Milwaukee is the damn foggiest place. I tell folks from here that, and they look at me weird. It occurs to me that perhaps these are inland people I’m talking to, or people who are just so used to it they don’t even notice it anymore. Living here as long as I have, I’m still fascinated by it. I’ve seen more fog in Milwaukee the past fifteen years than I have my entire life.

With the exception of college, I have only ever lived in two places: Cleveland and Milwaukee. Both of course are on Great Lakes. I have spent my whole life living on a Great Lake, and if that were ever to change, it would be a big blow. I can’t imagine living anywhere without some big body of water that appears to go on forever.

Most of the fog here emanates from Lake Michigan, which we can see from our home. I have watched it tumble across the water and up the bluff, wind around the buildings below, and then surround ours, at times in mere minutes. I need a weather person to explain why and how this is. Clearly, the fact that Lake Michigan is east of Milwaukee has something to do with it. Cleveland, which lies on the south coast of Lake Erie, gets premium-grade lake-effect snow, the likes of which I haven’t yet seen here. Milwaukee weather people toss around the term “lake-effect snow.” But Milwaukee has nothing on Cleveland. Want to see some good down-from-Canada six-feet-deep-in-two-hours lake-effect snow? Go to Cleveland.

Earlier this week we had two solid days of fog so thick you had to leave lights on all day. The lights we leave on are two sconces in the living room and a small Christmas tree we keep up year-round in the kitchen. Day Two I couldn’t see the building across the street. The foghorn oozed in off the lake day and night.

Day One I wanted to walk out in it. It was like a snowstorm where everyone stays in but you. The usual sounds of the city are tamped way down, allowing the thoughts in your head to come alive like bright paint on a white canvas.

Some of these thoughts:

  • The sidewalks are filled with fall leaves.
  • The moisture from the fog makes them look even prettier than they already are.
  • Two weeks ago Jan sent me a card in which she wrote something really beautiful.
  • I haven’t thanked her for it yet.
  • I think about Jan every day.
  • The times in my life in which my soul has been the happiest have been the times when I am the poorest.
  • My soul is wildly happy right now.
  • I am looking forward to getting back to teaching next semester.
  • I hope I still feel this way Week 8.
  • I have to write to my dad and tell him I can’t come to Cleveland for the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death.
  • There will be a short ceremony and a dinner.
  • I can’t go because I have a music gig.
  • This week is my dad’s first wedding anniversary without my mom.
  • Next week is my mom’s birthday.
  • The first birthday we will say, “If she were still alive, she’d be [insert age here].”
  • Next month will be my dad’s second birthday without her.
  • Then Thanksgiving.
  • Then Christmas.
  • The past two years, Jan experienced all these firsts and seconds.
  • When my mother went into hospice I remember counting six months on my fingers.
  • She’ll make it through Christmas, I thought.
  • She’ll make it to February.
  • She didn’t.
  • I would like to lose those last eight pounds.
  • For the first time in my middle-aged life, I accept that I’m getting older.
  • I am not afraid.
  • I would still like to lose those last eight pounds though.
  • More pretty leaves.
  • There is someone in my life who doesn’t yet know that I can smell bullshit from a mile away, who will find out soon.
  • This “Bargrooves” music playing on my iPod makes me deliriously happy.
  • It is Greg’s music, which Jan gave me two years ago when we went through all his CDs.
  • She told me that he used to listen to it in the basement when he ran on the treadmill.
  • Wearing sunglasses.
  • I miss him so much.
  • The fog makes the lake look like you could drop off the edge of Earth if you got too close.
  • This has been one of the best years of my life.
  • Maybe the best.
  • I am back to living and working the way God/the universe intended me to.
  • The soul that lives inside me now is the same soul I had when I was ten.
  • It’s taken me several long-ass years to get back here.
  • Some were utter misery.
  • If I could give any advice to a young person, it would be: “Don’t ever let this happen to you.”


A few weeks ago John, whose allergies had finally gotten the best of him, went to see a doctor about it. Tests reveal that he is a tad allergic to our cats, and very allergic to trees. Birches in particular.

This hasn’t stopped him from accompanying me on walks along the Milwaukee River, which is flanked by thick woods on both sides. We go there about once a week. Instead of taking the bike path that runs high above the water, we take the ones that run alongside it.

