Mondays with Mike: They’re smart but they’re not really phones

Growing up, the telephone was central to my family’s daily life. In the early days we had what was known as a “party line.” Essentially, you shared a connection with other households—if you picked up, you might hear their conversation instead of a dial tone, and you’d have to hang up and check later.

phoneEventually, that ended, and we had our own dedicated line. I still remember our number. I also remember being aggravated that my mother, an elementary school teacher, would be on the phone endlessly. Some of it was her propensity to talk, but a lot of it was her being a good teacher—she made herself available to parents of her students, and they took full advantage.

I remember being home sick from the first grade, and my mom staying home with me. I was lying on the couch and we were watching As The World Turns and Walter Cronkite came on to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. A little later, we learned the president was dead, and my mom was on the phone with her mother. “And now we have that SOB Johnson,” I clearly recall her saying.

As I got older I would call my friends to arrange to do whatever we did back then. Sometimes we’d talk at length, though I can’t remember what we talked about. And I remember, staring at the phone, picking it up and putting it back down, until finally I mustered up the courage to dial and ask a girl out for a date.

When I went away to college, the phone calls to home, to high school friends who went to college elsewhere, were somewhat precious – they weren’t cheap. The same was true after I moved to Washington, D.C. to take my first job.

Today, I rarely have a real conversation on the phone. It’s usually a brief confirmation of some arrangement already communicated via text or email. Even at work, it’s the last resort—except for the painful modern phenomenon, the conference call.

Beth and I still have a land line. We kept it for all these years largely because Beth’s mom, Flo, had a hard time hearing via a cell connection.

That was partly age and compromised hearing. But, as this terrific article in The Atlantic explains, it was more because, well, cell phones stink at being phones.

I hope you’ll read the article—but in brief, the point is, as advanced as our smartphones are at digital stuff, they are a quantifiable step back in quality when it comes to voice transmission. For one, they don’t cover the full audio spectrum that we need for a conversation. For another, the connections aren’t nearly as reliable as old fashioned wire. And finally, something basic—they’re not full duplex, which means, in plain terms, that two parties can talk at the same time.

I don’t expect we’ll go back to land lines, and having long, heartfelt phone conversations. But the article was a reminder that often, when something is gained, something else is lost.

Feeling Frank for free: Frank Lloyd Wright touch tours

I just got word that in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust is offering special tours for people with disabilities free of charge in 2015. Who knows? Maybe these Chicago ADA presentations I’ve been participating in are really making a difference!

Robie House

Robie House

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust is an ADA 25 Chicago program partner, and three of the special tours will take place in Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Chicago: the Frederick C. Robie House, The Rookery Building lobby and the Emil Bach House. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Ill., will be offering a free special tour, too. More information on these four buildings:

  1. Frederick C. Robie House (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1908-10) A masterpiece on 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave, Chicago is said to be the most innovative and forward-thinking of Wright’s Prairie houses.
  2. The Rookery Building Lobby (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1905) is described as a “dramatic and stunning remodeling” of Burnham & Root’s original design. At 209 S. LaSalle, it’s just blocks away from our apartment in Chicago.
  3. Emil Bach House (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1915) is a Prairie house at 7415 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago. I’d never heard of this one before, but The Frank Lloyd Trust says it “looks toward Wright’s future stylistic direction.”
  4. Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1889/1898) is where it all started –t he birthplace of Wright’s vision for a new American architecture, and it’s just an el ride away at 951 Chicago Ave, in suburban Oak Park, Ill.


The American Sign Language tour date for the Rookery Building Lobby is Wednesday, September 23 at 1:30 pm, the Emil Bach House ASl tour will be on Sunday, October 4 at 9:30 am, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio ASL tour is on October 2, at 12:00 pm.


