences and guilds across the U.S.; her work is widely exhibited and juried at craft shows; and she works frequently with elementary school classrooms, in addition to being a professor at Syracuse.

I ask about her markers to gauge new students’ weaving potential.

“I know by the end of the first class,” she says, explaining that the studio classes are once a week in a four-hour block. “That first day, I get observe their work habits, confidence in learning new skills, creative approach. It’s intense amount of contact.”

During her decade at Syracuse, Sarah’s classes have drawn students from fashion, interior design, industrial design, print making, sculpture, history, public relations and music composition.  She’s mindful that they all come seeking something.

“Teaching at an arts school is something of a tight robe,” she says.  “Students are searching for their own voice but, by necessity, I have a list of techniques and terms that I must teach them.  I try to keep the assignments open enough for them to bring themselves forward.”

Open enough for weaving cassette tape ribbon into a loom? Yes.

“Tim was a fiber arts major, I suppose I already had a few expectations,” Sarah says with a wide smile. “I had vivid recollections of a research project he had done involving historical gowns and dinosaurs.”

Timothy drops his head with a sheepish grin.

“He’s concept driven,” Sarah continues. “Weaving, on the other hand, is technique based. It’s labor intensive and step-by-step. I knew this class was going to stretch him.”

“It wasn’t until the very last minute that I realized I love weaving,” Timothy admits.  The passion Sarah ignited in him that last semester of college ultimately catapulted Timothy halfway across the country to become the Pfister’s Artist in Residence.

“It’s amazing that your journey led you here,” Sarah says.

Timothy looks to her with genuine adoration and says, “You are responsible for me getting here.”

I ask Sarah about her new work. She is preparing for an exhibit this fall, “Relics of the Twentieth Century,” where she explores the anthropological roles of textiles and weaving in the human experience.

“It was only until the Industrial Revolution that the typical home didn’t weave its own fabric or, in some cases, spin its own yard to make that fabric,” she says. “I find it equally interesting how many twentieth century items are already obsolete.  Once upon a time, women didn’t leave the house without little white gloves. Many of my students conceptually know about typewriters or rotary phones, but have never handled or even seen one.  Exploring the concept of ‘commonplace.’”

The voice. I’m nodding my head…

Timothy and Sarah trade stories about exhibit materials and memorable projects from other former classmates.  The sample list is intriguing: pantyhose, candy wrappers, film negatives, shredded paper, coffee filters, yellow pages, aluminum cans, pull cords from a ceiling fan.

“I had an intern for a few weeks this summer,” Timothy says, “and I was totally inspired by her use of rubber bands.”

“Timothy,” I ask, the notion in my head slowly shaping into a question. “Having had this powerful mentoring experience with Sarah, what do you want to be a part of how you mentor new artists?”

He  paused and says, “I have such a strong point of view, I want to be sure I’m motivating them to pursue their own styles.  I also want to make sure I explain the technical elements as thoroughly as I encourage the conceptual ones.  I’m still working on that.”

I turn to Sarah. “Who mentored you, Sarah?” I ask.

“I don’t even have a clear memory of it. I’ve been weaving since I was eight,” she says.  “There was a woman on my block. I might have gone to her house once, but I’m sure it had its impact on me. As an adult, I became friends with a woman who had been the first American weaver to travel to Finland in the 1950s.  I also learned that the weaving community is very warm and nurturing.  I’m fortunate for that.”

Timothy and Sarah slip into another conversation that has pattern counts, lace, artist communes, rescue dogs, the Adirondacks and loom maintenance.  Their exchange is easy, like a beloved nephew and aunt.  Like peers.  Like friends.

They both look wonderfully fortunate to me.

Bravery

I spotted the boy first.  A fair-headed toddler with the ambition –if not the arm extension—to reach the hand towels all by himself.  Up on his tiptoes, he wiggled and stretched his fingers toward the sensor. His small grunts only rumbled out as giggles.

His mother and I watched for an extra heartbeat before she fanned a hand in front of the red light.  The box whirred and dispensed a length of paper towel. The boy was elated.  His mother and I exchanged a knowing glance: they first fall in love with their impact on the world at that age.

