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Saturday, June 25, 2016

From Manual to MacBook

At my all-girls Catholic high school in the '50s, you had to choose early on to pursue either a college prep or vocational track. Having no idea why, I selected the former, though my mother suggested I cross over to the vocational just once—to learn how to type.

It was good advice at a time when the three top professions open to women were teaching, nursing, and secretarial. Also, if I decided to do something really far fetched like go to college, I’d be able to type my own papers.

And though I did go to college, it took me 10 years from start to finish to finally get my B.A. Along the way, I earned my keep as a secretary, thankful to my mother for being able to do so. At those jobs, I would type on the manual typewriters I’d learned on back in high school

Then in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s—now quite comfortable using the fancy selectric typewriter with the rotating ball—I learned how to word process. This was when I was working as a temp—having recently been through a bit of job hopping—so I really had no choice: If I wanted to pay that month’s rent, I had to figure a way around my first computer, an intimidating and awkwardly large and grey ugly thing.

From there, it was a slippery slope to an IBM Displaywriter. which I was also forced to learn, again on the job.  In 1982, I was hired as the official campaign word processor on Adlai Stevenson III’s run for Illinois governor. Less ugly and more reasonably-sized, it was the kind with the floppy disks and the more essential 1-800 help line.

From there, I kept marching forward on the computer front, though I still consider myself a functioning Luddite. I truly don’t want to do much more on this sleek piece of hardware I’m now typing on than write, email, post on Facebook, and scroll through the various online news sites I subscribe to.

I still print out everything I need or want to read—including my many drafts—staple the pages together, then sit down comfortably with a yellow highlighter in one hand, a pen in the other, and read (vs. scan) the text. Just as I did all through graduate school with those piles of well-worn books and class handouts.

I fully realized the distance I’d come, technologically speaking, when reading this recent piece in the New Republic by Josephine Livingston, “How Literature Became Word Perfect.” It’s a very fun read, especially as her emphasis is on how writers did or did not enter willingly into the processing of their own words.

Click here and enjoy:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A B&B Brief: “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide”

Phillip Lopate, one of my favorite writers/essayists, reviews this book by Michael Kinsley in the April 24 issue of the New York Times.

I cannot improve on Lopate’s introductory remarks:

Longevity breeds literature. As people (including writers) live longer thanks to medical advances, we can expect many more books contemplating the vicissitudes of aging, illness and dying. These topics, previously thought uncommercial, not to mention unsexy, have been eloquently explored recently by Diana Athill (“Somewhere Towards the End”), Roger Angell (“This Old Man”) and Christopher Hitchens (“Mortality”), among others. Now that the baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, “enter life’s last chapter,” Michael Kinsley writes, “there is going to be a tsunami of books about health issues by every boomer journalist who has any, which ultimately will be all of them.” Hoping to scoop the others, he has written “Old Age,” a short, witty “beginner’s guide,” with an appropriate blend of sincerity and opportunism.

I placed a hold on the book at the library exactly one month ago, and am advised as of today that I’m one of 22 patrons on 8 copies.  Lots of boomers and beyonders out there eager to read it, I guess. And perhaps more for fellowship than any real bit of guidance.

Read the full book review here:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Seeking Purpose

In preparing for my memoir writing workshop at this Saturday’s Printers Row Lit Fest, I’ve been thinking about what writing prompts would generate the most interest among the participants.

Should I select a couple from the 167 in my book? Should I make up new ones? Maybe a combo of the two?

What helps—as it always does—is ruminating on all the stuff I’ve been reading this past week, both online and in print, none of which was specifically focused on writing. Well, except for this one article, printed in the Business Section of last Sunday’s New York Times.

“No Passion? Don’t Panic,” is written by Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I was drawn to the article’s subtitle—“Finding a satisfying career path takes time, hard work and a little soul-searching”—especially as it took me quite a bit of time to stumble onto my path.

And so I was curious to see what she had to say about perhaps arriving there earlier. Of her three suggestions, what I found interesting was her second one, “Seek purpose.”

Once you’ve thought of what or whom you care about most, write it down. Psychologists have found that asking people to reflect in writing on their core values has miraculous effects on motivation. Because these are often the values you will be remembered for — what David Brooks calls “eulogy virtues” — you might consider writing a paragraph about what you would like people to say about you after you’ve drawn your last breath. It sounds grim, but perhaps the perspective will help you figure out what to do while you have the time to do it.

One of the reasons this stood out for me—Duckworth’s urging college graduates just barely into their twenties to essentially write their own eulogy—is that Boomers are often encouraged to do the same. Check for yourself, just google “write your own eulogy + boomers” as I just did. 

Now, while Duckworth notes that this exercise for the young might seem “grim,” it's likely that Boomers & Beyonders are meant to be inspired by it, a reminder that, Hello, the clock really is ticking, how do you want to live--or continue to live--a purposeful life?

