Monday, December 31, 2012


In my mind, I'm superimposing a 30-year-old snapshot over the scene actually taking place. My father is prone on the carpet with my sister, two daughters and I sitting in a semi circle around him. A deck of playing cards has been shuffled and divided among us. My father is holding center court, explaining the game of Dirty Hearts like he was a reading an excerpt of the Illiad.

I remember this.

My father is hardly a florid or theatrical man, but has a way of making explanations seem monumental and deconstructing abstractions, like love or racism, into black and white grids of logic. After his military career, I hoped Daddy might become an educator. I could imagine him as the unyielding middle school teacher pushing unsuspecting underachievers to unexpected personal heights.  Or the college professor with "sold out" course sections every semester. Sadly, he wasn't the least bit interested in classrooms or lecture halls (he also has an exhausted tolerance for insolence and bureaucracy). Luckily for my sister, my daughters and me, classes at the Card Academy are in full swing.

The girls are 11 and 12 years old, sixth and seventh grade, respectively. My sister and I were around the same ages when we learned how to play Dirty Hearts, Gin Rummy and Spades. My sister and I spent a lot of time playing board games and cards then, since that was also the age we spent a lot of time being alternately grounded. On those week long stints of no TV, radio, outside or friends, the "free" sister would honor an unspoken truce of sibling solidarity and keep the other company for a spell.  Even on good days, we played games and cards. When I was heading off to college, my father declared it was time to learn the game Bid Whist, warning that I would not be permitted to accept my diploma if I hadn't mastered the game by graduation.
Daddy's animated and thorough tutorial with the girls has transitioned from Setup to Operations to Rules to Strategy, quizzing them along the way. My sister and I trade knowing grins as the girls listen to my father in earnest.  Again, he made us all feel like we were about to start an archaeological dig, disassemble a hydrogen bomb or draft the verbiage for a new nation's constitution.  Much to consider, but definitely manageable, as long as you remember how to pass along the Queen of Spades ...

Our practice rounds go horribly at first, but the girls start to get the hang of the game. Even if they don't become lifelong players, I am so grateful that they've had this early moment with my father. They can never know their "Poppy" the same way we know him as "Daddy," but when he speaks, he imparts so much of himself: intelligence, humor, wisdom, patience and discipline.  My father is merely giving them to instructions for a card game but it sounds like a love song to me.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Standing and Waiting

I always felt for the kids who were picked last for everything. Even now, my chest will ache at some silver screen footage of kids hoping for a pudgy finger to point in their direction, of them standing and waiting for someone to call their name and rescue them from another gym class Debacle.

In school, I was seldom among the first kids to get picked for kickball teams and group projects.  I was rarely the last kid standing, either. Falling in the middle, and playground politics being as volatile as they were, I could never be sure if "today might be the Last Kid day." It wasn't until I was finally making my way to one team or the other that the adrenaline and waves of anxiety would subside and I could, once again, acknowledge the existence and plight of other human beings. Relief was quickly replaced by pangs of guilt as the remaining cluster of classmates awkwardly stood and waited for someone to call their name, for someone to rescue them from Last.

I thought of this schoolyard scene, not ironically, as I imagined the last parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, waiting for someone to point at them, to hear their names being called.  Two hours after the unthinkable massacre, there were still parents waiting --hoping-- to be reunited with their children. With mounting waves of panic, they were standing and waiting to be rescued from Heartbreak.

Even the passing thought of losing a child is dizzying for a parent. The reality of losing a child drains a parent of thought, emotion, spirit and will. Watching the paramedics kneel over my son so many years ago and, subsequently, trailing their racing ambulance to Children's Hospital, I remember how eerie the waiting felt. The muted moments were void of any rambling thoughts, any trouble-shooting plans, not even any fully formed prayers. My entire being was committed to two things: watching and waiting. The only two words that echoed in my head were "God, please." Any energy that wasn't spent on hope, I used to try and quell the terror wrenching through my gut.  From the first phone call to the last rites, we waited two hours before  hearing the news that our son was gone.

