How this sixth-grader discovered his spirit animal

November 22, 20177 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, questions kids ask, Seeing Eye dogs, visiting schools, Whitney

This just in! The Hinsdalean newspaper did a great article on our visit. You can read it here if you want to get another point of view on our class visit.  

Photo of Beth and Whitney in front of class.

Whitney and I spent an entire day last week with sixth-graders at Clarendon Hills Middle School (CHMS). I’ve visited students at hundreds of elementary schools over the years to talk about disability awareness and service dogs, but last Friday marks the first time I’d ever been asked to visit a middle school and talk specifically about memoir-writing: the CHMS sixth-graders are preparing to write their own autobiographies.

Before we arrived, teachers had them read six chapters from my new book Writing Out Loud that demonstrate how autobiography and memoir can communicate a specific theme:

  1. Prologue, in which I explain how it is I decided to write a second memoir
  2. The Brown Envelope, in which I’m asked to lead a memoir-writing class for the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging
  3. My Turn, in which I relate my own family history
  4. Hanni and Beth Hit the Road, in which we start traveling to promote my children’s book Safe & Sound
  5. Mustang Beth, in which I drive a race car 80 mph
  6. Tough Guys, in which a man in first class worries if I was okay sitting between two scary-looking guys on a flight to New Orleans

I arrived in Clarendon Hills prepared to talk about making a memoir come alive, engaging readers, choosing which life episodes to include in your memoir, that sort of thing. What I wasn’t prepared for was how thoughtful and insightful the sixth-grade questions would be after my presentation. Some examples:

  • If someone asked you to sum up your life story in one word, and that word couldn’t be the word “blind,” what would that one word be?
  • How do you picture the modern world?
  • What is your favorite word to use when you’re writing?
  • Was Minerva the only one in your class who took a tape recorder?
  • Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you were an author who could see?
  • Do you think you perceive the world differently because you’re blind?
  • You say you can only see the color black now. If you could pick another color to be able to see all the time, what color would you pick?
  • What was your first thought when you got into the Mustang?
  • What is your favorite chapter in Writing Out Loud?
  • When you were driving the car with Tommy Kendall, was the experience what you thought it would be beforehand?
  • What is your favorite word to use when you’re writing?
  • If you met a kid who was blind, or a kid who knew he’d be blind someday, what advice would you give them?
  • If you could be sighted again for just one hour, what would you want to see?
  • Why did you laugh when that man in first class told you the guys next to you looked scary?
  • Did you write stories when you were little?
  • If the girl you were before you were blind could see the future and found out you would become a famous author, what would she say to you?
  • Has anyone ever judged you for being blind? How about for being a writer?
  • You told us how you learned to use rubber bands and safety pins to keep track of things. You’re a good problem solver, do you ever want to be in a group that invents things for people who need them?
  • How are you able to write about yourself without sounding pretentious?
  • Would you do all these amazing awesome things if you weren’t blind?
  • Did you think that guy in first class was being rude, or being helpful?
  • I don’t have a question, but I have a comment. I keep looking at your dog, and now I know Whitney is my spirit animal.
  • Do you wish you would have not been in the hospital all those months and just saw everything you could instead? I mean, do you wish you just went blind all of a sudden so you didn’t have to be in the hospital all that time?

Whew! What can I say? Those sixth-graders at Clarendon Hills Middle School are wise beyond their years.

Mondays with Mike: The grand dames of Moscow, Milwaukee and Michigan Avenue

November 20, 20176 CommentsPosted in Mondays with Mike, travel

Beth’s a voracious book listener, and as she’s mentioned before, I end up hearing large parts of lots of her books—if I want to, anyway. She usually falls asleep each night listening. If it’s something I like, she places her little audio device so we both can hear it as we fall out. If not, she puts it under her pillow—she can hear it, I can’t.

I’m not a big fiction reader, but I’m pretty happy with this one.

Lately it’s been something I like, a lot. It’s fiction called “A Gentleman in Moscow.” In short, a Tsarist aristocrat is confined during the Russian Revolution to house arrest in Moscow’s grand dame hotel named The Metropol (a real hotel back then and today). A little far-fetched but it works. It touches on Russian history—and although it’s no textbook—by my reckoning it’s accurate. Which is not saying all that much—but I took Russian in college and realized then that we Americans are painfully ignorant of Russia’s epic history, and like back when I was in college, Russian history is kind of worth knowing these days.

