All four of the memoir-writing classes I lead for Chicago senior citizens are in full swing again. Their first assignment? 1966.

93-year-old Wanda Bridgeforth piped up immediately after hearing the prompt. “That was a great year!” She came back the next week with an essay about her daughter, Wanda, Jr. getting married in 1966. “I inherited a wonderful son-in-law, and after Junior left, I inherited her bedroom, too.” She transformed Junior’s bedroom into a sewing room. Wanda turned 44 years old in 1966, and it was the first time in her life she ever, ever had her own room.

That's Wanda from way back on her 90th.

That’s Wanda from way back on her 90th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

Writers in the memoir-writing classes I lead span from 61 years old to 93 years old, and this writing prompt betrayed their ages. Michael Graff, one of the youngest writers in my classes, was only 12 in 1966 and wrote about attending his first boy-girl party that year. “The purpose was for boys and girls to get together in a setting where they weren’t hostile toward each other,” he wrote. “At age 12 there were no real relationships, no sexual conquests, and no truly broken hearts. What was most important was being on the invitation list.”

Most of the boy-girl party invitations were sent by mail. “However, a select group of girls, the crueler ones, came to school with stacks of envelopes to hand out,” he wrote. “Some did it with subtlety, but some did it with drama of a starlet handing out Oscars at the Academy Awards.”

Of all the boy-girl parties in 1966, young Michael was only invited to one. “I told myself it didn’t matter.” Michael’s essay ends with a description of party nights at home watching ‘Get Smart” on TV, playing with his Aurora race car set or sorting his coin collection. “The best revenge is living well.”

1966 was the first year tobacco companies had to print the Surgeon General’s warning on packs of cigarettes, and many writers mentioned smoking in their essays. Mary Lou Wade was pregnant that year and wrote about spending Memorial Day with her sister. “We lazed on the patio smoking Pall Malls and sipping weak gin and tonics,” she wrote. “1966 was before warnings of the damage of fetal alcohol syndrome, or if it existed, I didn’t heed it.”

Her healthy son was born on a memorable day: 6/6/66. “Even now when the date comes up, people comment of the sign of the devil,” she wrote. “Brendan is a successful artist now, and he shows no sign of the demonic traits.”

Lyndon Johnson was president in 1966, and the Vietnam War was escalating. None of the writers in my classes had served, but some had friends or family members who’d been drafted. One writer traveled to D.C. in 1966 to demonstrate against the war, and another wrote of joining the new organization Betty Friedan had founded that year: National Organization for Women (NOW). Her essay explained how that led to her involvement in the Chicago chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization years later.

Regan Burke was fighting against the war — and in favor of civil rights  —  in 1966, too. She wrote about meeting and marrying car enthusiast Jim Kelly, the father of her son Joe, that year and what ensued afterwards. “One weekend in March, Kelly drove to Florida with my mother’s boyfriend, Harry, for the annual Sebring 12-hour race that was the U.S. equivalent of France’s LeMans Grand Prix,” she wrote.  “Baby Joe and I stayed home to help salvage the 1968 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. We roared down the highway in the gas-guzzling Austin Healy to Trenton, where I hoisted Joe into a backpack and joined McCarthy volunteers to knock on doors.”

Judy Roth got married in 1966, too, and her account of their honeymoon in Europe was a beautiful confirmation that love can truly be better the second time around. “We had a fine time except for the flight to England during which I sobbed much of the way, sure that I’d made a mistake getting married only fourteen months after my divorce,” she wrote. “I got over it by the time we landed and didn’t look back for 43 wonderful years.”

Mondays with Mike: From George and Martha to Charlie Wilson

You think you know a person. And then you watch a documentary.

So it was when I sat down on the couch to watch the latest edition of PBS’ American Masters series, this on a guy who’s one of the greatest filmmakers of our time—Mike Nichols.

Now, I knew he was good. I just didn’t realize how good. It’s hard to say that he flew under the radar. He was famous. Rich. And married to Dianne Sawyer. But the body of his work is just incredible.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 6.05.01 PM

It’s also worth noting that his is still another story of immigrant-makes-good in the United States. He and his family immigrated to New York City from Nazi-era Berlin, thankfully, while, they still could.

He ended up studying at the University of Chicago, where he met the likes of Susan Sontag. And Elaine May (who directed this documentary), of course, with whom he developed an enormously successful comedy partnership—the two were also part of what became Second City.

That’s pretty good right there, in my book. But, he eventually was asked to direct a play, and the rest, as they say, was history. The first play? “Barefoot in the Park.”

