Mondays with Mike: Smart phones, dumb people

In its early days, the telephone (land-line variety) was perceived as a threat to family life and the fabric of society itself. It let the outside world in and let the folks inside the house out, if only by wire.

I learned about that in a memorable college class I took called “The History of Communications.”


Pretty lofty title, but it lived up to the billing. The class looked at the cultural and economic ramifications of advances in communications technology.

Disruptive technologies will always be treated as a possible threat. And that’s not all bad. Take the cell phone—and those loud, one-sided conversations in elevators and public places that included TMI like the results of an MRI or maternity test. Bad behavior, that. But it’s gotten better, partly through informal cultural policing.

And then you could take pictures with your phone. Who the hell would want to do that?, I thought.

Then, the smart phone. I resisted until my friend Seth let me play with his brand new iPhone. Uh oh. It was like the first time I used a Mac computer. I put it off, and finally gave in. And haven’t looked back.

Until now. I know you’ve seen this—people sitting with each other—but texting and reading and otherwise playing with their phones instead of paying attention to one another. I get it. It’s the new world. But I recently got busted—by a blind woman, no less—for doing this while we were out, ostensibly with one another.

The worst. I had become one of those assholes! To all my friends—if I’ve done that to you, apologies.

I’m not getting rid of my smartphone by any means. But I am going to enforce some rules when I’m with other humans. The rules are simple: You’re with other humans, turn off the freakin phone.

I’m sure I’ll have lapses, but I’m committed. After all, there are no bad phones, just bad behavior.

Let’s keep working: today is the 25th anniversary of the ADA

Blind justice!When I finished college I got a job at the Study Abroad Office at University of Illinois. During one-on-one appointments with U of I students, I’d ask what they might like to study overseas, what sort of living arrangements they wanted, did they speak a foreign language, which countries they were particularly interested in, that sort of thing. I’d describe options available to them, make phone calls to other universities If U of I didn’t offer the option they wanted, and help with paperwork to get their credits transferred. I liked the work, I was good at it, and soon I was promoted to assistant director.

and then, in 1986, I lost my sight. My contract was terminated.

The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t be signed into legislation until four years later. Today, July 26,2015, the ADA is 25 years old, and while I am celebrating all the progress we have made in a relatively short amount of time, I also acknowledge we have a lot more to do. One example: it’s 25 years after the ADA was passed, and the unemployment rate among people who are blind still hovers around 75%.

Here’s my work story: After my contract at University of Illinois was terminated, I attended a residential rehabilitation center for the blind, learned Braille and taught myself to use a talking computer. I applied for a job at the Study Abroad Office again after The Americans with Disabilities Act had been passed and made it through the first round of interviews. Even with the law ON my side, though, I didn’t get hired.

My husband Mike was the lucky guy who got to read the carefully crafted rejection letter out loud to me. Not a word about disability. The reason I wasn’t hired? My lack of recent work experience.

I applied for all sorts of jobs after that. One was with an emergency hotline that took calls from people whose pets have eaten a toxic substance. I emailed them for details. My note didn’t mention I was blind, or that I used a talking computer to send the email. Their response was enthusiastic. I was invited to visit the office to apply for the job.

A friend drove me to the interview. I heard the receptionist leave her desk abruptly as my friend helped me fill out the printed application form. The woman who walked out next was not the receptionist — she had a different stride from the first, and her bracelets jangled. Rather than greeting me, this new woman launched into a speech. Forms had to be filled out with every phone call that came in, she said. Her voice was shrill. The bracelets clattered. Every word had to be documented, she said. Every word by every person who calls the hotline.

I explained how I use a talking computer. I could create digital versions of the forms, complete them on the computer, print them out. “No,” she said. “They’re legal forms. They have to be filled out by hand.” I tried to squeeze out more details, see if maybe there were workarounds. But she wouldn’t listen. That was that.

It was a law suit waiting to happen, but even today, 25 years after the ADA was passed, these law suits are the burden of the person with the disability. To bring a case against that poison control hotline I would have had to pay a lawyer, file, wait months –sometimes years –hoping the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would accept my case. I didn’t file a complaint.

