Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Good Morning, Kansas City

All those years of waking up in hotels at 4:00 AM, preparing Johnny and Kamal for their early morning radio appearances - I'm shaking my head as I write this. And I'm smiling, too. I enjoyed that work. It was exciting to blow into a city and get the two of them on the radio to promote The Jerky Boys - their voices heard by hundreds of thousands of people at any given moment. We must have visited over 300 radio stations over the years, probably a lot more come to think of it. And that's not including the "phoner" type interviews where they'd sit in the comfort of their NY homes and simply talk on the phone for 15 minutes at a time; a whirlwind tour of the U.S. without moving five feet from the bed.

Yes, it was fun. But it was sometimes hard to watch from the sidelines. Something about the experience made me itch to get involved. But, I thought better of it. I was a stickler for playing the artist manager role just right; it wasn't my place to be front and center. The spotlight was for Johnny and Kamal, not for me. Some managers and agents like to call attention to themselves, but that wasn't my approach.

This trip has been sort of a coming out party for me. True, it's not as though I'm on Stern, Mancow, Limbaugh or O'Reilly. Still, even at a small level it feels good to be able to get into a radio station and not talk about The Jerky Boys. Now, it's about Eldercation. It's about the people I'm meeting on the road. It's about promoting a message I feel is very important.

"Good Morning, Kansas City!!" - This week, I was privileged to be a guest on "The Walt Bodine Show" here in Kansas City. As people from this city know, Walt's been an air-wave fixture here for over 50 years - and counting. He's a remarkable man who, at 87, is still passionate about his work. As some of you may have already seen, I had a chance to visit with Walt in his home a few weeks back to talk about Eldercation. He admired what I was doing and suggested a guest spot on his show. His producer, Hayley called me last week to set it up - and that was that.

It turned out the co-host, Kelly Weiss, had to be away for the day, but the pinch-hitter was Laura Ziegler, one of KCUR's journalists and reporters. Laura did a great job for someone who found out just a half hour before the show that she was going to go on the air. I was lucky to share the hour with a woman named JoEllen Wurth from The Shepherd's Center here in KC. Of course, as it has been during this entire trip, it was no accident that she was my show partner for the day. Two months ago while in Little Rock, I interviewed Emily Cudderth who was very active in that city's Shepherd's Center organization, now known at LifeQuest. These organizations are quite special in the way they energetically promote lifelong learning via a whole host of courses and programs. It was good to hear JoEllen talk about the various offerings and services and I hope to meet with her soon to find out how I can become more involved with their work.

It was such a treat to be able to spend an entire hour on the show and to then have people call in to comment and share their personal experiences with special elders in their lives. The best surprise was a call from NYC and as soon as I heard the caller's name announced as "Beth," a huge smiled formed on my face. Beth is an old college friend from Boston University and she was on my email list of folks I wanted to tell about the upcoming show. It's still incredible to me that with streaming audio, a radio show in Kansas City can be heard anywhere in the world, pretty much at any time. In addition, posted archived links and files allow users to pick and choose when and where to check older radio shows. Beth told the audience a story about something she experienced as a grad student in Boston in the early 1980's. She and her husband, Ari, newly married, lived with two elder sisters while going through school. I hadn't thought about it for years but Beth's story reminded me of how fond she and Ari were of those two women. Beth asked a good question: How can younger people have similar experiences with older people? Of course, that goes directly to what my vision for Eldercation is. My dream is to be able to turn many others on to a way they can take the time to see and hear older people express themselves. It actually comes down to something so very simple: One has to make the choice to slow down a bit and make the time to seek out these people. There's no magic to it. Of course, if you have a grandparent or great grandparent around, you have living blessings right in front of your nose. But, even if you don't have an older friend or family member nearby, volunteer opportunities are usually just a quick phone call away and, trust me, if you make a move to spend some time with a senior citizen, you will be richly rewarded. I know it sounds like a cliche', but whatever you put into the experience, you will get back fivefold. Well ... I haven't exactly measured it, but the reward it pretty terrific.

By the way, if any of you are interested in hearing this week's show, I'm pasting a Walt Bodine link here and you can click on it to listen any time the spirit moves you: I'm figuring out a way to have a copy of the show directly posted to the Eldercation site as well, so stay tuned for that. In time, I'll be able to post excerpts from some of the interviews I've done, too.

