What makes me happy

Last week I asked my downtown Chicago group of memoir-writers to come up with 500-word essays titled What Makes Me Happy. “Don’t come back with lists, or with vague things like ‘family and friends’,” I said. I asked them to write about an event from the past couple weeks that left them feeling fresh, energized, rejuvenated. “What was it about that specific experience that made you so happy?” The writers did not disappoint.

Sandy wrote about the teeny-tiny narrow view she has of Lake Michigan from her 7th floor Chicago apartment. “If I stand in the right hand corner of my living room and look to my left with my forehead resting on the window, I can see my small piece of the sky, sand and water.” The sky was a rosy pink the morning she wrote her piece, and the huge blocks of ice at the edge of the lake were starting to melt. “We can see the sand again,” she wrote. “And, instead of non-moving frozen water on the lake, the small waves are showing their white caps as they roll in at the shoreline.”

Nancy shares lunch and laughter with two longtime friends every Sunday, and her essay described them playing a card game after a recent lunch. “I seem to lose more often than I win, but IF Jo and Elaine were here, they’d tell you I was exaggerating.” She said every week each of them thinks they are the loser. “By the following Sunday, nobody remembers who won the week before anyway.”

Thumbing through a photo album she started in 1960 reminded Sheila that the photography hobby she enjoys to this day started with a memorable gift. “Aunt Anona gave me my best 8th grade graduation present,” she wrote. “It was a Kodak Hawkeye camera.”

Tycelia had just returned from a trip to Mexico City where she visited the Temple of the Moon at Teotihuacan. “When my husband passed this summer, I felt that all of my happiness had died with him,” she wrote. “But I felt happy to have succeeded in my attempt to climb that magnificent temple — for the first time in months, my heart had a break from sorrow.”

Yesterday was the last meeting for this eight-week session with that group of memoir-writers, and it was energizing to end on such a happy note. The seniors in all four memoir-writing classes I lead here in Chicago are all on spring break now, and so am I.

On the left that’s Pick (a.k.a. Keith Pickerel) and on the right Hank (a.k.a. Henry Londner). We’re lucky to count them as friends.

No doubt I’ll be publishing a post soon on a happy event: Whitney, Mike and I are taking off tonight for a four-day visit in Washington, D.C. We’ll be staying with our dear friends Pick and Hank, and being with those two, enjoying Hank’s fine cooking, singing along to Pick’s sensational piano playing, sharing stories and jokes and laughs, well, that always makes us happy.

Mondays with Mike: We’re almost sprung

It’s almost here. Spring that is. The signs say so, even if the thermometer seems a little late to the game. As in 34 damp, bone-chilling degrees.

We jumped to daylight saving time a couple weeks ago — which as it always does — left me feeling out of sync for about a week. I don’t know if it’s biorhythms or resentment that I’ve been robbed of an hour of my life, but I’m always out of sorts after we switch. I know we get the hour back in the fall, but I’d just as soon leave it be and forget the whole misbegotten idea.

Major League Baseball’s spring training is winding down, and that means the real games are getting close. Can’t come soon enough. I’m fairly certain the White Sox are going to win the World Series on the 10th anniversary of their last run. And I expect them to win again in 2025, 2035, and so on. I’m not greedy. Every 10 years is plenty.

Last week we had friends to dinner and we were able to open our windows, or rather we had to, as between the cooking and all the humans it was getting a little warm inside. It was great to remember what that’s like.

And, to cinch it, yesterday I cleaned the humidifier and stowed it away. That means that for absolute certain, winter is over.

I was going to write about the upcoming Chicago election, a big one around these parts. But I can’t quite muster it, as I’m between mental states, unable to concentrate fully, waiting for spring, for baseball, for real.

Bring ‘em on.

They all helped me read

Elementary school teachers commend me for struggling to sound out words when I read from the Braille version of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound during school presentations. “That’s what we’re trying to get our kids to do!” They tell me, assuring me I needn’t apologize for my poor Braille-reading skills. “It’s good for the kids to see a grown-up working so hard to try to read — it convinces them to try hard to read, too.”

Monday evening my Seeing Eye dog and I visited Tutoring Chicago, a non-profit organization that offers free one-to-one tutoring services to economically disadvantaged children in grades one through six. Thanks to the generosity of donors, sponsors and my publisher, Blue Marlin Publications, every child in the group of first and second-graders there was presented with their own print copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to read along with me.

I made it through the reading--with help from all these kids.

I made it through the reading–with help from all these kids.

During other school presentations, I only get through the first couple lines of Braille before closing the book and giving up., but these kids on Monday wouldn’t let me quit!

Anytime I struggled with a word or couldn’t sound it out on my own, one of the kids would read on from their own book or give me a clue so we could sound it out together. It was magical.

