Why go to art museums if you can’t see the art?

Last Saturday I got all dressed up and went alone with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney to a play. Tuesday the two of us went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a private guided tour. I’ve been invited to sit on a panel about services and programming that museums, theatres and other cultural institutions can provide for guests who are blind or have low vision, and it’s been so long since I’ve attended an art event with special programming that I thought I oughta brush up.

The play I went to at Merle Ruskin Theatre on Saturday featured an audio tour for people with visual impairments an hour before curtain time, and the Art Institute offers guided tours with “TacTiles” meant to help people who can’t see interpret the artwork. Lucas Livingston, the Assistant Director of Senior Programs at the Art Institute, gave me my one-on-one tour Tuesday. He had his work cut out for him.

At best, I’m ambivalent about these special programs. I credit the institutions for trying. I really do. And some special accommodations–like the advance tour before plays at Steppenwolf — have truly enriched my experience.

Harper and me with our Steppenwolf hosts during the on-stage touch tour of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Me, Harper and our gracious Steppenwolf hosts Hilary and Malcolm, on stage during the touch tour for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Malcolm is holding one of the breakable prop bottles and a bouquet of the plastic snapdragons which figure prominently into the play.

But when it comes to static, visual art, none of the special services I’ve tried have been particularly satisfying or enlightening.

My tour at the Art Institute began with four busts in the Elizabeth Morse Touch gallery, each made of bronze and marble from different time periods and locations so I could compare medium and style. The touch gallery was created with blind people in mind (each bust is labeled in both large type and Braille) but anyone can go in there and touch them. The Art Institute web site suggests that through touch, visitors can “discern an artwork’s form, scale, temperature, and texture in ways that sight cannot.” Hands might be good at judging temperature and texture, but my experience Tuesday did not convince me that one can discern form and scale any better with the sense of touch than with sight.

From there, Lucas guided Whitney and me over to a gallery to take in Renoir’s Two Sisters, one of five masterpieces represented by a TacTile — two-dimensional tiles (each one about the size of an Ipad) that represent a painting and include a description of the piece in large font print and Braille. It wasn’t until we got to the Medieval to Modern European Art gallery that Lucas remembered, uh-oh, Two Sisters was gone!

I can’t remember if Lucas said Two Sisters was being cleaned or lent to another museum, but after he got over his initial embarassment, we both had to laugh. I didn’t need the painting there anyways. I stood where it used to hang and felt the textured tile while Lucas described Two Sisters from memory.

We had better luck finding the other paintings represented by TacTiles, but the Two Sisters experience left me wondering. What was the point of going to where the painting was? Maybe to hear what people around you are saying about the art? Tuesday was a slow day, though. We were the only ones at each of the paintings I felt my way through.

Lucas told me that with 3D printing more accessible now, the Art Institute might create 3D printed pieces in addition to the TacTiles. They already have 3D replicas of some of the sculpture in the museum, and when we got to a statue of Buddha, Lucas placed a 3D replica in my hand. I asked, “What’s the antenna coming out of the top of his head?” It was a flame. At another Asian exhibit, everything was behind glass. Lucas placed a small bronze container in my hand, I guessed it was a cup, but it was a bell. “One of our interns here made it,” Lucas said, explaining that the intern worked in bronze and had cast a replica of an antique bell that was behind the glass we were standing in front of.

Adapting visual artwork for the blind, curating special tactile art exhibits, creating 3-D renditions of popular pieces of art. Good people have gone to such great lengths to help visually impaired people enjoy the art, that it can leave me feeling guilty when I don’t. For me, the simple truth is that the sense of touch is nothing like the sense of sight. Touch is too particular. Whether it be a bust I can touch, a TacTile, or a 3-D rendition, I can only touch one tiny bit of the artwork at a time. It’s just not the same as when I could glance at a piece of art. My interpretation is limited to a part of the piece that’s just one fingertip wide.

I lost my sight in my 20s, and one thing that helped me adjust was figuring out what I could still enjoy (I can’t ride my bike anymore, but I still ride a tandem; I don’t enjoy movies much now, but I can go to live theatre, where the emphasis is more on dialogue than special effects) and things I shouldn’t bother with (I can’t see art, so I don’t go to art museums). The Art Institute offers audio art guides for free for visitors who are blind or with low vision and their escorts, but the idea of paying to get into a museum so I can walk around listening to a monologue doesn’t make sense to me.

