14. March 2013 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

JAN_GREG_MIRRORThree years ago today Greg, one of my best friends, died of a massive heart attack while teaching a weekend course in another state. One second he was alive. The next he wasn’t.

His wife Jan, also my best friend, called me the morning after it happened. While it was unusual to hear from her this time of the day and week, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary.

“How are you?” I chirped.

“I have something to tell you,” she said. It wasn’t until she strung these six words together that I realized there was something in her voice I hadn’t ever heard in the thirty years I’d known her.

I braced myself for everything she told me next. That Greg had been in Florida. That she had talked to him the night before about her flying down to join him. That the class had reconvened Sunday morning, that he had had a heart attack, and that they had tried to save him.

“And he died,” she said, through tears.

“What?” I demanded, as if I had just been told a scandalous lie.

We cried. I said I was sorry, over and over again.

“I wanted to make sure I called,” Jan said. “I didn’t want you to find out some other way.”

After we hung up I cried hard every single day for two weeks straight.

Jan_Greg_3Greg was 62 and from Jersey. Vivacious, hilarious, a smart aleck, a real character who loved music, played guitar, wrote songs, skateboarded, and roller-bladed. He saw things about life that not many of us see.

Our friendship began in 1980, when Jan and I worked at Halle’s department store in Cleveland. She was the human resources manager in a branch store. I was a buyer trainee doing a year as a manager in that same store. A group of us  there—Chuck, Cathy, Sheila, Bill, Jan, and I—became friendly and began socializing outside of work. Some of us started dating each other; others of us started bringing around our boyfriends and girlfriends.

The first time I met Greg, we were all going out after work and waiting in the store for him to arrive. I have this fleeting yet vivid picture in my head of Jan leaning against a display case, smiling when he got there and as she introduced him to us. He had the most gray hair I’d ever seen on a young person, although it wasn’t anything close to the solid bright white it would become when he got older.

I don’t remember where we went that first night. But we did find out that he had a master’s degree in philosophy and worked as a janitor in a branch of the Cleveland Public Library because he didn’t live to work, he worked to live and write music and think.

Thenceforth we became a band of brothers and sisters. We took turns throwing costume parties. The best parties. I fell in love with my first husband at one of those parties. We saw live bands in The Flats, saw our first music videos at the Pirate’s Cove, and made our own music videos to Police songs.

Most of us weren’t into pot, but we did drink. Another vivid memory I have is of Greg drinking cheap rosé from one of those glass gallon jugs, which he’d hoist up on his shoulder, wind his mouth around, and chug-a-lug from. At the end of 1981 I married the man I fell in love with at Bill and Cathy’s costume party, and Jan and Greg and everyone else in our group from work were there. Greg and my husband became close friends.

I need more space to describe how dear Jan and Greg became to me over the years, and how dear they are to me today and always will be. It would take five hundred essays to adequately write about my love for them. They are two people who know me well and who loved me anyway, even during certain periods in my life when I acted a fool. They loved me unconditionally, like your mama and daddy should, and I am eternally grateful to them for that.

Jan_Greg_2The irony of our collective young drinking days is that Greg put down the wine jug and went back to school to become a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. Later he also became a relationship counselor. At one particular very low point in my life during which I had no idea who I was anymore, Greg was the first person I called. He told me everything was going to be OK and recommended a colleague for me to talk to.

He recommended books to me. Music. Lots of music. He played his guitar for us on the front porch. We talked and talked and talked. Every time I came over, he and Jan had a bottle of wine for me, even though they themselves had stopped drinking.

One blazing bright sunny day in Stow, Vermont, as I was returning from the ski slopes, my cell phone rang.

“Hello?” I said.

Nothing for a whole three seconds. Then I heard Greg reciting what sounded like a poem. I realized he was reciting—rapping, really—the lines from a song on a Citizen Cope CD, which I’d recommended to him.