Only problem? It took us so long to read together that we didn’t have much time for question and answer time. The kids didn’t seem to mind that, though –as long as there was enough time for me to autograph their books in print and in Braille they were happy. And what a coincidence – so was I, knowing that each and every one of those curious and high-spirited kids in that group would be leaving that night with their very own brand new book to read at home.

Mondays with Mike: It really is March madness

College basketball fans are about to embark on a month-long orgy of tournament basketball, betting, brackets, trash talking, buzzer beaters, triumph and heartbreak.

I’ll be watching, pulling for my standbys (since Illinois is limping along these days) Wisconsin (our son Gus’ team) and Michigan State (we love Tom Izzo and Beth’s sister in Michigan is a big fan).

But March Madness has lost a lot of luster for me. Some of it is just endemic to modern life—overblown overexposure, familiarity breeds contempt.

Rosenstein might be onto something.

Rosenstein might be onto something.

Also, though, there is this: This notion of “college sports” is just harder and harder to swallow. It’s really a giant industry that enriches pretty much everyone associated with it except the athletes and – this is the kicker – the educational institutions.

Athletic departments are intentionally set up as essentially independent affiliates of universities. Athletic departments  have their own budgets, staff gets company cars and other perks that are donated by local business, and corporate sponsorship money. Universities provide scholarships and in many cases, help fund sports facilities in one way or another. But revenue does not flow back to the institutions for educational purposes.

Colleges and universities do get publicity from their sports teams. Theoretically, that could translate into donations directly to the university, but the evidence just isn’t there. To be sure, universities receive licensing fees from the sale of goods that have their logos. But that’s about it. That TV money? It goes to the athletic departments.

College costs are increasing radically (largely because of administrative bloat, but that’s another subject for another time), while the NCAA and college sports is minting money.

Jay Rosenstein is a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He just penned what is in my view a completely reasonable proposition to reduce tuition costs at the U of I. The Big Ten is about to get a windfall from a new TV contract. Jay’s proposition in a nutshell: Keep athletic budgets exactly where they are, and divert the new TV money to reduce tuition. He says the TV money  would be enough to reduce tuition by 25 percent.

Several outlets picked up Jay’s piece, and I hope you’ll give it a read. Another piece at the Washington Post titled 5 Myths about college sports is also worth the time.

In short, right now we have an industry that derives all of its branding and legitimacy from colleges and universities without  contributing a whole to the true business of the institutions. That is indeed madness.

Love to eat? You’ll love this store

It’s pretty darned wonderful when a friend you’ve loved and admired for a lifetime receives accolades in her professional life, too. That’s been the case with my friend Jill Foucré the past couple of years – let me explain.

After a 30-year career in health insurance, Jill did something she’d always dreamed of. Combining her love of cooking and entertaining with her business expertise and family heritage, she opened a gourmet retail store named for her grandfather, a French chef. Marcel’s Culinary Experience (in Glen Ellyn, Illinois) is not even four years old yet, but Jill and her retail store/cooking school have already been featured in The Wall Street Journal and Money Magazine. Jill was at the The International Home + Housewares Show here in Chicago last weekend to accept the Kitchenware Retailer of the Year Award and the U.S. Global Innovator Award from Gourmet Retailer. After she was here the Chicago Tribune published a video following our award winner snaking around the gigantic show at McCormick Place – they wanted to see how a winner does it!

I’ve written about Jill Foucré here on the Safe & Sound blog before. I spent countless nights hanging out at Chez Foucré with Jill and her sister Jenny when we were teenagers. Their dad was a handsome man with an exotic first name: Jacques. Their mother, Suzanne, was a stand-out blonde. They were a young family in a beautiful old house: high ceilings, modern furniture, bookshelves packed with hardcover books, and they even owned sculpture!

That’s Jill at Marcel’s Grand Opening gala in 2011, in the middle, flanked by her sister Jenny, and Jenny’s husband Dean.

Jenny, Jill and I were in our high school band together and can still tell story after story about exploits on school buses to neighboring towns, building floats for homecoming parades, band trips to California and Florida. Jill is a gifted pianist and played bassoon in the band. Jenny played flute and married her high school sweetheart, a French horn player. I was the band librarian. Music brought us together, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Jill’s love for the culinary experience came from her father’s side. Namely, from her grandfather, Marcel. I never had the privilege of meeting Jill’s paternal grandfather, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Marcel Foucré was a French chef and restaurateur. He grew up in Tours, and Jill and her father, Jacques, went to France a year before she opened the store to trace Marcel’s footsteps. To encourage you to visit this award-winning store yourself, I’ll leave you with a quote from the editor of Gourmet Retailer:

“While a relative newcomer to the kitchenware retailing industry, Jill Foucré and her team have created a successful and thriving concept that combines the best brands of the housewares industry in a space that is warm and welcoming,” says Anna Wolfe, Editor-in-Chief of The Gourmet Retailer. “In addition to being active in the community, Marcel’s has also met a need amongst its customers — helping them develop their cooking skills — all while having fun. Marcel’s Culinary Experience is proof that it is possible for independent retailers to thrive in today’s competitive marketplace.”

