The Hanni hop

Nancy has the full attention of both the 6-year-old and the 16-year-old. Or, the treat does.

Nancy has the full attention of both the 6-year-old and the 16-year-old. Or, the treat does.

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I took an Amtrak train to Central Illinois Monday to give a presentation to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. While there in Urbana, we looked in on retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni. Her human companions Nancy and Steven report The 16-year-old star of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound is still going strong.

Steven and Nancy hosted their families for Thanksgiving this year and headed to Homer Lake at a nearby forest reserve afterward to walk their dinner off. Hanni came along, and when they took her leash off, she took off for a run.

“Well,” Nancy conceded. “It was more of a lope.” Hanni suffers from joint pain in her back hips, but Steven says the female Golden Retriever/Black Lab cross is still determined to go for runs around the lake. “She’s learned to lift up both back legs together and hop while she pulls herself ahead with her front legs,” he marveled. “She ran like a rabbit for more than a mile!”

Mondays with Mike: Kitchen therapy

Hope you had as good a Thanksgiving holiday as we did. We mostly hunkered down at home, and I cooked a lot.

I did not make Thanksgiving dinner—we went to some generous friends’ for that. But I did make some chicken broth from scratch, and used part of that to make some yummy beef barley soup. (Yep, the recipe called for chicken broth, not beef broth.)



Chicken broth seems like such a simple thing—but I’ve never been satisfied with mine. Until this weekend, that is, thanks to advice from our friend Jim, who’s a chef. The key is simple—use more chicken parts and less water to concentrate the flavor. Doh. Jim directed me to a great site called Serious Eats, which includes some nice tips for making a good broth.

I followed the Serious Eats recipe, and the result was an apartment—actually, an entire hallway—that smelled like comfort for hours. The next day, it was the same, only this time the aroma was beef and barley.

I’ve been cooking since high school—my mom taught me a lot, especially about Italian cooking. But I didn’t really fall in love with cooking until Beth and I were married. In our early days, money was tight, so going out to eat was a luxury we couldn’t afford. Plus, having friends to dinner was a way for us to thank them for all the help they provided in the days after Beth lost her sight and after Gus was born.

Apart from all that, cooking is therapeutic for me. When I get stuck in my own spinning brain (which happens a lot), cooking slows things down and gets things in order. The process—chopping, measuring, stirring, simmering roasting—is calming and gratifying in itself.

And when everything turns out like it did this past weekend, it doesn’t hurt that it’s awfully good to eat.



Eight books to help you escape for a while

When I woke up the day after the 2016 presidential election, I couldn’t hear out of my left ear. Days later the infection spread to my right ear as well. I couldn’t hear at all.

The timing was uncanny. Maybe it was a gift from the Gods. My ears plugged up the very day the drawn-out election was finally over. I couldn’t hear the radio. I couldn’t hear the television. I couldn’t hear my talking computer. Without my hearing, I could tune out politics completely. See no evil, hear no evil?

Seriously, though? I was miserable. So was Mike. The little candy-bar-sized contraption I use to listen to books eventually came to my rescue. If I turned the volume all the way up and held it right to my ear, I could listen to books. The Victor Reader Stream features buttons rather than a touch screen, and I’d already been pretty much connected to it before my hearing loss — books were my escape from the pre-election noise.

My sub-conscience must have taken over when selecting books — without intending it, every single book I downloaded the past month is written by an author from — or takes place in — a foreign country.

Understanding that some of you Safe & Sound blog readers may be looking for an escape from the news media, too, I’m sharing my recent book list.

