Strangers become friends over food, paint and travel stories

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Last week, artist-in-residence Stephanie Barenz, executive chef Brian Frakes and I hosted an evening of painting, eating and travel story telling. Nine people attended the event, called “Gathering Of The Senses,” which took place in Stephanie’s studio.

Each participant submitted a photo from a recent vacation to trace onto a canvas and then paint after a brief instruction session by Stephanie. Sue’s photo was taken in Ireland; Grace’s in Istanbul; Erin’s in New Orleans; Cathy’s in Amsterdam; Randy’s in Gettsyburg; Hannah’s in Germany and Karen and Lori’s photos were from a trip they took together to Prague.


Jenni’s photo was from Chicago, but then went on to say she actually had never been to the Windy City. For a moment I was perplexed, but then she explained she came to the event at the last minute with Erin, whose original date was ill and could not attend. (#goodsport!)

During the painting time, the participants told me the stories behind their travel photos / paintings. I felt moved by and connected to much of what they said, especially considering I have been to every place they were painting with the exception of Ireland and Istanbul.

However, both Istanbul and Ireland are high on my lists of places I want to travel.

Just last month, I met a friend in the Pfister’s Lobby Bar after her trip to Instanbul. It was the first trip she took without her husband who had passed away unexpectedly the year before. I was so enamored with her photos and travels I bought a book, “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk, and my partner and I vowed to go some day.

I have also always wanted to go to Ireland. I told Sue that even though my name is Molly and my beer of choice is Guinness, I am not Irish (even though people always ask) but I love all things Irish – including my partner who is 5/8th Irish.

Sue’s Ireland story was very touching because even though her mother passed away when she was 12, she felt her presence while visiting the same places she had been as a young girl.

Erin’s story of traveling in New Orleans with her sister was wonderful, too. She said it was during that trip that she and her sister evolved from siblings to true friends. This choked me up a bit as I am somewhat estranged form my sister for reasons that are unclear to me and I also have had some of my best life moments in the city of New Orleans.

The warm and adventuresome stories went on and on. Hannah reunited with family in Germany; Lori and Karen had the time of their lives in Prague despite the rain.

Cathy told us of boating atop the canals in Amsterdam and her husband, Randy, who is a history buff, had a fantastic time in Gettysburg.


Chef’s dinner was truly a first for me – since I am not much of a foodie – but everything was absolutely delicious, from the firesalt kiln baked beef marrow (served in a bone) to the firecracker tempura mini flounder to milk chocolate malted mousse. The fact that all of the menu items were inspired by chef’s travels made the cuisine even more meaningful.


The four glasses of wine that accompanied the meal got everyone even chattier and sharing more of themselves as the evening went on. This was my favorite part of the event, having the chance to connect with random, fun, interesting people whom I never would have met or gotten to know without the Pfister connection.

“When people come into my studio or to one of my gallery events I usually only get to talk to them for a few minutes,” Stephanie later said to me. “It was wonderful to spend an entire evening with a small group of people and really get to know them. I loved teaching them my painting process, learning about their personal travel stories and sharing a special meal prepared by our Executive Chef.”

A couple days after the event, I looked at photos of all of the finished paintings from the evening and wrote a haiku about each one. I then mailed the haiku on a postcard to each participant. When I dropped the postcards in the mailbox I felt a little wistful as it marked the end of a magical evening.

Would you put this in your coffee?

In my eight months as the Pfister Narrator, I’ve learned a lot about traveling, hotels, art, people and, just last night, trends in coffee.

I sat down next to Ron and Jonathan in the Lobby Bar and noticed they were both enjoying tall, black coffees. We started chatting and I asked them if they were digging their drinks.

“Absolutely,” said Rob. “We love coming here to drink coffee, eat these delicious snacks and listen to Dr. Hollander play the piano.”

“Do you always drink black coffee?” I asked.

“Well not always,” said Jonathan. “Sometimes we put a little butter in them.”

Wait butter? As in butta?

“Yeah,” said Jonathan. “I don’t eat breakfast and I know it’s an important meal and so the butter adds a little nutrition.”

They went on to explain to me that butter also provides a creaminess and richness to the coffee that is really delicious. Even though butter is a dairy like cream – a more common coffee condiment – I still could not wrap my mind around the concept for some reason.

So, I went home and did a quick Google search, only to realize butter in coffee is a thing – a trend – based on an ancient tradition.

Recently, it’s become increasingly practiced because some drinkers find that extra calories increase their energy levels throughout the day. It’s particularly popular among individuals on the heavy in protein / low in carbs “paleo diet.”

