Thursday, March 16, 2017

Making a Memoir a Reality


At 87, she wrote her life story and created a family treasure

By Edmund O. Lawler for Next Avenue

When my mother was a teenager, she got to meet the most famous athlete of the 20th century.

It was 1947. Babe Ruth, by then stricken with throat cancer, granted my mom and her sister a private audience in the beautiful Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife, Claire. The girls, accompanied by their mother, were awestruck as the now-retired Sultan of Swat autographed photos and chatted amiably with them about baseball in a painfully raspy voice. My mom didn’t have the heart to tell the Babe, who would die a year later, that she was a fan of her hometown Chicago White Sox.

My mom was celebrating her recent high school graduation with a train trip from Chicago to New York where she rode the coasters at Coney Island, beheld the Statue of Liberty and dined at the Stork Club. The visit with Babe was a complete surprise — arranged by her businessman father and one of his confidants in New York City.

This memorable trip is among the many delicious moments captured in a self-published 2011 memoir written by my mom, Jean Oliver Lawler, for her 12 grandchildren. In good health at age 87 and calling a senior living center outside Chicago home, she titled her 115-page book How Do You Eat an Elephant? (One Bite at a Time). It’s an aphorism she often summoned to buck up her six children when facing a daunting challenge — and a motivational mantra she relied on to persist in the writing and publication of the memoir.



Her Memoir: a Challenging Endeavor

Mom was a nurse, a teacher and a homemaker, but never a writer. She didn’t use a computer. Still, she had a life story to tell.

Not long after my father died, she enrolled in a creative writing class at the community center near her home. The instructor’s feedback on her initial drafts was blunt.

Memoir writing was first and foremost personal, he told her. Facts are important, but what makes them interesting is how you feel about the facts. Her initial drafts lacked in this area, he admonished.

For further guidance, Mom read several memoirs, including some written by her friends. She found she was bored by autobiographies that unfolded chronologically, much preferring memoirs featuring vividly poignant vignettes from throughout the writer’s life.

One day, she bumped into a lifelong friend in a diner. Lorraine had just written her own memoir and had a copy in her car. She encouraged my mom to press on in her quest and offered to transcribe any handwritten material. Mom was inspired, and Lorraine made good on her offer.

In addition, Mom was coached and critiqued by her granddaughter (my niece) Moira Lawler, a gifted writer and editor. She implored my mother to write, write, write.

Mom spilled a series of engaging hand-written vignettes on to legal pads over the course of a year. But at some point, the project stalled. She was getting frustrated and feared her grandchildren would never get to read her memoir.

As a professional writer and editor, I’m an old hand at wrangling copy to get an article or an entire publication into print or online. So I stepped in to help.

A Natural Writer

As with any project, there were loose ends — in this case, computer files of transcribed chapters and a stack of handwritten chapters I needed to transcribe and edit. But I was struck by how well my mother expressed herself on the written page. Her writing was lovely and simply stated. She had an innate sense for plot. My role as an editor was minimal.

The memoir’s tone was largely celebratory — featuring vignettes of wonderful vacations, great friendships, a 57-year marriage and the achievements of her children. There were expressions of gratitude as well as stories about her grandparents and parents. It was filled with family lore that was new — not only to her grandchildren — but also to me. Interspersed throughout the pages were more than 70 photographs that illustrated her life’s special moments.

One chapter was titled “The Aunt and Uncle You Never Knew.” Sadly, it recounted the deaths of two of her children: an infant named Eileen Mary and 19-year-old son Danny, who died in a car accident. I’ve always admired Mom’s and Dad’s fortitude and faith in the face of the staggering loss of two children. The memoir, a family treasure, ensures that memories of her beloved Eileen Mary and Danny will live on in the next generation.

In the memoir’s conclusion, my mother offers some final advice for her grandchildren. “Top of my list is prayer,” she wrote, “God is there to guide you through life, if you ask.”

In reading and editing my mother’s memoir, I learned things about her life I never knew. She is inspiring me to write my own for the benefit of my two sons. Too much in life goes unsaid. A thoughtful and honest memoir can resolve some of the mystery.

Despite having made a living by writing — and almost always about someone other than me — the thought of penning my own memoir is daunting. But thanks to Mom, I know what to do. She taught me how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2017. All rights reserved.



