Mondays with Mike: Wayfaring Stranger

Here's where we had coffee most mornings. On this morning, the Atlantic was pretty angry after a storm.

Here’s where we had coffee most mornings. On this morning, the Atlantic was pretty angry after a storm.

In the spring of 1999, we lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As I type that, it still astounds me. And it revives the smell, the feeling on my skin after a dip in the ocean, the roaring sound of living on the oceanfront.

It was the product of a windfall and a decision to live for now instead of the stuff of financial services commercials about saving for retirement. And it was a good decision. Every morning I got to put our son Gus on his school bus, and every afternoon I was there to greet him when he returned. Beth and I would have our morning coffee sitting on the stairs that led from our deck to the beach. I still remember the rhythmic appearance and disappearance of dorsal fins beyond the surf as dolphins made their way along the shore. There’s a whole lot more about the magical Outer Banks, but that’s plenty for now.

His early work with Ornette Coleman was avant grade, but Quartet West was a different story altogether.

His early work with Ornette Coleman was avant garde, but Quartet West was a different story altogether.

Except to say, what we learned living at milepost 21.5 in Nags Head, North Carolina, was that as grateful as we were to be able to live there for a couple seasons, we weren’t full-time beach people.

And so, by the spring of 1999, after we had made the decision to move back to Illinois, we found ourselves driving north to a restaurant called Ocean Boulevard. Ocean Boulevard was (and probably still is) a foodie kind of place. You could eat at a lot of places that served the freshest damn tuna or flounder or whatever. But we loved Ocean Boulevard for it’s crazy good tuna/wasabi salad. And for a giant rosemary bush outside the entrance from which we could poach smells and sprigs. So we headed there one last time.

NPR via the University of North Carolina’s station had arrived at the beach just months before we were to leave. For Beth, that meant Terry Gross’ Fresh Air was back in her life. And mine. Because when Beth hears something on Fresh Air, I hear about it. Which helps us both keep up with music and the arts and whatever.

We took the Beach Road instead of the Bypass. The Bypass is a five-lane clusterf*$k that feels like an Interstate but is not restricted access. Chaos. So we took the two-laner, which rides close to the shore. Windows open. Sun roof open. The smell of fish and sand and salt and … enveloped us. Ticky tack beach joints. Terry Gross was on, and the interview was with Charlie Haden, the jazz bassist.

As we drove, I learned that Charlie Haden contracted polio as a child growing up in Missouri. Until then he had been singing—by accounts beautifully—with his musical family who performed together. When he lost his voice, he took up the bass. And became one of the greatest jazz bassists ever.

He broke new ground in jazz playing with Ornette Coleman, led his own group (Liberation Orchestra), and another (Quartet West) and collaborated with Pat Metheny among many others …. he was more than a bassist. He was an artist. And a thinker. And without having met him, I would judge him as a great guy.

But back to that evening in late spring of 1999. As we approached the restaurant, he and Gross talked about his then-new album called The Art of the Song. It included standards—but not necessarily the best known standards—that he produced. A resurrection of beautifully written songs. Shirley Horn was among the artists that performed on it.

We pulled into the parking lot, and our reservation time approached, but we just couldn’t pry ourselves out of the the car before the interview was over. We were parked, pointed west toward the sound side of the Outer Banks. The sky was painted in pastels as it often was at sunset.

The interview ended with a song that Hayden sang—sang despite his compromised vocal chords. The song was Wayfaring Stranger. It started with a flourish of strings and it was immediately riveting. And then Haden began to sing. “I am a poor, wayfaring stranger…”.

I can’t do it justice. I hope you’ll listen to it via this link to a tribute to Haden on the NPR/Fresh Air Web site. (Wayfaring Stranger comes on at around the 45:00 minute mark, but if you can, listen to the whole program.)

What I can tell you is that for me, it expresses how sorrow and loss and hardship live shoulder to shoulder with beauty and joy. He strived, imperfectly, or more imperfectly than if he’d not ever had polio, and ended up with something transcendent.

Beth and I both ended up in tears by the end of Wayfaring Stranger. And we walked in for what was, as always, a terrific meal. I don’t remember what I ate that night. I do remember Charlie Haden. And always will.

Should athletes with disabilities pay more to participate?

My friend Eliza Cooper is blind, and she’s been training to race in NYC Swim’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim across the East River tomorrow. Eliza is a strong swimmer – she’s

That's Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.

