I’ve been living in the city going on nine years now, in a building overlooking Lake Michigan with a good man and two cats, in a vibrant urban neighborhood that’s a destination for many outsiders, who come here for the festivals, restaurants, shops, beaches. You can tell who they are a mile away by the slow, wide-eyed way they walk in the middle of the sidewalks and hesitate at parking meters. Out of their suburban nests, the more paranoid jack up the sensitivity of their car alarms. Many cannot parallel park on the first try.

As I write this, a car alarm is going off a few blocks away. A man is standing in front of the building across the street, hollering at a woman inside who hollers back that she doesn’t want to see him and to go away. Our elderly German neighbor, who suspects everyone in the building of either doing or selling drugs, is rearranging her Scandinavian furniture on her bare parquet floors. A Public Works vehicle is back for the third day in a row, obsessively scooping up dead leaves.


It is also the point in the law school semester at which John is burned out and exhausted and agonizes over how he’s going to make it to December 8, when the semester is over. I wonder how I’m going to make it to December 8. Although we don’t see each other much, we have still managed to wear each others’ nerves down to nubs.

Meanwhile a classmate of John’s just got married and looks rested and gorgeous in her photos, and I think there is something wrong with me and John. After December 8 we have three more semesters to get through. In January we will be able to say that we haven’t been on a vacation in two years. I haven’t been to Cleveland at all this year, and am spending way too much time indoors.

On Saturday, while John is at work, I decide to catch the last day of the Día de los Muertos exhibit at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. I debate whether to walk one way/which way, take the bus one way/both ways, or have John drop me off on his way to work. Because I need the exercise, I decide to walk both ways.


Two blocks from our building I decide I don’t want to work that hard. When I make it to the Milwaukee Public Market, I say to myself, if I don’t feel like walking anymore, I won’t. I’ll just have a coffee and turn around and go back home.

By the time I hit Wisconsin & Water, I am walking at a clip. I barrel past the Public Market. The sun glints off the holiday decorations strung up and down Wisconsin Avenue. The temperature has risen to fifty degrees. I shoot through the Third Ward, across the bridge, and into a part of the Fifth Ward I’ve never walked through before, especially alone. I’m wary but act like I belong there. I see things I never notice when we drive through: clubs, restaurants, galleries, murals. A man calls to me from his open window and waves gaily when I look: it is a scene from a foreign movie. I take pictures of things I find on the sidewalks. A tree’s dried leaves and berries clatter in the breeze. I stop to take a shot of a planter on the sidewalk made of recycled kegs. A door opens and young man stumbles out holding half a beer in a plastic cup, and I realize this is where Milwaukee Brewing Company is.

On my way back from the gallery I stop at the antique store at 5th & National, which I had driven past numerous times but never before visited. I take a different route back and decide to go inside the Public Market and order some take-out from Aladdin’s for our dinner. I text John the menu; he chooses chicken curry. The market is busy. I stop at a T-shirt booth to take a picture. I ask the young woman who steps in front of me just as I aim my camera if she would mind if I got this shot real quick, please, and she looks at me as if I’m something she doesn’t want to step in.


As I leave the market I run into Patrik, a writer/animator/filmmaker on his way to a production meeting for a new zombie movie. We hug and he hands me an invitation to the opening of his next film. John texts me to say he is on his way home from work; would I like a ride? I write back, no, I’m just one mile from home. I know he will come by anyway, and when he does and opens the car door, I get in.

On Sunday I leave John to his law studies and drive ninety miles to Rockford, Illinois, to rehearse with a group of musicians our horn section is performing with on December 1. It’s sunny again, warmer than yesterday, and I take the freeway the whole way. I feel like a gleeful escapee. I put the radio on loud, vacillate between Howard Stern and First Wave, and set the heat where I like it for a change. INXS comes on and I think what a waste of a gorgeous hunk of man that Michael Hutchence died. I drive past Alpine Valley and think about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter plowing into the ski hill in the fog after a concert in 1990, and what another waste of a gorgeous hunk of man.


A giant pickup truck passes, going eighty, eighty-five. Two dead deer are tied to a short platform off the back bumper, their bellies marked with spray paint. Their legs bounce; the doe’s nose hangs four inches from the pavement. I’m glad when the truck is so far away I can’t tell what it’s hauling anymore and I can think again.

After it exits, the road trip feels exhilarating again. I don’t exactly know why at first, but I eventually determine that since moving to the city I don’t drive much anymore, especially by myself. As a result I don’t know how to work many of our car’s fancy voice-activated controls. It occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve moved this quickly through space. Since I’ve seen the countryside. The stars.

On Monday I feel restored. I look at the pictures from my seven-mile walk on Saturday and know that if I ever move away from the city I will miss its energy and quirkiness; our view of the lake; seagulls calling as the sun rises. No dead hunted deer are ever carted through the city. But it is seldom that I see the low canopy of stars in the night sky. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen an aurora borealis or a meteor shower, and the holiday lights on Wisconsin Avenue are no substitute. Just different. I want it both ways. It is a conundrum.

Patrik Beck’s alien film “Broken Orbit” opens at Milwaukee’s Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse Dec.1 & 2. Click on the image for details. Happy holiday.