Like so many people gripped by the perverse tragedy, I am heartbroken for every Newton family.  Hearing the description of parents left standing and waiting for news, however, is what moved me from a heavy heart to tears. I know that each second of waiting crashed violently into the next. That they felt the weight of every minute in their knees and on the slope of their shoulders. How the hours leaned into their chests until their breath came thin and weak.  For the days, weeks and lifetime stretching ahead, I pray for them all to once again discover peace. It will come. They will have to wait, but peace will find them again.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


We both pull a foot back up to the curb, calculating the narrowed opportunity for dashing across the street. The oncoming cars do not lurch forward. They are not as impatient as us. I look quickly to the traffic sign, for the little LED pedestrian guy. He's flashing red. I look back to the traffic, at the headlights pulling ahead, and acquiesce.

"It's not worth it," says the woman who had gauged her traffic-defying potential beside me.

"This would be the night we slip and fall," I say, shaking my head. Cars snake across our intersection.

"That would be an awful way to go," she says.

This strikes me as funny, for some reason. "Yeah," I say. "I'm hoping to give my people a better story to tell at my funeral."

We're both peeling back the beginning of a laugh.  Her voice is chiseled, textured. The caliber you wouldn't want firing threats or reprimands.

"I read about an actress who took a bunch of pills, and they found her with her head in the toilet," she said.

"Not in the toilet," I groaned.

"I don't care what people have to say after I'm dead," she said.  "It doesn't matter if they know how I died."

"But you'll know!" I insist.

She tosses her head back to free a hearty laugh.  I've always had good luck with people who surrender to joy this way.

"I'm not used to your Midwest ways," she says after a moment, and turns to demonstrate a processed, static smile. "I'm from the east coast. When everything is wrong, you see it."

I was told once that, elsewhere, waitresses refer to customers' neat nesting of their own dirty plates as The Midwest Stack. Congeniality, we've got in the bag.

"It's a practiced survival skill," I say.

"The laugh was good," she says.  "I've been remodeling."

"One room or everything?" I ask.

The little LED pedestrian guy lights up for us and we step into the intersection. My comrade moves swiftly, clutching books and binders to her body. She stands at about five foot four, with a revolution of graying chestnut spirals bouncing against her shoulders, keeping time with her steps.

She tells me about the broken sewage pipe. The spewing. The contractors. The boxes of everything she owns. She tells me about her unexpected travel to Baltimore and back. Baltimore and back. Her mother is ill. She asks me what I thought about Philadelphia when I visited.

I tell her about the sharp contrasts of neighborhoods, the cantina we ate in with an octopus on the patio roof, the Gil Scott Heron performance, the unplanned beauty of it all.

We've walked a little more than a block before reaching the Overture. She's in the middle of telling me about online dating.  I interrupt.

"I'm heading in here," I say, wanting to hear the end.

"I am too, but it's the other door," she says.  We keep walking. She picks up the end of her story.  "So, they told me that, even if I'm telling the guy 'no thank you,' their computer adds the reply to its algorithm and sends more just like him! So, don't be too nice. That's what I learned."

It's my turn to laugh.

I tell her about my online profile. My divorce. My writing. My youth program. The show I'm attending. She's heading to the literary revision panel.  We both think of staying in touch, but pull back our feet.  So many invitations evaporate once the moment passes.  My mother calls it vacation promises; they seem real on the horseback ride along the beach but unlikely once you're back in your real life loading groceries in your trunk.

I go for it anyway, and hand her a card. I'm not in the city often, but when I am I'd enjoy a leisurely coffee and conversation with this lively woman. Our not-near-death exchange felt purposed, somehow.  Lucky.

"Oh, good!" she says. She's genuine and enthusiastic. "Email me whenever you like. I'll email you back."

Honorary Fellow, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Wisconsin.