“How old?” I ask.

“Two,” his mother says, reaching for the bathroom door.  “Let’s go, buddy.”

He slaps the paper towel until it submits into a loose ball and dunks it into the trash bin. He exclaims in an indiscernible cheer, but still his mother responds, “That’s right, buddy.”

The door closed quietly behind them, and I was still smiling into the mirror. Toddlers are a tumble of curiosity and courage.  Cute ones are irresistible.

In the lobby lounge, I see the mighty half-pint and his mom again.  There’s another mother and two girls seated with them on couches near the piano.  I introduce myself and start chatting up the girls.  Hannah is 10 and Tracy is nine. The little one, Oliver, is Hannah’s  little brother. The mothers’ husbands are cousins, which makes the whole caboodle of them cousins.

“There are 10 of us on this trip,” Oliver and Hannah’s mother says.

“Seven kids and three adults,” adds Hannah’s mom.

They’re on the final day of a three-day excursion from Michigan. The mothers were content to let me talk with the girls (once their Spidey senses had given me the once over, of course) while they sipped on lemonades, seemingly relieved to be sitting still.  The respite for Oliver’s mom was cut short, however.  He squirmed and fidgeted until she scooped him up to walk the lobby and climb the staircase.

They need help expending all that nap-resistant energy at that time of day.

I learn that the girls are veteran travelers, as their families vacation roughly twice a year.  I ask what they miss most about being away from their bedrooms.

“My bed,” Hannah says. “It’s very comfy.”

“I miss my chair,”Tracy says. “It’s got a big cushion and it’s shaped like a bowl.”

“What color is it, pink?” I ask.

The girls wrinkle their noses.  “Zebra print,” Tracy says.

The girls are beginning to warm, relax and chatter. Tracy’s mother relaxes a bit too.  I turn on the charm to keep the girls engaged so that she can slip into a mental escape for a few minutes. Moms get so weary at this point of the vacation.

The girls tell me about neon clothes, liking sports and dressing girly, swimming in hotel pools, new teachers in the fall, pen pals they have in Italy and Colorado.  While they talk, Oliver is back and he’s trying to force feed me bits of trail mix.  I continue to hold up my end of the conversation with the girls, but my non-note-taking hand is tickling Oliver’s side.  They force your multitasking abilities at that age.

The girls have meandered onto the topic of Things I Was Once Afraid to Try.  Hannah tells of how it took being called a chicken to get her on a rollercoaster.

“I guess I had height-o-phobia, or something,” she says.  So accidentally clever at that age.  “I’ll ride them all the time now.”

Tracy was nervous to stand on her first pair of ice skates.  Now she’s a seasoned performer.  In fact, one of the stops during their Milwaukee stay will be a fitting for a specialty pair of skates.

“What else brings you to the city?” I ask.

They told me about their ride on the S.S. Badger, the largest car ferry to sail Lake Michigan.

“If you have kids, you really should try it,” says Tracy’s mom.  “We did it once before, when they were really little.”

“I don’t remember it at all,” inserts Tracy.

I turn my attention to the moms and repeat my bravery question.  “What’s something you had to build up some bravery to do?”

The mothers exchange smiles weighted with fatigue.  “Taking a boat trip across Lake Michigan with seven kids,” says Tracy’s mom.

Summertime, children and memory-making can make mothers so very, very brave.

Incognito

 

“So, who’s going to read this? Where will it be published?”

I suppose this is what it’s like to talk with a spy or an undercover agent.

 

“Do you have to use my real name?”

Or a fugitive from the law.

 

“You’re not going to mention where I work, are you?”

Or, maybe, someone in witness protection.

 

“I just don’t like to have my business out there.”

 

As someone who has broadcast innumerable episodes of my personal life into print or a microphone, I was wholly intrigued by this Spy Agent Fugitive Mob Murder Witness.

“Are you baffled by people who aren’t as protective of their privacy?” I ask.

