Mondays with Mike: The artist next door           

October 3, 20165 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized
One of Glen's banner paintings.

One of Glen Davies’ banner paintings.

When Beth and I lived in Urbana, our couch backed up to a bay window that faced our neighbors’ window—which was maybe all of 10 or 15 feet away. Our son Gus liked to lie on his back on the couch, with his feet sticking straight up over the couch back. This never failed to delight our neighbors Glen and Sandy, who took the sight of Gus’ white-socked feet sticking up in the air as a sign that all was well in the world.

Glen was the first person ever to say Gus was handsome, lo these many years ago. And he was among the first to send happy birthday wishes on Gus’ 30th birthday last month. People like Glen taking a liking to Gus and establishing a relationship with him means the world to us. And so, hearing from Glen last month was a double treat—because he also let us know that he would be in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst for a show of his artwork.

When we arrived at the student center on the campus of Elmhurst College—which is hosting the show—Glen was in the middle of giving a talk about his art, his inspirations, his time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his career. The students and faculty asked a lot of good questions.

Glen had me as a friend forever by simply being a friend of Gus, but the truth is, I also absolutely love his work. One of his pieces hangs in our living room, a very thoughtful gift from Beth, who’s really good at thoughtful gifts.

Those who live in Champaign-Urbana enjoy Glen’s work even if they don’t know it—he’s done a lot of splendid Trompe l’oeil murals around both towns, transforming otherwise dreary brick walls into public art. He’s also done murals for businesses and schools around the state and nation.


Besides murals, his work also includes some terrific drawings and sculpture. But the stuff I am mesmerized by are his circus-banner-style works on canvas. Sometimes the subject matter is also circus-ish—think side-show acts like sword eaters and such. Other works carry the style but not any direct link to the circus. They range from the whimsical to the macabre. In fact, Glen was once asked whether he had nightmares that kept him from sleeping. He replied that no, he got all that stuff out on the canvas, and he sleeps quite well, thank you.

It’s been a privilege to know Glen as a friend, because we’ve been able to discuss his work at some length, informally. One thing that has always stuck with me: Much of his art, Glen told me, works with the notion of façade, and how hard we work to present a nice façade, and how different things can look when you peel back the covers.

That little insight—and his work—have always rung true. Whether it’s fashion or architecture or whatever: We expend great effort on what something looks like.

You can see that theme in several of Glen’s works that include cutaway views that reveal an underworld starkly different than the surface view.

I still stand in front of our Glen Davies piece, years and years since we hung it on our wall, and just gaze at it. And still I find detail I hadn’t noticed, or facets of interpretation that are new.

Check out Glen’s work at his website—it’s pretty spectacular. Better yet, if you’re in the Chicago area, you can check it out in person.

Glen’s show runs through November 11th. It’s on the Elmhurst College campus:

Frick Center, Founders Lounge
190 Prospect—the Founders’ lounge is on the first floor, it’s a student center of sorts.

I hope you’ll go. Glen and his friend Gus would be delighted if you did.

Blind woman reviews Chicago production of Hamilton

October 1, 201621 CommentsPosted in blindness, Mike Knezovich, politics, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized
Little did Colleen and I know when we were both waitresses at the Oak Room at Marshall Field back in the 70s, that we'd be going to see a hip-hop version of Hamilton.

Little did Colleen and I know when we were both waitresses at the Oak Room at Marshall Field back in the 70s, that we’d be going to see a hip-hop version of Hamilton.

Was it the music? The lyrics? The voices? The musicians? The storyline? Buzz of the crowd? Sharing it alongside a dear, longtime friend? My months researching the show? The toast in the lobby bar with Colleen before curtain time?


The Chicago version of the musical Hamilton did not disappoint, but for a minute there , I was afraid it wasn’t going to happen at all. Colleen phoned a half-hour before she was meant to pick me up, and when I heard VoiceOver on my iPhone announce the call was from Colleen I was afraid something was wrong. When I said hello and heard her stammer, I was sure something was wrong . Oh, no. ”Colleen?” I asked. “You there? You okay?” She took a breath before finally getting a word out. “Oh, Beth,” she said. “I’m laughing at myself! I’m laughing so hard I can hardly talk!”