When Mike spotted another want ad for that same position in the paper weeks later, I sent another email asking for another interview. No email response.

A carefully worded letter arrived soon afterwards with task descriptions, each one specifically written to make it perfectly clear that a blind person couldn’t possibly perform them. The product of a legal consultation, I was sure. I got this sort of treatment more times than I care to tell you about. I don’t take it personally anymore, but back then it was painful. And confounding.

I guess it’s the same as other bigotries. Changing the law is one thing. Changing hearts and minds is another, and slowly, slowly those hearts and minds did start to change. As ramps replaced curbs, and theatres and sports facilities added accessible seating, and buses and trains and subway cars ran automatic announcements to call out each and every stop, and handicapped stalls were added to public restrooms, well, a funny thing happened. People with disabilities started eating out at restaurants, enjoying a night out at the movies, cheering on their sports teams at games, traveling on public transportation. People got more used to being around those of us with disabilities, and that familiarity made them more willing to take a chance on hiring us.

I wrote earlier this week about the University of Illinois in Urbana hiring me as a model for art students. After that, a Presbyterian church in Champaign hired me as a volunteer coordinator. When we moved to Geneva, Ill. a minor league baseball team found a job for me in their ticket office. In Chicago, a non-profit organization took me on as their Interactive Community Coordinator, and three different organizations hired me to lead memoir-writing classes. I am grateful to the School of Art and Design at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, McKinley Church and Foundation, the Kane County Cougars, Easter Seals National Headquarters, the City of Chicago, Lincoln Park Village, and the Center for Life and Learning for taking a chance on me. Their confidence in me has helped boost my confidence in myself.

I am also thankful to the legislators, demonstrators, advocates and lobbyists who worked so hard to get The Americans with Disabilities Act passed back in 1990. The next frontier? Bringing that unemployment rate down. Let’s keep working.

My bit about nude modeling is on Oprah –again!

Visit the OWN site for the full clip.

Visit the OWN site for the full clip.

Last month an email popped up in my in box from the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) asking me if anything new has happened in my life since 2001, when I appeared on Oprah’s After the Show segment and spoke about my job modeling nude for art students.

After dozens of email messages and some phone calls and Mike’s photo sharing and my final Skype call with them, well, today I’m on Oprah again! You can link to the Oprah Winfrey Network to watch my original 2001 appearance about nude modeling, hear clips from my Skype interview, and see which of the many, many photos Mike sent that OWN decided to use along with my story. For those of you who want the Cliff Notes version, here’s how they summarize it there:

In 2001, Beth Finke sat in an “Oprah Show” audience and listened to a discussion about a topic particularly meaningful to many men and women: aging gracefully. As researchers and authors on the show discussed everything from wrinkles to workouts, Finke listened intently, but couldn’t quite relate to people’s common concerns. When the taping ended, Finke stood up to explain why.”I’m blind. I lost my sight in my 20s,” Finke said after the show, with cameras still rolling. “I have two things to say about that. One thing is, quit looking in the mirror! … Because as far as I’m concerned, I’m still 26.”

The second piece of advice she shared had to do with living without self-imposed limits. Though losing her sight freed Finke from the pressures of outward appearances, she told Oprah that blindness also cost her quite a bit in the process — she lost her job, the ability to exercise as often and “a lot” of self-esteem. Eventually, though, Finke chose to take back control of her life.

“I have been lifting weights for the last three or four years at home, and I just got a new job a couple of years ago doing, guess what?” Finke said. “I live in a university town and I’m a nude model for the art and design department!”

Oprah almost couldn’t believe Finke’s story, but it was indeed true. “I just modeled yesterday,” Finke said. “The boys were very quiet. The art professor said… ‘I don’t think they’ve ever seen a naked woman in the daylight.'”

Fourteen years after sharing her story, Finke is just as candid. She no longer models nude, but still looks for way that others can learn from her own experience….

