Book Launch Party

FeaturedBook Launch Party

“In That Number” Book Launch hosted by Skyline Village Chicago via zoom, Oct 21, 2020, 4:00 pm Chicago time with NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng. Register here

Cousin Barb Violi, Omaha Nebraska

In another world and time uncertain, we’d be having a rip-roaring party at Half Sour in Chicago’s South Loop hosted by Beth Finke and Mike Knezovich. Iliana Genkova would pass around campaign-like buttons and cookies with the name of my book tattooed on top. We’d all be happy, joyous and free for a few brief hours away from the worries of the world.

Sigh. We’ll have to settle for a Zoom Book Launch. Please pull up your own refreshments and join us. Monica Eng has graciously agreed to lead the discussion for my book. You’ve heard her reporting on Curious City (most recently about rats!), Thursdays on WBEZ’s “All Things Considered”.

I’ve always wanted to be a published author but I never dreamed my writing would be so well received outside of a small circle of friends and fellow writers. I’m truly humbled. Thank you for reading my book and paying such generous compliments to me in person, on email and text, Face Book and Twitter and Zoom, and even a card in the mail!

A particular thank you to those who’ve encouraged me to compile years worth of 500-word essays from memoir writing classes into a book. It was a harder task and a longer trip than I imagined but well worth the effort. If you’re a writer, keep laying down those words. There’s power in the story. If you’re not a writer, thank you for supporting us; allowing us to make mistakes, grow weary, and to brag when we find that one perfect word for that one perfect sentence in that one perfect paragraph. 

Allow me to share my joy with you through a smattering of quotes. In order not to embarrass anyone, I’ve kept most anonymous. 

See you October 21!