As for Saturday’s workshop, I’m not sure I’ll include a eulogy writing exercise.  But I’d like you, my readers, to consider giving it a try. You can either follow Duckworth’s broad instruction above or try the more specific ones that begin on page 76 of my book, the exercise headed “Self Portrait.”

I hope doing so really will inspire you.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A B&B Brief: When We Are Positively Aging

I have extreme examples of aging in my parents—my mother died at 50, my father at 95—which may account for my keen interest in the process. Well, that and the fact that I myself am old-ish. 

My father’s main attitude about his aging self was one of gratitude. It took him a while to get there. But by his 80’s, he was finally giving up his attachment to anxiety, trying harder to appreciate all that was blessed about his life.

That “attitude of gratitude” served both of us well while he was alive, and serves me still.  And that is partly what drew me to this program on NPR. Because, really, what if it was my father’s attitude that at least partly accounts for how damn long he lived?


And as promised in a previous blogpost, here is the complete schedule of this year's Printers Row Lit Fest, with the theme “What’s Your Story?” Once on the link, click on "schedule" for all the details.

 My workshop--Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories--takes place on Saturday, June 11, 3:30 - 5 pm. It's free and no tickets are required. Any questions, please email me.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Not Leaving Home

Today is my Dad’s birthday; had he lived another nine years, he’d be 106, an age none of us would’ve been surprised to see him reach. This guy was not ready to go when he did, at 95 in 2007, a few months shy of his 96th.

We had a complicated relationship my father and I, which, from this distance, I now realize makes for some pretty good stories. The complications—and the stories—were made more interesting by the fact that after my mother died in 1964, at 50, it was just the two of us, my older brother having married in 1963.

Before we were two, the four of us had lived in a modest Georgian in a suburb due west of Chicago.  When that house was sold in 1965—why keep it for just two people?—my father and I moved even further west, to a two bedroom apartment in a new development called Royal Glen. No royals or glens were in sight, but it did have an outdoor pool, a clubhouse, and a modest patio overlooking a bland manmade pond.

By that time, now going on 22, I was getting itchy out there in suburbia, especially while attending Loyola University’s downtown campus, often heading for a nearby bar after late classes.

And so it was that one night, while my father and I sat in the living room after dinner, likely watching TV, I mentioned that a classmate and I, Mary Ellen, wanted to rent an apartment together in the city. I may have even mentioned where—in the Rush St. area near campus—but by that time my father’s voice had raised itself to glass-breaking levels, reaching a grand crescendo with, “Fine! Move out, move into the city. Just don’t call me while you’re being raped.”

In truth, I should not have been surprised by his reaction. When my brother planned his move out of the Georgian—with his friend, Jerry, and some years before getting married—my father had screamed at him late one night, “ I never did this to my father!”

Because that’s just the way it was in my father’s time, in his growing-up-Irish-Catholic years in the 1930s: you did not leave your parents’ home unless it was to marry--or to go into the convent or seminary. He had no context, nor imagination, to understand that things had changed by the 1960s.

Now here’s what's true about memories: they are often stirred up by some experience or overheard dialogue or bit of news that calls them forth.

Thus it was with these memories: my father’s long-ago reactions to his adult children leaving the nest for what he would consider no damn good reason. And worse, especially for the girl-child, only to come to great harm by doing so.

Following is this headline that was making its way all over cyberspace the past couple of days. All I can say is: my father would both totally understand and heartily approve.

For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds

“Broad demographic shifts in marital status, educational attainment and employment have transformed the way young adults in the U.S. are living, and a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data highlights the implications of these changes for the most basic element of their lives – where they call home. In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A B&B Brief: Piers Sellers Has No Time To Wait

I read this New Yorker article the day after my blog post, “What are you waiting for?" went live. The piece seemed eerily related to that question—from the standpoint of both Piers Sellers and the planet he has devoted his professional life to.

Sellers is a former astronaut, space walker, and now acting director of the Earth Sciences Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He was recently diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Here’s his response to the diagnosis as described in the article:

After the diagnosis, he briefly considered living his final year or so—assuming his doctors’ expectations prove correct—as a rich man might, in a tropical, hedonistic splurge. “I thought of myself sitting for weeks on a beach,” he said. “What would I do? I’d be thinking about climate. And I know that I’d be thinking about the problem, and thinking about areas that needed to be investigated. All these things would just be going around in my head. I’d be sitting on my beach with my margarita—and it would be pointless.”

I am struck by this response for two reasons. First, that Mr. Sellers imagined he'd spend his final days so unlike the way he'd spent most of his life. And second, that he quickly realized how "pointless" that would be.

So interesting to me: this process of imagining what we would do with our lives when our days are suddenly--and really--numbered. Even more interesting: what we ultimately choose.


For more on Sellers and his work,