I’ve Got Mail: Animal World

Writer/Producer John Chacona writes:

In DDW this morning, you mentioned the Amy Sutherland book. As fate would have it, I listened to a podcast of an article by Ms. Sutherland just this morning. The print article from which the podcast is drawn is at:


The link John provides takes you to “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” an article by Sutherland who is now applying to her husband the techniques she learned from the animal trainers. Hmmm….

According to let’s call this (JC’s website) writing about the arts doesn’t pay his bills but it does keep him sane. On his site you’ll find links to many of his writings, including this one:
Musical Royalty: Pianist Bill Charlap grew up in a household surrounded by musical greats, including his parents. (Erie Times-News ShowCase, 1 June, 2006)

Animal World

I picked up a brand new book that I’m anxious to read, but priorities for existing projects are trumping my desires so it may be a while before I get to dig into “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life Lessons at the World’s Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers” by Amy Sutherland. Who knew that California’s Moorpark Community College trained animal trainers? Well, I guess Ms. Sutherland knew. She spent a year following around the students and, I imagine, the animals. A blurb on the back says “Sutherland introduces us to the controlled chaos of a training zoo, wherein students and beats strive to maniupulate eah other.” These are the kind of books I love, narrative nonfiction — true storytelling — that give you a look inside a world you never knew existed.

Like She Said

“I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular . . . but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1973)


I mentioned making a quick trip to New York earlier this month. It was a last minute decision to attend a school reunion. The fact that is was an elementary school reunion seems to be of much amusement to my friends from recent years. It wasn’t until I noticed their amused or bewildered reaction that I realized, or rather remembered, just how unusual, and privileged, my early schooling was — privileged for two reasons, neither of which being that it was a private school. The first reason is the school’s philosophy, described today on their website as follows:

“Education at the School is experience-based, interdisciplinary, and collaborative. The emphasis is on educating the whole child — the entire emotional, social, physical, and intellectual being — while at the same time, the child’s integrity as learner, teacher, and classmate is valued and reinforced.”

The School for Children is a demonstration school for what is now known as the Bank Street College of Education. When it began in 1916 is was the Bureau of Educational Experiments, a research group founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell. The group decided that they could best study child development, with the fewest restrictions, if they had their own school, so they started with a nursery school in 1918. Mitchell was not the only one with progressive ideas, a Dewey-esque learning by doing approach; her two colleagues, Caroline Pratt and Elisabeth Irwin also founded schools in Greenwich Village, City and Country School and Little Red Schoolhouse, respectively. And when BEE’s kids “graduated,” most continued their education at one of those schools.

In 1930 the school acquired and converted the old Fleishman’s yeast factory at 69 Bank Street, that was the building where we attended school, but it was not until the late 50s that they decided to start adding classes so that the oldest students could stay on…and so that they could continue to study us and train teachers in our classrooms. When we graduated from 8th grade we were only the third class to do so. We were 69 Bank Street’s Class of 69. We were a special group; I thought that then, and I still do.

The second privilege, likely a result of the first, is that my little class (class size was always small, about 18) was more like a family than a class, and that closeness became evident once again when we began to reconnect. Half of our class attended school together, grew up together, for nine, ten, and eleven years. Although most of us had not been in contact since our only prior reunion in 1994, and some had been out of touch since graduation, it was as if the intervening years melted away – the fondness of one another, the school, and I suppose our lost youth, coupled with curiosity, eroded any obstacles. Of course we are each closer to some than to others (as it was then, so it is still today), but if old sibling-like rivalries existed in the past, they are no longer evident and the strong bond forged in the 1960s remains today.

Soon after we graduated the school moved uptown, grew in size, and its attitudes changed with the times. Their focus shifted to their immediate operations and they lost track of and interest in their graduates. They even lost our records. We found that out when we organized our own reunion twelve years ago. Of course their interest peeked when someone told them of our 25th-year reunion and gave them addresses – suddenly they were interested…in our checkbooks.