The first time I discovered the river was four or so years ago, with John’s sister, a runner who lived the next neighborhood over. She and I used to meet at the foot of the North Avenue Bridge, trudge down a steep path to the river, and then take off running to the right, toward Locust Avenue.

She was going through a divorce at the time. We used to talk about it, and so many other things, while taking to the trails in our Nikes and tights. She shared her water with me. We met every Saturday and ran in the sunshine, the fog, the rain, the snow. She moved to the upper Northwest a few years ago and got remarried this past summer.

A few months before John’s sister remarried, her ex-husband died. He had a past deeper and darker than most, and John and I loved him dearly. More than most people I have ever known, he made me laugh – hard laughs that shook the dust out. I felt good every time I was around him.

His memorial service was at the mega-bible-church where he and John’s sister had been active, before the marriage went sour. His ashes sat in a beautiful wooden box under a light next to some flowers and an American flag (Vietnam vet). When no one was in the room I picked up the box and held it close. I don’t know why ashes are so heavy.

The service started out nice enough. But somewhere in the middle it turned from a service for a friend, a lover, a father, to proselytizing. And more proselytizing. The deceased’s name had stopped being used for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. The people whose hands were not lifted up to the Lord started shifting in their seats. The son of our ex-brother-in-law, sitting up front and restless, got up and walked out, looking at his cell phone as if he’d just received an important text. I was itchy myself.

“I can’t stay here,” I whispered to John. “I’ll meet you outside.”

I walked out the front doors into the sunshine. There were a few other people there: a couple of smokers and the son, who was fidgeting with his cell. I sat on the curb to the parking lot, a good six feet away from him and the trashcan he was standing next to.

“Beautiful out,” I said.

“Yeah, it is,” he said, staring across the lot. He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t take it anymore,” I said, jerking my head back toward the church.

He sat down. “I know,” he said, “what the fuck was that?”

An excited conversation began between the two of us, during which, while we both acknowledged that his father, my friend, was indeed a God-fearing man, whatever was going on in that church right now was not him.

“I wasn’t always close to my father, but we were when he died,” said the son. “Those people in there, the things they said about him, those happened years ago.” He growled in anguish. “I don’t even know who most of them are.”

The doors of the church opened and people started joining us out at the curb: the son’s wife, brother, sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, friends. John.

The son fiddled with his cell again and then thrust it toward his wife. “Would you please fix this?” he said. “I threw it against the trashcan and now it won’t work.”

That was six months ago. It feels like six years.

I don’t run in the woods anymore. But John and I strap on our boots and hike the trails up one side of the Milwaukee River, cross the Locust Street Bridge to the other side, and hike the trails back. We have been doing this one year now, long enough to see what it looks like in all four seasons. There are runners. Mountain bikers. Couples with dogs. Kids. Some who look at you like they wish you weren’t there when you pass by.

And then you remember your own youth, when you looked at adults the same way. Walking the trails with John this week, I suddenly remember that the woods have figured prominently in my life. The woods on both sides of my grandparents’ house, before houses were built there. The woods behind their house, at the bottom of the hill, where we swung on vines and walked the path down to the Wards’ house. The woods next to our elementary school, where we climbed trees, built forts out of fallen branches, and took paths down to the creek. The park where Sally and I got drunk on vodka and Sprite one school night. The woods that ran alongside my house in Wisconsin, where I saw my first scarlet tanager and a wild turkey running like a banshee, and where I buried a beloved pet.

Somebody else lives in my grandparents’ house now. I moved out of the house in Wisconsin because the man I was living there with was abusive. The woods alongside our old school were razed to make way for a new housing development. When you go there now, you can see the houses through the few trees that are left.

Paul Zasadny has built some nests – incredible works of art – in the woods along the Milwaukee River. I wrote about them and him in On the Badger Bus and in the woods.”

This fall I was invited to an event at which there was a speaker on “Developing Your Personal Brand.”

I’m surprised that personal brands are still even talked about, just as I am surprised that people still use the phrase “at the end of the day.” Both concepts are tired and hackneyed and need to go out of style already.

The whole idea behind personal branding is coming up with a set of skills and positive traits you possess, fine-tuning them, living and breathing them, and saturating the workplace, the marketplace, the world with them. This then becomes your “brand,” what you are known by. That intangible thing about you that people come to trust.

