Mondays with Mike: Killing machines

Every year, Chicago hosts the Air and Water Show, a weekend of modern and vintage airplanes performing aerobatics, skydiving, all played out in front of a gazillion spectators along Chicago’s North Avenue Beach.

In truth, it’s a lot more air than water, though lots and lots of people watch it from their boats. A standing feature is either the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds. You probably know the deal—screaming fighter jets flying loops and formations.

It’s impressive. And if you’re not ready for it, terrifying. I was sitting at my home office desk last Thursday and heard this high-pitched whine getting closer and closer and I’m thinking, OK, something’s about to crash around here…. And then this window-rattling thunder. And then, light bulb, “Oh yeah, practice day for the air and water show.”

It honestly is awesome in a terrifying way. And even more terrifying for our neighbor, a veteran who was deployed in Afghanistan who wrestles mightily with post-traumatic stress disorder. We ran into him in the elevator Thursday evening.

The earlier thunder from the jets came up. We asked how he did with that. Not great, was the thrust of his answer. But beyond that, he was truly perplexed: “Those are killing machines,” he said. “People don’t connect them with the reality of war.”

His comment got me thinking about something else that’s been poking at some part of my brain. Awhile back I saw a big ad at a bus station for Jockey underwear. It’s part of a series showing real people. One is a female firefighter in Jockeys, for example. They’re effective.

Chris Van Etten, the former Marine featured in the Jockey ad.

Chris Van Etten, the former Marine featured in the Jockey ad.

In another, the one that sort of arrested me, it’s a double amputee in Jockeys. Not just any double amputee, but a former Marine who lost those legs in Afghanistan. Disabilities of one kind or another have been part of my life for a long time now. I’m not squeamish. I absolutely feel fortunate to live in a place and time where people with one disability or another are, as Beth wrote in her last post, part of the fabric of life, and not cloistered.

What’s eating at me is ambivalence. On one hand: Good for that Marine. He suffered, he survived. I can’t imagine what he experienced. He’s moving forward. He’s providing a great example to others. He probably makes some money off the ad. It’s his choice, so he’s not being exploited. And a disabled person is right out there, showing it can be done.

On the other: Am I sure he’s not getting exploited—just a little? (FYI, Kenneth Cole used another veteran amputee the year prior in a campaign for its men’s fragrance.)

More important—am I getting used to this? Am I getting inured to the idea of war being normal and that we somehow can put mangled soldiers back together again? So it’s not that bad?

Given my discomfort, that answer is no—I’m happy to realize I’m not getting used to it.

And I don’t want to.


Not ashamed to say it: I’d rather be able to see

Roughly one in five Americans lives with a disability. So where is our pride movement?

That’s the subhead to an op-ed piece called Becoming Disabled in the New York Times Sunday Review this week. The piece was written by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, an academic who has a disability.

The piece is well-written and looooooooooong — Professor Garland-Thomson shares plenty of statistics and numbers about people with disabilities. In addition to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate in the subhead (one in five adults in the United States is living with a disability), the piece links to a National Organization on Disability study saying 56 million people in America have a disability. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, and that group is growing. And so, Professor Garland-Thomson reasons, “Because almost all of us will experience disability sometime in our lives, having to navigate one early in life can be a great advantage.”

Thanks to the ADA, riding a train is a yawn for Whitney.

Thanks to the ADA, riding a train is a yawn for Whitney.


The professor did her homework for this piece, covering everything from the “correct” way to refer to disability as a new “politicized identity” to how studying the history and culture of disability allowed her to “come out of the closet” about hers. What she didn’t do in her piece, however, was answer the question in the subhead. “Where is our pride movement?”, she asks.

I think I have the answer. I cannot speak for all people with disabilities, but I do not find losing my sight early in life to be a “great advantage.” I am not proud of being blind, and I can’t imagine marching in a parade to boast about my disability.

I’d rather be able to see.

That said, I am not ashamed of being blind, either, and I think that’s the important issue here. In the op-ed, Professor Garland-Thomson points out that disability is everywhere once you start noticing it. “Wheelchair users or people with walkers, hearing aids, canes, service animals, prosthetic limbs or breathing devices may seem to appear out of nowhere,” she writes. “When they were in fact there all the time.”

