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Monday, July 27, 2015

Stories or Stuff?

This post is dedicated to my former young neighbors, a married couple in their late 30’s who moved to a new building this past weekend.  As I watched their three movers run up and down the two flights of stairs to empty their apartment, and then stash the limitless contents into the moving van, I was struck with how much stuff the couple owned.

One thought that came to mind: “Exactly how many tables does a person need?”

Now, granted, I am at the other end of the consumerist spectrum, so all is relative.  Also, I have moved so many damn times that it was often easiest to leave this or that table (and other heavy-ish things) behind, either for the new tenant or out in the alley for the inevitable scavengers. 

In fact, I myself have scavenged some pretty nice stuff over the years, especially when living in neighborhoods where college students abide.  Come moving day, usually in the spring, these youngsters would regularly stash some very nice bookcases, tables, and other furniture out near the building’s dumpster, likely the very same furniture their parents had bought for them the previous fall.

Thank you, Mom & Dad.

This ease with which I have over the years accumulated then shed stuff puts me in mind of several recent articles on what makes us happy: owning things or doing things.  It is a question with particular relevance, especially as I age and attempt to live with less and less while doing more and more.

The most recent piece I found is from Fast Company’s website, from March of this year.  Title is “The Science of Why You Should Spend Your Money on Experiences, Not Things.”  It reports on the research of Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell.

Here are some article excerpts:

“Gilovich's findings are the synthesis of psychological studies conducted by him and others into the Easterlin paradox, which found that money buys happiness, but only up to a point. How adaptation affects happiness, for instance, was measured in a study that asked people to self-report their happiness with major material and experiential purchases. Initially, their happiness with those purchases was ranked about the same. But over time, people's satisfaction with the things they bought went down, whereas their satisfaction with experiences they spent money on went up.”

So, yes, over time our satisfaction for things decreases, while it increases for experiences.  Does this not seem to make sense on some intuitive level?*

“But while the happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, experiences become an ingrained part of our identity.”  In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences."

*Ah, and maybe here’s why:  I may or may not remember the things I owned when living with Philip LaChapelle in Manhattan, shortly after we were married in 1967.  But I sure as hell remember living in that apartment on 106th St on the Upper West Side. Or working in the admissions department of the hospital cross-town.  Or the night some friends brought us live lobster from Boston for our potluck dinner.

‘One study conducted by Gilovich even showed that if people have an experience they say negatively impacted their happiness, once they have the chance to talk about it, their assessment of that experience goes up. Gilovich attributes this to the fact that something that might have been stressful or scary in the past can become a funny story to tell at a party or be looked back on as an invaluable character-building experience.’

Oh, those many character-building experiences.  Got a minute?  I’ve a pile of those to share.

To read the entire article, click here:

And if you are inclined to get some of your character-building—and other—experiences down in writing, please consider joining us at Evanston’s newest indie bookstore, Bookends & Beginnings, on Saturday, August 15, from 12-2 pm, for the Writing Family Stories workshop. 

Here are the particulars:

This introductory workshop is offered for those interested in writing family stories--the real-life accounts of the important people, places, and events in their and their family's life.  These stories of loss and triumph, love and regret, and of lessons learned may be recorded as letters, diary entries, character sketches, even eulogies. We will discuss the merits of each of these forms, plus do some practice writing.

Fee is $40, and space is limited, so please pre-register with Carol or contact her for more information at

Monday, July 20, 2015

Age & The Stories We Tell

As someone who reads and writes memoir—and teaches memoir writing—I was interested in what the author Noelle Howey had to say about how the age of a memoirist influences how or what s/he writes. 

Howey herself was 29 when she wrote her memoir, “Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods—My Mother’s My Father’s, and Mine.”  The book as she describes it “details how I came of age at the same time that my transgender father transitioned into womanhood.”

It is now 13 years later, and her essay in the New York Times Book Review (July 12), reflects on how, from that distance, age might, in general, influence the way we tell our personal stories.

This is something I’ve thought about myself over the years, both as a writer and teacher.  If Ms. Howey lived closer, I might invite her over for a beer to discuss my reactions to some of what she writes.  In lieu of that, I’ve excerpted some bits from the essay and added my responses in bold.

“Maybe there is a reason people used to write their memoirs in the autumn, as opposed to the spring, of their lives.”

I’ve never really done much research into when published authors wrote their memoirs, though in my writing workshops I’ve found that most people in their late 40’s/early 50’s feel compelled to at least get their family stories down in writing. 