  • I passed two days immersed in your life story. I identified with so many places and events. I am 100% with you on the last paragraph on page 246.
  • The beauty and skill of every page, and the achievement of presenting your life story of engaging encounters is thrilling. That’s what made me want to read it all.
  • Helloooooo, It’s incredible. Who knew our white-haired “older” friend had such an XXX-rated past? I await the movie!!
  • It’s a great book about a great woman!
  • My dog wants to know why I get so absorbed in Regan Burke’s terrific book “In That Number.” But it’s easy to get caught up in this fascinating memoir of life, love, addiction and local and national politics.
  • …a work as sui generis as Regan Burke herself. I have a feeling that we’ll look back on this event as more than a book launch – more like an opus launch, with much more to come after this one!
  •  It’s a fantastic memoir about alcoholism and politics, family and recovery, from a woman who’s met everyone from Bill Clinton to Vladimir Putin. (And Rick Perlstein says it’s great.)
  • My husband read your introduction out loud to me last night. So well written –you had to get a lot into that  short intro. “Want me to read the whole book to you?” He offered, “you know I could.” He hasn’t offered to read a book out loud to me in decades. Can’t say that I blame him: when he used to read to me, I’d fall asleep, often without him knowing. There he’d be, diligently working to read out loud, take a brief look up and…zzzzzz. He must feel confident I won’t sleep through this one. He’s right..  
  • Pot brownies at her sister’s wedding. 🤣😂🤣😂🤣😂. I’m enjoying this book. It’s so well written.
  • This story is appealing to many different groups.  It’s a redemption story, a woman’s empowerment story, an AA story, a friendship story, a political struggle story,  a “how I did it,” story,  a slice of baby boomer history and Rock-in-roll , and  a special Chicago/Illinois-political tales story all wrapped up in one book.
  • This is a beautiful wonderful story about a smart strong woman who faced all kinds of adversity and succeeded and built deep friendships.  Also the context of a couple of decades (yikes, we’re talking decades) is fun.  There are so many parallels between the 60s/70s and now.  It’s a story that has all sorts of resonating themes.
  • Am so delighted with this book – she is a brilliant writer and its a brilliant story of a life so well lived despite all the huge odds – the whole world should know. 
  • Who will like this book: 1. Anyone who likes Allan Sorkin shows, and Primary Colors. 2. Aging boomers who like the music, and a brief recount of early early political activists. 3.  AA members 4. Democrats 5. Every Democratic political junky in or formerly from Chicago/Illinois  6. Gary Hart and Bill/Hilary Clinton supporters 7.  Dead Heads and vintage rock-n-rollers 8. Every person who likes heros who survived struggles and find purpose (half of the best sellers list is this theme). 9. Anyone who’s been to Bahamas, Barcelona, Chicago, Dupont Circle, the Capital, the White House! 
  • I am on the second chapter and have many superlatives to expend— she is a wonderful writer, sharp, fun, exacting, goes to the heart of the matter.
  • I’m so enjoying this book.  I have to use a magnifying glass to read it.  I really laughed at the lima bean story. My kids didn’t like them either. But I told them I had spent hours stuffing peas with mashed potatoes.
  • Masterfully written, this memoir takes you on a true adventure – it starts with an eventful childhood, through the ups and downs of youth, the dealings with alcohol, drugs and religion, to making it to the highest echelons of politics. In That Number is inspirational and moving. Loved it! This is a book you must read, and you will read it in one go!
  • What a life’s story! I smiled, gasped, whimpered, and rejoiced as I traveled with Regan though her extraordinary life.
  • I love her writing style. She writes with intimate detail, intelligence, wit, and profound insight. Plus, it is a book for our present moment. I highly recommend “IN THAT NUMBER”.
  • “I could not put down this memoir. It is a tale of redemption and rebirth. Regan Burke writes of all the pain of growing up the daughter of two alcoholics and well-dressed grifters ‘who didn’t pay their bills, lied, and cheated, but still had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres every night before dinner.’ Her story is that of the Baby Boomer generation: from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, to various political campaigns in Illinois, and finally to the Clinton White House and beyond. In That Number is a touching narrative of survival, loyalty, and compassion from a woman who has seen it all.” – Dominic A. Pacyga, author of Chicago: A Biography
  • “I highly recommend this wise and wonderful memoir about politics, about families, and the politics of families. Reagan writes like an angel-and sometimes, even better, like the devil.” – Rick Perlstein, best-selling author of Nixonland and Before the Storm
  • “Regan’s unmitigated honesty in In that Number serves as inspiration and challenges each of us, even in the face of adversity, to live, see the birds, and reach higher for ourselves and our communities every day, and in every way we can.” – Laura Schwartz, White House Director of Events for President Clinton, and author of Eat, Drink and Succeed
  • “Tales of early life with a flim-flam father, Woodstock years of drugs and alcohol, and working in Bill Clinton’s administration…Regan Burke weaves her life story in a refreshing, artful, and oftentimes witty style that endears readers to the author and leaves us wanting more. What will she do next?” – Beth Finke, author of Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors
  • I was so happy to receive your book. I read it within a week, maybe too quickly, excited to follow your narrative and really enjoying the flashes of recognition as I came across pieces I remember from classes at CLL. So much great writing in these pages. I also love the way your writing journey bookends the story and serves as inspiration for readers—the Epilogue leaves us on such an uplifting note. I’ll be thinking of you and hoping your book-debut experience is as joyful and satisfying as it can be. Congratulations again on the results of all your hard work. I think you did an amazing job! – Linda Miller, Teacher, Memoir & Creative Writing, Center for Life & Learning, The Clare and Newberry Library

Book Launch Party

Book Launch Party

“In That Number” Book Launch hosted by Skyline Village Chicago via zoom, Oct 21, 2020, 4:00 pm Chicago time with NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng. Register here

Cousin Barb Violi, Omaha Nebraska

In another world and time uncertain, we’d be having a rip-roaring party at Half Sour in Chicago’s South Loop hosted by Beth Finke and Mike Knezovich. Iliana Genkova would pass around campaign-like buttons and cookies with the name of my book tattooed on top. We’d all be happy, joyous and free for a few brief hours away from the worries of the world.

Sigh. We’ll have to settle for a Zoom Book Launch. Please pull up your own refreshments and join us. Monica Eng has graciously agreed to lead the discussion for my book. You’ve heard her reporting on Curious City (most recently about rats!), Thursdays on WBEZ’s “All Things Considered”.

I’ve always wanted to be a published author but I never dreamed my writing would be so well received outside of a small circle of friends and fellow writers. I’m truly humbled. Thank you for reading my book and paying such generous compliments to me in person, on email and text, Face Book and Twitter and Zoom, and even a card in the mail!

A particular thank you to those who’ve encouraged me to compile years worth of 500-word essays from memoir writing classes into a book. It was a harder task and a longer trip than I imagined but well worth the effort. If you’re a writer, keep laying down those words. There’s power in the story. If you’re not a writer, thank you for supporting us; allowing us to make mistakes, grow weary, and to brag when we find that one perfect word for that one perfect sentence in that one perfect paragraph. 