The book’s just extremely well written, great characters, great dialog, witty and funny. And the great old hotel is something of its own character. Which alone gives the book a couple stars in Beth’s review. Regular readers know that for Beth Finke, heaven is a well-laid-out, compact hotel room. In that room is a closet with complimentary bathrobes. And next to Beth’s side of the bed is a nightstand with a drawer. I’ve taken to calling it Beth’s squirrel drawer, because all I see is a mess of lozenges, chewing gum packages, and insulin pens—but for her, it’s perfect.

Photo of Chicago Hilton and Towers

The Hilton’s one honkin’ hotel.

We’ve written about The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, where they immediately greet Beth as we walk into the lobby. “Hello Ms. Finke!” Staff hands her key cards that have already had the corner snipped off so Beth knows how to orient the card in the door lock slot. They leave rubber bands in the room—Beth uses them to identify things. Staff doesn’t say much to the guy carrying the bags. But I’ll take it.

A nice hotel is a refuge, an oasis of a kind. It’s a different state of mind. Hotels—especially the big conference ones—are like little cities, subcultures all their own.

Beth and I both belong to the gym at the Hilton Towers on South Michigan Avenue—for those of a certain age, that would be the 1968 Democratic Convention Hilton. But it’s a lot more than that—Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor and presidents, not to mention Harrison Ford and the rest of the cast of “The Fugitive”—have spent a lot of quality time there.

I don’t believe I’ve ever actually stayed overnight there. But as a kid growing up, and now as an adult, it’s my epitome of a big old hotel. For gym members like us, it’s always fun to try to figure out what conferences are there. How busy the gym is on a given day is often a hint—when it’s a conclave of physical therapists, for example, it’s hard to find an empty treadmill or a swim lane. Sometimes you can smell the seriousness—the frolicking radiologists are in town! And sometimes you can smell the money—pharmaceutical sales people everywhere.

Sometimes it’s scary numbers of awkward teenagers there for  a youth convention, waiting around in awkward stances to be told what they’re doing next. Sometimes it’s a sports team  convention with everyone decked out in fan garb and one time, it was the International Leather Convention. Can’t tell you much about that, as that group takes over the entire hotel so as not to scandalize unwitting guests. I did hear stories, though.

So, there you have it: Bolshevik Russia, Milwaukee, and a gym in the Hilton Towers.

My mind wanders sometimes.



Part II: Interview with Robin Sitten, the narrator of Writing Out Loud

November 19, 20173 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guide dogs

In case you missed my last post:

You can now buy the audio version of Writing Out Loud.

You heard that right: The audio version of “Writing Out Loud” is now available at And, too.

But wait. There’s more! Thanks to my publisher — Golden Alley Press — you can win a free audio book! Just email and enter WOL Freebie in the subject line. Golden Alley Press will choose the winner from the first 50 entries.

Robin Sitten narrates Writing Out Loud, and she generously agreed to let me interview her about recording the book. So here goes with Part II of the interview:

What were some specific challenges in recording “Writing Out Loud”?

Nancy and I had talked about the excerpts from your class members, and how to approach them. It is a fine line between a characterization and a caricature…and knowing these are real people, who will certainly listen to the book, I wanted to be respectful of them. Nothing cartoonish, or stereotypical. I wanted the attention to be to their words and not my voice. This is always tricky. Giving Hannelore an accent was the most delicate of these, because her writing is so powerful and I didn’t want to be a distraction.

A lot of authors, and readers too, I should say, are looking for an audio performance — a radio play. When these are done well, they can be very captivating. But I see my role as representing the author’s words, not putting on a show. That’s my background in disabilities access, for sure. We are taught to be “invisible.” Being told “I forget the narrator was even there” is a compliment in my world. But audio book readers expect something else these days.

Were there any passages in “Writing Out Loud” that were particularly fun to read/record?

In spite of what I’ve said about giving Hannelore an accent, her passages were the most enjoyable because of the challenge of it. Because I am reading cold, this is a challenge for me to see how much I can internalize the voice and accent. And that puts me in “the zone” in some ways.

How do you deal with words that are hard to pronounce?

