Archive for the 'writing' Category

How many scientartists does it take to unscrew a light bulb?

My brother Doug is a jazz trombonist in Louisville, and after retiring from his day job a couple years ago he discovered that when you reach a certain age you can take classes at the University of Louisville free of charge. He’s been formally studying in the jazz program there ever since.

Yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac alerted me it was poet Robert Pinsky’s birthday, and that the U.S. poet laureate had played saxophone in his high school band. Pinsky said: “My first experience of art, or the joy in making art, was playing the horn at some high-school dance or bar mitzvah or wedding, looking at a roomful of people moving their bodies around in time to what I was doing […] The fact that it was my breath making a party out of things was miraculous to me, a physical pleasure.” I wondered if Doug felt the same way, and when I emailed him to ask, he sent back a quick no. “I’m not that deep.” His talented and lovely wife Shelley chimed in then, and her response was so interesting and thought-provoking I asked if I could share it here with my blog readers. I was delighted she said yes, and I think you’ll be, too.

by Shelley Finke

This is timely. It’s cool that a musician would notice the obviousness of the situation (people being inspired to dance by his music) and be moved by it. But Pinsky was really a poet, and that explains his depth, I think all would agree.

Doug Finke the scientartist.

Doug Finke, the scientartist.

The more I hang with musicians, and my husband, especially, who also writes arrangements, I see they’re more like scientists than artists (in the commonly understood sense) because of the way everything has to work out mathematically and how the various notes have to get along with each other. That is what brings satisfaction to them.

And since Doug writes music, I see that it has to happen two times: first on the paper, and later in the performance. The listeners can tell him how it felt emotionally.

That brings me to the timeliness of your message. Last night Doug played his monthly thing with a local big band. They performed a brand new arrangement of Doug’s: The Summer Knows (the theme to the film Summer of ’42) with lyrics included for a female vocal. His primary concern was how it would come together as a unit, as a collection of sounds, not whether it would move people. So as a musician and arranger that’s what concerned him.

I think back to when he was inspired to write this chart a few months ago and how moved he was at the time by the lyrics being sung by Rosemary Clooney. He talked about that quite a bit to me. At that point he was a total listener. And he was deep. But then he started writing and the science of it began, and I imagine he left the job of moving the audience to the singer, which in this case was one of the most capable ladies in town.

It was a wonderful result! The singer knew how to sell it and the band had a well-oiled chart. Doug spent weeks on it. Taking into consideration past comments he’s made to me about other charts he’s written that didn’t come off as well, I would say that he didn’t try to over complicate it this time.

Doug refers to “crunching” harmonies a lot, bringing the notes of chords together REALLY closely, so you would think they would not sound good (like playing CDEFG all at once on the piano, to my mind). It’s meant to produce a way-out modern sound, though still pleasing provided your ear is comfortable with that. But it doesn’t always work out that way with live instruments.

Doug’s composing software has a very old-fashioned electronic sound when it plays back (not fun for the wife). Sometimes it sounds like a calliope. So it really is a revelation when the musicians play it with their particular dynamics. This was a case of everything working out well, and perhaps of Doug not over-crunching those harmonies. He would have to explain it more, of course.

There must be a parallel in the writing of words. Writers think about rhythm and syllables and how things look on a page (for those remaining who still read that way) as much as the soul of it, or maybe more so. And then there are the technical rules and guidelines which as a freelancer you wrestle with differently for each assignment.

It is very similar to being a musician, isn’t it? You are all scientartists!

Full, creative, and pleasurable

It’s been a very happy week here in Chicago. Ours started last Friday, when Mike and I took an el to Schaller’s Pump on the South Side to watch a playoff game. Schaller’s Pump has been at 37th and Halsted since 1876, and from Mike’s description it hasn’t changed much since then.

The bar is cash-only, the bartender was our age or older, and when she recommended the ribeye sandwich we didn’t bother looking at the menu. She served it with a cup of bean soup and a draft beer. I felt like I was a world – and a lifetime – away, a college girl on a date with Mike.