I don’t speak for all blind people–and because I used to be able to see, my experience is probably substantially different than someone who has been without sight their entire lifetime. I can imagine the experience helping someone who has never been able to see conceptualize, and I was happy to learn that another person who is blind will be on the panel tomorrow to give his own opinions and share his own experiences with art. My guide Lucas Livingston is on the panel, too, along with a woman who worked on accessibility for visitors with disabilities at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum and Lincoln Center before moving to Chicago, and the guy who directs Audience Experience at Chicago’s award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre. The panel is sponsored by the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortiumand it happens tomorrow, April 25, 2014 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Access Living, 115 W Chicago Ave in Chicago. The event is free, but you need to register in advance to participate. See (okay, hear) you there!

Mondays with Mike: My morning commute

I’m lucky: I have a walking commute to and from work each day. Okay, Okay … during particularly insane portions of the past winter, I took the CTA Red line. But most days, it’s a mile and a quarter to start the day, and a mile and a quarter back in the evening.

It’s great for body and soul. Some days it’s a blur—I walk fast, and only with the destination in mind, not mindful of much. Other days, like this past Friday morning, a sunny promise-of-spring morning, it’s kind of marvelous.

On Friday, like most mornings, I pass “our guy,” the homeless man that befriended Beth, who hangs out at Harrison and Dearborn and has helped Beth navigate in bad weather. We help him out as much as we can. I know, for example, that he needs $22 to get into his SRO each night. And he’ll let us know how short he is when days are slow.

That's the Auditorium, viewed from the east side of Michigan Avenue.

That’s the Auditorium, viewed from the east side of Michigan Avenue.

I let the traffic lights tell me which route to take most of the time. Friday took me east on Congress past the hostel, where backpackers and international travelers congregate in the lobby or in the Cuban sandwich shop next door.

Next I pass the Auditorium Theatre, a massive, grandiose Louis Sullivan creation. The performance home of the Joffrey Ballet and scads of other artists, it’s renown for its acoustics as well as its design. It was a marvelous achievement when it opened in 1889, and it still is.

On a morning like last Friday, a left—north—on Michigan has walkers in full sunshine. It’s not the Magnificent Mile Michigan Avenue, but I like this stretch better. There’s Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And a fine instruments shop with cellos, violins and violas in the window. Across the street, the lions in front of the Art Institute look back.

And that's the inside.

And that’s the inside.

It’s not all high culture, though. There are juice bars, little sushi joints—and the souvenir shops. It’s a seeming impossibility that ticky tack t-shirts and nick-nacks pull in enough to pay the rent, but they do—the stores have been there forever. So have the tiny little stores that sell crazy flamboyant costume jewelry. And a yoga studio and a fortune teller on the second floor.

In front of the School of the Art Institute I pass kids and tattoos and Technicolor hair and piercings and wafts of cigarette smoke.

One of the sentries at the Art Institute.

One of the sentries at the Art Institute.

I don’t see the lake until I reach the river–but there’s a constant sense of it in the air. “Cooler near the lake” has always been part of every Chicago weather forecast I’ve ever heard. I never realized what a difference it makes until I lived near it.

When I get to the Chicago Cultural Center—where Beth teaches one of her classes—I’m well over half the way there. It’s a fantastic building, the former main building of the Chicago Public Library system. It thankfully was saved from the wrecking ball during a misguided period of urban renewal in the 70s and now serves multiple purposes—art exhibitions, concerts, classes—and it’s a great meeting spot.

Jean Ponte DuSable

Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable was here first.

I cross the river on DuSable Bridge. Hawkers are already beckoning tourists to buy tickets for boat tours that load just below. And my last view is of a bust of Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable. Born in what would become Haiti, DuSable settled at the site where my office skyscraper now sits. He’s considered the founder of Chicago.

From there, it’s elevators and cubicles, and the daily grind. But it’s a great way to start the day, and I have the return trip to look forward to.

Mim’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated!

Mim's in there somewhere. Click on the link to go to a larger version at SI.

Mim’s in there somewhere. Click on the link to go to a larger version at SI.

My friend Mim Nelson has been on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, she’s been quoted more than once in the New York Times, and she’s been a guest on Oprah. And now, she’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated, too. You’re gonna have to look pretty closely to find her on that cover, though: she’s there with 2,999 fellow Bostonians! A story in the Washington Post explains:

Over the weekend Sports Illustrated put out an open casting call for the image that would grace its cover on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and the result was stunning. “3,000 Strong” is the cover caption’s estimate of the number of Bostonians who turned out at the marathon finish line on Boyleston Street.