Personal branding got its start in the corporate world, and now there are a whole slew of people making fantastic livings out of being personal brand strategists, teaching you how to package and market yourself in the workplace to the powers that be, just as Ford does with its vehicles, Apple does with its devices, and Target does with its stores in the marketplace to consumers.

Today, personal branding has moved beyond the office tower and been extended to the college senior looking for her first job, the professional athlete, the artist, the reality show star, the young father pushing a baby stroller down the sidewalk.

The problem is that, even at the corporate level, branding can fail. Perhaps this is because, as Hunter S. Thompson states, “the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.” And “truth,” especially as a construct, can be fallible.

Last week I wrote about an experience I had at my local Target that told me something about the company that it does not reveal in its brilliant TV commercials. There is a trendy grocery store whose self-branded products I have opened and been gravely disappointed in one too many times, despite the promise of its packaging and what its brand is designed to tell me. I won’t be fooled again.

If big companies, who are so distant from us, who themselves are so distant from their source materials—their stuff is so packaged and strategized and gleaming—if big companies can fail at this, then we mere human beings don’t stand a chance. We are too quirky and moody and flawed to be personally branded. The only way it could halfway work is if we go immediately from work to home, conduct all of our nasty business behind locked doors, and then emerge the next morning, as shiny as the sun, ready again for public consumption.

But it just doesn’t work like this.

I once had a boss, who was a vice president and fifteen years younger than I, who was on maternity leave when I joined the ranks. For the six weeks between the time I started and she returned to the office, I heard a lot about her. The mystique was on pretty high tilt when she and I finally met, and I have to admit, I was fascinated. At her age, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be, while she obviously had already climbed pretty far up the corporate ladder. It was rumored she had a very high IQ, and she came to work in a perky hair style you just knew cost eighty bucks and designer suits that came from small boutiques girls like me had never heard of. She smiled and laughed a lot at staff meetings. She also had a little bit of nutty professor about her: almost every day she came to work her designer shoes were badly scuffed, or she had a run up the back of her pantyhose, or there were water spots on them from a puddle she’d stepped in. It was quite endearing, actually.

This was her personal brand. You could tell. She hung her hat on it, lived it, breathed it. It’s how she got the attention of the people who were where she wanted to be.

The problem is, like all the rest of us poor slobs, she had a dark side, which can’t be camouflaged by Louis Vuitton bags or Chanel lip color. If she didn’t like you, she had a way of cornering you when no one else was around and verbally abusing you with the darkest, most evil lies about your character and the job you were doing. She “motivated” so many people in our office in this way that it not only started to get around there (“Be careful!”), but her reputation—her sullied brand—also went enterprise-wide.

A few years after I’d left, I was quite tickled when I heard that the entire organization was undergoing mandated bullying awareness training.

Me, I’d rather know what it is I’m dealing with, as up front as possible, the good as well as the not so good. I’m hoping—we’re all hoping—that it is the good in you that will rise to the top first, and plentifully. Because then when your dark side arises—and it will—we are far more likely to be forgiving. There is a story I read long ago—I wish remembered the title—about a king who ruled with kindness who was an occasional screw-up, and another king who ruled with cruelty who every once in a while showed kindness. Guess which “brand” won?

As blogger Megan Berry puts it: “Personal branding is just a new way to talk about reputation.” I would add that it is designed to hide just as much as it promotes. When I hear someone talking about his or her personal brand, right away I wonder, “OK, what are you hiding?”

If I had a personal brand, it would be: Writer, teacher, blogger, amateur photographer, musician. Half a brain. Creative. Disciplined. A person who loves and is loved. Outspoken, sometimes to a fault. Watcher of bad TV and good films. Control freak. Impatient. Anxiety-ridden. Moody. Terrible sleeper.

If you had a personal brand, what would it be? Be brave and give us the real deal, not the glossy version. We’re only going to find out what you’re really all about in the end.


The concept of personal branding has actually been around for a while. Tom Peters brought it to the forefront in a 1997 article he wrote for Fast Company.

For more a more sardonic take, read Megan Berry’s short but sweet blog post, as well as Arienne Holland’s “Personal Branding is Bullshit” and Tim Berry’s response

A few weeks ago I was standing in the checkout line at Target unloading a cartload of canned and frozen food and toiletries onto the conveyor belt when the young man at the register pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. It was Grandpa’s handkerchief: large, grey from too many washings without bleach, and wadded up into a ball.

