Archive for the 'radio' Category

Something even non-believers can believe in

That's my sister Bev, me in the middle, and my sister Marilee in front of our older sister Cheryl’s 1967 Mustang, back in our David/Bacharach days.

Groovy picture of my sisters and me in front of Cheryl’s lime green 1967 Mustang.

After publishing that post about 1968 last week, I have to make a confession: I was a square in the 1960s. While the hippies and peaceniks of that generation were worshipping Jim Morrison and grooving to Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, I was busy at the piano figuring out the arpeggio in Herb Alpert’s hit “This Guy’s in Love with You.”

By then I’d already been mesmerized by the woman in the whipped cream dress on the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album cover. Now Herb was setting down his trumpet for a tune, and in 1968 he was singing those lyrics to me, an awkward pre-teen in the Chicago suburbs. And so, along with so many other pop music fans from that generation, I was sad to hear that Hal David, the man who wrote the lyrics to that song and oh so many others, had died last week.

On Friday, National Public Radio’s Fresh Air re-broadcast a 1997 interview with Hal David, and when Terry Gross asked which of his lyrics were his personal favorite, he didn’t even pause to think. “Alfie,” he said.

Alfie? For real? “Alfie”? Not “The Look of Love”? “Walk On By?” “I Say a Little Prayer”? Of course I had to leave the radio to look up the lyrics right away.

You know what? If you take the silly name “Alfie” out of that song, the words are beautiful. Downright insightful. I’ll leave you with the lyrics sans the word “Alfie” here — you can judge for yourself. And hey, if you want to admit to enjoying an easy listening tune from time to time back in the day, by all means leave a comment and fess up. I’d be particularly interested in hearing what your favorite Bacharach/David tune is.

What’s it all about?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about?
When you sort it out, are we meant to take more than we give?
or are we meant to be kind?And if only fools are kind, then I guess it’s wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, what will you lend on an old golden rule?

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, I know there’s something much more.
Something even non-believers can believe in.

I believe in love.
Without true love we just exist.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing.
When you walk let your heart lead the way,
And you’ll find love any day.

A different, ahem, look at fatherhood

A few radio stories I’ve heard lately oughta give NPR listeners an idea of what a powerful – and positive — effect men who are blind can have on their offspring.

That’s Bob Ringwald, Molly’s father.

Let’s start with Bob Ringwald. My brother Doug introduced me to Bob years ago — they’re both jazz musicians, and they play together from time to time. Bob is blind, and his daughter Molly (yes, the one in all those John Hughes movies in the 1980s) was interviewed on Weekend Edition last month about her first novel When It Happens to You. She told Scott Simon that as a child she enjoyed sitting with her dad during movies and plays to describe the action. “I actually think that that informed my writing,” she said. “That’s something that I’ve done for so long, that it’s made me, perhaps, observe things in a different way.”

And then there’s Gore Vidal. After the famous writer and critic died in July, Bob Edwards Weekend replayed an interview conducted at Vidal’s home in Los Angeles in 2006. Vidal was raised by his grandfather, a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. Sen. Thomas Gore was blind, and Vidal was ten years old when he started reading to him. “I read grown-up books to him: constitutional law, the Congressional Record, American history, poetry,” Vidal said. ”He was extraordinary, he was my education.” Vidal guided his grandfather to Senate hearings, and he said he didn’t dare fall asleep while sitting in the balcony waiting for the session to be over — at any moment his grandfather might give a hand signal to let young Vidal know to skedaddle down the Senate stairs to guide him to the bathroom.

And then, the live performance of This American Life that opened with Vancouver writer Ryan Knighton telling a story about a walk in the woods he took alone with his young daughter. Knighton is blind, and when she started screaming about a bear, he panicked. After weighing his options, he realized that her frantic cries of “bear!” were only in reaction to dropping her teddy bear on the sidewalk.

My sister Cheryl met Ryan Knighton years ago at a bookstore in Anacortes, Washington when he was touting his first book. His latest, C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, is about blind fatherhood.