The whole class celebrated Wanda's (on my right) 94th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

The whole class celebrated Wanda’s (on my right) 94th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

The next morning my Seeing Eye dog and I walked over to the Chicago Architecture Foundation for Must-Hear,a special 25th anniversary walking tour they put together for adults who are visually impaired or blind. Whitney and I headed directly from the tour to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for their first-ever audio touch tour in honor of, you guessed it: the 25th anniversary of the ADA. The actors from the play Disgraced got on stage to describe their characters, their clothing and their hair styles to us before the play. Minutes later my friend Brad and I were blown away by their fantastic performances on stage. The week went on from there:

  • Monday my Lincoln Park Village Memoir II class started a new eight-week session, and that night Mike, Whitney and I took an Amtrak train to Milwaukee, where we enjoyed cheese curds and Miller beer at our hotel bar.
  • Tuesday Mike rented a zipcar in Milwaukee so we could visit our son Gus in Watertown, Wisconsin.
  • Back home Wednesday the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead in the Chicago Cultural Center celebrated writer Wanda Bridgeforth’s 94th birthday, and her fellow 94-year-old writer Hanna Bratman arranged for a ride from the assisted living center she’s living in to be there for the party, too.
  • By Thursday I’d flown to St. Paul, Minnesota to speak at Metropolitan State University (a disability studies class there uses my memoir Long Time, No See as a text book), and I enjoyed dinner that night with my great-niece Shelley Rae, a stylist known for her skills with coloring hair. Shelley regularly travels to NYC and L.A. to teach hair-coloring classes but had spent most of her Thursday afternoon at her salon in Minneapolis doing a client’s hair in a “rainbow sort of swirl thing.”
  • This morning I woke up in my St. Paul hotel room and had the staff take care of Whitney while I swam laps – the hotel adjoins the oo la la St. Paul Athletic Club – before taking a cab to the Minneapolis airport for my flight home.

You know, one of my favorite reviews of my children’s book was one from Booklist editor Donna Seaman, who pointed out how Safe & Sound not only shows young readers how remarkable Seeing Eye Dogs are, “but also how a person without sight can live a full, creative, and pleasurable life.” Amen! And now, for a day of rest.

What I learn from Wanda’s wise words

It’s Wanda Bridgeforth’s 94th birthday, and without telling Wanda, I asked her fellow writers in the Wednesday “Me, Myself and I” to surprise her with essays on “What I Learn from Wanda’s Wise Words” and read them aloud to her this morning. Here’s mine.


This is what our street looked like on the night of the 2011 blizzard. (Photo courtesy Lora Delestowicz-Wierzbowski.)

Wanda Bridgeforth has taught me the meaning of beauty. More specifically, the meaning of the word “Bee-you-tee-full.”

Nearly five years ago the Chicago Cultural Center had to cancel our “Me, Myself and I” memoir- writing class due to a blizzard. I dialed Wanda’s number that day to see if she was weathering the storm. When she heard my voice on the phone, she excused herself to turn down the radio. “I’m tired of hearing all those people calling in anyway,” she said. “All they’re doing is complaining about their long waits for the bus or the train, or the way the city didn’t shovel their street.”

Wanda will be 94 years old this month, and she is not a complainer. She credits her own upbeat attitude to her hardworking mother and her beloved uncle, Hallie B. “Hallie B. always told me that people who sit and mope with their head in their hands, well, they never see the good things coming their way.”

On that phone call in 2011, I asked Wanda to describe the storm that everyone around me was complaining about. She started out by using her favorite four-syllable word. “Bee-you-tee-full.”

That's Wanda from way back on her 90th.

That’s Wanda from way back on her 90th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

Wanda has lived in more than 50 different apartments or houses in her lifetime. Her mother was a “domestic” and had to leave Wanda every Sunday to take off and live at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with one relative one week, a friend the next, and sometimes, with complete strangers. “I tell you, Beth” she said to me once. “I could share stories with you about growing up that would make the hair curl on a bald man’s head.”

These days Wanda lives alone, perched in a small apartment in a South Side Chicago high-rise that overlooks Lake Michigan. She writes her essays for class while sipping on coffee, looking out her kitchen window and watching the birds and boats on the lake. “There was absolutely no horizon during the storm,” she told me during that blizzard in 2011. The sky was white, the ground was white, the lake was white. “Like someone had draped a fuzzy white blanket over my window.”

Wanda woke up at 3 a.m. the night of the storm and sat staring out of her window for hours. She’d never seen anything like it. It was stunning. “I drank coffee until I was drunk!” she laughed. “It was bee-you-tee-full!”

Happy 94th, my friend. Without you, I might be tempted to look at my own days as stormy, but having you in our memoir-writing class (and, more importantly, calling you a friend) makes my life bee-you-tee-full.

Wanda’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers in the “Me, Myself and I” class on the Beth’s Class blog. Look for essays by — and about –Wanda there.

