Getting Personal: Michael Markstahler
Getting Personal is an email Q&A with a local personality. Here, Paul Wood chats with 62-year-old Champaign resident Michael Markstahler, who has done much to preserve the character of local buildings. Getting Personal appears first in print, in the Sunday newspaper. In the Aug. 19 paper, we'll have a chat with Brenda Koenig, a musician, writer, mother, substitute teacher and all-around utility player.
Explain in one sentence what it is you do.
While I am still trying to figure out what I will be when I grow up, currently I would have to say entrepreneur, primarily real estate: designer, developer, landlord, custom remodeler.
What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?
6:15. I am a night person in a day job. So while listening to NPR, I eat something with oats in it for the heart and down a pot of coffee and a couple of cups of green tea to even the odds with the morning people I am about to face.
What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?
I am not a lunch guy and typically work through lunch. I do have a few individuals I lunch with periodically — most recently it has been Don Gerard, Peter Fox, Karen Foster and Bruce Pea.
Best high school memory.
Playing first-string tackle in the rain and the mud on the Champaign football team that beat Urbana. It was the last game of the season and both teams had an 8—0 record going into the game. In the rain and the mud, we beat Urbana on their home field 40-0 in the fall of 1966.
Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.
Scotty Stevens made me a pair of heavy leather moccasins in 1974. Between them and my Chinese peasant shoes, did I have any other shoes for those 10 years? They were emblematic of my "alternative period." They fell apart in 1984, which is just about when I was deciding that I was not going to save the world and it certainly was not waiting around for me to do so and I stepped out onto Main Street America to see what it was all about.
What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?
Almost anything that involves my sweetie and I together — but perfect would be her and I sitting quietly chatting.
Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?
I am ignoring the restriction to one. "My Side of the Mountain," "Onion John" and "A Wrinkle In Time." In that order. Don't need to own or read them. They are in my head.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
It has been five years since my last wilderness canoe trip. I am aching to hike a desert or thick forest, somewhere I might get to and not see another Homo sapien for a few days.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
I have had over 40 pets from childhood until now. It simply does not seem honorable to have a favorite.
Have you discovered that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?
I have my dad's body type and my mother's high triglycerides. I think I take more after my two grandfathers. On my mom's side, my grandfather ran away and joined a traveling carnival; there is something novelistically appealing about a Paul Simon "slip sliding away" solution to things — at least it appeals when my "stand and take it" responsible side gets a bit too bruised. But knowing the damage my grandfather's act has done to four generations, I will keep it as a fantasy option only. On my dad's side, my grandfather, as he got older, used a cane. He liked to sit quietly, reach out with his cane and trip people. I've noticed a bit of that inclination coming on in me of late.
What would you order for your last meal?
Do you know something I don't?
What can you not live without?
Who do you have on your iPod?
Music is meant to be listened to live. But when being out does not appeal, then late at night with the lights low and a whiskey neat in hand, it's going to be Portishead, Leonard Cohen or almost any jazz, but certainly in the mix, something with a tenor sax solo.
What's the happiest memory of your life?
The summer when I was 4, I crawled inside of a large concord grape arbor at my grandparents' home. While there, I heard my mother call my name, then my grandmother. I remained quiet and watched and listened as they searched for me, at times getting within a few feet but never saw me. Not the pretend "I wonder where he could be." They had no idea and were getting worried they never saw me. That afternoon, I realized I was me, could stand apart, could exercise control over my world and that adults' powers had their limits. Looking back, it was my first conscious moment of autonomy.
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?
Breaking bread with others is not about the food but the conversation and the conviviality; so who would I want to have a long sustained conversation with? Desmond Tutu, Lisa Randall and Angela Merkel. It's mean to limit it to three.
What's your best piece of advice?
Haven't you read any of my above answers? Why are you asking me? That's why we have libraries, and for those who are reading comprehension challenged, radio talk shows.
What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?
Not counting kid stuff like mowing lawns or baby-sitting or working for my dad's construction company, it was selling women's shoes in a long-forgotten store in Lincoln Square. Wage was $1.98 per hour plus a bonus if you "made book." I never once made book. I always suspected it was rigged that way. I was always amazed in that job by the number of customers who deliberately tried to get you to look up their dresses.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
Prior to Reagan taking office, I was developing a career in leading trainings and workshops in games, game theory and the art of play. I traveled widely working in prisons, mental health residential treatment centers, schools, university theater departments, art councils and government agencies. One of Reagan's first acts was to kill discretionary social service money. I had never advertised. Everything was word of mouth recommendations. Suddenly, money for my fees was harder for agencies to come by, and gigs started falling off. I started working with an ad exec to develop a marketing campaign whose basic message was "buy me"— the whole thing, mailings, brochures, publicity photos, etc. I hated those planning meetings. I realized that I did not have the stomach for turning myself into a commodity. I simply walked away from it and never led another training. That was the beginning of my entry into real estate — something real, solid, tangible and distinct from me.
Do you have a bad habit? What is it?
That would presuppose that there is some habit of mine I do not like. Some of my habits I find amusing, some startling and one or two I can get in an argument with from time to time, but they are all old friends. None of them would I want to turn out of the house.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
Depends what you mean by stressful — boat has a leak and land is not in sight, someone is expressing an overwhelming urge to tell me how much they dislike me or someone in a business transaction does something that tries my scruples? Broadly generalizing across all these cases, my common response is — be quiet, listen don't talk, think quickly, act decisively but with the least action required and only after some deliberation. Now if there are sharks in the water around that sinking boat, I would keep the deliberation part shorter.