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Teach me how to say goodbye: Burr is leaving Chicago

January 7, 20177 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized

News came out this week that Joshua Henry, who played the role of Aaron Burr so perfectly in the Chicago production of Hamilton, is moving on to play Burr when the musical opens in San Francisco this spring.

Josh Henry as Burr.

Josh Henry as Burr.

I’m quite sure I’ve told everyone in the world that thanks to my extremely generous friend Colleen I was able to talk with Joshua Henry as he was leaving the theater the night she and I saw Hamilton together in Chicago last September. I complimented his incredible job conveying anger on stage.

Me: “Were you spitting at the end?”

Aaron Burr: “Oh, did it hit you?”

Me, laughing: “We were in the upper balcony! But towards the end in the second act, even up there, it sounded like you were singing and gritting your teeth and spitting, all at the same time.”

Aaron Burr: (Smiling, you don’t even have to be able to see to know he was.) “That’s exactly what we’re going for.”

We’ll miss you, Josh (I call him Josh now, you know, we’re that close). But if any of you Safe & Sound blog readers are lucky enough to have tickets to see my friend Josh play Burr in San Francisco, trust me, you’re in for a treat. A suggestion: avoid buying tickets within spitting range.

When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool

January 4, 201715 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, travel, Uncategorized

Recognizing that last year was not everyone’s favorite, the Chicago Tribune asked readers to submit stories for the paper to publish as a collection of short pieces defending poor 2016. Sharon Silverman submitted a shortened version of an essay she’d written for one of the memoir-writing classes I lead here in Chicago, and of course the Tribune was delighted to use it. You can link here to read Sharon’s short piece in the Tribune, but here, just for you Safe & Sound blog readers, is the original longer version that inspired Sharon’s submission.

It Doesn’t Get Better Than This

by Sharon Silverman

This summer I traveled with my grandson, Max, to Italy. It was one of the happiest times in my life! Just the two of us — together for sixteen days.

With only one carry-on bag and a backpack each we flew non-stop to Rome. Traveling light is my mantra, and Max succeeded by squishing his clothes into plastic zipper bags including his stuffed animal, Shleppy. Even a thirteen year old needs to have his favorite cuddly pet along for a journey.

Sharon and Max dining in Rome.

Sharon and Max dining in Rome.

There’s nothing like sharing the splendor of Rome with your grandson.

With his encouragement, I make it up the 551 steps of St Peter’s Dome. “Come on, Grandma. You can make it.” My wobbly knee, recently renovated through months of physical therapy, does not disappoint! Looking down into the basilica is an astonishing sight: tiny tourists moving through glistening marble structures and statues. Without Max’s prodding, I wouldn’t have done this.

In the Jewish Ghetto, we walk through history where 2000 Jews once lived. On October 13, 1943 they were forced into trucks transporting them to Auschwitz. We read their names and birthdates listed on golden plaques in front of the homes where they once lived. One marker identifies a three year old boy. We continue walking sadly, holding each other tight as we imagine the horror of that day.

Our travels continue to Naples. Exiting the train we try to find the hotel. It’s hot and steamy. The streets of Naples are dirty and smelly. We’re tired, hot, and hungry. We walk around for some time. Thank goodness we travel light.

At last we find it! Exhausted and relieved we collapse in our room to rest. In the next days, Pompeii, Vesuvius, and the Amalfi Coast make up for the squalor of Naples.

Our last week is an organized trip with grandparents and their grandchildren ages 11-15. We meet the group in Verona, and one night we are treated to the opera La Traviata in the large outdoor arena. I saw Aida here 51 years ago. Now I’m back with Max! Sharing this moment with him now makes me feel so joyful.

As Violetta takes the entire third act to die, Max comments, “This is so cheesy. Die already!” I chuckle with delight.

In Venice we stroll through the winding streets, ride in a gondola, and even make our own masks in a special mask making workshop. Max is happy making new friends with the children in the group, and I’m content leaving the daily planning to the trip organizers.

One of the grandparents is traveling with her grandson for the entire summer — 40 days — and Italy is only one stop. When Max hears this he says, “No offense, Grandma, but I wouldn’t want to be with you for 40 days.” We laugh, and I agree.

The last night, lying next to each other in our respective beds, Max says, “You are the best grandma. Thank you so much! I love you!”

It doesn’t get better than this!

Mondays with Mike: Thanks for reading

January 2, 201721 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized
A sampling of beard baubles.

A sampling of beard baubles.

We rang in the New Year with a scrumptious Japanese-style hotpot communal dinner, served up by our friends Jim and Janet and shared with a host of old and two brand new friends. This followed Beth’s family Christmas—each year we draw names and then make gifts for our family member. This year, Beth’s sister Cheryl drew my name and she made me a set of beard baubles, little ornaments of a kind that a hirsute guy like myself can clip onto my bearded face. Cheryl was thorough—there are elaborate baubles for holidays throughout the year. So look out world!

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions—but I do kind of take stock at this time of year. This year, taking stock included looking back at 2016’s blog posts. Our blogging platform—Wordpress—keeps track of how many people read which posts. And I thought you might want to know that the most popular Mondays with Mike of 2016 was Last Call, my ode to our local tavern Hackney’s—and its patrons—after it closed its doors this past September.

Number two: 50-50? Gus will take those odds, my reflections on the occasion of our son Gus’ 30th birthday, which was a minor miracle.

The bronze medal went to Mystery of Pittsburgh, which accounted for my trip to Pennsylvania, which included visiting my father’s grave, lunching with my cousins, and taking in a Pirates-Dodgers game at PNC Park.

I’m happy to say, those were my favorites, too.

Thanks to Cheryl, I now have a beard for all seasons.

Thanks to Cheryl, I now have a beard for all seasons.

