Archive for the 'writing' Category



Something you should throw away…but you probably never will

A ratty old handmade afghan. A Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original stationary bicycle. A batik flamingo. A collection of broken watches. A 49-year-old steam iron. That list is a small sampling of the precious items the writers in my memoir classes wrote about when I assigned “Something I own that I should throw away…and probably never will.”

There's the Tunturi Executive that lives on. And on.

There’s the Tunturi Executive that lives on. And on.

Writers had all sorts of reasons for keeping their treasures. Kathy grew up in Kentucky, and when she moved to Chicago as a young adult she realized she was afraid to ride her bicycle in city traffic. “But a stationery bike! A Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original! That could be the answer!” With a convenient bookrack on the handlebars, she was sure she could shape up her “post-4-pregnancies-body” while simultaneously upgrading her “literary bona fides.”

You can guess the rest. For nearly 50 years now, Kathy’s Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original has sat idle in one room after another. eBay calls the Tunturi Executive Ergometer W Original “vintage” and offers one for $50. “But eBay will never get mine!” Kathy declared in her essay. “It isn’t exactly new, but it certainly isn’t used! I will use it someday. Just call me a cock-eyed optimist.”

After going on a special tour of Chicago’s Field Museum and seeing thousands upon thousands of relics stashed away in “huge mausoleum-like chests of drawers where no human is likely to accidentally see them,” Al reasoned it is absolutely fine for him to squirrel away dozens of old dead watches in a drawer at home. He wears his father’s elegant Bulova Watch from time to time. “It’s accurate at least twice a day.”

Mary Lou’s brown, rust and orange-colored afghan was made by a cousin who contracted polio when the two of them were ten. Her cousin Susan wore a back brace and used a wheelchair, but she had enough mobility in her hands to take up crocheting. Susan was especially fond of Mary Lou’s father, and he was the first to receive one of her handmade afghans. “A great fuss was made at the presentation,” Mary Lou wrote. “So now you understand why I will never discard that raggedy afghan.”

Lorraine’s essay described the two-foot tall shocking pink flamingo on black silk her husband gave her when their first baby girl was born and said it still reeks of the ‘80’s, cigarette smoke and all. “If it had been a jacket instead of a wall-hanging, it would be on sale at Etsy Vintage for $32.” Lorraine’s husband died when their baby girl was seven years old. “Flamingos no longer decorate cool bars and chic eateries or loft apartments.” Lorraine wrote. “They are as scarce as they are in real life. I still have one.”

When Regan’s baby Joe was born, her mother gifted her with an iron so she could iron the baby’s clothes. “My mother, Agnes, went to church at the ironing board,” Regan wrote, describing how ironing had calmed her mother’s nerves – and relieved her mother’s hangovers – when Regan was growing up. “As she conquered the wrinkles at hand her furrowed malcontented brow smoothed out,” Regan wrote. Wondering why she’s held on to the iron her mother gave her all those years ago? Find out by reading Regan’s essay in its entirety. Regan publishes her essays on her own Back Story blog.

 

 

Vidal Sassoon

Bob Eisenberg, author of today's guest post.

Bob Eisenberg, author of today’s guest post.

In my previous post I mentioned that one writer chose Vidal Sassoon’s death as one that had made him particularly sad. A Blog follower left a comment saying she’d love to read that essay, and writer Bob Eisenberg graciously gave us permission to publish it here.

Bob Eisenberg is still styling hair after 60 years in the business, but he takes an afternoon off every week to join our Monday Lincoln Park Village memoir class. Here’s his essay.

by Bob Eisenberg

Sitting next to my favorite celebrity at a Beverly Hills hotel bar was one of the most exciting experiences in my life. I was in California for a workshop, and when I saw him there sitting alone I walked up to him and said how much I appreciated his talents. “I’ve followed your teaching for years,” I said.

He asked me to have a seat at the bar and have a drink. I was overwhelmed. This man was the best-known celebrity in the hair styling industry: Vidal Sassoon.

We talked for the longest time about the salon industry, our exciting salon businesses, and then went on to talk about philosophy and spirituality. I told him he was my mentor and that I’d been following his teachings for many years.