Felicitations, mon amie. Tu es magnifique.

Mondays with Mike: Rate this

Just returned from a business trip to Boston for a conference and trade show. Stayed at a very nice, hipper than I am, but completely satisfying
hotel. For yucks, I looked up reviews on Yelp after my stay.

All I can say is: What is wrong with us?

Among the Yelps from the whining, er, discriminating Yelpers:

Toilet was covered in hair shavings prior to use of the room. 

Mind you, this Yelp was accompanied by a photo of said hair shavings. I was worried about the Yelper trauma and decades of therapy that was surely required afterward but was comforted when I read on:

The situation was corrected immediately by hotel staff.

Still, unforgiveable, don’t you think? Don’t you think the overpaid cleaning person responsible should be fired with no severance? It wasn’t all negative, though:

On the positive side, the toilet had the strongest, fastest, most violent flush in all my experience. Not one single clog the entire night (see my Baltimore Hyatt review for when things go wrong).

I think I’ll pass on the Baltimore Hyatt review.

Anyway, there are constructive negative and positive comments, to be sure — if you have time to parse the gazillions of comments. (Which begs the question: Who on earth has time to write these things?) If you read enough of them, you can pick out reasonable people who seem, at least with such limited information available, inherently more trustworthy than the whiners.

But there appears to be a crazy kind of nouveau-riche entitlement attitude out there. Take the great little Tex-Mex joint in our neighborhood, for instance. Nothing fancy. You go up and order at the counter, they bring it out. A modest but nice menu. Look on Yelp, and good lord, you’ll find some excoriating reviews because the kitchen forgot to hold the cheese on one order, or that the place isn’t up to Rick Bayless quality.

Plus, I’m suspicious because these online rating things — Yelp, Angie’s List, whatever — aren’t particularly careful or necessarily scrupulous in their methods. I used to work at an organization called Consumers Checkbook. Since the 1970s, Checkbook’s been rating services in the same way Consumer Reports rates products. Like Consumer Reports, it doesn’t takes advertising and it does take its methodologies very seriously. It’s use legitimate survey research, there is no ballot stuffing, and you’ll se detailed explanations for the methods and limits in every issue (and online).

So, I’m sticking with Checkbook and swearing off Yelp once and for all, just for the sake of my outlook on humanity. And I’ll part by Yelping Yelp:

This shoddy Web site has exhibited questionable ethics and reminds me of talk radio in that it draws out the worst elements of society, and somehow encourages even the better elements to behave like Leona Helmsley (you can look her up). I’d give it zero stars but Yelp forces you to give at least one.


March forth

That’s me with writers from my Wednesday class at a party a few years back.

Last week my Wednesday memoir-writing class met on March 4th, the only day of the year that is a command. Our writing prompt? March Forth, of course.

Writers came back with stories of lining up and marching into school when they were kids, marching in parades, marching to the beat of a different drummer, and even the march of time. One of the more poignant pieces was written by a writer who took a bus to Washington, D.C. in August, 1963 for Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “All I carried with me was my purse, some food, water, a notebook and my father’s old 8mm film camera, plus a few rolls of film tucked into the bottom of an old leather carrying case,” Sandy wrote. “I was excited to be on an evening bus heading towards our nation’s capitol, a place I had read about so often but never visited.” Here’s an excerpt from Sandy’s piece, describing what she saw as she “marched forth” from the bus station to the Washington Mall:

There were families of all races, elderly people who looked tired but happy to be there, people from cities, farmers from fields, hippies from Haight-Asbury contrasted by straight-laced corporate and government workers. Everyone came together. The sounds of English mixed together with different languages filled the air. Crowds multiplied as they gathered on the Washington Mall, squeezed so close to each other that they looked like patchwork pieces tightly sewn together into a colorful quilt.

Sandy read her essay out loud in class on the very day the Justice Department issued findings that accuse the police department in Ferguson, Missouri of racial bias and routinely violating the constitutional rights of black citizens. We talked about this while discussing Sandy’s essay, how 50 years after that march in 1963, things still aren’t right. . Wanda — a beloved 93-year-old African-American writer in our class — was uncharacteristically quiet during the discussion. The only time she chimed in was after someone pointed out that the Justice Department had 35,000 pages of records to prove its case. “It took them 35,00 pages to find out what we’ve known our entire lives,” she said.

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