I met Mim when we were both dopey college students — we were on the same study abroad program in Austria. She’s Dr. Miriam Nelson now, the director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. We’ve kept up with each other all these years, and when she was on The Oprah Winfrey Show touting her Strong Women series of books about the benefits of strength training, I stood in the audience to ask a question, mentioned my job modeling nude for art students, and Oprah used the clip in a special “Best of After the Show segment the next year. So thanks to Mim, I had a moment of Oprah fame myself!

Mim’s children are all grown now, so she and her husband Kin moved from the suburbs into a condo in downtown Boston. Mim ran the Boston Marathon last year, and she and Kin were looking forward to celebrating in their condo afterwards. You all know what happened instead.

One of Mim’s co-workers at Tufts was good friends with Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old who died in the bombings. I was in Vermont when the bombings happened, and Mim was still understandably shaken up when I called her a few days later. She’ll be running the marathon again this Monday, though, this time along with her daughters Eliza and Alexandra. She told me she expects Monday will be wonderful, but she’s looking forward to having it over with. “It will be good to get this year behind us, “ she said. “Boston is so crazy right now.”

Waking Up in a Strange Room

In the past month my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I have traveled to Seattle, Long Island, Milwaukee and Champaign. We’re home for a while now, and finally all three of the memoir-writing classes I lead for Chicago senior citizens are in full swing. We started out with a bang after my travel experiences inspired me to assign “Waking Up in a Strange Room” as a writing topic.

Whitney's used to planes, trains and automobiles.

Whitney’s used to planes, trains and automobiles.

None of the seniors came back with anything terribly lurid, but one 80-year-old77-year-old did read a playful piece about being propositioned on the El back when he was “only” 76 years old. Bill wears leg braces and uses crutches to get around, and though he’d said no to the proposition, the mere idea that someone had wanted to “wake up in a strange room” with him left him light on his feet the rest of that day.

One of the more moving stories was about one writer’s first day in the dorms during her freshman year at Kalamazoo College. Her essay described her roommate’s mother eyeing her up and down before finally asking a question: “Where are you from?” She said she was from Chicago, and the mother pulled her daughter out of the dorm room and rushed down to the staff office to speak with school authorities. Sixty years later , this writer can still remember exactly how it felt to wake up by herself in an attic room the next morning — school authorities had moved her there after the mother insisted her daughter “not room with a Negress.”

We heard stories about waking up in hospital beds, in foreign hotel rooms, in an eco-lodge in Nepal, a palace in Venice, a hut in India. Mary’s piece was about waking up in a tatami room with a kotatsu (fire/footwarmer) in the 1950′s during a ski trip with fellow high school exchange students in Japan. “Four girls were in each tatami room, and we ate breakfast and dinner on the square table over the kotatsu with our feet down on the ledge in the pit so we could keep warm,” she wrote. “At night we used futons as floor mats and covering, and lying on our backs with our toes right under the edge of the futon that covered the table, the warmth flowed right into our cozy sleeping spaces.”

Mary’s train ride to the mountains was as intriguing as the room in the ski lodge. “The dash for the train was frenetic, with hordes of people crowding the doorways, but we all managed to get inside two cars,” she wrote. . “The girls got seats, while the boys climbed to the luggage racks or crawled under the seats to lie down for the six-hour ride to Nagano, the Japanese Alps.”

Mary had written another essay about her year in Japan back when I assigned “Feeling Homesick” as a topic, and she sent both essays to one of those gallant boys who’d slept in the luggage rack on that train. When Mary was driving me to class the other week, she told me she’s kept up with this friend ever since they were both American teenagers in Japan, and that he is developing Alzheimer’s disease now.

“He was still able to send me an email, though,” she said. “He told me my essay sparked a memory for him.” Mary’s essay had also motivated him to write his own piece about another train trip he’d taken during his year as an exchange student, and his wife sent a letter telling Mary that her Japan memoirs had not only motivated her husband to write, but also motivated him to try using a computer again.

“She said it was the first time he had used the computer in two months,” Mary told me, reaching over from the driver’s seat to pat me on the thigh. “So look what these memoirs produce!”

Mondays with Mike: Everything’s amazing and maybe that’s why no one’s happy

Let’s start with this: A hammer is technology. How you use it is what counts. Hit a nail. Good. Hit a person. Not so good.

I say this because I’m about to venture into the realm of cranky person complaining about technology. And I want you to understand that from a purely, 11-year old boy that lives inside of me point of view, I have always loved technology.

