Mondays with Mike: A happy new year

We’re only a month into this baseball season and I’ve already had more fun watching my White Sox than I have the past three years. They’re off to a great start, 18-8, leading their division, and well, as Ozzie Guillen once said, “Fun is winning and winning is fun.”

Beth and I, weather permitting, are heading U.S. Cellular Tuesday night to see the White Sox take on the Red Sox. It’s the hosiery series, I guess. (In these matchups, I refer to my team as the Right Sox.) It’ll be my second game, Beth’s first. We hope to be joined by another couple, one who is a Cubs fan the other Red Sox fan. Don’t worry, I’ll be good.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 4.52.09 PM

Listen to Chance. He knows.

While last year stunk on the field, Beth and I managed to have a good time during our many visits to the park. Like the time I posted about when we found ourselves seated with a cheering section for the Houston Astros pitcher that night. We learned that Vincent Velasquez was making his major league debut—hence the cheering section. We met his mom and dad and high school buddies. I gotta tell you, he had me right then. And, though I’m no scout, he looked very good that night.

Looks like I might’ve been right. He was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason. So far this season, for a team that was predicted to go nowhere, he’s won four, lost one, has a 1.44 ERA and .89 WHIP. Sorry for all the nerd talk—translation for all non-baseball fans, those are smokin’ numbers.

Here’s to Victor!

But back to the Right Sox. Besides winning, they’re just a lot more fun to watch. If you watch much baseball, you reach a point where you appreciate catching the ball as much as hitting it. And you hate not catching the ball. The Sox are catching the ball. They even turned an historic triple play.

Even the White Sox commercials seem better this year, with Chance the Rapper pitching his favorite team.

Alls’ good. So good that I didn’t even mind that the other team in town is also doing well. And then they went and did this. Win, lose: They’re just innately annoying.

Go White Sox!

Everyone tells me she takes sensational photos

When I write about the older adults in the memoir classes I lead in Chicago, I never describe what the writers look like. Now you can find out for yourselves!

Our day at the opera: That's me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene Schweitzer.

Our day at the opera: That’s me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene.

Darlene Schweitzer, a writer in the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead in downtown Chicago, played around with something called Adobe Voice and came up with a 60-second photo collage of writers in that class. Darlene narrates her Please Make Dreams Come True collage, and even if, like me, you can’t see the photos, it’s worth linking to her Adobe Voice project just to hear her sweet accent.

Today is the last day to take a minute and vote for the “Me, Myself & I” writers in those photos to win the Lyric Opera of Chicago contest — voting ends at midnight tonight. We’ve been stuck at fifth place for the past week, and I’m afraid that’s probably where we’ll stay. Sigh.

Eyebrows up! The whole experience didn’t cost us a thing, four writers from class got VIP treatment from Lyric Opera staff the day Wanda and Audrey were filmed for the video that promotes memoir-writing, the contest inspired Darlene to learn to use adobe Voice, and it motivated me to finally, finally dip my toes into the Twitter world to tweet for votes.

Once I hit the “publish” button on this blog post, I’ll head over to ChicagoVoices and vote for “Me, Myself and I” one last time. You never know — maybe all the first-place Croatians will be celebrating May Day today and unable to make it to the site for last-minute voting!

Bennett, the Brailliant, and my visit to Tess Corners Elementary in Wisconsin

Last week my Seeing Eye dog and I met a second-grader I’ve been hearing about for years. Bennett is a student at Tess Corners Elementary School in Wisconsin, and Whitney and I spent the entire day at his school Friday.

That's me and Bennett.

That’s Bennett and me. He’s holding a Braille copy of Safe & Sound.

I first heard of Bennett back in 2013, when his mom wrote to tell me how much her five-year-old enjoyed reading the Braille version of my book Safe & Sound. From her note:

“Bennett was so excited about the book. He told me, “I loved that book you got me. It’s a true story, mom. And no one ever writes true stories for kids about people who are blind like me.”

A stellar review — from an expert.

I kept up with Bennett and his mom via email ever since, and in 2014 I wrote a post about Bennett and his parents traveling from Wisconsin to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to have Dr. Ken Nischal, one of the world’s foremost children’s eye specialists, try a cornea transplant in Bennett’s right eye.

Bennett told me Friday that his vision improved in his right eye after the surgery. “But just for a little while.” Whitney and I got to his Wisconsin school just in time to meet Bennett in person — he’s returning to the University of Pittsburgh this week for more tests.

Bennett and I spent the first hour of the day together with an older boy who has visual impairments — Michael came in special on a short field trip from his middle school. They both had questions about Whitney, and I let each of them inspect her harness and take a few steps with her. After that, we were off to the first presentation.

