Archive for the 'radio' Category

Do they sound gay?

Maybe I’m being too harsh? I can’t see? So it’s possible I rely too heavily on the way things sound? I’m walking down the street? Or sitting at our local tavern? Hackneys? And people around me talk? As if they aren’t sure what they’re saying? They ask questions? But never pause for an answer?


By now you’ve all experienced this upspeak phenomenon, but Tuesday’s Fresh Air interview on NPR gave me a new perspective on it all. Terry Gross interviewed Susan Sankin, one of the voice experts featured in a new documentary called Do I Sound Gay? The film was produced by David Thorpe, a gay man who had a problem with his voice — he thought it sounded annoying and stereotypically gay. Thorpe narrates the film, which follows him as he looks for insights and advice from experts and talks to gay friends about his voice and their voices. He also talks to several gay people with very familiar voices, including David Sedaris, Tim Gunn and Dan Savage.

In the interview Terry Gross asked Thorpe and Sankin, a language and speech pathologist, what they thought were the distinctive qualities of the “gay voice.” Their answers:

  • dentalizing the “S” sound
  • overexaggeration
  • hanging onto vowels
  • upspeak

“Upspeak is that tendency to kind of speak in that way where you’re going up makes your voice sound a little bit musical,” Sankin said. “I think that’s what people associate with a gay sound to some degree.” From the interview:

GROSS: So you’re hearing that more in men and women, and in girls and boys? SANKIN: The upspeak, definitely. Initially when I heard it, it was among younger women. It seems now, though, that men have caught on as well. It’s just across the genders, it’s across age categories, and it’s become as contagious as the common cold.

Sankin explained how she had filmmaker David Thorpe read the Gettysburg Address so he’d understand and hear how much more authoritative and assertive he’d sound if he didn’t speak that way. She said upspeak makes people sound very immature and very unsure of themselves. Four Score? And seven years ago? Our forefathers Brought forth? On this continent? A new nation? Conceived in Liberty? “It’s almost as if they’re asking for approval.”

And so, just for fun, let’s end by rewriting my first paragraph with more declarative punctuation. Tell me how it sounds.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. I can’t see, so it’s possible I rely too heavily on the way things sound. I’m walking down the street, or sitting at our local tavern, Hackney’s, and people around me talk as if they aren’t sure what they’re saying. They ask questions, but never pause for an answer.

One step at a time

Twenty-five short years ago, the United States Capitol had no wheelchair ramps. You read that right. The monument that pretty much defines American equality and justice was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.

Disable demonstrators crawl the Capitol steps. Photo: Action for Access, Tom Olin

Disable demonstrators crawl the Capitol steps. Photo: Action for Access, Tom Olin

In 1990, activists in Washington, D.C. struggled out of their wheelchairs and crawled up the Capitol steps to urge lawmakers to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Capitol Crawl and other demonstrations across the country were modeled on tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and they helped push legislators to pass the ADA on July 26, 1990 — 25 years ago.

While the memoir classes I lead are on a short hiatus, I’ve been dedicating more time to my part-time job at Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago. I’m the Interactive Community Coordinator there, which is just a fancy title that means I moderate the Easter Seals Blog. I keep my ear open for articles and issues concerning disabilities and recruit guest bloggers to write posts about those topics. They email the posts to me, I edit them and add html code, and, presto! Their posts get published.

Come to think of it, You have Easter Seals to thank — or blame — for this Safe & Sound blog. It was at Easter Seals that I learned to use the blogging tools, and now this month at Easter Seals we are “celebrating one of the most important civil rights legislations of our time.”

Accessible design is so common now that some people find it hard to remember life without curb cuts, wheelchair ramps and Braille on elevator buttons. An NPR reporter interviewed Katy Neas, a colleague of mine from Easter Seals Headquarters to remind us what things were like back in the 20th Century.

Katy told the reporter that back then too many people with disabilities were out of sight and out of the minds of the general public. “There was a lot of ignorance about the interests and abilities of people with disabilities,” she said. “Discrimination and low expectations were part of the mainstream culture. Why would someone who uses a wheelchair want to go to the movies? Why would someone who is blind want to eat in a restaurant?”

That last quote stopped me in my tracks. We’ve come a long way, baby. I learned at work that 25 years ago, Easter Seals hired a Minneapolis ad agency to create posters for adults and children with disabilities to bring along to protests and events across the country. The posters were used in print public service announcements, too. More from the NPR story:

As an outspoken advocate for the ADA, Easter Seals created a series of powerful posters that illustrated the dilemmas — and desires — of disabled Americans and helped the country understand the reasons for, and responsibilities resulting from, the anti-discrimination legislation.

We’ve still got a ways to go (25 years after the ADA was passed, the unemployment rate among people who are blind still hovers around 75%) but we really have come a long way in a short time. Just look at the posters now for an idea of what things were like for people with disabilities back in the dark ages. Happy Independence Day to Americans with Disabilities.