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!

I used to think “blind photographer” was an oxymoron

A blog post I published here earlier this month got such an intriguing comment from a blogger in Germany that I asked her to write a guest post here. She said “Ja!”

Photo Narrations — pictures for the blind and sighted

by Tina Paulick

Beth’s post was about how she asked writers in her memoir writing class to describe a photograph to someone who is blind and the amazing texts resulting from this exercise. Our blog Photo Narrations for the blind and sighted is dedicated to describing photographs taken by photographers who are visually impaired or blind. It is a great place for blind and sighted photographers and creative writers to:

  • reflect on photographs
  • gain a better understanding of the process of seeing and perceiving
  • respect photography and photo narration as art forms
Two  sighted students help a blind photographer adjust her camera to take a picture in Berlin. (Photo credit: Stephan Wilke)

Two sighted students help a blind photographer adjust her camera to take a picture in Berlin. (Photo credit: Stephan Wilke)

If you are wondering now why blind people are interested in something so visual as photography, our blog also features interviews and guest posts by blind photographers explaining their motivations and how they work. One of our contributors writes:

People always ask, why do blind people want to take photos. I always get this question and it frustrates me, so why don’t we give them an answer. Because we want to, because we can! Why do you take photographs? The world is full of images, we are surrounded by them. Obviously they are important. But blind people cannot see them in the same way sighted people do. We see with sound, touch and our imagination. That’s why photo narration is so important to us. The photo narration helps to capture the image we ultimately see in our minds.

Our sighted describers also benefit from the experience – writing photo narrations for blind people expands one’s perception and imagined boundaries. Karsten Hein, a sighted photographer from Germany who initiated this project writes:

For me as a sighted person, interested in pictures and the perception of pictures, it is a remarkable experience to describe pictures for blind people. It’s a completely different thing, when I look at a photograph in order to describe it for someone, who cannot see it. I have to think in a completely different way than I normally would. What’s important in the photograph? What’s worth mentioning? I look closer and closer, closer than I would look at it in nearly any other context. And the more I look at it the more I have to come to understand how little I really know about the photograph.

Karsten’s idea for this project came after he did a portrait series featuring people who are blind. He talked to his models during the shootings so they’d forget the camera and feel more comfortable. The models had many questions about what impact their appearance might make on other people, and they expressed an interest in photography. Thus, Karsten developed photography workshops for visually impaired and blind photographers.

Karsten’s classes are run in cooperation with a University in Berlin. A small team of sighted students is allocated to every photographer to help him or her to find motives, adjust the camera ,select the best picture and describe the resulting photo in text. We set up our German blog Bilder für die Blinden to showcase the work.

Now we’ve started an English Photo Narrations blog, too, to spread our idea further and to encourage people all over the world to become part of our creative community. We are always looking for volunteers to write descriptions of photographs for us. As Beth pointed out in her Describing a photograph to someone who can’t see blog post, it’s a great creative writing exercise.

Additionally, we provide a platform to publish and discuss the narrations writers come up with for the photographs — our blind and visually impaired members can write comments and ask further questions.

Back to me — I may just give this a try! I don’t think I’ll take any photos, but I may send some photos people give me to the photo narrations blog to see how they describe what’s going on there. Take a look at — or a listen to — the Photo Narrations blog for further information or contact them at:
You can like them on Facebook or follow them on twitter at @PicDesc, too.

Touching moments in architecture

Remember that post I wrote about the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offering touch tours of its historic sites this year? My friend Linda Downing Miller lives in Oak park, Ill., and last Saturday she accompanied me on a special tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio there .

Linda earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte — her fiction is forthcoming in Fiction International and appears in the current issue of Crab Orchard Review. She’s a fine writer, and I was delighted when she offered to write this guest post describing our tour from her point of, ahem, view.

by Linda Downing Miller

Twenty years ago, I was infatuated with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Moving to Oak Park, Ill., can do that to you.

Beth checking out the entry .

Beth checking out the inscription.

The village has a wealth of Wright-designed spaces, and I toured as many as I could in my first years here. My husband and I must have taken every visitor we had through Wright’s Home and Studio, restored to its appearance when he last lived there in 1909.

When Beth invited me to go with her on a Touch Tour of the Home and Studio last Saturday, I said yes mostly for the chance to spend time with her. I figured I’d already seen and heard enough about Wright’s work: his horizontal lines and ribbon windows and half-hidden entrances, reached by walking a “path of discovery” that usually includes a turn or two.