His first movie? “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Think about that. Hello, Elizabeth and Richard, thank you for joining me on my debut. (And if somehow you’ve never watched it, shame on you and add it to your queue).

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 6.04.22 PM

His second movie: “The Graduate.” Think about that.

Plus, in his interviews for the documentary, he’s just charming, insightful, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and is just one of those people I’d give anything to have been around. (I especially liked his take on how the French view American film; I believe the word “frogified” was used.)

It’s really worth the watch. The PBS site indicates the hour-long film will be online through February (though as of this writing, the sites seems to be down). But I believe it’ll continue to be aired on local stations during that time, also.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the list of films that he directed:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 6.16.28 PM

2007            Charlie Wilson’s War

2004            Closer

2003            Angels in America (TV Mini-Series) (2 episodes)

2001            Wit (TV Movie)

2000            What Planet Are You From?

1998            Primary Colors

1996            The Birdcage

1994            Wolf

1991            Regarding Henry

1990            Postcards from the Edge

1988            Working Girl

1988            Biloxi Blues

1986            Heartburn

1983            Silkwood

1980            Gilda Live (Documentary)

1975            The Fortune

1973            The Day of the Dolphin

1971            Carnal Knowledge

1970            Catch-22

1968            Teach Me! (Short)

1967            The Graduate

1966            Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

P.S. Oh yeah, there are also the theater credits:

Betrayal Oct 27, 2013 – Jan 05, 2014
Death of a Salesman Mar 15, 2012 – Jun 02, 2012
The Country Girl Apr 27, 2008 – Jul 20, 2008
The Apple Tree Dec 14, 2006 – Mar 11, 2007
Spamalot Mar 17, 2005 – Jan 11, 2009
Whoopi Nov 17, 2004 – Jan 30, 2005
The Play What I Wrote Mar 30, 2003 – Jun 15, 2003
Sunday in the Park with George May 15, 1994 – May 15, 1994
Death and the Maiden Mar 17, 1992 – Aug 02, 1992
Social Security Apr 17, 1986 – Mar 22, 1987
Whoopi Goldberg Oct 24, 1984 – Mar 10, 1985
Hurlyburly Aug 07, 1984 – Jun 02, 1985
The Real Thing Jan 05, 1984 – May 12, 1985
Grown Ups Dec 10, 1981 – Feb 20, 1982
Fools Apr 06, 1981 – May 09, 1981
Lunch Hour Nov 12, 1980 – Jun 28, 1981
Billy Bishop Goes to War May 29, 1980 – Jun 07, 1980
The Gin Game Oct 06, 1977 – Dec 31, 1978
Annie Apr 21, 1977 – Jan 02, 1983
Comedians Nov 28, 1976 – Apr 03, 1977
Streamers Apr 21, 1976 – Jun 05, 1977
Uncle Vanya Jun 04, 1973 – Jul 28, 1973
The Prisoner of Second Avenue Nov 11, 1971 – Sep 29, 1973
Plaza Suite Feb 14, 1968 – Oct 03, 1970
The Little Foxes Oct 26, 1967 – Jan 20, 1968
The Apple Tree Oct 18, 1966 – Nov 25, 1967
The Odd Couple Mar 10, 1965 – Jul 02, 1967
Luv Nov 11, 1964 – Jan 07, 1967
Barefoot in the Park Oct 23, 1963 – Jun 25, 1967

You can’t stop Breathin’ Steven

Hi folks, it’s Mike–introducing a guest blog of sorts. It’s actually a blog converted from an email message from our remarkable friend Steve Ferkau. Steve is, well, one of a kind. In the best possible way. 2016 marks the 14th year in a row Steve will climb to the top of the John Hancock Center (94 floors, 1,632 steps). No small feat for a guy once on the verge of death from cystic fibrosis, who is now a double lung and kidney transplant survivor!

Breathin' Steven always makes it to the top. And raises money for a very good cause.

Breathin’ Steven always makes it to the top. And raises money for a very good cause.

He had to take an unwelcome break from his workout routine last week when he caught a viral infection. It’s the kind of virus that a non-transplant person wouldn’t have to worry about–but Steve does. He was prescribed prednisone. I’ve  taken prednisone for really bad sinus infections in the past. And I’m not ashamed to say–I kinda liked it. Lotsa energy, sort of felt invincible. One time when I picked up a prednisone prescription, I noticed that among the many side effects listed on the label was this: False sense of well-being. Bring it on!

When I learned Steve was on prednisone, I emailed him to ask how he was doing, and to compare notes about how it affects him. And this is what he wrote back. He did not disappoint. Apart from being funny, it provides a little window on what transplant survivors have to endure. Hope you enjoy.

