Archive for the 'writing' Category

Can blind people take vacations by themselves?

Some people escape to lake houses, some to cabins in the mountains, others to villas overseas.

Me? When I want to get away by myself, I splurge on a fancy hotel.

That’s Hanni and me luxuriating in a lovely hotel room in Chicago a few years back.

What luxury — a plush robe waiting for me, my bed gets made every morning, clean towels magically appear in the bathroom, and when I walk through the lobby everyone — from the doorman to the people behind the front desk — asks if they can help me. Some even call me by my name. “Hello, Ms. Finke.” “Welcome back, Ms. Finke.” “Ms. Finke? May I help you to the elevator?”

Those of you old enough to appreciate James Thurber (or young enough to have bothered seeing Ben Stiller’s film adaptation of Thurber’s classic last year) will understand why I refer to my hotel stays as Walter Mitty experiences.

Staff at expensive hotels are used to taking care of demanding customers, so I don’t really stick out when I ask for extra help. “Can you cut a corner from the keycard? “ I ask. When I explain how that would help me feel which end to put in the key slot, no one flinches. “Our pleasure, Ms. Finke.” “May I help you with your bag, Ms. Finke?”Of course I say yes. The bellhop escorts most other guests to their rooms, so it feels downright normal to have him take my Seeing Eye dog and me to ours, too.

Once in the room, the first conquest is the phone. “How do I dial downstairs?” I ask the bellhop. “What’s the number for room service?” Next stop? The bathroom. I feel through my bag for rubber bands. “Which bottle is shampoo?” I ask. At one hotel, I washed my hair with lotion. You only have to do that once to learn a lesson. Now I stretch a rubber band around the bottle of lotion to differentiate it from the others.

I put a rubber band on our hotel doorknob, too. When my Seeing Eye dog leads me to it later, the rubber band will confirm we’re at the right place. Before the doorman leaves, I ask one last question. “Is the radio alarm on?” While he checks, I feel through my wallet for tip money and extend my arm in his general direction. “Thank you, Ms. Finke,” he says, and he’s out the door.

Hotel rooms are predictable, simple, easy to get around. The furniture is rugged, sometimes even bolted to the floor. Nothing fragile on the dressers or countertops. I can’t break anything.

Early on in my blindness, I would have never imagined this possible. Me. Spending a night alone in a hotel room. I feel like a grown-up.

And that’s Whitney ensconced before a gigantic rain forest shower that came inside a gigantic bathroom that was inside a gigantic suite we stayed in once.

All of my memoir classes are on hiatus until after Independence Day, and Tomorrow my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I are taking a train to a new boutique hotel we haven’t stayed in before. I’ll spend our quiet time there finishing a manuscript I’ve been working on  —  the one about all I learn from the memoir-writers I work with and how I manage to lead the classes without being able to see. I’m looking forward to the escape , hoping (finally) to finish this manuscript of mine. Time to get packing!

Maps, memoir and food: Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference

Hey, it’s time to sign up for the 2015 Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference, a three-day institute at the end of July that’s dedicated to the creation and revision of novels, short stories, nonfiction, and poetry. From their web site:

The program is tailored to writers of all genres, backgrounds, and levels of experience, and welcomes anyone seeking a fuller understanding of the craft — and business — of writing.

This conference is held every summer on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus, and this year I’ll be giving a workshop at 9:30 a.m. on the morning it opens: Thursday, July 30, 2015.

My 90-minute workshop is called Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground. I plan on giving a couple in-class exercises and discussing techniques to get past whatever it is that’s stopping writers from getting their work done, whether it be worries about writing as a victim, facing issues that come with writing about friends and family, or arranging writing they’ve already completed into book form. The overall emphasis will be on craft and on overcoming the barriers that keep us from writing and assembling our stories.

Each workshop at the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference is limited to 18 participants, and organizers tell me workshops and panels are filling quickly. My friends and fellow published authors Miles Harvey and Audrey Petty are giving workshops at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 30 as well.

That’s Miles Harvey. (Photo by Matt Moyer.)

I met Miles long ago when both of us wrote for the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. His first book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime was a national and international bestseller, and a session he’ll be giving at the Northwestern conference is called Start Here: Get Your Story Started with a Map:

Writers from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ursula K. Le Guin have begun their books not with an outline of the plot but with a hand-drawn map. In this workshop — open to essayists and fiction writers alike — you’ll learn how to establish setting and ignite action through the creative use of cartography.

Miles will also be leading a workshop called “The Instant Essay” where attendees will learn the basics of essay writing and get started on an essay of their own. And as if that isn’t enough, he’ll be moderating a panel about taking a Book from inception to completion, too.

As for Audrey Petty, I was introduced to her in Urbana, too. Audrey taught creative writing there, and she and I took to each other the minute we met.