  1. A Great Reckoning
    The characters from a tiny made-up town in Quebec come in and out of all of Louise Penny’s books: the gay couple who own the bistro, the cranky old poet named Ruth who swears a lot, the bookstore owner named Myrna, and so on. The Great Reckoning was just published this year, and if you choose to listen to it instead of reading the print version, you’re in for a treat — the narrator can even do a French-Canadian accent. The idyllic town of Three Pines is so far removed that there’s nary a mention of smart phones, tweets or texts. Bestseller. 2016.
  2. A Man Called Ove
    Ove is nearly sixty and the grumpiest man on the block. After losing his wife, his job, and his role as coobrienndominium president he decides to commit suicide. Enter a lively family of new neighbors and a stray cat, and Ove might just have a reason to keep living. First published in Swedish in 2012.
  3. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
    In the age of Rembrandt, artist Sara de Vos paints an image for the ages. In 1950s New York, a lawyer discovers that the painting he inherited has been replaced by a copy. Fifty years later, the lawyer, the forger, and the paintings are brought together.
  4. The Light between Oceans
    Western Australia, 1926. On an island one hundred miles from the mainland, lighthouse keepers Isabel and Tom Sherbourne discover a boat carrying a dead man and a crying baby. The decisions they make that day come back to haunt them several years later. Bestseller. 2012.
  5. Norwegian Wood
    Toru Watanabe is overcome by sadness when he hears the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood.” It evokes the events of that long-ago autumn of 1969 when he fell in love in Japan with Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend. Written by Haruki Murakami.
  6. The Little Red Chairs
    Dr. Vladimir Dragan, a holistic healer from the Balkans, arrives one day in a small village in Ireland. Fidelma McBride begins an affair with Dragan. Written by Edna O’Brien. 2016.
  7. Country Girl
    Edna O’Brien’s book about growing up in Ireland — she reads the audio edition. Describes her childhood in County Clare, apprenticeship at a pharmacist’s shop in Dublin, and literary high life in London and New York in the 1960s. Bestseller. 2016.
  8. Mr. Strangelove: a biography of Peter Sellers
    Biographer explores the quirky comic genius of British actor Peter Sellers, who just happens to appear in two of my favorite movies: Dr. Strangelove and Being There.

My hearing is improving by the day, and for that I am very thankful. I’ll continue using it to read books, so if you have Any suggestions (by American authors or others) please leave them here in the comment section. I’m all ears!

Mondays with Mike: Thanksgiving

I had an idea to round up some of the more thoughtful bits of post-election reading I’ve come across. When I told Beth about my idea, she replied, in her infinite wisdom, “Don’t! People are getting all that from all sides.”


So, instead, I’m simply going to give thanks for longtime friends. The ones who’ve borne witness to my life and my foibles and still call me their friend. I was reminded this past weekend of the deep, comforting value of having people who knew me way back when.

That's Pick and us just before we left for the wedding. Thanks to Hank, the man behind the camera.

That’s Pick and us just before we left for the wedding. Thanks to Hank, the man behind the camera.

At the wedding we attended in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, at some point my friend Rebecca—the mother of the groom—took me aside and said, “I just realized who you look like. Your father.” For a moment I froze, grateful for the simple privilege of having a close friend who knew my dad. I knew Rebecca’s parents, too. We became thick as thieves in high school, and partners in crime during summers home from college. Basically, two kids with a visceral desire to get out of our little town and see what the hell was out there. Our lives took us in different directions, but we never lost touch.

On Friday night before the wedding, we stayed with Pick and Hank, who got together as a couple just about the time Beth and I did. I’ve written about them before. I met Pick when I was a college intern in Washington, D.C. Later, after I graduated from the University of Illinois I took a job in D.C. Pick and I eventually became roommates and fast friends. Pick was visiting with Beth, me and Gus at the house we rented in Urbana over Labor Day in 1991 when I got the phone call—my father had died at home of a heart attack. Pick drove up to Pennsylvania to be with us for my dad’s funeral. Come to think of it, Becky was there, too, at the wake.

A year later, a week after my mother’s funeral, Pick drove from D.C. to Urbana, Illinois, to help me and Beth and Gus get settled in our ramshackle “starter home” ($38,900 back in the day). I have Pick to thank for introducing me to Hank and a slew of other friends, most especially Michael and Susi.

I realized this weekend that I go back with all these people 40 years, more or less. I don’t know where the time went.

But I’m thankful I’m still here, and that they—and all of my friends—are, too.

P.S. I’m happy to report that although we did have a few frightening “Miracle Worker” moments, Beth’s ears are almost all the way back.

Just this one Thursday with Mike: Foiled!           

Hey there, it’s Mike again. You may remember that on Monday I wrote about our planned trip to Washington, D.C.

Well, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way: Beth came down with a nasty, raging ear infection in her left ear, and then her right ear. For a short while, the infections left Beth barely able to hear, which as you can imagine, left her unable to fend for herself, pressed me into service, and pretty much just scared the hell out of both of us.

With Beth temporarily out of service, Whitney is really bored.

With Beth temporarily out of service, Whitney is really bored.

Three visits to the ENT, some nuclear ear drops (Cipro plus steroids), and a few doses of Advil later, she seems to be on the mend. To all her class members who’ve inquired, thanks for your kind messages, and Beth said to pass it along that she should be back in the saddle soon.