Colleen bought our tickets at the beginning of the year after hearing that the Foundation Fighting Blindness” was one of the non-profit organizations given the opportunity to purchase blocks of Hamilton tickets to sell for fundraising. She and her teenage son have been enormous Hamilton fans from the beginning. “This is all making me feel so young!” Colleen exclaimed when Mike walked me to meet at her car. “I haven’t looked forward to anything like this for a long, long time. It’s like Christmas morning when I was a kid!” Mike insisted on taking our picture, and he laughed when he looked at us through the camera lens. “You guys look like two little girls going out to drink milk shakes or something!” he said. “It’s fantastic!”

Outside of the fact that the Chicago opening of Hamilton is taking some attention away from the baseball team in town heading to the playoffs, Mike’s been blasé about all the Hamilton hype. Still, he didn’t complain about my months of preparation and research for this musical. He even bought me the CD and read some of the lyrics to me before I figured out where to find them on line to research the wording myself. Anytime he left home, he’d return to the sound of the Broadway performance blasting from our living room speakers. “You can leave it on,” he’d sigh, but I turned it off. More fun to listen alone anyway. Then you could dance and sing along.

Overall, he’s been a good sport about my little obsession. He asked questions about — but did not attend — “In the Heights” (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical) after Colleen and I went to see Chicago’s Porchlight music Theater’s production a few weeks ago. And, being a non-fiction kind of guy, he happily listened along when I’d go to bed with the audio version of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (the biography that inspired Hamilton the musical).

That's me and Lafayette. Or me and Jefferson. Whichever you prefer.

That’s me and Lafayette. Or me and Jefferson. Whichever you prefer.

Colleen chose to listen to the book on audio, too, rather than read it in print. The audio book is 38 hours long. It is absolutely astounding that the musical Hamilton covers pretty much the entire Alexander Hamilton story in three hours. The founding father packed a lot into his short life, leaving over 26 written volumes of work and oodles and oodles of personal letters behind when he died. And when he was alive? He liked to talk. To tell all that in three hours, you need to fit a lot of words in to every measure. You can’t hold onto a musical note very long — you’ve gotta move right along to the next scene. Using hip-hop was a no-brainer. And, simultaneously, brilliant.

Colleen saw tears of joy on my face when the show started and padded my knee reassuringly. “I’m crying, too!” There is no fanfare or overture before the musical Hamilton starts — it’s almost like someone says “Go!” And you’re off. We were surprised at how quickly we got to the intermission, and I was especially surprised how much easier it was to understand the lyrics when hearing them live — better than trying to decipher them while listening to the highly produced CD version at home.

And of course Colleen and I spent the intermission comparing the Chicago cast to that Broadway rendition we’d been listening to all year. I thought the Chicago Schuyler  Sisters sounded more Motown than the Broadway sisters did and that casting an actor with a beautiful, strong singing voice as the Chicago Washington made more sense than the Broadway Washington, who sounded to me like so many of the other founding fathers in the recording of that production. He’s the father of our country. His voice should be big.

Colleen agreed that Chicago Washington had a beautiful voice but was disappointed that he wasn’t as good a rapper as Broadway Washington. “What does it mean to be a good rapper?” I asked. Colleen has three children between the ages of 17 and 21 and knows far more about this subject than I do. “This Washington just isn’t fast enough,” she said.

Huh. Maybe the entire Chicago cast raps slower than the Broadway cast. Is that why I could understand the live show better? The theater had provided audio headsets for people who are blind to use if we needed extra narration to follow the action, but I never even put mine on.

Some of the Chicago cast members spiced up their roles — Lafayette exaggerated his French accent a la Clouseau in the Pink Panther, Chicago King George was much more playful than his Broadway equivalent, Aaron Burr’s anger on stage in Chicago was so overwhelming that by the end it sounded like he was gritting his teeth and spitting as he sang. The exaggeration in the live performance made it much easier to keep track of all the men in the cast — it is hard at times to differentiate their voices on the Broadway CD.

