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Mondays with Mike: Happy birthday, happy birthday to you

January 15, 20186 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

I posted last week about watching the documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. In that post, I noted that it reminded me that as unsettling as the current times are, our current times have got nothing on that era. Along those lines, this piece in the NY Times—which imagines what 1968 would look like if you received news alerts on your smart phone back then—makes the same point about that uproarious year.

Photo of Dr. King's mug shot when he was jailed in Birmingham.

He had the courage of his convictions, no pun intended.

Back in 1968 I was going on 11 years old. But I’ve always been an old soul, and I grew up with a politically informed and outspoken mother and an older sister who was already volunteering for presidential campaigns at age 16. So I probably paid more attention to the news then the average kid my age did. Which is a longwinded way of saying, I was a bit of an oddball.

But an earnest one. I honestly tried to make sense of what was going on around me. I grew up in a suburb south of Chicago that was heavily populated with families who’d left the city of Chicago during a great wave of white flight.

Through grade school, junior high, and high school, I never had a single black classmate. There were tons of ethnicities, but none black. The”n” word and “n” jokes were thrown around frequently and loosely. Classmates talked of how scary their old neighborhood had become after it “changed.” There were hair-raising tales of being threatened and beat up. Some were pretty obviously exaggerated for effect, but some were undoubtedly true.

My classmates, of course, were often repeating what they’d heard at home. And they carried an anger, resentment, and hatred. Certainly, raw racism drove a lot of the exodus—white people in and around Chicago had essentially rioted more than once and terrorized people to keep their neighborhoods white. They didn’t succeed but they didn’t know, and I didn’t know, that back then, they and many of the black people who’d replaced them had both been victimized by some greedy slime balls who engaged in blockbusting, and bad government and institutional policy that produced redlining.

In my own home, there was no such sentiment about black people. My parents, first generation Americans, had landed in our town to follow job opportunities. My dad had gone to college on the G.I. bill, did a short stint as a teacher, and then got hired into a management-training program at a steel mill in East Chicago. My mom got a job teaching in the local school system.

I think of them—born to immigrants, children during the Great Depression, my mom taught Marines’ kids during WWII, my dad served overseas. And then Vietnam, civil rights, bra burnings, drugs, the sexual revolution, moon shots, TV, touch-tone phones!—and I realize now that they had to be just as bewildered back then as I can sometimes feel now (I really don’t want an Internet of Things, thank you).

There was no “n” word in our household. My dad did use the now politically incorrect “colored” to identify black people. But he didn’t have a hateful bone in his body. I think that Martin Luther King made them uneasy. Between civil rights and his opposition to a war they weren’t sure about themselves, I think they  found MLK unnerving. For me, it seemed kind of simple: Every time I saw King on TV, there seemed to be some trouble and unrest around him.

So, to the 10 year old, he was simply a troublemaker.

And then he was murdered. And a lot of the country went up in flames. More than one classmate uttered something to the effect that King had gotten what he deserved, undoubtedly echoing a parent’s sentiment.

And I stayed up late to watch special news reports about King’s life and his work. It was the end of a certain kind of innocence.

Jeez I thought, he went to jail, he risked his life. He’s not the troublemaker I thought he was. I’ve had it all wrong. Things are not as they appear.

It was at once disconcerting and liberating. It changed how I looked at the world forever. It made me more skeptical about what I thought I knew and about what I was being taught in school, what people around me were saying. It made me angry and disappointed about my own country—and myself. But the story of his courage and resolve also made me hopeful. King and others had made a substantial difference. Courage and resolve were power. It’s worth fighting the good fight.

For all that, today, I say thank you Dr. King.

A love letter to Chicago’s cultural arts

January 14, 201813 CommentsPosted in blindness, public speaking, technology for people who are blind

This Tuesday afternoon I’ll be sitting on a panel at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium with a theater director, a mother of three school-aged children, and a lawyer. Theater director Brian Balcom uses a wheelchair, one of Laurie Viets’ children is on the autism spectrum, attorney Rachel Arfa is profoundly deaf and uses bilateral cochlear implants to hear, and me? I’m blind.

So what do we all have in common? We all enjoy plays, go to concerts, visit museums and attend other cultural events in Chicago.

That's me lounging on a ruby red couch shaped like lips during a touch tour of the Pop Art Design exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

There I am lounging on a ruby red couch shaped like lips during a touch tour of the Pop Art Design exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago a few years back.

And now Lynn Walsh, the Manager of Accessibility and Inclusion at Shedd Aquarium, has asked the four of us to talk with staff there about ways museums and cultural institutions can be welcoming to all visitors — including those of us with disabilities. All staff and partners of Shedd have been invited to this session, but the main audience will be the Guest Experience team (the staff members who greet groups, sell tickets and memberships, man the information booth, welcome guests to the 4-D Theater, Oceanarium, Tide Pool, Sea Star Touch, Sturgeon Touch, and so on).