But we postponed our trip—we may be leaving tomorrow, but we’ll miss our date with Michael and Susi. And the discussion I hoped to have with Michael about the book Hillbilly Elegy and other recent events. On that subject, a few added thoughts:

As posted Monday, I liked the book Hillbilly Elegy a lot. What I failed to mention is that the book’s become a lightning rod of sorts. The author is a conservative, though I really hate labeling someone—because people are more nuanced than labels in my view—and because I don’t know what the hell being conservative means today. I kind of knew growing up. But I don’t recognize the Republican Party anymore.

Anyway, since I endorsed the book I felt obligated to add the above qualifiers. And in the interest of equal time, here’s a thoughtful  critique of Hillbilly Elegy from the New Republic.

Here’s the good and bad about this critique, in my humble opinion.

First, the bad: The author calls it out as wanting in terms of being a broad, even profound way of understanding the culture of the hillbillies writes about. I get that, but I think she’s shadow boxing. Here’s the deal: I took the book as a well told account of one guy’s life, a window on a group of people I don’t usually see, and I took whatever politics he included as his views—which he has a right to—and about which I don’t have to agree to find value in his writing. As I read the book, I noted points where I disagreed with the writer’s synthesis, and I was looking forward to talking about those points with my friend Michael tonight. (I’m sure we will, eventually.)

The good: Its criticism of other pundits and book critics, many of whom are mistakenly treating Elegy as an explanation for Trump voters, and a bigger deal than it is, or was meant to be. By his own acclamation, Vance didn’t mean it to be those things.

The best parts of the critique are the parts that don’t talk so much about the book, but about the broader issue of poverty. And about the election—smartly pointing out that hillbillies didn’t win the election for Trump. I hope you’ll read both the book and the critique—but the critique is a valuable read in its own right.

OK, to end this first and last Thursday with Mike, I’m going to repost the link to the article included in Monday’s postscript.

It’s called What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback about it from blog followers who read it, so I think it’s worth another shout out.

See ya’ Monday.


Mondays with Mike: Transition team

With all the ugliness and unrest and uncertainty and holy-shit-what-just happened/Armageddon is near, it seems like a good time for another road trip as a diversion.

Luckily, Beth and I have had one planned for months. We’re headed to the belly of the beast, Washington, D.C., for the wedding of my Kum Joe.

In oversimplified terms, Kum is the Serbian Orthodox word for godson. Regular readers may remember my account of Joe’s sister Sasha’s wedding last year in Philadelphia—Sasha is my Kuma.

Besides the wedding, we’ll see our friends Pick and Hank, and we’ll make a stop to have dinner with Michael and Susi. I met them via Pick, who generously introduced me to his world of friends when I was a newcomer to D.C. back in the day.

A worthwhile read.

A worthwhile read.

At the time, Pick hadn’t met Hank, I hadn’t met Beth, and Pick and I were roommates on the first floor of an Arlington, Va., apartment building. Michael and Susi lived upstairs. We were all on the front end of adulthood, and the four of us had some awfully good times hosting each other for dinner. And there was driving, motorcycling and camping along Skyline Drive and surrounding points. We also shared a lot of great live music experiences, not to mention, well, a lot of good times.

My friend Michael and I couldn’t be more different in terms of background. He was from the small-town South and his people had been around forever by my measure. My parents were first generation Americans, and I grew up in a suburb just south of Chicago where people either worked in the steel mills to the east or office buildings to the north. He had a religious upbringing, I did not.

I think those differences have always been a big part of what we find interesting about one another.

I learned during the early 1980s that Michael and I also diverged when it came to politics and moreover, the philosophies behind what we believed. We had our combative moments, but I’ve always treasured friends who are smart, thoughtful, and articulate—whether or not they agree with my politics.

A lot’s happened since those days. Kids, careers, crises—and Michael and I managed to continue our sometimes contentious but always respectful conversations. That is, until a few months ago in this ugly, horrible, drawn-out election campaign. All via some stupid-ass text messages. He infuriated me, I infuriated him, we each wanted to be the last infuriator.

And then something happened. We each came to our senses. I can’t speak for Michael, but the question for me was, did my thoughts about the election and the candidates outweigh the importance of my friendship with Michael?

I can tell you, there are people out there about whom I can answer “yes” in a heartbeat. (And have.)

But not Michael. So we got on the phone. In simple terms we made clear to one another that whatever happened, our friendship was more important.

Which was a relief, and in a small way, a proud moment when you think you’ve actually grown up at 59 years old.

But one thing lacked for months: Our way of dealing with the flare-up was to just not talk about it. We disciplined ourselves by withdrawing that privilege. And I think we both lost out for that.

Last month Michael was in town for business. Beth and I met him for brunch. A couple days before he came to town, he told me about a book he’d read called “Hillbilly Elegy.”