That audio device the theater provided came in handy after the show, though. Taking the stairs down from the upper balcony to the lobby and then weaving through hundreds of audience members to bring it back took a long time. When we finally got outside the cast members were leaving through the side alley exit. “There’s Alexander Hamilton!” Colleen squealed. “He’s so cute, just there with a backpack on, hailing a cab.” We rushed over to the alley like giddy teenagers. “There’s one!” Colleen would say, and with white cane prominently displayed in one hand, I’d thrust the other one out. Anytime an actor took the bait and shook my hand, I’d ask who they played in the musical.

Chris Lee played Lafayette. He laughed when I thanked him for overdoing his French accent and agreed to let Colleen take a photo of us. Colleen had read the playbill out loud to me before the show started, so we knew that Chris (that’s how he introduced himself to me) played Lafayette in the first act, and he played Jefferson in the second. His previous claim to fame was starring as the Scarecrow in The Wiz last year in Greenville, South Carolina.

Joshua Henry, the actor who played Aaron Burr, had played more prominent roles in the past and had been nominated twice for a Tony award. 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.”

Mike was waiting for me in our apartment lobby and thanked Colleen with a big hug when she walked me inside. “Was it good?” he asked. Colleen and I faked frowns, responded with a simultaneous “it sucked” and then broke into giddy schoolgirl laughter.

I honest-to-God woke up the next morning hearing “Must be nice to have Hamilton on your side” in my head. Over coffee Mike told me he’d enjoyed my time with Colleen vicariously. “I was smiling so much while you were there, I’m almost ashamed of myself,” he said. “And today I feel like Scrooge on Christmas morning.”

Do I look like Alexander Hamilton?

September 27, 201620 CommentsPosted in blindness, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized

Mike downloaded a “camera for the blind” on my iPhone. It’s called “Tap Tap See.” Users take a photo of what’s in front of them, wait a few seconds, and, abracadabra! The app announces out loud what’s in the photograph.

That can't look like a woman with brown hair.

That can’t look like a woman with brown hair.

Grateful? Not me. I was petulant. “I’m not ready to learn how to use apps yet,” I snapped. “I don’t even know how to retrieve my voice mail with that thing.”

Mike not-so-calmly pointed out that I’d already been using apps. “The clock, you know. That’s an app. So is weather.”

I thought apps were things you added to your phone. “Well,” I said. “I’m just not ready to learn how to use a new one, then.”

Mike was away on a business trip weeks later when I felt through my wallet to make sure I had cab fare for the next morning. I keep track of money by folding each denomination differently, but I’d been in such a rush at the store that day that I’d shoved bills in there without folding them first.

How would I know what to give the cab driver?

I hadn’t tried my “Tap Tap See” app yet, but the same promotion that called it a camera for the blind claimed it can identify paper currency, too.

I straightened a bill on the kitchen counter, launched the app and twisted my finger around the iPhone screen. VoiceOver said, “Take picture.”

Somehow I managed to hold steady, hover the iPhone over the bill, and double-tap. “Picture taken.”

Seconds later, abracadabra! “Woman with long hair.”

George Washington looks like a woman, I guess. Must be a single.

I pulled out another bill, took a photo, waited a few seconds. “Woman with brown hair.” Lincoln doesn’t look like a woman. Washington’s hair is white. Who else’s face is on American currency?

Off to my talking computer to Google. Alexander Hamilton is on the ten. Did Hamilton have brown hair?

Back to the kitchen counter. Tap Tap See identified all my bills as women, some with short hair, some with brown hair, some with long hair. Not the clear-cut answer I was hoping for, but the app was fun to play with.

I was 26 when I lost my sight. I’m in my 50s now. Would Tap Tap See identify me as “Middle-aged woman”? “Woman with wrinkles?” Did I really want to know?

I couldn’t resist.

Off to the bathroom mirror. I held the phone up to my reflection, smiled pretty, tapped “Take picture” and felt my heart race as I waited for Tap Tap See’s judgment. Finally it came. “Woman with brown hair.”

Woman with brown hair? Do I look like Alexander Hamilton? I snapped another picture. “Woman with short hair.” And that’s when it dawned on me. I’d been using my iPhone backward. The round hole on the back of the iPhone is not what people look through to snap a photo.

Those photos I’d taken? They all were selfies.

