Mondays with Mike: OMG, Ooooommmmmm

June 19, 201712 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Some twenty years ago, when Beth and I lived for a couple years on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one of our beach friends talked me into joining her at yoga class. I’d heard and read good things about yoga, but I confess that I had a crunchy granola prejudice against it that made me a little reluctant.

Plus—especially back then—yoga classes seemed to be attended overwhelmingly by women. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I like being around lots of women as much as the next person (if I were ever single again I’d do two things: get a puppy and walk it a lot, and take yoga). But it can make a person self-conscious.

But, our friend was persuasive and one day I joined her at class. I’m glad I did. Like lots of self-inflicted trepidations, my reluctance was not well founded. I really enjoyed the class. I learned that it’s surprisingly rigorous and relaxing at the same time. I got stronger, my balance improved, and my joints ached less.

My yoga bro Steve is threatening to bring this to class.

Of course, like a lot of things that are good for me, I let yoga lapse. I took a class here and there but never stayed with it. But over this past year, I’ve found myself wanting to say “oil can” more and more often when I get out of bed.

So I talked our friend Steve into joining me in a beginner’s class at Tejas Studios, just a healthy walk from our neighborhood.

And again, I was struck by how hard it was to do these things that don’t seem like they should be hard. And how much I sweated and how tired I got without ever leaving my little yoga mat. But it really felt great.

After our first class Steve and I turned our phones back on and found we had texts from our spouses. Steve’s spouse Laura, Beth and our friend Ruth were Kasey’s, a local watering hole, and we should meet them there. So Steve and I, relaxed and refreshed from yoga, bounced up in our elastic tights and our neonish yoga mats to meet our womenfolk, who were huddled around a table over their beers. As Steve put it, what’s wrong with this picture?

It was then that Laura noticed that my neon green yoga mat nearly matched my neon green Nikes. This was wholly unintentional: I’d purchased each online at steeply discounted prices because, well, they’re neon green. There were a few requisite Lululemon jokes and a good time was had by all, albeit much of it at Steve’s and my expense.

Steve couldn’t make the next class (he took a makeup session) so I made it through on my own. Again, it was rigorous enough for me to feel like I’d run several miles even though I never got out of a 10 square foot space.

On the way home, I remembered I needed some vegetables to go with the fish I was going to cook the next day. So I stopped at Trader Joe’s. And as I checked out, I realized: I’m in my yoga clothes, with my yoga mat, talking to a pierced, tattooed exuberantly happy clerk who clearly approved of me.

I called Beth from the store and explained the little tableau I found myself in. I felt like asking, “What’s happened to me?” At least she didn’t say “I don’t even know you anymore.”





It all came back to me then

June 18, 20173 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing

One of the many many things I love about people of a certain age? They answer their phones when you call.

Gwen and her big-hearted spirit lived to tell her story. Photo by Darlene Schweitzer.

After my new book Writing Out Loud came out last month, I dug up a computer file from a dozen years ago and started tracking down the seniors who’d been in the first memoir-writing class I led in Chicago. A few have moved away since then (some to the Great Beyond) but here’s another bonus to working with seniors: many never change their phone number. And so it was that I could pick up the phone, dial Gwen’s number from 2004 and, abracadabra! A familiar (and amazingly recognizable) voice answered.

A very moving and poignant essay Gwen wrote when I assigned “1968” as a writing prompt is featured in Chapter 8 of my new book. The subtitle to Writing Out Loud is “What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors,” and boy, oh boy, did I learn a lot from Gwen.

I figured the 1968 prompt would lead to a lot of essays about the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year, but I was wrong. The writers had jobs in 1968. “We couldn’t take off work to go downtown and bother with that mess,” one of them told me.

Their essays definitely spoke of the times, though. Gwen read right after Tom that day in class. Tom grew up on Chicago’s South Side and wrote that he and his wife had decided to move their family to the suburbs that year. As Tom delicately put it, the neighborhood was “changing.”

