In college, I’d felt overwhelmed by class work, grumbling I’d never get through finals without my brain imploding.  I trudged uphill and encountered a casual friend.  We spoke for several minutes, laughing.  Then she mentioned she was battling a brain tumor.

Stunned, I blinked at her, unsure if I heard correctly.  Her red hair caught the sun.  She shaded her eyes and grinned widely at me, as though she’d just joked about a boyfriend.  It wasn’t that she was cavalier or in denial… she chose not to be gloomy or self-pitying.  She expressed relief that her cancer treatment wouldn’t interfere with graduation.

I choked out a clumsy consolation, and prayed that she’d have a good prognosis.

We parted ways, and later, I lingered outside the door of a college professor, an endearing chain-smoker who favored tweed jackets, whose desk was piled high with messy textbooks and tests to grade.  We talked about problems, and I mentioned this friend who remained cheerful, despite her enormous physical challenge, a brain tumor, of all things.

The professor gazed at me with solemn gypsy eyes, her jittery hands a contrast to her slow, measured words.  “Everyone has problems.  It’s how you cope that matters.”

Right.  It’s how you cope.

Psychological resilence.  That’s the stuff of stout-hearted people who meet life’s setbacks head-on, no whining, no complaints.  They keep plugging, even as they face failure… or death.

Given how so many others really suffer, surely I can forge ahead and meet my goals, (fiction, others), while continuing to encourage my kids, deepen the bonds of my marriage, honor my extended family, and be a good, dependable friend.

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph: “My doctor told me I’d never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

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Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were entertaining and insightful film critics. Click on the theater image to go to a 1978 episode... and enjoy!

“No good film is too long, and no bad film is short enough.” 
— Roger Ebert

Last night, I gasped with delight over seeing a re-airing of an old Siskel and Ebert from their WTTW days, 1978 to be exact.  “Sneak Previews” made its debut on Channel 11.

What a thrill to see an original episode – to hear their takes on “Grease” and “Jaws 2,” and discuss the Hollywood blockbuster, e.g., “Star Wars.”  Very prophetic.

Siskel and Ebert seemed so much more genuine and forthright than the sanitized, glitzy packaging of today, or worse, that sneer / snark fest that seems to pervade entertainment shows. 

These two had an earnest, passionate and blunt way of debating a film’s merits.  Gene Siskel died in 1999 from cancer-related complications.  He was only 53.

Here is an excerpt from Mr. Ebert’s blog:

We began on the air in 1975. Four or five years later, home video first began to attract attention, but in the early years there were format wars, buying a tape could cost $79, and most big recent movies weren’t available. Then all of that changed, and the current era of DVDs and Blockbuster and Netflix and streaming online content began to unfold. Today, there would be an audience for the original Siskel & Ebert reviews of, say, “Batman” or “Jurassic Park,” or Ebert & Roeper trading opinions on “Crash” or “Brokeback Mountain,” or Martin Scorsese and I picking the best film of he 1990s.

As nearly as I’ve been able to tell, very few of our programs taped between 1975 and 1985 were preserved. The tapes were erased and re-used, or just thrown away to make room. Television lived for today’s program, not yesterday’s. I remember when Janet LaMonica, an assistant producer for “Siskel & Ebert,” climbed into a dumpster and rescued most of the work Gene Siskel did locally for WBBM-CBS.

[end excerpt]

Chicago movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert appear on a 1993 David Letterman show to discuss that year’s big films, Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” versus “A Few Good Men.”

Another nostalgic moment — seeing the old intro to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert At the Movies, when Siskel was with the Chicago Tribune, and Ebert wrote (and still does) for the Chicago Sun Times, (part of my newspaper chain).  Believe their program was called, “Sneak Previews” on WTTW-TV, one of our PBS stations, (Channel 11).

Gene Siskel died 12 years ago — and I still miss his verbal fencing with Roger Ebert.  Incredible, the lasting power and dynamic those two created.  Best of luck to Roger Ebert and his family.  Thumbs-up!

"Van Mom" Caricature by Eric, the Pioneer Press's Uber-Talented Cartoonist

[This newspaper column appeared in the Pioneer Press in January 2011.]

Years ago, I attended a writer’s party at a Barrington estate.  We nibbled on Paula Deen-ish hors d’oeuvres.  It was “BYOR: Bring Your Own Reflux.”

We settled into couches, and gazed out at a rambling front yard forested by oaks and maples.

A woman approached our wordsmith cluster and introduced herself as Barb, a high-school English teacher.  She joked she was married to “the most hostile person in the room.”  I burst out laughing, because my husband usually grimaces at the idea of a “party” and waits in the car for me to say goodbye – about fifteen minutes after we arrive.

In between wine coolers and wisecracks, we shared our dreams.  Barb was also an Erma fan, and wrote fiction and humor.

The inevitable drifting happened.  Schedules got busier.  She had her baby, then I had my two.  Once, I faced a family-related crisis and she wrote a heartfelt letter.  She sent photos of her son’s school pictures at Christmas.