There was really only one way to form an opinion on butter coffee and that was, of course, to try it. And so, this morning, I did.

The creaminess of the butter serves the same purpose as milk or cream – it cuts back the bitterness of coffee and adds a silkiness to the drink.

That said, I wont be tossing a stick of butter in my coffee pot anytime soon, but I always appreciate the chance to try something new and step outside my usual routine.

But I’m drawing the line at raw eggs in my coffee. That’s one dairy product that needs to stay far, far away from my  mug.

Our art-related stories

On Friday night, Pfister artist in residence Stephanie Barenz and I hosted a storytelling event in the Rouge Ballroom in conjunction with Gallery Night. Nine local artists told 5-minute stories around the theme of art. The audience picked the winner – Anja Notanja Sieger – who won a night at the Pfister and dinner for two at the Mason Street Grill.

Stephanie and I thought this event was the perfect way to celebrate her last gallery night as the artist in residence. We are both storytellers, but in different ways. I tell stories through words, and she through visual art.

This weekend, we honored another form of storytelling that’s the oldest and the most common: the oral tradition. We really enjoyed hearing all of the artists’ stories and decided to share our own as well.

“Red Boots” by Molly Snyder

It was the summer of 2009 and everything was about to change. I didn’t know it at the time, but I felt it. Meanwhile, I busied myself with projects and work and, above all, mothering my two young sons.

At first, the nagging was a quiet ache in my stomach, but eventually, it brought my brain on board and I dreamed of cracking open empty walnuts and fortune cookies stuffed with paper messages reading “something is wrong.”

I lived with the perplexing ache and dreams for years. Sometimes, a feeling of clarity and relief would wash over me for a few seconds, and I would stop in my tracks and actually ask aloud, “What? What am I supposed to do?”

In the middle of that fateful summer, artist Mike Frederickson caught one of these moments with his camera. I did not know it at the time. Mike was at the same street festival and – randomly and clandestinely – took photos of people to potentially paint later.

I remember this day clearly. I was wearing my favorite skirt at the time – the one the boys loved that was made from the retro-looking astronaut fabric – and my rhinestone-studded red cowgirl boots. It was a hot day and I was drinking a beer in the street, occasionally setting it down on the curb to pick up a sweaty, cranky boy.

At one point, I imagined just walking away and slipping away into the crowd forever. Instead, I sipped my beer and then picked up my younger son. “Shhhh, it’s going to be OK,” I told him.

In 2011, Mike sent me a Facebook message saying there was a painting of me at Jackpot Gallery in Riverwest. I was already a huge fan of Mike’s incredibly realistic-looking paintings and could not wait to see it.

A few days later, I walked through the gallery doors, and there it was, front and center. Massive. Me. My son. My former life. Much to my surprise, I started to cry.

A year later, while making my final payment on the painting, I tried to explain to Mike why it moved me so much. I told him that he captured a period of my life painfully perfectly, and that every time I looked at the painting, I wanted to climb inside of it and warn 2009 me that everything was going to get so much worse and so much better. But more than anything, I wanted to tell 2009 me that I did the right thing by listening to the ache and I would never regret my choices.

Mike listened to my ramblings. And then he smiled, cocked his head and said, “I just really liked your boots.”


“Opinions Are Like …” by Stephanie Barenz

Someone asked me a while back if as an artist I had ever encountered harsh criticism. The answer I gave was a resounding, “YES!” And as I continue to pursue my career and hopefully become more established I can only imagine that it will get worse.

A friend of mine has been in and out of counseling the last few years. When I asked him how his sessions were going he replied that the most valuable piece of advice he received from his psychologist thus far was, “Opinions are like a-holes, everyone has one and they usually, always, stink.”

Why do we care what people think? Oh wait, I know, we all want to be heard and validated. I have been called some pretty awful things, as I am sure you have, too. The following comments were either said to my face or I found out about them later through the grapevine. Here is a sampling that relate to my career:

“You aren’t an artist.”

“You don’t think like an artist.”

“Your work sucks.”

“Your work is too feminine.” (I see that one as a compliment, even though it was not intended that way.)

“Bleh, your work sucks.” (that one is different from above, because it had a gag response before it.)

“You are so naïve.”

“Your work is way too decorative.”

“Your work is not original because you stole my color palette.” (Sorry, I didn’t know you owned the rainbow.)

“Stephanie doesn’t know what she is doing.”

“I am worried Stephanie won’t go anywhere.”