That’s Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.

completed six, count them, six, triathlons already. The distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn is less than a mile, but now that NYC Swim director Morty Berger has decided that athletes with disabilities have to pay an extra fee, she probably won’t participate.

Eliza is 28 years old, and I got to know her in Morristown, N.J. when I was training with my third Seeing Eye dog, Harper. We liked each other the minute we met, and when she got matched with Harper’s brother Harris, we knew it was fate, and that we’d stay in touch.

This guy look familiar? He’s Harper’s bro, Harris!

Eliza trains with Achilles International (they help athletes with disabilities prepare for races) and NY Info published an article this week after she and five other Achilles athletes were told they’d have to pay extra to participate tomorrow.

NYC Swim director Morty Berger said he added extra requirements for athletes with disabilities because of construction around the South Street Seaport and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Due to the construction, this year all athletes will need to jump off a water taxi docked on the Manhattan side to start the race. They’ll have to climb onto what Berger calls an “uneven” exit at the Brooklyn Bridge Park to end the race, too. And so, Berger decided that Achilles would have to ensure that its swimmers are covered under Achilles’ policy if they want to participate, And Achilles must pay $700 for boats to trail swimmers with disabilities in case they need help. “I am the lifeguard and I have to make the calls as it relates to safety,” Berger said. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I want to go swimming when there’s lightning out,’”

Achilles rejected the additional demands. “I told them if it was unsafe for my athletes, it was unsafe for everyone else,” Achilles coach Kathleen Bateman said in the article. Eliza is quoted in the article, too, questioning whether any other minority group would feel okay about paying extra to participate in an event like this: “We do not need extra boats or extra help,” she told the reporter, and I believe her. A few years ago Eliza was featured in a piece Eleanor Goldberg wrote after competing in the New York City triathlon with Eliza and 11 other Achilles athletes. They swam 1 mile, biked 26 miles up and down hill terrain, and ran 6.2 miles in Central Park. Eliza managed to fix three flat tires during the event and never once considered giving up.

Eliza is training for her first half Ironman now, and based on her previous times, she stood a pretty good chance of winning an award at tomorrow’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim. From the article:

“It’s especially unfair when they don’t know how hard they’ve trained or how much of their heart and soul go into it,” she said. “We always find a way to do things, that’s how our team works… for someone to say no, it’s really disheartening.”

So what do you think? I understand the organizer’s concerns, but I’ve learned a lot from Eliza. Maybe swimming in a tidal estuary is too dangerous, but if the other swimmers are given the option to make that judgment for themselves, then the Achilles athletes should be given that choice, too. Agree? Disagree? Eager to hear what you blog readers think — leave a comment and let me know.

Getting your memoir off the ground

Lots of people have interesting life stories to tell. The hard part? Getting those stories down on paper so that others can read them.

As the writers in the memoir classes I lead for the City of Chicago and Lincoln Park Village master the art of writing about their lives, they find themselves with a new challenge: assembling finished stories into book form. Their questions about publishing inspired me to put together a new memoir workshop for The Northwestern summer Writers’ Conference this year on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus in Wieboldt Hall.

This year’s conference has a Writing Chicago theme, and it starts Thursday, July 31 and runs until August 2, 2014. My two-hour workshop, called Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground meets from 1:15 to 3:15 on Friday, August 1. I plan on giving a couple in-class exercises and discussing techniques to get past whatever it is that’s stopping writers from getting their work done, whether it be worries about writing as a victim, facing issues that come with writing about people we love, or figuring out strategies for organizing the raw material of our lives into book form. The overall emphasis will be on craft and on overcoming the barriers that keep us from writing and assembling our stories.

Each workshop at the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference is limited to 18 participants, and organizers told me yesterday that workshops and panels are filling quickly. My friends and fellow published authors Miles Harvey and Audrey Petty are giving workshops at this year’s conference, too.

That’s Miles Harvey. (Photo by Matt Moyer.)

I met Miles long ago when both of us wrote for the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois. His first book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime was a national and international bestseller. Another book, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America, received a 2008 Editors’ Choice award from Booklist. Miles used to light up the dingy Daily Illini production room in the basement of Illini Hall, and to this day, being around him makes me smile. I was delighted when he accepted a position at DePaul University, it meant he’d be staying here in Chicago, and I knew he would serve as a terrific mentor to hundreds of writing students there. His generosity of spirit encourages many a writer, including me, to keep at it.