Ryan Knighton’s daughter is too young now to tell us what, if any, positive effects come from being raised by a man who can’t see her. I may not be a gambling woman, but I’ll betcha this: she’ll have stories to tell!

Race: Out Loud

I published a post here back in March after Chicago Public Radio let me know they wouldn’t be airing pre-recorded essays like the ones I used to do for them. But here’s some good news: reports of my radio-essay death were greatly exaggerated. An essay I wrote aired on WBEZ this morning!

At the WBEZ studios, recording my essay. (Photo by Bill Healy, courtesy WBEZ)

I like working with public radio, so after I got that disappointing note I headed over to the WBEZ studios to meet with the Managing Editor of Public Affairs to see if I had any other options. She told me that in their new format they’d be covering topics in-depth from time to time, and that this summer Aurora Aguilar would be producing pieces on literacy, and Cate Cahan would be focusing on race issues. I told her I’d worked with Aurora and Cate before. She suggested I try pitching ideas to them. I pitched. They responded. I wrote. We recorded.

The piece I did for Aurora hasn’t aired yet. The one that aired today is about how blindness can change the way you look, ahem, at race, and Its part of Cate’s Race: Out Loud series. Here’s how WBEZ describes Race: out Loud on its web site:

We’re asking: What would it sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race, about ethnicity? What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes? What would we hear, if we listened?

That part about what we might hear if we listened is what motivated me to pitch my essay. And speaking of blindness, I can read Braille, but I’m painfully slow at it. WBEZ radio producer Joe DeCeault has been recording my essays for years, and the two of us developed a system where he puts me in front of a microphone, asks what the first paragraph in my essay is about, then what the second paragraph is about, and I retell the story paragraph by paragraph in my own words. Essays produced by Joe make me sound like I’m just sitting down talking to you, and we’re both pretty proud of how this works.

Race: Out Loud is a special project, though, so they have a freelancer doing the sound work. Bill Healy consulted with Joe about how to pull this off, but knowing that Cate Cahan and I had gone back and forth via email editing and rewriting the essay, Bill thought we needed to record it exactly how it had been written.

And so, after setting me up at the mike and testing my sound levels, Bill whipped out a printed copy of my essay and began reading it out loud line by line. I parroted what Bill said, and once I’d repeated all my lines, he spliced the sentences together, added sound effects and music, and…voila! When my essay aired on Morning Edition in Chicago today, It sounded like I’d read the whole essay all at once.

If you missed hearing the piece this morning, you can read the transcript and hear it online. Young Bill Healy sure rose to the task. He took photos for the online version and wrote some promotional copy as well. And now he can add “recorded a blind woman reading an essay” to his resume, too.

This mixolydian life

I spent the past four days at a summer Jazz Camp here in Chicago. That was not a typo. I was at Jazz Camp.

This is the fourth year that the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble combined to present the camp for adults, but it’s the first year they expanded it to a kind of humanities festival rather than simply a series of classes for amateur musicians. A story in the Chicago Tribune explains:

“We’ve extended it way beyond what it ever was … so that arts educators and anybody interested in jazz can see the connection between the music and other art forms,” says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago.

The article quoted Deutsch saying that the idea of the Straight Ahead and Other Directions Jazz Summer Camp this year was “to show how jazz really touches everything.” Lectures on topics ranging from “Jazz and Social Justice” to “Jazz and the Stage/Silver Screen” helped them achieve their goal, and the star of the show was New Orleans saxophone master and Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison, Jr., who opened each day with a lecture. I know Donald Harrison from watching him play himself on the HBO TV series “Tremé,” and in a talk about Hurricane Katrina he said it was the “worst and best thing” that could have happened to New Orleans. “It forced people to realize how important the culture here is. People from out of town are making a point to come, they are paying more attention to us, they realize now how important it is to continue with it. And the people from New Orleans who are really interested in keeping the culture alive realized that they could have lost it forever.”