I didn’t expect him to hold judgments against those folks (ahem, me), but I did wonder whether he had a reflex of curiosities when he saw the unabashed and aggressively social in action.  I, for example, will invariably mutter “how,” “why” and “what tha-” if I witness a parent getting publicly sassed by their kid.  It’s such a foreign phenomenon to me (I didn’t, my sister didn’t, my parents didn’t, my aunts and uncles didn’t, my cousins didn’t, my children better not ever…), I’m sure my jaw still hangs open whenever I see such a spectacle.

But Spy Agent says he doesn’t have the same incredulous thoughts about the gregarious public types.

“Everyone has to do their own thing,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “Some people like to keep themselves out there.  Me, I don’t need to be seen.”

I will share that the Spy Agent Fugitive Mob Murder Witness works in an undisclosed location, for an unidentified global company, and is an alumni of an unnamed local university.  He has an unverified number of children and has been married for a generally significant number of years.

“I’m just a low-key type of guy,” he says with a sly smile.

I ask what brings him to the Pfister (I can only divulge that we were somewhere inside the property) and he explains that whenever he finds himself downtown with time to fill, he comes here to get work done .

“Actually, I go to a lot of places along Mason Street.”

Right. Of course.

“Have you always been like this? I ask.

He considers. “For the most part,” he says, “but it really kicked in after college.  I found it easier to maneuver through life this way.”

Spy Agent assured me there wasn’t a public scandal in his past or an egregious betrayal to set him on this course.  Rather, he determined the best way to minimize drama is to minimize his exposure to dramatic situations and people.

“The world is made up of folks who tend to be haters,” Spy Agent says. “They learn a little about you and then start concerning themselves with where you’ve been, what you’ve got, who you hang out with and all that. I don’t need that stress.”

He mentioned that his wife, conversely, is heavily involved in the community and a social network.  “Way more people know my wife,” he says.

I ask, then, how they balance their lives as Introvert and Extrovert. Spy Agent promptly corrects me.

“I’m not an introvert at all,” he says. “I’m extremely sociable.  People who know me, know all sides of me.  I’m not shy or any of that.”

“So what is it?” I ask.

“I want to do things when I want to, and I don’t always need people,” he says simply.  “I’ve had people mistake that for arrogance or being antisocial.  Some have taken it personally.  I’ve even been called a few names. With the exception of my wife, I could go days without interaction.  I can’t help how other people see it. I only care about my peace of mind.”

I nod in slow deference, finally understanding Spy Agent’s perspective.  I, too, am social when I choose to be and unapologetic when I opt, instead, to bunker in my house. Spy Agent was overflowing with personality but, in equal measures,  determined to filter only the best of best-case scenarios into his personal time. I asked how he spends those pockets of undisturbed time.

“California.”

He says that and his wife became “winos” about two years ago and escape to a winery in Southern California every few months.

“Beautiful,” Spy Agent says. “The estate. The hills. The patio. Not a cloud in the sky. Not any kind of schedule. It’s the perfect getaway.  Completely laid back.  That’s what I’m about: being laid back.”

Got it.  I ended up having quite an engaging conversation with Spy Agent, once I’d gotten past his security screen.  As I begin to wrap up, I explain the hotel blog and Narrator program again, snap a faceless photo, get his follow-up information.

“Will I get to sign off on what you’ve written?”

“What if I don’t approve?”

“Take another photo. I don’t think my laptop should be open.”

“No names, right?”

Right.  You’ve got it absolutely right.

Good Genes

Zoom in close. The young performer engages every facial feature to deliver this song.  Pan out slowly, generic take in her full frame.  She’s comfortable at the microphone and at home behind her guitar.

Her singing is inspired and sincere. The lilt and texture of her voice is an appealing mix of Toby Lightman, buy cialis Stevie Nicks and Sara Bareilles. Pan out a bit further to take in the late afternoon sun lighting the furniture of Blu. Most of the chairs are empty. Two small tables chat in the back of the room.  One other person is with me at the bar. We’re both nodding along with the singer.

Her next song tickles a distant thought. “That sounds familiar,” I say, curling my face into a question mark, trying to remember. “I can’t think of–”

“It’s ‘Lights’,” my bar mate tells me. “It’s been playing on the radio a lot lately.”