Gwen and her husband had also decided to move their family to a new house in 1968. Over the phone last month Gwen and I had a spirited conversation about the essay she’d written about that move, and I invited her to come to a party celebrating Writing Out Loudwith writers from my Grace Place class here in Printers Row and the “Me, Myself and I” class that meets at the Chicago Cultural Center.

That party was last Friday afternoon, and Gwen and two friends drove 30 miles from the far south suburbs to be here with us. Attendees seemed tickled to meet Gwen and the writers from other classes. One party-goer told me, “It’s so great to put faces to the people in your book!” and I overheard someone else asking Gwen for an autograph.

I’ll leave you here with a promise to share more about other characters who’ve been with me at book launch parties and book signings the past few weeks. For now, here’s an excerpt from Gwen’s chapter, Chapter 8: “1968.”

“On the day of the closing we took our sons out to see their new home,” she reads, explaining it was located in the Rosemoor neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side. “Our boys were excited to have a larger home, although they didn’t want to leave their friends. My husband and I were happy that the house had been vacated by the former owners and we had immediate possession.”
But Gwen’s husband called her at work the next day with disturbing news. Someone had tossed a chemical into their house – the chemical simmered throughout the night, eventually burning through the floor. A worker from People’s Gas Company who had been sent out to take a final meter reading the next morning noticed the windows were all black from the smoke. He called the fire department.

“The fireman, who knew how to enter a burning house, told us that if we had opened a door, the house would have exploded and been completely destroyed,” Gwen writes. “We were completely unaware that we were the first Black family to move into that block. Had we known, we would have skipped that area. I did not want to put my children in danger.”

Their three-year-old was afraid to enter the house, so the family moved into Gwen’s brother’s attic for a few weeks until her husband decided it was time to clean up the house and move in. He checked on it every evening during the process, hoping the culprits would return.

“But of course they didn’t,” Gwen reads. “And I was glad. I didn’t want a confrontation.”

After about a year, the family finally moved in. But Gwen tells us it took a long, long time before they could relax in the house. “It seemed that every time we started feeling comfortable there, the weather would turn humid and the smoke smell would seep down from the attic.” They lived there for 20 years, and after the kids were grown they moved to the south suburbs.

Gwen can barely speak for sobbing, but as she nears the end of her essay, she straightens herself, catches her breath, and finishes without a hint of anger or bitterness: “We cannot allow the actions of a few to poison our minds and cause us to react in a manner that would be completely contradictory to what Martin Luther King and other Black leaders have preached and marched against.”

When Gwen is finished reading, Tom says he thought that kind of thing had ended long before then. He had no idea people were still burning houses down like that in 1968. A quiet chorus of “uh huhs” rises from the other South-Siders in class. Gwen says she’d buried this whole ordeal deep inside until I gave the assignment to write about 1968. “It all came back to me then,” she says.

We were hot at Printers Row Lit Fest

June 15, 201711 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, public speaking, writing

From left to right, Wanda Bridgeforth, moi, Anna Nessy Perlberg, and panel moderator Nancy Sayre, Editor/Publisher at Golden Alley Press. (Photo by Bev Miller.)

I assured the standing-room-only crowd at our Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground session at Printers Row Lit Fest Sunday morning that their wait for 95-year-old panelist Wanda Bridgeforth would be worth it. “Funny thing was, Wanda Jr. was waiting for me upstairs,” Wanda told me later. “And I was waiting for her downstairs!”

My sister Bev and an entourage of other friends were on the lookout for Wanda, too, and just as the crowd in room 4008 of Jones High School started shuffling their papers and fidgeting in their seats, Bev came in with good news. “Wanda has entered the building.”

The temperature outside was in the 90s, and Wanda entered without a sweat. The crowd cheered. After greeting her new admirers with a hearty, “I’m here!” Wanda settled into a seat at the front table next to Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me, and we were off.

