America Report – Day (Minus) One

It hasn’t been mentioned here before (as far as I can remember) but I’m back in Milwaukee for Mom’s 90th birthday party slash family reunion. It’s 10:00 am on Day One and I have already been up for about six hours. I’ve had a pot of coffee and listened to a couple of podcasts on yesterday’s impeachment hearings, which I find oddly calming. I have taken a long walk, bought a Christmas present, and written a blog post longhand – this one – which I am now trying to type up on an IPAD. (It is my first time using this particular device and it is not going quickly.) I have also started my latest crocheting project. It is another symbolic one – a pink flamingo – to bookend the bat (-shit crazy) one I made during my last visit . . .

(screeching brakes sound)

Back up to Day Minus One.

There is nothing like flying direct on a decent airline (Austrian). Having stayed overnight in Vienna at my generous brother-in-law’s apartment with its impressive collection of single malts, I awoke at a civilized hour, had an unhurried coffee and shower and then meandered casually the two blocks to the airport train station (with its convenient check in counter where I relieved myself of my heavy suitcase. ) I arrived at the airport with plenty of time for duty-free shopping and podcast downloading and breakfasting.

The plane started boarding and, as always, the first impression was that the plane would not be full. Of course things changed. A half hour after we should have been I the air, passengers kept straggling in – most of them harried American senior citizens who had had the misfortune of being randomly selected for an extra security check. They were NOT a happy bunch. Women in a tizzy shared their stories of being “tickled”. The men were more angry and the baseball capped specimen in the seat behind me was particularly enraged. After his first sentence, the thought “Twump voter” passed through my mind. He went on with his complaining:

“This is just a third rate country trying to act important,” he said. “We should strike Austria off the list for the next trip.”

I went through a myriad of unspoken responses to this affront to my adopted country, but finally landed on “Austria says thank you”. Later I leaned my seat back at the first opportunity.

Despite delays, we made up all the lost time, the food was actually good (haven’t said THAT in years!), the landing soft, the arrival procedures quick and my bus to Milwaukee left just ten minutes after my leaving the terminal. My sister was there to pick me up, and when I brought my suitcase up to my room in her house, what did I find?

Next it was all talk talk talk talk until Rachel Maddow finally gave my sister some respite from me. Ten minutes into her A block on the impeachment hearings I was fast asleep.

It is going to be a wonderful week.

Spillover

 

One of the destinations of the daily 10,000 step walks my sister and I take is Atwater Park in Shorewood, where one of my favorite pieces of public art sits waiting for us. It is called “Spillover II” by a Catalan artist named Jaume Plensa (thank you, google). Take a look for yourself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The artist explained his use of letters by saying we use language to commune with nature and the world, or something like that, which is very nice, but I have my own ideas. I see a guy who consists of a jumble of amorphous, incomplete thoughts swirling around inside and outside of him. As he stares at the water, concerns begin to drain away, slowly emptying his faceless, everyman head. The way he sits, hugging his legs, makes him slightly vulnerable, but the upright head puts him squarely in the world. It fascinates me to think how different the impression would be if that head were bowed, making him looked scared or fetal-like. As is, he’s got more communing to do and he’s going to stick around for a while.

I get the impression he is fairly universally loved by the local people, but, of course, it wouldn’t be art if there were no controversy. Some tourist inspected him, “discovered” the secret message “dead jew” among his ostensibly random letters, and then blogged about it. Scandalous! Outrage! To jump to the end of the story, the artist graciously offered to alter his piece, exchanging a letter or two, so that it could no longer be “misinterpreted”. (Correcting my misinterpretation would probably require more major changes, so I hope Jaume never gets wind of this post . . . )

 

While on the subject of public art, I’ll add another fairly recent addition to Milwaukee’s collection – one that clearly falls at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.