My hair styling story started years before when I was 20 and just got out of the army. I took my girlfriend to fabulous Vicks beauty salon, and while I was attentively watching the stylist cut her hair, a flash went through me. “I could do that,” I said to myself.

I had been drawing faces of classmates all my life and got disciplined in high school for doodling instead of paying attention to the teacher. It would be exciting to style hair around a face. The next day I enrolled in a neighborhood beauty school.

As I was getting close to graduating, my neighborhood friend Lenny Messeli came up to me and asked, “Bob, what are you going to do after we graduate?”

”Just look for a job,” I said with a shrug.

Lenny said his uncle had a beauty salon called The Magic Touch in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. “He wants to sell it for $1500,” Lenny said. “We could buy it for $750 a piece and be partners.”

”I’m just out of school!” I told Lenny. “I don’t even know how to do hair yet.”

Lenny had an answer. “My uncle say’s you don’t have to know how to do hair at his salon,” he said. “All you need is a good joke, and they’ll keep coming back.”

So Lenny and I became partners. After two years of joke telling and $3.50 hair cuts, I became burnt out. I saw an ad in The Hairdressers Journal that advertised a Vidal Sassoon workshop. It said I could learn a method of hair styling that doesn’t require any ruffing, teasing, hair spray or heavy gels. I attended the workshop and found my place in the salon industry. After a number of work shops I discovered a new approach to styling hair. I attended Vidal Sassoon workshops all over the country. Soon I put a sign up in the window of our salon:

Bob’s hair cut and style $25.00 including personal consultation.

I was on my way to becoming a real high end stylist, someone who could design a hair style according to someone’s life style, bone structure and face shape. A hair style that requires very low maintenance.

Vidal Sassoon has been a powerful influence for the entire hairstyling industry, but especially for me. I will always be grateful for the direction he has guided me.

Write about a celebrity’s death that made you really sad

Mike’s post last month about using Facebook to mourn for Prince motivated me to ask the writers in the memoir classes I lead to write about a celebrity’s death that made them really sad. “The celebrity can be an author, an artist, an athlete, a musician, an actor, an actress, a political figure, anyone who is famous and died,” I told them, urging them to write about themselves and their circumstances. “If the person you’re writing about is famous, your readers will already know about them,” I said. What I was after in their essays was an idea of how old they were when that celebrity died, what was going on in their worlds at the time, why the loss was so significant to them and how they grieved.

My downtown class, the one with Wanda in it, is taking a few months off. Writers in my other three memoir classes came back with essays about Vidal Sassoon, Grace Kelly, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Wiley Post, Will Rogers, Van Johnson, Mary Travers of “Peter, Paul and Mary.”

Two of the younger writers wrote about the death of musician John Lennon. Michael admitted that John hadn’t always been his favorite Beatle. “He seemed aloof, mean, and sarcastic.” He wrote that the “seemingly cheerful Paul and George” were more his type until later on, when he realized the Beatle’s songs he loved to play on his guitar were Lennon songs.

Lorraine fell in love with John Lennon the first time she saw him on TV. “I wouldn’t say John and I were intimate,” she wrote., “I was only 13.” She confessed she never liked Yoko Ono. “I was jealous,” she conceded, describing John Lennon’s murder in 1980 like this. “He was walking down the street with Ono. Of course she didn’t save him.”

For one student in class, FDR was THE PRESIDENT.

For one student in class, FDR was THE PRESIDENT.

Kathy wrote about John Lennon, too, but she wasn’t a teenager when she first laid eyes on him. “My lack of knowledge of pop culture is a monumental failing. But even I knew about The Beatles!” In 1980, Kathy was the mother of four and the volunteer Executive Director of the Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control. “Our political action was sorely hampered by the small size and homogeneity of our membership,” she wrote. “And then Mark Chapman pulled out a handgun and fired four bullets into the body of John Lennon.” Chicago scheduled a memorial event eight days later at Lincoln Park’s Cricket Hill.

The Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control created bumper stickers that said Imagine a world, along with an arrow pointing to the words without handguns, and volunteers handed out flyers with information on how to order a bumper sticker for a dollar. From Kathy’s essay:

December 15 was clear and cold. 3000 Lennon mourners gathered for the program and the 10 minutes of silence that was observed around the world. We handed out our flyers as participants departed. In the days that followed, hundreds of orders with crumpled dollar bills arrived in my office.

Membership information accompanied the bumper stickers and a surprising number responded. Some of the respondents became the organization’s most effective leaders. Diversified and energized, the Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control organized their first annual Walk Against Gun Violence in 1982 as an effort to educate people and encourage widespread advocacy efforts. “I think John Lennon would have approved of us,” Kathy wrote.

In the end, more writers wrote about presidents than musicians. Most presidential essays were written about John F. Kennedy. One writer was in Paris when JFK died, another was supposed to celebrate her first wedding anniversary on November 22, 1963, and a writer who worked at Life Magazine accompanied a photographer to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. to cover the president’s burial there. Another was in high school when he got the news. “When he died, everything slowed down,” he wrote. ”We watched on color TVs, some of us, but it all seemed to be in black and white.”

Hugh said he was moved by the death of President Kennedy, “but I was an adult in my 30s then, and I understood what it was all about.” He was only 13 when President Roosevelt died in 1945, however. “I had never dealt with the death of a famous person” he wrote. “For me, Roosevelt was THE PRESIDENT. He was first elected in the year I was born and went on to be elected for an unprecedented four terms. I knew who he was. I heard his distinctive voice on the radio and saw his big grin in newsreels.”

Mary Lou was playing hopscotch with friends the day FDR died and knew something was wrong when she came home and found her mother at the front entrance of their Chicago two-flat. “We never used the front door unless company came,” she wrote. “So I was very surprised when I saw Mommy at the front door of 4523, still wearing her apron and using it to pat her eyes.”

Regan wrote about a president, too, but not one who died. She’d worked on Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, and when he won, she relocated from Chicago to D.C. to work in his administration. “In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected,” she wrote. “Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next seven years.”

Regan turned on the radio in her DuPont Circle townhouse one morning in 1995 and learned Jerry Garcia had died overnight. “I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my false world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia.”

Regan started sobbing again when her friend picked her up for work that day. From her essay:

Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat of don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

 

Regan Burke started a blog of her own after she joined the memoir-writing class I lead in Printer’s Row last year. You can read her entire Jerry Garcia essay , along with other fabulous essays she’s written — at BackStory Essays – Short Essays from Chicago Writers.

 

Everyone tells me she takes sensational photos

When I write about the older adults in the memoir classes I lead in Chicago, I never describe what the writers look like. Now you can find out for yourselves!

Our day at the opera: That's me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene Schweitzer.

Our day at the opera: That’s me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene.

Darlene Schweitzer, a writer in the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead in downtown Chicago, played around with something called Adobe Voice and came up with a 60-second photo collage of writers in that class. Darlene narrates her Please Make Dreams Come True collage, and even if, like me, you can’t see the photos, it’s worth linking to her Adobe Voice project just to hear her sweet accent.

Today is the last day to take a minute and vote for the “Me, Myself & I” writers in those photos to win the Lyric Opera of Chicago contest — voting ends at midnight tonight. We’ve been stuck at fifth place for the past week, and I’m afraid that’s probably where we’ll stay. Sigh.

Eyebrows up! The whole experience didn’t cost us a thing, four writers from class got VIP treatment from Lyric Opera staff the day Wanda and Audrey were filmed for the video that promotes memoir-writing, the contest inspired Darlene to learn to use adobe Voice, and it motivated me to finally, finally dip my toes into the Twitter world to tweet for votes.

Once I hit the “publish” button on this blog post, I’ll head over to ChicagoVoices and vote for “Me, Myself and I” one last time. You never know — maybe all the first-place Croatians will be celebrating May Day today and unable to make it to the site for last-minute voting!

Bennett, the Brailliant, and my visit to Tess Corners Elementary in Wisconsin

Last week my Seeing Eye dog and I met a second-grader I’ve been hearing about for years. Bennett is a student at Tess Corners Elementary School in Wisconsin, and Whitney and I spent the entire day at his school Friday.

That's me and Bennett.