This is due in large part to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Thanks to the ADA and other civil rights legislation, I’m able to access audio books from the National Library Service, use my talking computer to access web sites, have my guide dog lead me onto buses, trains and airplanes, use Braille to find my room number in hotels, check out menus on line before we eat out, procure health care even though I have a pre-existing condition, and vote on my own using a special audio machine. If you live in my neighborhood, you’ve seen me out and about with my Seeing Eye dog. We’re part of the fabric.

I should add that another critical piece of legislation that has helped people with disabilities go mainstream is often overlooked. Back in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) gave children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability. That act gave way in 1990 to the updated Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The result: Kids with disabilities are part of the everyday fabric of day to day life from an early age.

Americans with and without disabilities can take pride in the legislators and lobbyists and supporters who helped pass the ADA and the laws that led up to it. All of us should take pride of our resourcefulness, the different ways we manage to do the things we want to do, and how, throughout our history, Americans have fought together for civil rights legislation to reorganize and rebuild our country into one that allows everyone to participate.

I’m proud of all of us.

A new way to think about the space around you

I published my quick review of our Too Much Light performance earlier this week, and then it dawned on me. Some of you might like a description of what the show actually looked like. Reveca Torres to the rescue!

I played a toilet paper roll dispenser Saturday in Reveca’s play called The Anti-Toilet. Reveca was one of the disco dancers in my Night at the Emerald City Disco play. We got to know each other in class, and Reveca generously agreed to write a guest post here about our Saturday performance from her point of, well….view.

by Reveca Torres

Seven dancing human silhouettes and one dog silhouette pose against a bright violet background.

Reveca was one of the dancers in my play “Night at the Emerald City Disco.” Photo by Malic White.


My thoughts late Saturday afternoon once our Too Much Light performance was over: “Phew! Glad that’s over. I was nervous! Glad I’m not an actor. Not planning on doing that again soon.”

My thoughts Sunday morning with coffee: “I had so much fun! I should do that again!”

Some background: This summer the Neo-Futurists used grants they’d received from The Chicago Community Trust and Alphawood Foundation Chicago to team up with the Victory Gardens Access Project to offer their popular Intro to Too Much Light playwriting program free of charge. The class was accessible to performers and writers with and without disabilities, and last Saturday we presented our two-minute plays to the public.

The performance was sprinkled with short plays written and performed by our class, each causing moments of laughter, intensity, awkwardness, sadness, compassion, and a whole spectrum of emotions and reactions from the audience. The lights and sound crew helped bring the words and actions to life by offering a soft backdrop or intense lights-out.

Performers showed up at noon to go through our rehearsal and tech. Some of us were maybe more nervous than others — pacing, stretching, sitting in a corner reciting lines. Looking out into the theatre and observing the empty red seats I wondered how many people would show up and if I was going to blank.

Right before the show we huddled up, put our hands in the center and said, “For Whitney.” At that moment I gave myself a mental pep talk. “OK, this is for Whitney. It’s not about me. You know your lines. Suck it up and don’t f*** up!”

I went to my spot next to Beth and Andrew, shut my eyes…took a deep breath…exhaled. bright lights in my face and the audience disappeared into the darkness. I can do this. It’s Showtime.

I went into this class not knowing what to expect. I hadn’t seen a Neo-Futurist performance ever because unfortunately their current space is located on the second floor and I am a wheelchair user. I’d wanted to see a show for years, and I missed my opportunity during the special Too Much Light performances at Victory Gardens’ accessible facilities earlier this year. Our classroom and rehearsal space for our Too Much Light show at Victory Gardens was wheelchair accessible – fantastic!

The shortness of the writing exercises in class and the short performance Saturday was cool. I loved playing with different forms and thinking about “being myself” in all the pieces. There was vulnerability and truth and voice and power in that. I think that element works really well with anyone, but giving a population of people with disabilities a medium to express oneself in their own voice — that’s something that is not common.

The writing prompts and class activities were fun to do and got me thinking differently about myself and the space around me. Definitely left the class every Saturday feeling good and looking forward to more. I think it helped me write differently as well.