Most of our teachers are gone now, a few retired or moved on to other careers, but many have died. They were the ones who, with guidance from the educators at the college, saw us through. We are happy to have also reconnected with Pearl Zeitz, our 7s teacher (we didn’t have “grades”), and Peter Sauer, our science teacher who came on board during our last two or three years because parents began to get nervous about how we would fare in “the real world.” And of those no longer with us there are a few who we miss and remember fondly: Hannah McElheny (6s), David Wickens (8s), Betty Crowell (9s), Muriel Morgan (10s and 13s), and Hugh McElheny (music). The educators who studied us are long gone, replaced by administrators and fundraisers. I’d like to think that Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Barbara Biber, Edna Shapiro, John Neimeyer, and others at the College, along with our teachers, would have wanted to know how we, their experiments, turned out. I think they’d all be pleased.

Listen, Listen, Listen

From Miklós Rózsa’s Double Life

“The local critic didn’t like the piece, which poses the question: does one write for the public, or for the critics? Three thousand people applaud enthusiastically and one journalist makes uncharitable remarks. Which is more important? And how do critics feel able to make a definite judgment after one hearing? As a composer, I would never presume to do such a thing. When my pupils brought their music to me I always made them play it twice, something I learned from Honegger. There is too much of the unexpected in a first hearing; after a second hearing things begin to fall into place.”


The Jazz Journalists Association has just bestowed its awards and a few of my friends are among the winners.

I honestly don’t think much of most awards programs as they are usually beset with much organizational baggage, be it personal or political favoritism, a lack of well-thought out criteria on which to judge, or at worst, a complete disregard for the criteria. My lack of enthusiasm for the process is equal whether it be the JJA Awards or the Grammys. Is anyone’s efforts better than another’s in this particular year? Can you really confine your judgements to calendarized boundaries? And how about rewarding those who took giant risks that may have “flopped” but were nonetheless artistic feats?

Nevertheless, all accolades are a good thing, something we all need…and assuming we all “work” at our respective crafts, encouragement is something we all deserve. So in that light I offer my personal congratulations to my friends who are all hard-working, dedicated artists, every day of every year:

Making A Difference

Yesterday I saw an article in The New York Times (Facing Their Scars, and Finding Beauty) about a portrait painter who has done a series of strikingly beautiful pictures of burn victims. Andy Newman wrote:

“The painter, Doug Auld, 52, says that if people have a chance to gaze without voyeuristic guilt at the disfigured, they may be more likely to accept them as fellow human beings, rather than as grotesques to be gawked at or turned away from.”

Admittedly, as Newman points out, the painter is making a living and even gaining some notoriety for this project, but he is also making a difference, not only in the lives of his eleven adolescent and young adult subjects (one of the ten portraits is of two sisters), but potentially in the lives of everyone who views these portraits.

Auld has a website featuring this State of Grace project; here’s an excerpt from his mission statement:

I cannot think of a more difficult time to endure such a tragedy then to be facially burned as a teenager. A time when most normal teens are coming into forming friendships, sexual awareness, and dating. A time when ones self- perception is so fragile. An adolescent scarred by burns would be forced to grow up fast and develop a sense of who they really are at their core.

…I hope to show the inner beauty and courage of these young people. They have endured a hardship that has forced them into a place most of us know nothing about. I want an audience to see this and confront the traditional issues of acceptance and rejection due to surface deformity.

…I am not interested in shock. I am interested in reality and confrontation. These works confront the viewer with our fear and our repulsion of the unknown while simultaneously displaying a unique disarming beauty.

In his project history Auld concludes:

“Science has determined that what we call ‘beauty,’ is determined by angles, measurements and symmetry of features. However, non physical ‘human’ traits such as personality, inner strength, confidence, and character can redefine our perception of who we find to be beautiful.”