Allow me to share my joy with you through a smattering of quotes. In order not to embarrass anyone, I’ve kept most anonymous. 

See you October 21!

  • I passed two days immersed in your life story. I identified with so many places and events. I am 100% with you on the last paragraph on page 246.
  • The beauty and skill of every page, and the achievement of presenting your life story of engaging encounters is thrilling. That’s what made me want to read it all.
  • Helloooooo, It’s incredible. Who knew our white-haired “older” friend had such an XXX-rated past? I await the movie!!
  • It’s a great book about a great woman!
  • My dog wants to know why I get so absorbed in Regan Burke’s terrific book “In That Number.” But it’s easy to get caught up in this fascinating memoir of life, love, addiction and local and national politics.
  • …a work as sui generis as Regan Burke herself. I have a feeling that we’ll look back on this event as more than a book launch – more like an opus launch, with much more to come after this one!
  •  It’s a fantastic memoir about alcoholism and politics, family and recovery, from a woman who’s met everyone from Bill Clinton to Vladimir Putin. (And Rick Perlstein says it’s great.)
  • My husband read your introduction out loud to me last night. So well written –you had to get a lot into that  short intro. “Want me to read the whole book to you?” He offered, “you know I could.” He hasn’t offered to read a book out loud to me in decades. Can’t say that I blame him: when he used to read to me, I’d fall asleep, often without him knowing. There he’d be, diligently working to read out loud, take a brief look up and…zzzzzz. He must feel confident I won’t sleep through this one. He’s right..  
  • Pot brownies at her sister’s wedding. 🤣😂🤣😂🤣😂. I’m enjoying this book. It’s so well written.
  • This story is appealing to many different groups.  It’s a redemption story, a woman’s empowerment story, an AA story, a friendship story, a political struggle story,  a “how I did it,” story,  a slice of baby boomer history and Rock-in-roll , and  a special Chicago/Illinois-political tales story all wrapped up in one book.
  • This is a beautiful wonderful story about a smart strong woman who faced all kinds of adversity and succeeded and built deep friendships.  Also the context of a couple of decades (yikes, we’re talking decades) is fun.  There are so many parallels between the 60s/70s and now.  It’s a story that has all sorts of resonating themes.
  • Am so delighted with this book – she is a brilliant writer and its a brilliant story of a life so well lived despite all the huge odds – the whole world should know. 
  • Who will like this book: 1. Anyone who likes Allan Sorkin shows, and Primary Colors. 2. Aging boomers who like the music, and a brief recount of early early political activists. 3.  AA members 4. Democrats 5. Every Democratic political junky in or formerly from Chicago/Illinois  6. Gary Hart and Bill/Hilary Clinton supporters 7.  Dead Heads and vintage rock-n-rollers 8. Every person who likes heros who survived struggles and find purpose (half of the best sellers list is this theme). 9. Anyone who’s been to Bahamas, Barcelona, Chicago, Dupont Circle, the Capital, the White House! 
  • I am on the second chapter and have many superlatives to expend— she is a wonderful writer, sharp, fun, exacting, goes to the heart of the matter.
  • I’m so enjoying this book.  I have to use a magnifying glass to read it.  I really laughed at the lima bean story. My kids didn’t like them either. But I told them I had spent hours stuffing peas with mashed potatoes.
  • Masterfully written, this memoir takes you on a true adventure – it starts with an eventful childhood, through the ups and downs of youth, the dealings with alcohol, drugs and religion, to making it to the highest echelons of politics. In That Number is inspirational and moving. Loved it! This is a book you must read, and you will read it in one go!
  • What a life’s story! I smiled, gasped, whimpered, and rejoiced as I traveled with Regan though her extraordinary life.
  • I love her writing style. She writes with intimate detail, intelligence, wit, and profound insight. Plus, it is a book for our present moment. I highly recommend “IN THAT NUMBER”.
  • “I could not put down this memoir. It is a tale of redemption and rebirth. Regan Burke writes of all the pain of growing up the daughter of two alcoholics and well-dressed grifters ‘who didn’t pay their bills, lied, and cheated, but still had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres every night before dinner.’ Her story is that of the Baby Boomer generation: from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, to various political campaigns in Illinois, and finally to the Clinton White House and beyond. In That Number is a touching narrative of survival, loyalty, and compassion from a woman who has seen it all.” – Dominic A. Pacyga, author of Chicago: A Biography
  • “I highly recommend this wise and wonderful memoir about politics, about families, and the politics of families. Reagan writes like an angel-and sometimes, even better, like the devil.” – Rick Perlstein, best-selling author of Nixonland and Before the Storm
  • “Regan’s unmitigated honesty in In that Number serves as inspiration and challenges each of us, even in the face of adversity, to live, see the birds, and reach higher for ourselves and our communities every day, and in every way we can.” – Laura Schwartz, White House Director of Events for President Clinton, and author of Eat, Drink and Succeed
  • “Tales of early life with a flim-flam father, Woodstock years of drugs and alcohol, and working in Bill Clinton’s administration…Regan Burke weaves her life story in a refreshing, artful, and oftentimes witty style that endears readers to the author and leaves us wanting more. What will she do next?” – Beth Finke, author of Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors
  • I was so happy to receive your book. I read it within a week, maybe too quickly, excited to follow your narrative and really enjoying the flashes of recognition as I came across pieces I remember from classes at CLL. So much great writing in these pages. I also love the way your writing journey bookends the story and serves as inspiration for readers—the Epilogue leaves us on such an uplifting note. I’ll be thinking of you and hoping your book-debut experience is as joyful and satisfying as it can be. Congratulations again on the results of all your hard work. I think you did an amazing job! – Linda Miller, Teacher, Memoir & Creative Writing, Center for Life & Learning, The Clare and Newberry Library