While he was ecstatic about Citizen Cope, he was extraordinarily pissed about Sleater Kinney, which he claimed I had also told him to get. I told him, no, I told you that I like them, but you would never like them, so shut up.

After I got divorced and moved to Milwaukee I took a new, uptight-for-no-good-reason boy home to Cleveland for Jan and Greg to meet—one of those situations in which it’s mind-blowing that these people from different phases of your life are together in one room. Greg toyed with him like my cat torments a spider. It was quite naughty and highly entertaining.

When Greg met John they fell instantly in love with each other. “He reminds me of you-know-who,” Greg said, meaning my first husband. The last time we saw Greg alive was Christmas Day 2010. He and John played guitars together that day.

Greg’s funeral was crazy-good. In his casket he had the same silly smirk he did in real life. The line for visiting hours went out the door and around the corner. An extra hour and a half had to be tacked on so that everyone who came to see him could see him.

There was a nasty rainstorm the day of the memorial service but the church was packed. We should all go out like this. We need to live our lives in ways that make people want to come out in the pouring rain and stand in hot, long-ass lines for an hour to see us for the very last time. We just do.

Four months later I went back to Cleveland to stay with Jan. I found out what had happened the day Greg died. That he had gotten his class started on an activity and then took a seat. And that after he sat down he remembered a joke he wanted to tell them. That he sprung up out of his chair and before he could speak another word, he fell to the floor. And that he was probably dead before he hit the floor.

This man who had just celebrated his wife’s birthday a week earlier. Whose doctor had just given him a clean bill of health. Who showed no signs. Alive one second. Gone the next.

IMG_2225On that trip Jan shared Greg’s writings with me. I never knew he wrote anything other than songs. He was an excellent writer of poetry and prose. I read page after page after page with his ashes on my lap. Jan and I went through his CDs. She told me things about him I had never known before. One of which was that he used to run on the treadmill in the basement while listening to club music—club music!—while wearing sunglasses to keep out the basement lights.

She gave me some of his club music. When I hear it on my iPod, it makes me deliriously happy.

I don’t think he is anymore, but in the past week Greg has been around us. There was John’s Star Trek calendar, which John hadn’t gotten around to turning to March yet, which I turned to March for him. It’s on a nail with a head so thick you have to really work to get it through the hole.

Over the weekend it had been turned back to February.

Then our cats were making those I-see-a-ghost looks that cats make. “Hi, Greg,” I said, “are you here?” After which there was the strangest sound next to the coat closet, a sound I have never, ever heard in our apartment before.

The following day, when I returned home from teaching and opened the front door, something about our living room felt different. Whiter. Brighter. Longer. In an altered dimension. As if someone had moved some things or was hiding in a closet.

I set my things down and said, “I love you, Greg.”

And off he went, I like to think, to move on to the next person who knew and loved him, like Santa visiting the dreams of children the night before Christmas.

In the time it has taken me to write this essay about my dear friend, who is every bit with me as he was when he was alive, the dinner hour has come and gone. John has brought me a shot of Irish Mist, which I now raise to Greg.

I love you, Greg.

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. 

30. January 2013 · 2 comments · Categories: Books

IMG_4735Last spring I bought this cookbook at the Milwaukee Public Library’s bookstore because I was fascinated with the rather vitriolic notes that someone had written throughout it. I wrote an essay about it and published it here.

Some time later Kate Murphy of the New York Times contacted me, saying she saw my piece, she was writing a story on cookbook marginalia, could we talk?

I’m happy to report that Kate’s story was published today in the Dining & Wine section of the Times, both in print and online.

Big thanks (and congrats) to Kate Murphy. It’s a really nice piece.


SALLY PHOTOS-5Over the years, many people have come in and out of my life. The ones who are kind remind me that I should be a little less cynical and controlling. The ones who are unkind remind me that I deserve to be treated better.

In a previous essay I wrote about these people who move in and out of our lives, some taking bits of our flesh with them, others leaving us with the most beautiful and unexpected gifts.

