31. May 2012 · 9 comments · Categories: Photos

Since moving to Wisconsin I’ve lived in two extremes: out in the country and down in the city.

My husband had already been living in the City of Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood for a year when I moved into his place: an Art Deco building along Lake Michigan that’s a stop on architectural walking tours.

If you could float high above our building and look down, you would see that it’s shaped like a capital “I” with serifs. On the upper floors, where we live, this means that you can see Lake Michigan from each unit, no matter which side of the building you live on.

Our view is from our dining room, framed by three neighboring buildings: one to the left, one to the right, and one below. I look out at the lake every single day. Its characteristics can change sometimes several times in one day, along with the landscape, the sky, the light. It’s like a perpetually changing work of art.

I started taking pictures of Lake Michigan, framed by the same three buildings, about eight years ago, year round. I have a few hundred now. Here are forty of them. Enjoy.

Two weeks ago we went to Boswell Book Company to see writer/artist Austin Kleon, who wrote a really nice book called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, published by Workman this year.

The book’s premise is contained in this T.S. Eliot quote in the preface:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Joan Didion, from the cover of The White Album

Steal Like an Artist does not condone plagiarism; Austin Kleon means something quite different. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere,” he says. “All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

This statement should bring relief to the writer, painter, poet, designer, musician. It does to me.

I know it’s an old notion, but look at Lady Gaga, who’s often accused of stealing from Madonna. If she had held out for a truly original idea, she’d still be waiting and maybe have produced nothing. Millions of people would have missed out.

I’m not a fan of Gaga, but that doesn’t matter. What I admire is the sense (or nerve) she took to be influenced and to press forward. “All creative work builds on what came before,” says Austin.

He goes on to paraphrase writer Jonathan Lethem, who “has said that when people call something ‘original,’ nine times out of ten they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.”

John Cheever, from the cover of The Wapshot Chronicle

For Lady Gaga, Madonna is a reference, an original source. Madonna in turn had her sources. If we were to trace back through them all, as Austin maintains in his book, we would see that their ideas have a history.

Whether Gaga has stolen, defaced, imitated, or turned what her sources did into something better or worse, I will leave up to you to decide for yourself.

The point is: There is a lot of magnificent stuff worth stealing. Identify it and who does it. Study those people, their work, figure out how they do what they do. Then practice it until you feel your own voice come through.

In his visit to Boswell, Austin told us about the eight, nine artists and writers he copies. He has pictures of them hanging in his workspace. He encouraged us to do this too.

Going up in mine: John Cheever and Joan Didion, without a doubt. Stephen King too, who is often dismissed as a genre writer. But his writing is clean and vibrant and beautiful and I would love nothing more than to be able to write like him someday.

Centuries of time have passed. We in 2012 have no hope of creating anything truly original anymore. But we can take from those artists we love, and bend, twist, and shape what they do into something that reflects our voice, our aesthetic.

Who are your heroes?


15. May 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Stories

Not long ago, I met Vivian (not her real name) for lunch.

We hadn’t seen each other since I remarried in 2004. There had been no falling out, no one said anything mean or stupid—our lives just diverged, started taking place on different paths.

We met back in 2000, at church. We hit it off quickly and discovered we had a lot in common: we were both with divorced men with two kids, and we were both struggling.

I hate to even call the guy my husband. We were married just under three years. He doesn’t feel like he was ever my husband.

My absolute last chance to back out came during our wedding ceremony—yes, during—when two minutes into it, my fiancé, aka Mr. Gadget, stopped the minister.

“I forgot to turn on the video camera,” he said.

While he fiddled with the camera, the minister looked at me and I looked at him. And I kid you not: a massive thunderstorm broke out. The whole room got dark. I should have come to terms right then and there with the fact that the reason our wedding was being taped was because no one in his family or my family had bothered to show up.

Lightening struck. Thunder shook the church. A voice inside my head said: Walk back down the aisle, now.

I didn’t.

Three months later we were in counseling. We went through four, five different therapists as he looked for the one that would tell him exactly what he wanted to hear.

In the meantime, Vivian and I met other people at our church who were trying to make their blended families work too. We formed a step-parenting group, small but mighty. The women, and some of the men, in that group became my closest friends for a while. Some of us are still in touch via social media. But we don’t talk like we used to. It makes me sad sometimes, because they really helped me through a very dark period in my life, not all of it because of this guy. I wonder if they remember that they helped save my life.

