Write about something in your closet

December 15, 201710 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, teaching memoir, writing prompts

Writers in my classes who are downsizing into smaller apartments or senior living centers come to class musing about all the stuff they’ve accumulated over the years. What do they leave behind, I wonder. How do they decide?

I also wonder what writing assignment I might give to prompt them to answer those questions. Wonder no more! Sheila, a writer in my Wednesday class, emailed me a while back with a list of prompts she wanted me to assign. If you’re blind, can something still catch your eye? Maybe not. So, one of Sheila’s prompts catches my ear: “Write about Something in Your Closet.”

I like to use prompts that are vague and open to all sorts of possibilities, and this one would work in three different instances:

  1. Writers who had moved lately could tell us about an item that passed the audition and made the trip to their new closets.
  2. Writers still at home could write about something they’ve stowed away, and why they still have it.
  3. Anyone in class with an urge to divulge family secrets could write about skeletons.

I assigned the prompt to all my December classes, and 97-year-old Wanda responded instantly. “Any of you remember the George Carlin skit called Stuff?” she laughed. “We all need a place for our stuff!”

I told writers who were uninspired by the prompt to go home, open a closet door and take a look. Pat did exactly that, opening her essay the next week describing herself standing in front of the closet in her entry hall and hesitating. “My closet is such a nag! If I open the four imposing bi-fold doors a big red neon light is going to start flashing, ‘To Do…To Do.’”

Carol hoped to avoid the nags from the closet in her condominium by hiring a residential professional organizing service to help her downsize. She moved to a smaller apartment six weeks ago, and the organizer was there to help her unpack as well. “Once again, with my daughter assisting, she was a whirlwind.” Dozens of boxes disappeared in nothing flat, she said. Dishes and pots and pans were all stacked in the right cupboards. The organizer also managed to cram everything from the large wardrobe containers into the only clothes closet in Carol’s new apartment. “Summer clothes are mixed with winter ones, longer items on one side, shorter things on the other…everything that I kept has to be somewhere in there, but where?” she asks. “What’s in my closet? I wish I knew!”

Mary moved recently, too, and wrote of how the closet in her new place haunts her at night now. ” I can almost hear my closet crying – it is so empty!” she wrote, explaining what had gone on once they’d decided to move. “I saw beloved old 78 records from my college years fly off into oblivion, years of Nativity scenes collected from all over the world escape back into other houses, stacks of papers disappear into shredding machines, and sets of dishes and silver and table linens vanish out the door.” Mary described the contents of her new lonely closet as “the belongings I have saved from the moving van, the charitable resale stores, the electronics recycling center, the backyard trash bin, the book dealers, my new best friend Phil at UPS, the far flung homes of our children, and the on-line auction clutches of Everything But the House.”

Bob and his wife Linda are still in the condo they’ve lived in for years, and he opened his essay with a decree. “There should be a marriage law that all closets should be divided equally between husband and wife,” he wrote. “Why is it that my wife’s closet is more than two-and-a-half times bigger than mine? Linda has clothes for all seasons, and if you ask her, she’ll tell you there are at least seven or eight seasons in Chicago.” Linda’s closet floors are covered with shoes, but he can count the things on his tiny closet floor in one hand: tool kit, box of hair styling equipment, shoe shine stand and a small stool where he sits to put on his shoes and socks.

That is, until Linda got a new office chair and made plans to take her old overstuffed heavy desk chair to their summer place in Indiana. “But in the meantime, where do you think her old chair is sitting?” he chuckled as he read out loud in class. “Well, it’s sitting right in front of the little stool I used to sit on to put on my shoes and socks.”

As for Sheila, the writer who’d suggested the prompt? She wrote about a uniform from her working days. “I’ve kept my Air Canada ticket agent uniform in the back of my closet FOR 34 YEARS,” she wrote. “I’m proud of my airline career. It was my identity.” Perhaps she can carve out a new identity now as the student who provides writing prompts for her memoir teacher. This was a good one!

Mondays with Mike: Take these rewards points and…

December 11, 201710 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, travel
Photo of a pile of rewards program cards.

Please. Make it stop!

I hate coupons.

I hate loyalty programs—whether it’s frequent flier programs or little punch cards that you have to carry around so you get that 10th cup of coffee free. I hate cash back schemes, mileage cards, hotel points. I hate all of it.

I know some people enjoy clipping every coupon, taking advantage of every buy-one-get-one free deal—it’s kind of a game for them.

It all just aggravates me. Save the money it costs to run the freaking program. Cut the price for everybody. Shut up and quit trying to manipulate me.

But I’m not immune to it. When it comes to flying, we’re enrolled. We’re in the Kimpton Hotel Karma rewards program. I get emails from loyalty programs I can’t even remember—they date from work travel in bygone days.

Even when we have a lot of points, enough to do something free, I hate them. Go online. See how much it costs in dollars. See how much it costs in rewards points. If we fly on this day and that time, yes, we have enough points. But really, it’s not that expensive: maybe we should just pay dollars and save the points? Then there’s a fee to use the damn points.  Headache builds.