And now, just to confirm I am not an Alexander Hamilton look-alike, I’ll be sauntering down to Private Bank Theatre tomorrow night, because, of course, I have a ticket to the musical HAMILTON! You heard that right. Me. Beth Finke. Going to Hamilton tomorrow night. Back story? Earlier this year when my friend Colleen learned that a block of tickets to tomorrow’s show were set aside to benefit the Foundation Fighting Blindness, she surprised me by buying two of them. “One’s for you,” she told me. “My treat.”

I’ve read the biography the musical is based on twice now. No easy feat. The audio version is 38 hours long! I’ve been listening to the CD non-stop whenever Mike is out of the house, too. I’m ready. I probably shouldn’t brag, but dag. Tomorrow night, Colleen and I are going to be in the room Where it happens.

Mondays with Mike: It’s good to know someone        

September 26, 20167 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

When Beth and I moved to Chicago in 2003, she was hard at the business of promoting her first book, the memoir “Long Time, No See,” published by the University of Illinois Press. She was on the airwaves with the likes of Rick Kogan and, back then, The Kathy & Judy Show. The Chicago Tribune gave the book a good review, and Beth began appearing at libraries and bookstores around the city and suburbs, reading from her book.

Lots of Beth’s friends from high school and from the University of Illinois had settled in or around Chicago. After every media or personal appearance, it seemed she’d hear from one or another of them.

Ribicue, 2016.

Ribicue, 2016.

But the first reconnection was a personal encounter. We were on the Red Line subway when this tall stranger peered down at Beth and said, “Ms. Finke?” She looked up and immediately realized it was Don—they’d both lived in Scott Hall, a U of I dormitory that was part of a complex called the six-pack. She learned Don lived on the North Side (though he’s an avid White Sox fan, and we’ve since attended several games with him and his wife). They were off and running in conversation until Don had to run—we came to his stop, and it was goodbye. At least for the moment.

Here’s to serendipity. Eventually, Beth was invited to something called Ribicue. This annual event is held in September at Foster Beach, pretty much come hell or high water, though those two have caused cancellations or postponements. Don and his pals Craig and Jim—the three musketeers of the Weber grills—prep the day before and hover over the grills all afternoon, cooking up an endless supply of some delicious ribs. Their stamina is amazing, and surpassed only by the obvious joy it gives them to do it.

The rest of us guests bring salads, desserts… or nothing.

On a day like last Saturday, it’s really spectacular in a lovely, laid back way. The temperature was in the 70s, the skies were clear, a stiff breeze meant you could both see and hear Lake Michigan. The best thing, of course, is just hanging out with friends.

Beth an I always take a walk along the beach.

Beth and I always take a walk along the beach.

How do you get an invite to this exclusive event? Well, sorry, you had to live in Scott Hall on the correct floor back in the day. Or know someone who did. (I won the jackpot on that.) I’ve gotten to know—and have befriended—many of Beth’s friends from Scott. We all catch up with each other. And we compare notes about our college experiences—Saturday, two of us reminisced (in some wonderment) about living in a triple dorm room. (Those triples were more like army barracks than what we call a dorm room these days, but you know, it was good for us.)

I’ve spent more than one sublime lakefront Saturday afternoon with this crew. And I’m grateful that they’ll have me, even if I did live in Hopkins Hall, and not Scott.

Watching the presidential debates with Jane Goodall

September 25, 20168 CommentsPosted in blindness, Mike Knezovich, politics, public speaking, Uncategorized

Journalist James Fallows has a piece in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly suggesting that Americans watch tomorrow’s presidential debate with the sound off.

Ah, that I could!

Mike tells me there's something vaguely familiar in that expression.

Mike tells me there’s something vaguely familiar in that expression.

In his article, Fallows argues that the things that really matter in political debates these days are all visual. He predicts that the upcoming presidential debates will simply be displays of dominance, and he quotes primate expert Jane Goodall saying Trump’s primary debates with the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio reminded her of primates establishing dominance in the wild. From the article:

“IN MANY WAYS the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, told me shortly before Trump won the GOP nomination. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”

Fallows reported that in her book My Life With the Chimpanzees, Goodall told the story of a chimp named “Mike” who maintained his dominance by kicking a series of kerosene cans ahead of him as he moved down a road. The noise and confusion made his rivals flee and cower, she said, adding that she would be “thinking of Mike as she watched the upcoming debates.”

What a coincidence. So will I.