Look at things from Sandy’s View

U of I graduate Sandra Murillo.

U of I graduate Sandra Murillo.

If you follow this blog, you already know guest blogger Sandra Murillo. Sandra lost her sight when she was three years old. She has always attended regular public schools, and has known she wanted to be a writer ever since her sophomore year at Thornwood High School in South Holland, Ill.

Sandra’s first guest post was about using assistive technology to vote in her first presidential election, and the last time we published a guest post by Sandra was when she’d just graduated from University of Illinois journalism school and was looking for a job.

Good news! Sandra is working full-time at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind – she is a regular contributor to The Beacon (a weekly radio program on disability issues) and runs a weekly column there.

Sandy’s View features Sandra’s responses to commonly asked questions about the challenges facing people who are blind or have visual impairments. This week’s question was about how people who are blind manage to swim, and Sandra was kind enough to include an excerpt from my memoir Long Time, No See there to help answer that question.

The posts I write here about ways I manage to do things without being able to see always get a lot of comments, so if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you look at them from Sandy’s View. Congratulations on the new job, Sandra!

Interviewing someone without looking them in the eye


Turns out I’m in good company when it comes to interviewing people without seeing what they look like. Laura Hillenbrand (award-winning author of Sea Biscuit and Unbroken) and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross were both quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently saying they actually prefer interviewing people that way.

The article explains that Hillenbrand has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. She has been mostly confined indoors ever since, and she doesn’t get out to do face-to-face interviews with the people she writes about. The New York Times Sunday Magazine article says most reporters would regard this as a terrible handicap, . “One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation.” More from the article:

Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote.

Terry Gross told the reporter that she began doing this out of necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Now she believes there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she told the reporter. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.”

Hillenbrand never met Louie Zamperini face-to-face but she interviewed him for hundreds of hours over the phone while writing Unbroken, her story about his life. She said that doing the interviews without looking at Zamperini allowed her to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”

I know what she means. Hearing the life stories of the memoir-writers in my classes every week without looking at them as they read? It has taught me something. Maybe, just maybe, we put too much stock in appearances.

Mondays with Mike: Podcaster for a day

When we lived in Urbana, Ill., I had a morning radio show on a local community radio station called WEFT (WEFT, rhymes with LEFT). WEFT Radio was a nearly anarchical operation, run by citizen volunteers, meagerly funded by donations and grants, but thanks to dedicated people over the years, it
survives to this day.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you'll be glad you did.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you’ll be glad you did.

WEFT carries some syndicated programming, but mostly it is local volunteers who piece together each week’s shows. You find blues shows, jazz shows, old time country shows, political shows, gospel shows, GLBT shows. It’s sort of a grand mess, the airwaves version of a community parade.

So like I said, back in the 90s (boy, it hurts to write that), I was in the middle of it with a morning show, once a week, that I called Adult Children of Parents (ACOP). You may recall that the terms dependent, co-dependent,
enabling, adult children of (fill in the blank) and recovery-speak was entering the vernacular back then. The title was my snarky response.

I read headlines from the Chicago Tribune and sometimes the local paper, I commented, I played music, I had guests, Beth played the accordion during fundraisers. I came to love it. Put me in front of a large live audience and my palms sweat and my voice cracks like an adolescent. Put me in a studio with a microphone and I become, as one friend once put it, verbally incontinent.

So, last week, when I got an email blast from Steve Rhodes of The Beachwood Reporter linking to his latest podcast – and inviting volunteers to appear as guests on The Beachwood Radio Hour and The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour – I stepped up to the plate.

He wrote back right away and suggested we get together to record a show this past Saturday. Which gave me a quick shot of sweaty palms, I mean, in concept it sounded fun..

About Steve: He’s first and foremost a smart, affable, honest, witty and likable guy. He’s also a superb and accomplished journalist – he’s worked at dailies, at Newsweek, Chicago Magazine, among others. And he cares, deeply, about journalism. That led him to create The Beachwood Reporter, a Web publication that rounds up pivotal Chicago (and sometimes national) stories. (The name is borrowed from a classic old Chicago tavern called the Beachwood Inn, so named because it’s at the corner of Beach and Wood.)

The Beachwood Reporter is an indispensable resource for anyone who cares about public and cultural affairs in Chicago and beyond, and it’s a one-of-a-kind resource for people who care about the state of journalism.
Reading it gives you a sketch of the current news, but also tips you to what the reporter may have missed, the questions they should’ve asked, and what the politicians and bigwigs are getting away with as a result.