God bless the Internet. I have on hand a wonderful 1940s dictionary with a pronouncing gazetteer – tissue-thin paper, thumb tabs, the whole thing. But when I can’t find it there, I can usually find a video on YouTube where someone pronounces the word.

I recently recorded a memoir by a woman from Kenya, and since it was in the first person, I wanted to make sure I used the local pronunciation for places, and not the English way. I was able to find news stories and interviews on Youtube where I could hear this pronounced, then got on the phone with the author (Wanjiru Warama, “Unexpected America”) who coached me through it.

How do you feel about using accents when reading?Mixed feelings, really. I like doing accents, and can do a lot of them. But they are difficult to sustain over a book, and sometimes the writing makes the accent that much more difficult. I am also skittish about an accent that sounds stereotypical, and is clearly someone imitating an accent that is not their own.

Do you listen to your own recordings?

I do my own editing, so yes. I guess that counts. But to listen to a book after I’ve recorded it, no. I’ve heard it too many times by then.

Have you ever met an author face-to-face after reading their book out loud? What was that like? Odd? Surprising? Disturbing? Thrilling?This answer is a bit of a cheat, because I have recorded Jeremy Flagg (“Children of Nostradamus”), who is a neighbor and a friend. I knew him before, though. Your question is have I met anyone after recording them? Not yet!

I know now that you’ve recorded textbooks for Learning Ally (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) for decades, but when we were deciding which narrator to choose, it was, pardon the pun, a blind audition. The publisher and I had no idea you had any experience with reading for people who are blind before we chose you to read “Writing Out Loud.” Do you think working with and knowing other people who are blind, being familiar with assistive technology and white canes and audio description for live theater and such, was an asset when recording this book about a woman who is blind?

You know, I do, but in tiny ways that maybe no one else would notice. I know how dog handlers talk to their dogs, for example. You have to be around a lot of guide dog users to hear that cadence. The story of being confronted on the street by “helpful” strangers is a story I have heard many times. I was excited to get this project because I feel like part of the blindness community, and because I wanted to support you in this project as a community member. And I suppose I thought to some degree that we probably know many people in common, and I am connected to a potential audience for this book. But at the same time, your experience as a child from a big family, a Chicagoan, a wife and mother… none of that is my experience. So I had to tell your story your way through your words.

Sound the trumpets! The Audiobook is here!

November 17, 20175 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing

You can now buy the audio version of Writing Out Loud.

If you ask me, the best way to enjoy my new book is to hear it…out loud. So now’s your chance: The audio version of “Writing Out Loud” is now available at And, too

I would have liked to have narrated the audio book myself, but I’m not good at reading Braille and talking at the same time. Eyebrows up! Nancy Sayre at Golden Alley Press invited Mike and me to help audition potential narrators. We used an online service called ACX, which matches publishers with readers and audio producers. We auditioned several narrators and ultimately identified Robin Sitten as just the right voice. And—thanks to Golden Alley Press—you can win a free audio book! Just email and enter WOL Freebie in the subject line. Golden Alley Press will choose the winner from the first 50 entries.

Audio book narrators have been an integral part of my life since I lost my sight in 1985. For all those years, I’ve wondered how it all works, and this audio book gave me the opportunity to ask the questions. Robin generously agreed to be interviewed for the Safe & Sound blog, and she provided so many enlightening answers to my questions that we decided to run the interview in two parts.

So here goes with Part I of the interview:

What got you into reading audio books?

I started recording textbooks for Learning Ally (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) in 1995, just because I enjoy the challenge of reading out loud! I had always wanted to do it, but my work schedule didn’t allow it. I had to be out of work before I could give RFB&D the two hours per week they asked for.

Photo of Robin Sitten at the microphone.

Robin Sitten sittin’ at the microphone.

Can you give me a brief explanation about how this ACX thing works? How did you find out about it?

ACX is a kind of matching service for authors and narrators, and is part of Authors (or publishers) post books they would like recorded, and narrators audition for them. I found it through an Internet search.

What was it about Writing Out loud that motivated you to audition to read it?

I am drawn to non-fiction, memoirs, straightforward narrative. There is a lower expectation of “performance,” compared to novels.  Plus, I believe that fewer people audition for them!

How many books do you audition for?

When I am ready for a new project, I may audition for between 5 and 10 titles a week. In many ways, it’s a game of odds. Not quite a lottery system, but you certainly can’t win if you don’t play.