The young man blew his nose into it, not once but a few times, and shoved it back into his pants pocket. He proceeded to scan my items and drop them into bags.

“Do you have a cold?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Nope.”

I asked if it wouldn’t be good form to use hand sanitizer anyway. His face turned tired and the bags he filled up he literally tossed into my cart. It wasn’t until after he was done that he squirted too much sanitizer into his hands. He handed me my wet and stained receipt and told me to have a great day.

When I got home I wiped down every single thing I’d bought.

“Just humor me here,” I told John, who was standing in the doorway with his arms folded.

I thought of calling the store to lodge a complaint, but in all honesty I think I’m just going to stop shopping there. The associates who work there use walkie-talkies now, and their static-y voices are everywhere you go in the store. One associate followed me around for two aisles with a hand-held inventory-taker the size of a universal TV remote that spoke in monotone: “Five Totino’s pizzas, pepperoni.” “Ten Tropicana frozen orange juice, calcium.” “Fourteen Welch’s grape jam, 8-ounce.” When I ask another associate for help finding something, I say, “Hi. Can you help me?” She looks at me. Her walkie-talkie is going full-tilt. “Hello!” I say, a little louder this time. She stands up straighter. “Oh, yeah, hi,” she says.

Cut to a few days later. As I reach into the vegetable drawer of our fridge, I remove the plastic tag from a bag of Granny Smith apples. It reads: “Coated with food grade vegetable and or shellac based resin to maintain freshness.”

I freak out and email Denise, who knows a lot about these things.

“Resin?” I write. “Shellac?”

She quells me with some tips for removing it from our apples with non-petroleum-based soap. Her recommendation: Earth Friendly products. I have yet to buy any, and don’t tell her but I am still washing our apples with the Dawn we have at the sink.

Robin, you sound like a freak, you are probably saying to yourself, washing your stuff from Target and scrubbing your apples. Yes. I admit that the older I get, the tad more phobic I get. I don’t kill bugs; I free them. I wash my hands throughout the day because I touch things other people touch and don’t want to get sick. When leaves blow in through the front door, I throw them back outside. I am grossed out by Grandpa’s big old hankie. I don’t want to eat shellac resin. Which comes from a bug. Did you know that?

If I’m a bit of a freak, so be it.

It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. We found out last August that her cancer had come back. She immediately went into home hospice care.

Three weeks later I drove to Ohio to see her. We talked. Ate together, drank tea together. Looked at her cookbooks. Went shopping. Cried.

Then, what started out so brilliantly ended up in a fight, like so many times before. And I went where I had gone so many times before: away. The last time I saw my mother alive, things were said that shouldn’t have been said, and the last she saw of me was my backside as I walked out of the room.

Seven weeks later, she died. John and I drove in for her funeral. Afterward he returned to Milwaukee for school; I stayed in Ohio.

Later that week my brother Eric picked me up in his truck and we rode out to my parents’ farm, where he and my father grow organic produce. I hadn’t been there in years. We harvested all kinds of things for the farmers market the next day. The day of the funeral, their booth was empty.

I look back on a year ago from today and remember—and still feel—that it was an extraordinarily stressful time. And an extraordinarily beautiful time. I remember the fight between me and my mother. The things we said. The things that were said at her funeral. All the photos of her and my family that my father laid out in chronological order, many of which I had never seen before. The people that were there. Jan, my girlfriend whose husband had died unexpectedly the year before, holding my hand tight. John in a suit. John, who’s always there for me, even when I push him away. Especially when I push him away.

I remember the austerity of the farm. The sound wind makes when it rustles through corn. Gossiping with Eric about people we know while pulling up radishes. Dirt ground into the cracks of your hands and the knees of your pants. Learning that there is more than one kind of Swiss chard, more than one kind of kale. That you can grow lettuce, and all manner of things, outdoors all winter long under a tarp. Reaching under that tarp and harvesting that lettuce for the farmers market the next day. Which I go to with my father and brother. Five days after the funeral of his wife. Our mother.

No fluorescent lights. No branding. No walkie-talkies.





Denise sent me this excellent seven-year-old San Francisco Chronicle essay, a copy of which she keeps with her recipes: Is Safeway Sucking Your Soul?