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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Role Model: Penelope Fitzgerald

New Year’s Eve is two weeks from today, and hence the time to make all those pesky New Year resolutions, you know, the ones we make then break, usually within the year’s first quarter:  eat more healthily; exercise more; unclutter the office/bedroom/den; spend less money; save more money; be nicer to everyone, including family members.

Then there are the resolutions that involve finally fulfilling life-long dreams: sailing around the world; going on safari; moving to the country; moving to another country; starting a business; writing a book.

Ah, but then we wonder:  Could it be too late?  Could that particular dream have passed me by?  Am I too old?

It’s when those doubts emerge that we are sorely in need of role models, people who did that dream thing, and especially later in life.  One of those for the book-writing among us is Penelope Fitzgerald, the Booker Prize-winning British author and subject of the recent biography by Hermione Lee.

Lee’s book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, was reviewed recently in the New York Times.

This fact appears early in the review, in the second paragraph:  “[Fitzgerald] would be the late bloomer, the great writer who publishes her first book at 58, to become famous at 80.”

And later on:  “Already in her 50s, Fitzgerald looked like someone whose life had passed her by, ‘a middle-aged teacher, recovering from a traumatic period of homelessness and deprivation, living in a dreary council estate in South London with a disgraced alcoholic husband in a dismal low-paid job.’”

There’s much more about Fitzgerald’s life that gives great hope to all the dreamers among us.  Read on at:

Friday, December 12, 2014

What, Me Worry?

Though still a long way from the age at which columnist David Brooks reports people are their happiest—82-85 years old—what he writes resonates with me.  And I suspect might with many of us on the lip of our third act—especially the part about (sorry for the cliché] not sweating the small stuff.

Case in point is my father, who spent most of his life as a very anxious person, to the point of absurdity in many instances.  I should know; I was the target for much of it.  He died at 95, but at some point in his 80’s, started to settle down a bit; “defanged,” is how I often described him to friends at that time. 

He likely didn’t have a particular come-to-Jesus moment—he wasn’t a reflective person—but more an inchoate sense that in the end all of his worrying was for naught. 

Here’s an excerpt from Brooks’s article:

In their book, “Lighter as We Go,” Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein (who is a friend from college) argue that while older people lose memory they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. Anxiety is the biggest waste in life. If you know that you’ll recover, you can save time and get on with it sooner.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Animal Stories

I’m submitting an essay on Thursday for City Creatures ( and have at last found my topic:  city chickens. 

Well, that’s the occasion for the piece, though not what it will ultimately be about.  Because whenever we write personal essays--or anything personal, for that matter--the topic or subject is just an entree, a vehicle, the way into something more interesting and universal about the human experience. 

In the piece I’m writing, that “something” has to do with our relationship to nonhuman animals, our emotional, psychological, and imaginative connectedness to the Other.  As I told one of my nature writing classes at the University of Illinois/Chicago many years ago, when we write about nature we are always writing about ourselves.  We can’t avoid it; we are the lens through which we view and understand the natural world.

So while toiling away at finding out what that something is in this particular instance, I stumbled yesterday on two New York Times pieces about animals.  The first is an essay in which the subject—the adoption of two rabbits—serves as a metaphor for the relationship between the writer and her boyfriend.

The second is an article about London’s rising population of wild foxes, and the totally opposite ways that citizens respond to the situation—and to the foxes themselves.

They are both well written and fun reading.  In addition to the links, I've included my favorite bits from each, passages that highlight the different ways human beings apprehend animals.

The rabbits, much like us after moving in together, are having growing pains, forgetting their deep bond in favor of small antagonisms that get blown out of proportion — the petty grievances over stupid preferences and different domestic approaches that seem momentarily monumental. They have to be reconnected.….[S]omehow, watching them as they seek out each other’s company and communicate in their silent language does something for the two of us as well.

On the same day that Phil [the fox sniper] was aiming his rifle down the garden, Sandra Reddy and Terry Woods were nursing three injured foxes at a sanctuary an hour’s drive south of London with the aim of returning them to “their” neighborhoods. Charlotte, Carl and Beau, all presumed victims of dogs, cars or mites, were recuperating on a diet of dog food and homeopathic anti-mange pills. Apart from the foxes, everyone there is vegan.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cynics United

Really?  “Everyone” has FOGO?  OK, then, let’s bring in Pfizer, the Fortune 500 pharma colossus, to fix it.

The “it,” according to Pfizer’s advertising agency, is the Fear Of Getting Older.  And Pfizer is going to help us deal with that very scary syndrome not so much with tons-o-drugs—as is their wont—but with their philosophy.


I tell you truth.  Here’s a direct quote from Sally (age unspecified):

“’This is not about selling a product, it’s about our philosophy, reintroducing ourselves,’” said Sally Susman, the executive vice president for corporate affairs of Pfizer who is overseeing the initiative.”