My morning master’s classes were for the rhythm section, and I took an afternoon master’s class on beginning improvisation. Donald Harrison sat in on one of the improvisation classes and reiterated some of the musical terms that by that time were already spinning in my head: octotonic, mixolydian, tonic, dorian, altered. I was the only blind student at camp, and by far the least accomplished musician in the master classes.

But hey, jazz musicians are known for their ability to improvise. When I begged off taking the piano part for one tune, reminding the teacher that I couldn’t see to read the chart, a fellow student jumped in to join me on the piano bench and call out the chords. In-between sessions students offered to read the notes on the whiteboard out loud into my digital recorder, and others would lend an elbow to walk Whitney and me to the elevator to find the next session. I learned as much about jazz from the conversations we had during those walks as I did in class.

One of the photos Bill Healey took during our Thursday morning shoot. (Photo courtesy WBEZ.)

I hadn’t planned it this way, but Jazz Camp landed on my calendar days after my Easter Seals job had given me a new laptop with new software to learn. I’d started teaching a second weekly memoir-writing class the week before camp, too, and returned from a last-minute trip to see my oldest sister and her husband in South Carolina the day before jazz camp started. Add to all that, Chicago Public Radio had asked me to write an record a piece for them the day before I left for South Carolina.

My WBEZ piece is about how blindness can change the way you look at race, and it’s set to air in Chicago this Monday, July 30, during the Morning Edition segment of NPR. It’ll be available online after it airs, and when the producer contacted me this week to ask if they could come out to shoot some photos to use with the online segment, I told them the only time I’d be available was on my walk to jazz camp in the morning. We squeezed the photo session in.

All this activity didn’t leave me much opportunity to practice the piano in-between sessions, but in many ways, the timing was perfect. Figuring out chord structures and listening for changes and working out dorian scales helped balance everything else going on. It’s kind of like George Gershwin once said: “Life is a lot like Jazz… it’s best when you improvise.”

Lost horizon

When you’re born blind, Braille isn’t the only thing you need to learn to be able to read. Children born blind have a harder time comprehending visual words than their sighted peers. So in addition to learning Braille, they also have to memorize the meaning of things they’ll never be able to see.

Take a sentence like this:

The sun peeked out on the horizon through a misty haze over the vast azure and charcoal marbled sea.

Let’s start with “peeked.” Or “horizon.” Try explaining a horizon to someone who has never seen one. Then there is “misty” and “haze” and “azure and charcoal” and even “marbled.” When a person has no point of reference, those words become white noise. The reader loses interest. The story becomes hard to follow.

That’s the handsome and gregarious young Alan Brint.

The work that goes into deciphering sentences like that is just one of many, many topics I discussed a couple of weeks ago during an interview in the studios at Chicago Public Radio with Alan Brint and his father David. Alan was born blind, but other than that he has everything in common with any other 15-year-old boy I’ve ever met: he’s a smart-aleck and a goofball, and he made me laugh. A lot. Unless WBEZ producers decide to edit it out, you’ll be hearing me snort laughing more than once during the interview.

Alan has a sweet side, too. He was tongue-tied when WBEZ project manager Aurora Aguilar told him how handsome he is. “I take that as a compliment,” he finally managed to eek out. You didn’t need to be able to see to know Alan was blushing.

Alan is about to finish his freshman year of high school, and in the interview he credits the itinerant teachers of the visually impaired (or, TVIs) who have been with him since pre-school for helping him build a visual vocabulary that now helps him pass honors physics and Shakespeare at Highland Park High. In addition to teaching spelling, writing, vocabulary and reading skills in Braille, TVIs spend oodles and oodles of time dissecting sentences for students — all in an effort to build up their visual vocabulary and their reading comprehension.

Students can’t always understand the visual concepts described for them, but the TVIs I talked to while researching this story told me they’re pleased to hear their blind students using these visual words anyway. Just like all the other kids, they want to talk about the same things as their peers. In some ways, it’s similar to learning a foreign language, using visual words, and hearing them used, helps with language retention. Family members are extremely important, too, when it comes to helping a child who is born blind build up a visual vocabulary, but God forbid a 15-year-old give his parents and siblings any credit. Especially with his dad and sister Carly sitting right there in the studio with us!