Meet the (monstrous) “Bronze Fonz”:

 

 

 

 

I think I’ll skip the interpretation of this one and move right to the scandal. Some art director complained and said he would move his gallery if the Fonz went up near it. When that made the news, the phone calls started coming. The art director then recorded some of these messages – which he called “death threats” – and put them on a website. (http://www.hotcakesgallery.com/milwaukee-bronze-fonzie/) Three of them come from 1) a homophobe who somehow sees the statue critique as an insult to the Green Bay Packers, 2) a Canadian who is now seriously considering not coming to Milwaukee, and 3) the Fonz himself (sort of). At first I was a little wary about clicking on “Listen”, but then – as I should have guessed, this being Wisconsin – they were pretty tame. (What does it mean to “end like Dahmer”?) Still, it is beyond my comprehension how some people have the inclination, energy or time to be leaving insulting messages on a stranger’s voicemail. Henry Winkler would not approve.

The end of this sad story of schlemiels (“Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”) is that some musicians remixed the messages and set them to catchy beats. They made me laugh, but now I have this silly and bizarre song stuck in my head. “Gay boy. Dahmer gay boy. Gay boy. Go away . . .”

I think I need to go back to Atwater and look out over the lake for a while.

 

Reigning Cats and Dogs

 

One of the first places I went back to see again on this trip to Milwaukee was Black Cat Alley – a new discovery on my last visit. It looks pretty horrendous at the start, but once inside, there are treasures to be found:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

I have written about this place before, but a new element has been added. As you leave the alley at the other end and turn the corner, you find yourself in front of the Sip Purr café.

        

It’s a combination coffeehouse and cat shelter with a side room full of seating and mostly/usually sleeping rescue cats. For an extra eight bucks (for the cats), you can go in there to drink your $6 lowfat frappamochaccinomacchiato (or whatever), but only if you have a reservation.

     

There were no time slots left for us, so we just watched through the windows as the 1:00 o’clock group went in. Two young women marched right up to a table currently occupied by two sleeping cats expecting . . . who knows what. The gray cat immediately took a clawed swipe at one of the intruders and then both cats got up to find new sleeping quarters. If we had felt any envy for these women, it quickly subsided. Still! – the idea of the café was a nice one, even if maybe not completely thought through. Those cats are nocturnal and will surely stay that way. Some of the humans, however, will adapt – especially the caffeinated ones – and become night-active too.

 

It’s not just the cats that direct human behavior here. Dogs are a constant presence in every trip to Milwaukee. My sister’s house is across from a park that seems to be a particular favorite of dogs who own people. They traipse by from left to right and from right to left and from morning to night, their servants in tow. The humans make sure that their leashes don’t drag on the ground and that their poop is picked up. They are well trained.

 

As I sit on the front porch, I watch these odd couples pass by. Big burly man with little foofy poodle. Fratboy with wiener dog. Gay couple with pitbull. Grandma with nervous greyhound. California couple with Husky. Fashion plate with sheepdog. Pony-tailed, baseball-capped working guy with Chihuahua and Pekingese. That last guy is my favorite. He’s been showing up faithfully for about 10 years. It’s comforting somehow, because as much as I like to see what is new each time I visit, some changes bother me. For instance, I was appalled when the nearest iconic Milwaukee bubbler was replaced by this green atrocity:

                     

But then I noticed the ground level spigot and realized that the designers and city planners were thinking about the dogs. Sure enough, as I was taking the picture above, a dog came by and his person obediently turned on the water for him. Suddenly, I figured I could get used to this new fountain.

                            

I meandered back to my sister’s house, passing the park benches and reading their dedications. (Local sponsors pay for the benches so each one has a memorial plaque for some lost loved one.) Here is the one closest to the dog bubbler:

 

Cheesehead

The Austrian Mardi gras (called “Fasching”) is coming up fast, which means I have to wear something silly to school. I decided, as a good Wisconsinite, to go as a Cheesehead this year. I would put on some black leggings and my “Say Cheese” t-shirt and then one of those cheese-hats that Packer fans famously wear. I went on Amazon to order one and this is what I found:

Now this may make me a very bad badger, but there was no way I was going to pay over 120 bucks for a piece of orange foam! So today I went to the hardware store and bought some supplies. Thick Styrofoam, masking tape, glue, orange spray-paint . . . and then I spied these rolls of yellow spongy stuff and thought . . . “Perfect!!” Unfortunately, I had to buy a whole roll – 12 meters long – so by the time I was done with the checkout, I had already gotten about halfway to the Amazon price. In addition, making the thing cost me an entire afternoon.

