ME_BOYS_SANTA 2In June I wrote an essay about Miss Gluntz, who left our school at the end of the year I had her as my first-grade teacher to get married and start a family.

In it, I thank her for something extraordinary she did four years later during a visit to our school. I also apologize because I acted like a dork at the time.

Well, this past Monday, I received an email from a family member of Miss Gluntz’s, who’d found and read my essay, shared it with Miss Gluntz, and took the time to let me know that she is alive and well and would love to hear from me. I was at a loud Christmas party with some friends and John when the message came through. I cried and cried.

“She OK?” asked one friend.

John asked what was going on and I told him.

“She’s fine,” he said, smiling and patting my knee.

The family member and I have since exchanged more emails, and the upshot is that I plan to write to Miss Gluntz after Christmas and tell her just how much she means to me.

It reminds me that I need to do the same with Mrs. Peterson, who told me in high school, “You should be a writer.” At the time, I scoffed at the idea.

It also reminds me that I need to send a card to the wife of Louis T. Milic, a brilliant Columbia-bred scholar of eighteenth-century British literature and my mentor in college, who, like Miss Gluntz and Mrs. Peterson, saw something in me that I never saw in myself and still don’t know if I see.

In 2004, when I was applying to graduate school at Marquette University, I did a computer search for Dr. Milic. I wanted first to reconnect, because it had been a few years, and second, see if he might be willing to write me a letter of recommendation.

I found him right away. His obituary. He had passed away just months earlier. The anniversary of his death is New Year’s Eve. Since I did not get a chance to tell him how much he meant to me, I have always wanted to write to his wife and tell her.

These teachers of ours.

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The family member of Miss Gluntz’s who contacted me on Monday is the wife of her nephew. The universe works in beautiful ways sometimes and I kid you not: as I was publishing this post, a comment from Miss Gluntz’s daughter arrived in my inbox.  

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IMG_2090You cannot be a woman in this world and not be perpetrated on by creepy guys at least a few dozen times in your life.

Becoming a working musician has increased my chances of encountering at least one every time we play out. At one of our last shows, a pock-faced bald man wearing a burnt orange sweater that was being severely tested by his big belly sat on the barstool closest to us and watched as we set up. A dour-looking woman in big glasses and hair the same color as her skin sat next to him.

“What’s that a tattoo of?” he hollered at me after a while. Since our trumpet player had been talking to him and didn’t look unhappy about it, I joined them.

“It’s based on a piece of art I have at home,” I said.

“You any good?” he fired next.

“Yeah. We’re good.”

“I mean you.”

Our trumpet player excused herself. I told him that for taking up the alto sax a year ago after not having played it since I was a teenager, I was doing all right.

“I’ll know right away if you’re good or not,” he said, “and I’ll let you know.”

“You don’t have to bother, ” I said. And I left.

During our first set the dance floor fills up but the pock-faced man and dour woman sit there like big rocks. Every time I happen to look over where he is, he’s looking at me, hard.

As soon as the set ends he makes a beeline for me.

“Do you ever correct your husband?” he asks.

Odd question but I decide to treat it as a joke. “All the time,” I say. Our tenor sax player laughs. Pock-faced man doesn’t think it’s funny.

“You,” he says sternly, “corrected the band seven times.”

I don’t even know what this means, nor do I want to.

“You know what?” I say, “I need you to stop talking to me.”

He looks me up and down. “I have 50k to spend on music next year,” he says, “and your band is out.”

“I wouldn’t work for you anyway,” I tell him.

Two of my bandmates come to my rescue. The creepy guy alternates between chatting up our drummer and throwing me looks. By the time Set 2 starts, he and the dour woman are gone. Our soundman, who knows everyone in the music scene, has no idea who he is.

Up until we started playing out in August, it had been many years since the time I hung out at live music clubs in The Flats in downtown Cleveland, where some of my earliest encounters with creepy guys began. After one of them grabbed my behind on my way to the ladies’ room, I spun around and yelled at him. By the look on his face, he wasn’t expecting it.

This incident seems tame compared to everything I’ve encountered since then. I’m sorry to say that some of it has been pretty dire. There was the marketing communications manager I’d never met whom I was waiting for in the lobby of the company headquarters. I was expecting him to come down in the elevator like everybody else; instead he flew in the front door breathless, in an overcoat, and said, “You Robin? Come with me.”

A few minutes later I was riding in a car with a man whose ID I wished to God I’d asked to see before jumping into his vehicle. I prayed real hard that it was really the employee parking garage he was taking me to.

There was the man from several lifetimes ago whom I met at the airport during a layover. He had been lovely in writing. In person, however, there was a vacancy that was disturbing. As I boarded my next plane, I turned and waved. He was facing the wall, talking to himself.

There was the old friend who picked me up for dinner during a visit to Cleveland who refused tell me where we were going. A half hour later we were crossing the long bridge that links Cleveland’s East and West Sides. In the middle of it he tells me he researched thirty-four restaurants before choosing the absolutely perfect one. For a second I considered jumping out of the moving vehicle and off the bridge.

There’s the guy who used to work in your office, whom you considered strictly a friend, who invites you to lunch to “catch up” and then plays footsie with you under the table. The one on the plane who doesn’t stop when you do and rams his briefcase halfway up your skirt, who instead of apologizing, smirks and says, “Don’t worry. I didn’t see anything.” The guy who makes sexist remarks to your face and expects you to laugh too.

The family members who do these things to their own kin.

Last week, out of the Facebook wilderness came this cry: “Mother bleeeeep!! Creepy Guy is at Panera. WHY?!”

It was one of my writer friends, who’d gone there to get some coffee and some work done. It reminded me of the time I went to the diner to grade papers and a foot fetishist slipped into the booth across from me. “Mother bleeeeep,” I told him after I finally caught on fifteen minutes later, “get the bleeeeep away from me.”