Touch tour dates :

  • Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio on Saturday, September 19 at 4:30 pm
  • Emil Bach House on Thursday October 8 at 2:15 pm
  • Frederick C. Robie House on Sunday, October 25 at 4 pm
  • The Rookery Building Lobby on Friday, November 6 at 12:30 pm

I’m told space will be limited on these guided tours, and that if you want more information, you should contact Laura Dodd by phone at 312.994.4005 or by email at

In some of the presentations I give, I try to point out some bennefits of being blind: I bring my dog along wherever I go, I walk arm-and-arm with friends when I want, and I can’t judge people by what they look like. Soon I may be able to add one more benefit to that list: I got to touch Frank Lloyd Wright artifacts when I toured his buildings!

Mondays with Mike: You Gotta Have Friends

Soon after we moved from Urbana to Chicago, Beth connected with a great local organization called Blind Service Association. Among other things, it provides sighted readers to people who need stuff read. Beth needed stuff read, and truth is, I needed to have her have stuff read—because I can’t keep up with it all.

Now, you might be thinking great literature, poetry, or the like. But no, what Beth and lots of people who are blind really need read are bills, instruction sheets, miscellaneous snail mail, the printed flotsam and jetsam that isn’t available online. Some also need help filling out forms, balancing checkbooks and addressing envelopes.

So the volunteer readers are a game lot. One of Beth’s first volunteers was a Bronx-born, Yankee-rooting, retired public school teacher who’d followed her physician husband to Chicago. Benita and Beth hit it off right away. And though their reading dates dwindled over time, they continued to see each other socially. I eventually met Benita and her husband Henry, and we always shared lots of laughs, great conversation, and usually some good food and drink. The two of them made the most of their time in Chicago, choosing not, at least in my company, to bemoan not being in New York. Memorably, we watched game 2 of the 2005 World Series with Benita and Henry on the big screen TV at their apartment, all hooting when Scott Podsednik launched an unlikely walk-off home run to give the Sox a 2 games to none lead in the series.

Our walk in NY included a visit to the enormous statue of Teddy Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History.

Our walk in NY included a visit to the enormous statue of Teddy Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History.

Last Thursday evening we found ourselves again in Henry and Benita’s living room. I sipped on a fine cocktail mixed by the good doctor. Only this time, their living room was in New York’s Upper West Side. Henry retired awhile back and the two of them returned to their roots.

Our generous hosts treated us to dinner at a neighborhood favorite and the next morning we convened for the best lox and bagel ever at a place called Barney Greengrass, a deli that Henry’s father used to go to. Our friends live across from the American Museum of Natural History (you know, the Night at the Museum one), and a block from Central Park. Benita and Henry led us on a glorious hike through the park, we passed the Delacorte Theater, stopped at the frog pond, crossed to the East Side . . . I think I could grow to love New York.

The best part, though, was simply Benita and Henry’s company. Witty, well traveled, well-read. It’s just good being together.

Benita rode with us on the Subway to Penn Station to see that we were on time for our Amtrak to Philadelphia. Two notable things about that: I didn’t think there could be a more poorly laid-out terminal than Chicago’s Union Station, but Penn Station is in the running. And, Amtrak was on time and we were in Philly before we knew it.

We checked in at the Philadelphia Racquet Club, the headquarters for the wedding we’d be attending. The vaunted institution clearly had seen better days, but it still exuded all that clubby “let’s play a game of squash “ atmosphere.

Then it was a couple blocks to the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of my god-daughter, Sasha. Well, technically, by rites of the Serbian Orthodox Church, she is my Kuma—but that’s another story.

I hadn’t seen her in years and years. I had, however, stayed in touch with her mother, whom I have known since I was a teenager. Rebecca and I were fast friends and partners in crime through high school, and during summers when we were home from college. What we had in common was restlessness, a raw hunger to get out there in the world and see what we could do.

We talked culture, politics—and I’d hang out at her house where her father would pick apart my political arguments. If I equivocated, Mitch was quick to say in a Humphrey Bogart voice, “The problem with you is you have your ass in two chairs. You gotta get your ass in one chair, pal.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca’s mom Mildred would bring me food and then more food.

At Sasha's and James' wedding, there was much music and just as much dancing.

At Sasha’s and James’ wedding, there was much music and just as much dancing.

Through those years, Rebecca and I  helped one another stay sane. Over the decades, our lives meandered in very different directions but somehow we never lost touch.