That’s Bennett and me. He’s holding a Braille copy of Safe & Sound.

I first heard of Bennett back in 2013, when his mom wrote to tell me how much her five-year-old enjoyed reading the Braille version of my book Safe & Sound. From her note:

“Bennett was so excited about the book. He told me, “I loved that book you got me. It’s a true story, mom. And no one ever writes true stories for kids about people who are blind like me.”

A stellar review — from an expert.

I kept up with Bennett and his mom via email ever since, and in 2014 I wrote a post about Bennett and his parents traveling from Wisconsin to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to have Dr. Ken Nischal, one of the world’s foremost children’s eye specialists, try a cornea transplant in Bennett’s right eye.

Bennett told me Friday that his vision improved in his right eye after the surgery. “But just for a little while.” Whitney and I got to his Wisconsin school just in time to meet Bennett in person — he’s returning to the University of Pittsburgh this week for more tests.

Bennett and I spent the first hour of the day together with an older boy who has visual impairments — Michael came in special on a short field trip from his middle school. They both had questions about Whitney, and I let each of them inspect her harness and take a few steps with her. After that, we were off to the first presentation.

Tess Corners is a happy school. The teachers expect a lot from their students, and they enjoy their work — I heard smiles in their voices. Their principal taught first and second grades for decades before accepting an administrative position there, and she told me she still misses teaching sometimes. The school librarian had read Safe & Sound out loud to every class before Whitney and I arrived, and with Bennett at their school, the kids at Tess Corners already know a lot about blindness.

They still had questions, though. Bennett and Michael were at my side for the presentation we gave to all the second graders (including Bennett’s second-grade class), and during the Q&A, I answered each question first, then passed it on to my young assistants.

“Can you see at all?” one girl asked. “When I open my eyes, all I see is the color black,” I told her. Michael said, “I can see some things if I hold them really close.” Bennett said, “I can kind of see light, but everything is blurry…like a cloud.”

Another child asked “How do you read if you can’t see?” I described audio books and my talking computer, Michael touched the screen on his iPad so we could hear VoiceOver, and Bennett showed off his Brailliant, a refreshable Braille device.

That's the Brilliant device Bennett uses.

That’s the Brailliant device Bennett uses.

Michael eventually had to return to middle school, but Bennett stayed in front with me long enough to read aloud to his classmates from the Braille version of Safe & Sound. His composure and confidence was remarkable — a credit to his fellow students, his family, the teachers and staff at Tess Corners, and, especially, to Bennett himself.

Bennett left with his second-grade class after that, and Whitney and I presented to the other grade levels on our own. I met up with Bennett again one last time during his lunch break — he wanted to show me how to use a Brailliant.

A Brailliant is an electronic device people who are blind use to read with their hands. The Brailliant transforms the words on a computer screen into small plastic or metal pins that move up and down on a flat panel attached to the computer. Bennett explained how he places his fingers on the panel to read the Braille characters formed by those pins, and then demonstrated by reading a line of text out loud. I’d never seen, errr, felt, such a thing before.

My Braille skills are poor. Bennett used the keys to tap out secret messages and pass the device my way so I could read them in Braille. He couldn’t help but notice — and chuckle — when I struggled to decipher his big words.

Bennett dumbed it down then and used shorter words. He placed my hands on the keys to show me how to compose and send a Braille note back. The blind leading the blind for sure. We exchanged “refreshable Braille notes” for the rest of the lunch hour.

Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Bennett uses VoiceOver to check his school assignments, and he listens to audio books sometimes, too. But he and his teachers know that if he doesn’t learn to read Braille, he won’t learn to spell correctly. He won’t know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on. Bennett has already tackled a lot of this stuff.

It’s true I’m not proficient in Braille, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I label CDs, file folders, ID cards, buttons on computers and other electronic devices. My Braille skills are useful on elevators, too, and it was rewarding to know enough Braille to exchange secret messages Friday with that bright, curious, cute — and patient — second-grade boy I’d been hearing about all these years.

Oh no! The writers in “Me, Myself and I” have fallen to fifth place inChicagoVoices, Lyric Opera of Chicago,

The “Me, Myself and I” memoir-writing class I lead for the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging is in fifth place in a contest put on by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and they need to be in third place by the end of the day Sunday, May 1. The top three community groups who get the most votes will have their stories made into an “original music theater work” with the support of Lyric Opera staff and artists.