Audrey was born and raised in Chicago and moved back here with her husband and their daughter a few years ago.And that's Audrey, in a shot taken by her daughter Ella. An oral history Audrey put together of stories from residents of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green (all publicly-funded buildings here in Chicago that no longer exist) called High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing was published by Voice of Witness, the nonprofit division of McSweeney’s Books. She’s had essays published in Saveur and in a 2006 anthology of Best Food Writing, and her workshop for the Northwestern conference is called Writing about Food. Audrey will give in-class exercises and use texts by Laurie Colwin, John T Edge and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor as examples so participants can “venture out and begin their own stories and/or essays about food.”

Check out the conference schedule to learn about dozens of other workshops being presented this year — I hope to sit in on many of them myself.

Their tooth fairy Is A lazy, shiftless hussy

You might recognize my friend Lynn LaPlante Allaway’s name: she is principal violist with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Lynn wrote a guest post here after Whitney and I visited her kids’ elementary school, and your fun comments to that post helped encourage her to start a blog of her own called Backwards and in High Heels. Read these excerpts from a post she published there last Tuesday and you’ll discover that Lynn’s new blog is going to be about more than music:

A photo from One of Lynn’s kids classrooms we visited a couple years ago. I hope the tooth fairy can find them all!

One of the classrooms we visited at Lynn’s kids’ school. Hope the tooth fairy finds them when she needs to!

The title of Lynn’s June 2 post is Our Tooth Fairy Is A Lazy, Shiftless Hussy, and it starts like this:

Oh, the shame! I was walking past my kids’ room last night and on the bedroom door, there hung a note. It was addressed to our Tooth Fairy, that truant little bitch.

Here Lynn inserts a photo of the note her dauther wrote. Seeing, ahem, as I can’t see photos, I was ever-so-grateful Lynn spelled out the words on the note, too. She writes, “If you can’t decipher kids’ scrawl, here it is spellchecked, for your reading pleasure.”:

Dear Tooth Fairy,

Please come get my tooth. I have been waiting for 4 days.

Top Bunk

Lynn speakes out “on behalf of beleaguered Tooth Fairies everywhere” when she admits she didn’t even know Sophie had lost a tooth. “It apparently happened the night I had a concert, so go ahead and throw a big heap of Workin’ Mama Guilt on top of this Shame Sandwich,” She writes. “Our partially-toothless daughter had been suffering in silence, waiting patiently for three nights before she even let us know she had a tooth under her pillow!” Back to the excerpt:

When she finally told us about it, I was horrified and said many nasty things about our Tooth Fairy that I now regret: how she is unreliable; takes to drinking under stress and blacking out for days and nights on end; how after she’s been to the house to collect teeth, I notice little things, like jewelry and loose change, have gone missing. Maybe, in retrospect, I laid it on a little too thick but I wanted her to understand who we’re dealing with here.

So back to me. Is Sophie’s fairy tale ruined for life? Will she start therapy soon? Or does the tooth fairy elbow out the evil mother? Do Sophie’s GPS coordinates finally lead the fairy to the upper bunk? I guess you’ll just have to link to the shiftless hussy blog post on Backwards in High Heels to find out for yourself. Welcome to blogland, Lynnie

Does your dog have a dad?

A writer in the Monday memoir-writing class I lead grew up in Germany, came to America through a study abroad program at Vassar, and stayed. Brigitte has retired from a career in academia now, and twice a week she volunteers in a third-grade class at a Chicago Public School.

The kids at Swift had a lot of energy and questions.

The kids at Swift had a lot of energy and questions.

Nearly all the students in Brigitte’s third-grade class at Swift School are children of immigrants, and to celebrate the end of a successful year, Brigitte ordered every one of them a copy of my children’s book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound and had me come over last Friday to meet them all.

I was captivated by the children’s curiosity. Without being able to see them, I forgot that the nine- and ten-year olds in Brigitte’s class might look different from any of the kids in the other classes Whitney and I have visited this past school year. Maybe you can tell from the questions they asked?

  • How old is your dog?
  • If she is only five, why is she sleeping?
  • How old are you?
  • How come you got diabetes?
  • Has life changed for you now, you know,because you’re blind?
  • How do you cook?
  • How do you fry?
  • You never said what the building was like where your dog went to school. How old is the school it went to?
  • Was it hard for you and your dog at first, you know, when it got to Chicago?
  • Would you have a dog if you never got blind?
  • Is your day ever very challenging?
  • Does your dog have a dad?

That last question was one I’d never been asked before. Yes, I explained, my dog does have a dad. A mom, too. “One of them is a Golden Retriever, and the other is a Yellow Labrador Retriever,” I said. “They still live in New Jersey, that’s where my dog was born.”

