IMG_4570It’s been a rough winter here in Milwaukee.

It started out innocuously; with autumn refusing to let go and temperatures so warm the building next door was able to put on a new roof in mid-December.

But two days after the roof was finished, everything changed, and abruptly. Temperatures dropped to twenty degrees, then even further to ten degrees, four degrees, minus eight.

Snow fell. A lot of snow. Lake Michigan resisted freezing for as long as it could, throwing off steam as its warm water equalized with the cold-as-needles air above it. It finally succumbed, forming thick ice that has extended the beach by several yards. Thinner ice that formed beyond the breakwall broke off into sheets that have been flowing north and south along the coast.

It’s been like this for two and a half months now. We Milwaukeeans have been traipsing around in layers under coats and heads wrapped in caps knitted by our grandmas, carrying our dress shoes in Pick ‘n Save bags. Our gloves are filthy, our scarves are stiff from breathing through them, and once we’re inside and take everything off, we do it with the verve of getting out of a straitjacket.

IMG_4557Then there are the viruses. This year I got my flu shot a little later than I’d planned—the beginning of December—despite warnings from my friend Gretchen that they aren’t good for your immune health.

“But the last time I didn’t get it, I got the flu and it rocked my foundation,” I told her. I’ve gotten a flu shot ever since and haven’t been sick.

This year, however, was different. On January 6 when my stomach seized up, in my head I went over everything I’d eaten the past few days, certain that I had food poisoning. I was barely over it by the time I started to teach on the 16.

On January 18 we had a music gig and played to a packed house on Milwaukee’s near west side. At the end of the night I was exhausted. The next day I couldn’t drink enough water.

Then came the sore throat. The exhaustion. The congestion. Memories of The Flu of 2011 made me twitch. I tried to fight it. But couldn’t.

It took a full three weeks to get over what turned out to be influenza. The whole time, I taught four sessions of Pre-College English, all in a row, from 8:30 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon. The faces of all eighty of my students swam before me as I stood in front of the classroom. Utterly exhausted when it was over, I collapsed when I got home.

As my body tried to recover, those of my students began to falter, one by one, not coming to class for a week at a time either to nurse themselves or their children who’d brought bugs home from school.

IMG_4582Several of my students brought their sicknesses into the classroom with them, along with their wet boots and coats and gloves, clutching boxes of Kleenex. I shut the door to begin the day’s lecture. There was sneezing, coughing, clogged voices. One student asked to be excused; when she came back she said she had thrown up. I reopened the door to let the cooties out.

Which didn’t help. A few days after I could finally breathe, my stomach seized up again, so badly this time that I had to cancel one day of classes.

Being sick became my life. No band rehearsals, no socializing, not even with John. I didn’t write or exercise.

One thing I did manage to do well was to eat like crap: potato chips, four-for-a-dollar ramen noodles, Doritos, chocolate milkshakes from McDonald’s.

I complained about it on Facebook, saying, “Eff-erooni, what a winter so far. Flu once, stomach virus twice since January 6. Hard out here for a pimp.”

Several people chimed in, expressing sympathy, others sharing their own tales of misery.

My friend Terri said, “Just think of it as building a wall of immunities while teaching. My daughter is in her fourth year of teaching elementary music and this is the first year she hasn’t been terribly sick.”

The night before, I had lain awake, despairing because I hadn’t been writing. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. My flu-addled brain was freeze-locked. When I woke up the next morning, I was still despairing.

Then Terri said what she said.

It got me thinking about “building a wall of immunities” as we make mistakes in life, many of them over and over again. The more you’re exposed, the more you learn—if you’re lucky—to never make them again.

IMG_4564I think about this when I get to know people my age who are still making the kinds of mistakes that are the hallmark of our twenties and thirties. Not changing patterns that stopped working for them decades ago.

It also makes me think about the people who aren’t good for us who come into our lives over and over and over again. Folks that Dr. Harville Hendrix say we invite into our hearts because they are like our mothers and fathers, with whom we’ve had tenuous childhood relationships that we want to fix.

This is one lesson that’s been difficult for me to learn: allowing people to get close who don’t deserve to be that close. These days, however, my wall of immunities no longer permits it.

My instincts tell me that Terri and Gretchen are spot-on about building immunity to sickness. Because last year I didn’t teach at all, having taken time off time to write.

There were times I didn’t leave our apartment for four days, because I was thinking and being and taking pictures and playing music and writing essays. It was one of the best years of my life.

The irony is that while I traveled from one end of my soul to the other and back, I had unwittingly weakened my ability to chart the real world. As soon as I returned to teaching and the real world, bam!

At the end of influenza, I sat in my hair stylist’s chair, so exhausted I was close to tears, not yet knowing that the following week I would need to buck up again when Round Two of viral gastroenteritis hit. This is the first week I’ve felt halfway strong in two and a half months.

If the flu vaccine I got in December helped at all, it did so in an extraordinarily limited way. Maybe Gretchen is right, maybe flu shots are worthless, and immunity is best built naturally. I don’t know what I’ll do next year.



