Was She a Racist?

Adele pulled herself out of alcoholism, made a small fortune in real estate and provided shelter and security for her four children and husband. I met the whole family at an evangelical christian church in the early 1970s. As my role model for a brief time, she showed me how to survive in the extremist Christian cult. Neither of us belonged. We tripped over the threshold searching for a deeper understanding of the word “God”, and got sucked in. 

She rejected the White male elders’ biblical interpretation that wives should not work, that the man is the head of the hosehold. I trusted her. She was on her third marriage; she convinced me that financial independence was the first step to freedom if I wanted to get out of my violent second marriage.

 The ease of Adele’s sales skills to prospective homebuyers enthralled me. I wanted to be like her. I studied and finally earned my own real estate license while working as an unpaid apprentice to Adele in a planned development.  Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, supported by my husband’s income and buoyed by Adele’s words: “You only need one sale.”

One day a couple in a splendid new car parked in front of the office. I ran out to greet them, showed them the model, obtained qualifying information, and walked them around the grounds to view the plots. The couple, Princeton University professors, picked out their dream house-to-be, and I called the owner of the development announcing my first sale. The owner arrived with a blank contract as the couple discussed their choice of bathroom tiles. I envisioned thousands of dollars exploding in my mailbox.

Since high school, I’d been politically active, and at age twenty-seven, I had no evidence to suggest that America wasn’t heeding the call to social and racial change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The owner hemmed and hawed, saying he wasn’t sure he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. Still, nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusually negative, at least not to me. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor.

The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, and found me a part-time job making stained-glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discrimination against the Black couple from Princeton. Adele brought me a news article saying the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending Black couples to White neighborhoods to purchase homes.

“See?” Adele said. “They were shills.”

It never went to court. I crawled away from my adulation of Adele. And left the real estate business.

The Injured List

FeaturedThe Injured List

The doctor mouths “four to six” in answer to my question. Her eyes say more: I’m sorry, there’s no fixing this.

“Four to six weeks?” I whisper back.

“I’m ordering physical therapy and pain management at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.”

I tell her I hate that place. The truth is I’ve never been there. The MRI shows a tear in the muscle connecting my thigh to my groin, the gluteus mimimus. Oh, and attendant flexor tendonitis. It feels like all the knives in the drawer have been thrown at my right leg. I look for hope in the word “inflamed” as if it’s a fire to be extinguished. The doctor assures me steroids reduce inflammation, but pain remains until the muscle heals. She arranges for a wheelchair to fetch me. 

“Is this what puts baseball players on the Injured List?”

“Yeah. This kind of injury puts them out for the season.”

Major League Baseball has two Injured Lists: the 10-day IL and the 60-day IL. Players move off the active roster and onto the IL depending on the prescribed recovery time of the injury. NY Mets pitcher Jacob DeGrom spends a lot of time on the 10-day IL. He says he doesn’t know what he does to cause the tightness, tendonitis, and soreness in his various body parts. Well, I know! He’s throwing, running, reaching, stretching, swinging.

Not me.

All I do is walk the dog and water the geraniums. 

This is the summer we all break out of our pandemic packaging, swing our arms around the human race and make big, unmasked plans. As soon as we notice our freedom shoes under the bed, we meet the day like it’s Christmas morning. After spending fifteen sheltered months behind closed doors humped over Zoom squares, curled around books and squinting at TV subtitles we’re ready for the party.

I’m supposed to be riding my bicycle to newly reopened lakeside hot dog stands and hip new coffee shops. Instead, the IL calls for friends to share their leftovers and homemade cookies at my table.

I’m eager to get out and do what I did 18 months ago. I ignored the caution to start slow and go slow in reinvigorating muscles that weakened during the shutdown. Kaiser Health News published a lengthy article about “older Americans struggling with physical, emotional and cognitive challenges following a year of being cooped up inside.” Nina DePaola, Northwell Health in New York, warned that getting back in shape may take time. “Pace yourself. Listen to your body. Don’t do anything that causes discomfort or pain. Introduce yourself to new environments in a thoughtful and measured fashion,” she said.