Snaps to the meditation and face exercises at the beginning of each class, too. They stopped me from feeling awkward and helped me shed tension. I really enjoyed the cross-disability, what each classmate brought to the class, and the way all our work was focused on art/creativity. Two thumbs up!

Reveca Torres was 13 years old when her spine was fractured in an automobile accident. She received a Bachelor’s Degree from the  University of Arizona in theater arts with an emphasis in costume design. She is a fashion designer and artist, and her artwork will be featured in Unbroken: Art After Injury at the Bridgeport Arts Center, 1200 W. 35th Street in Chicago from September 8 to September 28, 2016. You can meet the artist in person at the opening night celebration & Silent Auction at the Bridgeport Arts Center on September 9, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.

Mondays with Mike: Come hell or Zika…

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this year’s Summer Olympics. A lot of factors conspired against them. To start, way back when, Chicago pushed to get this year’s games. I’ve read a lot of pretty solid stuff on the economic impact of getting the Olympics—not to mention using public money for pro sports—nothing I’ve seen supports the idea that it’s good economics for the host city. And to boot, just the ill-fated effort to get the Games left Chicago and its citizens with a nice chunk of debt.

Then, there was all the turmoil about the state of Rio and it’s readiness to host. From what I’ve seen, things are coming off pretty well, save for the occasional green pool water. So, either the coverage leading up was overblown and bordering on hysterical. Or the TV people are doing a great job of covering up. I suspect it’s a little of both, but I’d sure like to see some followup on the disaster predictions.

And of course, the International Olympics Committee is pretty much a nicely tailored group of mobsters.

Still, somehow, I found myself enrapt watching tiny, impossibly young women with names Gabby, Simone, and Aly, running, bouncing, vaulting, spinning, twisting like quantum particles in some Hadron collider experiment. And fish-like humans cutting through the water, and Usain Bolt bolting like lightning. And women of all ages just killing it in their sports.

Bob Beamon, mid-flight during his record setting long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Bob Beamon, mid-flight during his record setting long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Seeing all that reminded me of eagerly anticipating the Olympics as a kid, and watching everything I could—because there wasn’t nearly as much on TV back then, so stuff really stuck out. Like Bob Beaman defying physics and long-jumping nearly 30 feet—a full two feet (not inches, feet) longer than the previous world record. That was the 1968 Mexico City edition, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute when they received their medals. And the ruckus that caused.

In 1972, I was sure the good guys would somehow prevail and the Israeli athletes would be released, and the terrorists who took them hostage would be thwarted. I was wrong, and though Mark Spitz swam for the ages, I’m afraid the tragedy and savagery is what I’ll always remember.

In 1976, I crossed my dormitory hall to hang out with one of the few guys on the floor who had a TV. We watched Franz Klammer make a hair-on-fire, edge of disaster run in the downhill to win Gold. 1980 was the Miracle on Ice, and 1984 Olympics overlapped with our wedding day. Figure skaters, pole vaulters, biathletes and on and on.

Things have gotten too commercial and pretty corrupt since then. The notion of amateur status is, well, just Orwellian at this point.

I can’t help feeling, though, that some of the athletes—particularly the ones in sports that only get attention at these events—manage to rise above it all in a very recognizable, old-fashioned way. Here’s to them.

Seeing Eye dog steals the show

Seven dancing human silhouettes and one dog silhouette pose against a bright violet background.

Our cast rehearsing my play “Night at the Emerald City Disco” before our performance yesterday. Photo by Malic White.

A huge thank you to the neighbors, friends and writers from my memoir classes who made it to Victory Gardens yesterday afternoon for my Chicago stage debut. Your enthusiasm and laughter was very reassuring, and performing on stage ended up being a lot of fun – especially for Whitney the Seeing Eye dog. She stole the show.

I celebrated with friends afterwards and returned home to find a note in my in box from our Neo-Futurist teachers congratulating us for “nailing” it. “The audience left with huge smiles on their faces,” they wrote. “Your dedication this summer paid off in a big, big way.”