False Sense of Well Being
by Steve Ferkau

Agreed on the false sense of well being!!! It’s a very dirty drug – and actually rather awesome for transplant and immune suppression / immune confusion. But it can make people angry, depressed, grow hair, lose hair, hyper, jittery, F**KING TALKATIVE, high blood sugar / diabetic, cataracts, osteoporosis, the list goes on…. It’s a corticosteroid, not an anabolic steroid — your body actually naturally produces it to battle inflammation. Our bodies, even when they’re failing miserably, are totally amazing biological machines.

Laura LOVED that I was cooking, cleaning, cleaning more — she could get used to that. Not the constant chatter though – a dose of shut-the-f**k-up would sound delightful to her if someone could slip that into my drink.

At work I was yabbling away at the building concierge working out some fundraising thang — and explaining to her how the high doses of prednisone impact me — as she could readily observe by my lips moving in a blur.  As we were standing in front of the barrista I ordered 4 shots of espresso. You would have LOVED the look on her face. Like, ARE YOU F**KING KIDDING ME??? And pleading with her eyes, “Can that possibly be the right thing to do at this moment???”

Well… I had the last elevated dose this morning — so the fun stops now. Or, at least the accelerated fun.

I see the doc tomorrow regarding RSV status… I may not be out of th woods — it can impact lung transplants dangerously and if the $500-for-ten-days-drug they gave me ain’t cutting it, they’ll wanna get more aggressive. Viruses suck — oral antivirals are a bit of a joke — VERY expensive and quite ineffective… But even IV and other antivirals are a crap shoot at best. Again — the most effective thing is your body rising to the occasion. But then you just hope immunity thangs don’t suddenly go the route of, “and you may ask yourself, this is not my beautiful wife, and this is not my beautiful house, and these are not my beautiful lungs, and this is not my beautiful kidney…”.

I’ve been through seemingly WAY more serious things than this — but in reality, they’re not. It’s these seemingly little things that scare me.

Hope you’re doing great!!! I’ve got an amazing team behind me.

This year’s hustle is just four weeks away: Sunday, February 28. You can read more about Steve and donate to his Climbing for Kari team on his web site. Please read his story, and the story of his donors–it’s remarkable. 

About the organ transplant

I wrote here last month about my friend (and baseball organist) Nancy Faust donating her home practice organ to an auction benefiting Chicago White Sox Charities. Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor placed the winning bid on the Hammond Elegante Model 340100, and earlier this month a slew of his Chicago musician friends picked up a rental van in Chicago to deliver it to Kantor in Boston.

The organ juuusssst barely fit in the van.

The organ juuusssst barely fit in the van.

The musicians took a pit stop at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown along the way, and a story in the Chicago Reader this month reported that the trip almost didn’t happen at all: They measured ahead of time, but when they got the rental van, the organ didn’t fit. “The crew managed to Tetris it inside,” the story said. Singer Kelly Hogan was on the moving crew and told the reporter that the musicians who drove the organ to Boston all have many, many miles in band vans between them, and that it was “pretty normal” to be resting her arm on an organ as they were traveling.

The story said Josh Kantor was overwhelmed by the scores of people who called and e-mailed and texted him asking what they could do to help get the organ to his home in Boston. “A friend sawed a metal railing off the entrance of Kantor’s house so the organ could be moved inside,” the story said. “Another donated a Nancy Faust bobblehead, which became a focal point of videos documenting the trek.”

Nancy was vacationing with her husband Joe in the Southwest while the organ transplant took place, but she emailed me a few times to send clips of stories and interviews with Josh Kantor about his new musical Instrument. “Here is a link to this morning’s interview on 670 the score with Josh Kantor who bought the organ,” one note read.  “What a gracious guy. The ballpark has enabled me to meet the nicest people.”

Nancy sent me the Chicago Reader article I’ve been quoting in this blog post, too, along with another note. “Hi Beth, This is a rather long, very inclusive account from today’s Reader about my ‘organ transplant,’” she wrote. “Josh Kantor has been far too kind but hopefully gained the best memories, friendship bonds, and the Red Sox recognition from the whole adventure. Love, Nancy.”

Me and Mike with Nancy Faust at the Green Mill awhile back. Nancy showed Mike her World Series ring.

Me and Mike with Nancy Faust at the Green Mill awhile back. Nancy showed Mike her World Series ring.

The Nancy Faust-Josh Kantor mutual admiration society was formed when Kantor was hired as Red Sox organist in 2003. Over drinks and Hammond B3 music at the Green Mill in Chicago last month, Nancy told me how Josh flew to Chicago to see her when he got that job at Fenway. “He spent the day with me,” she said, and that story in the Chicago Reader quotes Kantor saying, “That was one of my favorite days ever!”