After hearing my anser, the girl who’d asked the question said, “I think your dog is sad, because it misses the family it grew up with.” And that’s when I remembered. These kids had parents from different countries. Maybe that little girl’s response about my dog being sad, and the question about life being challenging, and whether or not my dog had a hard time when it first moved to Chicago…those questions might stem from something they hear their parents say from time to time at home.

These third-graders were mature beyond their years, but they were fun, too. And smart. Thanks for asking us to come to Swift School, Brigittte, and for seeing to it that each and every one of those kids got a book to bring home. Whitney and I had a ball.

One powerful woman

The first Chicago high school built to serve an exclusively African-American student population opened its doors in 1935, and Wanda Bridgeforth, a 93-year-old writer in my Wednesday memoir-writing class, was a freshman there that year.

Wanda swells with pride any time DuSable High School is mentioned — her Class of ‘39 was the first to complete all four years there. “I was in the birthday class,” she beams.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with the writers.

DuSable was built on Chicago’s South Side 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision — Wanda says it was built to keep schools segregated. “We had boundaries back then,” she says. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks.” Everyone inside those boundaries was Black, Wanda says. “That was our neighborhood, and DuSable was our neighborhood high school.”

When DuSable first opened, Wanda recalls some neighborhood parents applying for permits to get their children in nearby White high schools. “Their parents didn’t think a Black school could be any good,” she says, adding that she felt sorry for those kids. “Our classes were crowded,” she acknowledges, remembering 50 or so students squeezing into classrooms at DuSable. “But at those other schools, if you were Black and you wanted to be in a play, you had to be a maid or a butler. At DuSable, we did everything, we were in all the plays, we wrote the school newspaper, we were having such a good time at DuSable.”

Wanda was in high school between 1935 and 1939, and during those four years she walked DuSable’s hallways with some pretty impressive classmates, including:

  • Nat King Cole, famous jazz vocalist and pianist
  • John H. Johnson, Chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines
  • Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, one of the first African Americans to sign with an NBA team
  • Harold Washington, first African-American mayor of Chicago
  • Ella Jenkins, leading performer of children’s music
  • Redd Foxx, comedian and actor
  • Dinah Washington, jazz vocalist and “Queen of the Blues”

Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda says with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!” She knew Redd Foxx when he was Jon Sanford (yes, like Sanford and Son), and she remembers Dinah Washington as Ruth Jones  — they changed their names once they became stars.

DuSable’s initial fame was in its music program, and Wanda performed in the “Hi-Jinks” student talent shows there. “We put on shows that were better than what was going on in Chicago professional theatres,” she says. “With musicians like Ruthie Jones and Nat Cole and all of those guys, we couldn’t miss!”

The venerable DuSable.

The venerable DuSable.

Wanda was quoted in an Chicago Tribune article after her work with the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action finally convinced the city to designate DuSable as a landmark. “When we came along, education was a big thing. That was the goal of almost every kid, of every parent,” she told the reporter. “I know my mother and father always said to me, ‘I want you to do better than I did.'” “My mother said, ‘I don’t want you to have to do house work. I want you to have a career.’” Wanda did  — as an audiometrist and bookkeeper  — and she credits DuSable with helping to make that possible.

At DuSable’s 80th anniversary party earlier this month, Wanda received the Powerful Woman Award and will soon have her picture added to those of her fellow famous alumni on the school’s Wall of Fame. A poem Wanda wrote about her alma mater was included in the 80th anniversary program — I’ll leave you with her words here, along with a hearty congratulations to Wanda Johnson Bridgeforth, one very powerful woman.

Ode to DuSable

by Wanda Johnson Bridgeforth

Birthday Class 1939

Your doors were opened in One Nine Three Five
A lot of folks said you would not survive.
Because you were built in the “Hood”
Your educating would not be good.
To be sure their kids schooling was right
Parents sent them to schools that were white.
“Separate but equal” was their thought
But at DuSable we were well taught.
You produced doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers,
Lawyers, judges, artists, stenos and preachers,
Writers, composers and politicians,
Actors, dancers, singers and musicians.
Entrepreneurs and inventors carry your name
And your athletes have reached the Hall of Fame.
So we lift our voices to the sky
Singing the praises of

Note: A savvy 74-yearold writer from my Wednesday memoir-writing class has started a blog called Beth’s Class where she publishes essays she and fellow writers from that class have written. Wanda’s Ode to DuSable was first published on the Beth’s Class blog, and essays by other writers from that class have been published there, too. Check it out!

The chef at La Diosa is blind, and man, can she cook!

You might remember my post about Laura Martinez, a blind woman who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and worked at Charlie Trotter’s here in Chicago until the five-star restaurant closed in 2012. After two frustrating years trying to persuade another restaurant to hire her, Laura has opened La Diosa, her own restaurant at 2308 N. Clark in Chicago. I ate there for the first time last Thursday. It. Is. Fantastic.

