30. June 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Photos

My brothers and I walked to the elementary school we attended as kids, just four blocks up the cinder path from our house. All our friends from our development went there too.

My mother would wait until we got down the driveway and on to the street, and then open the door and holler, “Stand up straight when you walk!”

She was talking to me. I’d jerk my head up, thrust my shoulders back and hips forward, but I could only hold it so long before it all went slack and I went back to staring at the ground, bent forward, looking as if I were in a hurry to get somewhere.

It’s a habit I’ve had all my life, and I’m trying to break myself of it as we speak, especially after seeing recent pictures of myself on stage at a music gig, thinking I’m all statuesque, but hunched over as if I’m trying to protect myself.

The habit has come in handy, however. Eight years ago when John and I married, I moved downtown with him. We walked everywhere. Used the bus sometimes. Used our cars seldom. We got rid of one. I walked to school, to meetings, to work, see friends, get my hair cut, all with my head down, looking at the sidewalk. I found money down there. Jewelry. An angry note. Works of art. Profound messages. Slices of American cheese.

And I thought, you just don’t see this everywhere. And that American cheese would make a great framed piece. Finally, a year ago, I started taking pictures of what I found on the city sidewalks. Which practice became easier after I got my iPhone.

What you see here is the beginning of the culmination of an idea I’ve had all these eight years. While I am walking straighter these days, when I’m out on the streets I just can’t help myself. Sorry, Mom.

This and other Sidewalk Series galleries can also be found at the Photos tab above. My Lake Michigan from Our Place galleries are there too.

21. June 2012 · 8 comments · Categories: Stories

Miss Gluntz, thank you. And I’m sorry.

You were my first-grade teacher, and while at this point in my life I don’t remember a whole lot about first grade anymore, I do remember being a happy schoolgirl, in large part because of you. You had pretty eyes and a beautiful smile. You were supermodel tall, and so was your hair. You were probably younger than any of us could have ever imagined. I loved you so.

Cut to four years later. I was in fifth grade and so immersed in my own little world, I didn’t know you’d left school. I’m guessing you did because you got married and maybe wanted to start a family of your own. I was in Mr. Burnett’s homeroom and had just been voted Red Cross representative, in charge of shaking down classmates for donations to the American Red Cross and rewarding them with little red pins in the shape of a cross and feather. I sat in the corner of the classroom, next to the chalkboard and windows.

I don’t know what we were doing when there was a knock at our classroom door. But when Mr. Burnett opened it and you stepped through, all seven-feet-tall of you – that’s the way it looked to us fifth-graders – you were still beautiful, and you were wearing different clothes from the ones you wore when you were our first-grade teacher. Fancier. Your hair was a little longer, maybe curlier, and you wore makeup.

I have to say I didn’t recognize you right off.

You spoke. Probably made a little small talk at first with Mr. Burnett. Some of us squirmed in our seats.

Then you said, “I was wondering if Cynthia Mihaloew is here. She was in my first-grade class. I wanted to stop by and see how she’s doing now.”

You smiled like a movie star. We all stared back like deaf-mutes. Bill Boyer turned around and looked at me. I sat there, quiet as a rock, arms glued to my sides.

Mr. Burnett must have told me to raise my hand, because I remember there being a general shuffle in the room and more kids turning to look at me. I raised my hand the bare minimum. We made eye contact and you said, “There you are.”

Then you said: “You were such a special little girl. I loved being your teacher. I know you’re going to grow up to be something really special some day.”

At least that’s the way my ten-year-old little pea-brain remembers it.

Did I say thank you? No. Did I so much as nod curtly? No. Did I do anything at all? No.

It was the ultimate diss. You said a few more words, I don’t know what, and then you left. I felt totally embarrassed for being called out like that.

“Turn back around,” I said to Bill Boyer.

Cut to I don’t know how many years later. Maybe it was the first weekend I came home from college, when I suddenly realized that my parents weren’t such idiots after all. Maybe it was my first job out of college, which made me wish I had appreciated college a little more. Maybe it was the first divorce. Maybe the second.