This essay is about the people who come into your life and never leave. Who know everything about you and love you in spite of it.

I am lucky to have more than one person like this in my life. There are Ohio girls Jan and Pat, whom I’ve known for thirty-two and twenty-six years respectively. I met Lori the week I moved to Milwaukee – sixteen years now. Greg was my friend for twenty-nine years before he died suddenly in 2010. I’ve come to discover that we’re still friends, just on a different plane now.

The most recent person to come into my life and stay is my husband John. The other day I realized that I’ve known him for ten years now. Ten years! This makes me feel glorious.

Sally is my longest-running friend. We’ve known each other forty-seven years now.

SALLY PHOTOS-9Sally and her parents and two older sisters moved to our town – Strongsville, a Cleveland suburb – from a few towns over. She was the new kid in a classroom of fifth-graders who’d known each other since kindergarten. I don’t remember what attracted us to each other. But her being a rebel-rouser and my being a good-girl probably had something to do with it.

I do remember the first time I went to Sally’s house, so far on the edge of town you could throw a rock from her front porch and it would land in the next county. Her father was Italian and her mother Irish, and even when they just wanted to talk to each other about the weather or what to have for supper, they hollered at each other. They sounded angry but they weren’t. Sally’s sisters hollered too. The sheer frequency and volume of it shocked me, whose family kept things bottled up inside.

SALLY PHOTOS-11I got over it quickly. Sally’s attitude then, and still is, “Whatever,” which she usually punctuates with a dismissive wave of her hand. In junior high, when I started sleeping over at her house, we snuck out of her bedroom window in the middle of the night, picked up Denise at her house, and walked across the street and into the next county to hang out with the Sterrett boys, who were much older than us. We made tents in my backyard, pinning two blankets to my mother’s clothesline, and then pulling out the bottoms and weighing them down with paving stones from the edge of the garden. We pretended to sleep until the middle of the night, when we met up with neighbor boys Bill and Jim and roamed the streets of our housing development.

SALLY PHOTOS-6One of these times my mother whipped open the front door so quickly we saw stars. You never saw four kids run in four different directions so fast in all your life. My mother took to calling Sally “the instigator.”

In high school Sal was voted “Class Clown,” while I earned the more sedate title of “Prettiest Eyes.” We were with each other on Senior Cut Day. We attended two different colleges in Ohio. I don’t know how we managed it because neither of us owned a car, but we did visit each other’s campuses a few times apiece.

After college Sally and I rented an upper flat together. I woke up most mornings to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and Joni Mitchell on the stereo. Sal’s homemade spaghetti sauce was a staple in our kitchen.

SALLY PHOTOS-7We lived together a year and a half before Sally moved to California to work as a costumer and dresser. I got married. She ran into some trouble with a man and abruptly moved back to Cleveland. She didn’t look like her old self when she first got back.

This all changed when she met Jim. They married, bought a house, bought a second house and became landlords. We spent a lot of time at each other’s homes, and went out to the big clubs in The Flats and the mom-and-pop taverns on every corner in Lakewood. Sally and Jim have been married over twenty years now. I should know exactly how many because I was her matron of honor.

SALLY PHOTOS-1There have been private moments, which I don’t feel comfortable putting here. Times when I veered off course and it affected her, and vice versa. Desperate times when one helped out the other.

There was the family reunion at Sugar Island, which happened at a really bad time in my life, which might have been a really bad time in her life too. We clashed on that trip, had a giant fight, and didn’t talk to each other for five, six years afterward.

During that time I got remarried. Sally’s mother died. (Her father had died some years earlier.) She and her sisters sold the family home and moved their Aunt Muriel, their mother’s sister, into another house. On a trip to Cleveland, I visited Sally for the first time in six years.