Featured

Across the Universe with Agnes

 In May 1990 Agnes collapsed and was taken to the hospital. I was in Chicago and flew to New Jersey immediately. Therese fetched me at Newark Airport and drove straight to Point Pleasant. My mother was unconscious and attached to a breathing machine. When I caressed her hand, I noticed her freshly painted nails.

“We went for a manicure a few days ago.” Cousin Therese whispered.

Agnes had dementia the last five years of her life. Whenever I visited her, we’d have dinner, go to a movie, shop. Her lifelong carping and criticism must have died with the missing brain cells. She was softer, easier to love, without the booze. More than a few times I caught her walking out of a shop with unpaid goods. I thought she just forgot how to pay.

The official cause of death states, “Alzheimer symptoms due to alcoholic brain syndrome.” A few years earlier, alcohol and cigarettes had been removed from her life. But she didn’t know it. Her dementia had progressed to the point that she involuntarily mimicked both lighting up an imaginary Marlboro and sipping an imaginary scotch-on-the-rocks. Wet brain (formally known as Korsakoff syndrome) is caused by alcohol robbing the brain of vitamin B1. The deficiency slowly destroyed her brain cells. The damage progressed beyond the point of no return until she died. She was seventy.

When I was a young wife and mother living in married student housing at Michigan State, my mother would occasionally send me exquisite sweaters, blouses, shoes and boots. My husband was a graduate student. We had a baby. Our only expendable income came from my babysitting jobs. My mother’s part-time job selling shoes supplemented whatever she could beg, borrow or steal from relatives. I gladly accepted her gifts, never questioning how she could afford them.

Agnes taught me to shoplift when I was twelve. At the time I thought we were learning together. She was, in retrospect, more experienced than she should have been for a beginner. I became a successful petty thief until I found God in my mid-twenties and changed my ways. 

In dementia Agnes carried a small red leather clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nursing home crew gave her their old lipsticks because the sound of them click-clacking as she rifled in her bag calmed her down. Besides, if her purse was filled with lipsticks, she was less likely to lift them from the other residents.

The day she died, Therese suggested we visit the nursing home to thank the staff. Agnes’ nondescript empty bed sat in a room with five others. Her closet and dresser overflowed with garments I’d never seen before.

“Is all this my mother’s?” I asked a nurse.

“No. We couldn’t stop her from taking other people’s clothes so we gave up and let her keep them.”

I thanked her for letting my mother make her own way across the universe.

Featured

The Boilermaker

Bridget Flynn and Michael Burke were born somewhere in the west of Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-1849. They may have married in Ireland and emigrated to Earlington, Kentucky, or they may have emigrated with their families, met and married later. Or they may never have married at all. I’ve found birth records for two children, Wiliam A. Burke, my grandfather born in 1882 and Mary Agnes Burke, my great-aunt who was a nun at St. Ceceilia’s Academy in Nashville for her entire adult life. 