I admit to him that I wasn’t familiar with the song, but liked how it suited her voice. He turned back to the performer and I smiled at myself, appreciating the life reminder about judging books and covers. Why couldn’t this silver-haired man wearing a t-shirt and shorts and enjoying a lager beer be familiar with the Billboard Top 100? Shame on me.

I learn that his name is Dan. He’s a designer for a fabrications company, creating plastic moldings for car dashboards, cell phones, keyboards and other manufacturing companies.   He’s lives in Madison, but is originally from Fort Atkinson.

“Are you a musician, too?” I ask.

He laughs, “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. All of my kids are really creative, though.  My wife and I don’t know where they got it from.”

We laugh about the traits that children will assume, both because of and in spite of genetics.

“There are parts of them that are so familiar and parts that are so uniquely them,” Dan says. “Like, when Katie first starting playing–”

Dan’s grin turns sheepish, and he tosses a thumb over his shoulder to the guitar player. “That’s my daughter,” he said. “I’m her roadie today, carrying all the heavy stuff.”

We talked a bit more watching our children bloom. How much he marvels at his two grandsons. That he enjoyed his own childhood. In mid-sentence, Dan’s face brightens with surprise and he smiles broadly at two women entering the lounge.

“These are two of my sisters,” Dan says, between hugs. As they settle at the bar, one sister introduces herself to me. Eileen.  She’s the oldest.  They’ve traveled from Madison to see Katie play, deciding to make an overnight adventure of the trip.  I catch her up on our conversation, sharing Dan’s comment about musical ability skipping a generation.

“It’s true,” she says, her face lighting up. “I knew Dad could play guitar, but I didn’t know how good he was until I was an adult.  It’s not like he had time to play much when we were all growing up.”

“He was a World War II vet,” Dan adds. “When he came home, I guess he was busy making up for lost time.”

Eileen laughed and turned to me to explain: “There were six of us in a span of nine years,” she said, smiling. “Good Irish Catholics.”

Their father passed away more than two decades ago, but the two siblings lobbed memories of his good nature as if they were last-summer fresh:

“If someone showed up to our house, he would get on the phone and start calling people to come over.”

“Remember the slip and slide!?”

“He got a tarp, a water hose and a bunch of dish liquid to make a huge 15-foot by 10-foot slip and slide.”

“He could make anything into a party.”

“Cousin Tommy always knew he could crash at our house.”

“He walked to the house from Elkhorn once.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“My dad always had a soft spot for Cousin Tommy,” Eileen says to me. “He’d been in Vietnam.”

“A paramedic,” Dan says.  “He saw the worst of everything.”

“Yeah, the worst,” Eileen says solemnly. “Dad understood what Tommy was dealing with.”

The lounge has begun to fill with people, many of them here for Katie.  She takes a set break and starts making her rounds with hugs. Dan is to his feet, too, shaking hands, patting backs, hugging family, laughing.

I lean back to admire their tangle of arms, conversations, smiles.  Even if they can’t trace every talent to a sponsoring gene, love of family is clearly a dominant trait that they share.

So Fast

… and then it was over.  More than a year of searching, planning, budgeting and finger crossing, reduced to a memory in an instant.

“Everyone tells you it will go by fast,” said Ashley, “but I remember thinking ‘it’s a whole day, how fast could it go?’”

I’m with Ashley and her husband, Luke, on the mezzanine above the lobby. We’re surrounded by art, antique furniture and display cases filled with artifacts. This sitting area is the quickest to access from the lobby –just up the marble staircase- and often the quietest. We tucked ourselves into this enclave to mute the bustle of incoming guests, fast-moving staff, bee lines for the bar and a scampering cluster of bridesmaids.

Exactly one year ago, the gang of girls crossing the lobby in matching dresses would’ve belonged to them.

“It took a whole week to recover from all that work,” Luke said with a laugh. Fortunately, they “convalesced” in Cabo San Lucas.

Ashley and Luke were invited to return to the hotel as winners of the “I Do: Part Deux” Pfister wedding photo contest.  They won a weekend stay, services in the WELL spa, flowers, dinner and a photography session. The unexpected bonus was winning the package in time for their anniversary.

Sitting with me, Ashley responds to most of the questions. The couple look at one another often.  Checking in. Transmitting messages with their eyes. Comfortable.