Wanda was on our panel with Anna Nessy Perlberg, a fellow writer who also shares stories of life’s challenges and joys in the memoir-writing classes I lead in Chicago every week. Anna and Wanda are both featured in my new book Writing Out Loud and both of them read essays during our panel.

With her daughter’s help, Wanda Bridgeforth self-published her memoir, On The Move. Writing Out Loud and Anna Nessy Perlberg’s The House in Prague were both published by Golden Alley Press.

I shared tips on getting a memoir started, and Golden Alley Press publisher/editor Nancy Sayre spoke on the pros and cons of self-publishing, of working with a major publishing house, and of working with an independent publisher.

Our panel flew by, and friends there told me later that audience members were jotting notes down throughout. The last question during our Q&A was whether writing a memoir taught us something about ourselves that surprised us. I answered with some blah, blah, blah the way I do, and when I turned it over to Wanda, she started with, “Well, the thing I learned was…” She just couldn’t find her words, so we all held our breath in anticipation. And just like at the start of our presentation, the wait for Wanda was worth it. “I learned I could do it!” Anna responded with an exuberant, “Me, too!”

And of course I followed up by looking toward the audience and chirping, “And you can, too!”

Audience members stood in line afterwards to have us sign our books and ask nancy Sayre more questions. And I’m still receiving emails from Wanda’s new fans: they’re special-ordering copies of On the Move.

Mondays with Mike: One immigrant’s life

June 12, 20177 CommentsPosted in guest blog, politics, Uncategorized

Today I’m happy to share a post by our dear friend Milton Otto. Milton lives in Urbana, Illinois. We met Milt years ago at an Urbana watering hole called the Iron Post. He was running for city council and had just come in from an evening of knocking on doors. We struck up a conversation and ended up writing a check on the spot; we became his first, if not his biggest, donor. I could do a whole post about Milt, but that’s for another day. For now, I’ll share this nugget which he wrote last week upon the passing of University of Illinois Professor Fred Kummerow, and I hope you’ll give it a read.

Fred Kummerow in his lab.

A cussedly stubborn biochemist
by Milton Otto

This morning I had an egg for breakfast and read the obituary of Fred Kummerow in the News-Gazette. He was a giant. He lived to be 102. Honestly, he died too young. Bear with me as I explain what I mean by that.

He was part of the team that identified a deficiency of niacin in the diet as the cause of pellagra. Deaths from pellagra dropped from over 2000 in 1941 to 12 in 1945.

In 1957, he published his first paper on the link between trans fats and heart disease. He then fought a stubborn battle for over 60 years to force the FDA to recognize that trans fats rather than dietary cholesterol were causing our epidemic of heart disease and stroke. It was a lonely fight as his lab struggled for funding against the united opposition of the giant food companies and their powerful allies. But, eventually Fred prevailed.

In 2007, New York City banned adding trans fats to food. There was a lot of sneering and jeering from Fox News and their ilk. But, New York City immediately saw hospital admissions for heart attack and stroke begin to decline.…/jamacard…/article-abstract/2618359

One estimate, based on New York’s experience, showed that a ban on trans fats that are added to food would save 12 lives per year per 100,000 of population.…/1814/31898/MWP_2014_12.pdf…

In a country of 326 million people, halting the practice of adding trans fats to food would save 39,000 lives per year. That’s the equivalent of eliminating all deaths from traffic accidents. Would you be willing to butter your toast with real butter instead of margarine if it meant no one ever died from a traffic accident again? I would.

In 2014, on the cusp of turning 100 years old, Fred sued the FDA to force them to act and stop food companies from adding this poison to our food. In 2015, the FDA finally agreed with Fred and acted to remove this additive from our food supply by 2018.

Each and every one of us has seen uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents, siblings, and dear friends struck down too soon by stroke and heart disease. How many of those people would have led richer and fuller lives if, in 1957, those with power had listened and verified Fred Kummerow’s findings instead of attempting to silence him.