The next generation of the Burkes, Flynns and other Irish immigrants moved up and out of the mines to work for the railroad.

My grandfather listed “boilermaker, RR” on all official documents, even when he registered for the WWII draft at age 59. He married Katherine Kilroy in 1916, moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where she died in a car accident leaving him with three children under the age of four. 

The motherless Burke children, including my father, moved into the Kilroy family home with their maternal grandparents, seven aunts, and two uncles. In the early twentieth century, Terre Haute, a railroad town on the Wabash River, sat in the largest coal-producing county in the US. The crossroads entertainment included beer halls full of hustlers, alcoholics, floozies, grifters, drifters, desperadoes, and high-stakes gamblers. 

Will Burke 1950s

My grandfather worked up and down the Louisiana and Nashville line and often arrived at dawn to visit his children in Terre Haute, for a few hours before hopping back on the afternoon train. It’s been said he was a railroad union organizer and had to be constantly on the move for fear of reprisals from the L & N Railroad’s anti-union thugs. These were the years leading up to the passage of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which required railroad companies to allow collective bargaining, making it illegal to wage war against their union-organizing employees.

Terre Haute’s most famous citizen, Eugene V. Debs, five-time American presidential candidate, and leader of the Socialist Party of America, had worked on the railroad in the 1870s and became active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman. Debs led the Brotherhood in a major strike in1888 before founding the American Railway Union. 

I have a hunch the family lore about my grandfather’s underground union organizing was greatly influenced by hometown hero Eugene Debs. I met my grandfather once or twice but hardly remember him. The death certificate says he died of a heart attack, “In Penn. RR car somewhere between Indianapolis and Richmond Indiana.”

My father’s generation anglicized their Irishness to fit into white middle class America. He was ashamed of his working-class immigrant heritage. But he took care of those family coal miners and railroad workers—as a young lawyer he worked for John L. Lewis, president of the United Mineworkers and wrote the first pension plan ever negotiated for American labor.

Deciduous Neighborhoods

FeaturedDeciduous Neighborhoods

Setting piles of leaves on fire in the street was once a beckoning call to winter. True to their nature, trees delighted us throughout the fall as their leaves turned red and purple and gold before fluttering onto fading lawns and raked to the curb.

All the neighborhood streets had dead leaves piled up in front of their houses. We jumped in them, waded in them and grabbed armfuls to throw into the air so we could bask under dead leaf showers.

Gathering them back into pyramids, we’d let them cure for a while until they were deep brown, crinkly crispy. We’d hunt down the perfect skinny branch to skewer our marshmallows and ready ourselves for the fire.

In the Northern Hemisphere, where I lived as a child, deciduous trees and shrubs lose all their foliage in the winter. The leaves are cut from the branches by specialized cells, a process called abscission, as in scissors. Abscission helps the tree conserve water and energy during the winter.

Piling up fallen leaves and burning them is banned in most towns now because it’s unsafe, a cause of air pollution, and makes people sick. My family moved around a lot and I didn’t react adversely to leaf smoke until we moved to deciduous Kenilworth, Illinois, during my fourth-grade school year.

A reaction to any one or more of the trees could have sent me to bed that fall —maple, oak, elm, beech, birch, walnut as well as larch, honeysuckle, poison ivy, Virginia creeper and wisteria. A lot of dead stuff ended up in the street and went up in smoke.

Leaf smoke produces fine bits of dust, soot and other particulates. After the fire party in front of our house, my eyes & sinuses swelled, my throat & lungs closed, I coughed all the time and my dizzy head ached. I laid down in my parents’ darkened room and slept for weeks. 

This fall I met a friend at an outside cafe in a leafy Chicago neighborhood. We had a purpose—to entertain ourselves with the latest Trump jokes and cartoons. As we looked in and out of each others phones, my head suddenly felt too heavy to stay perched on my neck. I needed to sneeze and couldn’t, my throat closed and even though I was sitting down I was dizzy.

“Did the EPA lift the ban on burning leaves?” I asked.

“Dunno. Why?” He answered with a question.

“Don’t you smell leaf smoke?”

“No.”