My loyal blog readers might recall a post I wrote here in March after WBEZ let me know they wouldn’t be airing pre-recorded essays like the ones I used to do for them. I met with Sally Eisele, Managing Editor of Public Affairs for WBEZ, after she sent that note, and she encouraged me to pitch story ideas for some of the topics they’d be covering in-depth. This piece about congenital blindness and literacy is the result of an idea I pitched when I heard WBEZ was going to devote a series to literacy issues. I researched the story for weeks, talked to dozens of teachers and parents, and then to both children and adults who were born blind. Two weeks ago we recorded more than an hour’s worth of conversation about all this, and my guess is the finished story will be about three minutes long. I’m eager to see (okay, hear) what makes it past the cutting room floor. WBEZ has hinted the piece will air this week, but I don’t have any more specifics than that. As we say in the biz: stay tuned!

Picture perfect

Both of the memoir-writing classes I teach are taking time off in June, and one of the last topics I assigned before the break was this: choose a photograph, any photograph, and describe it to me in 500 words or less. “But please don’t say, well, this is a woman in a yellow skirt with a blue blouse standing in front of a doorway,” I said, asking them to consider telling their readers what happened right before the photo was taken, or the reason someone thought to take the photo in the first place. If they decided on a landscape, I suggested they could write about the significance of that building or mountain or whatever.

I don’t usually do the assignments I give my seniors, but when Ellen Sandmeyer emailed this photo from the Sandmeyer’s Bookstore 30th anniversary party last week, I decided to give it a try. While I may be unable to see the photo, I can guess what it might look like. After all, I was there when it was taken! Here’s the photograph:

Whit’s down there, you just can’t see her.

This is me on stage at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. A gorgeous two-year-old copper-colored Golden Retriever/Labrador cross named Whitney is at my feet, and Charlie Parker has my back.

I’m looking just as stunning as I wanna be, adorned in my belted black Lana Turner shirtwaist dress. The sleeves are turned up to three-quarter length, and the top feels like a man’s classic button down shirt. After that, it’s all woman. The waist is cinched under a fabric belt, and pleats end up draping the skirt right at my knees. From what I’ve been told, this dress picks up light and shines any time I move – oo la la!

If I look happy in this photo, well, that’s because I have a lot to smile about. Earlier that afternoon I’d been surrounded by a dozen-plus of Chicago’s most talented writers, and after that senior-citizen memoir-writing class was over I’d rushed home, gobbled down lunch, grabbed a cab to the Chicago Public Radio studio on Navy Pier, recorded an interview (more on that in a future post), rushed home again, fed Whitney, changed clothes, and after following my clever and courageous dog’s lead down the street to Jazz Showcase, we arrived just in time to be escorted onto the stage to do my thing.

Brent Sandmeyer took this photo from across the bar – he and his brother Rolf had flown in from opposite sides of the country to celebrate their parents and the sensational bookstore they opened here in Printer’s Row 30 years ago. It was an honor and a thrill to be one of the handful of writers and publishers Ulrich and Ellen Sandmeyer chose to speak at their celebration, and while I could have gone on and on about Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, I kept my talk uncharacteristically short: I’d promised myself I wouldn’t have a glass of wine until my talk was over. Cheers!

Stay tuned

Tune in….Seems like anytime an employer goes out of the way to thank you, you can bet on it: you’re being let go. Last week I got an email from WBEZ thanking me for the essays I’ve recorded for them over the years. The note went on to say WBEZ is reorganizing their local programming to emphasize live shows. They hope their new formatting will encourage listeners to comment on social media or phone in live and in person. Translation: they will no longer be airing pre-recorded essays like the ones I used to write for them.

Let’s be honest. I’m pretty lucky that WBEZ took me on to write essays in the first place. It sure felt cool to jump into a cab with Hanni or Harper and ask the driver to take me to Chicago Public Radio. So many times the driver was listening to WBEZ as we drove — one of them even asked for my autograph!

