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Mel’s three songs

On Friday WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) invited writer Mel Washburn and me to their studio to talk about the Sum Up Your Life in Three Songs assignment I gave to my Chicago memoir-writing classes last week. Mel is in the Monday class I lead for Lincoln Park Village. During the interview, Morning Edition host Tony Sarabia played excerpts from songs Mel had chosen and had him explain how he’d narrowed his choices down to three. If you heard us on the radio Friday — or listen to the interview online later –you might enjoy reading Mel’s entire essay about his three songs. Here it is:

Three Songs = My Life (A Memoir)

by Mel Washburn

I don’t play a musical instrument. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But I love to listen to music. And my tastes in music have changed from time to time, reflecting, I think, changes in the way I feel about the world around me.

During the 1960’s, my favorite song was Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, which he sang while accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. His voice was raw, angry, and accusatory as he sang:

Come you Masters of War,
You that build all the guns,
You that build the death planes,
You that build the big bombs…
Like Judas of Old, you lie and deceive
A world war can be won, you want me to believe,
But I see through your eyes,
And I see through your brain,
Like I see through the water,
That runs through my drain.

Dylan exactly expressed my thoughts and my feelings about the powerful men who were in charge of our nation’s war economy, the men who had orchestrated the nuclear arms race and the genocidal war in Viet Nam. Like Dylan, I wanted to see them trampled and defeated.

After George McGovern lost the 1972 election in a landslide to the perfidious Richard Nixon, it seemed that the Masters had won. I was tired of feeling angry. My favorite musician became Ry Cooder. In five albums released during the seventies, he made versatile use of electric guitars, horns, strings, backup vocals, piano, etcetera to record unusual and expressive arrangements of traditional blues, calypso, gospel and country songs. One of my favorites was the 1930’s How Can You Keep On Moving? which spoke for the Okies, who were harassed by cops and vigilantes as they travelled west to escape the Dust Bowl:

How can you keep on moving unless you migrate too?
They tell you to keep on moving, but migrate you must not do.
Yet the only reason for moving and the reason why I roam,
Is to move to a new location and find myself a home.

Ry Cooder gave this song a bouncy marching rhythm, accompanied by slide guitar, drums and horns. Yet he sang it in a hopeless, mournful voice. This ironic use of traditional materials to comment on the fundamental absurdities of life, without preaching and with a sort of resignation, mirrored my thoughts about the world at the time.

In the 1980’s, I began listening to orchestral and chamber music. One of my favorite pieces is Ralph Vaughn Williams’ ethereal, hopeful violin concerto called The Lark Ascending. Though commentators routinely try to express the ideas expressed in pieces like Lark Ascending, to me their value is that they allow you to experience profound emotions without being tied to ideas.

Recently, however, I find my tastes rounding back on themselves. In the ten years since our government began its Global War on Terror, I have often returned to the ideas and feelings that long ago made Masters of War my favorite music.

What are you afraid of?

A 79-year-old writer learned a lot about his fears when I gave “What are you afraid of?” as a writing prompt over Halloween.

Loyal blog readers might remember a post I published here last year featuring excerpts from an essay Bob Eisenberg wrote then about his best job ever, when he was 11 years old, he helped a neighbor peddle fruit and junk items from a horse and wagon:

Mr. Dunn drove the horse and wagon through the alleys while I stood up in the back of the wagon, cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “WATAMEELO!” People ran down stairs from their back porches to buy our watermelons. We talked and laughed with everybody and shared news of the day as we heard it from people along the way.

Many writers in my classes email essays my way ahead of time for edits and suggestions, and Bob always sends me his. Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading stories about childhood escapades with his neighborhood buddies — Squeaky LaPort, Da Da Hernandez, and Mario DeSandro, a.k.a. “The Pranksters” – but this week’s essay was a little different.

Bob Eisenberg is not only a good writer, he's a great artist, too.

Bob Eisenberg is not only a good writer, he’s a great artist, too.

“My mother died right after I was born,” Bob wrote this week.  “I moved in with my mother’s mother until I was six. THEN she died, too.” Bob was sent off for a year at military school, and it went on from there.

“As I look back into my past I count six different grammar schools I attended and seven different families I lived with,” he wrote. “My experiences during my childhood and adolescence created hidden fears that I didn’t realize until this writing assignment.”