The universe is, once again, impressive. Just last week I was advised [read: threatened] by a close friend to start scouting fellowships.  I had nodded, though I wasn't convinced I could. Or should.

Lucky, in the divine sense.

I part ways with my curbside compadre, both us wishing the other a great event.  I took to the stairs, no hesitation in my steps.  Smiling at the gift in talking to strangers.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pfister: Laws of the Ladies Room

Laws of the Ladies Room

“I’ve lived in Milwaukee my whole life and never been to the Pfister.”
This is how Dana and I became best friends.  Okay.  Not really. We were more like Spontaneous BFFs, the kind you experience at intimate intersections, such as the ladies room.  What begins as a comment about hand soap, or the hour, or a fierce pair of shoes could  bloom into a confessional, a counseling session, a health consultation or even a plot.
The Laws of the Ladies room do not reflect those on the other side of our door.  First of all, time stands still. We can exchange full biographies, transcribe a complete cell phone directory, or annotate entire relationships in the time it takes to tinkle, lather, primp and adjust our pantyhose.  Second, judgment and the concept of “TMI” is suspended, like zero gravity on the moon. Finally, as quickly as we are seized with the pull of “sisterhood,” we accept that the bonds will fall from us like whispers once we toss our paper towels and exit.
I am drawn to the floor-to-ceiling window as I emerge from my bathroom stall.  I gaze down at the city’s glitter and shine when my new best friend leaves her stall and joins me to coo at the view.
“This is amazing,” Dana said.  “Milwaukee is so beautiful.”
I agreed and said she’d picked a gorgeous night to take in the view.
“It’s my anniversary,” she said.  “Seven years.”
“Ahh,” I said, raising my eyebrows, “the itch.”
Dana laughed, giving a little shrug with one shoulder.  She always does that thing with her shoulder.
“Whatever this year is called, we’re glad we made it,” Dana says, turning away from the window and heading to the basin to wash her hands.  I follow her.  Me and my homegirl, Dana, have always been big on hygiene. Like, this one time…
As we dry our hands, Dana explains how she and her husband wanted to do something different tonight, something they’d never done.  “We’re both homebodies,” she said. “If we do go out, we go to our regular neighborhood bar.  We never come downtown.”
She’s drawn to the window again.  Quietly, she repeats, “So beautiful.”
I offer to take her photo, apologizing in advance for the camera on my less-than-smart phone.  She’s been teasing me about this phone for the longest…
“I don’t like taking pictures,” Dana says, interrupting my disclaimer.  “They never turn out good.  I never look right.”
I look from her face to the sparkling night scene beneath us, and back to her.  “Look, I don’t about ‘looking right,’” I said. “I think you look like a woman enjoying her seventh wedding anniversary.”
I smile at her.  She knows we’re taking this picture.
After our 45-second photo shoot, Dana’s shoulders relax and the loose smile returns to her lips.  Intuitively, I know to feel profoundly happy for her, like a best friend would. We stop in front of the mirror one more time.  She pulls a panel of long brown hair behind her ear and I check my teeth for lipstick. We emerge from the ladies room adjusting our expressions as if masking traces of mischief. Classic.
I follow her in to Blu, wanting to congratulate her husband. (I wonder if he’s going to ask me about that …)  Watching his face strain to process the two of us approaching, all chummy and grinning, snapped us both back to reality. He would not be interested with the Laws of the Ladies Room, not our secret handshake, not our You-Go-Girl cheer, not our list ranking of sexy movie stars.  Not even the best places to find that brand of hair conditioner.  Instead, his face asked, “What took you so long?”
Dana and I let our giggles deflate into cordial pleasantries.  She introduced me as the hotel writer. I offered to buy their next round of drinks.  We all bid good night.  I made my way from the twenty-third-floor view and into the clear and real night. Dana and I were best friends for only six minutes but, by Law, it was all the time we needed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pfister: "Chatter"