Kantor told the reporter that during that visit, among other things, Nancy urged him to keep updating his repertoire. “If you want to do this for a long time and not turn into a dinosaur like a lot of other organists have, keep learning new songs.” More from the Chicago Reader story:

His fascination with her process helps explain why he was so interested in purchasing this particular organ. “To me, the organ that was in her home for 35 years, that was her practice instrument, was as interesting—if not more interesting—because that was the lab instrument, basically. That was where she did all her homework,” he says, laughing. “That was where she concocted all her genius.”

Baseball organists are a dying breed – MLB reports fewer than a dozen ballparks still hire organists, and many of the musicians are only allowed to play a few times throughout the game and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning. The Chicago Reader story called Kantor one of the “most vocal proponents of organ music and its role in baseball,” and it sounds to me like he’s doing a great job. He couldn’t help but notice how open and accessible Nancy Faust was to fans at White Sox Park, and he said he tries to do the same, with a modern twist: He takes song requests via Twitter (@jtkantor) at Fenway.

Mondays with Mike: Cheap stories

First, to all our friends in the Middle Atlantic and Northeast, hang in there. Don’t try to be a shoveling hero. Walk safely. Drive safely if you have to drive. The storm itself is always kind of fun if you don’t have to be out in it. It gets the adrenaline going.

It’s the days and weeks after that are a big old drag. So just know: Here in Chicago, we feel your pain.

But about that storm. On Saturday night, as Beth and I were leaving Hackney’s, we stopped to say hello/goodbye to some friends on our way out. Since the storm had been on multiple TVs behind the bar, on my computer screen pretty much any time I looked at a news site during that day, and even on screens in the elevator at the gym, I was just kind of stormed out. And so, I said to our friends in my best sarcastic tone, “Did you hear there’s a big storm out East?”


This Onion parody is too close to the truth. (Caution, language, NSFW.)

Two of them laughed, but one immediately piped up in anger. Apparently I was the third person to have said something like that to him. And he wanted to make clear that he believed it was a serious event worth taking seriously. (I might add he lived in NYC for many years and was being honorably loyal to the New Yorkers who were getting buried.)

But my problem wasn’t with the storm being covered per se, but just the way it—like so, so many things in modern American life—was being over-covered. There really was not minute-to-minute news worth reporting. Still, national cable channels flashed on snow banks, radar screens, empty grocery shelves, etc. It’s the kind of footage they could probably get away with recycling from last year’s snow storm video.

Look I get as excited by bad weather that’s somebody’s else’s problem as the next guy (since I lived in North Carolina, I’ve had a thing for hurricanes). And I love madcap snow antics. And the Weather Channel gets a pass. I mean, it’s the Weather Channel.

What really aggravates me is that weather, like a lot of stuff, makes for a cheap story for what are supposed to be legitimate, national news operations. That is, compared to say, a story that requires extensive reporting over a long period of time, it doesn’t cost much. Why spend money on election coverage that has substance when you can plant a reporter in a snow bank? So the big storm is just part of a long and it seems to me worsening process of dumbing down news coverage.

To my point, check out this video from The Onion. It perfectly parodies the kind of TV news coverage I’m talking about. (Warning: Language, and definitely not safe for work.)

I laughed hard. Hope you do, too. And be careful out there.




Questions about the color black

After the presentation, some of the kids got to see Whitney up close.

After the presentation, some of the kids got to see Whitney up close.

Last week was chock-full of school presentations for my Seeing Eye dog and me. I already wrote here about our Tuesday trip to Elmhurst. Two days later, Whitney and I got on another commuter train in Chicago to visit two more suburban schools.

“I’m blind,” I told a group of second-and-third-graders at our last session on Thursday at Barrington’s Countryside School. “Even when my eyes are open, all I see is the color black.” A second-grader’s hand shot up right then with an urgent question. “If all you see is the color black, then how do you know when you’re tired?” The questions went on from there:

  • Is it the kind of black you see when you’re sleeping, or the kind of black you see when you wake up and open your eyes?
  • How do you drive?
  • Do you walk everywhere?
  • If you can’t see red or green, how do you know when it’s time to cross the street?
  • How long did it take you to get here from Chicago?
  • How do you bake bread if you can’t see?
  • Do you see different kinds of black, like light black and medium black and dark black??
  • What’s wrong with your hand?
  • Do you get dressed all by yourself?
  • How do you tie your shoes when you can’t see your feet?
  • You mean you really can’t see any colors? I feel so sad for you if you can’t see colors.