In his “What Are You Afraid Of?” essay, Bob acknowledges romanticizing his past. “After I got out of military school, I lived with many different relatives who were kind and caring. Cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and my father in many neighborhoods all over Chicago, relatives I describe as fun loving characters interested in my well-being,” he wrote. “There was a dark side behind these fun-loving stories, though — hidden fears that I didn’t want to look at.”

When I heard my talking computer read that last line out loud I pounced on the stop button. I’ve come to know Bob and his lovely wife Linda on rides home from our Monday Lincoln Park Village memoir class, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to learn what terrible things had happened to my friend as he was moved from house to house, school to school, family to family. When I finally mustered up the courage to continue reading, I was relieved to hear what my computer’s robotic voice came out with.

I mean, I still ache for Bob and this fear he’s had since childhood, but his fear is so rational — and obvious — I’m relieved it isn’t worse. “I realized now that the fears I had back in my childhood still affect me,” he wrote. “I don’t like traveling.”

It’s not the long lines at the airport. It’s not packing and carrying suitcases, either. That doesn’t bother Bob at all. “What really affects me and brings out my fear is leaving home. I recall the same feeling of anxiety I felt every time I moved from one family to another.”

Bob and Linda now own a summer home about 90 miles away in Michigan City, Indiana, and that’s just about the farthest Bob feels comfortable away from their condo in Chicago. He says, “Going there is like going home.”

Last week a radio station called Harbor Radio Country recorded Bob reading essays about his job on the horse and cart and his antics with the Pranksters. The recorded essays are set to air before the end of the year, and I’m hoping once WRHC-FM gets wind of Bob’s “What Am I Afraid Of?” essay they might want him to record it as well.

I know what a slider is at White Castle, but…

I’ve learned a lot about baseball from my husband Mike Knezovich over the years, but one aspect of the game that still confounds me is pitching. Which direction do curve balls curve? What’s the difference between a slider and a cutter?

Thanks to our generous friends Don Horvath and Juli Crabtree, we were able to enjoy last night’s White Sox win against the Detroit Tigers. Fans were given “Stretch Sale toys at the door to commemorate White Sox pitcher Chris Sale’s single-season record-breaking 270 strikeouts. I fondled my Stretch Sale throughout the game, and now I finally understand why legendary Los Angeles Dodgers baseball announcer Vin Scully refers to him as “Mr. Bones” and others liken the 170-pound 6’7” left-hander’s wind-up to a strained inverted w “ akin to a scarecrow.”

The Chris Sale action figure I got at last night's game -- words alone could never describe this stance.

The Chris Sale action figure I got at last night’s game.

Mike is always around to answer my baseball questions, and good radio announcers like the Brewers’ Bob Uecker, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Dave Wills, and Giants’ Jonathan Miller have been a big help in my understanding the game, but I am still left to wonder how it is that baseball fanatics and skilled announcers can accurately predict that the next pitch will be a change-up or a braking ball, or more simply, a strike or a ball.

And so, at this time each year, as we enter the playoffs, I turn to literature to help me better understand how pitching works. And year after year, literature has disappointed me.

Perfect I’m Not by David Wells taught me more about beer, brawls, and backaches than about pitching a baseball. I found Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, annoying, probably because Jim Bouton reads the audio book himself, and he’s pretty arrogant. Author Buzz Bissinger follows the St. Louis Cardinals through a 2003 three-game stint against the Chicago Cubs Three Nights in August. The book was entertaining because I’d listened to that three-game series myself on the radio (2003 was the year Mike and I moved to Chicago) but I would have learned a lot more about pitching if Bissinger’s book had focused on Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan’s decision-making rather than fawning over Tony La Russa.

I’d just about given up learning anything about pitching from reading books when I opened up my daily Writer’s Almanac online on Saturday, September 19 and learned it was Roger Angell’s birthday that day. The almanac said Angell was born in New York in 1920, and his mother and stepfather were well known in the literary world. His mother was Katharine Sergeant Angell, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor, and his step-father was E.B. White, the essayist and children’s author.

The almanac said Roger Angell started working for The New Yorker in 1956 and is best known for writing about baseball. “He was 79 when he published his first full-length book, A Pitcher’s Story.”

What? A Pitcher’s Story? I looked for Angell’s first “full-length book” on BARD, the Library of Congress National Library Service that provides audio books free of charge to people who are blind or visually handicapped, and bingo! A Pitcher’s Story was available. It did not disappoint.