The steady pacing is a ruse.  They navigated easily through an obstacle course of more than a dozen cardboard boxes outside the Imperial Ballroom.  I’ve orchestrated large events and will confess that set-up never runs this smoothly without precision planning. I was, most certainly, observing a pro team of volunteers.  The women floated amid the boxes like a quiet force before a storm.
Well, maybe not quiet.
“If we put the paperwork in first, the bags will stay open.”
“Only one perfume in each bag, not one of each perfume in each bag.”
“Watch out for the insecticide.”
Pfister Narrator "chatter"They fall into a rhythm, a walking assembly line to pull items from open boxes, place  sponsor swag into cloth totes, and move each large bag to an expanding sea of black canvas.
“How’s Amanda?”
“Did you enjoy the Chicago trip?”
“Your daughter is done with law school already?”
The next day’s luncheon is Go Red for Women, Milwaukee’s celebration in the American Heart Association’s national campaign to galvanize communities toward raising awareness –and action—about heart disease.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.  Compared to breast cancer’s loss rate of 1 in 30, 1 in 3 American women die from heart disease daily.  This equates to someone’s wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt or best friend dying from cardiovascular disease every single minute of every single day.
“What do you think about this: we could invite this pathologist I met to give a talk about the kind of testing women should get.”
“Remember that chef? I looked at her website. She gives a Heart Healthy cooking class at Aurora.  We should call her.”
“I really liked that last event.  It was educational without feeling like we were back in school.”
The women laugh.  They have grown to a team of six or eight now. They continue tossing ideas into the air.  They continue asking about one another’s lives. They continue assembling tote bags.
“How many?”
“About 300.  More volunteers are on the way.”
“I volunteered my first year, then I joined right away.”
“Yep, that’s how we rope you in.”
The women laugh again.  This is the Circle of Red Society, women who support the Go Red for Women campaign with dollars and deeds.
“We’re the passion arm of Go Red,” says Pat, the incoming chair for Milwaukee’s Circle of Red.  “This is our big annual event, but we stay active every month of the year. We try and talk to everyone about talking to everyone about heart disease.”
The outgoing chair, Lisa, doesn’t stop moving and filling bags and says, “People still are not aware.  Women still don’t know signs and symptoms.”
As I continue to chat with Pat, the machine of women offer more comments while they continue to pack and move their gift bags.
“A lot of people still think breast cancer is our number one killer.”
“It’s still considered an ‘old man’s disease,’ but women’s symptoms are just different sometimes.”
“They don’t think heart attacks can happen to a woman in her 30s.”
“I’ve had a heart murmur since I was a kid.”
“My sister passed away from heart disease. My mother did too.”
“They think you have to be overweight.”
“I knew a woman who was only 51, did yoga four times a week and, when she started having a stroke, assumed it was something else.  A friend convinced her to go to urgent care. Saved her life that day.”
Most of the Circle’s women have personal stories, Pat tells me, but all of them are inspired ambassadors.  I asked what they would tell every woman (and the people of love them) if they could and the group agreed:
“Learn the symptoms.  Do not ignore your body.  Go to the doctor for regular exams and screenings.”
Even without a snazzy tote bag, these women know that Life is our most precious gift of all.

Watch this clever video starring Emmy-nominated actress Elizabeth Banks:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pfister: "Pink Frosted Dreams"