Tess Corners is a happy school. The teachers expect a lot from their students, and they enjoy their work — I heard smiles in their voices. Their principal taught first and second grades for decades before accepting an administrative position there, and she told me she still misses teaching sometimes. The school librarian had read Safe & Sound out loud to every class before Whitney and I arrived, and with Bennett at their school, the kids at Tess Corners already know a lot about blindness.

They still had questions, though. Bennett and Michael were at my side for the presentation we gave to all the second graders (including Bennett’s second-grade class), and during the Q&A, I answered each question first, then passed it on to my young assistants.

“Can you see at all?” one girl asked. “When I open my eyes, all I see is the color black,” I told her. Michael said, “I can see some things if I hold them really close.” Bennett said, “I can kind of see light, but everything is blurry…like a cloud.”

Another child asked “How do you read if you can’t see?” I described audio books and my talking computer, Michael touched the screen on his iPad so we could hear VoiceOver, and Bennett showed off his Brailliant, a refreshable Braille device.

That's the Brilliant device Bennett uses.

That’s the Brailliant device Bennett uses.

Michael eventually had to return to middle school, but Bennett stayed in front with me long enough to read aloud to his classmates from the Braille version of Safe & Sound. His composure and confidence was remarkable — a credit to his fellow students, his family, the teachers and staff at Tess Corners, and, especially, to Bennett himself.

Bennett left with his second-grade class after that, and Whitney and I presented to the other grade levels on our own. I met up with Bennett again one last time during his lunch break — he wanted to show me how to use a Brailliant.

A Brailliant is an electronic device people who are blind use to read with their hands. The Brailliant transforms the words on a computer screen into small plastic or metal pins that move up and down on a flat panel attached to the computer. Bennett explained how he places his fingers on the panel to read the Braille characters formed by those pins, and then demonstrated by reading a line of text out loud. I’d never seen, errr, felt, such a thing before.

My Braille skills are poor. Bennett used the keys to tap out secret messages and pass the device my way so I could read them in Braille. He couldn’t help but notice — and chuckle — when I struggled to decipher his big words.

Bennett dumbed it down then and used shorter words. He placed my hands on the keys to show me how to compose and send a Braille note back. The blind leading the blind for sure. We exchanged “refreshable Braille notes” for the rest of the lunch hour.

Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Bennett uses VoiceOver to check his school assignments, and he listens to audio books sometimes, too. But he and his teachers know that if he doesn’t learn to read Braille, he won’t learn to spell correctly. He won’t know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on. Bennett has already tackled a lot of this stuff.

It’s true I’m not proficient in Braille, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I label CDs, file folders, ID cards, buttons on computers and other electronic devices. My Braille skills are useful on elevators, too, and it was rewarding to know enough Braille to exchange secret messages Friday with that bright, curious, cute — and patient — second-grade boy I’d been hearing about all these years.

Mondays with Mike: Death and Facebook

So here are my Prince stories.

Purple Rain was the last movie Beth watched while she could still see. It was at the Thunderbird Theater in Urbana in 1984, when it was still a movie house. And I’ve always thought, well, that’s as a good a last film spectacle as I would choose.

Another: Our son Gus loves music, and when he was otherwise inconsolable for reasons that will forever remain mysterious, certain music was magic. Prince was at the top of the list of magic musicians. We will forever be grateful.

And finally, after Gus had moved to Wisconsin and we’d moved to Chicago, we treated him to a Prince concert at Assembly Hall in Champaign. It was quite the road trip, and the concert was the magnificent thing that Prince always did.

I feel good telling you all this but also just a bit ambivalent and maybe guilty. That’s because this year has been fraught with the death of talented people who had enormous and devoted followings, fans who shared whatever they needed to on Facebook. And I’m not certain how I feel about it all.

If this doesn't get you moving, call the doctor.

If this doesn’t get you moving, call the doctor.

People have always died. Famous, talented, wonderful people. But we haven’t always had social media. And we haven’t been compelled (or had the opportunity to) lament, grieve, and share so publicly.

On the one hand, it’s kind of cool to have a place to go in times like these. To see what other folks are thinking. On the other, sometimes it feels a little smarmy—like a competition to identify as the biggest fan most hurt and affected by the loss. Or just an opportunity to talk about one’s own experiences. You know, like I just did.

And that can feel a little smarmy.

On the other hand, this past weekend people found and posted some incredible footage of Prince performances. Things that affirmed how talented he was.

On that note, I still don’t know how I feel about it all, but I am grateful to have seen this on my feed—courtesy of a friend of a friend (BDB, you know who I’m talking about).

When you have a few minutes, watch it. It’s astounding.

Goodnight sweet Prince.