I loved cars. I loved TV. I loved Pong, the first video game. I loved the goofy little Sinclair computer. I about flipped the first time I saw a Mac. Getting Beth’s first talking computer up and running back in 1988 was like an epiphany. I worked for a company that was part of the dot.com era, and I remember the first time I saw a Web site, back in 1995.


Of late, I find myself tiring of it. It’s a lot of work keeping up with it. And it feels sometimes like it’s a solution in search of a problem that I don’t have. A couple of viral videos, one by the now well-known Louis CK and another, have sort of piqued my cogitating on all this. Not sure there’s a stand to take, just observations.

During an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show, Louis CK observes that we are living in a marvelous age, when we can travel in the air at 500 mph and we log onto the Internet to get information about absolutely everything. And still we complain when the experience isn’t perfect.

It’s a funny, observant piece. It suggests that we ought to be celebrating, instead of complaining about delays on the tarmac. So why don’t we? I think the answer is self-evident: As phenomenal as these things are from a quantifiable, technological point of view, they aren’t intrinsically satisfying.

For example: Intellectually, I know flying on an airliner is incredible. The accumulated knowledge that goes into one of those planes is enormous. The idea that I can be in Chicago at noon and walking Times Square a couple hours plus change later is still breathtaking (and still somewhat confusing).

But the experience of being wedged into a small space breathing crumby air is just that. And all the wonder in the world doesn’t salve it (and that’s not even mentioning the airport experience).

And this: Traveling 500 mph is incredible, intellectually. But from a sensory pleasure point of view, going 60 mph on a motorcycle beats flying in a jetliner like a drum. Heck, 30 mph downhill on a twisty lane on a bicycle is more memorable than a lifetime of airline rides.

The other video that has me thinking about technology is by Tripp and Tyler. It’s a brilliant little enactment of a conference call—played out in person, with all the glitches that we now sort of ignore because most of us get stuck in these awful exercises on a regular basis.

For example, for all the technological advances, on conference calls (and on cell phones) people can’t talk at the same time. In the video, there is the inevitable and familiar exchange where two people alternate “you go, no you go, no you go.” The video calls out multiple ways that we accommodate technology in absurd ways.

On the subject of phones, yes, my iPhone is pretty incredible. But if I want to talk to someone, nothing beats a land line. That’s a fact, Jack.

You’re reading this on a blog or in an email that was delivered to you, so I’m grateful for technology. I’m just not as enthusiastic for technology for its own sake as I used to be.

Which I think, brings me to something like a point: Technology has induced us to do things because we can, not necessarily because we want to or because it makes sense. It’s worth staying mindful of that, and to use technology rather than have it use us.

Catching up: our trip to University of Illinois

Remember my post a few weeks ago about heading to Champaign to give a talk to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois? My friend Nancy Beskin generously agreed to come along with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me on the train, and her guest post today describes what our trip was like from her point of, ahem, view.

A living field trip into Beth’s history

by Nancy Beskin

I think Beth was surprised at how quickly I said yes when she asked if I wanted to come with her and Whitney to Champaign, but the trip was compelling to me for all sorts of reasons:

  • The train ride would be effortless and give me lots of time to catch up with Beth.
  • It was a chance to go back to my Alma Mater.
  • We‘d be staying overnight in the Illini Union.
  • I would see Beth give a presentation to a different sort of audience: college students.
  • It would be a mid-week adventure, and I love little adventures.

Beth and I became friends during our sophomore year at U of I when we lived on the same dorm floor in Scott Hall. We lost touch after graduation when I headed to Berkeley for grad school. During that time, I heard bits and pieces of Beth’s problems with her eyes, and then ultimately that she had lost her sight.

One of our stops was at Charlie Sweitzer's woodworking shop, where he and his son craft beautiful furniture.

One of our stops was at Charlie Sweitzer’s woodworking shop, where he and his son craft beautiful furniture.

We reconnected in 2003 at a book signing for Beth’s memoir Long Time, No See at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous to see Beth again, feeling a little guilty that I had not contacted her during this difficult time in her life. My fears were unfounded, I’m happy to say. We fell right back into the easy friendship we’d left behind in 1980.

So, yes, the train ride was fun and Beth and I were able to catch up. Being back at U of I was fun, too, but I didn’t feel the nostalgia I thought I might. So many buildings have been torn down and replaced that it was a real comfort to see the quad still looking exactly the way it did back in the 70s.

Beth and I agreed that staying at the Union made us feel grown up, and when I saw that my beloved (and ex-employer) Illini Union Book Center is now a conference room, it really sunk in: It is not MY U of I anymore.