I had a heightened sense of impending distress. People secretly burn leaves in their backyards and alleys and the fumes reach my nose long before they’re made public. 

Memories of crackling sparks popping up and away in front of rosey-cheeked children stirred up from my coffee. I love the smell of burning leaves like I love the flirtation of dangerous men. It’s wispy and sweet initially then overpowering and menacing. 

“I have to go!” I squealed to my friend, then ran from the whiff of the past.

Accidental Forgiveness

My parents thought the ability to read and write developed naturally, by osmosis. The first kindergarten in the US opened in 1860 but by the 1950s my parents still hadn’t heard about it. I wasn’t one of those three year olds who sat in the corner and taught herself to read and write. Learning letters and getting them into words, words into sentences, out of my brain through my pencil and onto paper developed painfully when I was eight at St. Patrick’s school in Terre Haute. Measles, chicken pox, mumps and parental neglect kept me from the entire first grade year. I was enrolled in second grade because, well, eight-year olds are in the second grade. On the first day, the nun circled the room asking each of us to stand and read a sentence from “Fun with Dick and Jane”. I rose, steadied my feet, stammered and shook. She stood right in front of me. 

“Well? Come on. Out with it.”

“I can’t read.” I mumbled.

My parents’ nonchalance over my lack of schooling perplexed the nuns. They treated my inability to read as a federal case. 

“I had no idea she couldn’t read,” my four-flushing mother announced to the mother superior, deflecting blame to my father. “He’s the smart one—he was supposed to teach her.” 

They sat me in first grade. My new classmates treated my flame-out as the worst thing that could ever happen at school. My older sister broadcasted I’d “flunked” second grade whenever she got the floor. Other parents said offhandedly, as if I couldn’t hear, that I had to repeat first grade because I couldn’t read.

To temper my embarrassment, my mother bought me a green Schwinn two-wheeler. Then she bought my two sisters their own Schwinns, red and blue. In June the nuns decided I had learned reading and writing well enough to skip second grade. They promoted me to third grade. We moved to St. Louis where I thought I’d escaped the school shame. But at Our Lady of Lourdes I faced a new mortifying unfamiliarity: multiplication tables. 

Sixty-five years later I’m promoting my first book on email and mulitplying the number sold times my cut. When a resident in my building replied “take me off your email list” to an announcement of the publication of the book, I thought, “What a bitch. Just delete it.” I’d included her in mass emails about community sing alongs for years with no response. Why gut-punch me for my book? If she’d known about the long and painful labor birthing the book, perhaps she’d have hesitated. Perhaps not. I never see her in the building’s communal laundry room where small talk turns strangers into neighbors. I suspect she has an unauthorized washer and dryer in her upgraded condo. 

When it comes to my book, my shadowy small self snarls under perceived offenses. I react as a child. It’s binary. Black and white. For me. Or against me. Because I’m published, accidental virtues visit me from time to time. I forgive my hapless parents, and I forgive the incurious, now-deleted emailer, too. 

Chicago’s Sexiest Voice

Chicago’s Sexiest Voice

In Big 7 Travel’s annual survey of the 50 sexiest accents in the U.S., Chicago came in fifth. You may know Big 7 Travel if you’re looking for the 7 greatest waterfalls in the world or 7 of the most bizarre tourist attractions in the U.S. (#1: Carhenge in Nebraska). Last year’s poll revealed Southern accents were most popular. Long Island came in last. This year New Jersey’s accent came in last which is similar to Long Island’s twisted tongue.

I can’t say WGN radio’s Bob Sirott has the sexiest voice I’ve heard, but it’s all-out Chicago. I recently started listening to Bob in the morning because he broadcasts midwestern comfort. In my twenties I set my clock radio alarm to WXRT and woke to rock and roll. When I started working in politics, WBEZ, the local NPR news radio station rousted me from sleep. I switched to Bob Sirott this summer in order to stop scaring myself to death every morning by waking to minute-by-minute bad news. Bob, who includes a moment of on-air zen meditation, never mentions the current president, rarely discusses the gun shots I hear out my Gold Coast window.

In October 1997 I was a guest at Hillary Clinton’s fiftieth birthday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Chicago transplants like me working in the Clinton Administration were invited to fly with her and Bill aboard Air Force One from Washington. We landed at O’Hare in thirty-nine-degree rain and rode downtown in the presidential motorcade. I rushed to the makeshift staff room to use a landline. My son was at my father’s hospital bedside, and I needed to call.