In case you are thinking about making a cheese-hat for yourself, here are the instructions:

Step 1: Cut the Styrofoam to the correct form. As you are doing so, little white balls of Styrofoam will begin to appear. They will start multiplying and then flying around the room and sticking to things. They will follow you wherever you go, leaving little trails in their wake.

 

Step 2: Put masking tape around the sides of the form to staunch the flow of little white balls. Vacuum the entire house to get rid of the rest.

 

Step 3: Hollow out a circle for your head. Vacuum the entire house again. Go to the bathroom mirror and remove all the little white balls from your hair.

 

Step 4: Attach a ribbon

 

 

 

Step 5: Use a hot glue gun to attach the foamy strips around the sides and to the top and bottom.  While waiting for the glue to dry, think about possible uses for the remaining 10 meters in the roll. Trim off the foam and . . . you’re almost done!

Step 6: Find a classy setting to photograph the finished product. I, for instance, seated my cheese-hat at the grand piano and had him lean casually against it.

I would have taken a picture of me wearing it, but this is an anonymous blog. For what must now be obvious reasons.

A Barn Yarn

 

“I’m stuck!” I told my sister on the phone. “No one wants to read about my morbid obsession with the American pwesident or my current workplace  . . . curiosities. I can’t write about anything in my private life because it is all OPS. And I can’t just keep writing about chickens.”
“Keep writing about chickens! Do!” she answered.  “I love it when you write about chickens.”
Thanks, Sis. Once again.

————————-

 

I jumped on the chicken bandwagon a bit too late.

Had I been in on our poultry project from the start, I would have encouraged the husband to build our hen house in the style of a traditional Wisconsin barn. The kind I passed on weekends as we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house each Sunday. Or the ones we saw on our way Up North for vacation each summer – those yearly six or seven hour drives, first through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin farmland and then into the Big Woods with its 15.000 little lakes. A cottage on shores of one of these was our usual destination – our own temporary “Little House”. Within an hour of arrival, I was in the water and basically stayed there for most of the day, every day. Any time not in the water was spent on nature hikes and/or steeped in fantasies of being Wisconsin’s most famous pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I devoured her books (repeatedly!) as a child. She was my link to the 19th century version of myself.

My husband has his own link to his 19th century self and it is much more impressive. His great great grandfather was a famous writer and poet who grew up modestly in a remote mountainous region of Styria. The childhood home of this man, Peter Rosegger, is now a museum. My husband visited this place many times in his childhood and I imagine he also fantasized there about being a 19th century “Forest Farmer Boy”. In any case, he clearly had some other image in his mind as he built our chicken coop. Something more Austrian.

 

Last week he announced that he was going to paint our hen house and started suggesting colors. It was at this point, that I finally got involved in the construction project. Blue?? Who’s ever heard of a BLUE barn?!? Honestly! Anyway, here is the result:

————————-

P.S. Thanks Sis, too, for the compliments on the coop via WhatsApp. As for your curiosity about what it looks like on the inside, I have to disappoint. Chickens are crappy decorators. Literally.

 

Back to Bragging

 

There will be some posts coming about our three weeks in the States and our day in Chicago, but for now only one story is relevant.

Two days before leaving, my daughter had an appointment in a hair salon to get extensions braided in professionally. She had found the salon on the internet and the pictures made it seem like quite a nice place. My sister and I drove her to the salon’s address, intending to get her started and then leave, returning 5 or 6 hours later to pick her up. But on reaching our destination, we found ourselves in front of an apartment building. It all seemed a bit dubious to us, as we entered the building on the off chance that a hair salon could be found inside. We saw the front office and its busy receptionist. (Do normal apartment buildings have receptionists?) We saw quite a few people with walkers and wheelchairs. We saw what looked like a gymnasium where two young women were studying at one of the card tables with folding chairs set up in there. On the back wall there were benches and a youngish man sat on one, directly under a large American flag, staring blankly ahead of him. A dashing elderly African American couple – she in her colorful head scarf and he in his royal blue suit with matching hat –  walked past us and left the building. They were in high spirits as if on their way to the speakeasy.