“I walked into your studio and was like, ‘What is going on in here? This is a disaster.’”

“Your work looks like a graphic T-shirt.”(Irony here: the person was wearing a graphic stretched-out v-neck T-shirt.)

You know why these were so hurtful? Because a lot of them were things I had voiced silently to myself. Here is another thought, your opinions of yourself usually stink, too. We have all heard it before but you have to be your biggest champion. There are people out there who will insult you so you shouldn’t take the time to do that yourself.

When I was a kid, the school bully called me fat. When I went home crying to my mom, she told me that this kid’s dad was in prison and that people who are hurting usually say hurtful things to others. While this is a simple lesson, it was probably one of the most valuable I ever learned. I saw the bully in a new way, someone who was operating out of hurt and pain.

I know in my insecure moments, I have ripped some very innocent parties to shreds. It isn’t something I am proud of, but nonetheless we are all guilty of this behavior. Whenever I am criticizing someone I try to ask myself if I am doing it out of a place of hurt or insecurity.

So the lesson I learned from all of this is that opinions usually stink, just don’t listen to them. Find a group of people who have your back and can be honest with you. Seek out constructive criticism, don’t listen to the rest, and make sure you aren’t your biggest bully.

Discussing dentistry: from the art of whitening to biting down on that goop

For the second year in a row, here the Pfister hosted employees of Henry Schein, a worldwide distributor of medical, dental and veterinary supplies. Although the company is based in New York, the dental headquarters are in West Allis, which is what brings the workers to Wisconsin.

Last night at the Lobby Bar, I chatted with one of Henry Schein’s employees about All Things Dental. Well, not All Things, but I did find out a few fascinating factoids.

However, I noticed after the group left the Lobby Bar to attend dinner that I never got his name. Guess I was too absorbed in our dental discussion to ask details.

Anyhoo …

Me: So what’s the hottest piece of dental equipment right now?

Him: Hottest? Wow. I never thought of it like that. But I’d say CAD/ CAM technology. It’s computer-aided design and manufacturing. Basically it means if you need a crown, for example, the dentist can scan your tooth with a wand and take a 3D image of it that’s then transmitted to a mill – that’s also in the office – which can make it immediately. People no longer have to have two or three dental appointments for minor or even major dental work anymore.

Me: So with this CAD/CAM technology people don’t have to make a mould of their teeth by biting down on that nasty goop?

Him: Nope. No more nasty goop.

Me: Wow. I need a new dentist.

Him: Well, most dentists aren’t there yet. Only about 25 percent are. That’s part of what we do – get more dentists to embrace the future of dentistry.

Me: Do you floss your teeth every day?

Him: Of course. I have to. It would be embarrassing as a person who sells dental supplies to have his dentist look at his teeth and say, “Really?”

Me: When they say “4 out of 5 dentists recommend” something in a commercial, is that usually true or marketing B.S.?

Him: It depends on the product and how much money they spent on the advertisement.

Me: Do you sell tooth whitening supplies?

Him: Yes.

Me: Can you actually get your teeth too white?

Him: Absolutely. And you can cause a lot of damage to your enamel. You can completely kill your enamel. It’s truly best to have it done by a professional.

Me: I want whiter teeth. Maybe I should just quit coffee.

Him: Oh, you can’t do that. Not here. Not with these “polar vortex” winters.

She wrote me a letter

Last week, sildenafil I walked into the Pfister lobby and I was told by Ken at the front desk that I had a letter. A letter! I love letters!

Turns out, cialis a woman who was just passing through the hotel for one evening had seen me on the recent Pfister documentary and wrote me a letter about her grandmother. Here it is.

Dear Narrator,

My grandmother Mary Kirkpatrick married Glen Morritt (I think this is his name – her handwriting was a bit difficult to decipher in parts) on Jan. 5, 1911. They took the train from Darlington, Wisconsin to Milwaukee to honeymoon at the Pfister. (Darlington is just over two hours west of Milwaukee.)

She was a lady and remained one her whole life, dying at age 94.

What fascinates me is that in that time she was a domestic and my grandfather a carpenter / farmer. But she always went first class and picked the Pfister.

I think it was remarkable she had the nerve to come and stay at the hotel considering the state of women in those days.


Elizabeth from California

I have so many more questions for Elizabeth, like why she was at the Pfister and if she came because she remembered her grandmother had stayed more than 100 years ago … But I will have to imagine the rest of this story.

In the mean time, I am going to handwrite a letter or two.