The rehearsal dinner was full of conversation and a bunch of happy people, as was the wedding—held in a Greek Orthodox Church (a Serbian one wasn’t handy). James the groom and his family are of Scottish descent, and his people wore some pretty spiffy formal kilts.

The reception? Great food and drink, and one-of-a-kind music: A brass band. Comprised of Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra players. Playing Balkan music. Phenomenal.

I’m told the reception went till 3:30. We didn’t make it to that hour.

We were up and wide awake, however, the next morning. As it happens, Sasha’s new husband is a Quaker. And so we were off for a Quaker meeting to mark the union of James and Sasha. It was my first Friends meeting, and it may not be the last. It goes like this: You sit. You shut up. You contemplate. Quietly. And if you are moved to share something, you stand and say it, sit back down, and continue contemplating.

It was perfect. I thought about those times at Rebecca’s house some 30 years ago. I thought about her parents, and how I had seen their faces in the faces of their children and grandchildren all weekend. I thought about how if someone had told me and Rebecca back when I was 18 that one day we’d be in a Friends Meeting celebrating her daughter’s wedding, we would’ve been dumbfounded. I thought about the magnificent old trees in Central Park, and the frogs.

And I thought about all of our wonderful friends.

Whitney and Beth, live at Biograph Theatre

For eighty years now, Chicago’s Biograph Theatre has been known as the movie house where FBI agents gunned down bank robber John Dillinger. After our performance this past Monday night, though, maybe the Biograph will start being better known as the theatre where Beth Finke and her cute Seeing Eye dog Whitney got their stage debut.

The Biograph in an earlier era.

The Biograph in an earlier era.

Let me explain. The Biograph was a movie Theatre for 70 years after Dillinger was killed, but in 2004, a regional theatre here in Chicago called Victory Gardens refurbished it to put on live productions there. Arts organizations all over Chicago are sponsoring special events, lectures and workshops this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and when Victory Gardens Access Project opted to sponsor a workshop for “front of house” (FOH) staff from theaters all over the city, I was asked to sit on a panel there with three other disability advocates to give tips on some of the special needs people with disabilities might have when we attend live performances.

Front of House encompasses all the things happening with the audience in the lobby and at the concession areas before, during, and immediately after a show — anything from selling tickets to handing out concessions to ushering. People who work front of house tend to do so because they enjoy working with people, they love live theatre and they’d like more people to come out to support and enjoy performances. From what I witnessed at the workshop Monday night, they are keen to include more people with disabilities in their audiences, too — I was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout. Nearly 100 FOH staff members were there, representing everything from storefront theatres to art museums to established art programs.

Whitney and I arrived an hour before our panel, and when we walked into the Biograph’s refurbished and stunning lobby I discovered two sign language interpreters giving a workshop about the things theatres should look for when hiring sign language interpreters for their productions. The presenters used their voices as they signed, which made it possible for a woman like me to eavesdrop. I did, and learned that the best theatre interpreters are ones who:

  • avoid signing every word — it’s more important to convey the overall story and allow the action on stage to tell the rest
  • prepare in advance — a presenter said she studies the written script and listens to recordings of the play for weeks ahead of her sign language performances and attends rehearsals and productions ahead of time to get a sense for the timing and determine which signs to use on the day of her sign language interpretation
  • agree to work in teams if the play has many people on stage at once who are talking over each other
  • use subtle movements, like widening their eyes or raising their eyebrows to add meaning to the words they’re spelling out
  • wear extra dark lipstick so audience members capable of reading their lips can see them better
  • wear dark clothes if they’re very light skinned so readers can see their hands
  • wear light-colored clothing if their skin is dark so readers can see their hands
  • take rings and bracelets off before they start signing

So many things I hadn’t ever thought of! Our panel afterwards went well, and it was a thrill to be on the Richard Christiansen stage at the Biograph Theatre with playwright Mike Irvin (founder of Jerry’s Orphans, which organizes annual protests against the Jerry Lewis telethon), Rachel Arfa, J.D.,(a staff attorney at Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities) and Evan Hatfield (Steppenwolf Theatre’s director of audience experience).