Thoughtful and measured pacing eluded me as the city gardens came into full bloom. I walked farther and faster. I did nothing to injure myself. Neighbors who see me now with a walker offer a simple hello. If anyone asks I say I slid into third.

Now each painful step is involuntarily thoughtful and measured. I shelter in place dreaming of freedom.


RIP Donald Rumsfeld

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom Richard Nixon once called “a ruthless little bastard,” had been a key architect of the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war after the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. By the end of 2006, he’d resigned, battered by controversy over the torture of enemy combatants. He was accused even by his generals and officers in Iraq of poor military planning and strategic incompetence.

Then one Sunday he showed up at my church.

In the early 1980s I’d been on the big search for a church where God shared an unbuttoned space with the intellect. I had exhausted myself in eastern religiosity, women’s Bible studies, spiritual communities of light and love, and the emotional squeeze of evangelical Christianity. And then my friend Paul Galloway told me I’d like Pastor Elam Davies at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. “He’s a great orator,” Paul said. Davies’ exegeted sermons, intellectually agile, always distilled into one message: love God, love your neighbor. I became a Presbyterian.

And now Donald Rumsfeld, a fellow Chicagoan, a neighbor, was sitting alone in the pew in front of me under the pulpit.

I had never seen him in church before, but I knew he was a member. Everybody knew. Church people had wanted him thrown off the rolls, banned, shunned. Pastor John Buchanan, a true statesman who had denounced the Iraq war in every sermon, once had to announce to the congregation, “Donald Rumsfeld is a member of this church, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.” 

All through the service that Sunday I stared at the wisps of white hair on the back of his neck, formulating what I would say to Rumsfeld after the closing benediction. Perhaps I’d ask him if he regretted what he did, or perhaps I’d ask how many civilian deaths he was responsible for. I settled for one word which I intended to deliver with samurai precision, swift and deadly.

Pastor Buchanan, who knew about my activism against the war, jumped down from the pulpit as the service came to a close. He didn’t stand at the center to recite his usual benediction. He walked swiftly over to Rumsfeld instead, greeted him with a handshake, and quickly escorted him towards the side exit.

I lunged forward from my seat intending to chase after Rumsfeld with a clenched fist, sputtering: “Murderer!” But he got away.

The church places a white rose at the podium whenever a member dies, and lists the decedent  in the bulletin. This week the bulletin read: “The white rose in the chancel signifies a change in the life of our congregation. Donald Rumsfeld died on June 30th 2021. We give thanks to God for the promise of eternal life.”

And I give thanks to the church for continuing to teach me about love.

Excerpted from “In That Number”. Chicago: Tortoise Press (2020)


Reparation Ghosts

America’s greatest living poet, Kevin Coval, posted a photo on Instagram of spray-painted artwork on an abandoned building. His caption read: “there’s some ghosts in this house”.

Yes, indeed there are ghosts. And they’re whispering at my door.

For the past fifteen months I’ve shut the door on quite a few ghosts. I hear dead friends whisper “it’s ok to let me in now. to miss me. to mourn me”. There are the terrifying ghosts I’d boxed up and shoved into the southwest corner of my noggin. They’ve gotten loose. They’ve inched their way from the outer part of my field of vision to standing right in front of me. 

“Go out,” they command. “Talk to people. Meet friends. Make mistakes. Fail. Be brave.”

Then there are the ghosts of abandoned homes in Chicago. As the shutdown got rolling, anti-racist Zooms flew out of virtual networks and landed on my computer screen. I heard the voices and faces of Black families who were systematically denied family wealth in mid-century Chicago. Black and white activists explained contract-buying and redlining. Poets spoke of the mental wreckage caused by whites colonizing their neighborhoods.

I’m haunted by the stories in Beryl Satter’s 2009 book, “Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America.” Unscrupulous brokers sold homes by contract and convinced Blacks they were making monthly mortgage payments. But there weren’t mortgages. They didn’t own their homes, didn’t build equity, couldn’t sell, and couldn’t pass the deeds on to their offspring. The massive housing scheme drained as much as $500 million from the Black community.