Suffice it to say, I grew up, made mistakes, made more mistakes, then grew up some more. In the middle of all this I remembered you coming to my fifth-grade class and saying those really very precious things. You took time to seek me out, drive to the school, get permission to come into our room, and say what you did. And you didn’t have to do any of it.

But you did. And I just want to say to you:  Thank you so very much. You are precious to me too, and have been for years. I’m sorry I was such a ten-year-old punk. I sold myself short, even back then. But I’m happy now. Doing well at work and at life, and hope to do even better. Wherever you are, thank you for what you said that day. It means more to me than I can say.

I hope you’ve had a good life too.


Miss Gluntz’s first name is Janet. Cynthia is my given (and legal) first name. Mihaloew is my daddy’s last name.

UPDATE, 12/22/12Since being in touch with Miss Gluntz’s family, I must correct my error and let you know that Miss Gluntz’s first name is Patricia. I think I may have confused it with Eddie and Nancy’s mama next door, whose first name really was Janet. 

15. June 2012 · 8 comments · Categories: Stories

I don’t know journalist Molly Snyder personally, but we’re Facebook friends. A few weeks ago when she posted on her timeline that she was writing a review of Sybaris Pool Suites for OnMilwaukee.com, it caught my attention. Because I stayed there once.

Sybaris Pool Suites bills itself as a “paradise” where couples can go for getaway nights, weekends, lunch hours, whatever. The whole idea is for couples to “ignite feelings, rekindle romance and enjoy quality time together” in “whirlpool and swimming pool suites” that “are a delight to the senses…the ultimate romantic experience.” Locations are in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

Many of the comments on Molly’s wall are the typical things you hear around here: “You’re going to Syphilis?” “Bring your own sheets.” “Gross!” Stuff like that.

There are words of joyous positivity: “[Expletive deleted] AWESOME!”

I commented: “It was one of the top five most depressing places I’ve ever been to.”

My husband is one of the coolest people I know. I adore him. We’re not prudes. But because we are a couple of wiseacres, Sybaris is definitely not anything we can take seriously.

So when we received a night’s stay there as a wedding gift we said, “Syphilis! Gross!”

The only person who should be giving the gift of a room at Sybaris is the person who wants to take the recipient there. Otherwise, it’s creepy. Imagine getting the gift of a “romantic paradise,” aka “don’t come a-knockin’ if this room is a-rockin’,” from your aunt and uncle. Gross. Your in-laws. Double gross. No one should be up in your business like that.

Our wedding gift of a night’s stay at Sybaris came from my husband’s former employer, which consisted of two female clericals and eighteen sweaty guys. One of whom came up with the idea (probably one of the “girls,” as they were called), all of whom chipped in for the gift. “Sure, I’ll chip in for Johnny to have a night of wild sex at the Syphilis.” Wink-wink-nod-nod-know what I mean? The jokes had to have gone on for weeks.

We finally went, just days before the gift certificate expired.

There are many things I remember about the place. Watching every trace of sunlight disappear in the cracks of the door as it closes behind us. The vacuum-seal sound it makes. Mirrors. Everywhere. No windows. Anywhere. The bidet.

Our favorite place in the large suite is the round James Bond-style booth in the corner. We drink one bottle of wine there and open a second. We watch TV in bed. Just like home. I get up to go to the fridge and ask John if he wants anything, and he says, “Yeah, I’ll take another piece of that leftover pizza.” Just like home. Except the bed is on a platform and has little white lights all around it like a marquis, and there is a mirror above it. We can give a crap.

The whirlpool is very cool. We move over to it and take our bottle of wine.

At night (it’s perpetually night there, you are so sealed off) I finally fall asleep. Somewhere in the middle of it, I am jarred awake and stare up at the mirror. John is snoring.

I feel the most incredible sadness about being here, because it’s not really working for me, and I think about the others who’ve been here, for whom it also has not worked, albeit for different reasons. Couples who’ve been here as a last resort before one of them goes to a divorce lawyer. People who’ve been here cheating on their spouses. One partner with high expectations; the other oblivious, self-centered. Back to business as usual when it’s all over.