Ahh, the virtues of modern technology.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

New Faces

I had another nice "class" - this time at Garden Village. It was another learning experience for me.

Mary Jane gets such great attendance at her functions. There must have been about twenty-five people already seated by the time the best activity director in Missouri led me into the room upstairs on the 4th floor - all of them waiting patiently for the "Eldercation man."

Apparently, someone had made off with the microphone, so it was on me to make sure people could hear me and ... one another. Mary Jane asked me about how I got started which led naturally into a short intro, but I already have this shpiel down. It’s all about the first time I realized how much I enjoy doing this work – the "Leslie Neilson story," is what I call it. I’m not going to go into it here, but I write about it in the book as it unfolds. This experience pretty much marks the date I crossed over from law and the music business into what I'm doing now – listening to stories. I prefer it to talking about incapacity, personal wealth (or lack thereof), revocable living trusts and so on. It’s not that I’m against talking about those things – I’m very much for people planning. Very much. But it’s not how I want to spend my time, my days. I prefer to hear the story about what it was like rushing up Omaha Beach, (that was Leslie’s story). Or what it was like performing as an opening act for Elvis Presley, (that was Sammy Shore’s story). Or what it was like tossing a ball with Jackie Robinson, (that’s something Ernie Banks shared with me one afternoon). It's those stories that make this engine run.

So – after the introduction – I asked the group a few questions. On that particular day, The Great Depression was the primary topic of choice – what it was like growing up during that period. How the days unfolded? What they ate? How hard it was to get food, clothes and the effect all this had on their mindsets regarding material things. How they, to this day, still think the same way about conservation; not wasting things. And yes, one or two people spoke a lot at first – and with no mike I often had to repeat things so everyone could hear. But soon, I was out of my seat and walking around. I could have used a black board at one point, so I created an imaginary one so everyone could visualize a point I was making.

The best part, well, not the best part, but I was struck when it happened. When it was time to break for supper – they applauded me. And one by one the folks came up to tell me how much they enjoyed our little get together. The town meetings are coming more rapidly now and, who knows? I’d like to do more of this type of thing down the road, perhaps teach a continuing education class at at local college. We'll see.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lesson Plans

“I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna be doing in 38 minutes.”

That's what I was thinking on my drive up to Garden Village.

I wasn’t worried, though. Concerned a bit, perhaps. But worried? No way. That’s the difference with me these days. Years ago, when faced with a similar challenge, my stomach would be turning. I’d be worrying, “What do I say to them?” “How do I approach them?” “What do I wear?” “Where should I stand?” All of that stuff. But these days, things just seem to flow more naturally. I’m guessing it’s that “comfortable in my own skin” factor kicking in.

Mary Jane and I talked about me putting together the same kind of program at Garden Village that I’ve done at some other communities over the past few months. The Texas mistake town meeting occurred and... bingo! An idea. Now, it's become as simple as me sending an activity director an Eldercation background sheet and my CV, they post it throughout the community a few days before the event and, voilĂ !! I walk into a room filled with smiling faces and – we’re off to the races. The formula, (if you want to call it that, because each experience is so very different) is I first speak briefly about how I came to do this work. Then I ask a one or two questions I would normally ask potential interviewees. As you might expect, a few faces in the crowd always want to take the lead. It doesn’t matter what age you’re dealing with, there are always those who are more energetic and outspoken and then there are others who prefer to sit back and observe. They listen and smile. It doesn’t mean these more serene folks aren’t interested or interesting. They’re just more careful, they’re probers - testing the waters. Testing me. This process has now worked quite will in accomplishing two things. Well, actually, three, the first one being the best : (1) the group and I get to have fun for an hour or two; (2) the people get a chance to express themselves; and (3) I have a chance to see folks in action, a few of whom might be great people to speak with on a one-to-one basis. This saves the activity director time and allows the people to be more used to me when they see me milling around the community.

And so, I wasn’t worried on the drive up. I printed out a few more excerpts from past interviews and the like - a make-shift lesson plan, of sorts. But, other than that, I've been winging it. And it’s worked so far. I suppose there will be a moment one day when I’ll be sitting there in front of a room with nothing to say.