I was introduced to Audrey Petty in Urbana, too, and she and I took to each other the minute we met. Audrey is a Chicago native, and Mike and I have had the good fortune to meet and know her entire family. Her father, Joe Petty, is credited with getting the Chicago White Sox into the 2005 World Series. “MoJo” went with us to a playoff game against Boston, and he mesmerized everyone in the seats around us (and the team, too, of course) with his confidence and calm even as the White Sox fell behind. (They came back and won.)And that's Audrey, in a shot taken by her daughter Ella.

An oral history Audrey put together of stories from residents of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green (all publicly-funded buildings here in Chicago that no longer exist) called High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing was published to great acclaim last year by Voice of Witness, the nonprofit division of McSweeney’s Books. Audrey’s workshop for the Northwestern conference is called Object Lessons and meets on Thursday, July 31 from 1:15 to 3:15. Audrey will be using prompts and exercises to “unpack artifacts” from writers’ lives and show them ways keepsakes or forgotten treasures on shelves can unlock a story. Miles is leading a two-hour non-fiction workshop called Writing With Your Feet at 1:15 on Friday, August 1 to teach writers to “generate essays by moving through space and time.” He promises a literary treasure hunt, which he says will be led by Virginia Woolf – who can resist?!

Unfortunately, I will. Have to resist, I mean. I’d love to sit in on both of those workshops, but I lead a memoir class for Lincoln Park Village on Thursday when Audrey’s workshop meets, and the one Miles is leading meets the same day and time as mine.

I do plan to stop in at the conference at noon on Thursday to hear keynote speaker Chris Abani–he was born in Nigeria, he writes everything from plays to poems to essays, and I’m guessing he’ll be talking about his latest novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, published by Penguin this year. I also hope to sit in on the class Kevin Davis is leading on Saturday afternoon, August 2. Kevin is a good friend of Miles, I know he’s a gifted teacher, and his workshop sounds perfect for the manuscript I’m working on now about all I’ve learned leading memoir-writing classes for senior citizens here in Chicago. I’ll say goodbye here and leave you with the description of Kevin’s two-hour workshop – look for me there!

Capturing Character in Non-Fiction Writing
What makes people interesting? How do you capture a person’s essence? In this course geared for non-fiction writers, author and journalist Kevin Davis discusses various techniques that will help writers create better personality profiles and make them come alive. We’ll cover interviewing, background research and the challenges – as well as opportunities – of writing profiles. Classroom exercises include interviewing and writing short pieces. Fiction writers may also find this course valuable.

Mondays with Mike: A Tale of Two Ballgames

Tuesday night Target Field in Minneapolis hosts the 2014 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. I’ll be watching, but my seat won’t be nearly as good as the one I had a few weeks ago. That’s when I was treated to VIP seats in the front row at Target Field. Say it like Bob Uecker did in that iconic Miller Lite commercial now, “The FRONT row.”

Beth’s written here before about her family’s Christmas tradition. Because there are so dang many of them, buying gifts is prohibitive. So everyone draws a name and has to make something. It can’t cost too much—there used to be a dollar limit but pretty much everybody knows what “too much” is. And it’s what you spend…not the value mind you.

Beth’s niece Caren, who lives in suburban Minneapolis with her husband and two kids, drew my name. And it so happens that Caren’s employer has Champions Club seats at Target Field. So last Christmas, Caren—knowing I’m a White Sox fan—presented me with a hand-knitted black-and-white scarf (Sox colors) accompanied by an invitation to pick a Twins-White Sox game and attend as her guest.

If it weren't for the next, we could have shaken hands with the on-deck hitter.

If it weren’t for the net, we could have shaken hands with the on-deck hitter.

Fast forward to June. Caren and her husband Mark and their kids pick us up at our hotel in Minneapolis. We drive to the park. Or I should say, under the park, where a valet takes our car. We enter and next thing we know we’re in this big restaurant where, well, you can eat anything you want. As much as you want. A carving station. A pasta bar. A charcuterie station. Free beer. Ice cream. Hot dogs. Free beer. Did I mention free beer? In keeping with local custom, I had a Grain Belt.

We walked out to our seats, which were sort of like these Lazy-Boy big boy seats. While Caren and her family stopped at around the fifth row, well, Beth and I headed down to row one. Right behind the plate. So if you were watching, you could see me on every pitch. It was hot, but I didn’t move for several innings. Because you don’t often get a seat where you can see the movement on pitches. At one point, Beth was guessing fastball vs. off-speed by the sound of the ball in the catcher’s mitt. And when Jose Abreu crushed a double to the right field fence, well, I’ll always remember that sound.

