Mondays with Mike: The play’s the thing

October 16, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield (left) leads a discussion with the cast of The Rembrandt during Sunday’s touch tour. From left to right, cast members are Francis Guinan, John Mahoney, Karen Rodriguez, Joe Dempsey, and Gabriel Ruiz.

Back in 1974, I was a high school senior courting a girl who was in the drama club and who aspired to a career in the theater. To impress her, I saved my shekels and bought two tickets to a performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives when it was at the Blackstone Theatre. It starred Maggie Smith, whom I only knew from the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

At that time, I knew nothing of theater. It seemed like the symphony—a lofty thing.

Well, it was a hell of a good introduction. The whole thing was magical—those real live people up there on stage. Just being there made me kind of nervous for them. But they pulled it off with aplomb—Smith was, as always, fantastic. (I found this interview Roger Ebert did with Smith while she was in town for the performance.)

I haven’t always lived where theater was plentiful or affordable. But if I did a top ten list of things I’ve loved about living in Chicago, theater would be right up there. This past weekend reminded me of how lucky Beth and I are in that way.

To start, we got a Saturday morning call from our friends Steven and Laura—a friend of theirs couldn’t make it to a matinee performance of A View from the Bridge at Goodman Theatre that afternoon—and the price was especially right: Free thanks to Steve and Laura’s generosity. Did Beth or I want to go? Beth had enjoyed Teatro Vista’s production of A View from the Bridge at Victory Gardens Theatre back in 2014, so I lucked out.

It was a gray, rainy, coldish Saturday, and let’s say the content of the play didn’t bring sunshine to bear. But, the quality of the play, the extremely unusual staging, and the performances were inspiring in the way only live theater can be. Really powerful—the guy who plays Eddie, the main character, is unbelievable.

The next day, Beth and I headed to Steppenwolf for The Rembrandt, a play starring two stalwart ensemble members, Francis Guinan and John Mahoney (he of Frasier TV fame). Steppenwolf regularly puts on touch tours for people with visual impairments—Beth’s written about the one she attended for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s a privilege to get in on these things—if Beth invites you, go. To start, Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield—who puts these things together—and the entire staff are remarkably helpful and at ease. That last part ain’t easy—I get nervous when I’m around more than one blind person at a time.

Set designers, artistic directors and other crew come on stage to talk about the play, prompted artfully by Hatfield, who serves as a sort of MC. They explain why they made certain choices in the production—and then a crew member describes the physical set in great detail. For The Rembrandt, the set used an ingenious Transformers-like assembly that allowed them to convert a scene set in a present-day art museum into Rembrandt’s studio in a few seconds while the lights were out.

But that was topped by a discussion with the cast members, who always are amazingly generous and down-to-earth. That includes those, like Mahoney, who’ve gone onto great fame and fortune. Hatfield draws them out to describe—physically and otherwise—the characters they play. One funny thing: These are people who remember, by rote, line after line after line. But when Hatfield asked each actor to recite their first line from the play, some had a difficult time remembering their first line outside the context of the performance.

Regarding Mahoney: he was incredibly warm, articulate, self-effacing—he’s a treasure professionally but also a guy you’d like to have in your family.

Guinan was also terrific—he got right up on stage before the play when the people with visual impairments are invited to walk on stage and touch the sets. He acted as sighted guide and answered questions.

The play runs without intermission and is divided into four parts. It sort of lived up to the mixed reviews I received, which cited unevenness and choppiness. The first and the last parts were marvelous in my opinion, the others were far from bad but didn’t seem connected with the others.

Then again, I have a friend who likes to say, “If you find a talking horse, don’t criticize it for bad grammar.” That’s sort of how I felt about this one. Two out of four was good enough to make it all worth it. In fact, the last part—featuring an intimate conversation between Mahoney and Guinan playing a couple who’d been together for decades—was worth it by itself.

Beth and I left exhilarated and tired in the way that only theater leaves us. And we marveled to think that the cast and crew were going to do the whole thing again later that evening—just as the cast and crew did at Goodman the day before.

I don’t know how they do it. But I’m grateful they do.

My fake eye shines for the Houston Astros

October 15, 20175 CommentsPosted in baseball, blindness, Mike Knezovich

Some of my best friends – and many family members –are Cub fans, and my dear friend Benita was born a Yankees fan: she grew up in The Bronx. But I have a long-term friendship with a guy in the Astros front office. In these 2017 MLB playoffs, I’m rooting for Houston.

Kevin Goldstein, Special Assistant to the General Manager of the Houston Astros, is one of very few friends to have seen me without my fake eye.

That's Kevin at home with one of his favorite pooches, Otto.

That’s Kevin at home with his pooch, Otto.