I sent Barb a silly essay, about my husband and I scrambling to finish a Wright Brothers plane made of popsicle sticks.  Barb chastised me, saying that parents shouldn’t really do their student’s work, but then confessed she had once built a rainforest inside a Florsheim shoe box.

According to Barb, teaching creative writing was rewarding yet intense.  “In addition to the assignment, sometimes my kids will write in the margins, ‘my mom is dying from cancer,’ or ‘my dad is drinking again.’”  Their writing was a window to their souls, and Barb listened.

For awhile, I noticed there weren’t any cards or e-mails.  So, I Googled Barb’s name.  To my shock, I found out she died in July 2009.  She was only 50.

We were not everyday friends.  Our children didn’t play together.  I never met her husband.  But she was the person I wanted to have coffee with.  I wanted to be like her.

Henry Thoreau said, “You cannot dream yourself into a character, you must hammer and forge yourself into one.”

Barb’s death feels like a hammer to my cozy world.  I say, “Things will work out,” and reassure myself there is still time to do it all.

And there isn’t.

Yep, That's Our Post-Civil War "Prez"

During a Web search-and-deploy, I somehow landed on this image.  I squinted and said, “Do mah lil’ ole nearsighted eyes decieve me?  Why, that  looks like Ulysses S. Grant.”

And by golly, it is.  

Billed as “Chas. Banks’ Original Spectacular Burlesque… General Grant’s Trip Around The World.”  Perhaps a promotional poster, long before Twitter and Facebook ever existed, circa 1879.  Can you imagine Grant living this down in the current political climate?

Mr. Mirriam-Webster just informed me that burlesque means: “a theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous, often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits and sometimes striptease acts.”

For the common slob writer, the Internet is a researcher’s cornucopia, overflowing with all kinds of nifty links, facts and fascinating info.  While researching for my latest project, I happened upon the Library of Congress site — chock full of historical images, some laugh-out-loud howlers. 

Copyrights-wise, it’s best to check… although my writer buds and I talked, and an image prior to 1920, 1900’s, should be safe to reprint.  But there could be a rabid lawyer out there, ready to smote my ruin with such a statement.

Click on the image if you’re curious about the Library of Congress website.  And remember, tell those librarians — Cheryl sent ya.

A science-fiction writer, Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, is honored with a Google Doodle today.

Behind Today's Google Doodle

So I go to research a topic via Google and I’m struck by the H.G. Wells-ish illustration, something my husband would like.  Very Steam-Punk-y. Crazily, I contemplate all the Windex this guy with the cane would need… to keep those windows sparkling clean.

Clicking on the illustration, I learn that it is the birthday of a science-fiction writer from Argentina.  He was born 112 years ago.  “Unable to support himself as a writer… Borges worked as a literature professor.”  How many of we writers can relate to that sentence?

Well, I scan the Christian Science Monitor article on Borges, click back to Google… and completely forget why I went there in the first place. 

Simply click on the illustration and you’ll go to the CS Monitor explanation.

Is there anything that can reduce a woman to a sobbing, swearing wretch – other than when she inadvertently downloads “malicious malware?”

I’d had a busy day of writing and stayed up to finish while my family snoozed.  My eyes felt gritty as I blinked from fatigue.  A glance at the microwave clock confirmed it was twelve midnight, beyond the ‘witching hour.’   If I stayed up much longer, I’d morph into a witch.  And not the button-nosed ‘Twilight’ kind.  Naw, we’re talking warts, sags under the eyes, a cackle.  We’re talking Hansel and Gretel.  Small children screaming and other women judging.

I sat, clicked… and then something went wrong.  The computer screen looked funny.  Dear God, not this.  Not a freakin’ flippin’ virus.  My head throbbed, my ears rang, I felt a surge of rage and violent impulses.  And no, I hadn’t watched “The Real Housewives.”  No, I was in deep do-do, because I’d done a no-no.  I uploaded some kind of malware, which is a quasi-virus, according to the Guru IT Guy, El Husbando.

The first sign… my anti-virus software choked and gagged.  Second sign, a pop-up with Bill Gates rolling his eyes.  Third sign, the mouse under my hand bit me. 

Those tricky @#$% hackers connived their way onto my laptop and stuck out their tongues at my technical ignorance.  How is it that Stephen Hawking and others can contemplate the mysteries of the universe, and I don’t know a “control panel” from wood paneling?

Computers.  Bah, scum bug.  Only one thing can make me this desperate, and that’s when I’m holiday shopping at Woodfield Mall, searching for an empty parking slot.  Turns out, the only available parking is in a forest preserve.  Near the Wisconsin border.

Wonder what your idea of a nightmare is.  When your computer goes kablooey?  Facing a pile of laundry that must be mounted with a rope, pick and a rescue team?  Facing a three-way mirror in a dressing room in your granny panties and a Playtex that should’ve been retired two years ago?