It felt like being home. No awkward silences; it doesn’t matter if your lipstick’s on crooked; it certainly doesn’t matter if you’re even wearing lipstick, not with Sal. You know just where to jump in. Your souls are connected, as deep as Earth’s inner core.

SALLY PHOTOS-3If you have this even with one person in your life, protect it with everything you’ve got. Especially if it’s not perfect. It’s not meant to be perfect. That’s the utter beauty of it. Loving one person for ten, twenty, thirty, forty-plus years, because of and in spite of everything, is life’s rarest jewel.

I don’t know what took us so long, but it was Sally who came up with the idea to Skype over the holidays. I was at the beginning stages of coming down with the flu and we agreed to limit our conversation to twenty minutes.

SALLY PHOTOS-10An hour and fifteen minutes later, we were sufficiently caught up on each other’s lives. We picked up where we always did, where we’d last left off, no matter how long ago it was, quickly and effortlessly. We talked about Muriel, who’d died just two weeks earlier. Sally looked off-camera and remarked that her family is getting very small now. She used her iPad to show me her and Jim’s Christmas tree, how she decorated their fireplace mantel, their beloved cat, which she found in a dumpster sixteen years ago, and the river, lined with bare trees now, that runs alongside their backyard.

Watching as Sally walked her iPad around her house reminded me of all the home videos she’s shot over the years. There are no slow pans; she doesn’t linger on any one thing for very long SALLY PHOTOS-8before she’s on the move again. When she sees something that she wants you to see too, she goes to it quickly and you’d better hang on for the ride. There are the continual clicks of the camera as she zooms in and out and tries to focus. There is the ongoing narrative that’s delivered a little too close to the microphone. You hear breathing.

If I ever saw a home video Sally shot that was in focus and didn’t give me the spins, I’d be extraordinarily disappointed. It’s one of her quirks that I adore.

Another is that she both boils and fries her homemade breakfast potatoes in the same pan and it takes two or three hours and you’re about ready to pass out from hunger by the time she puts them on the table.

But they are damn good. So are the eggs, the bacon, the toast, juice, coffee, and conversation. The love. I wouldn’t want any of it any other way.

Jim and Sal will be married twenty-five years this September.

sc002686f3 2

This is me, circa 2000, climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. I don’t remember the route name but it was a 5.8 or something like that. Rather difficult.

There was a group of us, tight-knit, who climbed at all the gyms in town: three YMCAs, Adventure Rock, Milwaukee Turners. We took turns driving each other out to Devil’s Lake, and broke off into smaller groups that climbed at gyms in Whitewater and Appleton. Some of us, including me, were climbing instructors at the Y.

It was a good time, but these people have faded from my life, and I haven’t climbed since 2004.

That same year, I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, which had slowed my metabolism to a crawl, causing a 20-pound weight gain. In 2004, I also got married, took a new job, and moved to an urban neighborhood where there’s at least one marvelous restaurant or pub on every corner.

By 2006, I had put on 42 pounds. Although most women might be offended by this, for my birthday that year John gave me four personal training sessions at the gym where he, a marathon runner, also worked out. He knew how miserable I’d become. It was one of the most loving things he’s ever done for me.

I worked with my trainer, Lauren, for two years. It was a great experience and we developed a strong friendship, but looking back I can see that I didn’t take the work nearly as seriously as I should have. After our sessions, John would come pick me up and we’d go out for Mexican food. My stamina and muscle tone improved. But I didn’t lose weight.

When I was a climbing instructor at the Y, I also worked out there. In graduate school, I switched over to the university rec center. In 2010, the year after I got my master’s degree, I joined one of those franchise gyms, a seven-minute walk from my home, owned by someone you never see working out there but who occasionally rolls up in a brand-new BMW wearing an expensive suit. When you join this particular franchise gym, your paperwork not only comes from the gym but also from the finance company you pay your monthly fee to.