“Have you read it?” he asked.

I said no, but I’d read good things about it.

Mike brought it with him. He proceeded to tell us about the similarities between his own and author J.D. Vance’s backgrounds. And the gratitude they both held for having had key figures in their lives that shined the light on a world they’d never have otherwise known.

He loaned it to me. I read it and loved it. I don’t agree with all of Vance’s analysis and conclusions, but he’s a great storyteller and a person I’d love to talk with sometime. A little background: J.D. Vance is from a family that migrated from Appalachian Kentucky to southern Ohio. They were strangers in a strange land, but mostly the factory jobs made for good lives. Until they didn’t, and things went sour.

Vance had a successful stint in the Marines, and eventually graduated from Ohio State University (sorry, never using The), and eventually Yale Law. He describes the plight of many of those who didn’t have his advantages, and it ain’t pretty. Lots of poverty, drug addiction, and general dolor. All this continuing, right now—in Middle Ohio and elsewhere.

Over brunch, Michael—who’s had an enormously successful business career—said he’d likely be in a different place but for a few people who helped make sure he didn’t. And he pondered out loud, “I think there are some people in these places that never see that there is any other way of life. How do you provide that?”

I agreed. And then Mike wondered out loud, “What government policy can provide that?:

I didn’t have an answer.

But I was reminded that my old friend wants people to have what he had, and wants to do right, just the same as I do. We probably will always disagree on what and how much the government can do.

I’m looking forward to returning the book this week, and to having more conversations about such things with Michael. I always learn something, and I like to think he does, too.

P.S. Here’s another, shorter read in the Harvard Business Review that is in keeping with Vance’s book. The article’s entitled What So Many People Get Wrong about the Working Class, by Joan C. Williams. It’s not pedantic, and it’s not condescending, but it’s very insightful. 


One last letter: Dear Abby

My “Me, Myself and I”memoir-writing class meets this morning at the Chicago Cultural Center. Ages in that class span from 66 to 96, they’ve lived through a lot of election cycles, and it’ll be interesting to hear what they have to say about the decisions made yesterday.

I sure can’t think of anything myself to say for a blog post about the 2016 election, so instead, I’m publishing one last letter, this one written by a writer in the Monday memoir class I lead for Lincoln Park Village. I’d asked writers to write to someone in the future or past about this year’s election, and our guest blogger Pam Washburn read this letter to Abigail Adams out loud in class this past Monday, a day before the 2016 ballots were cast.


by Pam Washburn

I’m writing to you today to share news that I know will delight you. Tomorrow, the second Tuesday of November, Americans will be going to their local polling stations to vote for national political candidates. For the first time WE (I’m speaking, of course, of all registered male and female voters over the age of 18) will have the option to vote for a woman for president of the United States of America.

Dear Abby...

Dear Abby…

No one has ever forgotten your admonishment to your dear husband John and to the Continental Congress when it met in March of 1776. “Remember the ladies,” you said. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we do not have a voice, or Representation.”

After the defeat of the British, the hard work of forming a new government was grueling. You remained at home running the farm while your husband John was occupied in Boston and Philadelphia, seldom seeing you or the children.

General George Washington, selected unanimously, wasn’t sworn in as President until 1789, when your dear husband John joined the administration as Vice President. During the eight years that John served as Vice President to General Washington, and during the next four years when John and you served as President and First Lady, you must have had your hands full! Afterward, you were both abroad in France and England, serving to represent America’s interests overseas.

Unfortunately, the new federal constitution only enfranchised white men. In 1848 the first unofficial Women’s Rights Convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, and it wasn’t until 1890 that the National Women’s Suffrage Association was founded. By then women were speaking out in public and writing letters to government officials and newspapers, seeking the right to vote and to have their concerns addressed.

In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved by the States and became law. Women could finally vote in America.

Let me tell you about the current candidate that I hope will win the Presidency. Her name is Hilary Rodham Clinton, she’s married to a former two-term US President, and their daughter is a lovely young woman. Mrs. Clinton, an attorney, has already served as a US Senator and as our country’s Secretary of State. She began her career 40 years ago, as a public-interest lawyer fighting for children’s rights.

Her opponent is a thoroughly disreputable, reputedly wealthy man who speaks vilely, in public, about women. He knows nothing about governing, and he lies without compunction.

Unfortunately, the electorate seems to be evenly divided between the two candidates, which I find disheartening. Of course I’ll be voting tomorrow; I just hope I’m joined by others who still want to see America try to live up to the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence.

We may not know the outcome until Friday morning—please wish us luck!


Pam Washburn

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