Some back story: my husband Mike Knezovich was Kevin’s supervisor in the 1990s, when the two of them were at a start-up company called Spyglass. Like so many others at Spyglass, Kevin was smart. Computer savvy, too. But Kevin stood out:

  • He didn’t have a college degree (he was one of the youngest people working there, and Mike says he was one of the smartest).
  • He shaved his head long before it was popular (and he let me feel his scalp).
  • He listened to The Pixies and They Might be Giants (long before Indy rock was a category on You Tube).
  • He paid attention to new-age baseball stats, otherwise known as sabermetrics (long before the book Moneyball was published).
  • He knew about minor league prospects (long before anyone else did).

I had a job in the ticket office at a minor league low-A team called the Kane County Cougars when Kevin and Mike worked at Spyglass. We enjoyed many a game there together, and when I went with Mike on a business trip to Phoenix once, we joined Kevin to check out a guy pitching during something called the “Arizona Fall League.” Kevin knew that a hot pitching prospect with the Cleveland organization named Jaret Wright was scheduled to pitch. Who knew there was such a thing as an Arizona Fall League back then, and if there was, what day Jaret Wright would be starting?

Kevin did.

When Mike left Spyglass, we moved to North Carolina. When Kevin left Spyglass, he moved to baseball. This story on the Astros web site explains:

It wasn’t until Goldstein, who dabbled in the interactive industry and worked in consulting and marketing, started writing for Baseball America and developing his email prospect newsletter did he one day envision working for a Major League club. “It was something fun that I had a passion for,” he said. “I started Prospect Report, and it started growing on a strange level and some teams were interested in the information I was putting out there.

Baseball Prospectus (BP) eventually hired Kevin to write for them–later on he took Nate Silver’s place at BP when Silver left to launch Five Thirty Eight. Kevin’s reputation grew as a go-to analyst of up and coming ballplayers, and Mike and I started getting used to turning on the radio or TV and, ho-hum, there was Kevin again, being interviewed on sports shows about prospects.

Major League Baseball teams started noticing Kevin, too. In 2012 the Houston Astros were in town to play the Cubs and their general manager Jeff Luhnow contacted Kevin for an interview. They talked for about three hours, and Kevin told Mike afterwards that he thought it went well. Jeff Luhnow must have thought it went well, too: he hired Kevin to oversee the Astros’ pro scouting efforts.

Kevin still lives in the Chicago area. He has a lively interest in the absurd, and when I asked him to come along to an unusual (for most people) appointment one year, he jumped at the chance: he accompanied me to the ocularist to get my fake eye polished.

Kevin thought the trays of fake eyeballs were awesome. We think he’s pretty awesome, too.

I had my fake eye back in when we joined Kevin and his partner Margaret at an Astros-White Sox game this past summer. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow sat with us for a few innings, and Kevin introduced him to Mike “He was my boss at Spyglass.” Jeff Luhnow got a good look at Mike and replied, “You did a great job!”

A week or two later, Kevin Goldstein was promoted to Special Assistant to the General Manager.

So between Kevin’s well-earned rise to a Major League front office and the rise of that adorable 5’6″ second baseman Jose Altuve (who was once told he was too short to make it to the bigs), I’m all about the Astros. Go Houston!

What Wanda wrote: Part Three

October 11, 20171 CommentPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, public speaking, visiting libraries

A confession of sorts: I was going to just feature excerpts of Wanda Bridgeforth’s essays here on The Safe & Sound blog while Mike and I were away on Martha’s Vineyard, but I’m having such fun reading over her work that I’m continuing the series. Here’s another story Wanda might read when she appears with me at the Harold Washington Library Center at 6 p.m. this Tuesday, October 17.

Wanda will read some of her writing Tuesday, October 17, 6:30 at the Harold Washington Library.

Wanda’s Grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Johnson, raised their five sons in Columbus, Mississippi under what Wanda calls a “caste system” that clung to the old thought of bluebloods. “Looks and family were of great importance – even if your family was poor as church mice,” she says, explaining that to her southern family, color and texture of skin was important. “Our family fit the mold of ‘bright, light, and damn near white.’”

Wanda’s five uncles — known to all as “We Boys” — moved North during the Great Migration.

Wanda was in her twenties when We Boys learned their mother had taken to her sick bed in Mississippi. “They agreed to finance the trip to bring her to Chicago and I was appointed the task,“ she writes. “I had not been to Mississippi since I was about seven and had no idea what I would encounter”.

Wanda’s favorite Uncle Hallie B. instructed his niece to change to the Jim Crow car when the train stopped in St. Louis on its way south. Maybe Wanda will read about that train ride during our presentation at the Harold Washington Library, or who knows? Maybe she’ll read the 500-word essay she wrote for class about what happened once she arrived:

The first thing Grandma and Mrs. Green did was to tell me how I was to act when I went to town. In fact they said it would be best if Mrs. Green accompanied me to town. I smiled and nodded. All went well until a day I had to go to town alone.

What happened next? Come to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center on 400 S. State Street this Tuesday at 6 p.m. to find out. Far away from Chicago? Don’t despair! You can read Wanda’s “Grandma Lula Moves to Chicago” essay in its entirety in Chapter 47 of my new book — Wanda is one of a dozen or so writers featured in Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors.