I had neither seen nor talked to my father for years.

“He just died. Do you want to see him?” 

I wandered into Preston Bradley Hall and found Bob Sirott, who had a morning TV news show then. Bob and I had arranged to talk off the record about what it was like to ride on Air Force One. I described the inside of the plane, the food, the guests and gave him a box of M&M’s imprinted with Air Force One’s seal. I said nothing about my father’s death. But he’s part of the pain and privilege from that night.

News of cops shooting unarmed Black people and the aftermath wake of destruction jolts me every damn time. I want to be informed but I must control the flow. The details. Inner tension between wanting to be safe and wanting criminal justice for Black people blankets my fearful dawn. Having cops on every corner makes me feel safe. Having cops on every corner is meant to deter Black men. Having cops on every corner demonstrates there is no criminal justice, no economic justice, no environmental justice, no educational justice, no spiritual justice. The system is completely broken. 

That sexy Chicago voice breathes a bit of cheer into the morning as I set out into my beautifully landscaped, dangerous, noisy, boarded up neighborhood. A neighborhood I will never leave.

Soul Clawing Days

Anne Lamott, a popular soul-searching memoirist, live-Zoomed a teaching on writing recently. She emphasized two major points: 1) stop not writing, and; 2) no one cares if you’re writing, especially your family and friends. Anne told us to be likable narrators, never vengeful and don’t antagonize the reader.

I risk being an “un”likable antagonistic narrator in writing about the looting and violence in my downtown Chicago neighborhood, the Gold Coast. An amalgam of landscaped mansions, row houses and mixed income highrises, the Gold Coast rose in the wake of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. Wealthy industrialists built North Lake Shore Drive to front their new mansions. In the late 1980s, the Gold Coast was the second most affluent neighborhood in the United States, behind Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  I’m neither affluent nor near-affluent. I live in the Gold Coast to be safe.

In the early morning of May 31, I walked out the back door of my building to Oak Street with Henry the dog. Oak Street is a block-long high-fashion retail museum where the haute couture show off their latest trendsetting wardrobes in oversize clear glass windows. The Chicago uprising stemming from the George Floyd murder turned Oak Street into a comic book version of a visit from Godzilla. Within hours shattered glass lay strewn on the streets and sidewalks, dismembered mannequins lay naked on the curbs, paper and cardboard boxes lay shredded everywhere. A U-Haul truck perched on the curbside by the shattered window of Dolce & Gabbana. Scavengers foraged through smashed-in Armani’s looking for remnants of the organized looting that had just ended. The street recovered somewhat over the next few months and then bam! On August 10 Godzilla came through again and not only sacked Oak Street, but unloosed a reign of violence and looting all over Chicago’s retail corridors. 

Black Lives Matter, a radical national organization became a mainstream darling after the gruesome George Floyd murder. Yes, white people said, we finally get it! We value Black people and their right to self-determination. We want to fight for equitable systems too. We might even support reparations. We’ll try to understand what you mean by “defund the police.” We pledge to learn more about white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Ending criminalization of Black communities is our goal too. We’re with you.

A BLM spokesperson stood in front of the police station that held 100 arrestees from the August 10 uprising and announced that BLM considers looting “reparations”, and that downtown attacks will continue until there’s justice and equality in their neighborhoods.

Activist Michael Pfleger appeared hangdog on TV mouthing a familiar plea including words like, “decades of disinvestment and abandonment,” and begging city leaders for a strategy. 

“I’ve never seen things worse.” He said.

In 1968 I had an autographed copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”. I have no idea what drew me to anti-racism then or what draws me to it now. But I sure do feel as defeated as Father Pfleger sounds.

And I miss walking Henry through the Oak Street fashion museum.

Is Zoom a Reliable Alibi?

One of the joys of the Shutdown has been discovering crime dramas on what used to be mysterious and unclicked words on my TV screen. The series of murder mysteries on MHZ, Hulu, Britbox and Acorn are not necessarily formulaic, but they have one major scene in common: the detective always asks if the suspect was elsewhere on the night of; and if there are witnesses to the alibi.