“Now that you have a year under your belts,” I asked, “what part of married life has surprised you most?”

They look at each other, smiling and gauging.

“I realize how much I enjoy my personal time,” Ashley braves.  “When he’s out, I can veg out, watch what I want.”

Luke chuckles, unfazed by the admission. He said, “I realize that when she wants the dishes washed, she wants them washed now.”

We all laugh.

Luke and Ashley knew each other in high school, but never spoke until years after graduation when they recognized one another at a bar.  The romance was intense and fulfilling.  Luke said the wedding went just the way he’d grown up seeing them in the movies: surrounded by friends and family; everyone gushing about the beautiful room, the beautiful food, the beautiful dresses; the wedding party all cleaned up and strutting their stuff; showing off the rings; drinking; dancing. I asked Luke if he’d had any requests (or demands) for the day.

“Bow ties,” he said.  “That’s all I wanted. Everything else was all about her. ” He’s easy going, leaning back in his chair, unhurried in his responses, generous with his smile.  He’s not a big guy, but he looks sturdy and strong.  “I think that’s the way it should be. This was her dream.”

I raise an eyebrow toward Ashley. Behind the flush, she’s beaming, not at me but at Luke.

“Every morning when he leaves for work, he kisses me goodbye and tucks me back under the covers,” she said.

“I don’t have to ask for things,” Luke adds. “She makes my lunch, lets me watch my sports shows.”

They make more Couple Eye Talk.

We talk a bit about the planning, the changes, a missing tuxedo shirt, the long greeting  line. I realize it’s almost time for their next itinerary treat.

“What’s your favorite moment in that blur of a day,” I asked.

“My dad telling me jokes down the aisle to help me keep it together,” Ashley said.

Luke said, “When the door opened and I saw her in this dress I kept hearing about.”

Ashley looks at him warmly. Luke doesn’t turn, just smiles.

 

…and then it was over.  The calendar date, anyway.  Their lifelong celebration, on the other hand. That’s just getting started.

 

Quietude

The first thing seized is the nose. The smell is, at once, familiar and exotic: chocolate, ginger, hyacinth, grandma’s house and ocean breeze. This must be the scent of ambrosia.

Next, the eyes take in the organic symmetry of the room: open and clean lines, recessed nooks and uncluttered walls, multiple sitting areas, oversized planters and ottoman.  The space is bathed in comforting tones of caramel and sand. Soft leather.  Textured fabrics. Brushed metals. Polished glass. The décor is resplendent refined, the livable chic of a Park Avenue apartment (or, I should say, how I imagine a Park Avenue apartment).

I’m in the waiting area for the Well Spa + Salon. One woman is waiting with me.  She is in a sitting area closer to the entrance,  pressing the keypad of her cell phone.  She’s cozy on her leather island and I’m comfy on mine.

A tall woman with the angular limbs of a runway model appears from a hallway. She is dressed in slim black pants and a loose black blouse draping from one shoulder.  Her heels snap rhythms against the hardwood.

“Collette?” she asks.  The cell phone woman is ushered from her private island into the salon behind a frosted glass door.

A young guy with a high and fanning mohawk saunters through the waiting room, his oil dispenser hooked onto one of his belt loops. His eyes face ahead of him, but he wears a faint smile, like it’s carrying a lingering joke. More therapists and stylists criss cross the waiting room: a short, dark-haired woman; a tall, pregnant blonde; a thick-hipped brunette; an average-in-every-way soccer mom; a long sculpted ponytail.  They all wear black. They all wear pleasant expressions. They all move swiftly. What’s most notable, however, is how they all make minimal eye contact.  Each passes with the quiet and deliberateness of a river ebb.

As each guest arrives, I wanted to ask a battery of questions, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to disturb this shared quietude to ask whether this spa trip was a ritual or a special treat. If there was a specific stressor they hoped to have kneaded from beneath their skin. If they were still searching for a stylist to call their very own. Did the therapists approach each landscape of skin with a different sense of adventure. How do they relax when they’re not shepherding clients into zen?

Years ago, I remember sitting in a nail shop, my feet massaged by bubbling jets and my nails drying in painted gloss. The salon hummed with luxuriating customers until one voice began to peel away the soothing ease.