Which brings me to some advice that E.B. White offered to other writers:

Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an
audience of one.

Fundamentally, I agree with White—and I have to tell you that writing Mondays with Mike is, first and foremost, a therapeutic pleasure. But I can also tell you that there is nothing more gratifying than knowing that other people actually read this stuff and that they like some of it.

I can’t thank you all enough. And Happy New Year!

Whitney the Seeing Eye dog is a talking head

December 31, 20166 CommentsPosted in blindness, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, Whitney, writing

One challenge I took on in 2016 was acting on stage at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.

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” a day before our performance in August, 2016. Photo by Malic White.

Let me explain. I’d attended an accessible performance of Too Much Light put on by the Neo-Futurists early in 2016. Too Much Light cast members write and perform a perpetually rotating list of two-minute plays in 60 minutes, and I found the show exhilarating — and intriguing.

After the success of their special accessible performances in 2016, the Neo-Futurists took things one step further. They used funds from grants they’d received from The Chicago Community Trust and Alphawood Foundation Chicago to team up again with the Victory Gardens Access Project to offer their popular Intro to Too Much Light playwriting program to a tuition-free class that is accessible to performers and writers with and without disabilities. I signed up. In addition to learning about playwriting and performing, I learned a lot about disabilities other than blindness. Half of the people in our class identified as having a disability, and I was the only one who was blind.

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.

I enjoy public speaking, but performing on stage did not come naturally. The enthusiasm and laughter I received from teachers and fellow students during class was reassuring, and performing on stage ended up being a lot of fun – especially for Whitney the Seeing Eye dog. She stole the show.

Whitney and I celebrated our premiere over a drink or two with friends immediately after our performance, and I 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. I learned to trust those teachers during classtime and rehearsals. I’m choosing to believe what they said about the audience, too!

The note went on. “Your dedication this summer paid off in a big, big way,” it said. “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. We want to keep doing this!”

And so, like so many other deserving non-profit organizations, the Neo-Futurists produced an end-of-the-year video to show potential donors what they do and why you might want to support them. The only difference about this particular promotional video: theatre star Whitney is in it.

I can assure you that the Neo-Futurists are one non-profit organization that doesn’t spend much of its donor money on overhead — when we showed up to record the video the Neo-Futurarium office was so crowded with staff and desks, and hallways so narrowed by piles of props and stage equipment, that even Superstar Whitney couldn’t weave me through. We had to go sighted guide. The Neo-Futurists are a helpful, creative bunch, though, and we made it safe & sound to the recording studio. I’m told we look good on the video, and just like their remark about our smiling audience back in August, I am choosing to believe what the Neo-Futurists say. Take a look and a listen, and if you are so inclined, please donate to the Neo-Futurists — tell them Whitney sent you.This just in: As part of the Neo-Access initiative, The Neo-Futurists will present a performance of “These 30 Plays” on Sunday, January 22, 2017 at 7 p.m. that includes audio description, Braille programs and a touch tour before the show. For more information, call 773-878-4557 or email admin@neofuturists.org.

Dispatches from 20th century immigrants, part six: Brigitte

December 28, 20163 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, Uncategorized

Brigitte Erbe’s family was relocated from Germany to Tetschen, Czechoslovakia towards the beginning of World War II when her accountant father was assigned a job working for the German government. Brigitte was born in Tetschen and lived there until the day of her fourth birthday, December 5, 1944, the very day the invasion of Russian soldiers forced the family to leave Tetschen and escape to Frankfurt. This excerpt from Brigitte’s essay about celebrating Christmas that year is the final installment of our 2016 series featuring writers from my memoir classes who are immigrants to the United States. Thanks for reading!

by Brigitte Erbe

Christmas of 1944, the year I had just turned four years old, stands out above the others. My parents marveled when I told them that years later. To them, the Christmas of 1944 symbolized loss and deprivation.

We had made it to my uncle Anton’s house just before Christmas after a horrifying trip from Tetschen, my hometown in Czechoslovakia. We were refugees and had lost everything except for a few belongings in a wooden cart. We traveled in open coal wagons, spent nights in train stations and hotel rooms so cold the windows were covered in frost and my sister’s diapers froze on the line. The physical danger exacerbated our hardships — Russian soldiers threatened to shoot my father and our family was briefly arrested at the train station.

When we finally arrived, even if my parents had the money for Christmas presents, the city of Frankfurt had been bombed to rubble and there was no place to shop. Yet in my memory, that Christmas was also the very best.

The Christmas tree was in the corner of the living room, aglow in candle light when we entered the room. And Christkindl brought me the best presents of my entire life — none ever made me feel more special and important. I received a little wooden chair and a purse.

The little purse was used, made out of cardboard. It is still so vivid in my mind I could draw a picture. I put the little purse around my neck, anticipating kindergarten.

And here I was, with my very own chair. I never thought that a child could own her own furniture. It was the perfect gift!

My mother later told me that my uncle found an old beat-up children’s chair in the basement, and he and my father fixed it up as best they could. They didn’t think it amounted to much, but Christmas had bestowed on me a feeling of being grown-up. I was in heaven.

I hope that experiencing my joy that first Christmas gave my parents the feeling that, after all, they had found a new home.

The kids at Swift had a lot of energy and questions.

The kids at Swift had a lot of energy and questions.

Back to me. Brigitte found a new home in America years later when she received a Fulbright Grant and left Germany to Attend Vassar College. After meeting and marrying American Bill Erbe in graduate school, she accepted a position at the Department of Teaching and Learning at Roosevelt University. Retired now, Brigitte volunteers twice a week for a third grade class at Swift Elementary, a Chicago Public School where a majority of the students are children of immigrants. The photo was taken last year when Brigitte invited Whitney and me to meet her beloved third-graders — they made us feel special!