Beth and I did eventually take a lap around the full park on the concourse to see how the other half was living. Pretty well, from what I could tell. Really nice ballpark. And Minnesotans, well, they were a little more polite and a little less boisterous than fans here in Chicago on either side of town.

Fast forward again to a week ago Sunday. Our neighborhood friends Jim and Janet and we sprang for…$5.00 tickets in the Upper Deck of U.S. Cellular Field. (Also known as “The Cell” or just White Sox Park, as Beth calls it).

We usually take the Red Line L train—it’s only three stops away. But it was so beautiful that day that we rode our bikes (Beth and I have a tandem, lest you fear). Locked up our bikes, walked way way up (imagine where Bob Eucker actually sat in that Miller Lite commercial).

And somehow, it was no less grand. Great sightlines, good company, a bratwurst for Beth, Italian sausage for me. OK, we had to pay for our beer, but that seems only fair.

I love the Twin Cities.

I love the Twin Cities.

The chatter was great. A little kid behind us gamely screamed at the top of his lungs “Let’s go White Sox,” trying to get the crowd going. Given the far reaches of our perch, he was often screaming alone. But it didn’t stop him.

And the vendors. That’s what I realized I missed at the Champions Club in Minnesota. Rather than use vendors, the Champion Club sent someone down to take orders, and would return with food and drink or whatever in hand. Which was swell.

But a good vendor is part of the game for me. My all-time favorite vendor experience at The Cell was a guy peddling cotton candy, of all things. As he climbed and descended the stands, he would boom out in his best overwrought Charlton Heston voice, “For the love of God, buy some cotton candy!” Every park has its characters.

So next time I’m in Minneapolis—which I hope is soon, because the Twin Cities are a terrific place—you probably won’t see me on TV, I’ll be out with the vendors. And we’ll treat Caren and Co.


If you’re a fan–or even if not, I hope you’ll read this terrific, in-depth piece about the rich history of baseball and town teams throughout the state of Minnesota. I had no idea.

“My name is Beth, and I am an Amtrak rider”

I love the idea of traveling by train. I speak well of Amtrak in conversations with friends, I think Amtrak has a good heart, it has been good to me at times, it apologizes for its mistakes, and it suffers from a long history without a strong support system. But over and over, and over and over and over and over again, Amtrak lets me down. It’s time to get out of this abusive relationship.

The best part of my day was at the Princeton Library. (Photo: Paula Morrow)

The best part of my day was at the Princeton Library. (Photo: Paula Morrow)

My presentation at the library in Princeton, Illinois yesterday was terrific – the kids were curious about Whitney, and it was a pleasure to meet their parents and grandparents as they came to our table afterwards for signed (and Brailled) copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. Princeton really was a sweet little town, and Paula Morrow, the Youth Services Librarian, treated Whitney and me like royalty. Everything was swell, until the 1 pm train back to Chicago didn’t arrive.

No announcements were made at the Princeton station. Why should they bother? Everyone knows Amtrak trains almost always run late. We all just shrugged and sighed. The two-hour wait became a support group meeting, all of us sharing stories of previous train delays and missed connections. Whitney served as a therapy dog — I took her harness off so passengers could pet her and give her belly rubs. Our train was supposed to be back in Chicago by 3:15 p.m., and I thought Whitney and I might stop by my office at Easter Seals Headquarters at Willis Tower on my way back from Union Station. Maybe at 5 I’d meet Mike for happy hour at the piano bar at Sullivan’s. But we had another delay as we approached Naperville and didn’t arrive in Chicago until after six.

I still love Amtrak enough to have applied for their Amtrak Residency. The writing fellowship is new this year, designed “to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment.” Selected writers get round-trip train travel on a long-distance route, on-board meals, and a private sleeping roomette with a desk and a bed. The following letter was waiting in my in-box when I finally returned home yesterday:

Dear Amtrak Residency Applicant,On behalf of Amtrak, I’d like to thank you for submitting your application. The response from the literary community has been absolutely tremendous and we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to read so many heartfelt applications. We had over 16,100 applications and had the difficult challenge to select only 115 semi-finalists. The quality of applications was high, which made our decisions even tougher. We evaluated each applicant based on the quality and completeness of their application package, as well as the extensiveness of their social community and ability to reach online audiences with content.