The best news of all? Too Much Light’s accessible theater program is going to continue. “This is the first time Trevor and I have taught an accessible Neo-Futurist class AND it’s the first time we’ve taught a Neo-Futurist class that lasted for as many weeks as ours did,” Malic continued. “We want to keep doing this!” The note asked for feedback from all of us before they move forward on future classes, and I’ll get to work on that shortly. Right now, I’m heading out with Whitney to bask in her spotlight.

Are you a happy camper?

Last week’s writing prompt was “Happy Camper.”. After explaining that the phrase is American slang for a happy, contented person, I asked the writers in my memoir classes to think of a happy time in their lives. “Picture the setting, where you were, the sounds, what it smelled like, the feeling in the air,” I said. “Show readers what it was about that time that made you feel so good.”

Writers can take my prompts any direction they choose. If they preferred focusing on the camp part of the prompt, they could write about being in the military, a camp they attended as a child, how it felt sending a child off to camp, or an experience visiting a camp somewhere.

Annelore took the prompt quite literally, describing how the Volkswagen Westphalia Camper Van she and her husband Roy bought in 1969 became a member of the family. Annelore interviewed the people who phoned her when, after 50+ years of service, her family finally put their beloved VW van up for sale. “One woman told me she’d be keeping it outside,” Annelore said, slapping the table in disgust. “Can you believe that?” The man in Indianapolis who passed the audition drove the VW back later to show Annelore and Roy — and their children and grandchildren — how he’d refurbished the van after his purchase. Seeing their treasured VW in such good shape made Annelore , you guessed it: a happy camper.

We heard stories of Girl Scout camp, of day camps, camping at national parks, camping on honeymoons, but the camp Brigitte attended was far different than any of the others.

Born in Czechoslovakia and raised in West Germany after World War II, Brigitte went away to camp in 1947, when she was only five years old. “In those post-war years, summer camp in Germany was provided free of charge to boost children’s health,” she wrote. . “There hadn’t been enough to eat, although my parents always provided for us children first. Still, all I remember from that first summer camp is all the food we ate.”

Other writers used the slang interpretation of “happy camper” to write about a time when all seemed right in the world. , I was especially moved by those who wrote about blissful moments in the here and now. Audrey wrote about hearing a TED Talk on the radio last week called Older People are Happier. She heard a lot of her own thoughts and feelings in what social scientist Laura Carstensen had to say in that talk. “She talked about how older people’s goals change as they get older, we are less bothered by trivial matters, we are more appreciative of positives, we don’t focus on failures, and we are relieved of the burdens of the future,” Audrey wrote. “As death comes closer, older people focus more on life…that’s what matters.”

Donna sees her 75 years of life as a crazy quilt she spreads out from time to time to study the patterns. “Sometimes I see periods of joy and sometimes unbearable sadness,” she wrote, conceding that the quilt can not be corrected and ripped out to obliterate the mistakes. “These are stitched in forever. And along with the triumphs, they are indelible, like it or not.” Donna says thinking of life as a crazy quilt protects her and provides a “layer of contentment.”

The scene at Chicago Summer Dance.

The scene at Chicago Summer Dance.

Lois will celebrate her 81st birthday at the end of this month and attends the same Summer Dance program in Chicago that Mike and I enjoy so much. For her “Happy Camper” essay she wrote of a blissful moment she experienced at Summer Dance just last week. I’ll say goodbye here, happy campers, and end with an excerpt from her essay:
Watching from the sidelines. I noticed a beautiful young dancer in a corner practicing tap moves. His concentration was total. I fall in love with anyone so totally absorbed in their art. His skill was professional and he was dressed as a dancer.

“I would love to dance with you if I can find a place to put my purse” I said, approaching. He indicated some bushes behind him, where he had his stuff.

Facing me, he looked into my eyes as he raised his hands to lightly engage mine. Contact, wonderful connection, sensing me and judging my ability through my hands and what they told him of my body. Serious and respectful. Where are you? What can you do? Do you understand this? A strong leader, comfortable, considerate – taking me with him. Making sure I had what I needed to respond. I have the swing vocabulary, but the most important elements in partner dancing are connection and lead and follow communication. As we gained confidence in each other, he began to smile and do shines. I didn’t try to copy but only to keep the time and be in the right place to support him. It was exhilarating,

At the end, I said, “Thank you, that made my evening. What is your name?”