The unexpected surprise of our whirlwind trip was learning so much about Beth’s years in Urbana after college…when I had lost touch with her. It was a living field trip into her history.

I met her other Nancy B. friend — Beth met Nancy Bolero while she was a volunteer at the local hospice. Nancy and her boyfriend Steven are the couple caring for Hanni in her retirement years. I met her friends Judy Ciambotti and Jim Spencer, who live across the street from Beth and Mike’s Urbana home, and who Beth met through some musician friends. I saw Beth and Mike’s Urbana house, easily identifiable by the wooden ramp that was built for Gus and his wheelchair. We walked to downtown Urbana, with Beth knowing each step and every building along the way.

The train back was late, but we made the best of it.

The train back was late, but we made the best of it.

And I met Charlie Sweitzer, a talented woodworker who Beth had met when she attended church after Gus was born – Charlie used to be a preacher there. Charlie gave Beth, Judy and me opportunities to see, feel and smell the woodworking projects he and his son are working on.

Our train back to Chicago was delayed, so we spent the last moments of our trip enjoying a draft beer across the street at the Esquire Lounge. In the course of 30 minutes, numerous old friends came up to say hello to Beth and catch up.

So, did the trip live up to my expectations? Yes, and beyond. It gave me a glimpse into a part of Beth’s world that I was never a part of, and that makes my friendship with her all the more rich. Cheers!

Mondays with Mike: You may find yourself in a beautiful house…

That's 14-year-old Hanni on the left, 5-year-old Harper on the right, and Whitney with her back to the camera.

That’s 14-year-old Hanni on the left, 5-year-old Harper on the right, and Whitney with her back to the camera. (Photo by Larry Melton.)

Sunday was dogapalooza in the suburbs. Beth and I and Whitney took the train to Wheaton, where our friends Steven and Nancy, with Hanni in tow all the way from Urbana, picked us up. From there, it was on to Chris and Larry’s, where Hanni, Harper and Whitney—Beth’s last three Seeing Eye dogs—met and rollicked until they and we were exhausted. (As a bonus, our friend Greg was also there, visiting from Seattle.)

I probably don’t need to explain much about Hanni, the one on the left in the photo, given that she has her own book. I will say this: she looks pretty darn good at age 14. That’s thanks in no small part to the care she receives from Steven and Nancy, who adopted her when she retired three years ago. Hanni’s having a great retirement in Urbana.

The male Yellow Lab on the right is five-year-old Harper. If you’re a regular reader, you know the story—but if not, here’s the scoop on Harper. Right from the start he seemed somewhat ill at ease as a Seeing Eye dog. He walked very briskly, but in retrospect we realize he went so fast because he wanted to get his work over with as quickly as possible. He was stressed out by his responsibility, but still, he did his job—and saved Beth from a catastrophic accident. That incident, though, led to a canine version of post-traumatic stress disorder—he refused to walk more than a block from home. Hence, early retirement, and placement with a great couple (that’d be Chris and Larry) in a sweet little house in a quiet neighborhood. It took time, but he got his mojo back and he’ll walk for miles now.

And of course the copper one with her back to the camera is Whitney, my current favorite. Whitney’s great at her job, but off the harness she’s a bit of a deliquent. She licks. She sniffs. And she destroys toys. Sunday afternoon, she ate through a Frisbee, ripped a tug toy and ate through to the stuffing of one of Harper’s squeak toys.

It was great fun having them all together, but as much as I love the dogs, it was better seeing our friends. At one point I stopped and had a moment where that Talking Heads song–”Once in a Lifetime”– played in my head, “You may find yourself…”. And I wondered how Beth and I found ourselves on a quiet street in Wheaton, with three former and current guide dogs and five adults, all of whom I pretty much adore.

Of course, the answer is Beth, who is a sort of one-person network. But more specifically, it dawned on me that it was, of all things, Beth’s work with hospice back in Urbana many years ago. That’s where she met Greg, when they were both volunteers. It’s also how she came to meet Gladys Bollero—Nancy’s mother. Gladys had severe MS, and Beth visited her regularly, and we eventually got to know Nancy and Steven that way. Back to Greg—he introduced us to his friends Chris and Larry, with whom he regularly hikes the Grand Canyon—when we moved to Chicago.

Which I guess may all sound kind of mundane. But to me, for a moment there, taking stock in Chris and Larry’s living room, dogs running, us chatting, I thought it kind of miraculous the way we people find each other.



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