Same thing with hotels. Hours on the freaking computer figuring it out. I’m absolutely sure that if we all put some small value on our time that we’d discover tracking down these deals is a net loss.

This little fit of mine was triggered by a bar stool conversation the other night with some of our old bar stool pals from the now defunct Hackney’s. We were at another neighborhood haunt called the South Loop Club—it ’s an old, old school joint with Formica tables and Formica bartop. It’s clean, but nothing’s been updated for decades—except it has the ubiquitous flat screens with sporting events running all the time. But. it’s quiet. WXRT—an FM music station that’s an institution in Chicago—plays at a low volume in the background, and conversation happens without yelling.

Anyway, Hackney’s isn’t the only local institution to have closed in the past year. Blackie’s, another bar/restaurant—one that had been in the hood forever—closed its doors a few months ago. When it did, we also lost a great place for weekend breakfast. There are lots of other places around here, but they’re all overcrowded, loud, trendy and expensive. (Have I said, “Get off my lawn!” yet?)

The friends we were with Saturday night are part of a neighborhood group that breakfasted at Blackie’s religiously every Saturday morning. A really terrific, comforting ritual.

The group auditioned a bunch of breakfast replacement joints, and happily, they have found another old-school place—a little farther away than Blackie’s—that has somehow survived a wave of gentrification. It’s called Eppel’s.

Anyway, our friends Kyle and Cathrine talked about the breakfast they’d had that morning. They liked the food and the folks that worked there. And they have apparently established themselves as regulars, because, they said, on the way out, everyone in the party was handed a cup of coffee in a to-go cup. “It’s on us,” said the manager.

Now that’s a loyalty program.

Guest post by Regan Burke: Turning feelings into theater

December 6, 2017CommentsPosted in guest blog, memoir writing, writing

I’m pleased to have Regan Burke back with us as a guest blogger today. A civil rights activist, Regan is a regular at the memoir-writing class I lead here in Printer’s Row and has taken an interest in writing poetry now, too. Read on and you’ll find out why.

by Regan Burke

Late last month I was one of twelve adults over age 50 from Skyline Village who gathered with 25 Lookingglass Young Ensemble artists in the basement of the Driehaus Museum for a storytelling workshop with poet/activist/teacher Kevin Coval.

Some of us Skyline Villagers arrived at the 19th-century-Gilded-Age mansion on Chicago’s North Side early enough to poke around its lavish rooms before the workshop started. The 4th-through-12th-graders arrived all at once and were far more captivated with Kevin Coval than with the mansion’s treasures.

Kevin Coval has been well-known among young Chicagoans for years –he’s a co-founder of Young Chicago Authors and Artistic Director of Louder Than A Bomb, the country’s largest and oldest annual hip-hop poetry festival. Last spring, the release of Kevin’s book A People’s History of Chicago put him on the national map as well, especially after he appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

Kevin opened the workshop with an introduction of 19-year-old Sammy Ortega, who recited the poem he performed for his first place finish in the 2017 Louder Than A Bomb contest. Sammy’s poem about his experience in a Chicago military high school left us with jaw-dropping admiration for its truth-telling about life in the city. Kevin read one of his own poems from A People’s History of Chicago, too. The poems they both read told stories using objects in everyday life, and that’s exactly what we were about to do in our workshop. Kevin and Sammy asked us to write our favorite:

  • number
  • day of the week
  • music
  • nostalgic item
  • smell
  • taste

Then Kevin asked us to come up with a favorite place. Who is in that place? What conversations take place there?

Photo of workshop participants.

Kevin instructed us to start writing a story based on any one word or phrase in our lists. “Don’t worry about beginnings or endings, punctuation, grammar, or rhyming – just write.”

The basement abruptly came to a halt. Mechanical systems hushed. Museum staffers stopped talking. Traffic noise ceased. Writers dove into their papers, heads down, pens charging down their pages. Some writers finished fast, put their pens down and silently waited for the rest.

Some, like me, furiously wrote until the end (and beyond). I tried to capture every last morsel of thought on that paper—as if creativity were about to slip through my fingers and walk out the door. No one asked for help or sighed in exasperation—a tribute not only to Kevin’s generous teaching but to his belief in us, all of us, as storytellers.

After 15 minutes we broke into groups of three to collaborate on our poems. Then Kevin gathered us back together to recite our works of art. The room exploded with words. Revealing stories about baking with grandmothers, cruising down Lake Shore Drive, mourning dead cats, eating bagels. We elders were surprised to feel a sense of connection to the teenagers’ thoughts of feeling marginalized, voiceless, unnoticed. In a short two hours time we turned those feelings into theater – laughs and drama and tears and joy, all in the basement workroom of an old mansion on a Monday night at the beginning of winter in our hometown.