After carefully reviewing all the applicant packages, I regret to inform you that your package was not selected to move forward in this year’s residency selection.

Any self-respecting person would leave a relationship after receiving a rejection letter like that from the same folks who made me (and a lot of other passengers) very late. Not me, though. I don’t feel safe in Chicago’s bus station, and I can’t drive. I love visiting libraries and schools all over the state –and the country — with my Seeing Eye dog, though, so I can’t break up my relationship with Amtrak. I’ll continue to support subsidies for Amtrak, I’ll hope for positive change, and I’ll keep reminding myself to feel grateful to have train travel as an option at all — otherwise how would Whitney and I have ever met all those wonderful people in Princeton yesterday?!

Whitney’s going to Princeton!


Whitney, upon graduation from The Seeing Eye.

She graduated from a great school, scored well on her tests, and she participates in a whole bunch of extra-curricular activities. And so, it should come as no surprise to you that tomorrow morning the genius Whitney leaves for Princeton.Princeton Illinois, that is. Whitney and I will be boarding the Carl Sandburg Amtrak train early tomorrow morning and heading to Princeton to give a presentation at the Princeton Public Library:

July 10 (Thursday) 10:30 a.m.
Princeton Public Library
PAWS to Read Program: Whitney and Beth: Safe and Sound
698 E. Peru St.
Princeton, Illinois

Princeton is a small (population 7,700) town 100 miles southwest of Chicago, and it has a rich history: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Youth Services Librarian Paula Morrow will meet us on the train platform (“It’s a small station,” she told me) and treat us to coffee at the Four and Twenty Diner before we head to the library.

Whitney and I are both looking forward to this break from the city and our chance to meet the fine folks in Princeton. Check out the blog next week, I have a feeling I’ll have stories (and pictures) to share.

Mondays with Mike: Regrets of a citizen

I’m still a little out of rhythm after the events of the past few weeks. I think it’s been the past few weeks. Anyway, like I said.

In the course of trying to re-enter routines, I’m beginning to do my usual mishmash of online reading. One of the things I just bumped into via The Beachwood Reporter was an op-ed piece published in the LA Times. It’s well written and sums up a lot of what I, and I’m sure others, have been thinking lately with regard to Iraq. And it triggered some thinking that’s been rattling around the back of my skull for some time.

I’ve been to a fair number of ballgames the past few years. And for some time now, Major League Baseball, at every game, singles out a member of the armed services to be honored. They are introduced, brought onto the field, and roundly applauded. And every time I’m a little conflicted. I’ve talked to other people who have the same reaction, but it’s a difficult thing to articulate for fear of appearing to  denigrate the honorees. For me, though, it’s not about them. They’ve done and are doing their jobs, admirably. It’s about us, in the stands. Because I can’t help feeling like it’s more about making us feel good than them. Or to perhaps to assuage some guilt because, well, unlike in Viet Nam or Korea or the World Wars — when soldiers were drafted, the sacrifice is a lot less common to all of us.

Also because for reasons outlined in the LA Times op-ed, asking our armed forces to go to Iraq was a tremendous disservice to them. (Not to mention the–at the minimum by all estimates I’ve seen–100,000+ Iraqis who’ve been killed during the war.)

I’ve always felt this way. I didn’t want to. Back when everyone was reeling from 9/11, I remember that things looked different. It was hard to know what to believe and what not to believe. But. Even then, there was good information — though not necessarily as well reported as it should have been — that the rationale for the war was bogus. In fact, the no-fly zones and other harassments of Saddam Hussein that began with President George H.W. Bush and continued under President Clinton had worked. Hussein was not a threat outside his borders, but he was still able to maintain control within them. (Which we’ve learned is a pretty neat trick.)

When I listened to Colin Powell address the U.N. during the sunup to Iraq, I really wanted him to convince me that there were WMDs. Because it was clear we were going come hell or high water. But as I listened, I thought to myself, “Where’s the goods?” And I just got a nauseated feeling.

I have no delusions that any action I could’ve taken individually back then could’ve stopped it. We had leadership that took advantage of our collective fear, we succumbed to our fear, and our major media went along. We all failed.

But next time, and there will be a next time, I’m going to try harder to be sure reason is heard. Which is probably the greatest tribute we can give to the people in the armed services.

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