Well, maybe it’s a teensy bit about selling a product; that is, if you consider Pfizer’s recently tarnished brand name a product.  

It’s the ad agency that’s helping Pfizer with that pesky problem.  How?  In the words of Kate (age unspecified), the managing director of the Washington office:

“The intent [of the initiative] is ‘taking “Get old”’ to the next level,” she said, and “to explain how ‘opportunities open up’ as one ages.”

Now I don’t want to be a party pooper, but isn’t the next level of getting old, well, you know, dying?

For more about how this $53.8 billion corporation is going to help us all get over FOGO, read on:

Monday, December 1, 2014

Time to Be in Earnest

British writer P.D. James died last Thursday at the age of 94.  Hers was a fascinating life, I think, including how and when she came to writing. Her first book, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 when she was 42.  Her last, Death Comes to Pemberly, in 2011, when she was 91. 

It is an enviable professional run; would that we could all do what most arouses our creativity for such a long and productive time.

I’ve read many of P.D. James’s mysteries, and seen some that were adapted for PBS’ Masterpiece Theater.  But the book of hers that most interests me is what she called her “partial autobiography,” Time to Be in Earnest, published in 2001.

The book’s title is a quote from 18th century writer Samuel Johnson, who said “at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.” And so James’ book is the year-long record of her 77th year.

Here’s what she writes in the prologue:

“My motive now is to record just one year that otherwise might be lost, not only to children and grandchildren who might have an interest but, with the advance of age and perhaps the onset of the dreaded Alzheimer's, lost also to me.”

I mention James and this book not only because she is one of my writing heroes, but also because of my abiding interest in memory and stories; in autobiography and memoir; and in writing our lives as a way to better understand them.

And so this suggestion:  as James did, I urge this blog’s readers—no matter your age—to take up the same task as she did, beginning no later than January 1, 2015:  To keep a record, and not necessarily daily, of your life over the course of just one year.

To help in that task, you may want to have a look at James’s book, and, of course, my own, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories.  Should you get stuck at any point in your writing project, each of these books—available at most libraries, locally and nationally—will see you through it.

To read the entire prologue to the book, well worth a look, click here:

For more information on James, here are links to two obituaries, one from the New York Times, the other from England’s The Guardian:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Geezer Gratitude

It being Thanksgiving, I thought of posting a list of those things in my long life that I am most thankful for, including the usual suspects:  good friends, good health, and meaningful work.

But while the first two are hugely significant, it’s the last that I have mostly on my mind these days.  And so I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge those who make, and have made, my work—both teaching and writing—not only immensely rewarding, but also possible.

These include, in no particular order:

The Newberry Library for hiring me to teach each year in their well-regarded seminars program.

The many professors at the University of Illinois/Chicago who helped launch me into this teaching and writing life.  I was likely one of their oldest students, awarded my MA in English at 45.

Those classrooms full of 18-year-old college freshmen who first taught me how to teach writing.

My adult writing students in DePaul University’s School for New Learning who did the same.

Those writing students in all of my workshops in all of the adult education venues I’ve taught in since 1991 for sharing their writing in class.  As I repeat at the start of each session: when one of us learns something about writing, we all do.  This can only happen when people are generous and brave enough to allow us to learn on their work.

My publishers, Marion Street Press, for publishing and keeping in print these past six years my modest little book, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories.

The website for publishing three of my articles this past year.

America magazine for publishing one of my essays this year.

For City Creatures ( for publishing two of my essays this year.

The Internet, related websites and links, and especially Google for making both my writing and teaching so much easier.

Blogspot for hosting this blog.

Stay tuned: There is more to come in this teaching and writing life.  Thanks to everyone who’s been such an important part of it so far.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Well, relatively speaking. 

Alastair Mitchell is 37.  Following is an interview with him in Sunday’s New York Times, in the business section.  He’s the chief executive of Huddle, a software company that lives somewhere out on a cloud.

There are three things young Alastair has to say in this interview that makes him worthy of mention on this blog.

First, in response to the question about early influences on his entrepreneurial endeavors, he credits his grandfather.  We like it when young people acknowledge the guiding hand of the old.

Second, he’s quite open about professional mistakes he’s made, in fact, using the active voice when describing one: “I made the classic young-manager mistake…”  This is in stark contrast to the popular passive construction used by most bureaucracies and corporations:  “Mistakes were made.”

But my favorite comment from the little tikey-entrepreneur has to do with his Big Red Bus test.  A more incisive and visual version of the Bucket List metaphor, this one has special resonance for me.  I was almost run over by one of those big honking buses whilst in London last year.


Larking around South Kensington one beautiful November day, I was just about to step into the street when I saw a look of horror on a fellow pedestrian’s face.  I immediately lunged back onto the sidewalk just as a Big Red Bus made its turn.  

Now, I confess that no dramatic insights occurred to me as I barely escaped the rampaging bus, but the experience has made Alastair's test much more meaningful to me.

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