After I won my war with cancer ten years ago I thought a lot about doing work that could make a difference. My past careers as a publicist and computer trade book author seemed shallow and unrewarding, albeit lucrative. Post cancer, I did do a few projects for Microsoft Press to pay off the medical bills and keep up with my overhead, but I was still searching, still berating myself for not volunteering at a children’s hospital. When I returned to California I taught computer science, “Education is a valuable service,” I told myself. I taught one year at a local community college and a second year at a state university, but I was greatly disillusioned by the students’ complete lack of interest. It seemed that the students were just marking time, and that reconfirmed my cynical assessment that college is wasted on the young.

During this time I completed the book I had started many years before (my husband’s biography) but I was acutely aware that I had never studied the craft of writing. I had read many books on craft, but I knew enough to know that there was much more to learn. So I went back to school myself, to get another master’s degree in creative nonfiction. During my two years in that program at Goucher College I wrote a book that has yet to find a home with a publisher.

Roots and Wings is an intimate portrait of a group of teachers who trip over their own passions and predilections for the betterment of their students and education as a whole. Every year, these teachers work with their students at a California private school to produce the sixth grade project, always an original and often abstract creation melding music, dance, theatre, art, and technology to express a theme relating to core academic subjects such as social studies, language arts, or science. It is the culminating event prior to graduation. Cathleen, the arts coordinator, is on a mission to integrate the arts with core academic subjects. Not all of the team is onboard, and challenges range from pedagogical differences and personal insecurities, to the amorphous nature of the creative process and a lack of objective measures of accountability and success. Even in a private school the challenges are huge.

Being a proponent of the arts, and one who bemoans the lack of arts education our schools, I thought that this story about a school that integrates arts education with basic core curriculum could make a difference. Naive, perhaps. I am still looking for stories that can make a difference, and hopefully stories that can also sell. The Luther Henderson biography, currently in progress, means a lot to me personally, and I do believe his contributions to music and the stage should be noted and preserved. Interviews have made it clear to me that Luther made a difference in the lives of those he touched, and that is perhaps all that any of us can hope for — to set a good example and be helpful to those we encounter. Meanwhile, still looking for that story that will make A Big Difference with a capital D, I applaud (with a touch of envy) those like painter Doug Auld, and even TV personality Ty Pennington of Extreme Makeover, who have found a way through art and entertainment to make a living while making such a powerful difference in people’s lives.

Responsibility, Truth and Honor

I just started reading “Telling the Untold Story” by Steve Weinberg. On page six he writes:

“An accomplished contemporary biographer must be an investigative journalist, historian, psychologist, sensitive interviewer, gossipmonger, and compelling storyteller rolled into one. The best biographies capture life at a deeper, more intense level than does any other form of literature. Through biography, we learn how other individuals have handled the stuggle between freedom and fate. Leaving a mark on on this earth beyond one’s immediate family is unusual; biographies tend to be written about people who have managed to leave such a mark. Biographies scratch beneath the subject’s personal myth, looking for the slippages and the fittings.”

And on page 14 he shares these words written by Margaret Oliphant in 1883 and quoted by Edgar Johnson in One Mighty Torrent: The Drama of Biography:

“The position of the biographer carries with it a power which is almost unrestrained, the kind of power which is doubly tyrannous to use like a giant. Not even the pulpit is so entirely master, for we all consider ourselves able to judge in respect to what the clergyman tells us and we have his materials in our hands by which to call him to account… but the biographer has a far more assured place, and if he is not restrained by the strictest limits of truth and honor, there is nothing else that can control him in heaven or earth…He has it in his power to guide the final deliverance, like that judge whose summing up so often decides the final verdict.”

I’m not sure I believe that biographers are quite so god-like, but holding someone else’s life in your hands is an awesome responsibility not to be taken lightly.

Nothing Is Simple, But It’s All Good

I got a lot done yesterday, although no blogging. The morning started with a trip to the dentist for an 8 AM teeth cleaning. I have to do this every three months because the radiation treatments burned out my salivary glands and left my teeth unprotected. Hard to complain about such things when the alternative was death… And there’s always an upside: the dentist’s office manager bought a copy of “Men, Women, and Girl Singers” as a Father’s Day gift.