Pink Frosted Dreams

I sensed them before I saw them.  A carbonated excitement that pushed aside the steady hum of the front lobby.  It was a gaggle of girls, perhaps 10 or 11 years old.  They had tote bags on their shoulders and duffle bags dropped to their feet.  Their small group, roughly a half dozen, tittered blissfully, gazing up to the ornate ceiling, pointing to the chandeliers, looking around at the austere paintings on the wall.  Nearby, two mothers are digging in their handbags and collating paper printouts, waiting to check in.  A third woman stood with the Pfister narratorgirls.  Her smile seemed to relish the girls’ delight while her eyes were attentive to the other lobby guests.  Great instincts; she was not a rookie chaperone.
I offered to share cupcakes with the girls in the café while the mothers got checked in.  More great mother-chaperone instincts: she was listening for red flags and scanning my soul as I introduced myself.  I expected nothing less.  I asked her to join us and we all tumbled into the café.
They were a Girl Scout troop from a suburb of Chicago.  In addition to a camping trip, an excursion to a fancy hotel in another city had been their goal for this year’s cookie money and fundraising.
“This is SO cool,” said one, as we sat at a long table. They nodded to each other in agreement. They were a calico assembly of curls, ponytails, dimples, glasses, friendship bracelets and giggles.
I learned most of them were fifth graders as well as veteran Girl Scouts.  I asked what they liked most about being Girl Scouts.  They told me they enjoyed learning new things, going new places, and sharing a connection that was special from their “regular” classmates and friends.
“We only meet a few times a month, so it’s special when we’re all together.”
The girls admit that they’ve matured together too, learning how to plan things and even how to fight and make up.  When I asked them to describe themselves, they offered “funny,” “talented,” “loving,” “electric.”
When I asked what they each wanted to be when they grew up, I was prepared for Doctor, Lawyer, Veterinarian, Police Officer, the short list of ambitions that we grown ups typically dispense to children.  My heart leapt with joy to hear, instead, Trapeze Artist, Interior Designer, Teacher, Viola Player, Pilot.
Of course, I’ll have no way of knowing if the girls will land on these goals 10-20 years from now.  Still, I was excited to hear that they were already dreaming outside the box.  Don’t get me wrong, there are phenomenal careers inside the box, but you have to admire the vast number of pre-schoolers who, according to a recent Forbes poll, intend to become superheroes and princesses. They’ll realize how competitive those gigs are, eventually. In fact, a survey on reports that 70% of us changed our “dream job” once we became adults. (Although 60% of us still wish for those childhood ideals.) Realized or not, the point is to dream.
My merry band of cupcakes began to fall away into spirited side conversations.  All three mothers were with us now, the adult business of check-ins and room keys handled. Annie, my cupcake girls’ self-appointed spokesperson, explained that they were hoping to have two adjoining rooms separate from the mother-chaperones.
“I doubt that’s going to happen,” she said with a comical twist at the mouth.
“Probably not,” I agreed, giving her a wink.  “But it never hurts to dream.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pfister: "Candlelight Vigil"

Candlelight Vigil

As the minute hand makes its incremental sweep toward five o’clock, the atmosphere on the main floor swells with anticipation for the weekend.  A boisterous cluster of men greet one another near the lobby bar.  A young co-ed rushes to the concierge for directions.  A preschooler fingers the pink sparkles on her princess shirt as parents carry her sibling up the stairs in a stroller.  Perched on impressively high heels, a slender woman anxiously watches the revolving door.
Down the hall in the boutique, an older couple selects a tangerine silk blouse for their theater outing.  As they chat with the associate, I follow the blouses, blazers, cocktail dresses, bracelets and chocolates to a table display of candles.  I recognize the round tins immediately. I’d received one as a gift last year, but had expected not to enjoy its scent because I’m not a fan of mint chocolate.  Turns out, I loved the candle so much I’ve kept the burned out tin as a reminder to research the maker and vendor.
Here they were. Voluspa Truffle White Cocoa.
A woman neared the table to examine other tins as well: Baltic Amber, Panjore Lychee, Dahlia Orange Bloom.
“This one,” I say authoritatively, “is truly divine.” I begin to tell her about my serendipitous discovery and realize that she already has a number of tins balanced in the crook of one arm.  With her other hand, she held a flute of champagne. We strike up a conversation about candles, the good, the bad, and the cheap.
“I’ve bought them for fifty dollars and I’ve bought them for five,” she said.  “The good ones are worth whatever you spend, if you like them. I like the ones with soy and natural products best, like these.”
My new candle sister’s name is Michelle, a Milwaukee-area native who travels the country as a real estate professional.  She picks up a few candles for her stash whenever she visits the Pfister’s WELL spa. She might burn candles at any time, she says, but always when she meditates, a practice she’s adopted in the past five years. I admit to her that I’ve only been meditating for a week, after Pfister narratorseveral failed and short-lived efforts over the years.
“It’s still difficult,” she laughed, “but, now, I can tell the difference when I don’t take the time to still myself every day.”
Michelle has become as equally diligent about balancing her busy world with regular exercise, girls’ outings with her sisters, spiritual readings, and treating herself to a massage.
“At the end of any given day, we’re responsible for dozens of decisions with serious weight and consequence. The reality of our lives can be immense,” she says. “I  do my best to live well in between it all.”
Michelle takes a sip of champagne and flashes a warm and brilliant smile.  I thank her for sharing her story and wish her an exquisitely quiet evening.  She raises her glass and I head for the lobby.  The bustle had thickened with friends laughing in the lounge, business women arriving with their roller bags, and couples in formal attire weaving through a crowd of dress slacks and denim.  It is definitely the weekend, but Michelle may be off to the best start.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Pfister: "People Watching"