With any luck, by the time I die, Fred Kummerow’s hard work and cussed stubbornness will have saved well north of 1 million lives. Very few of those people will ever know his name.

So, that is the end of Fred Kummerow’s obituary. But, it’s not quite the end of what I learned this morning.

It turns out that Fred Kummerow was born in Berlin, Germany during World War I. His early childhood was filled with hunger and want. His mother put Fred and his brother to bed on weekends to conserve their energy because they had so little food. Eventually, relatives in America sent money so that Fred’s family could come to Milwaukee.

Fortunately, Fred’s family was welcomed. Although Fred was 8 years old, he was placed in first grade at school because he spoke not a word of English.

By the time he was in 8th grade, he had caught back up to grade level and was winning U.S. History contests at his school.

America was much poorer in 1922 than it is today. It had just survived the most catastrophic episode of organized violence that the world had ever seen in World War I. It had every reason to turn away the family of a soldier who had fought on the other side in that awful blood-letting.

But, America didn’t turn away Fred Kummerow’s family.

And because America didn’t turn away Fred Kummerow, millions of people will live who otherwise would have died.

Donald Rumsfeld, arguing that we should invade Iraq, observed, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

What our conservative friends sometimes forget is that Rumsfeld’s logic applies not just to evil, but also to good.

When we are kind, there are good things that we know will result. A child gets to eat.

We also know that our kindness often results in other good things which we cannot predict. That child grows up and becomes a college professor.

What we cannot lose sight of is that sometimes kindness results in good things that no one could have imagined. That child becomes a cussedly stubborn biochemist who hammers away for decades until he has saved millions of lives.

Is one of the unaccompanied minors currently in the Urbana school system the next Fred Kummerow?

I don’t know. I guess that’s an unknown unknown.

But, I’m optimistic.

Two opportunities this weekend to meet memoir-writers you know from Writing Out Loud

June 7, 2017CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, public speaking, writing

Those of you who have read Writing Out Loud know that essays by the writers in the memoir classes I lead are sprinkled throughout the book. This week you have a couple of opportunities to meet some of those writers in person:

  1. Bruce and Anne Hunt (Writing Out Loud readers will know them from Ch. 65, “The Hunts”)  will each read their essay from Writing Out Loud at a book-launch party The Village Chicago is throwing for us this Friday, June 9 from 2:30 to 4 pm at the Woman’s Athletic Club, 626 N. Michigan in Chicago.Blog readers in the Chicago area can still sign up, you just need to RSVP by the end of the business day today, June 7, 2017 at or 773.248.8700. Admission is $12 for Village Chicago Members and $15 for non-members (book purchase separate).
  2. Anna Nessy Perlberg (Writing Out Loud readers know her from Ch. 85, “Anna’s House in Prague”) and Wanda Bridgeforth will read during a panel we’re doing at Printers Row Litfest titled Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground…and Published. Wanda self-published her memoir, On the Move. A number of her essays are also excerpted in Writing Out loud, and on Sunday she’ll read from Ch. 22, “All Aboard with Wanda.”Anna will read a section from her memoir The House In Prague, which was published by Golden Alley Press last year. The panel will be moderated by Nancy Sayre, publisher/editor at Golden Alley Press. This all happens at the Printers Row Lit Fest on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at 10 Room 4008 at Jones College Prep High School, 600 S. State Street in Chicago. Advance tickets for the event are free of charge but are sold out. A few extra tickets will become available 15 minutes before the event and they are free of charge too, available on a walk-up basis. Come on down!

PS: Whitney the Seeing Eye dog and I will also be sitting at a table in front of Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, 714 S. Dearborn, from 11 a.m. until noon on Saturday, June 10 during #prlf17 if you want to stop by and say hello. Buy a book, and Whitney the Seeing Eye dog might just add her pawtograph, too…!