Anyway, I hurried back to my home office and set up to record a phone interview. In 1998 we installed 4-line phones throughout the house, but GE’s proprietary wiring or whatever prevents me from simply plugging in my recording device. I use an inexpensive single-line princess phone coupled with a Telephone Recording Control (both purchased at Radio Shack) that plugs into my minidisc recorder.

At precisely 9:30 AM the phone rang and my long-awaited conversation with Sir Simon Rattle began. Because of his hectic schedule, and the time difference, it took months to arrange this call. But again, I cannot complain because we spoke at leisure for just over an hour and he was gracious to call me on his dime. (Granted, he has more dimes than I do, but generous nonetheless.) He was calling me from Berlin and had just concluded a rehearsal that he said was hard work but went well. He told me how the Classic Ellington project came to be, described the fear and the excitement experienced by all parties when the Birmingham Symphony joined together with some heavy-weight jazz artists (Clark Terry, Joe Lovano, Regina Carter, Bobby Watson, Joshua Redman, Geri Allen, Peter Washington, and Lewis Nash) to perform a complete program of Luther Henderson’s orchestrations.

While I was transferring the recorded interview to my computer, I started filling out worksheets given to me by the folks at ArtistShare. I mention ArtistShare on this blog from time to time, usually in reference to Dad or Maria Schneider or Bob Brookmeyer, but I don’t think I’ve told you that I have been thinking about launching an ArtistShare site of my own. It’s been on my mind for some time now, and it will soon be a reality. ArtistShare is all about sharing the creative process, but planning the experience is a well-thought out and intricate process all its own…hence the worksheets.

I am actually planning to launch three projects, if not simultaneously then in quick succession, but I will not be going it alone. One of the projects will be a new CD by Clairdee, to be recorded in September at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. John is Clairdee’s personal manager so I asked him to start on the worksheets for that project while I tackled the other two projects (more about those soon).

At some point yesterday I took a break from ArtistShare to check the audio levels on the recorded interview and when satisfied, I sent the file, via the Internet, to my trusty transcriptionist. I took other breaks — one for a brief phone conference with a client who needed me to edit a press release, another to re-write a Nancy Wilson press release, and lastly to cook and eat dinner — but it was after 11 PM when finally I emailed one set of worksheets to my Project Coordinator and toddled off to bed.

Today is a new day and this morning my reward will be to go horseback riding. Hi ho, Silver, away……….

I’ve Got Mail: Narratives, Full Circle

I received an email today from Carl Abernathy, proprietor of Cahl’s Juke Joint: A rock, blues and jazz blog that features reviews and meditations on an eclectic mix of music. When I first discovered Carl’s blog I remembered being intrigued right away that someone so into music and with such diverse musical tastes would list books by John McPhee and Tracy Kidder among his favorites — both authors are masters of the narrative nonfiction genre — but I had forgotten that Carl works days as a college newspaper adviser. Guess I’m not the only one to mix passions for music and narrative tales. Carl writes:

I like the Nieman narrative writing site, too. I’ve been using bits and pieces from some of the stories in seminars.

A few weeks ago, one of my former students sent me a link to another site that features narrative writing: http://www.gangrey.com/

I don’t like all of the work featured on the site, but it’s a nice resource, too.

Gangrey, “Prolonging the slow death of newspapers,” is a blog with postings by Ben that contain links to stories in various newspapers. As Carl said, some are better than others, but it’s a great way to serendipitously sample the fare in papers around the country. Thanks, Carl.

Most blogs have an About Me link, but no such link for Ben on Gangrey. I did find a link, however, referring to a story on which he had been working, a story, it turns out, that he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times Online/Tampa Bay. I couldn’t tell if he was on staff or a freelancer, but now that I had his full name, Ben Montgomery, I googled him. Guess where his bio blurb showed up! On Neiman’s Narrative Digest. And that brings us full circle to my post from yesterday that precipitated Carl’s email.