Oh no! The writers in “Me, Myself and I” have fallen to fifth place inChicagoVoices, Lyric Opera of Chicago,

The “Me, Myself and I” memoir-writing class I lead for the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging is in fifth place in a contest put on by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and they need to be in third place by the end of the day Sunday, May 1. The top three community groups who get the most votes will have their stories made into an “original music theater work” with the support of Lyric Opera staff and artists.

Help them sneak into third place. Vote now – you can vote once a day every day24 hours until midnight May 1, 2016.

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about here, I’ll reblog a post from a few weeks ago. Thanks for your help, and I’m sticking to my promise — when they win, I’ll invite you to the opening in the fall.

Dissatisfied with candidates this year? Vote for Wanda instead

That's Audrey Mitchell from class. Click to vote!

That’s Audrey Mitchell from class. Click to vote!

The writers in the Me, Myself and I class I lead in downtown Chicago entered a contest. If they win, the Lyric Opera of Chicago will help them produce an opera about the class!

Only problem? Writers in that class aren’t exactly computer savvy, and to win, they need fans to vote online. That’s where you Safe & Sound blog followers can help.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with the writers.

First, some background. Earlier this year, Lyric Opera of Chicago launched a project called Chicago Voices. Lyric Unlimited asked community groups to submit applications for an opportunity to have their stories told opera-style. I brought the information to our Me, Myself, and I class in January, and writers put their heads together to answer the questions on the form. From a Lyric Opera press release:

After receiving numerous applications showcasing diverse, compelling and community-focused stories, a panel from the Chicago Public Library diligently reviewed and scored each group based on a predetermined set of criteria. Eight dynamic groups have been selected to move forward as semifinalists, each of which will have video profiles featured online for public voting beginning today.

Me, Myself, and I is one of the eight semi-finalists chosen, and now you can vote online for a 90-second video of writers Wanda Bridgeforth and Audrey Mitchell describing our class.

Three groups will move on to the next round and receive 16 weeks of classes from professionals at the Lyric to create original songs and scripts. Artistic support from Lyric Unlimited will help the finalist present its “fully-realized production” to the public in the fall.

Can’t you just imagine? Ninety-five-year-old Wanda as diva…

In order for this to happen, though, you’ve gotta vote for the Me, Myself and I 90-second video. After you vote, please share the link with your friends and family. Members of the public can vote once every day24 hours for the story they find most intriguing, and we need you to do just that to stand a chance against the young computer-savvy whipper-snappers we’re competing against. Please vote! Your reward? When they win, I’ll invite you to the opening in the fall.

Ali & Joe’s Big Adventure

Ali and Joe.

Ali and Joe.

The Blind dating the blind guest post my 23-year-old pal Ali wrote for us Sunday got a great response from you Safe & Sound blog readers, so we’re rewarding you with another guest post by Ali. In today’s post, she describes Sunday’s date with her boyfriend Joe at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase.

by Alicia Krage

Beth and I started arranging to meet at Chicago’s jazz showcase for a Sunday show, and when I told her my boyfriend Joe is the one who got me started listening to jazz, she suggested I ask him to come, too.

I barely got the question out before he very enthusiastically agreed to tag along. Our next step was to work together on train times and coordinate schedules — something we are now very good at after a year of practice and visits back and forth between his dorm at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and my house in the suburbs.

The plan was for Joe to get on the train at Elburn, and I would join him at my train station. After the two of us chose a date that would work for us, I used VoiceOver, the speech synthesizer on my iPhone, to email Beth and confirm the date would work for her and her husband Mike to meet us at the train station in Chicago.

On the day we’d be heading off to jazz showcase, I could barely contain myself. I probably didn’t even need the morning cup of coffee —that’s how excited I was. Joe and I had been texting each other (he uses VoiceOver, too) all morning about how excited we were and counting the hours until we were on the train. In the midst of all that excited chatter was also some planning. We had agreed that once he was on the train, Joe would inform the conductor that there was a passenger getting on later who was also blind, and we’d like to sit together. All went well there.

Next was actually finding each other. Even though Joe had informed the conductor to help me find him, I texted Joe from home to make sure I knew where he was seated just in case something went wrong.

My dad drove me the five minutes from our house to the station and waited with me until the train arrived. My dad always makes sure to lead me to a conductor when I get on a train — that way I can let the conductor know where I’m getting off and that I’ll need help.

This time was different, though. Before we got off the train, I wanted to be able to find Joe and sit with him for the ride to Chicago. After spotting a conductor, Dad told him I was meeting up with another blind passenger. The conductor took over and my dad said goodbye. “Have fun!” he added — he is always encouraging and enthusiastic about my independent travel.

Then the journey began. The conductor led me through maybe four or five cars before we reached the very front, where Joe was seated. The automatic doors between cars made me anxious sometimes. I felt like I needed to rush so the door wouldn’t close on me — not so easy to do while navigating the step up and down into each car as well. We made it, though. We found Joe.

