Mondays with Mike: Let’s talk about it

May 22, 20171 CommentPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

A few weeks ago our friend Mark did a guest post about his bout with depression. Besides being a well-written and illuminating account, writing and agreeing to publish that post was a courageous act on Mark’s part. That’s because we’ve come a long, long way when it comes to mental health, but still, people don’t talk about it the way they do, say, migraines or acid reflux. And when it comes to health insurance, mental health coverage tends to be spotty, treated as a sort of luxury add-on.

In other words, a stigma still lingers around mental illness. It’s a kind of cloud consisting of a lack of understanding on the part of broader society, and a tendency to conflate mental illness with character deficiency. For those living with a mental health issue, that stigma can create a sense of shame and reluctance to talk about it. All of which results in a negative loop that reinforces the stigma. On one hand a lot of people don’t understand, but if we don’t talk about it, how can they?

Mondays with Mike: Not lost in translation

May 15, 20172 CommentsPosted in baseball, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

As of today, the Chicago White Sox are one game below .500 (that means they’ve lost one more than they’ve won). And the Chicago Cubs? One game below .500. Both total surprises. The Sox were expected, in the first year of a rebuild (when clubs sort of intentionally stink to get good draft picks) to be god-awful, not mediocre. The Cubs, defending champions, were expected to run away with their division again.

Don’t even think about sitting in an opponent’s cheering section. (And Please refrain from wear of visitor’s uniform.)

It’s taken most of this past week for me to catch up to baseball and settle back into old routines, including checking game scores and box scores and standings and trade rumors. My 10-day trip to Japan wasn’t that long, but our nephew Brian and I were constantly on the move, and Japan is just a dizzying tableau of things completely familiar to this American and things completely bewildering and incongruent. It’s really one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, good for the spirit and for one’s perspective. I highly recommend you go, even if it has not been on your list.

If you do go, get thee to a Japanese baseball game. I think you’ll enjoy it, whether or not you’re a diehard baseball fan.

At one level, the Japanese professional game completely resembles its American counterpart. There are some minor rule differences—if a Japanese game goes into extra innings, for example, it will be called a tie if the game is still even after 12 innings. But otherwise, the game is completely recognizable and enjoyable—there are lots of very good players, including some former MLB players: We saw former Cub Kosuke Fukodome hit an RBI double at one of our games, and we watched former White Sox Dayan Viciedo manning first base on a televised game.

Everything else, everything, is vividly different. For example, Brian bought our tickets at a magic ticket machine at a 7-11. (Yes, that 7-11, but like everything else in Japan, it really wasn’t what you think of when you think of the U.S. version. More later.)

Click to see and hear Yomiuri Giants fans cheer on American transplant Casey McGehee.

Inside the stadiums, there are formal, specifically designated cheering sections for both the home and away teams. And an etiquette around sitting in these sections that includes a prohibition of wearing the other team’s regalia or cheering for the other team. Don’t like it? Don’t buy a seat in that section.

At the two games we attended, each team had a pep band. Heavy on the horns and percussion, they were at it every time their respective team was at bat.

So were the cheering sections. Every batter brought a rousing banter of encouragement, including some in English: “Let’s go, let’s go Mah-Gay-Hay” was the cheer for American import Casey McGehee. And some players warranted their own original songs, which the entire section would break into, on time, precisely, as if there were a conductor.

And there were conductors of sorts. I don’t know if these guys had been elected or if this organically sorts itself, but two leaders—one up high on the concourse behind our seats and one several rows down in front—seemed to be coordinated. And every base hit brings a roar American fans would associate with a walk-off homer.

The result is a more or less constant roar the entire game. It’s more like a World Cup soccer match than a baseball game.

You can get a hot dog at a Japanese game. But, why would you, when you can pick up a bento box, a tasty bowl of fried yakisoba noodles, a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, a big bowl of ramen, or … you get the picture.

Photo of Japanese beer vendor.

Your typical beer vendor.

And of course, there’s beer. Except it doesn’t come from burly guys who stomp up and down the steps, lugging trays of cans of beer, growling out their own signature beer-hawking schtick. No, it comes from delicate girls with silk flowers in their hair, wearing dainty outfits, carrying mini-kegs on their backs, and pouring beers into cups on order. They wave one hand in the air. They smile. They pour. They bow. They smile. They climb up. They climb down. They move onto the next section. They smile. They pour. They bow. Their makeup never runs and their legs, impossibly, never give out.

Maybe the best thing about the experience for a fan who dearly loves the game is learning that halfway across the world, fans love the game every bit as much. Just differently.