He was perched in the high chair next to me, his girlfriend next to him. One after the other, to seemingly no one in particular, he lobbed commentary about the warm water, the antibacterial spray to his toes, the antics playing out on television, the storm forecast, etc.  I’m sure the couples’ pedicure was a great idea when his girlfriend first thought of it.

“First time?” I finally asked.

He nodded, broad smile.

“Very different from the barber shop,” I said, smiling back.  “You get to just sit back and relax.”

He looked around. The technicians and their clients were leaning in close to trade quiet conversations, if they spoke at all; a few customers bantered lightly across aisles; some murmured into cell phones; most flipped through magazines, sat quietly or gazed up to the television. Understanding dawned on my neighbors’ face. He leaned back and embraced the quiet.

Once again, here in the Well Spa, I share a rich silence with strangers. It feels sacred. Or, maybe, this “right now” is the blessing. Our intersection of lives might have in common a precocious toddler, a fiesty dog, a new lease, an ailing friend or nothing at all.

I retreat into my notebook, welcoming the ease of not having to fill my mouth with words or drawing reluctant sounds from someone else’s. We are cocooned here, soothed with calming sights and smells, cradled in a suspended stillness.  Though I won’t be guided into the skilled hands of a masseuse or a stylist as I leave the waiting room, I ascend the staircase into the hotel lobby feeling wholly renewed.

… and One to Go

Tom and Marge are almost there. One kid is halfway through college and the other has just vacated the guest room.

“You’re not off duty when your kids turn 18,” says Tom. “Not even when they’re out of college. A good friend warned me long ago that 30 is the new cutoff.”

Marge is wearing an “Illinois State Mom” tee shirt, which is what initially caught my attention. I earned my undergrad degree from Illinois State University and was pleased to see the unexpected Redbird pride.

“Our daughter is studying communications,” she said. “She’ll be a sophomore.”

Their son, the firstborn, the graduate, had studied accounting.  After a prolonged search and a move back home, he recently landed an accounting gig, complete with an office to finally mount his well-earned degree. Tom and Marge tell me he was back home in Chicago –at that moment– unloading cardboard boxes into his first grown up apartment.

Marge is distracted by her cell phone. “It’s him,” she said, smiling down to the phone screen.

“Ask him if he saw Colvin hit,” Tom says excitedly across the table. She doesn’t reply. “Ask him about Colvin.”

Marge’s slender fingers are nimble across the keypad. He watches for a moment, waiting, but she doesn’t look up.  Tom turns to me and tells me about baseball, how his family loves the game, how he hopes to visit every major league ball park.

“Just visit and tour,” I ask, “or will it only count if you see a game?”

Tom pinches his face, disapproving of my absurd suggestion. “A game,” he said. “Gotta see a game.”

The Cardinals played the Colorado Rockies that night, I learned.  Marge rejoined the conversation, “He saw it. They took a break from unpacking.”

More accurately than “rejoined the conversation,” I should say that  Marge was finished with her text conversation.  She would politely engage with us when pressed but, mostly, she listened as Tom and I talked. Initially, I worried that she was annoyed with my questions.  Then, I thought she was feeling drained from a full day in the sun or weary due to the late hour. When Tom announced that it was their 27th wedding anniversary, however, I recognized Marge’s nonplussed posture as simply a patient immunity to her husband’s enthusiasm for talking to strangers.

“Twenty-seven years,” I say. “What segments were the hardest with your kids?”

“It was scary when they were learning how to drive,” Marge said without effect. “They’re a lot more fun now that they’re out of their teens.”

“The elementary years were my favorite,” Tom said. “It was seventh and eighth grade that frustrated the hell out of me.”

Marge looks up from a menu. “You have to pick your battles,” she said.

“Yeah, you gotta pick your battles,” Tom said, flinging his hands into the air for emphasis. “She would always tell me that, but it wasn’t always easy.”

His smile was at once sheepish and precocious. I could imagine their span of years punctuated with fits of laughter, tight-jawed debates, picnics in the living room, beers in the backyard, a four-bicycle parade through the park. I could also imagine a catalog of skinned knees, broken toys and near-disasters. Every family has them, especially families with children.

