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Seeing Eye dog steals the show

August 14, 201616 CommentsPosted in blindness, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, Whitney, writing
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?

August 13, 20163 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Uncategorized

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

August 10, 201621 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, public speaking, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, Whitney, writing

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!

Mondays with Mike: You can't go back

August 8, 20169 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

The best thing on the radio in my view is an hour-long weekly program on NPR called On the Media, produced by WNYC, and hosted by journalism veterans Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield.

onthemedia

Full disclosure: I’m a journalism grad, a giant consumer of journalism, and I think about what makes good journalism more than the average person. So On the Media (OTM) is right in my wheelhouse.

But while it’s heady, it’s not geeky—and it serves a double purpose: In examining what the press got right and wrong and why over the last week, it provides a really efficient roundup of the big stories. So it’s a nice weekly digest—with the addition of explaining what might have been distorted with a little fact checking. Which is to say, you don’t have to be a journalism geek to enjoy the program.

OTM also takes the time to dive a little deeper into topics that get a high volume but a low quality of coverage.

Last week, it was immigration. One segment looked at perceptions and misperceptions about immigration here in the United States. It featured an interview with Prof. Doug Massey, a sociologist at Princeton.

Massey brought a true social scientist’s approach to the subject: That is, there was no moral pontificating, and no vilification of people who are afraid of immigrants. Instead, there was just a lot of good information, information that helps understand the angst.

For example, when asked about the biggest myth about the state of illegal immigration, Massey had this to say:

In fact, illegal migration ended eight years ago and has been zero or negative since 2008, because migration is a young person’s game. If you don’t migrate between the ages of 15 and 30, you don’t migrate at all, and the average age in Mexico is now 28 years old.

Massey had illuminating and often surprising answers to a lot of other questions—one observation really struck me:

You have to remember that the baby boom grew up in the whitest, most native America that’s ever existed. In 1970, the foreign-born percentage of the United States, for the first and only time in American history, fell below 5 percent. And African-Americans were segregated and out of sight. That’s the America that people look back and think that that’s normal. And that’s all changed.

It certainly has changed.

He went on to explain that no matter what we do—even if we shut off all immigration, the America of 1970 isn’t coming back.

“That world is gone for good,” said Massey, “and there’s nothing you can do about it, except adapt and make it work for you.”

The good news, of course, is that humans can and do change. I know this from personal experience.

I didn’t know a single black person until I was 17–that’s when I met a black girl at Sears, where we both worked. I didn’t know a gay person until… and I could reel off a dozen more. Experience and personal relationships opened my eyes. But it never stops.

Even when we first moved to the city, there were characters on the street who would give me pause and make me wary. Some of that is healthy. But some is borne of ignorance. The first times I was in the distinct minority on a subway car, I was self-conscious and if not afraid, I was nervous.

Now, I don’t even notice. I don’t think my old self would recognize the new.

I’d like to tell you I don’t have a racist, bigoted, frightened bone in my body. Except that’d be a patent lie, because, well, I’m a human being.

And I don’t necessarily like change.

But in the end, change has always been good for me.

You can listen to the recording of the interview, as well as read a transcript. I hope you will.

Amazing grace

August 5, 20169 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized

Mike and I are privileged to have friendships with some of the most thoughtful, kind, intelligent, talented and funny people on this earth. We were just reminded of this in a most touching and uplifting way.

khan-grave

Mike has written here about our friends Pick and Hank. And Hank has posted here as a guest blogger, describing what it was like leading me around on a vacation together in New Orleans and the nuances of his volunteer work helping blind people in the D.C. area, where he and Pick live.

Hank visited Arlington National Cemetery after hearing Capt. Humayun Khan’s father speak at the Democratic National Convention last week. Hank’s hardly an attention seeker, but his visit to Capt. Khan’s gravesite deserves the attention it received in a recent article by CBC/Radio Canada.

Please give the story a read.

And join me and Mike in saying, “Thanks, Hank. We couldn’t have said it or done it better.”