Archive for the 'writing' Category



Time out for Seeing Eye dogs

That's Ray mugging for the camera.

That’s Ray mugging for the camera.

Realizing I wouldn’t be able to see when his schoolfriends raised their hands to ask questions, my six-year-old great nephew Ray volunteered to help me call on kids in all three of the first-grade classes we visited at his school yesterday. All of the first-graders at Westmore Elementary had read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound before Whitney and I arrived, and that meant they had time to come up with some pretty thoughtful questions. Examples:

  • What kind of dog food does your dog eat?
  • How can your write a book if you can’t see?
  • How do you drive when you’re blind?
  • Can you get that thing on her back off of her by yourself?
  • What if you’re with your dog and you bump into something?
  • When your dog isn’t there with you, how can you see?
  • What does the safety pin do? (This after I’d said I put a safety pin on the tag inside anything I wear that is black)
  • What happens if your dog gets distracted?

Whitney was as spirited as the students we were visiting, so we answered that last question with actions rather than words. After she flipped to her back (with her harness on) to beg the kids for a belly rub, she popped up to lick a first-grader in the front row. Time for her seven-step obedience ritual:

  1. “Whitney, sit!” She sat.
  2. “Whitney, down!” I pointed to the ground, and even though she uttered a huge groan while she did it, she managed to lie down.
  3. “Whitney, sit!” She popped back up.
  4. “Whitney, heel!” I held her leash, walked four steps forward while she walked along at my side.
  5. “Whitney, sit!” She sat.
  6. “Whitney, rest.” I stood in front of her, put my palm up in front of her nose for a second, walked backwards away from her, and she didn’t make a move.
  7. “Good girl, Whitney!” That’s what I said when I returned to her side.

When the obedience routine was over, one first-grader exclaimed, “It’s like a time out!” We had a ball at Westmore School, and as I write this post, Whitney is enjoying a real time out: she’s fast asleep under my desk.

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.

Can you sum up your life in three songs?

Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) is asking listeners and on-air guests to sum up their lives in three songs. This past week I asked writers in the four memoir classes I lead here in Chicago to take on this challenge as well.

The WBEZ web site acknowledges that limiting your lifespan to three songs may not be easy, but could be fun. It suggests you pick three songs from different periods in your life, or maybe three tracks that simply sum up who you are. For my memoir classes, I asked writers to give a short explanation of why their three songs sum up who they are. Many writers spelled out the lyrics to the songs, and in class, some even sang them.

Ninety-four-year-old Wanda wrote that God Bless the Child reminds her of growing up during the depression on Chicago’s South Side. She said she could especially relate to the part where Billie Holiday sings, “Rich relations give, Crust of bread and such, You can help yourself, But don’t take too much.” These days Wanda likes listening to Dinah Washington’s What a Difference a Day Makes. “I went to high school with Ruthie Jones,” she laughs. “That was her name before she changed it to Dinah Washington.”

Wanda’s fellow writer Nancy grew up on a farm in Central Illinois, left for Chicago to attend Northwestern University, and stayed here after graduation to teach elementary school. Her love for Broadway musicals influenced her selections.

Nancy chose Oh What a Beautiful Morning from Oklahoma for her years on the farm, and the line “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” in the song Getting to Know You (from The King and I) inspired her to choose that to represent her 34 years as a teacher. “The little hint of romance between Anna and the King of Siam also reminded me of those years,” she explained. ”I loved visiting the bars and restaurants in the area and perhaps hoping for a little romance.” Nancy’s entire essay is posted on the Beth’s Class blog — You’ll have to go there to see what she chose for her third song.

Only a handful of tunes were chosen by more than one writer. Two writers summed up their retirement years with the Beatles song Let it Be, two young women (they’re not even 70 years old yet!) chose Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, and two other writers chose Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water for their young adult years.

Two writers chose Patty Page’s Tennessee Waltz, too, but for entirely different reasons. One remembered lying on her older sister’s bed and feeling grown up while listening to Tennessee Waltz on a transistor radio in their shared room. The other remembered The Tennessee Waltz as a song she danced to in college with her first love. “It was our song,” she wrote. “But it didn’t last forever.”