We got to know each other years ago when Steve began linking to my now dormant blog called Reading with Scissors. We’ve stayed in touch since. Steve knows I’m a White Sox fan, and with the Sox making a series of big
trades and free-agent signings at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings last week, he suggested I join him and regular sports contributor Jim Coffman to the Beachwood Sports Hour to add a Sox element. He also
invited me to join the Beachwood News Hour, which I did.

It was a gas. Jim’s a churning, burning urn of Chicago sports, we mostly good-naturedly talked about the Cubs-Sox rivalry, and a good time was had. The News Hour with Steve was a little more serious in tone: We talked about the Illinois Office of Comptroller, Torture, and the Chicago Mayor’s race. Also enjoyed that, but in a different way.

You can listen to the Beachwood Radio Sports Hour (free) here — there’s an audio player plus show notes.

You can listened to the Beachwood Radio Hour (also free) here–Steve also provides show notes for the news.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll be back on, but meantime, I hope you’ll give it a listen, and I hope you’ll become a Beachwood regular.

Life Itself — the movie

A documentary about Roger Ebert called “Life Itself” opens nationwide tomorrow, July4. I just heard the filmmaker interviewed on Fresh Air, and it sure sounds to me like Roger Ebert would give his documentary a thumbs up. Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago, when his memoir by the same name was published.

Safe & Sound blog

Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself comes out today, and I’m eager to read it. From what I’ve heard, he writes a lot about his middle-class Midwestern upbringing in Urbana, Ill., a place Mike and I were proud to call home for many, many years, and the town where our son Gus was born. Ebert was born in Urbana in 1942. Early reviews say he glows about his dad, an electrician at the University of Illinois, in his book.

You might remember me glowing about Roger Ebert in a post I wrote when he was given an award from Access Living, a disability advocacy organization here in Chicago. Access Living’s Lead On award “recognizes national leaders who have helped reframe the understanding of people with disabilities and who have helped to remove the barriers–physical and attitudinal–that exclude people with disabilities from career pursuits and everyday life.”

Roger Ebert represents the…

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Just don’t call me late for dinner

Ten years ago the City of Chicago’s Commissioner on Aging contacted me to lead a memoir class at the Chicago Cultural Center. Soon afterward, Chicago Public Radio asked if I’d write and record an essay about the writers who’d signed up. I used my talking computer to e-mail my rough draft to the WBEZ editor and she emailed back with only one suggestion. “You repeat the word ‘seniors’ too much,” she said, requesting I use a “gentler” word. When I couldn’t come up with one, she wrote back. “How about golden agers?”

That’s writer Hanna Bratman, 94, the matriarch of the memoir classes I lead. Her essays have been compiled in a book called “What’s In My Head.” (Photo by Nora Isabel Bratman)

Golden agers? Was she serious?

She was. My recording of the piece is not available online, but I have a CD of it, and if you listen very closely you can hear me choke every time I call the writers “golden agers.”

Turns out the editor was ahead of her time. Just this week on Morning Edition, NPR’s Ina Jaffe opened a series she is doing about older Americans by explaining how difficult it’s been for her to find the right words to describe people who are over age 65.

“I realized what a minefield this was after I’d been on the beat just a few months,” she said, describing a profile she’d done recently of a 71-year-old midwife who is still up all night delivering babies. The headline on the NPR web site used the word “elderly” to describe the midwife. “Listeners were furious,” Jaffe said. “Maybe once upon a time, ‘elderly’ referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think … it means you’re ailing and you’re frail.” Jaffe said she sometimes uses the words older adults or older Americans but has pretty much given up senior. “I’ve met some older people who don’t like that, either,” she said. “And ‘senior citizen’ really seems to annoy just about everyone now…there really aren’t a lot of widely acceptable terms anymore.”

The piece went on and on, and on and on and on, with all sorts of other ideas:

  • Golden years: Jaffe explained this term came from a sales pitch during the late 1950s, when retirement began to be romanticized as a perpetual vacation.
  • Silver tsunami: I’d never heard of this, but NPR actually referenced a guy named Ashton Applewhite about this one. Applewhite blogs about aging and ageism and argues the metaphor is wrong. The 65-and-over population growth is not a tsunami, he says. “It’s a phenomenon that is washing gently across a flood plain.”
  • Our seniors: A term often used by politicians. Jaffe finds it patronizing. “The only other group we talk about like that is children.”
  • Successful aging: Jaffe is over 65 years old herself and says that although this is considered a progressive term, she doesn’t like it. “I think it just means there’s one more opportunity for me to fail.”

I do not research ageism, and I don’t have a degree in aging. I do lead three memoir-writing classes a week, though, and while a couple of my students are still in their fifties, most are in their seventies. Two students, Wanda and Hanna, are in their nineties and still manage to get to class on their own each week with new essays to share. Listening to all these amazing people read their essays teaches me a lot — far more than any of them will ever learn from me!

So what word do I use to describe the people who sign up for my memoir-writing classes? That’s easy. I just call them writers.

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