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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Achieving Your Dreams After 60

The authors of 'Senior Wonders' on the 3 P's for Triumphant Aging
By Karen L. Pepkin and Wendell C. Taylor for Next Avenue

Credit: Thinkstock
The media abounds with negative views about the impact of aging on physical, cognitive, and financial well-being. In fact, there are entire industries that have emerged to counteract the effects of aging — nutritional supplements, hormone treatments, surgical improvements, lotions, potions, and the like. They all seem to underscore Bette Davis’ famous quote, “Old age is no place for sissies.”

What if there were another point of view? What if aging brought about, not decline but our greatest accomplishments? What if we looked at aging as Dr. Christiane Northrup does? She tells us that “getting older is inevitable, but aging isn’t.”

Our book, Senior Wonders: People Who Achieved Their Dreams After Age 60 profiles 23 individuals and two groups who not only survived into old age, but achieved their greatest 
successes. As we wrote our book, we looked for emerging themes. Were there any commonalities among these people? Although their accomplishments were in a variety of fields (arts, sciences, social causes, entertainment, etc.), several themes became apparent. We think of them as the 3 P’s: Passion, Perspective on Life, and Persistence.

Passion, by definition, is any compelling emotion or feeling. These individuals either had a strong belief in what they were doing, or in the case of those with an artistic bent, they couldn’t help creating, whether it was writing, painting, or acting.

Perspective on life emerged as a theme when we noticed that several of our seniors commented that they couldn’t have achieved their success at an earlier age. Having lived a long life enabled them to learn from failures and successes, establish a clear focus, and develop a unique perspective.

Our last P is Persistence. This theme became apparent when we observed that many of our seniors faced daunting obstacles and accomplished their goals by sheer will and determination; they did not give up.

Author Harry Bernstein and humanitarian Clara McBride Hale are two who exemplify these themes.

Bernstein was born in Stockport, England in 1910 and began his education as an architect. But when his teacher discouraged his career choice, he decided to pursue a writing career and moved to New York to accomplish his goal. Although he made a living as a writer, his wife, Ruby, had to work as a school secretary to subsidize the family income. He did have one novel published, but it wasn’t successful. Undaunted, Bernstein continued to write, penning more than 20 novels that were never published.

In 2007, at age 97, he wrote an autobiographical novel, The Invisible Wall, which received critical acclaim. The book poignantly described the “invisible wall” that separated the Jewish and Christian sections of his home town. At age 98, he published, The Dream, which told the story of his family’s move to America. Because these two books were so successful, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship at age 98 to pursue his writing.

At 99, he published the third book in the series, The Golden Willow: The Story of a Lifetime of Love, about his marriage to Ruby and later years. His novels have been translated into several languages. Bernstein stated: “If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book…It could not have been done, even when I was 10 years younger. I wasn’t ready. God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s.”

When her husband died, Clara McBride Hale had to support herself and her three small children. Not wanting to leave her children unsupervised for extended periods of time, she opened a day care in her Harlem neighborhood. Many of the children in her care stayed overnight because their parents worked as domestics. She then decided to become a foster parent and raised 40 foster children, all of whom pursued a college education. At 64, after 28 years, she retired from the foster care system. Soon after, her daughter referred a drug-addicted mother and baby to Hale for help. Before long, she was caring for all this mother’s drug-addicted children.

As the word spread throughout New York City, more and more drug-addicted babies were left in Hale’s care. During the first year and a half, her family provided financial and other support to keep her mission going. Then, the Borough of Manhattan president, Percy Sutton, arranged public funding. Also, John Lennon left provisions for support of Hale House in his will.

In 1975, Hale House moved to 122nd Street where it remains today. After successfully reuniting hundreds of families, only 12 children had to be placed for adoption. At age 85, Clara McBride Hale was honored by President Ronald Reagan for her humanitarian work. She stated: “I’m not an American hero, I’m just someone who loves children.”

“Triumphant aging,” as exemplified by Bernstein and Hale, is a counter perspective to the pervasive negative beliefs about aging. Do you, your relatives or friends have untapped potentials or abandoned dreams? If so, consider what George Elliot said: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2017. All rights reserved.