Pfister friends provide post-fire kindness

It seems to me that almost everyone I meet has a story about the Pfister Hotel. Take Don Sefton, clinic for example.

Don lives in Seattle with his husband and works as a senior event manager for Thomas Douglas Catering. I first contacted him this summer because I am writing an article for about an iconic Downtown Milwaukee apartment building called The Norman that burned down in the early 90s.

Don and his partner at the time lived in The Norman and he graciously and articulately shared his story with me about his devastating experience during and following the fire.

Through our conversations, which took place on Facebook and over the phone, I learned that in the early ‘90s Don worked at the Michael Lord Gallery, which used to be on the ground floor of the Pfister Hotel and, consequently, had a deep connection to the place.

“I always loved watching the designers decorate the main lobby for the holidays. Always so festive and tasteful,” says Don.

Don has a lot of stories from those days, but his most touching Pfister story is connected to the fire.

The morning that the fire broke out, Don was sitting on his couch reading the New York Times Cookbook when he first smelled smoke. Don lost the book along with everything he owned in the fire. He also lost two cats.

Even though he knows he was lucky to make it out alive – four people in the building did not – the fire still changed his life and his outlook on life forever. It also had a big impact on his decision to leave Milwaukee.

But before he did, he was working at the now-defunct Minutemen Press Downtown, and a few of his favorite customers worked in the Wisconsin World Trade Center, which was also in the Pfister building at that time.

“After the fire, the ladies went around their office and took up a collection for me in an envelope. One of the women and I always bonded over cooking, and so she bought me a new copy of the New York Times Cookbook with a private message on a card,” he says.

It was a gesture that has stuck with Don for two decades.

“I still think of their kindness, generosity and consideration,” he says. “And every time that I use the book, I think of the bond that I have shared with so many special people over food and cooking, and it is like so many small movies clicking on at once. I appreciate it so much.”

Plus, cooking for others – particularly fire fighters – is one way that Don has healed his post-fire pain and stress.

Don gets back to Milwaukee about once every four years and he always stops at the Lobby Bar to have a glass of wine or cocktail before venturing out into the city.

“The Pfister has a classic elegance, but is not pretentious or overly stuffy. It is grand but accessible and anyone can feel welcomed and relaxed,” he says.

When I finally get to meet Don Sefton someday, I know exactly where I am going to meet him. And I’m buying.


32 years ago tonight …

A Facebook friend – who I do not know in real life – just sent me a message that, with her permission, I am sharing.

Her message read “New Year’s Eve is always a special anniversary for my husband and I. Every year he whispers in my ear ‘today is our anniversary of our first date!’”

That first date took place 32 years ago tonight at The Pfister Hotel where the couple saw the band Arroyo.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 3.47.27 PM

“I made my own dress – and he liked it! We walked around the entire place, hand-in-hand. We had our first dance, and yes, a first kiss. The Pfister will always be a part of ‘our story.’ Thanks for the memories.”

The couple, Vanessa and Bob Johanning, live in Sussex and went on to raise a son and a daughter.

Along with her message, Vanessa, who is an artist, attached the photos in this blog – one of her and Bob and one of the ticket stub from the show.

“I realized something looking at this just now. My favorite and lucky number is 2 and his is 7. I never saw that before!” she wrote.

I asked her what was their secret, if any, to a long marriage.

“I heard him answer this question just two days ago. He said, ‘I never know what she will create next. I appreciate her uniqueness.’”

Vanessa refers to Bob as her “fate mate” and says they were met to be together.

“We bring out the best that each of us has to offer,” she wrote.

On behalf of the Pfister Hotel, I wish you, Bob and Vanessa, a creative, loving and adventuresome anniversary.

The case of the missing fruit plate

Once every few blue moons, I seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Christmas Eve was one of those nights. I came to the Pfister for a couple of hours before a holiday party and drifted around from the Lobby Bar to the lobby to Blu. During my wanderings, I noticed a family of four in every hotel locale I went to. We were even on the elevator together.

If I were a paranoid person, I would have thought they were following me. Or maybe they thought I was following them …

In any case, by the time we were all at Blu – I had seen them sitting on the couches in the lobby, in the Lobby Bar and on the elevator. Both curiosity and the question of a possible karmic connection made me feel like I had to approach them. Well, the karmic connection part isn’t true, but I was truly curious what was going on because, truth be told, they really didn’t look very happy.

I walked up to the family and told them who I was and asked how they were doing. It turns out, they had been in a series of “who’s on first” mis-communications and were now sitting in Blu still trying to sort it all out.