…it’s me again. If you want to read the rest of the story, visit the OWN site, and it’s also on Huffington Post.

Mondays with Mike: Little blue pills

I’m old enough to remember when it was illegal to advertise prescription drugs on television. And even if it had been legal, the idea that the commercials would be talking about erectile dysfunction would’ve been a non-starter. As in, on TV? Really? Plus, we wouldn’t have known what erectile dysfunction was.

She's there to help.

She’s there to help.

Of course, a lot’s changed. I’m not arguing it was better then. But it’s not at all clear to me, that when it comes to some things anyway, that it’s any better now.

So we have commercials with bathtubs next to each other and lots of guys with a certain razor stubble of a certain age with women who are of the same certain age but look younger. And the men apparently have a big problem that pills will solve.

The latest round of ads for Viagra has comely women dressed just a button short of trash talking to me, earnestly. As in, if I’m not excited watching this commercial right now, I might have a problem.

“About half of men over 40 have some degree of erectile dysfunction,” says the ad.

Hmm. I wonder if we can define dysfunction, and what the baseline is. Because if the baseline was when I was 16, well, thank God. Because, as Eddie Murphy’s character said in the movie 48 Hours, “I’ve been in prison for three years. My **** gets hard when the wind blows.”

That wasn’t fun. It was crazy, but really, not fun. It’s a lot to deal with for a not yet young-man. So, if that’s the standard, yes, all of we men are experiencing erectile dysfunction. I say bring it on!

More generally, having watched the arc of social change, starting with the brand of feminism that eschewed both bras and makeup, it’s hard to decipher. I mean, it’s cool that men get manicures and pedicures. But it sucks that instead of women’s magazines that obsess on body types and fictional ideals of beauty being put out of business, they seem more popular than ever now, and equivalent men’s publications have sprung up. That was not what I had in mind. Equality of objectification was not the goal.

Oh well.

I feel a breeze.

20 years ago

A deadly heat wave hit Chicago twenty years ago. WBEZ (Chicago Public Media) aired stories about the 1995 heatwave all this week, and when I heard they were looking for personal stories from listeners who’d survived the heat wave I encouraged my niece Janet to send one in. “If WBEZ doesn’t use it, I’ll publish it on our blog. Chicago Public Media’s loss is Safe & Sounds’ gain. Here’s my niece with a guest post about what she was doing 20 years ago.

Janet and her newborn daughter, Anita, 20 years ago.

Janet and her newborn daughter, Anita, 20 years ago.

by Janet May Sterling

During the Heat Wave of 1995, I lived alone in an apartment in Waukegan with a broken air conditioner. I was 25 years old, getting a divorce, and nine months pregnant.

I worked full-time as a Foster Care Worker serving Lake and Cook Counties, and every day I’d see that I was one of many, many who didn’t have working air conditioning. My landlord was sympathetic, but I was on a waiting list for repairs.

So, after work, I would fill my bathtub with ice water and sit in there for hours. I listened to the news on the radio while I was in the tub, and I remember feeling fortunate that I at least had access to finding some relief.

Day after day I’d soak in that tub after work listening to the news on the radio, and day after day more and more people were dying from the heat. Some evenings after my bath I’d head over to Walgreen’s and just walk around the store for an hour or two. The store’s air conditioning was working just fine!

Twenty years later, Anita's hitting jump shots for North Central College's basketball team.

Twenty years later, Anita’s hitting jump shots for North Central College’s basketball team.

I was a very healthy young pregnant woman, and on July 19, 1995, my daughter Anita Lynn Sterling was born. When we came home from the hospital, my apartment was nice and cool. The repairs were done! Today Anita plays basketball on her college team and is majoring in Sports Management.

Anita turns 20 today, and you can read more about her basketball success (and see photos of her in action) on this post her great Uncle Mike wrote about Title IX last year. Janet raised Anita on her own before marrying hardworking fun-loving Mike Czerwinski, and now Justin, Floey and Ray have Anita as a big sister. At twenty years old, Anita is a caring, loving, talented, witty and, dare I say warm young woman we are all proud of. Happy birthday, dear Anita. Happy birthday to you!