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Thursday, March 2, 2017

5 Ways Tech Products Will Help Us Age Well


A visit to CES 2017 turned up caregiving robots and vital sign 'tattoos'

One of the many helpful robot prototypes at CES using voice recognition to assist humans with daily tasks

It is the year 2025 and I have just celebrated my 85th birthday. I still live at home. This afternoon, I got into my self-driving car and went to my great granddaughter’s house for a visit. She introduced me to a group of her friends over lunch and I heard every word they said. I was a part of the conversation.

Two weeks ago, I fell in the bathroom and within minutes, my son’s voice came over my watch to ask me if everything was ok. Last night, I sat in my massage chair, and asked “Alexa” to play the top musical hits from when I met my wife in college. I closed my eyes and it brought back wonderful memories.

And although I technically live alone, I have one of the greatest companions I have ever had in my life — Tina, my personal assistant robot. Life ain’t bad.



Back to 2017 now: I recently returned from the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas — the largest, electronics show in the world where the most innovative cutting-edge technology products are introduced each year. Nearly 200,000 people attended and wandered through some 2.47 million square feet of exhibit space.

I was invigorated by the energy and innovation that I saw. Whether these products will materialize or not, I applauded each one — even the “smart” hair brush which helps make those critical decisions about how to comb your hair.

While I don’t really want a hairbrush that is smarter than I am, I can note five consumer electronic trends with great potential to help us be more independent, safe, purposeful and productive as we age. Most products are not ready for prime time yet. But if you are like me — planning and thinking about how to be as vital, productive and non-burdensome as possible as our bodies and brains start to fail — these innovations and trends represent some encouraging news:

1. Put down that mouse and talk to me. Thirty months ago, voice recognition software would get one out of every four words wrong. Today, “machines” are on parity with how we hear each other as humans. Over the course of the next couple of years, expect an explosion of voice-activated things you can do — order groceries, send your son an email, turn up the heat in your home, turn on the lights when you have to go to the bathroom at night. You get the picture. Lately, much to the dismay of my spouse, I have been spending a great deal of time talking to Alexa, Amazon’s disembodied voice that lives in the company’s Echo cylinder. It is quite remarkable what she can do today, and I feel certain that Alexa will only get better.

2. Let your car do the (autonomous) driving. If you have been lucky enough to be with your parents as they age, you will know that one of the hardest things to get them to do is give up the keys to the car. The car is independence. Freedom! Well within the next decade, however, you’ll be able to keep your car, tell it where you want it to go and not have to worry about your eyesight or reflex time. It will be like having your own personal chauffeur.

3. I can hear you now. As we age, we all lose some capacity to hear and to distinguish certain sounds. One statistic I heard at CES was that the average person waits seven years before he or she does anything about a loss in hearing. Speaking from personal experience, we spent thousands of dollars on hearing aids for my parents, which they seldom wore. Why? Well, in addition to adding to what they perceived as a social stigma, hearing aids were often buggy — whistling and uncomfortable with constantly-dying batteries. And with little competition in the marketplace, the product has improved only slightly. However, a recent decision by the FDA has opened the floodgates to tech innovators who will be able to sell some amazing new products to help people cope with age-related hearing loss without going through doctors or audiologists. Even better? These products won’t break the bank in a way hearing aids can today. (For more information about hearing loss and how to treat it, please visit Next Avenue’s hearing loss guide.)

4. I am 80 and getting a tattoo. A Chinese company at CES introduced a product that looked and worked a bit like a fake tattoo (just press on your skin and peel off, leaving something looking like a tattoo) but actually functioned like a computer sensor that monitored vital signs. Reports from the “tattoo” could then be generated and sent over the Internet to medical professionals or families and caregivers. The wearable monitoring device trend was ubiquitous at CES this year.

5. My son moved out, but my robot moved in.
Remember Rosie from The Jetsons? Robots resembling her were everywhere at CES this year, with companies introducing them as “babysitters” and “elder care companions.” While not yet fully realized, these first-generation companions, I predict, will be great friends to many of us as we age. (If you’re having a hard time envisioning what I mean, watch this video of a companion robot in action.)

Neither I nor Next Avenue endorse any product mentioned here. It is not what we do. What we do is hope to open doors and windows to your world for you to walk through and explore.

I am feeling pretty good about what is coming our way from a remarkable generation of innovators who are creating tools and products that will make us live fuller and more independent lives (even if they are doing it so they won’t have to take care of us)!

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2017. All rights reserved.



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