Read over those questions again. Notice anything? Those Barrington kids asked far more questions about my blindness than about how Whitney does her job.

Know why? Because Cindy Hesselbein, the Reading Specialist at North Barrington and Countryside Schools, volunteers to raise puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, Michigan. She and her husband and their four children are raising their sixth puppy for Leader Dogs now, and for years she’s brought them along to school every day to socialize the pups and educate the kids about what service dogs are.


Mrs. Hesselbein, the other reading specialists and teachers had also seen to it that the kids had read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound before we arrived Thursday. All to say, these lucky Barrington kids know a lot about guide dogs. But what about this blindness thing?

I thanked the thoughtful boy who’d said he felt sad for me and tried to assure him that even though I can’t see, my life is still pretty colorful. “I just have to use my other senses to do things you do with your eyes.” I described how I read and write books, swim laps, bake bread, play piano, go to plays, meet with friends. “And if I wasn’t blind, I probably would have never known what it’s like to love a dog.”

That statement served as a perfect segue to point out how important people like their reading specialist Mrs. Hesselbein and all the other puppy raisers across the country are to those of us who use dogs to guide us. More than a dozen schools scattered throughout North America train dogs to guide people who are blind or visually impaired, and most place their puppies with volunteers like Mrs. Hesselbein until the dogs are anywhere from 14 to 18 months old.

Puppy raisers are not responsible for training dogs to guide, but they do teach important social skills, obedience and how to walk in a lead-out position (not like normal obedience training where the dog is behind you at your heel). Mrs. Hesselbein got a kick out of watching six-year-old Seeing Eye graduate Whitney turn her head left and right to scan the environment as she led me through North Barrington and Countryside Schools Thursday. “They don’t do that when they’re puppies,” she said. “It’s so fun to see the finished product!”

As for the thoughtful boy who’d felt sad for me, he must have really been pondering all this throughout our presentation. Before we left to catch our train back home, he raised his hand to tell me he didn’t feel that sad for me anymore. “Really, you’re lucky,” he said. I was expecting him to add something about how I get to bring my dog along wherever I go, that sort of thing. Instead, he surprised me with a new twist on the lemonade-out-of-lemons notion. “You don’t have to worry about ever getting blind,” he reasoned. ”You already are!”

Mondays with Mike: She works like a dog

When Beth broke her hand awhile back, it was bad news for several reasons—

  • She would have to wear a cast, which slows typing considerably, and also makes lots of menial daily tasks—already more difficult because she can’t see—even more difficult.
  • She wouldn’t be able to swim, which is her preferred form of exercise.
  • It was on her left hand. As in the hand that holds Whitney’s harness.

Because her cast left her with only two working fingers—the index finger and thumb (think crab-like pincers), that just didn’t work. Whitney—like all Seeing Eye dogs—was taught to pull firmly when she leads. That tension is a form of communication—if the dog slows, the tension lessens and Beth’s going to slow down.

Besides that, Whitney pulls hard—those two measly fingers just weren’t enough.

Whitney and Beth on their first walk after the fall. Didn't miss a beat.

Whitney and Beth on their first walk after the fall. Didn’t miss a beat.

And so, we had a couple mopes around here for a while. Well, Beth only moped for about five minutes at the doctor’s office, her being Beth and all. Whitney was fine for a day or two. Until she understood she was stuck with me walking her, and that she and Beth would be going on no adventures together. Well, the three of us did go out together, but Whitney wasn’t leading. Just not the same.

As written more than once in other posts, these dogs are not robots. They sniff when they aren’t supposed to, sometimes they let temptation get the best of them and they go for a good looking hound in the lobby. So sometimes it’s easy to forget that they derive a great deal of satisfaction from working.

So for two weeks, Whitney behaved and looked bewildered, not to mention, well, depressed.

Beth had a follow-up appointment about a week ago. The bad news: She had to keep a cast. The good news: The doc gave her a new smaller one that gave her enough of her fingers back that she and Whitney could ride again.

I went out with them on their trial walk. I should say I followed them on their trial walk. Because Whitney and Beth were at a brisk downtown walking pace, Whitney with her head on a swivel, alert, smiling, weaving around bad pavement, bits of snow—and I can’t know it, but if a dog can look proud, that’s how she looked—proud.

Whitney and Beth have now been through two of these idle periods—the other one much more protracted (not to mention terrifying).

But both cases, after a hiatus, instead of saying “forget this,” Whitney was elated to be back in the saddle—err, harness—again.

We should all love our work so much.

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