For Mother’s Day this year? Blind mums

May 13, 201714 CommentsPosted in blindness, parenting a child with special needs, radio, technology for people who are blind
That’s me and Gus, circa 1987.

That’s me and Gus, modeling our homemade sweaters from Northern Ireland back in the 1980s.

I subscribe to a podcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) called Ouch. It features BBC journalists with disabilities who bring their personal experiences to the table, and it can be downright charming to hear them talk about disability in their lovely British and Irish accents. It’s intriguing, too, to hear how British and Irish laws regarding disability sometimes differ from ours here in the United States.

As you might imagine, I was all ears when reporter Emma Tracey checked in from maternity leave by phone to talk to Ouch about what it’s been like to be a blind mum. I am blind, too, but it’s been so long since our son Gus was an infant that I was curious to hear about any new techniques for 21st century parents taking care of infants they can’t see.

When Gus was little I took care of other infants during the day to make some pocket money on the side. Because infants don’t move much, they are easy to keep track of. When it came time to pick them up, I’d place my hands palms down on their mattress and feel around until I found a little body. I’d feel up and down to determine whether I had arms or legs, then lift the baby to my shoulder, one hand always under the head for support.

I walked backwards with babies to get us from room to room. That way if we bumped into door frames or walls, it’d be my well-padded bottom that took the impact rather than the baby’s head.

Diapering was easy: remove the baby’s clothes and wipe their bottoms clean. Without being able to see where the mess was, I just wiped everything. The infants I took care of had the cleanest bottoms in town.

If the babies wanted to stretch out, I’d put them on a blanket on the floor and make a rule for myself to never ever step on that blanket whether a baby is on it or not. That way I could keep toys out all the time and not worry about tripping over them — or stepping on the baby!

Most parents supplied pre-made bottles that I simply put in the microwave when the baby got hungry. And yes, I always shook the bottle afterward and checked to make sure the formula wasn’t too hot. This is one aspect of baby care where BBC’s Emma Tracey had a different approach than mine: she is breastfeeding.

“The most challenging thing about feeding for me is based on my own hang-ups, and it’s feeding in public and doing it so that I don’t flash…” she said on the podcast, explaining she always brings a little cover along to use. “I think if I were sighted I’d be a lot more brazen about it.”

She said people look at her enough anyway,. “They look at me as a person with my dog, feeling around a table at a café for my tea or whatever I happen to be doin’, so actually, in fairness, breastfeeding shouldn’t bother me, but I think I am a little bit concerned about flashing!” Emma said she doesn’t let that concern stop her from breastfeeding in public, though. “I still do it and it’s fine, it’s absolutely fine.”

Other than that, Emma Tracey uses pretty much the same tricks I used back in the late 1980s when caring for Gus and other infants. We didn’t have smart phones back then, though, so one thing new is…texting.

Emma’s baby’s name is Tadhg, which is an Irish name that sounds like the first syllable in the word Tiger. “And the interesting thing about that is, I dictate all my messages and correspondence with Siri on my iPhone, and it is the least easy name to dictate in the world!” She says every time she gets to Tadhg’s name when she’s sending a text she has to stop what she’s saying, type t-a-d-h-g on to her smartphone, and then go back to dictating. “So he gets called ‘the baby’ a lot.”

Why did Hackney’s have to close?

May 10, 20179 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing

That’s my mom, Flo, and Hackney’s bartender Billy Balducci, back in the day.

You may recall the poignant post Mike wrote last year eulogizing Hackney’s, our favorite local tavern. Their seemingly sudden decision to close last September took regulars like us by surprise, and a well-written article in this week’s New City helps explain the owners’ thinking. From the article:

Back in 2008, the owners Jim and Ed Hebson and their cousin Jim Masterson, had been inspired by some of the Mexican Americans on the Hackney’s staff and opened the fast-casual Flaco’s Tacos a couple doors down. It was a rapid success, encouraging them to open more locations on the North Side.

Hackney’s was doing fine during those years, too, but the article quotes owner Jim Hebson about seeing the writing on the wall. “We’d watch the college kids stream by our door on the way to Flaco’s…”

A place like Flaco’s Tacos is much, much less labor-intensive than a bar and full service restaurant like Hackney’s, where oodles of wait staff and bartenders took our orders. So Hackney’s closed down for eight months, remodeled, and will open soon as Hax.

Ulrich Sandmeyer, of Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, used to tell customers who bought one of my books that if they wanted it autographed they could probably find me at my office. He’d point across the street at Hackney’s, and from time to time readers would show up at the bar and ask me to sign. Not anymore, though: the only “bar” at revamped Hax will be the counter where you stand in line to order burgers or sandwiches. You’ll order, find somewhere to sit, and then staff will deliver your meal to your table. The article says ten local beers will be on tap along with a “signature frozen drink,” but there won’t be any bartenders.