That comes, I think, from their own march up the generational ladder.  Witnessing the death of grandparents and parents, they suddenly realize that if they don’t tell these family stories perhaps no one else will, and so they will be lost to future generations.

“If a thought felt taboo or inappropriate, that meant it warranted — no, demanded — expression.”

Howey is speaking about the need to tell her story at 29, as if that particular age was the reason she felt compelled to express “taboo” thoughts.  But I’m wondering if that impulse had as much to do with the culture within which she came to that age, one where the line between private and public, i.e., between what was appropriate to share with strangers and what was not, had so successfully blurred. 

After all, before Facebook and Instagram etc., etc., there were Jerry Springer and Oprah, TV shows that encouraged people to reveal to millions the most intimate details of their lives.

“I could go on, but I won’t — largely because, somewhere in my 30s, I developed the ability to become embarrassed.”

Hmmm, so the ability to be embarrassed is tied to age?  Not quite sure about that, especially as a general statement.  I mean, when I was 10 years old and last to be chosen for the Red Rover team during recess, I was pretty darn embarrassed.

“Like Sandell, I am more inhibited than when I was younger. That’s not the only difference: By definition, younger memoirists (those under the age of 40) have a deficit in perspective.”

Yes, of course.  I remember the nature writer Ann Zwinger saying once that no one under 40 should attempt a nature essay.  I remember agreeing with that, though I couldn’t have told you why. 

Now, well past 40, I think I can.  It may have something to do with how we perceive our place in the Universe, at dead center or amongst a community of living beings, human and otherwise.  Also, we learn from an intimate connection to and awareness of the natural world that we too, inevitably, will be dust.

“Whatever early memoirs lack in perspective, they make up in urgency, the sense that here is a story that must be told.”

Here, Howey is making a case for writing a memoir when young.  Now, I think urgency is a fine thing, and believe that a writer of any age, and with sufficient skill, can communicate urgency on the page, assuming they have access to those memories where urgency played a major role.

“'But I don’t think I would have made any progress as a writer or a person had I not written it then.'” 

Here, Howey is quoting Kathryn Harrison, fellow memoirist, who wrote “The Kiss” at age 36.  I do believe in the transformative power of telling our stories, no matter how old we are, but there are other ways to do so than in a published book or through family stories.  Personal journal writing, for instance.

“Being honest about something troubling or taboo is easier when you have little to lose.”

The idea here is that when we are younger we believe it is easier to be honest in the writing because we have little to lose.  Now I’m not sure that’s true.  I believe that writing anything troubling—even in a private journal—can be difficult, sometimes impossible.  I’m just not sure that it necessarily gets harder with age.  On some level, it might even get easier.


Truth is, I don’t believe there’s any right age to begin writing our stories, whether for ourselves or some other audience.  But if we’re lucky enough to start early, and to keep writing, we just need to be prepared for a shift in perspective as we age. 

Which means that when reading our younger selves, we do so with both affection and kindness, appreciating fully who we once were, where we are now, and all the places we have traveled to get there.

To read the Noelle Howey’s entire essay, click here:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Geezer Revolution

I feel lucky to have lived during a time of so many cultural changes, even, some might say, revolutions.  Many of these, not surprisingly, occurred during the ‘60s, a decade of particular tumult both globally and in the U.S. It included the Vietnam War, and subsequent protests; the Civil Rights movement; and the women’s movements.

I turned 21 in 1964, was married to a Vietnam veteran in 1967, and in August 1968 stood in Chicago’s Grant Park with my husband and thousands of others protesting the war.

At Grant Park, in front of the Hilton, where the television cameras are, 4,000 demonstrators rally to speeches by Julian Bond, Davis, and Hayden. Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow sing. The rally is peaceful. At 3 AM the National Guard relieve the police. The crowd is allowed to stay in Grant Park all night.*

One of the songs that Travers and Yarrow sang that night was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I imagine that everyone in the Park that night really believed that, and hopefully still do.

Of course there have been many cultural changes since then, but the one that affects me most personally and immediately—as did those in the 60s—is what Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, wrote about in the Feb. 23/March 2, 2015 issue of Time magazine, in the special section, “The Longevity Report: The New Data on How Best To Live a Longer, Happier Life.”