And what a kick it was to have someone call or stop me on the street after one of my essays aired. “I heard you on NPR!” they’d say. Or, “I thought the voice sounded familiar, and when I, like, waited until the end, they said it was. It was, like, you!” It was a very, very good run, and I’m sorry to seehear it come to an end.

The WBEZ arts editor did write to ask me to come and meet with her personally to see what this shift might mean for me, so I’m heading over to the WBEZ studio with Whitney tomorrow. Will it be my very last trip there? I hope not. Gee, guess we’ll all have to, ahem, stay tuned to find out.

The Circle Is Unbroken

As Whitney and I prepare for our trip to Hendricks Elementary School this morning, my husband Mike Knezovich weighs in with a guest post:

Beth listens to the radio a lot, and she listens with more attention than most. Last week she heard about a special show at a very special place: Levon

That's The Old Town School's new logo.

Helm and his current Grammy-winning band (not The Band of yore) playing a benefit for the Old Town School of Folk Music. With special guest Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. And warmup Shawn Mullins.

That’s a lot of goodness in one place, so we made an impulse buy. And on the night of St. Patrick’s Day, we traveled to Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood for the benefit.

That's the inside of Maurer Hall, the performance space at The Old Town School.

The Old Town School of Folk Music is a music venue, but more important, it’s a part of the fabric of Chicago. Thousands of kids and adults from all over Chicago take lessons there every week. Who knows how many have picked up a guitar or mandolin or cello or whatever since the school opened in 1957. Beth and I have a half-dozen friends who’ve taken up instruments and taken music lessons there. And they all speak glowingly of their experience.

Before the performance Saturday night, we browsed the silent auction. Instead of sports memorabilia or luxury cruises, this one had lots of concert posters and handwritten playlists and other music memorabilia. One photo froze me in my tracks. There he was, a baby-faced John Prine, probably in his 20s, strumming his guitar while sitting next to the fairly ramshackle registration desk at the original Old Town School location. Hello in There.

There were photos of — and music by — Steve Goodman, the writer of The City of New Orleans. Like Prine, he was an Old Town School icon, but Steve Goodman died way too young. Everywhere I turned, I saw artifacts. Performers from Bob Dylan to Peter, Paul and Mary to Pete Seeger to Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Levon can still drum. And he even sang a little.

The performance? Well, I’m still buzzing. Levon took his place at the drum set, aided by a second drummer. There was a trombone, two saxes, a trumpet, a Hammond B3, a bassist, two guitarists, and two terrific backup singers (though the term backup doesn’t do these women justice) including Levon Helm’s daughter Amy. And Donald Fagen at the electric piano with ultra-cool jazzman sunglasses. The band broke from lots of rootsy numbers into a couple Fagen/Steely Dan tunes, including “Black Friday,” and they did it perfectly. All the musicians were superb. None of the crowd was fiddling with their cell phones, all were enrapt.

Levon, who’s in his 70s now and has survived cancer, looked scrawny and a little frail, yet somehow he seemed to look exactly as he always has. I remember seeing him in The Last Waltz at The Lans Theater in my hometown — Lansing, Ill, in 1974. It was a film of The Band’s farewell performance – directed by Martin Scorscese. Even then, Levon Helm looked old and wise. I was all of 17.

But Saturday night, ages and dates and numbers didn’t matter. I didn’t feel old. I didn’t feel young. I just felt great. Here’s to Levon Helm and to the Old Town School.

This is your brain on music

Tune in….I happened to catch Daniel Levitin (the author of This Is Your Brain on Music) on the Commonwealth Club on NPR a few weeks ago, and I was so intrigued by the interview that I went online to hear it again last night. This time I took notes!

Dr Daniel Levitin is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, and he said music is involved in every region of the brain scientists have mapped so far. Music is processed in the emotional part of the brain. It stays deep in our long-term memory.

Research shows that listening to music releases certain chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, a “feel-good hormone” is released every time you listen to music you like. Listening to music with someone else can also release prolactin, a hormone that bonds people together. And if you sing together? You release oxytocin, which causes feelings of trust.