Things came to a head at my house when, late one night, my sixteen-year-old stepson said, “I don’t have to listen to you, you’re not my parent,” grabbed my arms, twisted them, and left welts the thickness of fettucini. My husband had already gone to bed. I woke him up and told him what happened.

“You probably deserved it,” he said.

The next day he got in my face. I started moving out my things while he wasn’t around. Two of my step-parenting friends stored them in their shed, one went to my divorce hearing with me. We all went to Vivian’s wedding.

I stopped going to church. Dated. Met my current husband and got remarried. I didn’t see Vivian again until earlier this year, when she emailed me out of the blue one week before her divorce hearing. Her husband had problems similar to my ex’s, with the extra-added bonus of substance abuse and certain other addictions.

She looked very tired. Beat up, with no bruises. Cried when we touched on certain subjects. She asked me a lot of questions about what happened in my own situation, which had ended nine years ago almost to the day.

Vivian was scared to go to her divorce hearing, but she did, and survived. When she emailed me to say, “Let’s have lunch,” she added, “I have a present for you.”

After we sat down, she slid a book across the table. The full import of which did not occur to me at first. The cover is that of a 1951 Harlequin novel; inside, journal paper.

In the back, behind a tab, is graph paper, the sight of which always takes me back to my father, a retired NASA engineer, who brought the stuff home from work, which I used to pilfer and write and draw on. My boxes of childhood memorabilia are rife with it. One of the tablets my dad gave me back then is in my office drawer.

“Thank you,” I said to Vivian.

A lot of the questions Vivian asks me force me to go back to a time I really don’t want to go back to. It was horrible. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish I had walked back down that aisle.

But I did do it. So did she. Despite the fear of losing ourselves in these relationships; being persona non grata at a time in our lives when it definitely should have been all about us; the anger over not trusting ourselves.

Now that I am through it, I am happy to reach in and help pull someone else through. Happy it’s been nine years, and that I can actually laugh at bits of it. To have new graph paper to draw on. To have Vivian back and see that she is prettier every time I see her.

08. May 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Books

I recently purchased a few more old cookbooks, among them The Special Diet Cook Book by Marvin Small (New York: Greystone Press; 1952), which I got for a buck.

I usually pass on diet cookbooks because their look-and-feel tends to be clinical; most have no food illustrations or photographs, the hallmark of old cookbooks. There’s nothing special about The Special Diet Cook Book, other than it’s now the oldest one I own.

But there’s something else about it that makes it one of the more fascinating books I own: marginalia.

Merriam-Webster defines marginalia as “notes or embellishments (as in a book)” that a reader scrawls in the margins of a book’s pages. According to Wikipedia, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a famous writer of marginalia. So is Voltaire, Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace.

As a research assistant in graduate school, I worked two semesters for a professor who studied marginalia written in late 19th-century books and magazines. Marginalia permits us to imagine a reader who engaged with a text. The notes they make in the books they read can tell us something about them, how they lived, how they read. And sometimes it can be very entertaining.

Case in point, this handwritten note that fills the inside cover of The Special Diet Cook Book (all spelling and grammar errors are the annotator’s):

“This book is not tops in diet. It cant be, as it is a cookbook to begin with and next it uses egg whites, pepper and mustard. That kills a big part of it for health diet and worse yet, vinegar and land salt too. Still its better by far then just some cookbooks. If your lucky, some time you may get Paul Braggs health cookbook. That is a much more better one. It has 402 pages, 33 pages of indexes and Prof. Paul Braggs picture in back. This costs 5 cents more, but is worth a thousand more. Its not what the doctor ordered. It tops that. It gives a vitamine chart on foods. You will see less where vinegar is left out in the other book and much white flour also land salt and not so much pepper or mustard and maybe less egg whites.”

Two more notes read: “See page 251” and “See 336.”

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Page 251 is where “The High Residue or ‘Regularity’ Diet (Anti-constipation)” chapter begins. Here is written: “This looks best.”

On page 336, where “The Low Fat – Low Cholesterol Diet” begins, “very fine” is written.