Shedd Aquarium’s Lynn Walsh is also co-chair of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC), a Chicago non-profit organization encouraging cultural institutions to become more accessible to visitors with disabilities. CCAC offers a free accessible equipment loan program for institutions throughout Chicagoland, coordinates monthly professional development workshops for cultural administrators, manages a Google CCAC volunteer group for those interested in volunteering at an accessible event, and maintains a running calendar of accessible programs and services offered by Chicago-area cultural organizations.

The Chicago Cultural Access Consortium was founded in 2013, and in five short years it has established Chicago as a leader in providing accessible arts to those of us with disabilities. Thanks to them and all the Chicago-area cultural institutions who participate, I’ve been able to enjoy everything from architecture walking tours to live theater to outdoor music events as much as my fellow Chicagoans do. Maybe even more! The list of questions the Shedd Aquarium asked us to think about before Tuesday’s presentation strikes me as a helpful list other institutions (cultural or otherwise) might want to consider when it comes to accessibility:

  1. What do you like about Shedd/the collection?
  2. When thinking of accessibility and inclusion, what do we get right?
  3. Where would you like to see improvements — at Shedd or at cultural organizations in general?
  4. Do you know of a place that knocks it out of the park? What do they do?
  5. Can you give us examples of accommodations that have made your experience at a cultural organization amazing?
  6. Can you give us examples of accommodations that made your experience a self-conscious one?
  7. What are some tips for service industry folks regarding how to find out what accommodations are needed?
  8. Do you have any examples of times someone got it wrong, but then recovered well?

Kudos to Lynn Walsh at the Shedd Aquarium for putting Tuesday’s event together–I already know I’ll be learning a lot from the audience members and my fellow panelists there.

I can’t give up hope

January 11, 20189 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, writing prompts
Photo of sun peaking through clouds.

The sun will come out, tomorrow…let’s hope!

Okay. One last essay from that “What I hope for” prompt I assigned late last year. This one comes from Elaine Fishman. Look up the word “Delightful” in the dictionary, and you should find a photo of Elaine’s tiny face there. She and her husband Guy, a well-known Chicago architect, raised their four children in Chicago’s north suburbs. When Guy died in 2017, Elaine was nearly 80 years old. She was ready to quit driving, her children were grown, and it didn’t take long to decide to leave the suburbs, downsize and find a small place in downtown Chicago.

Elaine fills her days now enjoying Millennium Park, visiting nearby museums, catching free music concerts, and, most importantly, sharing her stories each week with our “Me, Myself and I” memoir-writing class at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Her “What I Hope For” essay began with good wishes for mankind, hopes that the homeless will find shelter, the hungry will get fed and so on. “Tomorrow will bring a better day,” she wrote. “It is important to live with hope and continue in the ever lasting pursuit of joy for ourselves.”

From there, her essay got more personal. “In January my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews are gathering all together,” she wrote. “They will be coming from Maine, New York, California and the Midwest.” And here’s the glorious ending, in Elaine’s exact words:

I hope that every one will catch their flight. I hope the rooms are not too shabby, I hope the food is okay, I hope that there is good beer and wine, I hope everyone stays healthy. And most of all, I hope that everyone will have a good time. I know I will!

And who knows? Maybe this trip will help staunch my becoming a crabby hopeless old lady.

I hope so!

Mondays with Mike: Thank goodness for some dangerous people

January 8, 20184 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

We get a zillion channels with a cable package that is included with our condominium assessment. Quantity trumps quality, though, and I too often find myself channel surfing with Bruce Springsteen’s “Fifty seven channels and nothin’s on” playing in my head.

There’s good stuff on, I’m sure. I just don’t have the patience to research it in advance. But sometimes, I get lucky.

Image of movie poster.

Stream it. Rent it. Watch it.

Last night was a lucky night. I happened onto a documentary called “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” screened in timely fashion as the movie “The Post” is released. “Dangerous” (for shorthand) tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg—a one-time U.S. Marine who went to work in the military/intelligence community, originally supported the Vietnam war, then changed his mind as he learned that our presidents, our military, and pretty much our entire government was lying to us. And that those in power knew years before the war ended that it was unwinnable.

It’s not a jaunty watch, but man, it’s worth the time, especially in these times. We have a president who talks about having bigger buttons, and we have people hoping that Oprah Winfrey will run for president on the merits of a speech to an entertainment awards program audience. (And no, I don’t think that she should run and yes, I think that whether it’s her or Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson talking about running it’s a bad, bad thing that speaks to how low we’ve sunk. We can’t careen from one inexperienced billionaire celebrity to another. But I digress.)