Mike Irvin uses a wheelchair, Rachel Arfa uses bilateral cochlear implants, I use a Seeing Eye dog, and Evan Hatfield introduced himself by telling the audience he “Doesn’t identify as having a disability.” We took off from there.

The evening ended with answers to questions Front of House staff members in the audience had about touch tours before shows, wheelchair-accessible stages, captioning technology, and person-first language like “Mike uses a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair-bound Mike.” Audience members shared the challenges and successes of accessing arts programs, the night flew by, and I think (hope!) we made a small difference.

Guess I can find that out the next time I attend a performance in Chicago — and I hope that’s very soon.

Mondays with Mike: Whew!

I grew up with my mom, my dad, and my sister. My dad’s family lived in the Pittsburgh area, so we saw them infrequently, only when we’d make the trek East (always grand visits). My mom was Italian—maiden name Latini—and her Italian family feuded in a way that made the Godfather look tame. As a result of the estrangement, big family gatherings became a thing of the past by the time I was a teenager.

Then Beth and I got married.

Holy moley. Six brothers and sisters. And there is not an infertility problem in the bunch. I have one blood nephew, my late sister’s son Aaron, and really, I’d probably be content with that one wonderful guy. But, by marriage I have…I don’t know. I lose count of the nieces and nephews. And their kids. Yikes.

Beth posted earlier that a lot of these brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews would converge on Chicago this past weekend. The occasion: Brian, the son of Beth’s sister Bev and her husband Lon Miller, returned to the United States for the first time in a few years. He teaches English in Japan, and also is an accomplished photographer.

Brian was at the center of the weekend.

Brian was at the center of the weekend’s festivities

Brian and his crew (sister Stacey, her husband Ryan, their son Bryce, and Bev) went to a Cubs game Thursday afternoon. We met them for a bite to eat after the game and then they headed to a Bears pre-season game. I’m already tired writing this.

On Friday, Bev and Brian joined our nephew Ben (son of Beth’s sister Cheryl) for the afternoon opener of the Cubs-White Sox series at U.S. Cellular. By all accounts it was a splendid day, except for the outcome if you’re a Sox fan. I’m a Sox fan.

Beth and I threw a party that evening at our place. Well, we ordered pizza and Harold’s Chicken (it’s the best, btw) and bought boxes of wine and a mini-keg of beer. Luckily, this is not a pretentious crew. Finke family members came from as far away as Orlando, Fla. (Beth’s sister Marilee, her daughter Jen, and Jen’s daughter Kennedy aka “Toots” Ulen), Louisville, Ky. (jazz trombonist and Beth’s brother Doug), and Indianapolis, Ind. (Doug’s daughter Marsha). Plus all those Millers from Michigan. Oh, did I mention Beth’s niece Janet and her brood came in from the suburbs?

Now. Back to Brian. He and his mother left a close game early in order to be at our place for the party. I had to report to him (a Cub fan) that indeed, the Cubs had hung on to win a close game. The words didn’t come easy.

We ate, drank, and then headed down to see the Fat Babies at Summer Dance. I’ve posted here before about Summer Dance. It’s always a wonderful scene, but it’s never been better than Friday night. Clear skies, a cooling breeze, a crowded dance floor, and…we snagged a picnic table! That never happens.

The music was superb—the Fat Babies play traditional jazz and have become kind of a thing. At one point, Beth’s brother Doug (the jazz musician) was compelled to stop our chatter and interject: “I just want you to know, that what they’re doing right now sounds effortless but it’s really, really hard.” And, once I stopped to listen closely, I realized what he was talking about.

The next day Ben (remember the nephew from the ball game earlier) and his wife Julie (they have four children) hosted a backyard pool party in the suburbs. Beth stayed here in Chicago to meet her niece Jen and Jen’s friends for breakfast. 

I stayed home and took a long nap.

That evening, Brian and company, Beth, I and Marilee (that’s a sister, remember) convened at Hackney’s. It was great to get to talk to everyone, especially to Brian, who has some fantastic stories, worthy of their own space, about Japan and its culture and his photography.