I’ve been making music on and off my whole life. This is the first twenty dollars I’ve ever made at it.

The twenty bucks came from the band I am currently playing with. John started it last fall and asked me to sing and play the alto sax. I hadn’t played the sax in decades. The band’s nucleus included two other good friends. Our other members came via references and auditions.

To keep expenses down, we tapped into the talents of our band members and the generous hearts of others. We’ve been making money a little while now, but because we had recording and photography expenses, we used our first revenues to pay those. We created our own Web site and logo.

Now that we have a foundation in place, new money coming in is going into our pockets. I almost feel like framing my first twenty and hanging it on the wall.

My love of music, as I’m sure yours did, started when I was little. Along the way, there have been innumerable influences and opportunities. This week I’m realizing that music has been a faithful friend and lover, all wrapped into one, my whole life. And I just want to say, to it and to everyone: thank you.

My earliest memories are of my parents playing Andy Williams, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, and Swingle Sisters records on the hi-fi in the dining room. I can still see that hi-fi in the corner, the way it opened, the smell of wood mixed with electronics. My parents said I used to sing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” along with the car radio.

I no longer have my childhood AM-FM radio, but I saw its faux-leather case in a box somewhere recently. I listened to my radio mostly at night when I should have been sleeping. WIXY1260 and CKLW Windsor/Detroit. One year I got a green and white record player for Christmas. My first records were Led Zeppelin II, The Monkees, and “Nothing But a Heartache” by The Flirtations. The first time I heard Iron Butterfly was in Uncle Mark’s bedroom while looking at his MAD magazines.

My father took me to see the Cleveland Orchestra, the ballet, the opera. He gave me albums by The Singing Nun and Segovia. He played classical music at home on Magneplanar speakers my mother was so angry at him for buying.

In fourth grade, my parents took me to band instrument tryouts. I wanted to play the flute so badly, but the man testing me on it said, “With that overbite, more air is going out than in. Try this clarinet.”

Before we started on our actual horns, our first music lessons were conducted on black plastic recorders. I still remember the sound of my recorder, the feel of the bite marks on the mouthpiece. Every kid playing the recorder at the five elementary schools in our town crowded on to the high school bleachers to play a concert for our parents. I’m betting a record number of cocktails were mixed and aspirins taken at homes across Strongsville following that show.

(I attended my oldest brother’s recorder concert two years later. An utter cacophony.)

There were junior high lessons, sectionals, concerts. Pranks pulled on the band director. Summer music clinics at Baldwin-Wallace College. In high school, I sat first chair, B-flat clarinet. I was a terrible sight-reader and our band director yelled at me for it all the time. He taught me how to play alto sax and the trumpet, which I played in the jazz and marching bands, respectively. The trumpet bell was peeled back, as if someone had bashed it up against a brick wall a few times. My closest friends were in band and choir.

I bought record albums at The Shoppe in Berea. Then Peaches in Parma Heights. Played in high school musical pit orchestras. Stopped going to the Cleveland Orchestra with my dad. Almost majored in music in college but was too chicken. Took one piano class. Tried out for college marching band and got in. Tried out for college concert band and got in. One of the senior brass players announced that he was going to sleep with the top-five hottest freshman girls in band. I was naïve back then, but I knew enough to tell him to go screw himself.

In my twenties I married a musician and became a band wife. Saw a local TV anchor dance on the bar; watched women done wrong by Sweet Willy stomp all over the hood of his Mercedes in their high heels; pushed a drunken ex-felon who’d grabbed my ass; which started a fistfight. We made our own music videos; went to Pirate’s Cove; the Agora. So many shows. Our closest friends were all part of the scene. We had parties at our homes and spun records all night. Yelled at each other to get those drinks off the dust cover and not dance so close to the stereo and make the needle skip. Special shout-outs to Jan and Greg’s living room, and Jim and Sally’s basement.

Rap music hit the scene. Then alternative. Then MTV. I danced to and sang along with the B-52’s in our living room. Missing Persons. The Motels. I was a poor-man’s Martha Davis. My love for independent artists and college radio grew.

I joined a community band led by my old high school band director, who lent me a bass clarinet to play. My first day in Wisconsin I got my new driver’s license and bought my own bass clarinet. I played in community and regional symphonic bands. The man in my life was a trumpet player. Good player. Bad person.

I took voice lessons with a classical singer. Performed at recitals. Those who know me well find it amusing that I once sang on a church worship team. Even more so when they find out that’s where I met John.

After John and I married, I met a lot of people from the Milwaukee music scene. I started graduate school and stopped singing. John started law school and stopped playing. Neither one of us made music for a long time.

Then Terry Tanger of the seminal Milwaukee band Those XCleavers got cancer and died. On one of the most brutally hot days the summer of 2011, I went to Terry’s memorial to represent John, who was studying in Germany for a month.

When John came back, he said, “Life’s too short.” A few months later he formed a band. I wasn’t expecting to be a part of it, not at all. But when he asked me to, I thought, yeah.