I got serious about losing those 42 pounds. Started counting calories using an app called Lose It. For two and a half years my new gym and I had a beautiful relationship, with the bonus that one of the trainers there also had a master’s in English and we had a number of robust discussions about literature and writing and teaching. The manager, female and young, was quite professional for her age, a hustler in the good sense of the word who really grew the business.

Everything was fine until sometime last fall, when I couldn’t bring myself to go there anymore. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe watching people drip sweat all over equipment and not wipe it down. The young woman with the blaring iPod her ear buds can’t contain, who has her choice of every other treadmill in the empty gym but takes the one right next to me. Maybe it was the guy wearing those minimalist Erewhon shoes with toes, who does the same move with a set of barbells an hour and a half straight, dropping the weights from two feet up every time. The one I saw spit on the carpet next to the elliptical machine.

Or maybe it was the attorney who burst into the weight room where three of us were peacefully working out, who dropped to the floor every piece of equipment he touched, continually marked his progress in a notebook that he continually chucked to the floor, and in between practiced a closing argument.

sc00267c54 2

This month I finally called the manager and told her, “I would like to cancel my membership.”

“How come?” she said.

I told her I wanted to return to my sports.

“Which ones?” she asked.

“Running. Yoga. Climbing. Dancing,” I said.

She didn’t say anything, just made a noise. I got the strong feeling she didn’t believe me.

I put on my running tights and old Nike Storms and headed to the gym to sign my cancellation paperwork. The manager barely looked at me. Checked boxes and drew lines on the form quickly, as if sketching. Pushed it across the desk at me and said, “Fill out the upper half.”

There was no conversation, no friendly banter as I filled out the top half. No “sorry to see you go” or “thank you for being a member for the past two and half years, come back when you’re ready.” I slid the paperwork back, and she handed me a piece of paper from the printer.

“Your receipt,” she said. It was on letterhead from the finance company.

That was it. “Take care,” I said.

“Yep,” she said back.

The trainer with the master’s degree cheerfully said “see you!” as I left. I pushed open the front door of the gym. The sun hit my face.

And I ran. As fast I could.

Along the way I recalled the years 1995 to 2005, when I became the athlete I never really was growing up. I had won two canoe races. Learned to cross-country ski. Downhill-skied in Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Colorado, Vermont. Backpacked 10 miles. Ran a 15k race without stopping once. Took yoga. Kickboxing. Spinning. Cycled 100 miles in two days. On hills.

And I danced. Oh, the dancing. The first swing dance at the Knights of Columbus on Milwaukee’s south side my girlfriend Lori took me to led me to contra dancing, then Irish set dancing, then Scottish country folk dancing.

During my run I realized that, similar to the road trip I’d taken last fall, what had been keeping me from the gym were all these things I used to be and had forgotten about and wanted back. I needed to more freely move through time and space again.

I still have my copy of Pat Murphy’s Toss the Feathers, which tells you how to dance the Irish sets, which are all danced the same way, no matter where you are in the world. But I can’t find my Climber’s Guide to Devil’s Lake, which makes me kind of sad.

I do have my copy of Devil on the Cross by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, though, which he autographed when I met him in 2006 during grad school. Funny where life takes you sometimes. The detours. Wrong turns. The retracing of steps back to the campfire, whose embers are still burning.

So far I’ve lost 26 of the 42 pounds I started gaining nearly ten years ago. I have no interest in getting down to the weight I was when this all started; 10 or 12 pounds over would be just fine.

Which means only six more to go.


Had I seen this in my gym last fall, it would have sent me right over the edge. The person who posted it on YouTube says that when there are three or four empty treadmills in a row, she’ll turn them all on and dance from one to the other.

No matter where I am in life, I will always look back on 2012 and say,

That was a very good year.

I’d go so far as to say that it’s been the best year of my life, second to 2008, the year I left a job I despised and lived off savings until I started a research assistantship six months later. It was the first time in my life I just “was,” and I grew enormously from the experience.