Mondays with Mike: Trains, planes, buses, ferries, oysters, Jaws, Claire and Alex

October 9, 20176 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, travel

By the wonders of technology I’m posting from a Peter Pan motor coach (the founder of the bus line was named Peter), making a nearly two-hour trip from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where we just got off a ferry boat from Martha’s Vineyard. We’re headed to Boston’s South Station, where we’ll catch a cab to our hotel for the night, and we’ll fly back to Chicago tomorrow.

Photo of a white horse.

This guy in an adjacent meadow had a horse’s eye view of the wedding.

Between trains (the L to Midway airport), planes (to and from Boston), buses and ferries, I’ll just say you really have to want to go to Martha’s Vineyard to go to Martha’s Vineyard.

We really wanted to go.

For one, it’s a place neither Beth nor I had ever been. More important was the occasion: Our friends’ daughter’s wedding. We were lucky enough to get invited and we probably were the first to RSVP YES.

Claire the bride is a delightful young woman who also happens to be a White Sox fan and who shares with me a special affection for a little known player named Willie Harris. Willie scored the only (and the winning) run in game four of the White Sox World Series sweep of the Houston Astros in 2005. There’s a lot more to love about Claire, but she had me at Willie Harris.

There’s also a lot to love about her new husband Alex, including his family history of summering on the island, and his parents retiring there. That history brought us all there for the wedding. Claire and Alex are one of those couples you like to be around. The kind that make you hopeful. Optmistic. Individually they’re terrific people, and they’re even better together. Happiness and optimism pervaded the event from start to finish. The wedding was eloquently officiated by Claire’s aunt Jill, on a beautiful hillside, on a spectacular sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, which morphed into a beautiful pastel sunset of an evening filled with dinner and dancing.

And did I mention oysters?

Yes. Oysters. During the cocktail hour after the ceremony, two young men shucked oysters before our eyes. And we ate them. Many of them. Maybe it was the event and the atmosphere, but I think those were the best oysters I ever had.

Photo of colorful cottages.

A few of the Summercamp cottages.

We stayed at a hotel called Summercamp—so named for its proximity to The Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association (MVCMA). Back in the 1800s various protestant congregations would hold summer religious retreats. The one in Martha’s Vineyard developed into what is now a National Landmark. It’s a fairy-tale like village of colorful gingerbread cottages—all encircling a central tabernacle. It’s got it’s own rich history—if you get out that way, take a walk through.

photo of Whitney the dog sleeping.

The hotel even provided a bed for Whitney.

And if that all isn’t enough, there was this: Jaws. It was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard back in 1974. If you’re a regular Safe & Sound reader, you may know I have a Jaws thing. And though I didn’t have time to see all the filming locations, I did get to see the beach where little Alex Kintner became a snack.

It was worth every mile. Thanks Claire and Alex.


Wanda’s Winning Words: Part Two

October 6, 20174 CommentsPosted in baseball, book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, politics, public speaking, visiting libraries
That's Wanda and me with some writers from our class. Wanda refers to her trusty walker as Wilma after track star Wilma Rudolph.

That’s me, Sharon, Audrey, Wanda and Darlene from class. Wanda is pictured with her trusty walker, who she has named Wilma after track star Wilma Rudolph.

The week the Cubs won the World Series last year, I assigned the writing prompt “Winners!” A year later, the Chicago Cubs are in the running again: they play their first game of the 2017 NL Division playoffs against the Washington Nationals today.

This post is the second in a series of posts considering which essay from Writing Out Loud Wanda will read when she appears with me Tuesday night, October 17, 2017 at 6 pm at the Harold Washington Library Center.

If the Chicago Cubs are still in the playoffs on October 17, Wanda may decide to read the essay she wrote after last year’s World Series. It’s featured in Chapter 86, “Winners All” and is written in the form of a letter from her favorite Uncle, Hallie B. An excerpt:

My Dear Niece,
Greeting from Mount Eternity! Spunky (aka Bea) and I are hoarse from cheering our beloved Cubs, Winner of the World Series. Ernie Banks is running around yelling “NEXT YEAR IS HERE!

From there, Wanda has her uncle naming some of the sports heroes from his lifetime. “Many folks were winners against tremendous racial and economic odds,” her uncle reports about fellow Mount Eternity residents. “Joe Louis crowned Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, and Gail Devers, Olympic champions.” You’ll have to come to the library at 400 S. State in Chicago on October 17 to hear the part where Halli B. acknowledges that the best man or woman doesn’t always win, though. “This is proven by some of the duds the voting and non-voting public have elected.”

In our writing class at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown, 95-year-old Wanda is often asked how she stays so positive, and she always credits her mama and her Uncle Hallie B. Sure enough, Hallie B.’s letter ends with positive words of wisdom. “Spunky and I polled the group and we say in some way we are all winners,” he says. “Everyone has conquered the challenge of a mountain or maybe a hill. So, Three Cheers for us, WINNERS ALL!”