Sox win. Cubs lose. Love my flag.

Sox win. Cubs lose. Love my flag.

The finale: The Sunday afternoon Cubs-Sox game. The Cubs got the better of it for the first two games of the series. But I was confident. Chris Sale was pitching that day. That usually means good things for the Sox. I knew I’d be going along with the group to the Sunday game, and when I saw the pitching matchup earlier in the week, I got a brilliant and evil idea.

The Cubs have a tradition: when the Cubs win, they fly a W flag at Wrigley Field. When they lose, they, to their credit, also fly an L flag. The Cub fans have taken to flying W flags in the stands when their baby bears manage to win a game.  They love doing it. Especially when they invade stadiums on the road.

Somehow, unlike the organization, they don’t unfurl the L flag after a loss.

Anyway. Sunday afternoon. White Sox leading 3-0 after a dominating, 15-strikeout game by Chris Sale. Top of the ninth inning. Two out. I reach into my pocket. And then…a home run by Jorge Soler off our closer David Robertson. I took my hand out of my pocket.

Then an infield single. Argh. Homer ties it.

Then…a bouncer to second. Sox win!

With that, I reached back into my pocket and unfurled the beautiful L flag I’d ordered earlier that week (yes, they sell them) and that had arrived just in time. Me and that flag are on a lot of Sox fans’ Facebook pages today.

I was with Brian, Bev, Stacey, Ben, Ben’s son Colin—all Cub fans. But they took crazy Uncle Mike’s antic in stride. (Stacey’s husband Ryan was also there, but being a Detroit Tigers fan, he was agnostic.)

I paraded the flag down the ramp, drawing a lot of “awesome dudes” along the way. I was spritzed by water by a Cub fan, but thankfully, nobody slugged me.

We rode the Red Line home, where Brian, Bev and crew collected their luggage before heading to Union Station for the train home to Michigan.

Before they left, Brian, gave me a Hanshin Fighting Tigers jersey. Brian has become a big Japanese baseball fan, and the Fighting Tigers have an especially funky history. They have a curse, like the Cubs, only instead of a goat, theirs involves KFC (yes, the chicken place). All I can say is the jersey is really cool.

Thanks for that, Brian, and thanks especially for visiting. And thanks Finkes, all XXXXX of you, for a great weekend. I need another nap, though.

Something tells me these photos are sensational

Brian’s the man behind the camera.

My niece Jen and her one-year-old daughter, who I lovingly call “Toots,” flew in from Florida yesterday. My sister Bev and her family are coming by train from Michigan later this morning. My sister Marilee is flying in from Florida tomorrow, my brother Doug and his daughter Marsha are driving in from Louisville Friday afternoon, and Marsha’s husband and son will drive in from Indianapolis Friday evening.

What’s all the fuss about? Our nephew Brian Miller is in town from Japan!

Now get out your world globe. You’re going to need it to follow Brian’s adventures since graduating from college. After returning from his first trip abroad to Egypt, Brian turned right around and went back to the Middle East for a semester of intensive Arabic in Jordan. Next stop, a study program in Kuwait with the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. From there he took side trips through Syria and Turkey.

And then he moved to South Korea. Brian spent six years in Jeju (a beautiful Korean island on the East China Sea) teaching English to kids and honing his photography skills. After The Village across the Sea, Brian’s first book of photography, was published in 2010, Brian moved to Japan.

An example of Brian's work. Check out his full portfolio by clicking on the photo, or visit:

An example of Brian’s work. Check out his full portfolio by clicking on the photo, or visit:

He lives in Mie, Japan now, teaching English to adults while pursuing his work photographing the long-traditional female divers of Asia. He’s been published on the National Geographic website twice, once in 2011 for his photo Haenyeo with Octopus and again for Portrait of an Ama in 2013.