The waitress stifled a yawn and said, “Oh yeah, I saw that. He’s in here all the time.” Sometimes women are creeps too.

One of the things that kills me about creepy guys, even after so many years of dealing with them, is their stealth way of perpetrating on you. You can believe you’re prepared for it, but you are never one hundred-percent prepared for it. They have a way of seeming innocuous at first, safe enough to sit kitty-corner from at Panera. But then they say something, do something that makes you feel like a sucker. Again.

That may be the creepiest thing of all.
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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.”

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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

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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?

 

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I moved to Milwaukee from Cleveland fifteen and a half years ago, in early 1997.  People often ask me, “So what brought you here?” and when they do I tell them “For a relationship that is no longer.” They look at me for two seconds, not sure what to do, and then all of a sudden say “Ooohh” and nod their heads.

That’s where I leave it, except with the people who are closest to me and girlfriends who ply me with five-dollar martinis at happy hour. What I will say is: all those years ago I thought I moved here for the man. But I eventually came to understand that I really moved here for myself.

When I got to Milwaukee I knew two people, and not very well. It took two years to be confident in the fact that every time I drove toward Lake Michigan I was going east, not north. I made new friends, picked up new clients. Every time I went away and came back to Milwaukee, I felt excited and happy when I saw the city limit signs, downtown, the lake.

Although I didn’t realize it until long after 1997, moving away got me away from people and situations that weren’t serving me well at all. It allowed me to grow up and become my own person.

The relationship I thought I moved here for turned out to be a disaster and ended, blessedly, ten years ago. I met John a few years afterward and my life changed again: marriage, moving from the country to the city, more new friends, travel, a motorcycle license, a master’s degree, a band. Our roots here run pretty deep.

Something in our kitchen cupboard has also driven home the fact that I am now from somewhere else: my Cleveland spices versus my Milwaukee spices.

My Cleveland spices moved here when I did. I bought them at Gust Gallucci’s, an Italian market on Cleveland’s near east side that my father and I used to swing by after shopping at the West Side Market together. Gallucci’s carried pastas I’d never heard of. Meats. Fish. Cheeses. Fresh-baked pizza. An entire aisle of olive oils. Their spices came in pint and quart containers, and were dirt-cheap: ninety-five cents for a pint of leaf thyme, a dollar fifty-one for a quart of Italian seasoning.

Every other Saturday morning for years, my father picked me up at 6:30 a.m. so we’d be among the first customers at the West Side Market when it opened at 7. The first thing we did was sweep the produce stands to see who had what and for what price. After the sweep we went back to the beginning, bought as much produce as we could carry, then made one trip out to the car to stash it in the trunk. Then it was time to head inside for breakfast.

To get to the indoor part of the West Side Market, where all the bakery and meat and dairy is sold, we cut through the fish stand. You have not truly lived until you’ve smelled raw fish at 7:45 on a Saturday morning, on an empty stomach and often after being at a club in The Flats until 2:30 a.m with your friends. The smell was somewhat offset by the leers you’d get from the men who worked there, scaling fish and talking in Spanish and Arabic as you walked through.

Breakfast was sandwiches and coffee from the bratwurst stand at the far end. The brats were cooked in electric skillets by three generations of one family. We ate ours on hard rolls loaded with hot mustard. I always got one to-go for my then-husband.

At the market, Dad and I got caught up with each other, and the vendors too. We’d been customers so long we saw some of the teenagers who worked there turn college graduates, thirty-somethings turn middle-aged, the middle-aged turn elderly. Breakfast was always followed by a piece of bakery—an apple fritter, Russian tea biscuit, or kolachi—which we ate as we shopped for sticks of pepperoni, small fryer chickens, pizza bagels, Lake Erie perch, dried beans, hunks of New York State sharp cheddar cheese.

When we were done, if neither of us had anything pressing to do, we drove across the bridge through downtown Cleveland and down Euclid Avenue sixty blocks to Gallucci’s. Their Web site says that this week is Frank the cashier’s 85th birthday.

I heartily recommend that anyone move away from home, just once, just for the experience. You can always go back, like my friend Sally did. Or you can stay and feel like the new place is now home, like my friend Denise. I myself vacillate between the two. Sometimes I feel more Cleveland. Sometimes I feel more Milwaukee.

Over the fifteen and a half years I’ve lived here, my Gallucci spices have worn out, dried out, and completely lost the purpose they were created for. Some are so old the containers have also dried out; when I open the plastic lids, pieces snap off and fly across the kitchen. Over the past few years they have been replaced with fresh stuff from The Spice House in downtown Milwaukee. You can smell the place a few doors away, before you even get there.

When I open our cupboard today, I see that Spice House has overrun Gallucci’s and what little Gallucci’s is left needs to be thrown out. The small bags and bottles of new spices let me know that I am from somewhere else now.

But I can still remember how the West Side market smells. The way the fresh-cut flowers bend into the aisles. Pyramids of peppers in five different colors. Iridescent drops of water on the edges of Bibb lettuce. Cookie, who has a corner produce stand and lets the ash from the cigarette that bounces in her mouth as she talks fall onto her figs and ginger root and shallots. Cookie has been dead a long time now.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I say I’m from Cleveland originally but I’ve lived in Milwaukee almost sixteen years. The Gallucci spices remind me of an old life that is receding ever more deeply into the past. And of places and things and people: some still very much a part of my life, others that no longer physically exist but will always live in my heart.

The new spices remind me that I have definitely become my own person. And that I will always be grateful to Milwaukee for this.

 

The flowers and organic produce were grown by my brother and father at my father’s farm. My brother, the organic farmer, is also a baker, and those are his bars, cookies, and muffins. 

 

 

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