I have happy memories of singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” during car rides with my sisters and Flo, I am still bonded to friends I made in my high school band, and yes, I do get a happy feeling whenever I hear a good tune. Everythinghe Levitin said about hormones made perfect sense to me, but his claim later on that humans develop a taste for music by the time we are five years old seemed a bit outlandish.

Then again, my brother Doug did buy us that piano when I was three or four years old, and when I flip through our CD collection, what do I find? A heavy dose of piano players. Randy Newman. Todd Rundgren. Stevie Wonder. Joni Mitchell. Marcus Roberts. Ben Folds Five. Maybe that Levitin guy is on to something after all.

I’m off to play the stereo now. Bring on the dopamine! What music do you like to listen to? Leave a comment — I’d love to hear what sort of music gets you high.

A tribute to Eddie Finke

My dad died when I was three. I don’t really remember him — or even the evening he died. But my older brothers and sisters — who have kept his spirit alive for me over the years with stories about him — certainly do remember that night. Today I am especially grateful to my sister Cheryl for writing this guest post as we remember our dad.

Dion and Daddy

by Cheryl May

That's Cheryl's yearbook picture when she was 15 years old.

Fifty years ago, on January 6, 1962, I was waiting for my friends to pick me up to go to the Elmhurst Youth Center to dance and just hang out together. This is what a 15 year old looked forward to on the weekend. While I waited, I watched The Red Skelton Hour with my dad. No one had T.V. sets in their bedrooms back then, but this small black and white T.V. was sitting on their bedroom dresser.

My dad had been sent home from work a few weeks earlier because he wasn’t feeling well. After a visit to the doctor he was told to get some bed rest and not to exert himself. This was a lot to ask during the Christmas season with five of his seven children still living at home. It was the first time I put the lights on the Christmas tree — a job my Dad had done previous years.

Family and friends came over to celebrate Christmas like always, but daddy didn’t move from his bed — everyone took turns visiting with him in his bedroom. Mom took good care of Daddy and we even rigged up a “new found contraption” that let him read a book while lying flat on his back.

On that evening of January 6, as I waited to go out dancing, Daddy and I talked about the popular music I listened to on the radio. Daddy loved music. He sang with the Illinois State Champion Lions Barbershop Quartet and was a member of The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA). A popular song in 1962 was “Runaround Sue” by Dion and the Belmonts. We talked about the song and Dad said he liked it. I thought that was pretty neat that my dad could like all kinds of music. My friends arrived, and my dad said, “Have a good time!” I squeezed his hand and told him to rest. That was to be the last conversation I ever

Eddie and Flo clearly enjoyed their time together.

have with my dad.

I arrived home later that evening and found Mom sitting quietly in the kitchen with our neighbor Marion. They told me to sit down. “Your dad had a heart attack,” they said. I was not prepared to hear the rest. “He died at home. An ambulance took him away.” I put my head down and sobbed. I would never see or hear my dad again.

After wearing myself out crying, I walked down the hallway to the bedroom I shared with one of my little sisters and caught a familiar smell of my dad from his jacket in the closet. I went and found a picture of my dad taken at my sister Bobbie’s wedding a couple years before. I put it on the table next to my bed.

A while later I heard the back door open. My older brother was home. I had never heard my brother cry like that before. I stared at my picture of Daddy. I was afraid I would forget what he looked like as time went by.

Our lives changed that day 50 years ago. I got a work permit and got a part time job as a waitress after school and on weekends. Mom found a job in a bakery. Our family pulled together and we made it through some tough times.

Daddy was 47 years old when he died. Over the years I would think of all the good times he was missing with his family. I’d think of Daddy when I was at a parade in town, or when my brother took my sister to a Father-Daughter dance at school, or when I’d hear Mom crying quietly in church. When I think of all Daddy missed, I think of what we missed, too. But I sometimes see his smile, his patience, his kindness or his quiet sense of humor when I look at my children and grandchildren. And whenever I hear Dion and the Belmonts I smile at the memory of our last time together.

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