I found “Dangerous” uplifting in a both straight ahead and indirect way. First, it’s about a man—and a lot of other people—who risked everything simply to do the right thing. That kind of idea ages well.

Second, it reminded me how crazy screwed up things were up back then. You’re probably thinking, “Not as screwed up as now.” I had thought the same thing. But hearing the tapes of Richard Nixon suggesting the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam and browbeating Henry Kissinger to “think big” was absolutely chilling. As are his thoughts about taking out the dike system in North Viet Nam—“How many would that kill, 200,000 maybe?” he wonders aloud.

All this with the full knowledge that he, LBJ, JFK and Ike had told bald faced lies about the reasons for, the conduct of, and the progress (or lack thereof) in fighting the war. I knew this already from following it in real time (I grew up in a pretty political household), but it’s easy to forget. The war was a slow motion bi-partisan crime against humanity.

Oh, and there was also an all out war on the press. Sound familiar?

There’s a whole lot of good history in this thing, and I found it more compelling (though it’s a different animal) than the PBS Vietnam series. There are lots of “Oh yeah, I remember” moments: Like the fact that Ellsberg had to line up a Xerox machine and that it took weeks—months—to copy the thousands of pages to send to various newspapers and legislators.

Yesterday afternoon, my cousin Linda emailed her wishes for a Merry Serbian Orthodox Christmas. And she offered this advice: Calm down, this too will pass.

I hope so. But not without us finding the kind of courage that Ellsberg and company did.

Part Two of Ali Krage’s Movie Post: “I’d never done that on my own before, and neither had Joe”

January 5, 201811 CommentsPosted in blindness, guest blog, technology for people who are blind

Wednesday’s guest post by Ali Krage explained how she and her boyfriend make their way to their favorite movie theater, now she’s back to tell you how they liked the show!

by Alicia Krage

Alicia and Joe sitting side by side on a beige couch at Christmastime

Alicia (left) and Joe (right)

We’d arrived very early at the theater, so we had time to sit in our seats, talk for a while and munch on our popcorn. It was about ten minutes before showtime when Joe decided we didn’t have enough popcorn to make it through the movie. He insisted we needed a refill.

I’d never done that on my own before, and neither had Joe.

The two of us spent a good five minutes bantering back and forth about how to make this happen, who was going to go get the refill, did either of us remember exactly where the concession stand was, should we go together, or does one of us need to stay back to save our seats.

And then, all of a sudden, I got this idea. I still had the number we called from the bus on our way there. How about we call them? By then the previews (not movie previews, but the weird entertainment stuff they have beforehand) had already started. Would anyone be around to answer? Even if they did, these previews are loud, would they even hear us over the phone? If they answer, what should we ask for? How could they help us? Who should make the phone call? Me? Or Joe? And do we really, really need a refill?

What can I say? My boyfriend is very persistent. So I called the theater and explained what seats we were in. “We’re both blind,” I explained. “And we need assistance.”

The voice on the phone was the same friendly voice I heard when I called earlier from the bus on our way to the theater. And you know what? It worked! Within a few minutes someone was there and more than happy to refill our popcorn for us.

Now, let’s get to the movie. I can confidently say now it is one of my all-time favorites, but don’t worry: there are no spoilers.

In case you didn’t know, though, this movie is based on a novel called Wonder. It was written by R.J. Palacio and tells the story of August Polman, a boy who was born with facial differences. Augie had been homeschooled up until fifth grade, so in the movie he was starting public school for the first time.

The audio description Joe and I listened to in our headsets during the movie was amazing — they even described what Augie’s face looks like. While watching the movie I felt very fortunate that I was never bullied in school for being blind. But Wonder is not just about looks. It’s an inspirational film about accepting who you are, and accepting others, too. Nobody is perfect, and we need to see beneath the surface.

I was so moved by the movie that I was actually crying when the employee came to escort us out when it was over. Joe took the employee’s arm, I took Joe’s hand, and off we went.

As the three of us exited the theater side-by-side-by-side, the employee asked, “Did you enjoy the movie?” The humor in his voice told me he’d noticed I was crying. I smiled and wiped my eyes. “I did!” I said, a little embarrassed by my tears. “It was my second time seeing it. Have you seen it?”

By then I was back to my enthusiastic self — although I’m sure my face didn’t look very enthusiastic. He said he hadn’t seen it yet, and I recommended it to him. I love chatting with people as they’re guiding me (or both of us, in this case). I don’t like to walk in silence.

While Joe and I waited for our bus home, he kept talking about how much he loved the movie, but of course he also took up right where the theater employee had left off, teasing me about crying during the film. All in all, though? It was a wonderful experience!

This post was originally published on the Easterseals National blog, where you can find these other great posts from Alicia:

7 Advantages of Being Blind

How One Student Who is Blind Planned the Perfect Date
“Dating someone who is blind is honestly not as hard as it sounds”