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about North Lawndale’s contract buyers in The Atlantic article The Case for Reparations.  He made the case. Denying Black families access to generational wealth through home ownership and other racist practices has caused the poverty, social ills and violence in the Black neighborhoods of the nation’s cities.

Coates had a solution. Reparations.  A word that makes a lot of people shiver came out of the Congressional closet where it had been languishing in a bill first introduced in 1989. About 12.5 million slaves were abducted from Africa. Reparations for their 35 million African-American descendants today would be approximately $1.5 to $2 trillion. 

White powerhouse hustlers say, ”The people to whom reparations are owed are long dead.” 

Oh those ghosts. They’re falling from the sky like rain and irrigating seeds of change. Evanston Illinois is the first place in the country to make housing reparations for Black families victimized by redlining, a practice that defined clear racial boundaries. The Evanston program is funded by (get this), marijuana sales. Illinois is expected to receive $1 billion in marijuana revenue in 2021. Uh. Oh. Someone may get the idea to use half of that for housing reparations for descendants of the swindled families in Chicago’s North Lawndale. 

That might satisfy the Chicago ghosts. Might not. I have a feeling it won’t satisfy the poets.

Celebration Time: Beatles Sing Along July 25 Rain or Shine

FeaturedCelebration Time: Beatles Sing Along July 25 Rain or Shine

Coming out of the Covid pandemic shutdown has spawned all manner of articles on “social re-entry”.  Lunch with one or two friends is my recipe for social re-entry. More than that and I’ll need a lesson in the art of conversation.  

The neighborhood social network, NextDoor provides a stepping stone to establishing rapport through small talk. Yes, it’s still online, but I feel connected to my neighbors when they seek suggestions for a handyman or ask which restaurants are serving outside. It’s good practice in case I’m ever in a large gathering again like a party or a church function. I could tell the neighborhood started opening up when NextDoor’s online regulars moved from grumbling about gunshots in the middle of the night to complaining about bad grocery stores:

“I’ve had multiple bad experiences purchasing groceries from this store. Most recently, I purchased sour cream that already had mold in it right when I opened it.”

One post sought a “Depression Buddies” walk-and-talk group for those just starting to venture out. Though I love the idea, I didn’t join because well, I’m hoping my lingering pandemic depression will dissipate as I continue to move past the whispers guarding my door.

For years, a hundred neighbors have gathered at the end of July for a free Beatles Sing Along at a park in Chicago. We all think of it as the best event of the summer. Last year we voluntarily shut ourselves down since no one was gathering indoors or out, least of all singers spewing viral loads in speaking words of wisdom, let it be. 

Knowing there are many still hesitant to group and sing together, I asked my neighbors on NextDoor:  “We’re considering holding our yearly Beatles Sing Along on the steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sunday, July 25 at 5:00. Do you see any problems with this? Would anything keep you from attending?” Within a week, ninety yet-to-be-mets responded yes with heart emojis and fifty commented with exclamations like, ‘I’ve lived here for 30 years, how come I’ve never heard about this?”

The best comment: “What would keep me away? A hurricane maybe. Maybe.”

Meanwhile, Amada Senior Care Chicago offered to bring water, handheld fans and visors. Some have asked if they can bring extra folding chairs for those who can’t manage the steps. Yes neighbors! The MCA is jumpin’ to have such a fun midsummer event.

And so are we.

Join us if you’re in Chicago. We’ll give you a songbook of twenty-two Beatles tunes and one exhilarating hour to practice social re-entering, with no expectation of small talk. Bring your good voice, bad voice, in-between voice, marimbas, tambourines, kazoos, guitars, fiddles, horns, castanets, howling dogs — any instrument or noisemaker that suits you. Can’t sing? We’ll sing to you. Come for fun. Take photos. Dosey-Do. Give Peace a Chance. Let it be.

Hats off to the father and son duo of Curt and Chris Powell, our talented choir leaders, who will entertain us with their own set, as we wind down from our Beatles Sing Along.