Last year I wrote a paean to the end of summer, which was also a paean to the end of nonstop construction in our neighborhood and all the noise that came with it. I looked forward to all the cranes and suburban tough guys and their paint-splattered boom boxes going away for the winter, leaving Milwaukee’s East Side to slip into blissful cocooning.

Which lasted until Monday, December 11, 2012, when ten men started tearing down the roof deck on the building next to ours.

They’d been there on and off throughout the summer and fall, investigating, measuring, repairing here and there, walking the roof hands on hips, bellowing at each other two feet apart. (Why some men do this I will never understand. The sound of it carries like you wouldn’t believe when you’re on top of a tall building. One low whisper and the occupants of the buildings around you will hear it as loudly as if you were in their living rooms.)

“Maybe they’re just taking down the roof deck and then they’ll be gone,” said John, looking out the window.

Our hopes were shot after a crane arrived and began loading buckets and rolls of what looked like white plastic onto the roof. By the end of the day, the deck and all the who-knows-how-many-years of garbage under it was gone and half the roof stripped down to bare wood. The perfectly good deck furniture was also tossed onto the garbage heap.

We were crestfallen. John was in the midst of studying for law school finals. My birthday was the next day and I was looking forward to having a quiet, Zen time of it.

At 7 a.m. on December 12, the ten men, plus ten more, were back on the roof; the other half of it was stripped down to bare wood within two hours. Black debris filled six wheelbarrows several times over. The crane was loaded and unloaded, the men shouted to each other in Spanish. Our cats were wide-eyed and twitchy.

It was clear we were in for the long haul, so I decided to have a little fun with it. I opened our windows and raised the screens so I could get clear shots of everything that was going on and began taking what would turn out to be nine days’ worth of pictures. It took a few days for the first worker to see me, and I didn’t care when he did. Part of me figured that if they were intruding on us, I’d intrude right back. And turn it into a photo-essay on the anatomy of a new roof.

The men and I got to the point at which we started to have bits of conversation when I appeared in our windows.

“When do you think you’ll be done?” I asked one.

“Friday for sure,” he said.

The week passed relatively pleasantly like this. But they were not done on Friday.

“At least we’ll have the weekend off,” said John.

Just when we thought the coast was clear, Saturday evening in the fog and rain, some of the men came up to the roof to clean it, dumping liquid from red bottles and mixing it with the rainwater. One of the men started whistling, the kind of whistling that starts out sounding like a beautiful bird but after a half hour makes you ready for the loony bin.

One of the workers unzipped his pants and took a piss on the new roof, not even trying to hide it. After he finished he took his mop and went to another part of the roof, mixing the soap from the red bottles with the rainwater and shoving it down the drains. Eventually he made it back over to where he’d pissed, nonchalantly swirling it in with the soapy water and into the drain.

Before they left at 9 p.m., he unzipped his pants again, this time facing our kitchen window. He stopped midstream the millisecond he saw me in the window; in the next, he zipped up and ran out of sight.

The next morning—Sunday morning—a crew showed up at 7:30, yelling and laughing and throwing things. A young man in a red Columbia-looking jacket, wearing a Mohawk that looked like the fur along the spine of some wild animal, paced all day on his cell, pausing only to watch the others seal the edges of the new roof and eat junk food.

I took some pictures while he was outside our bathroom window shooting the breeze with a guy who was trying to work. The young man in the Mohawk looked up at me and rolled his eyes.

“Thanks for being here at 7:30 on a Sunday morning,” I said.

“You know I own this company, don’t you?” he said.

“So you’re the one we have to thank,” I said.

“If you don’t like it, call the building owner,” he said. “And close your stupid windows.”

Within an hour after I emailed the management company, the man who turned out to be the real owner of the roofing company arrived. The young man with the Mohawk was on his knees, sealing the roof along with the other workers.

The next day they were officially done and gone. The owner of the roofing company and the owner of the building stayed afterward for debriefing, arms folded, looking serious. The owner of the building next door is also the owner of our building and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve lived here for nine years.

IMG_6927When I started taking pictures of the new roof going in, I thought it would turn out to be an interesting photo-essay. But as I look through the photos, they’re not as interesting as I thought they would be.

Two days after the workers left, temperatures in Milwaukee fell forty degrees and it began to snow, hard. The sudden change in temperature made for some unusual conditions over Lake Michigan, which we can see from our apartment.

Trees turned white. Temperatures dropped even further to single digits, then below zero. The weather over land collided with the weather over the lake, producing some spectacular and unusual winter weather phenomena: stalagmite steam; thick fog; ominous clouds; giant waves; sun reflecting off icy blue water; breathtaking sunrises; ice floes moving up and down the coast.

It’s been going on for so long now—Milwaukee’s had a wonderfully righteous winter this year—that I’ve almost forgotten about the new roof. Mother Nature trumps Man.

The only time I do think about it is when I look out at the lake, which is now framed by a white roof, and I miss the old, innocuous black tar paper roof. We worry about what will happen when the summer sun finally returns to Milwaukee and hits that white expanse.

Look at another photo-essay in which Mother Nature trumps Man.