People Watching

Dasha Kelly Pfister NarratorI feel enchanted tonight.  Maybe it’s the night air, the saucy décor of Blu, the nighttime glitter of city lights or, maybe, it’s my first Narrator assignment.  Yes, let’s go with that last one.
Excited, I take a seat at the bar and begin to survey the room.  This, I’m good at.  I wouldn’t  say that I’m a voyeur, but I’ve always insisted that people watching should be an Olympic sport.  I order my standard whiskey on the rocks, and observe.
Near the window, a cluster of women have landed on a topic that pulls them toward one another, gesturing passionately as they talk.  Behind them,  a lively team of conference attendees are chattering when, much to the group’s delight, a dark-haired man stands to add elbow antics to the discussion.  Neither of these groups need their rhythms interrupted by me.  Not now.
An attractive, mature woman enters the lounge with a  tall, sturdy man following closely behind.  Like popping corn, my mind springs with questions as I watch them cross the dark room to the cozy seats near the fireplace.  Settling into opposite corners of the love seat, I notice that his banter sounds measured, her laugh feels polite, and both their smiles seemed anxious.  Aha. First date jitters.  They don’t need me in the way.
Between my first sip of whiskey and the final clink of naked ice, I fully realize the spindly awkwardness of my charge. Striking up a conversation with another barfly is one thing, but accosting strangers and inserting myself into their evening is altogether different.  I considered leaving for the night when, one heartbeat later, a tall gentleman strides in to take one of the window seats.  I watch him as he watches the city flicker below us.
I remind myself that everyone has a story to tell –including this stranger– and I’ve been given the opportunity to share them. I take a deep breath, collect my notebook and my nerves and introduce myself.
“I’m in computers,” he says of his work, adding a string of clarifying words  like “applications,” “supply chain,” “operations.”
“Logistics?” I ask.
He gives a relieved nod and relaxes his shoulders.  His name is Andy, a Dallas native currently living in Denver. He’s in Milwaukee with his team to wrap up a project that spans several years and several cities.
“Did you have reservations about striking out on your own as a consultant instead of scouting a corporate gig?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said, after a moment. “But, sometimes, I can’t believe this is the life I get to have.”
Andy had wanted to be a pilot as a kid, like his father and, later, his brother.  In fact, Andy earned certifications, and has flown numerous times.  Still, another path chose him. He told me how he enjoys the challenge of his work, his rituals for downtime when on the road, the food districts he misses from his home city, holiday plans for Brasil with his wife, and how he’d love to retire in San Francisco.
I thank him for allowing me to intrude on his quiet time, pay for his drink and wish him safe travels home.  As I leave, I feel buoyant. Proud that I braved this assignment, pleased to put my people watching talents to work, and enchanted –all over again– by the city’s sparkling lights.