Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Writing Out Loud

Writing Out Loud
Beth Finke
Golden Alley Press

I probably met Beth Finke a decade ago. We met at a party at the offices for Open Court Publishing, parent company of Carus Publishing, parents of Baby Bug, Spider, Cricket, etc. magazines for children. Beth had just wrapped up a picture book about her seeing eye dog, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound.

Through the years we’ve kept in touch. At certain points living parallel lives. For instance last summer she was attending the IOTA Short Prose Conference on Campobello Island about the same time I was cycling down the coast of Maine to reach the mailboat to take me out to my residency on Great Spruce Head Island (Art Week). In addition Beth is a prolific blogger. But the main thing we have in common is memoir. Beth facilitates 3 or 4 memoir writing groups all over the city. I released an eBook this spring Flash Memoir: Writing Prompts to Get You Flashing while Beth launched Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors.

Writing Out Loud gets its title from the fact that class participants read their 500-word essays out loud. Everyone has to listen and follow along. Every week she gives out a prompt at the end of class and “students” work on them, sending their essays ahead of time. Beth reads over each and every one, commenting. The essays are kept to 500 words—about the amount of time it takes her to deliver one of her NPR personal essays. Beth has also figured out a system of Scrabble tiles the students select to see who gets to read first. From reading Writing Out Loud you come to realize one has to get up pretty early in the morning to outwit Beth Finke.

Writing Out Loud is part Beth’s memoir of how she became a group facilitator and starting her own memoir-writing class. It’s also a platform where her students could share their work. Beth wrote in loving detail about dozens of her students. Included in Writing Out Loud are essays that fill in the gaps of not only personal history but stories of Chicago, resistance, identity, and rivalry (Sox and Cubs) from class members. We also learn methods for leading memoir-writing as well as some of the prompts Beth has used to great success.

This is a book about listening, being present to the world, using our senses to interpret life around us. We begin to “see” life through Beth’s eyes. Her message is: Stay open.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Forgotten Chicago, Museums

The Lincoln Park Zoo
This is not exactly a museum, but it is a memory. I remember going to the Lincoln Park Zoo on numerous occasions. It was FREE! (Though over the years I’ve had two bikes stolen, locked up out front of the zoo—so not quite a bargain!)

Through the years animals have come and gone. Gone are the elephants. Humanely it was not possible to keep such a large animal in a small enclosed space. The polar bears have also suffered.

I’d have to say one of the most popular exhibits has been the Ape House which went through a recent renovation: They now have a great outdoor playground. The old house really did come across like cages behind glass (as opposed to the new facility which is also cages behind glass but disguised to look like a jungle).

One of the my first observations at the zoo was not so much the animal behind the glass, but the animals in front of the glass. The people who came ritualistically, daily, to connect with their friend, their special hairy ape friend. They are a vanishing species.

These were real relationships. I once saw an orangutan go “ape” after catching a glimpse of their special human. And, if you know orangutans, they can be especially dismissive, actually coming across bored. They’d sit behind glass picking their noses staring back vacantly. Until, suddenly . . . they rush the window. The person next to me wouldn’t have normally stuck out. In fact, some of these obsessive visitors I might have concluded were homeless, carrying dirty, overstuffed shopping bags, wearing greasy, wrinkled overcoats, their hair unwashed, their faces unshaven. The apes in contrast seemed more well-groomed and cared for. Of course they didn’t have to work for their room and board, and health care was free.

But then the same could have been said of me—why was I there in the middle of the day observing the human/ape interaction? Maybe I was the loser. I know I was because when I saw the connection between the orangutan and the visitor, I saw what I was missing out on. Someone who couldn’t wait to see my face everyday, someone to talk and coo at me, call me baby. I really felt like an outsider. I longed for an orangutan friend.

To this day whenever I enter the ape house which now looks like the suburbs with all their play equipment, I get a little glitch in my heart knowing I’ll never have as good a friend as those apes and their special human.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Forgotten Chicago, Museums

Art Institute of Chicago
What a wonderful world to get lost in—this place of armor, hydra heads, Nighthawks, Ivan Albright, Louis Sullivan, and miniature houses/interiors. When I first came to Chicago in the early 80s you could get into the Art Institute with a donation. I once paid 25¢, rather donated.

I have to admit I wasn’t always an aficionado. Today I work for a gallery, helping to curate their exhibits and write up descriptions. Back in 1982 I used to think what was the difference looking at art in a book or up close in person. Then I turned a corner.

It happened in Washington DC at the Corcoran, I turned a corner and came across the Moor, with his black bold face, flaring nostrils. I loved that picture. And, because it was hard to find my way around, I kept turning that corner and encountering the Moor. At lot of how I discover cool stuff is by getting lost.

When I came back to Chicago I paid a visit to the Art Institute and it was as if I’d woke up; I was alive to art in a way I hadn’t been before. I loved Paul Klee’s little girls—they made me happy. There was a ceramic lotus flower in the Korean part of Asian Art that I would visit like one would a favorite palm or orchid at the conservatory. I was held spellbound by the trompe l'oeil in the basement—I memorized galleries and could wind my way to them without a guide. When the Terra Foundation of American Art donated many of its holdings to the Art Institute I fell in love with a straw hat full of cherries. I fell into the simplicity of the image. There are so many more that weren’t just images, but evoked feelings, memories, flashing synapses in my brain. Most of all I loved to visit on rainy days, spending all day wandering around, eating lunch at the cafĂ©. Indulging myself as if I were a tourist, a foreigner in town for a day. I loved to pretend I was someone else: Georgia O’Keeffe in the desert with my skull and bones, my whitewashed churches, black crosses. I wanted to soak in the liquid blue of the Chagall windows, put myself inside one of those little Thorne Rooms. I’d stand there peering inside wondering what it must be like to live in that space, peer through the windows, open the door to another landscape. Even if it was all make-believe.