Help them sneak into third place. Vote now – you can vote once a day every day24 hours until midnight May 1, 2016.

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about here, I’ll reblog a post from a few weeks ago. Thanks for your help, and I’m sticking to my promise — when they win, I’ll invite you to the opening in the fall.

Dissatisfied with candidates this year? Vote for Wanda instead

That's Audrey Mitchell from class. Click to vote!

That’s Audrey Mitchell from class. Click to vote!

The writers in the Me, Myself and I class I lead in downtown Chicago entered a contest. If they win, the Lyric Opera of Chicago will help them produce an opera about the class!

Only problem? Writers in that class aren’t exactly computer savvy, and to win, they need fans to vote online. That’s where you Safe & Sound blog followers can help.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with the writers.

First, some background. Earlier this year, Lyric Opera of Chicago launched a project called Chicago Voices. Lyric Unlimited asked community groups to submit applications for an opportunity to have their stories told opera-style. I brought the information to our Me, Myself, and I class in January, and writers put their heads together to answer the questions on the form. From a Lyric Opera press release:

After receiving numerous applications showcasing diverse, compelling and community-focused stories, a panel from the Chicago Public Library diligently reviewed and scored each group based on a predetermined set of criteria. Eight dynamic groups have been selected to move forward as semifinalists, each of which will have video profiles featured online for public voting beginning today.

Me, Myself, and I is one of the eight semi-finalists chosen, and now you can vote online for a 90-second video of writers Wanda Bridgeforth and Audrey Mitchell describing our class.

Three groups will move on to the next round and receive 16 weeks of classes from professionals at the Lyric to create original songs and scripts. Artistic support from Lyric Unlimited will help the finalist present its “fully-realized production” to the public in the fall.

Can’t you just imagine? Ninety-five-year-old Wanda as diva…

In order for this to happen, though, you’ve gotta vote for the Me, Myself and I 90-second video. After you vote, please share the link with your friends and family. Members of the public can vote once every day24 hours for the story they find most intriguing, and we need you to do just that to stand a chance against the young computer-savvy whipper-snappers we’re competing against. Please vote! Your reward? When they win, I’ll invite you to the opening in the fall.

Dissatisfied with candidates this year? Vote for Wanda instead

The writers in the Me, Myself and I class I lead in downtown Chicago entered a contest. If they win, the Lyric Opera of Chicago will help them produce an opera about the class!

Only problem? Writers in that class aren’t exactly computer savvy, and to win, they need fans to vote online. That’s where you Safe & Sound blog followers can help.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with the writers.

First, some background. Earlier this year, Lyric Opera of Chicago launched a project called Chicago Voices. Lyric Unlimited asked community groups to submit applications for an opportunity to have their stories told opera-style. I brought the information to our Me, Myself, and I class in January, and writers put their heads together to answer the questions on the form. From a Lyric Opera press release:
After receiving numerous applications showcasing diverse, compelling and community-focused stories, a panel from the Chicago Public Library diligently reviewed and scored each group based on a predetermined set of criteria. Eight dynamic groups have been selected to move forward as semifinalists, each of which will have video profiles featured online for public voting beginning today.

Me, Myself, and I is one of the eight semi-finalists chosen, and now you can vote online for a 90-second video of writers Wanda Bridgeforth and Audrey Mitchell describing our class.

Three groups will move on to the next round and receive 16 weeks of classes from professionals at the Lyric to create original songs and scripts. Artistic support from Lyric Unlimited will help the finalist present its “fully-realized production” to the public in the fall.

Can’t you just imagine? Ninety-five-year-old Wanda as diva…

In order for this to happen, though, you’ve gotta vote for the Me, Myself and I 90-second video. ?After you vote, please share the link with your friends and family. Members of the public can vote once every day for the story they find most intriguing, and we need you to do just that to stand a chance against the young computer-savvy whipper-snappers we’re competing against. Please vote! Your reward? When we win, we’ll invite you to the opening in the fall.


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