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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 education@lookingglasstheatre.org 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.

Guest post: Papa’s black leather jacket

November 29, 20177 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing

Here’s one last essay I want to share from the “The Best thing I Ever Bought, Borrowed or Stole” assignment I gave to my memoir-writing classes. This one is written by Michael Graff, who grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Flossmoor. The “Pink House” he refers to in his story is their family’s vacation home near Lake Michigan.

by Michael Graff

I didn’t buy it, I didn’t steal it. I must have borrowed it from my brother, Phil.

It was our grandfather’s black leather jacket. He’d given it to my brother, but when he went off to college, Phil left it behind. That’s when I borrowed it. Actually, I commandeered it.

The leather didn’t have the original shine nor the chrome hardware of a biker’s jacket. It didn’t have patches that said, “Hell’s Angel’s.” It had a narrow cloth collar and cuffs. The coat of a working man.

Photo of the author in a black leather jacket, sitting on the ground in front of his Dodge Dart.

Michael Graff in front of his 1966 Dodge Dart, sporting his black leather jacket.

Poppa told me he bought the jacket when he was 18. It was in decent shape with little wear on the elbows and cuffs. Seasoned, it had a faded look, but had years of life left in it.

I liked Papa’s jacket. It added a certain toughness to my appearance. It had an understated ruggedness that wasn’t intimidating nor confrontational, but also wasn’t the look of Flossmoor.

Poppa bought the jacket in 1918. It was over fifty years old when I obtained it. Phil saw me wearing it, but he never wanted it back. Maybe it fit me better. I wore it constantly from my teenage years until the jacket had its seventieth birthday.

That’s when the leather finally crumbled.

I couldn’t part with it. The coat remained on a coatrack in my office. The summer humidity allowed mold to fester on its sleeves. Even my elderly grandfather admonished me as to why I kept the old thing. He shrugged and said, “I suppose it holds some sentimental value.” By then he was in his late eighties.

What could I do with it? Goodwill wouldn’t take it. The trash heap seemed heartless and too disloyal toward a garment that had kept generations of my family warm. Burial seemed appropriate. I’d bring my beloved jacket to Pink House where it would degrade in our yard. The leather would serve as nutrients for our plants and trees. The jacket would remain in a place I loved forever, and someday one of my progeny would dig in the garden, find the zipper and wonder from whence it came.

But then the coat disappeared. In the nineties, Graff Valve and Fitting’s had it’s offices rebuilt. We moved into temporary space. My grandfather’s coat was moved into the warehouse, where I assumed it would remain on the old coat tree. When the reconstruction was finished, the jacket was missing.

At first I didn’t give it too much thought. Periodically, I’d wonder where it was, but I was certain it would turn up. After Papa died, I searched the warehouse for it. No luck.

Part of me still wants to find it. Occasionally, I’ll give a half hearted search, but I doubt it will ever turn up.

Another part of me is content in the knowledge that it’s lost in my warehouse because my grandfather is lost to me now, too. He loved our business and warehouse, but he never saw Pink House. I’m content his jacket vanished into space he loved.

Mondays with Mike: There but for the grace…

November 27, 20173 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, parenting a child with special needs, politics
Photo of Gus in his Badgers t-shirt.

We’re thankful Gus is happy up in Wisconsin.

We had a two-turkey Thanksgiving, with a different set of great friends on two consecutive nights. I am thankful for, among other things, the extra notches on my belt.

Of course I’m thankful for a lot more. The aforesaid friends, my nephew Aaron and his children, Beth and her million-member family, living two L stops away from White Sox park, a great sounding stereo, the list goes on and on.

In the background, always, there is thankfulness for the people in Watertown, Wisconsin, at Bethesda Lutheran Communities. They house and care for our son, Gus—and for lots and lots of others with developmental disabilities. And I’m thankful that my fellow Americans have deemed Gus and people like Gus worthy of our care. That we all take heed to the idea that the measure of our society is how we care for the most vulnerable.

But in the shadow of that thankfulness is searing fear and smothering dread. Fear that the rug will be pulled out from under Gus and his housemates—a real possibility if some have their way—and dread that we simply wouldn’t know what to do if that happened. I’m in relatively good health and reasonably fit—but I struggle to get Gus in and out of his wheelchair these days, let alone in and out of a shower or a car seat.

That’s why a supremely sad story that played to an end yesterday has lodged in my consciousness and probably isn’t going away anytime soon. A 57-year-old woman was found dead in her Schaumburg house on Saturday, an apparent suicide.

The woman. Bonnie Liltz, was scheduled to go back to prison today, after she’d been released for several months to receive health care she couldn’t get in prison.

A couple years earlier, Liltz had pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter—she’d given her severely disabled, 28-year-old daughter Courtney a fatal dose of medication through Courtney’s feeding tube.

Liltz had serious health issues of her own, and she succumbed to the fear and dread I just mentioned—she couldn’t bear to think about how or if her daughter would be cared for if she died. Or what would happen when her own deteriorating health made it impossible to care for her daughter.

It was a reasonable concern, even if you think Liltz’s actions were not reasonable. Illinois routinely ranks near the bottom of 50 states in terms of care available for the developmentally disabled population. It’s shameful—and it’s a large reason we travel 2-1/2 hours to see our son, Gus. Wisconsin, as well as pretty much every other state, does a lot better job. Much poorer states, by per capita income, do a whole lot better—I put at least some of it down to the corruption tax we all pay here in Illinois, but that’s for another blog post.

Liltz had been sentenced to four years. She served several months before being released conditionally for medical care. She apparently couldn’t bear returning to prison knowing she was very likely to die there.

I completely understand that the court held Liltz to account. Even if she was motivated by her love for her daughter, it’s a slippery slope when we start thinking about treating people like our son Gus or her daughter Courtney differently under the law because of their disabilities.

So yes, a crime was committed. But I can’t consider Liltz a criminal. I think I’ve traveled some of the same roads she traveled. Fortunately, I never reached the point she did. But I‘ve been close enough to see it.