Start Practicing!


WGN Interview with Bob Sirott: “Campaigning then vs. now”

Regan Burke is author of “In That Number: One Woman’s March Up From the Streets of Protest To The Halls of Power and Beyond” and political organizer. She’s worked in the campaigns of Adlai Steve…

Click to hear 10 minute interview: Campaigning then vs. now

From left, President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter participate in the State Funeral for former President George H.W. Bush, at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

Learning & Leaving the Real Estate Business

FeaturedLearning & Leaving the Real Estate Business

Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what the Bible passages stating “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with 1973 modern America. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God. It wasn’t easy.

“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,” Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working outside the home. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my second bad marriage.

I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey, answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”

A couple appeared one day when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.

I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change and racial integration espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The pro forma Owner arrived in short order with a contract but when faced with the couple doubted that he could provide their choices of tile, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him to be too encumbered by his own cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on negotiating for the decor at a later date. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice charging me and the Owner with discriminating against the black couple from Princeton. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.Unknown

I sat for a deposition and feared a discrimination law suit would follow me around for the rest of my life. It dragged on for months but never went to court.

I was scoring glass in the workshop when Adele brought me a news article. The NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property.

“See?” she said, “they were shills.”

 Good for them.


Every day I look more like my father with one major exception. He was obsessed with his looks, particularly his weight. 

His man at Gucci dressed him in snazzy Italian tweed, buckled loafers and the branded red, green and tan striped garters to hold his cashmere socks in place.

Every time he lost weight he’d preen before the store mirror as the tailor tucked a little in here, a little in there. He delighted in the Gucci salesmen fussing over him like clucking hens admiring their brood. When I accompanied him on these shopping trips, I wished for a fashion shield to surround my rainbow-colored, unstructured and untailored wardrobe. Funds from my part-time receptionist job required me to shop in Marshall Field’s “Last Chance” room.

An avid devotee of the Dr. Atkins’ low-carbohydrate diet, he packed his fifty-seventh-floor fridge with white protein—cottage cheese, plain yogurt, eggs, chicken, tuna salad—plus sugar-free Vernor’s ginger ale. He disdained calorie counting and instead tracked protein grams and carbohydrates.

His favorite topic of conversation was his diet. When I didn’t change the subject fast enough, my food intake brought on unwanted rhetorical questions. “What’s in that bowl?” He’d ask already knowing it was carb-forbidden spaghetti or ice cream.

The Atkins diet was all the rage in Alcoholics Anonymous. My father cornered newcomers and hammered a Dr. Atkins wedge into their soggy brains before jotting down his phone number and saying, “Call me anytime.” Whenever he saw someone at an AA meeting holding a donut, he’d explain that a no-sugar low-carb diet keeps the blood sugar regulated and, in turn, reduces the craving for alcohol. Beginners were known to eat all-protein tuna fish right out of the can, in accordance with his dictates. 

The grocery store on the second floor of his building had a deli counter with a superior version of my favorite food, cole slaw. I once purchased a pint. He caught me at his kitchen counter about to take a forkful.

“You’re not going to eat those carbs here, are you?” 

His kitchen counter was strewn with the maniacal makings of a high protein drink. Next to the bartender-grade electric mixer stood pricey containers from Sherwyn’s Health Foods: powdered desiccated liver, brewer’s yeast, magnesium, Vitamin C, flax seed, liquid amino acids, sunflower oil, and liquid lecithin, a brown goo that could lubricate a car. My kitchen had potato chips hidden in cabinets and Hershey bars squirreled away in the freezer. 

For a few years in the 1980s I spent weekends at the three-acre garden on the third floor of his building, Lake Point Tower. I’d spend time peering through binoculars spotting gulls, hawks and bufflehead ducks at the confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. My father, clad only in Gucci swimming trunks, would strike a favorite yoga pose—standing on his head—within sight of all the bathers and sun worshipers around the nearby pool. 

As much as he tried, he couldn’t escape hangdog jowls and double chins as he aged. 

Nor can I.