How old is old enough to write a memoir?

Memoir Cover

This book would likely have been a lot different if it’d been published in my 20s.

Many of the fledgling memoirists who sign up for my 90-minute Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground workshop at Northwestern Summer Writers Institute on July 30 will be younger than the seniors in the memoir-writing classes I lead in Chicago. When I address groups like this, I can count on one of the writers asking what age you should be before writing a memoir. Can a writer reflect on life experiences without putting some distance on them first?

I don’t know.

With that question in mind, though, an essay in the July 6, 2015 New York Times Sunday Book Review caught my eye. Or, okay, my ear. The woman who wrote the essay had a memoir published when she was 29 years old. She says that in her twenties she was convinced that any event in her life that seemed taboo or inappropriate absolutely must be included in her memoir:

So I shared how, at the age of 9, I made out with a neighborhood companion. How at 15, I implored my boyfriend to have sex. How I stole my mother’s lingerie, and wore it while humping a door frame.

Now, thirteen years after her memoir Dress Codes was published, the author says the tell-all nature of her first book is complicating her life as a parent. “For example, if my middle-school-age daughter ever asks me when I lost my virginity, I have to tell her the truth,” she writes.  “After all, it’s searchable on Google Books.”

The essayist concedes that by definition, younger memoirists do lack perspective, but that whatever they lack in perspective, they “make up in urgency, the sense that here is a story that must be told.” More from her Sunday Book Review essay:

If I’d waited to sprout gray hairs before writing my book, I might have eliminated a handful of excruciating details from my text, to the delight of my parents, ex-boyfriends and a few commenters on But I might also have skirted unpleasant truths in other ways too. Being honest about something troubling or taboo is easier when you have little to lose.


I’m a huge proponent of memoir-writing. I know first-hand that getting life stories down on paper can be therapeutic. I was in my twenties and losing my sight when a social worker suggested I get my thoughts down on paper. Writing proved to be cheap therapy for me at the time. The journal pieces I wrote were a priceless resource years later, when I started composing a memoir.

Long Time, No See, was published when I was in my forties, and reviewers commented on how frank and honest my writing was. The book definitely benefitted from perspective — and lots of editing.

So gee, maybe the answer is sure, go ahead and start a memoir when you’re in your 20s. Just don’t publish it until you’re older.

Mondays with Mike: Here’s stuff that works. Let’s do more of it.

Been cogitating on a bunch of stuff since last weekend, which saw hundreds of thousands of Grateful Dead fans come to our neck of the woods. I started on one topic but it sort of got out of control so I’m backing off and am going to keep it short here.

The upshot is what most of us know, whatever our self-identified political stripe is: politics gets so stupid that we’re never talking about what works and what doesn’t, at least in a rational, evidence-based way. Everything is reduced to symbols, moral finger-wagging, fear, hate, ad hominem attacks—you know the drill.

I think we can agree reducing teen pregnancy is a good thing. Then why not do it?

I think we can agree reducing teen pregnancy is a good thing. Then why not do it?

But there are people working to solve intractable problems—and they’re doing things that seem to be working. Here are articles about two of them:

  • In Colorado, providing young women long-term birth control has cut the rate of teen pregnancy by 40 percent (and reduced abortions by 35 percent). Read this piece in The Washington Post—I did and I also read some other pieces about it, and it doesn’t seem to be an illusion. So, to those squawking about the demise of the traditional family, and abortion, if you really care, you should at least consider this solution.
  • In Utah, The New Yorker reports those crazies out there are reducing homelessness by—drum roll—giving people places to live. Yes, yes, it unnerves all of us who obsess about anyone getting anything free—but read it. It makes perfect sense. Provide some stability up front to a homeless person and that person has a much greater chance of maintaining that stability than they ever do attaining it in the first place. When you’re homeless, it’s tough to solve problems.

These are great efforts that yield long-lasting benefits. To everyone. There’s hope, but we’ve got to neutralize the numbskulls somehow.

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