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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Talking To Old People

When my parents moved to Chicago in 1939, they left behind in Philadelphia both sets of parents; my father’s brother and sister-in-law; my mother’s sister and brother-in-law; and a handful of nieces and nephews.

I arrived on the scene in late 1943 to join my older brother as our parents’ only children, a more or less typical nuclear family for the times, though not so typical was the distance that separated us from our extended family.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, those nearly 800 miles between Chicago and Philadelphia might as well have been 8,000: flying, except for an emergency, was out of the question, though we did manage an annual car trip east. Our relatives rarely came west; not only would it have been too costly, but what travel they did manage were mostly short trips not far from Philly.

And so to stay connected to everyone across that vast distance meant phone calls—though mostly for special occasions—and whatever letters might pass between my parents and their respective families.

Which is all to say, I didn’t grow up with any relatives living nearby, especially older ones, the grands- and greats- my friends often relied on to answer those large looming questions they might not ask their parents: Will I ever get a boyfriend? Should I go to college? Is it OK to move out of the house before I’m married?

And then maybe the really big one: what am I supposed to do with my life anyway?

I wonder now if that access to my older relatives would've made a difference in how my life has unfolded. Possibly. I’d like to think that my Poppity Swaine or Nanny McCarthy would have passed along some wisdom they‘d accumulated throughout their lives, some of it I now know was hard-earned.

But as my life is still unfolding, I take comfort in knowing that asking the Old Old—those 85 and beyond—is still available to me. And to all of us, no matter our age.

To find out how, read this:

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Having My Say

Here in Chicago—with both national and local political races consuming the airwaves—the March 15 primary was pretty darn exciting. But then I’m always excited to vote. Being born near the end of World War II and coming of age during the Vietnam War, I grew into adulthood believing my vote mattered, that, in fact, it was my obligation to vote.

And the pivotal experience for me between those two wars—just as I was entering senior year in 1960—was the Democratic nomination of John F. Kennedy for president, the first Catholic who actually stood a good chance of winning the election.

I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and my last name was McCarthy and I’d written a paper in history class the year before on Al Smith, the Democratic governor of New York and first Roman Catholic to run for president. I don’t recall the details of that paper, though it seemed clear from my research that it was Smith’s religion—my religion at the time—that had insured his defeat.

I don’t know if I really understood what it was about Catholics that made us such pariahs as potential presidents, though it was made clear when Kennedy gave his famous speech in the fall of 1960, in which he declared that the Pope would not influence his presidency should he win.

Here’s the introductory note to that speech:

On Sept. 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. At the time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church. Kennedy addressed those concerns before a skeptical audience of Protestant clergy. The following is a transcript of Kennedy's speech:

And here’s the excerpt where he addresses the Pope thing:

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

And that’s just an excerpt; the entire speech will give you goose bumps, serving as an excellent reminder of why the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state.

So there I was in 1960, 17 years old, four years away from the legal voting age at the time, with the nuns and my classmates all agog at this handsome Irish Catholic fellow running for President. And I couldn’t vote.

Recalling the excitement engendered by that election and the frustration of not being able to participate, I must have decided that as soon as I was able, I would vote. And never stop.


You can listen to and/or read JFK’s speech in its entirety here:

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A B&B Brief: Sometimes It Never Really Is Too Late

For starters, note the use of the word “Current” in the title of this article from

“At 87, She’s the Oldest Current Peace Corps Volunteer.”

Then, in spite of some of the clich├ęs, e.g. “age is just a number” and “staying active in old age,” enjoy this article about Alice Carter, who finally got around to doing what she’d wanted to do earlier in her life.

At the end of the article, make sure to listen to the NPR interview with Alice. Just over six minutes, it’s well worth hearing her describe her Peace Corps adventure in her own voice.

And this:
 Spring Sale on Private Workshops

I’m offering a 10% reduction in the per person fee for private writing or journal writing workshops.  These are offered in people’s homes for friends, family, book clubs, or writing groups, and on-site for private associations and organizations.

The reduced per person rate is $45 for a 2-hour meeting, with a minimum of 5, maximum of 15 participants. Workshops, which can be scheduled one-time or repeat for two or more sessions, include personal journal writing, memoir writing, and writing family stories.

If purchased by April 30, this reduced rate is good through 2016. For more information, please email me at or call 773.981.2282.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bernie, George Orwell, and the Wall Street Rapscallions

I don’t own a TV, but am regularly bombarded with political ads every time I turn on the radio, which is often. Lately the phrase that has stuck in my head is “the worst economic downturn since the 1930s,” from Bernie Sanders’s rant against Wall Street.