The stories we created will be performed at Lookingglass Theater, 821 North Michigan Avenue on Monday, December 11at 6:30 pm. It’s free and open to the public. Join us! I guarantee you’ll be charmed. If not, see me afterwards at the (free) refreshment table and I’ll refund your money! Space is limited, so please RSVP by email or phone 773.477.9257 (x193).

Mondays with Mike: Talking about the plumbing

December 4, 20172 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

In these extremely divisive and dysfunctional times, I’m trying to maintain ongoing conversation with a few friends who have markedly different views on things than I do. It’s worth the effort—even though it’s really hard sometimes. At this particular time, with what I consider to be an wholly un-American tax bill ready to become reality, it’s really hard. But it’s really worth it.

Photo of Mike's dad and Mike's uncles, in uniform, during WWII.

I don’t think my dad (left) or his brothers George and David would be happy with our current direction.

Because inevitably, I find at least some common ground that I didn’t know existed. That my more conservative friends and I are irked by many of the same troubling things, and that we agree on what we’d like to see happen.

This happens most often when we leave out the discussion of particular politicians or public figures. When we don’t name-call or generalize about rich people or Hollywood or whatever. It’s when we have the courage to talk about what we really think rather than spout bullet points somebody on TV or radio feeds us.

Our friend Greg puts it this way: “We never talk about the plumbing anymore.”

His point: We just can’t talk about basic policies and problem solving without piling on a lot of ideological baggage. So we can’t, for example, talk about reducing corporate income taxes (that’s not progressive) while closing loopholes (that’s not pro-business), and have a discussion about what that would look like.

I think all the newsy cable channels make things worse—I don’t watch any of them anymore. They get rich off us, and I don’t really think one is much better than the other, though I’m supposed to. I get really angry and really dejected without their help. I look at the photo of my dad and his brothers taken when they were overseas during World War II, and I feel compelled to silently apologize for letting them down.

Don’t ever forget this

December 3, 201719 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, politics

I have the best job in Chicago. Four times a week an adorable dog leads me to a quiet room and falls asleep at my feet for an hour or so while I listen to older adults read the stories of their lives.

Only bad part of the job? Sometimes aging gets the best of my writers. And loss is inevitable, I know that.

But I don’t like it.

Anna Nessy Perlberg with her best friend, Brady (photo by Mark Perlberg).

Anna Nessy Perlberg died last Thursday. I’ve written about Anna here before, and Mike has, too. We were both in awe of her.

Anna had been in my Lincoln Park Thursday memoir-writing class ever since it started in 2011. Listening to her tell her life story bit by bit each week for six years was a privilege. Becoming her friend? That was an honor. Our friendship came with fringe benefits, too: every time we met for lunch or at an event, and before each weekly class, she’d greet me with a sweet “My dear, my dear” and a double-cheek kiss.

Anna was born in Czechoslovakia. Her father studied law and served under Czechoslovakia’s first president. Her mother, Julia Nessy, performed widely throughout Europe during the 1920s as a lyric soprano. Little Anna must have really been listening when her mother rehearsed at home in Prague – Anna’s voice could sound like soft velvet, smooth and comforting, when she read essays out loud. “The young republic prospered, it’s first president, Thomas Masaryk, set a tone of high-minded humanism,” Anna explained in an essay about her birthplace. “The economy grew, the arts flourished, and the mix of cultures–Czech, German, and Jewish–made the capital, Prague, a rich center of European life.”

Czechoslovakia’s First Republic lasted only twenty years before Hitler’s army invaded. Week after week the Thursday writers and I heard Anna’s recollections of Prague, and then her life in America after their family left Czechoslovakia. She wrote from her nine-year-old point of view when describing waking up one morning and seeing her beloved city overrun by outsiders. Cafés empty. Soldiers outnumbering citizens. Kissing the family home goodbye. Boarding the train. Frightening questions from the Gestapo. Close calls with German officials. Help from strangers. A stop in London. Ellis Island And, finally, a new life in New York City, where nine-year-old Anna treasured her little transistor radio, tucking it under her covers to listen to the Hit Parade every night, doing all she could to become an American girl.

Listening to each other share life stories in memoir classes every week forms strong bonds among writers in my classes, and it’s comforting for all of us to know Anna’s stories will live on. She is the first writer from any of my classes to have contracted a literary agent, and in 2016 The House in Prague: How a Stolen House Helped an Immigrant Girl Find Her Way Home was published by Golden Alley Press. Some of you met Anna when she appeared at a Printers Row Lit Fest session this past June with Wanda Bridgeforth, Nancy Sayre and me to tout memoir-writing.

I’ll leave you here with an excerpt from The House in Prague that describes Anna’s arrival here in 1939. Anna Nessy Perlberg became a proud American with a strong interest in politics and social justice that continued her entire life, and this passage might explain where that all came from:

We stand together at the railing and watch as the harbor comes closer and closer. Mother lifts me up high to see the Statue of Liberty as clearly as possible. She says with a kind of fierceness, “Don’t ever forget this.”

Thank you, my dear Anna. I won’t ever forget you.