September 24, 2018

I'm Keeping this Folder Open - In The Heights

In my brain, I've got folders in which I file stuff. Some are memories that need to be tucked away for safe keeping. Others are within reach for easy retrieval: what meeting is when, what activities my daughter's got going on or when which bills are due.

Still, there is another folder that holds memories or experiences that pack too much punch to process immediately, like the few years around my mom's sickness and subsequent death, and more recently, our family's trip to Missouri to retrace the steps of tragedy that eventually led to my great-grandparents' resettling to here in Milwaukee.

The most recent addition to that folder is the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's performance of In The Heights.

When I went, all I knew is that I needed distance from our bonkers reality as well as its effect on my emotional health. Given that the musical centered on residents of The Heights who are mostly Hispanic/LatinX -- many immigrants or first generation -- there couldn't be a wider distance between my reality as a Milwaukee-born black woman married to a white guy and mom to a biracial daughter.

We met Nina. She was back for summer break from an Ivy League school. She's her family's bright and shining star who puts on a good face for her family and her neighborhood, but deep down, she feels like a failure because despite scholarships, she's dropped out of college.

Nina and Benny. Their relationship is, as the kids say, Goals.
Photo Credit: Michael Broslilow
I knew Nina, and sometimes I am Nina. No, I'd never gone to or dropped out of an Ivy League school, but I know what it's like to fall short of successes that others dreamed for me. I ached for her and cheered for her.

We met Nina's immigrant dad Kevin. He's a guy desperate to do whatever he can to make sure his daughter has a different, easier life than his own. I knew him too.

I'm a mom who will scratch, work three jobs and do consecutive backflips down the middle of a busy street if that's what it'll take to make sure my daughter's life is richer, smoother, unhindered by racism and more confident than my own. I wanted to hug Kevin, weep alongside him and tell him I understand.

And then we met Abuela Claudia who has a humor and wisdom that only age can bring. It reached from the stage and touched me as I sat mesmerized in the sold-out theater. I listened to her soaring vocals and wondered about all she might have seen in her younger years. Then from time to time, she'd talk about life back in Puerto Rico and remembered the past for her neighbors in The Heights.

Abuela Claudia and Usnavi.. He's so lucky to have her in his life.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
I got a catch in my throat because she's the grandmother I wish I could've known. Her immigration story made me reflect on my family's trek from Missouri to Milwaukee.

By the show's end, I could see myself as a version of her in a future life, telling my stories to my grandkids, my neighbors or anyone who will listen.

There are times when opening some folders feel like too much for me to process. But this performance, with its joy and hope despite the characters' day-to-day struggles is worth opening up and reliving from time to time.

The awesome, joyful cast of an awesome joyful show.

In The Heights runs through October 28 at the Quadracci Powerhouse.
You gotta see it. Click here for tickets. You'll be glad you did.


September 20, 2018


I'm used to this stretch of rush hour traffic. It takes me along a busy city thoroughfare where you see people who are easily labeled.

The Bum: He's the man dressed in two coats, one black out the outside, a purple hoodie on the inside of that, pants that are too loose, stuffed down into boots even as an autumn sun beats down. He peers into the faces of passersby, probably not wanting a handout but just an acknowledgement of his personhood.

The Trafficked Woman: She walks slowly up the street, always with a glance behind her. Peering, looking for something or someone. She isn't necessarily scantily clad. But I know her when I see her.

The Dude-Bros: These are the fresh-faced college boys who've got the world by the tail. They're usually laughing, entering or exiting a seedy dive bar. Maybe on their way to a baseball game, maybe back to campus, but they're never looking back. Always ahead with chins tilted upward.

The Factory Guys: Steel-toed shoes, dusty hair and clothes and squinted eyes adjusting to sunlight are their hallmark. They plod across the street, staring into a far-off place exhausted from whatever it is they do in the factory.

I begin to make my usual turn and wait for her to cross the street.

She holds her head as if she's royalty walking the red carpet. Eyes cast down and over her nose, she's gliding in between The Bum, The Trafficked Woman, The Dude-Bros and The Factory Guys, choosing not to see them.

She must be around sixty, I figure. She's model tall and there's a willowy-ness about her. Her head is turbaned with a tattered floral pink kerchief and she's wearing soft blue elastic-waist jeans. House slippers might've adorned her feet.

I imagine that no matter her circumstances now, someone from her long ago had once told her she mattered, that she was worth something -- perhaps worth more than the people around her would ever credit her for. That she had dignity because she was born with it -- just like everyone else.

Then I wondered if the others I so easily labeled knew they had that same dignity too.