This year, to my surprise, some fears melted away and my creative self resurfaced. It was the last thing I expected, but today, on the last day of 2012, I feel closer to my true self than I have in decades. There is no happiness quite like getting back to your roots. That is what I will be wishing for you at midnight tonight, dear reader: that you find your way back to your roots. Because nestled in them are some gifts you ought to be using.

2012 taught me good lessons. Here are some:

  • The things I love now are the same things I loved when I was ten years old. Avoiding them for forty years was like trying to hold a beach ball underwater: exhausting. Much easier to relent and be the good things you were meant to be.
  • I no longer care about how much money I make, other than enough to pay my bills. It is more important to do the work I love.
  • I want to live the life of an artist for the rest of my life.
  • It’s okay not to go to Ohio. For the first time in the nearly sixteen years I’ve lived in Wisconsin, I did not travel to Ohio once all year. Although my family and close friends there may not like it, I think they understand that every once in a while you just have to live in your cave.
  • I’d rather have ten people in my life who show their true selves, warts and all—who are sometimes annoying because of those warts—than one person who takes great pains to hide them and then out of the blue tries to mess with my head.
  • It’s not often you can get four people together in a room and all get along, much less eight. In our band, while we don’t always agree with each other, we are clearly eight people who like each other. With the added bonus that we make good music together. This is gold.
  • When you have a chance to reconnect with significant people from your past who still mean a lot to you, take advantage of that opportunity. This includes beloved teachers, old neighbors, lost relatives, and the ex-husband with whom you are still on good terms.
  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. When I arrived at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago at the end of February, I never would have believed that by the end of it, I’d start creating a Web site. And that I’d publish personal essays there. And that they’d attract the attention of a New York Times reporter, the family of a man in jail who doesn’t believe he should be there, the family of my first-grade teacher, and readers from all over the place.
  • Take individual people on a case-by-case basis. Generalizations just don’t work.
  • Be careful about who you let into your life. That heart of yours is sacred.
  • You can’t please everyone. Even if you have a good heart. And that’s okay. If you’re a jerk, though, you really should work to please a few more people.
  • Among the best gifts you can receive: an unexpected phone call on your birthday; a note that says “I’m proud of you”; a “Miss you big time” post on your Facebook; a card signed “With much love and respect.” All from people you’ve loved and who’ve loved you for years, warts and all.
  • There is no better man for me in this lifetime than John, and I need to let him know more often than I have been. I don’t ever want to regret not letting him know.

While I’m sad to see 2012 end, it’s all a continuum. So I say to 2013: “Hello there. I look forward to living in you.” Tonight I’ll be lifting my glass to you all. Happy New Year.

Edwin Starr wrote “Oh How Happy” in 1966. The Shades of Blue made it a hit that same year. They broke up in 1970, the same year “War” became a number-one hit for Starr (after scoring big with “25 Miles” in 1968).

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.



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.  

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.
IMG_2483 2

This is our view of Lake Michigan, along the coast of Milwaukee. We’re lucky: even though the front of our apartment faces west, the back of it faces east. And so we are afforded two spectacular views.

Since it’s been a while since I posted shots of the ever-changing lake – and I’m more in photo- and music-mode than reading- and writing-mode at the moment – here is a new group of them. Although a few are from 2010-11, most are from this year, culminating in a shot from this morning during our first snowfall of the season.

The eerie-looking pink-orange-purple one and the one before it were taken October 30, when Hurricane Sandy was expected to create 18-foot waves but didn’t.

As I’ve said before, the two things I love about our view are: 1) it is the same shot every time, framed by three buildings behind ours; and 2) viewed in this way, Lake Michigan – in combination with the sky over it – is like an ever-changing work of art, sometimes changing color and texture three or four times in one day.

I feel honored to document Lake Michigan in this way. I try not to take it for granted. Just as I am ever aware there is a moon in the sky, I am ever aware there is a lake out there.

For more photos of Lake Michigan from our place, see Part 1.