My sadness is exacerbated by something I see the next morning. John is going out in search of breakfast to go, and I’m sitting outside in the bright morning sun, sick to death of being sealed off.

As he drives off, another couple pulls up and gets out of their car. He is barefoot and wearing cargo shorts that his belly flops over. He is talking into his cell phone and walks five, six steps ahead of the woman, who is loaded down with white to-go bags. The man opens the door to their suite and then lets it swing shut. The woman juggles the bags to get her thumb and two fingers free so she can finally open the door. She bumps it open with her butt, then disappears inside. Vacuum seal.

John comes back with the food and we eat it in the car. He goes inside and gets our bags, clears out the refrigerator, double-checks for any left-behinds, and then drives us around front to check out. The registration area is packed with commemorative items: T-shirts, champagne glasses, silk rose petals that you can shape into your own hearts on your own bed at home.

If the night was a success. If some kind of spark had actually been created during the rekindling process. If you didn’t go back home to business as usual.

I know I took some pictures of the James Bond table and the room but I can’t find them. You’ll have to look at Molly’s story to see what the place looks like.

Sybaris started sending promotional postcards to us in the mail immediately after our stay there. After a year of getting one every other week, I finally emailed them and asked them to take us off their list. “Of course,” they wrote back.

Since then, for about five years, we’ve been getting the same postcards, addressed now to “Current Resident.” I shred our address and put the rest in recycling.





08. June 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Books

Pretty pathetic, huh? Yeah.

That brown paper, our cats like to lie on. I put it on the floor during the day and pick it up at night so they don’t wake us. Sometimes I forget to put it back down and it just stays there for days.

That’s my stack of old cookbooks, upper right, bathed in the light of the heavens. Magazines I haven’t gotten to yet. A note from a neighbor inviting me to a bi-weekly ladies night out I haven’t made it to yet. There’s lots of dust.

I do ninety-nine percent of my work on my laptop, which I use in the living room, on the bed, at a desk with a view of Lake Michigan. It is what Austin Kleon refers to in his book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative as my “digital desk.”

So what is an “analog desk” then? It’s the polar opposite of the digital desk and Austin makes a case for it in Chapter 4, “Use Your Hands.”

“Computers have robbed us of the feeling that we’re actually making things,” he says. “Instead, we’re just typing keys and clicking mouse buttons.”

In addition to being a writer, Austin Kleon is an artist whose work is inspired by others artists going back to the 1860s: making poems by blacking out words in newspaper stories, which you can see on his Newspaper Blackout Web site (and book by the same name). He used to do most of his work at his digital desk, but then he realized something:

“Sitting in front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads. Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good.”

So he made major changes to his setup:

“I have two desks in my office—one is ‘analog’ and one is ‘digital.’ The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process. (Unlike a hard drive, paper doesn’t crash.) The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, and drawing tablet. This is where I edit and publish my work.”

Once he did this, Austin discovered that work “didn’t feel like work. It felt like play.”

Some of the most joyful times in my life have been when I’ve created analog-style. When I was an art minor in college. When I produced a community play for kids and sketched the costumes and painted the set. A poster I made after a bad breakup years ago titled “Things I Want To Do,” which hung in my office and fascinated my friends. It was the simplest thing. But they loved it. And I loved making it.

I have been glued to my digital desk far too long. The current state of my analog desk reflects this.

My only defense is that I have been playing in a band. So I am creating at the music stand. But point well taken: time to clean up the desk but good. Get out the sketch pad, and I don’t know. Doodle. Paint. Cut up magazines. Something. Not sure what yet. Audrey Niffenegger came up with the title The Time Traveler’s Wife while working on a project in her art studio; she wrote it down on the paper she covered her analog desk with, and her book was published a few years later.

“If we just start going through the motions, if we strum a guitar, or shuffle sticky notes around a conference table, or start kneading clay,” says Austin Kleon, “the motion kickstarts our brain into thinking.”

Now hand me that Lemon Pledge.