Marlboro Woman

Agnes smoked Marlboros. I can’t separate the ubiquitous red and white box from any memory of my mother. Her hands were never far from that flip-top pack. Like shrimp between two chopsticks, a cigarette dangling casually between the joints of two fingers is a practiced dexterity, one she learned long before I was born.

The broad flatback of her hands extending from wide wrists guided her muscled fingers. They looked like they worked hard and long. But they didn’t. Her young hands held rackets, bridles, hair brushes and probably cigarettes. Her maternal hands chopped, sliced and scrubbed until motherhood bored her.

Freckles splattered over raised veins tunnelling through the back of her hands. When the freckles blended together into “liver spots”, I was ashamed, embarassed. Later on, those liver spots scared me, until I learned prolonged beach time was the cause, not alcohol or tobacco-related diseases. 

To paint her nails, Agnes would sit in her arm chair next to the mahogany table, a cold beer on a coaster and a cigarette in a flowery ceramic ashtray. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself.  She’d unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark-bristled brush coated in toxic red lacquer. With one hand flattened on the table, and the other one holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get the exact amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form, nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. She was never hurried, but finished before the cigarette was burned to the halfway mark. Lifting the cigarette to her lips without smudging her half-dried nails, she’d take a long rewarding drag.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lipstick brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left, slide the top up with her left fingers, and let the top drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the curved tapered bristles of the brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. She’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips, then brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. After blotting her freshly-colored lips with a folded Kleenex, she’d lift a lit Marlboro from the ashtray and gently mouth the filter tip.

In the 1960s Philip Morris secretly started using chemicals in Marlboros to free base the nicotine and increase its addictiveness. Smokers said the cigarettes calmed their nerves. By the 1970s Marlboros were the best-selling cigarette in the world.

My mother carried a small leather purse until the day she died. The only contents: lipsticks and Marlboros.

May Day

For a few years my son and I lived with his stepfather at the confluence of New Jersey’s freshwater Toms River and brackish Barnegat Bay. The east-west river begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells as it picks up smaller estuaries on its way east. Just ten degrees north of the subtropical Horse Latitudes, the Toms River is beloved by sailors, especially during summer’s prevailing southerlies.  

Our sandy backyard bulkheaded the rich brine nourshing vibrant sea creatures that, in turn, fed the migratory bird colonies.

We lived for the water.

The used Sunfish we purchased for fifty dollars came with a booklet on ‘how to sail’. With a crab claw sail and simple two line rigging, the thirty pound polystyrene Sunfish distinguished itself as a perfect learner’s boat. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats.” I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

1973 Budweiser ad

I practiced my new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead with a double braided dockline. On our first untethered day at sea, six-year old Joe, who’d studied the how-to manual, rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I pointed toward shore and asserted “go home”. Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we made it to the middle of the wide river before the dog got to us. We were too far out for her to swim back so we hauled her aboard and headed to shore. The only solution was to tuck the faithful dog away in a bedroom before heading out to sail. 

One breezy afternoon, we took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back east. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. We were trapped. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. The sail luffed out of control.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my worried brow. I could swim with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other.

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. No beaches. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. “You should name her ‘May Day’.”

And we would have.

If we’d ever sailed again.

The Sound of Metal

It’s been twenty-four years since Christopher Reeve, aka Superman, fell off his horse competing at an equestrian event and broke his neck. Why was a good Democrat like him jumping around in such a patrician sport? I love to watch fancy horses and riders ballet through their Olympic paces on TV but come on! Superman?

After an understandably gloomy recovery, wheelchair-bound Superman rose to become an effective advocate for disability rights and a staunch promoter of research for spinal cord injuries. When he appeared at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) in 2004, I asked my friend, Marca Bristo, herself a world-famous disability rights advocate, if she was going to see him.

Marca broke her neck when she was a twenty-year-old nursing student, spent a year recovering in what was the first year of RIC’s existence, and learned how to live and love in a heavy metal wheelchair. We were avid moviegoers, but she hesitated in honoring Christopher Reeve. Not because he was no longer a movie star, of course, but because she didn’t fully support his work in regenerative research. To Marca life was all about acceptance. Reeve plunged headlong (pardon the pun) into seeking a cure for spinal cord injuries.