Here’s the deal: About an hour before, they had ordered two appetizers – nachos and a fruit plate – in the Lobby Bar, but there wasn’t anywhere to sit. So they asked if they could take the appetizers to Mason Street Grill just down the hallway and were told the plates would be sent there shortly. However, when they got to Mason, the restaurant was not open yet and so they went to the concierge who arranged for the appetizers to get sent to Blu. But, lo and behod, when they got to Blu, the staff had not been informed of the plan yet and and so still no appetizers.

“We actually thought you, Molly, were bringing our appetizers when you came up to us,” said the mother / wife.

“Oh,” I said. “I am sorry. I’m just the narrator with a beer in tow.”

I sat down anyway and I started talking with the family of four – Barbara and Ben and their two children – about Detroit. Ben works for Ford and hence he and his family are currently living outside of Detroit. I had just been there twice in a two years, travel writing about the city.

I went on to tell them I did not write a negative article about the city, instead two articles that were about the hopeful aspects of the area from victory gardens to new bars and restaurants in the Corktown neighborhood. Then we started really discussing the ups and downs of one the most controversial and sometimes misunderstood cities in the nation.

Before we knew it, the appetizers were there, along with heartfelt apologies from the staff.

They invited me to parttake in the appetizer eating. And it was Christmas Eve and I was laughing comfortably and enjoying a Guinness with people I just met but with whom felt like friends.

I really love a happy ending. Especially one that ends with food and drink.


Parents need Date Nights, too

Date night. This is one of my favorite word combos in the English language. The phrase conjures all sort of warm, buy cialis fuzzy images of candlelight, silver movie screens, red wine rings on paper napkins and hands brushing hands.

It was obvious to me that Amy and Patrick – snuggled up on the couch in front of the roaring fireplace at the Lobby Bar – were on a date. I almost didn’t intrude, cialis but then, I felt most drawn to them in the room, so I did.

It turns out, the couple was indeed on a Date Night to celebrate Amy’s birthday, which had occurred a few days prior. And as the parents of a two-year-old, cialis Amy and Patrick find Date Night even more special these days because of how rare they are.

“I spent my actual birthday at The Organ Piper Pizza,” says Amy, referring to a popular kid-friendly dinner spot in the city.

Amy isn’t complaining, mind you. The Organ Piper is actually an amazing place – one of the few like it left in the country – complete with a live organist who plays anything from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to the theme from “Fantasia.”

It truly is a good time, but it’s a different good time. It’s not a “sitting in front of a fire with your spouse and a cocktail” kind of fun.

Because let’s face it, being a parent, most of the time, requires a complete transformation of how one spends their free time. We trade in Conan for Elmo. We read books on how to make toddlers happy instead of best-selling biographies. We play trains instead of tennis.

And sometimes, we miss our old selves and The Things We Used To Do and we pine for those people who seemed more interesting versions of our burped-up-on selves with the tired eyes and the sensible boots.

But then we remember the most painful and liberating aspect of the whole parenting thing: childhood is fleeting. Everyone who has been through it reminds us how quickly it flies by. “In the blink of an eye,” they say.

We know that it’s true. We feel it every day as we watch them grow, one row of Lego at a time. We know that soon the whole house will be built and they will move away.

And we will get our grown-up lives back. We will eat more sushi and watch rated-R movies at 7 p.m. and buy new boots.

But in the mean time, we’ll whisper to them not to grow up so quickly, curse the red Lego stuck to the bottom of our foot and savor a Date Night or two whenever we can.

‘Twas the night before Pfist-mas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, health

and all through the Pfister

a few creatures were stirring,

some misses, some misters.




The stockings were hung

without a single demand

and stuffed with the sounds

from the piano man’s hands.




A few guests were asleep

in pillow-topped beds

with visions of lions

roaming in their heads.




The barkeep in his black suit

poured sparkling nightcaps

ensuring those still awake

would soon take long naps.


Then out on the street

horns started blaring

some sprang from their stools

some stayed seated, here not caring.


And from the cafe windows

they were stunned by what they saw:

Saint Nicholas himself

get out of a yellow taxi car.




His eyes, doctor how they twinkled

not a trace of the crabbies

and before going in

he triple-tipped the cabby.


He walked behind the bar

and went straight to work,

refilled everyone’s glasses

with a jolly wink and a smirk.




The guests toasted his kindness

as he left the festive lobby

“Merry Christmas to all

and go back to your room if you start to feel wobbly.”