The Touch Tour took me on a new path. I was one of a handful of people accompanying friends or family members who are blind or have low vision. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offered the tour in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, part of ADA 25 Chicago — a larger project to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. Being Beth’s companion on the tour, alongside her Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, allowed me to “re-see” Wright’s spaces and consider the challenge of making them accessible through other senses.

Fellow writers might appreciate this observation: details, creative comparisons, and specific word choices helped to convey Wright’s work. Our tour guide, Laura Dodd, explained the position of design elements in relation to bodies (“about neck high”). She used similes (wood beams arranged “like an asterisk”). I told Beth that Wright’s intricate, wood-carved designs on the dining room and playroom ceilings were a bit like the wooden trivets she’d felt in the gift shop. A tour volunteer described the vaulted ceiling in the children’s playroom “like a whiskey barrel.”

After thinking about Laura’s description of the way the Wrights’ piano sat in that room with only the keyboard showing, the back half hidden behind the wall, one of the visitors who couldn’t see articulated it more clearly for all of us: “You mean, it’s embedded in the wall.” Yes.

Enthusiasm, curiosity, puzzlement and understanding moved across people’s faces as they listened and asked questions, and as they touched things: fireplace tiles, wall coverings, sculptures, spindles, glass windows and Wright’s famously uncomfortable straight-backed dining chairs. Some people lingered over each touch opportunity. Others eagerly applied their fingers and moved on. (Guess which style was Beth’s?)

She and I talked afterward about the different frames of reference people might have brought to the experience. Beth knew something about architecture before she lost her sight. Other visitors may have been born blind. Laura is the Director of Operations and Guest Experience for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, and she asked us for feedback during and after the tour. (The Trust plans additional Touch Tours, and American Sign Language Tours, at its historic sites.)

Our group’s consensus was that she’d done a wonderful job. I thought the three guide dogs in the group also handled themselves well in close proximity.

Frank Lloyd Wright played here. And now, so has Beth.

Frank Lloyd Wright played here. And now, so has Beth.

One of the highlights for me and Beth was when Laura invited her to sit at the piano in the children’s playroom. After instructing everyone else not to pay attention, Beth put her fingers on the keys and ran through a short, jazzy tune. When she’d finished, she and I exclaimed over the fact that Frank himself no doubt played those keys. I felt the ghost of my old infatuation. On our way downstairs, Beth reached up to touch the back end of the piano, suspended over our heads, and continued on her path of discovery.

Photos courtesy of Christena Gunther, Founder & Co-Chair of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium.

Who would you want to read your memoir?

If you’ve followed our blog for a while, you know who Wanda Bridgeforth is: She’s witty, she’s talented, she’s 93 years old and she’s been attending the memoir-writing class I lead in downtown Chicago for a decade now.

When Wanda was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her mother worked “in private family,” which meant mama lived at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with one relative one week, a friend the next, and sometimes, with complete strangers.

Your positive response to last Thursday’s post motivated me to share another essay from a writer in one of the memoir classes I lead, and this time, we’ll hear from Wanda.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with her fellow writers in our Renaissance Court class.

My classes are taking a short break after Labor Day, and for their final assignment I asked writers in Wanda’s class to imagine they could have a guarantee that one specific person would read their memoir. “Who would you want that person to be?” I asked.  “Why? What do you want to say to them?”

Wanda was born on October 20, 1921, and she’d like a guarantee that her descendant born closest to October 20, 2021 will read her memoir.

”I pass my memoir essays to you,” she says in the opening of her essay, urging her unknown reader to read her essays carefully and discover the many conveniences that were unknown in her own day. “You will see how we LIVED without them, and hopefully you will realize the contributions we made to ease your life.”

A savvy young 74-year old writer in Wanda’s memoir-writing class has started a blog called Beth’s Class where she publishes essays she and fellow writers from that class have written. You can link to the Beth’s Class blog to read Wanda’s entire essay, and in the meantime I’ll leave you here with her powerful — and beautifully written — conclusion:

I have tried to present some of the struggles we had, the indignities we endured to make the world a better place. The Civil Rights Movement. The right to vote for all. Equal education. Lifting of covenants to ensure the right to equal housing.

You will see the many advances we achieved. There is still much to be done and I hope you will be inspired to pick up the torch and work for more equality and greater opportunities for the generations that will follow you.

I challenge you to find humor in life, meet it head on, not take yourself too seriously, love your fellowman whether he loves you or not.


Above All:


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