He lobbied for embryonic stem cell therapy to heal the spine, took synthetic drugs to heal the spine, exercised to heal the spine. He founded one of the leading spinal cord research centers in the world. Knowing his injury would lead to an early death, he was on the inside track running toward the regenerative finish line.

I understand the frenzy to find a cure. I thought I was going to die before I found a solution for my chronic pain. The search alone turned pain to suffering. And I understand the reluctance in facing an incurable malady. For ten years my outsides announced I’m an alcoholic out loud in AA meetings, while my insides waged war against the world.

I didn’t drink but I didn’t want to be a sober alcoholic, didn’t want to say I was an alcoholic and sure as hell didn’t want to know other sober alcoholics. I looked for relief in self-help books, exercise, talk-therapy, anti-depressants, sex, food and spiritual retreats. I’ve always known there was no cure for alcoholism, but subterranean stubbornness kept me on the prowl for anything other than acceptance of that truth. I banged my head against a steel drum until the sound of metal made me so sick I finally cried uncle. 

Like walk, eat and love,“accept” needs to be put it in motion. Everyday I actively accept what I can’t change. If I let acceptance lie fallow, uneasiness simmers below the surface. Eventually defiance boils over and I find myself throwing tantrums in Walgreen’s because the clerk is too slow or obsessing over a bag of potato chips. 

I accept this. 

It is what it is.

This is what Marca Bristo wished for Christopher Reeve. 

Witness to Writing’s Healing Power

I have no idea when I first started going to the movies. Lists of movies from the 1950s always include ones I can tick off. I know I saw some in theaters, some on TV. 

My father loved thinking-man westerns, film noir and dramas. My mother knew all about the latest movies from reading reviews in the New York Times. They never went to movies together, but they discussed movies, fought about them, of course, as they did everything.

He started taking me to the movies with him when I was about ten. I instinctively knew to supress my yearning to see Elvis or Davy Crockett movies. In order to be included in the moviegoing, I’d feign more sophisticated preferences—Alexander the Great with Richard Burton, Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman, Giant with Rock Hudson. He never admitted to liking musicals or comedies like Anything Goes or Pajama Game. But he hummed songs from the musical Pal Joey as if he’d seen it and expressed careful admiration for its stars, Rita Heyworth and Kim Novak. 

One of the movies I’d be forbidden to see by today’s standards is The Searchers. John Wayne and his cowboys ride off in search of female relatives abducted by Indians. When they find them, the women are all dead. It’s the first time I heard the word “rape”. When I asked what that meant, my father had no answer. Faced with the unknowing, I sensed an ancestral knowing, a subconscious knowing churned up from the genetic code. I listened to these cross-generational gut reactions and the fear I heard settled quietly in my lower back. 

In 1959 my father took me to Witness for the Prosecution. An avid reader of Agatha Christie, he knew the story. I hadn’t paid attention to the chatter about the acclaimed movie starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Deitrich and Tyrone Powell. As we entered the Deerpath Theater in Lake Forest, my father casually offered a wager.

“If you guess who did it in the first five minutes, I’ll give you fifty cents.”

“Ok, but I don’t even know what it’s about.” I balked.

“That’s the point.”

I watched each second tick by on my Timex, and at the five-minute mark I leaned over to my father.

“He did it.” I whispered.

“We’ll see.” He said.

I was electrified for the rest of the movie. He did, indeed, do it. I won. My father was so pleased he let me drive home.

Desperation to please my father dominated my secret life. I wanted to be a reason he’d stay home with us. The fear, the anxiety, the straining to decode adult silences landed like hot lava in the tangled ganglia of my lower back where it lay dormant for forty years.

That’s the last movie we saw together. My parents split up soon after. In my fifties, the secrets smoldering in my lower back suddenly fired up. The secrets turned to truths through writing. And the writing put out the fire.