Bob was one of many writers who had Chicago (My Kind of Town) on their lists, but his reasoning for picking that Frank Sinatra tune was a bit different from the others who chose it: the line “Chicago is why I grin like a clown, it’s my kind of town” makes him think of an uncle and aunt he lived with when he was a teenager.

“Uncle Morrie worked as a circus clown at Riverview Park, where he roamed the park and entertained the crowds.” Bob’s aunt Sylvia worked there, too. “She worked at an amusement stand where she wore a bathing suit and sat at the top of a long slick slide, waiting for people to pay their dime and throw 3 balls at a target. Whenever anyone hit the bullseye, it would release Aunt Sylvia, and she’d slide down the sleek slide and hand you a box of candy.” And that’s exactly how Bob’s Uncle Morrie met his Aunt Sylvia. “Uncle Morrie walked up, played his dime, and hit the bullseye with the 1st ball,” Bob wrote. ”Aunt Sylvia slid down the slide, handed him a box of candy, and that was it. It was an immediate attraction for both of them.”

Jim and Mary Katherine “Kathy” Zartman.

Writer Mary Katherine opted for three songs no one else in class chose:

  1. I’ve Got the World on a String
    “From the distance of many decades, I consider my childhood and early adulthood as secure, generally happy and optimistic. And after adolescence, I seemed to be in love, intermittently, with one man after another.”
  2. Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep
    Mary Katherine eventually married the man of her dreams, and for a while the two of them had the world on a string. “Euphoria didn’t last, of course,” she wrote. “There were some staggering body blows to our world. Some of it had to be concealed, so nobody knew the full extent of our challenges.”
  3. September Song — based on a familiar poetic metaphor that compares a year to a person’s life span from birth to death – describes Mary Katherine’s life now. “For me, the romantic commitment to spend precious days with a loved one is easy to expand into spending our last precious days with all those we care about, for example spending precious days with friends in a memoir class.”

Look for this woman on 60 Minutes next week

My friend Lynn LaPlante Allaway’s daughter Lucy started pre-school this year, and whoa, has Lynn taken advantage of the free time! In the past few months, Lynn has

  • finished the rough draft of a novel she’s been working on
  • started her own Backwards and in High Heals blog, and
  • been asked to write regularly for the Huffington Post

All this while she and her husband Mike herd their four (yes, four) active children to school and various activities in-between her rehearsals and performances as principal violist with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP).

Lynn’s mother Alice Gervace LaPlante (left, a talented musician in her own right) with her daughter at one of Lynn’s concerts.

You might recognize the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s name. The orchestra’s director Orbert Davis happened to be in Havana coaching music students there when Raul Castro announced the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba. Davis and those students were featured in a 60 Minutes story last December, and in a Chicago Tribune story this week jazz critic Howard Reich says that when that historic announcement was made on television last year, the young Cuban musicians Davis was working with cheered and the percussion section jumped into a rumba. More from this week’s Chicago Tribune article:

Throughout the rehearsals and the performance, Davis was bowled over by what his Cuban charges achieved. “When presented with every challenge in jazz, the students rose to the challenge,” he says. “Especially the two monsters, which are swing and improvisation. They nailed it.”

Those Havana music students arrive here in Chicago today to spend a week preparing for a concert with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic this Friday, November 13, and reporters from 60 Minutes ar here, too, to follow them from rehearsals to visits to Chicago landmarks like Millennium Park and Navy Pier. “It’s going to be a little time warp for them, especially to see modern cars for the first time, to see the Willis Tower, which is three or four times taller than the tallest building in Cuba,” Davis told the Chicago Tribune.

My friend Lynn is in the middle of all this, and you can read her take on it in a piece she wrote for Huffington Post Chicago earlier this month. Tickets are still available for this Friday’s concert at the Auditorium Theatre, but if you can’t make it to Chicago, I’m guessing the segment about these young musicians from Cuba will air next week, November 15, 2015 on 60 Minutes.

I’ve heard the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic live many times before and was thrilled to watch 60 Minutes last December when Orbert Davis was in Cuba. My heart sunk, though, when the show pointed out that sanctions had forced these young Cuban sax and clarinet players to use reeds that were 30 or 40 years old. My hope is that when I listen in on the 60 Minutes segment next week, I’ll hear that the new relationship between Cuba and the U.S. means these young musicians can bring new reeds across the border for their friends back home!

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.

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.


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