As the receptionist was clearly ignoring us, my daughter called the number of the salon again and reached the same woman she had talked to before. It seemed we were in the right place and we should go down to the end of the hall where she would meet us.

En route, my sister and I made it clear that if this was not a salon in a public area then we were all leaving. We weren’t going to simply leave my daughter in some stranger’s apartment.

A stairwell door opened and a middle-aged woman dressed in something reminiscent of pajamas appeared.  She ordered us to follow her up the stairs. An awkward conversation ensued. (Thanks again, sis, for doing all the work!) We left again and I dealt with a daughter who was relieved and disappointed in equal measures. It was too late to try and find another salon, so I said,

“Well I watched Lila braiding in your extensions last time, maybe I can just do it myself when we get back home.” That made my daughter happy again.

That statement also had unexpected consequences – one of which is that of the eight days we have been back home, I have spent the better part of four as a hairdresser.

With Daughter One I began with a sense of desperation and the feeling of having too many thumbs. I quickly wished I had paid better attention to Lila. A few YouTube videos and a lot of trial and error later, I started to find my groove. By the time we were done, I had gotten pretty good at it.

Daughter Two looked at the results and envied the way these braids stayed so straight. (She has so much hair, that I have been able to micro-braid it without any extra artificial hair – but her braids then coil up afterward.) We mused about the possibility of doing extensions on her hair too, just as a means of keeping it straight.

Those musings cost me the entirety of yesterday and 3/4ths of today.

BUT!! . . .

I can now show off my masterpiece.

              

Statistics:

Number of braids: One hundred and ten
Extension color match: 9.9 on a scale of 10
Partitioning noticeability: very low (and low is good!)
Time spent: 11 episodes of the Gilmore Girls
Average number of braids per episode: 10
Reward: three hugs, two kitchen cleanings, three volunteered dog walks, no more hairdressing sessions until November, bragging rights.

I’ve Missed You

I should probably start by apologizing for being unsupportive and absent to my blog bff’s (whom I love dearly and truly!) I could then follow it up with my reasons for neglecting you, which would really be excuses, which would then negate the sincerity of the original apology.

One of those excuses could be that I have been busy meeting up with old high school friends – another set of people that I have been absent from, neglectful of, unsupportive to, uncommunicative with, etc. etc. – and that for more than 37 years now (“Go Raiders! Yeay, Class of 1980!!”) And yet, every two years when I come home to Milwaukee, we somehow manage to meet up.

In the first few minutes of our biannual reunions, we peer intensely at one another to assess the advancement of our own aging process. This gets confusing because the one or the other looks exactly the same despite laugh wrinkles around the eyes and graying hair. Each time, we also suddenly panic about all the details we really should know but don’t, or have forgotten. (You had six siblings?! Did I ever know that? You lived in California?! Did I know that? You were an English major too?! Did I know that?) Slowly but surely, the skeletal frames of life highlights spanning the past 37 years are reconstructed. Marriages, kids, professional moves, travels, parental concerns . . .  We all silently vow to commit these facts to memory in preparation for the next reunion, but know somewhere inside that two years from now, the same conversations and surprises will happen again.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because with old friends, like old habits, once you pick them up again, you simply take off from where you left off. You tell and retell the same old stories that somehow seem familiar and new at the same time. Meanwhile, long neglected, dusty old details of your life as a teenager resurface in your mind. Names of classmates you have not had a second thought about in decades are suddenly accessible. You start sorting these names into categories like “popular” or “cool” or “dweeb” or “wild” – all with the understanding that it is your 16 year old selves doing the sorting because you gave up on this kind of immature labeling long ago. At the same time, it becomes clear to you why exactly these people and not ones with newly re-remembered names and labels are here around the table. You realize how much you share with these people and that it goes deep.

And you laugh a lot.

And you make plans for a longer, cooler reunion in 2019. Before saying goodbye and returning to your current life, you take pictures.

And then you post one of them on your blog.

And you say, “I’ve missed you.”