Nah. That’s never gonna happen.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

"K.C. Masterpiece"

What a treat. I find myself saying that a lot these days. A rainy, calm morning. A steaming hot cup of coffee. And, best of all, the chance to do what I love most. I get to sit with an interesting older person while I simply listen to some great stories. Ahh ... life is good.

Last Saturday, following weeks of advance work and arrangements, it was time to drive over and spend time with a genuine Kansas City treasure - Mr. Walt Bodine. (Rather than using space here, feel free to check out this link so you can read up on Walt's work and adventures). I called him at precisely 9:00, as planned, then turned the corner into his condominium parking lot. Walt lives just around the corner from me, but, as with most of KC, every time my car moves forward, hitting a new street or sight – an fresh adventure unfolds.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” I heard from the other side of the door. Telling him not to rush, I heard the knob turn a bit and the door slowly opened. A small man wearing sunglasses smiled up at me from his wheelchair.

"Come on in, Harry."

* * * * * * * * * *

“I don’t know if they told you but ... I’m blind,” Walt filled me in as I continued to set up my stuff. I didn't know it for sure, but Walt's producer, Haley, might have mentioned it to me earlier in the week.

When it was time to get started, Walt started to make his way over to the dining room table and at first moved in the opposite direction toward the front door. He caught himself, chuckled and then turned back toward me, still laughing.

"If I'd headed that way, it would've taken me 250,000 miles to get to you."

I loved that line.

Within a few seconds, I clicked on the camera and that was that. For almost two hours, we sat together and shared thoughts and stories. At one point, Walt told me he was enjoying his time with me. I smiled when he said that. I mean, a chance to interview the interviewer was the ultimate treat for me. I wasn't nervous, mind you. But, I always want people to feel at ease and want it to be fun for them. I know it feels that way to me.

He’s seen so much and met so many interesting people. At one point we did a little arithmetic, figuring how many people he has interviewed over his career, spanning fifty years. I think we figured it was well over 20,000 people, but I'll have to check my numbers when I go back to work on the transcription.

“It’s not one of my better days,” Walt explained at one point. "You'll come back and we can talk again," Walt offered.

But, he was just fine. There is no rating system when it comes to these visits. Walt talked freely about his family and career, sharing stories about each. The rain pounded outside onto his terrace. It was a perfect setting.

* * * * * * * * * *

When we finished, Walt took me into his library/office area and asked me to go over to one of the bookshelves to take a look. I didn’t know what he was suggesting but I knew he was leading me to look at something.

“Read off some of the titles,” he smiled in the chair. I smiled back and took a look. One shelf was labeled, “Quotes, A-D.” The next one down had a sticker labeled “Quotes, E-G," and so on. I read off some of the titles – “Great Quotes from American History” - “Marriage Quotes” - "2774 Quotes & Quips." I swear there must have been over 300 books, all of them filled with just quotes.

“I didn’t know there were this many books about any one subject, especially this one.” I laughed with Walt.

“When you come back, you'll look at more of them, look at some of the sayings. Amazing, huh?"

When I walked into his office, I couldn't help but notice a few photos on the right wall. One, in particular, struck me immediately. Martin Luther King, sitting with Walt and his news partner, at the time. Reverend King is looking over his shoulder toward the photographer. (See the photo on the right). That's Walt on the left.

“King has a concerned look on his face. See it? He'd just come back from Birmingham. The march."

There were a few photos of Walt standing with President Harry Truman. Many of you know that Truman's home, Independence, Missouri, is right down the road to the East and Walt had many experiences with President Truman. He shared a funny story about Truman picking up a pair of Walt's son's shoes and handing them to him.

When the phone rang, it was a signal that my rainy morning meeting was about to end. A friend of Walt's was coming down to meet him for lunch, so it was time to go.

Of course, I'll be tuning in to listen to The Walt Bodine Show whenever I get the chance. I forgot to mention, at 86, Walt is still going strong, his familiar voice flowing over Kansas City's airwaves as it has for so many years.

One of this city's most genuine of gems - Walt Bodine is a real K.C. masterpiece.

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