I finally had the chance to read through the section last night and will devote several upcoming posts to the rich material therein.  For now, though, I just want to refer readers to Carstensen’s introductory article in the section, “The New Age of Much Older Age.”

Here’s the part in her thoughtful piece that got me thinking about cultural revolutions:

“As much as we may fancy ourselves freethinking, the crux of the longevity challenge is, quite frankly, that humans are creatures of culture. The culture that guides us today– that tells us when to get an education, marry, have children, buy a house, work and retire–is profoundly mismatched to the length of the lives we are living.”

To read the full article:

Monday, July 6, 2015

Writing Family Stories: The Full Catastrophe

Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones wrote a column yesterday about the movie “Inside Out.”  I haven’t seen it, and, truthfully, hadn't given it much thought since it was released—and with, according to Jones, “a head-spinning $91 million” gross in its opening weekend.

But an excerpt from Jones’ article caught my eye: 

“’Inside Out’ shows us our most valuable memories are equal parts happiness, sorrow.”  He was praising the movie for allowing its 11 year-old heroine Riley to feel both sadness and joy at an impending move across the country.

And while most adults are willing to acknowledge that both feelings might exist side by side, they often want to shield their children from experiencing the more negative ones of sadness and loss.

This impulse has often been expressed by people who’ve attended my workshop, “Writing Family Stories.“ They say they only want to pass on the “positive” stories to their kids and grandkids, the ones where love triumphs; where good fortune abides; and where lives are lived without regrets, failures, or sorrow.

And while that desire is understandable, and might even be admirable, in the long run it teaches children a very distorted image of life—and of their family’s life.  More, it leaves young people without living role models for how to cope and move through the inevitable disappointments and losses they will ultimately experience.

So if you’re thinking it's time to write down your family stories--both the happy and the sad, please join me for the next offering of Writing Family Stories at Bookends & Beginnings bookstore in Evanston on Saturday, August 15, from 12-2 pm. 

Here are the particulars:

Writing Family Stories: A Workshop with Carol LaChapelle

Saturday, August 15, 12 to 2 p.m.

This introductory workshop is offered for those interested in writing family stories--the real-life accounts of the important people, places, and events in their and their family's life.  These stories of loss and triumph, love and regret, and of lessons learned may be recorded as letters, diary entries, character sketches, even eulogies. We will discuss the merits of each of these forms, plus do some practice writing.

Fee is $40, and space is limited.  Please email me at for more info and/or to register.

Monday, June 29, 2015

I Was There: The 12th Annual Gay Pride Parade in Chicago, June 28, 1981

In 1980, I moved into an apartment in New Town—not yet fully recognized as Boys Town—on Chicago’s north side.  Soon after, I met my downstairs neighbor, Mark, who, it turned out, was gay.  In fact, Mark was newly “out” after 10 years of being married, now divorced, and of a lifetime of trying to live as a straight person, trying to live a lie.

Over the next year, Mark and I became fast and companionable friends, meaning, among other things, that I asked him any question he was willing to answer about what it meant to be gay.

I’d known one other gay man before Mark, though not well, and certainly not well enough to quiz on the particulars, the main two of which were “How did you know you were gay?  And for how long?”

Mark answered those for me, even as he was grappling with what it meant for him, now in his early 30's, to be openly gay, to accept his biological and psychological truth.

Then in 1981, Mark now in a meaningful relationship (which he is still in), we three attended that year’s Gay Pride Parade, watching as it made its modest way down Broadway.  By “modest,” I mean that it was so lightly attended both by participants and onlookers, that you could walk back and forth across Broadway during the parade without much interrupting the flow of the marchers and floats making their way south to Lincoln Park.

I recall little detail from that parade, though one image stands firm: a small, skinny, old guy marching by himself holding a crude handwritten sign that read, "God loves homosex."  He'd run out of room to finish the word “homosexuals.”

And I certainly do not recall—unlike in recent years—the parade being overrun with politicians and religious organizations and media outlets and corporations, all marching proudly to support their gay constituents, members, consumers, and customers. 

I wasn’t at yesterday’s parade.  Aside from its historical significance, which I recognize is huge, I’ve pretty much been there, done that, having attended or biked through a good number of Gay Pride Parades between the 12th in 1981 and this year’s 46th.

Besides, in truth, I’m not sure that any float or politician could impress me as much as that lone old man in 1981, walking slowly, smiling hesitantly, and holding firmly onto his unadulterated vision of love.

(For a history of the Gay Pride parade In Chicago,