The food was so delicious, and the staff (Laura and her husband Mauri) so charming that I returned there for lunch Monday, and I’m having lunch there again today, too! Joan Stinton, a writer in one of the memoir classes I lead, took a CTA bus to La Diosa with Whitney and me on our inaugural visit last week, and she generously agreed to write a guest post about our experience.

Everything in its place

by Joan Stinton

She is adorable in her oversized toque and dark glasses. She wears the traditional white, double-breasted jacket and dark trousers of a chef. Her hand rests gently on the arm of her husband, Mauri. This is Laura Martinez, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, a survivor of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, and now, the owner of a tiny restaurant in a vintage building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

That's Chef Laura on the right, alongside her husband and fellow restaurateur Mauri.

That’s Chef Laura on the right, alongside her husband and fellow restaurateur Mauri.

Laura, blind since birth, has always wanted to cook. It sounds kind of crazy at first: sharp knives. Hot stoves. The kitchen can be a very dangerous place even for a sighted person.

But if you think about it, it makes sense. Sound. Touch. Taste. Smell. These other senses serve anyone well in a kitchen environment. In addition, a professional kitchen is a very organized place. “Mise en place,” the rigor of “everything in its place,” prevails. Chefs set up their work stations with meticulous precision. Knives, plates, spices, condiments: always in the same order, in the same place, every day. A chef is disciplined enough to prepare an order blindfolded. In a way, La Diosa is a perfect environment for Laura.

I got to meet this chef and her husband Mauri last week at their cozy restaurant. La Diosa is about two tables wide and four tables deep, and the menu has traditional Hispanic dishes and, true to her time with Charlie Trotter’s, exotic fish specials.

But this was not the first time I’d crossed paths with Laura.

After my husband Brian retired a few years ago, he became quite a foodie. When a local charity auction offered “A Day in Charlie Trotter’s Kitchen,” I saw an opportunity to give him something he would really enjoy. I won the bid. Brian would be in the kitchen during an actual restaurant shift. I made a dinner reservation with a few friends for that night so we could eat with Brian and hear all about his big day.

Brian was quite giddy when he sat down with us for dinner and recapped his afternoon. One detail stood out for him. At one point amid all the activity, he heard the words, “SHARPS, SHARPS” behind him. He turned and saw a petite, blind chef, arms stretched forward, holding knives pointed downward, walking confidently through the kitchen. The sort of image that sticks with you, I guess! That woman was Laura Martinez, of course. Brian said it would be easy to assume that this blind chef had an insurmountable obstacle, but she was clearly right at home in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen.

And so it is at La Diosa. Laura is right where she belongs—mise en place, everything in its place.

Beth here. I’m heading back to La Diosa one evening next week with my husband Mike and some other friends. Stay tuned to the blog for a review of their dinner menu.

Come see Whitney and me at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore today

 That’s the star of the book in front of Sandmeyers Bookstore with me back in 2007, when Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published.Today, May 2, 2015 is Independent Bookstore Day in Chicago, and Ulrich and Ellen Sandmeyer have graciously invited my Seeing Eye dog Whiteny and me to come help them celebrate:

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore:
11 am- Meet Beth Finke, author of HANNI & BETH: SAFE & SOUND, and her Seeing Eye dog and learn how they work together.

I’ll be signing books in print and in Braille, and my Seeing Eye dog’s pawprint will be rubber-stamped into each sold copy as well.

But wait! There’s more! Sandmeyer’s Bookstore is holdidng a drawing, and a lucky winner will win a free signed copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, too. I’ll be there with Whitney for about an hour — come early and see us. More about Chicago’s Independent Bookstore Day from their web site:

What is Independent Bookstore Day?
Independent Bookstore Day is a day when readers, booksellers, authors and book lovers all over the country celebrate the local independent bookstores in their community.

What day is Independent Bookstore Day?

Saturday May 2nd!

What’s going on that day?

Some stores are having events. Some stores are having raffles. Some will have author appearances. Check the events page for what’s going on. There’s even a special short story written by Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek and illustrated by Dmitry Samarov!

What’s the deal with the story?

Written by Stuart Dybek, the story is a previously unpublished work illustrated by local author and artist Dmitry Samarov. The print run is limited to 120 copies.

How do I get the story?

You go to one of the participating bookstores early in the day and spend $25 to get a passbook. Then visit each of the remaining 11 stores to collect a page of the story. When you collect and combine all 12 pieces, you’ll have a book!

All of them?!

Yes. All twelve bookstores. That’s half of the fun! You’ll get to see everything the indy bookstore world of Chicago has to offer.

Check out  Chicago Independent Bookstore Day’s events and giveaways page for information on what all 12 participating Chicago bookstores will be offering, and start the day out at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, 714 S. Dearborn St. (312.922.2104). Whitney and I will be listening for you there.

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