“I kept reminding my kids that every sly move they were thinking of, we’d probably thought it or done it,” Tom says. “Smoking, drinking, making out, fighting, all of it. Kids want to believe they’re so clever when they’re young.”

“Just like we did,” I remind him.

“They appreciate things now,” Marge adds.

Tom smiles at his wife, settled by some truism. “Yeah,” he says, his voice sloped at the edges now. “It’s a great feeling when they start asking for your advice again.”

Marge and Tom have another night in Milwaukee. Both have family within an hour of the city and have decided to include the summer drive as part of their anniversary getaway. I congratulate them on their celebration and on getting their kids safely into adulthood.

“Whatever will you do with all that space and free time?” I ask, teasing.

Tom looks to Marge and then turns to me with an all-star’s smile. He leans in, speaking slowly and deliberately: “Whatever we want to.”

Optimization

“I don’t have the personality to keep asking questions that someone doesn’t want to answer,” Dustin says.  “I’m not imposing enough and I don’t like to make other people uncomfortable.”

Coupled with a dawning shrinkage of the newspaper industry, Dustin abandoned plans for a journalism career toward the end of college.

“I was too far along in the program to change majors and still graduate on time,” he said, “but I realized my interest in print journalism was going to be a dead issue.”

We’re sitting in the Café late in the afternoon. Only two other tables are occupied.  I’m grateful for the relative quiet. I sip my coffee but Dustin says he’s already hit his limit for the day. He’s affable, with boyish blonde hair, a scruff of facial hair and eyeglasses.  His ruddy cheeks dimple when he smiles, which is a lot, and I like him instantly.

Dustin has his laptop on the table in front of him, closed.  Maybe he was working on something before I arrived.  Maybe he wants to be prepared for an urgent Internet search while we’re talking. We’re supposed to meet about posting and tweeting and streaming and making things viral, all of which we cover.  The story of how he ended up sitting across from me in the Pfister coffee shop, however, was much more interesting.

Born and raised in Waukesha, every benchmark in Dustin’s life took place within walking distance from his childhood home: elementary school, middle school, high school.  Even his college years transpired a short two miles away.  He didn’t have any etched intentions on moving away.  Most of his neighborhood friends and college pals are still there.  Landing in Milwaukee–the “big city” by many Wisconsin accounts—has re-shaped him in unexpected ways.

“I kindof regret not traveling abroad in college now,” he says.  “I used to be the way my friends are now; the idea of traveling to Milwaukee was daunting. Moving to, maybe, London may be a bigger move for someone else.  For me, my apartment and my dog and my job, all in Milwaukee, has been the beginning of a new and exciting reality.”

Dustin earned his degree from Carroll College and set out to leverage his intrigue with news and words into a career course.  He worked odd jobs for a potato chip distributor, a grocery store and even a cemetery before brokering a post-graduate internship with a eCommerce company.  After a year, Dustin parlayed the gig into a full time job, plunking himself into a newly-formed position of Social Media Specialist.

“In high school, I would post a lot of personal, introspective material on Facebook back then,” he says. “And I blogged daily. When I look back at the things I wrote, I was a completely different person.  I’m much, much happier now.”

With only this pedestrian knowledge of social media programs, Dustin developed a consumer engagement strategy that grew the company’s social media community from 7500 people to nearly 150,000. He studied the trends, consumed news about new platforms and software enhancements and testing new campaigns to “engage clientele in their social spheres.”

Shop talk? Impressive.

“I totally made it up as I went,” Dustin said.  “They wanted to be more deliberate across their social platforms and I figured I was as good of a candidate as any to get it done.”

Dustin continued his career strides, recently securing a new job as Social Media Manager for Milwaukee’s Marcus properties, which includes the Pfister. He travels between multiple offices in the course of a day, working closely with marketing directors and property teams.

“I’m super excited about the work,” Dustin said.  “I’m up for the challenge. I realize, though, that I like having my space: sitting at my desk, with my pictures, my Hulk action figures. I’m getting the hang of all these new things. I’m getting used to being a nomad.”