Starting in 2009, it was a phrase I used repeatedly when writing to my landlord, the phone company, the gas and electric companies, trying to explain why my monthly payments were often late.

I also used it with the credit card companies I owed balances on, asking—begging—that my interest rate be lowered. And to my congressional representative when one of those companies—Discover Financial Services, may they rot in hell forever—refused to do so.

The wording I used was slightly different from Bernie’s; I called it “the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” and in quotes, as this phrase was used by the media to describe the economic turn as it was going down.

And I actually prefer “Great Depression” to “the 1930s.” I’m not sure that many of the people I wrote to at Discover and Chase would even know what “the 1930s” signified, likely wouldn’t connect their 21st century skullduggery to the cataclysmic Great Depression, though some dim memory of reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school might occasionally surface.

But I digress.

Now before sending letters to my creditors, I’d first call and chat up their representatives, often requesting some higher-up who could actually do something to help me. And again I wasn’t asking to be excused from my debt; I borrowed it with the full intention of paying it all back. And I would, no matter how long it took.

I was simply requesting a lower APR. Or as I wrote for the third or fourth time to Discover Financial Services, may they rot in hell forever,  “will you please lower my interest rate to a humane level…one where it no longer equals one-third of my monthly minimum.”

In these letters I’d throw in a couple of bio-factoids to bolster my plea: 65 years old; writer and writing coach; two-thirds of monthly income dependent on consumer spending; divorced; no material assets to speak of; self-employed so no access to bailout money, stimulus packages or unemployment compensation.

Now, not surprisingly, as the letters flew and the phones buzzed, I was inspired to write about a particular experience, one with Chase. I resurrect an excerpt here in honor of Bernie, who, like me, will never forget nor likely forgive those white collar bandits who gave us the “worst economic downturn” etc. etc., and then cannibalized their honest borrowers to cover their bungling arses: slashing credit limits and raising interest rates, and often to usurious levels and without warning.

Here ‘tis, from a July 2009 blog post:

As a writer, I believe that the ultimate proof of their baseness is in the language these companies use to cloak their misdeeds—something George Orwell understood in 1946 when he wrote Politics and the English Language:  “The great enemy of clear language,” he said—clearly—“is insincerity.”

My Orwellian moment arrived last week. I got yet another letter from one of my credit cards, which I now know is never good tidings.  This time it’s from Chase, telling me that they are raising my monthly minimum payment.  What’s this??  Turns out, they’ve been unable to thwart me any other way, especially as my debt is on a fixed low rate. So now they’re going to triple my payment to over $900 a month. 

Ha, ha, ha.

When I stop laughing and call the evil doers at Chase, they tell me that they are doing this—tripling my monthly payment—for my sake, for my well-being, so that I can pay off the balance faster. 

Two different Chase representatives tell me this, presumably with straight faces, as I sit there unbelieving, amazed at what one person—or, in this case, two—will try to make another person believe. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A B&B Brief: “Using the Arts to Promote Healthy Aging”

First, with thanks to Lisa G. for sending me this recent New York Times article by Jane Brody.

And second, no one who knows the work I do—as a writer and a teacher—will be surprised that she did. Here’s just one excerpt that supports the general importance of using the arts to help us tell our stories [emphasis mine]:

“The arts open people up, giving them new vehicles for self-expression, a chance to tell their stories,” Ms. Tursini [director of Arts for the Aging in Rockville, MD] said. “The programs capitalize on assets that remain, not on what’s been lost.”

No matter where you are along the Boomer/Beyonder continuum, I hope when you read the article that you discover many good role models to inspire you, men and women who are pursuing their own “healthy” aging through the arts.

And a suggestion: once you click on the link, do these two things:

1.  Click on the “Do Not Go Gently” link within the piece; it’ll take you to a three-minute youtube excerpt of that film, where you can hear Dr. Gene Cohen describe the essential importance of the human imagination.

2. If you scroll through the Comments section, you might come across a gem or two as I did, including this one:

“As Dr. Cohen frequently stressed, imagination and creative expression are fundamental to human development at any age. We know that "play" is an essential developmental activity for children. And, we are also realizing that the developmental process continues throughout life. I believe that creativity and artistic exploration are essential forms of "adult play" that serve to keep our brains healthy and further the developmental intelligence of our mature minds.”
                                                                        Michael C. Patterson