Today you need to take out a mortgage to visit the Art Institute, even with a student pass it’s $20. Of all the museums, the Art Institute is the most generous with Free Days for Chicago residents. I look forward to February when I can browse for free the entire month. 
Head of a Moor by Henri Regnault, 1870 - Corcoran Gallery of Art
Terra Foundation for American Art: Collections

Friday, October 6, 2017

Forgotten Chicago, Museums

Shedd Aquarium
I find it rich that the aquarium is one of the most expensive museums in Chicago. It costs as much as a trip to Europe and yet every day during the summer there are long lines waiting to get it. Forget Spring Break—you’d need to start lining up in February when the wind whips in off the lake and freezes you as you walk down Roosevelt Avenue from the train. It could easily cost a family of 4 $200 for same-day admittance.

Hard to believe that when I first visited the Shedd in the early 80s it was free. Truly you could not pay someone to go there. The place was always empty, and smelled like a chlorine pool, one with a little bit of mold growing in it.

This was before the addition of the Abbott Oceanarium. Back when I went the niftiest thing was when a guy or gal in a scuba diving outfit entered a tank to feed the sharks. The divers burbled around while the lazy sharks lay at the bottom totally uninterested in fresh meat. I just checked the website: $89.95 for adults; $80.95 for children; $54.00 for members.
Dive deeper into Wild Reef—and experience mealtime with the sharks—during this new 90-minute guided exploration . . . Really?

The aquarium was dark and dingy with a couple of galleries full of fish tanks. I remember dark paneling as if it were your parent’s basement. The fish were colorful and exotic, but all they did was flit about.

The new Shedd is definitely a step up from the old days, yet as much as I love the new displays I miss the old prices—when Chicagoans could actually afford to see the displays. So now it’s either you can buy a new car or a ticket to the aquarium, or as things keep evolving a can of soda pop. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Forgotten Chicago, Museums

I moved to Chicago in 1982 from Dayton, Ohio and going to university in Athens, Ohio. So, yeah, Chicago was the big-time. I immediately set out to explore the city. I remember every weekend depositing my token into the turnstile and hopping a train to downtown to walk around or explore a museum.

The museums opened up whole worlds to me.

Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry in the early 80s seemed super corporate. For instance there was the General Motors Gallery and the AT&T Gallery. Nowadays this is somewhat standard. You can’t even build a stadium without naming it, not for a benefactor but a business. The Ramen Noodle Arena. Quicken Loans. Remember the Enron Stadium until they went belly up, taking investor money with them. I believe the AT&T Gallery had a display of telephones, a concept so far in the past that it now belongs in the nostalgic Main Street display, the one with “gaslight” lamp posts and the ole Walgreens Pharmacy, where remedies were devised from caffeine syrup and sold as elixir along with malts and open-face corn beef sandwiches.

What I remember most is getting lost. The stairways were color coded, but yet I couldn’t seem to connect one floor to the next in a straight line. I kept ending up by the chick hatchery or more creepily in a somewhat darkened stairwell with slabs of crosswise-cut kidneys and hearts pressed air-tight between two pieces of glass and sealed inside. It was the kind of thing that would amaze a future doctor, not someone simply trying to find the Fairy Castle. I was grossed out. Not the least by the babies floating in jars. There was a display of fetuses in different stages of growth on up to pre-birth preserved in formaldehyde on one of the top floors.

Of course there was the WWII German submarine, the flight deck, and the coal mine for an “interactive” experience, but the lines were so long I didn’t feel like waiting to get in. The mere act of getting to the MSI from the northside was enough of an interactive experience for me, at least a train and a bus—it took a couple of hours both ways to get there and back. We didn’t go more than a few times.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Words You’re Hoping to Hear

Recently I read a small graphic book, Make Trouble from a commencement speech delivered at the Rhode Island School of Design by designer/film maker/artist/idea-ist John Waters. One line that stood out: A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip: All you need is someone to say “get in” . . .

This really resonated with me, a middle-aged been at this a long time writer who seemed to have some early success, but had stalled out and turned to writing about writing ie Freeze Frame and Flash Memoir: Writing Prompts to Get you Flashing. I’d definitely put in my 10,000 hours, plus. And, now all I was looking forward was someone to email me back with the right words, the words I’d been hoping to hear for a good decade.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d sent this poor, page-stained, corners curled digital manuscript out to numerous untold agents. With no luck. Those who say it isn’t luck, that luck means you have no real talent are already well on the road to publication, having solo shows, etc. I needed a miracle, a lightning strike of good fortune—a bit like how my first manuscript was pulled out of the slush pile and published by a respected editor at Morrow Junior Books.

Time and technology has assured me since that 1) there is no transom or slush pile in the world of digital submissions and 2) even if there was a portal, that door has long been slammed shut to citizen writers without representation.

I was having trouble making inroads after the initial publication and good reviews for my YA novel Beyond Paradise. Morrow merged with Harper Collins a few weeks after my debut novel released and, well, let’s just say hot dogs have a longer shelf life than my book.

Until—last month I got a phone call. Wait. Listen. Because my editor at Golden Alley Press said the words I’d been hoping to hear: I love this manuscript. It was a car pulling off the freeway, the driver motioning for me to get in.

Then something else happened: She said, It made me laugh. Then it made me cry.

Dear readers, thanks for reading this blog, for continuing to persevere and pushing me along. Get ready; we’re going on a ride. Tentative pub date, Fall 2018.