After greeting each other and getting situated, Joe and I never stopped talking. He asked me all kinds of questions about Beth: when we met, where we met, what she spoke about, how long it took to write her book, how often she goes to the Jazz Showcase. It was great to have someone to ride the train with and just talk to.

What wasn’t great was that the stops weren’t being announced out loud. If you’re blind, and you want to travel independently, you learn to be resourceful. I used a GPS app on my phone to track our progress. Time flew amongst all the excited chatter, and before I knew it, we were at the Ogilvie train station in Chicago.

A conductor helped us off the train, we met up with Beth and Mike and we left the train station by creating a train of our own: Mike held out his elbow to guide Beth while Beth held out her elbow to guide Joe while Joe held out his elbow to guide me. Joe and I were used to “the blind leading the blind.” This was normal for us, but a first for Mike and Beth.

We took a cab to Jazz Showcase, and we used our new found guiding skills to navigate inside and snake our way to our seats. As excited as I was, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been to a jazz club before —I’d just started to get into jazz music this past year after Joe took me to one of the NIU jazz concert events.

I must say, I was very pleasantly surprised. The band was outstanding, and before the event was over I knew I wanted to go back to Jazz Showcase again sometime.

We had dinner afterwards at Hackney’s Tavern. Beth had used her talking computer to email me the menu ahead of time, and I had gone over it with Joe. I had already chosen what I wanted ahead of time, which helped a lot. It was a fun dinner filled with laughter and questions from Beth about college life, and fun stories about how Joe and I met and how we started dating.

Mike and Beth went with us back to the train station, and after I bought my train ticket and requested assistance on the train, we all said goodbye. An agent guided Joe and me to a seating area, where we proceeded to wait for a good 45 minutes (I thought it best to get there early). She returned for us once the train had arrived and almost put us in the first car. We told her we couldn’t hear the stops called out when we were on the first car during our trip into the city, so we were placed in the second car in the front instead.

I’d be getting off the train long before Joe would reach his destination, and all the way to my stop Joe’s excitement was at an ultimate high. He couldn’t stop talking about how exciting the whole day had been. He loved the food, he loved the concert, he loved the city, and he loved the company.

His energy was contagious, and I smiled right along with him and happily agreed, responding with, “We need to come to Chicago more often!”

Mondays with Mike: Mementos

A hand-addressed envelope from a long-time friend showed up in our mailbox Saturday. Dianne had been my supervisor when I interned at Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine as a hayseed college junior. She was also kind of a cruise director for me and another intern, making sure we got something out of the work experience and also from living in the Capital of the United States.

Old school technology, timeless sentiment.

Old school technology, timeless sentiment.

Dianne was there again when, after I graduated, I moved for real to D.C. to take a job at Checkbook. That was a tough time for me— I was homesick, felt lost and found myself literally lost virtually every day. The work required a lot of driving, and though D.C. proper was designed in logical fashion by Pierre L’Enfant, suburban Virginia and Maryland never got a whiff of the grid system.

Dianne was a steady force, helping me grow into my professional role, and to stick it out on the personal side. And she introduced me to her friends who became my friends—and are to this day.

Eventually, she was tagged to establish Checkbook’s second magazine, this one in the Bay Area. When she moved, I wrote her a letter expressing my appreciation for all that she’d done for me, and my general admiration.

When I opened the envelope from Dianne, that letter was inside with a sweet note from Dianne saying, “Obviously it meant a lot to me given that I’ve kept it 35 years.”

Just seeing the letter was powerful. The yellow legal paper (I couldn’t be bothered with stationery). My handwriting actually being legible (it no longer is). It transported me to my early 20s, and all of that period rushed back.

I was almost afraid to read the letter, but mercifully, it was pretty well written. And it sincerely reflected my abiding gratitude for all she’d done for me.

I still write emails like the one I wrote to Dianne way back then. But I wondered if these kinds of pen-and-paper experiences will be entirely lost to the digital age.

My uncle George Knezovich (left) and my pop, Mike Knezovich on the right. Thanks Aaron.

My uncle George Knezovich (left) and my pop, Mike Knezovich on the right. Thanks Aaron.

Then this morning, I received a text message from my nephew Aaron. He was going through some belongings and happened onto a photograph of my father with his brother, my Uncle George, at a brothers reunion during WWII. That photo was attached. The twinkle in my father’s eye just kind of dropped me in my tracks. And handsome George’s unmistakable jaw line. And their uniforms.

Beyond those memories, it was Aaron, very much in the present day, letting me know he was thinking about me.

So maybe it’s really not about the medium—legal paper and postage stamps and ink vs. pixels and jpgs and cable modems.

Maybe it’s what it has always been: However you accomplish it, never underestimate the power of making clear to people in no uncertain terms what they mean to you.

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