Brian grew up describing things visually for his ol’ Aunt Betha (he was only four when I lost my sight) and has a knack for explaining his photos in words. His oreum photo, for example. The word “oreum” is Korean dialect for the island’s parasitic volcanic cones. “Basically, they’re mini-volcanoes,” Brian told me. During breaks from teaching, he’s taken vacations in Japan, and in Cambodia, and in Thailand, and in Vietnam, and in Hong Kong. When Minke (that’s what my mom’s grandchildren call her) died last year she left some money for each of her grandchildren. Brian decided to use his to come home and see his family. Flo’s legacy lives on. She’d be pleased, and we sure are – it’s been a long time since we’ve had Brian here with us!

A portrait of a haenyeo (female diver) on the shores of Jeju Island, S. Korea. The haenyeo dive without breathing equipment to spear fish and gather seafood for market.

Brian spent the early part of this week with his parents and his sister’s family in Michigan, and when they all get off the train at Union Station in Chicago today they’re heading directly to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Milwaukee Brewers– Brian is a big Cubs fan. After the Cubs game, they’re heading directly to Soldier Field for a pre-season game there –Brian is a big Bears fan. Tomorrow Brian and his mom are heading to Sox Park to sit in a skybox and watch the Cubs play the White Sox (did I tell you he’s a Cubs fan?!). Mike and I will treat everyone to some of our favorite South Loop food –Pat’s Pizza and Harold’s Fried Chicken – and we’ll all listen and dance to the Fat Babies at SummerDance in Grant Park.

Saturday’s a pool party at a cousin’s house in the suburbs, and I’ll be with Brian’s six-year-old nephew Bryce on Sunday while my husband Mike Knezovich the lonely White Sox fan joins Brian and a group of other Cub-fan-family members to see the White Sox play the Cubs at White Sox Park.

Brian and the Michiganders will head for the train home after Sunday’s baseball game, and Monday Brian takes off from Grand Rapids back to Japan. Whew! Whirlwind schedule, I know. Kind of mimics Brian’s life, I guess – he is a whirlwind!

Mondays with Mike: Virtual, schmirtual

Lately I have been trying to remind myself that whenever I have something touchy, sensitive, or otherwise difficult to say to — or about — somebody, it’s probably a good idea to do it in person. Ideally, in the same place at the same time, not on the phone, or via Skype. It’s something I like to call Actual Reality (AR®).

This young man is about to experience Actual Reality.

This young man is about to experience Actual Reality.

A news story here in Illinois last week drove home that very basic principal. I’m a proud graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but that pride has taken another in a long list of recent hits. The U of I is beset by troubles right now – in the athletic department, and in its academic administration.  It’s facing a lawsuit about the hiring/firing of a faculty member. It’s all pretty complicated and deserving of its own treatment. I bring it up here only to explain the news story I mentioned earlier. Last week, emails between then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise and other administrators became public (despite their best efforts to prevent that).

The cache of correspondence is not flattering, and I don’t know where to begin on the content. But it provided a brilliant example of the virtues of AR®.

If you’re a bigwig, of course, worried about scandal, it has the virtue of really keeping it between you and another person.

But apart from the CYA aspect, with all the texting and email and online surveys and Facebook memes, and posts and Tweets, the only truly interactive communication we still have is in-person conversation.

You are forced to look at the person you’re about to communicate with, unlike when you’re sitting at a keyboard alone, building a righteous, ironclad argument about why you’re absolutely right and the other person is dead wrong. You’re less likely to be glib or snarky, and you have the opportunity to correct, steer, and recalibrate in real time.

Seeing that person will probably make you measure your words more carefully. To read facial expression and body language. And the other person will have the same opportunity with you.

And if you’re talking about controversial issues and making tough decisions, it’s more likely that at some point, one of you will look at the other and realize, “Hmm, maybe what we’re contemplating isn’t such a great idea.”

Moreover, it means that whatever you are discussing is important enough for you to have taken the time and trouble to be in the same room at the same time. And important things usually do merit such effort.

I’m not preaching on this one. I’ve done my share of stupid online responses, via e-mail or unwise and unfair Facebook comments.  This is more a NOTE TO SELF: If someone says something online that concerns you and that might possibly warrant any back-and-forth, don’t type a response, type a note to yourself to take the matter up the next time you’re together.

And if it’s not worth getting together to do that, it probably doesn’t warrant the time.


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