I had an alibi last Sunday. The Shutdown service at my church was livestreamed into an adequate eleven-inch computer screen propped up on the desk in my bedroom. The sermon struck the taut chords in my silent mouth and unclapped hands. I needed a collection of witnesses to shout “Amen!” to Pastor Shannon’s sermon. But I was alone, looking out the elsewhere window weeping over the no-one. No one to join in a standing ovation, no one to see and no one to see me.

After the sermon I sang along with the tinny music emanating from the computer; an old hymn I love:

Live into hope of captives freed

From chains of fear or want or greed.

God now proclaims our full release

To faith and hope and joy and peace.

Halfway through I shuttered with a renewed and deeper knowing that I’d never attend a church service in person again. The pandemic Shutdown will hold me captive in chains of fear until the end of my days. Groups, especially singing groups are out of the question for my old bones in these non-vaccine days. 

I won’t observe Pastor Matt’s infant grow from a toddler to a Sunday schooler. He’ll never again see me ooh and ahh in the delight of his fatherhood. I’ll never sneak into an early morning service in my pajamas (hidden under a long winter coat), to hear Pastor Rocky again. And he’ll never see me admiring him in the way of a proud mother. Gabrielle and I will never again join arms, run up to Pastor Shannon after the service and proclaim our undying gratitude for her ministry. And she will never see the reflected glow of our admiring faces in the pews.

crrub140320Albert Einstein once posed a question to a fellow physicist, “Do you really believe that the moon only exists if you look at it?” It’s a common philosophical question, similar to
the sophomoric, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”. In morning meditation I intentionally ask myself if I’m hearing sound or “thoughts of sound” as a way to go deeper, where there is no sound.

Intentional solitude is not the same however as the feelings of isolation that arise from the existential supposing, “If I’m neither heard nor seen, do I exist?” Responding to covid requires an abrupt “so long” to a group existence I wasn’t ready to leave. In an alternate elsewhere life, witnesses see and hear me on Zoom.

Is this a reliable alibi?

 

You Went to Woodstock?

R-13471089-1563892691-9421.jpegThere’s not been an event in my life that’s made me feel more like a hot shit than going to Woodstock.

On August 15,1969, everyone I knew in my small circle of dope smoking friends were either headed there, planning to meet there or trying to get there. Hundreds of miles of caravans disrupted the pastoral dairy farms of lower New York state, rolling upcountry from the Jersey Shore. Reveling to the world’s greatest rock and roll bands melded our bodies and souls to three days of peace and love.

Throughout the festival Wavy Gravy danced to the microphone with updates on the number of cool cats sitting on the hillside of Max Yasgur’s farm. When he exclaimed half-a-million, whoops and whistles rose up to the spirit in the sky. All the hippies in America, maybe the world, had come together. I was right where I was supposed to be.

My friends and I told and retold Woodstock tales for a time afterwards. And then it was over. Or so it seemed.

Eight years later as I stirred spaghetti sauce in my Sandburg Village kitchen in Chicago, my ten-year old son and his friends were snickering in the doorway.

“Go ahead. Ask her.” My son elbowed his friend.

“Did you really go to Woodstock?” He asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“See, I told you.”

“Wow. What was it like?”

I brought out a small box of photos and souvenirs including my prized ticket to Woodstock to show the unbelievers. Until that point I’d kept Woodstock quiet.  No one in my new crowd of straight and sober friends was or ever had been a hippie. Woodstock wasn’t yet a badge of honor, rather the confession of a derelict life.

But after wowing those ten-year old boys, I knew I was on to something.

In 1969, half a million was only .2% of the population. By 1979 we were an elite group, only 500,000 of us. In 1994 I interviewed for a twenty-fifth anniversary story in a local Chicago paper. The Presbyterian church showed Woodstock the movie and asked me to give a talk about my experience. 

My ten year old grandson called one day in 2007 and asked, “Regan, my dad said you went to Woodstock. Is that true?” I assured him it was.

“We just watched the movie. It looks pretty wild.”

That box of souvenirs mysteriously disappeared after I showed it to his father’s pals at the same age. My grandson didn’t need proof to tell his friends though. Unbelievable reality turns believable with age. He asked about my favorite Woodstock band. The next Christmas he gave me a complete set of Janis Joplin.

Using “Woodstock” in the description of my upcoming book on Amazon optimizes search engine results. Even in my seventies friends introduce me as “…she went to Woodstock.” What are they implying? Drugs? Hippie? ‘60s radical? Or simply that I used to be a hot shit badass.