How did you go about recording Writing Out Loud—how do you prep, how do you keep your voice strong? Do you read the book through before you begin narrating? Do you do a trial run — read a single chapter say, and then adjust?

I tend to read “cold;” that is, I don’t pre-read the pages, or practice at all. I may give the manuscript the once-over when I first get it, to look out for unusual pronunciations, or formats. Nancy Sayre and I got on the phone and worked through a bunch of questions that I had. Some publishers are available to do this; some don’t. Nancy let me know you are something of a fast talker, and shared a YouTube interview of you. Not that I was trying to do an impression of you – just that the voice should seem like yours, and it did help to get a sense of your rhythms.

I don’t do much prep otherwise. I just charge right in. Sometimes I will record a couple of takes on a particular line, and decide later which I like. One author I worked with had a detailed outline of his characters, pronunciation of their names, approx ages, etc. But that’s not typical

I only record about an hour at a time. I can do a two-hour stretch, but not every night. So how long I read depends on my schedule and the contract deadlines.

I guess it’s just experience that keeps the voice strong. But a little fennel tea is nice in the winter, too.

What do you find is the most difficult thing about recording books?

A lot of times, the manuscript is just not in good shape. Not proofread, for example, or structured with natural breaks. A lot of ACX is self-published material, and an author doesn’t necessarily have editorial experience, or advanced writing skills. They know in their head how the story sounds to them. Some phrases that are fine in print are difficult to speak. I wouldn’t expect them to know that.

The other hard part is scheduling. This is not my full-time job, and I don’t have a sound proof studio. Both of those factors limit when and where I can record, and getting it all in can be hard.


Guest post: Hanni left big shoes to fill, and this guy can fill ’em

November 15, 20179 CommentsPosted in guest blog, guide dogs, Hanni, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

We’ve posted before about Steven and Nancy, our friends who generously volunteered to adopt Hanni when she retired from her duties as my guide dog. Steven and Nancy and Hanni had a great several years together–Hanni lived to 17!  But when she died earlier this year, Hanni left a big void. Nancy has posted here before, and here she is with some happy news. 

When we lost Hanni in May, I was so sad. I cried more for her than I had for many people, which makes me a bit uncomfortable to admit, but there you have it. Could still cry about her if prompted, 6 months later.

photo of Doug licking Steven.

That’s Doug, 90 lbs. of yellow love, showing it for Steven.

We tried to look at the upside. We can travel and not have to worry. No more frigid trips outside late at night. However, those things didn’t really seem to help the fact that life seemed emptier without her.

We started to look at shelters and rescue sites. We need a dog who likes other dogs so when Whitney or any of our other family dogs come to visit, there isn’t a problem. We also have family cats. And then there are kids. I didn’t want a dog that can’t be around kids or an elderly person. So finding an adult dog who is dog, cat and kid friendly….that is more of a challenge.

We looked at a yellow lab mix but somehow it just didn’t click. I got in the car afterwords and bawled “We’ll never have another Hanni.” So, our new rule came to be: no yellow labs or goldens to remind us of our girl. Too much pressure to be compared to her.

I found eight or so dogs that looked like possible fits over a few months. I filled out the adoption forms for Great Danes and German Shepherd mixes and Heinz 57 varieties. We had house visits and interviews and my friends vouched for us…..but they all would get adopted before we could get approved and get to the shelter, which is good news for all of them. I had many matchmakers trying to make me a match. I figured something would work out eventually.

Then we made an appointment at the Pet Project in Marseilles, Illinois, a shelter close to my home town of Peru. There are some great people there who are really devoted to finding the right home for the right dog. We would look at a few pooches, including Wayne, a black lab. We got there and Wayne had just walked out the door with his new family.

But who just walked in the door? Doug.  We had seen him on the website a week ago and knew he wouldn’t last a second. Sure enough, he went out the door like a shot, but was brought back for being too big, or some reason we don’t know.

Doug’s five years old, and he’s a big boy, 90 pounds and a major league face licker with a sweet disposition. Good with dogs, cats, and people of all ages. And, he looks like the love child of Hanni, Whitney and Harper, yellow lab to the core. But, it didn’t matter.

We clicked, birds sang and there was no question that he was going home with us.