In the low fat chapter, “Yes” is written next to the recipe for “Fat-Free Whole Wheat Bread,” and “Fine” next to “Oatmeal Bread.”

“Cream of Mushroom Soup” gets an “OK.” Notes next to other recipes include “Not this” and “No,” and in some cases it’s an upper case “NO.” You can almost hear the reader shouting.

Where each “NO” appears, so does a bold “X,” right through the recipe. Under “Apricot Mustard Sauce” and “Pickled Beets,” the ingredients dry mustard and tarragon vinegar are struck through with such vehemence there’s a depression in the paper. Why the reader considered dry spice and vinegar enemies to a healthy diet, we’ll never know.

Most of the rest of the cookbook is unmarked. Did the reader have only cholesterol and constipation problems? Did the reader actually prepare the recipes? Or just read them?

In the preface is scrawled: “This book is posibly not half tops in a health cookbook. The best part is the calorie chart. Yes and no-no.”

Marginalia also indicates that the book had a few different owners. On the title page is written: “A special gift to Mr. Mrs. Senecal from L. Hollenger.” “Senecal” is crossed out and “Mr. Mrs. Morey” written in, in a different hand. It is unclear if one of the Senecals or Moreys wrote the marginalia, or if someone else did.

Whoever did, though, maybe he or she is right. Maybe it is a bad diet cookbook. Then again, maybe anger management is in order.

In either case, stuff like this is gold to storytellers. Put ten of us in a room, show us juicy little nuggets like these, and we’ll tell you ten different stories starring the Senecals, the Moreys, the book, and what happened to them. And they’ll all be good.


BONUS! Banana Salad Bazaar

02. May 2012 · 1 comment · Categories: Events

This month it’s my turn to pick out the next Octodea meeting location, time, and date. The email went out yesterday: we’re meeting May 17, and in honor of Cinco do Mayo we’ll go to Riviera Maya in Bay View, a hip neighborhood just south of downtown Milwaukee.

I first heard about Octodea from co-founding member Ron Faiola, a videographer and producer. We met through my husband John, who’d known him since their younger days in the music scene. In a conversation one night, Ron and I discovered we’re both in the same business.

“You should come to the next Octodea meeting,” he said. “I’ll tell Joe about you and have him send you an invitation.”

He went on to tell me that the group was formed in 2003 when he and some colleagues—Joe, Pat, Scott, and Dave, along with a few others—banded together as a partnership of creative professionals who refer each other to clients and bring each other in on the projects they’re working on.

“We’re always looking for more good people,” said Ron.

The word Octodea comes from parts of other words that were combined to create it. Members are independent graphic designers, product development and branding experts, Web developers, writers, editors, videographers, photographers, directors, and producers working in print, multimedia, and business theater. Dave has taken to nicknaming the group “Octodemons.”

We discuss a topic at each meeting. March, it was social media. Last month, we were interviewed by a college student writing a paper on entrepreneurship. All of us have been in business for ourselves for a long time, and it took a while to remember why we started what we started all those years ago.

This month our topic is the new AMC show “The Pitch,” a competition that pits one ad agency against another. In the first episode, the client is Subway; in the second, it’s Waste Management. By the time May 17 gets here, a few more episodes will have aired, so we’ll have a lot to talk about.

We always do. Last month, after we got that slow start talking about ourselves, things picked up and became more fluid. After the student thanked us, the discussion broke into three or four smaller conversations. At one point I looked up and felt a vibration, an energy, a brightness that only comes from people who love what they do.

“It seems easy compared to some of the other groups you belong to,” said my husband. “You seem to really like it.”

It is. And I do.

Ron came in January but hasn’t been back since, with good reason. A few years ago he shot and produced a documentary called “Fish Fry Night Milwaukee,” showcasing the city’s fervent love for the Friday night tradition. While out shooting “Fish Fry,” he discovered that the supper club is alive and well too, so he shot and produced his film “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience.”

Then Ron went to Chicago and got himself a book deal for Wisconsin Supper Clubs. He had to excuse himself from Octodea while he traveled around the state interviewing supper club owners and patrons. And eating things like Monte Cristo sandwiches on French toast, and Cajun Alligator. When last I emailed him, he was visiting supper clubs “#44 & 45 of 50!” so he should be home any time now, if he isn’t already.

See you soon, Octodemons.