Example? In Chapter 7 (called “Get a Grip”) Angell is sitting in the Yankee bullpen and asks pitcher David Cone to describe how he holds a baseball for each pitch, and what he expects to happen next. He asks readers to put down their book and “root around the house for an old baseball.” I did as I was told and found mine in my top dresser drawer, signed by White Sox pitcher Roberto Hernandez after I met him in a sports store in the late 1990s and asked to feel the circumference of his upper arm with my two hands. Oh, my.

But back to Roger Angell’s “A Pitcher’s Story:

The ball, it will be seen, keeps representing a horseshoe curve of stitches when rotated. There are four of them. If we grab a horseshoe so that the first and middle-finger fingertips just slip over the top broadmost curve of the stitches, a red row of stiching will appear to run down the aver side of both fingers, as if to frame them. With these two fingers slightly parted, the odd conviction comes that you’re on top of the ball.

”This is the two—seamer,” Cone tells Angell in the book. “You’ve got it!” Cone describes how to adjust the two-seamer into a four-seamer, and how four-seamers are meant to cut the wind, while two-seamers tend to sink. “The one-liner is just a variation on the two-seamer,” Cone says. “Let your finger slip a little toward the wider white area of the ball, and you press down more with your forefinger.” “They moved on from there to the curve, the slider, the splitter, and Angell acknowledges that he’d hoped to sit down with Cone before one of his starts so Cone might go over one of the other team’s batting orders, describe each batters’ strengths and weaknesses and let Angell know his plans. “It was a dumb idea,” Angell concedes, and while I get back to playing with my Chris Sale doll, I’ll leave you with Roger Angell explaining why that was so dumb:

Each hitter and turn at bat presents the pitcher not with a fixed offensive array, but with something fluid and conditional, a cloud chamber of variables. The count, the score, the inning, the number of outs, the position of base runners, the umpire’s strike zone, capability of the outfielders, the quickness of the catcher, how much you can trust this particular receiver to handle the splitter in the dirt, the runner at third, how this next hitter was swinging in his last at-bat and the one before that.

Let the playoffs begin!

20 years ago

A deadly heat wave hit Chicago twenty years ago. WBEZ (Chicago Public Media) aired stories about the 1995 heatwave all this week, and when I heard they were looking for personal stories from listeners who’d survived the heat wave I encouraged my niece Janet to send one in. “If WBEZ doesn’t use it, I’ll publish it on our blog. Chicago Public Media’s loss is Safe & Sounds’ gain. Here’s my niece with a guest post about what she was doing 20 years ago.

Janet and her newborn daughter, Anita, 20 years ago.

Janet and her newborn daughter, Anita, 20 years ago.

by Janet May Sterling

During the Heat Wave of 1995, I lived alone in an apartment in Waukegan with a broken air conditioner. I was 25 years old, getting a divorce, and nine months pregnant.

I worked full-time as a Foster Care Worker serving Lake and Cook Counties, and every day I’d see that I was one of many, many who didn’t have working air conditioning. My landlord was sympathetic, but I was on a waiting list for repairs.

So, after work, I would fill my bathtub with ice water and sit in there for hours. I listened to the news on the radio while I was in the tub, and I remember feeling fortunate that I at least had access to finding some relief.

Day after day I’d soak in that tub after work listening to the news on the radio, and day after day more and more people were dying from the heat. Some evenings after my bath I’d head over to Walgreen’s and just walk around the store for an hour or two. The store’s air conditioning was working just fine!

Twenty years later, Anita's hitting jump shots for North Central College's basketball team.

Twenty years later, Anita’s hitting jump shots for North Central College’s basketball team.

I was a very healthy young pregnant woman, and on July 19, 1995, my daughter Anita Lynn Sterling was born. When we came home from the hospital, my apartment was nice and cool. The repairs were done! Today Anita plays basketball on her college team and is majoring in Sports Management.

Anita turns 20 today, and you can read more about her basketball success (and see photos of her in action) on this post her great Uncle Mike wrote about Title IX last year. Janet raised Anita on her own before marrying hardworking fun-loving Mike Czerwinski, and now Justin, Floey and Ray have Anita as a big sister. At twenty years old, Anita is a caring, loving, talented, witty and, dare I say warm young woman we are all proud of. Happy birthday, dear Anita. Happy birthday to you!

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!

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October 2016
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