So it won’t be our beloved Hackney’s anymore, but eyebrows up! The article says the new Hax will be open all day, seating will include couches and booths, and they’ll be serving breakfast and coffee in the morning, too. “We want people to hang out all day here, working on their laptops,” owner Jim Hebson told the reporter.

Uh-oh. Be careful what you wish for, Jim! I do a fair amount of my writing and editing in the morning at coffeeshops. You may find me sitting comfortably on a favorite couch at the new place in the mornings as often as you used to see me perched on my favorite “office” bar stool at night.

All the events coming up to celebrate my new book are reminding me of the parties we had years ago when my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published. I’ll leave you here with an excerpt from Writing Out Loud from a chapter about appearing at the 2009 Printer’s Row Book Fair:

Our favorite bartender, Billy Balducci, will be tending bar at Hackney’s that day. “Flo’s coming here afterwards, right?” He doesn’t mean it as a question. It’s a command. “I’ll save her a seat.”

That’s crazy. Printers Row Book Fair is second only to St. Patrick’s Day when it comes to crowds at Hackney’s. “I’ll reserve a seat for Flo all day until she gets here,” he insists. “I’m all about Flo.”

The chapter goes on to describe my presentation at the 2009 Printers Row Book Fair and ends up at, guess where? Hackney’s.

Our crew —me and Hanni, Flo and her walker and all—thread our way through thousands of book lovers to the entry to Hackney’s.

There it is. A seat. A veritable throne, which Billy has guarded for Flo.

Eventually seats open next to Queen Mom, and we all get to hunker down around her. Predictably, Billy charms Flo, who transforms rather easily from shy and matronly great-grandmother to giggly schoolgirl. Billy is good on his word.

Mondays with Mike: Oh, Tokyo

May 8, 20175 CommentsPosted in baseball, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike
  • I write to you from Narita Airport, where it is 4:04 p.m. local time on Monday, May 8. I’ll board a flight to Toronto at 5:30, where I’ll change planes and, after around 14 hours of flying, I’ll arrive in Chicago at 7:00 p.m., on Monday, May 8. When you see the zombie on Dearborn later, that’ll be me.

That’s Brian and me at a Hanshin Fighting  Tigers game at Jingu Stadium, the oldest baseball stadium in Japan.

I left April 29 and  arrived in Tokyo April 30. My time here has been exhilarating, exhausting, and just a bit magical. This due in large part to our generous nephew Brian Miller, who teaches English here. Brian shepherded me around Japan to two baseball games, a heavy metal concert, temples, shrines, hostels, hotels, sushi joints, ramen joints; somehow he got all the right trains and all the right platforms.

We walked on average about eight miles a day. Brian worried more than he needed to about whether I was seeing everything I wanted to see. He’s been in Japan for several years—so he couldn’t fathom that pretty much every mile we walked and everything I saw was mesmerizing.

I could do a blog about every half day here—and I may—especially about the two Japanese professional baseball games Brian treated me to.

But I need some time to process it all. Japan—most of my time was in Tokyo—is at once completely familiar and utterly foreign. It is organized and regimented—and chaotic. All these things at once.

For example, baseball is the same as it is here. But it isn’t. There are organized cheering sections that shout cheers, pretty much constantly, as fans do in in a soccer match. They know every player and they know songs for every player. Forget walkup music, these people have it covered.

The trains, well. They ride on rails, but that’s about it for similarities. Clean. Comfortably upholstered (including the subway). Quiet. Passengers are extremely well behaved. And one of the damn trains went 200 mph.

And the bathrooms. They have toilets—they no longer have the squat holes. The toilets—porcelain and everything—are largely the same. But the seats, well, that’s another story.

To start, they’re heated. And you can adjust the temperature. And you can also adjust the water pressure. The water pressure for the little spray that you can activate to give yourself a little spritz in the places that count. The first rule of Japanese toilet seats: find the stop button before you press any other buttons.

And the TV. Oh my God, the TV. Take the craziest Spanish language program you’ve ever seen. Then take LSD and turn the TV upside down. You’re still not there.

And the people. Impeccably polite. They really are smaller. Some of the women are at once so delicate and elegant looking that you’re afraid they’ll break if you bump into them. I didn’t pay much attention to the men.

And the food. Sushi of course. We did one of the keitan conveyor belt things. Oh my. I had the best ramen I’ve ever had, and it was about eight bucks. Pork cutlet that was fried with this perfect panko crust.

I could go on, and I will. But I gotta catch a plane. See you soon, I hope.