“Mauricio”, he said. We shook hands and I walked away. His dark, intelligent face was not beautifully made, but his body and sensibility were eloquent. It was a blissful experience.

I can’t believe I’m telling you this

Public speaking comes fairly easy to me. Acting on stage does not. But that’s exactly what I’ll be doing at Victory Gardens Zacek McVay Theater in Chicago this Saturday, August 13 at 2:30 pm.

My class: (Clockwise - Andrew Lund, Beth Finke, Kathleen Guillion, Rukmini Girish, Michele Lee,, Whitney the Seeing Eye Dog, Grishma Shah) Courtesy Neo Futurists.

My class: (Clockwise – Andrew Lund, Beth Finke, Kathleen Guillion, Rukmini Girish, Michele Lee,, Whitney the Seeing Eye Dog, Grishma Shah) Courtesy Neo Futurists.

Some back story. Earlier this year I attended one of two accessible performances of Too Much Light put on by the Neo-Futurists. The Neo-Futurists are a collective of Chicago writers-performers “dedicated to creating honest, unpredictable theatre,” and in Too Much Light productions cast members attempt to perform a perpetually rotating list of two-minute plays in 60 minutes.

After the success of their two accessible performances this year those honest and unpredictable Neo-Futurists took things one step further. They used funds from grants they’d received from The Chicago Community Trust and Alphawood Foundation Chicago, teamed up again with the Victory Gardens Access Project, and offered their popular Intro to Too Much Light playwriting program to a class accessible to performers and writers with and without disabilities. The class was offered free of charge. I couldn’t resist.

The hope was that half of the enrollees would identify as having a disability. The Neo-Futurists achieved their goal. In fact, we outnumber the others: of the seven performers, Two use wheelchairs, I am blind, and one uses a prosthetic arm. .
Over the course of ten three-hour sessions every Saturday (we started on June 4, 2016) the seven of us have:

  • explored the process and tools needed to create a two-minute play
  • followed the Neo-Futurist tenets of honesty, brevity, audience connection and random chance to write plays from our own life experiences
  • examined specific play formulas and styles that are similar to plays performed in Too Much Light
  • pitched a few of our plays to teachers to have them performed Saturday

These productions used to be called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. I’m not sure that they took the Blind word out because I am involved, but must say, I prefer the shortened title.

And while we’re mentioning that blindness of mine, I need to tell you that losing my sight some twenty-odd years ago left me with a unique version of paranoia. While I don’t mind people looking at or listening to me when I’m sitting or standing still (like when I’m giving a talk),  the thought that people might be watching me attempt a task — even one as simple as finding a doorknob — fills me with anxiety.

I started waking up Saturdays wondering why the heck I signed up for this thing. The commute to Victory Gardens isn’t easy, days off work are precious, I stink at memorizing lines, and I hate having people watch me perform.

I liked learning about playwriting, though, and every week I grew more fond of our teachers and my classmates. Most of them have acted before. It was a treat to experience their work, and hear it improve from week to week.

I stayed in class, and was determined to keep news of this Saturday’s performance a secret from my friends. But then last Saturday we had our dress rehearsal.

That's me in the spelling bee piece.

That’s me in the spelling bee piece.

I have speaking parts in a play one classmate wrote about a spelling bee and in one another classmate wrote about a trip overseas. Whitney does not have a speaking part (Seeing Eye dogs are not allowed to bark). She plays a major role in my Dear Boss play, though, so her name is in the program on the cast list.

The four of us with disabilities wrote some plays that address accessibility, and many others that don’t mention it at all. One thing the plays have in common? They’re all pretty good. And so, I’ve changed my mind. Everyone should come this Saturday.

The performance Saturday won’t go any longer than 45 minutes and will feature live captioning and American Sign Language for people who are hard of hearing and audio headphones for people who want the action on stage described. Victory Gardens is wheelchair accessible, and a touch tour of the stage and props will take place ahead of the show for anyone interested.

The play starts at 2:30, so come experience it for yourself on Saturday afternoon, August 13, in Victory Gardens Zacek McVay Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue . No need to RSVP, and no need for tickets, either: It’s free!

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