And now here I am, at my age, buying Vandoren reeds and false eyelashes and gig-worthy dresses off Urban Outfitters’ sale rack. Singing and playing with musicians I have immense respect for, including two other horn players who are way young enough to be my daughters.

I have no regrets about not ever having done this when I was young myself. I’m just so happy I’m doing it now. So happy I want to curse. Later in life, to be sure; but never too late. To everyone and everything that paved the way, I thank you. And love you.

This post is not mean to be a blatant plug; I suppose it is a subtle one nonetheless. I will only tell you that our band’s name is Torn Soul. Let your keyword-search savvy take you the rest of the way.

Denise and I were supposed to get together for lunch this past Thursday, tentatively planning to meet, brown bags in hand, at the park benches on North Wahl overlooking Lake Michigan.

That same day I posted on Facebook that one of the things I love about Halloween is the fact that All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, along with Día de los Muertos, immediately follow it, on November 1 and 2.

I first became aware of this two years ago when Greg died. At the same time, I learned about the ofrenda, an altar built to honor loved ones who have died. That year, I built my first ofrenda, on our dining room table. I didn’t actually break out the hammer and nails to do this; rather, I collected photographs and things that reminded me of the people I love who’ve died, and laid them out on one end of the table. I invited John to do the same thing.

Putting it together was a very moving experience. By the end of it, standing there looking at it, I was crying. Every time I passed it, it felt like something holy was going on there.

In 2010, our ofrenda consisted of photos of Greg; John’s parents; my grandparents; an uncle; a beloved pet. Objects included a small mother-of-pearl box Jan and Greg had given me; my grandmother’s teacup; John’s father’s money clip; and two candles we kept lit.

Last year, I did not get around to building an ofrenda. It did not even occur to me. Because my mother was dying of cancer. And we did not get along. With the extra added bonus that the last time I saw her alive, I was walking out the door after yet another time things were said that shouldn’t have been said. Last year, the closest I got to an ofrenda was lighting a candle immediately after my brother called to say she had died.

That was one year ago, on all Souls’ Day.

I didn’t get around to carving our pumpkin until Thanksgiving. By then, it made no sense to make a jack-o-lantern. I carved a Christmas tree instead.

This year, our ofrenda was very top of mind. Photographs of three new people were added: my mother, John’s Uncle Jerry; John’s ex-brother-in-law Bill. We added Greg’s “Bargrooves” CDs; a T-shirt he, The King of Subversive T-shirts, used to wear; my mom’s 1939 edition of Nancy Drew: The Clue of the Tapping Heels; and some vintage jewelry she gave me when she was a small-antiques dealer. During one of the times we were actually getting along.

One of the privileges of human life is being allowed to live long. The dark side of this is that 1) your own years become increasingly numbered, even in a best-case scenario; and 2) as those years pass, you will watch your ofrenda get larger and larger.

Something occurred to me this past week, very consciously, for the first time: these loved ones of ours who die, although we miss the hell out of them, are so much a part of us that never really develops until we lose them. Just as surely as these people we love will die, just as surely as our hearts will break every day for the loss, if we’re lucky we will also become more grateful, present, and eternally embraced by their spirits. They shape us as much as our own souls and other living people do. A remarkable new dimension that, if we’re lucky, and open to it, can touch us quite deeply and profoundly and permanently.

It is also a conundrum. We can’t really get to this bittersweet spot until we suffer profound loss.

During times we don’t see each other socially, Denise and I stay in touch via email. Some days we have the most robust discussions. Minutes after I posted a picture of our ofrenda on Thursday, another robust discussion ensued, during which we wrote about loved ones who’ve crossed over. It got emotional.

Somewhere in the middle of things, I wrote:

Still wanna get together for lunch at the lake?

I didn’t hear anything for a short while. Then this:

I’m not sure. I’m feeling quite…thoughtful today. It might be the best thing in the world for me to sit with a friend and talk and share and look at the restorative water. Or I may stare silently for a time and then burst into tears. Tough call!

In the end we decided that it was too cold to sit on a park bench and eat peanut butter sandwiches. That maybe it was best to give in to all that introspection, however sad and mixed up and raw it makes us feel. We’ll get together another time, soon.

It’s been a strange and beautiful week. There was Halloween. Our ofrenda. Hurricane Sandy. Here in Milwaukee hundreds of people flocked to Lake Michigan in hopes of seeing the eighteen-foot waves authorities were predicting from Sandy’s aftermath. I posted a “Wave Report” on Facebook, monitoring the shore from our dining room window and posting photos. The waves were bigger and more vehement than usual. But the eighteen-footers never materialized.

In the meantime, people died. Some violently; others in their homes; in hospital beds; in their sleep; with their children holding them as they take their last breaths. Souls fled. After Lake Michigan settled down, the sun began to slip down, blanketing the Eastern sky in orange and fuchsia, casting a faint shadow of itself on the horizon. The churned-up lake water, the color of a caramel macchiato, continued to splash over the break wall, but less frequently. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of Lake Michigan. But in the 8.5 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve never seen anything as oddly beautiful as this.

Molly Snyder writes about the ofrenda she built for the Día de los Muertos show at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts on OnMilwaukee.com. The show runs through Nov. 17.