September 15, 2018

That's Right, The Dogs Are Smarter

We don't deserve dogs.
I need this tee-shirt.
This simple meme really says more about us than it does about Man's Best Friend. Just read the daily news, scan Facebook or Twitter timelines or watch the nightly news, it's clear: we can be awful to each other, to the environment, to animals.

Given time and opportunity, we can be pretty much awful to anything.

Rather than leave it at people are awful beings, I think its time to go further than saying we don't deserve dogs to What we need to learn from dogs.

1.    Savor the awkward and the smelly, and roll around in it.  
I'm pretty sure Mister Charley has no idea when he and/or his breath is stinky. Beauty thing is that he does not care a whit. He's here, he's stinky, he's sleepy and he ain't going anywhere.

And guess what? His comfort in all of the above makes me forget about all of the above, and before you know it, this happens.

It was a smelly time, my friends. A very smelly time.
The Lesson: What if we could get over our own perceived flaws? Not gonna lie, it's a daily  struggle for me to let go of the days when I thought I was fat, but am now for real fat and wistfully wishing for those days when I thought I was fat. What would happen if I'd just get over myself and be a blessing to someone by being who I am right now in this point and time in  my life?

2.    Bark when something smells wrong...and keep barking until someone gives you a credible reason to stop barking.
It was about 1:30 in the morning when Charley let out a slow, serious, ominous guttural growl followed by a short, quick bark. He was in the bathroom, upset that guest towels had been rearranged in a way unfamiliar to him. You're fine, I grumbled from the bed, Go night-night time! and tried to resume my place in an unusually good dream.

More growling, more barking. I dragged myself out of bed, stumbled into the bathroom and flipped on the light. See? It's's just the towels, honey. He understood, went to his bed  and was asleep in less than five minutes.

The Lesson: In the times in which we live, with so many funny looking smells that don't add up to the stories we're being fed, we need to bark. And bark. And keep on barking until the truth is turned on like a blinding light.

3.    Be unapologetically scared when things are scary, and seek comfort.
Our Charley is cool in the most violent thunderstorms and snoozes right through them, but man-made noise and clutter? Something within alerts him that manufactured bangs and booms are not cool...and perhaps dangerous.

And that’s when he seeks help from people like me. His mumma.

Not a stinky time, just Independence Day season. . He had sense enough to reach out for help.
The Lesson: How many times are we in situations or places that leave us unsettled or frightened and choose to bear it alone instead of sharing our fears with a trusted person or persons? Charley's got no signs of anxiety-induced ulcers...but me?

We don't deserve dogs, that much is true.

But I'll gladly take the lessons they grace us with every time, and hopefully become a better, smarter human being because of them.

September 7, 2018

First, There Were Three

Even though my ears couldn't pick up the buzz, I assume in Bug World the panicked hornet's buzzing thundered like a storm as he hovered at a window trying to escape.

I, on the other hand, was soaking in the sun while waiting for my friend to arrive for a an all-too rare lunch.

She arrived and we hugged. It'd been way too long since we had gotten together. She settled in and soon noticed the panicky hornet buzzing at our floor length window.

I saw a look in her eye.

Leave him alone and he'll leave us alone I advised.

I can now confess this was an untruth, as a beekeeper friend once said honeybees will only sting if provoked. Yellow-jackets and hornets, on the other hand...

We continued chatting unbothered. Until our frustrated hornet friend hovered and lit upon my index finger, and then flitted over to my friend's shoulder. She jumped up and I was like done messed with the wrong person.

Next thing, the hornet's on the ground. Glaring. At my friend. Before I could plead his case, her foot came down on him with a vengeance even as my pleas to spare his life were caught in my throat. Her shoe was now the Almighty trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

She looked at me in her final stomps and her countenance had changed. Frankly, I was a little scared. 

He's dead! He's dead, already! I reasoned.

But wouldn't you know it, the thing kept moving, out of pure spite I think. Now, I was all about the trampling.

After more grueling trampling, he was indeed dead, and we laughed about it even though I still felt a little bad for him.

But my friend's look? That's her determination to fix this thing -- whatever it may be.

In fact, after our lunch, she'd be on her way to prepare 100 dinners for people whose home is the street, then deliver those meals to wherever those people were in whatever situation in which they found themselves.

The stomping, fixing -- the doing the hard work -- this is my friend's normal; and, in between doing all that, she writes incredibly moving stuff while still finding time time to encourage her me.

Still, I'm just praying for any ornery hornets -- be they bugs or humans -- who get in her way. 

Her shirt says it all: Underestimate me...THAT'LL BE FUN.