Guest Post: A blind date with Irma

September 9, 201714 CommentsPosted in guest blog

My sister Marilee and her family have lived in Orlando more than 30 years now. Here she is with an eyewitness account of preparations for Hurricane Irma — they anticipate they’ll experience the first signs of the storm tomorrow night.

by Marilee Amodt

Hurricanes — we’ve seen a few. Andrew, Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Matthew. Like a blind date, you never know what might happen. Irma has been all over the map, so we aren’t quite sure what to think about her. Will she remain strong, or will she weaken at the sight of us?

Let’s hope it’s hyperbole.

We are prepared for our date. We have batteries, lanterns, water, gas in the car and all of the right snacks. How long will she stay? The date might fizzle out quickly. That would be okay with us.

This hurricane season is a bit different in our household. My husband, Rick, had surgery on his leg ten days ago. He is still recovering. Normally he is the one shopping for food and supplies, draining the pool, and cooking enough food to last a week. Not this time.

We have had plenty of notice about the upcoming storm. Since Rick was recovering, we were home for Labor Day. I spent that day shopping. I filled the car with gas, too, and didn’t wait in a line at all. Rick is the cook in our family, but I’ve done more cooking this week than I have in decades. I learned how to drain the pool, and our daughter Jennifer and our three-year-old granddaughter helped us move things around in the pool area to prevent them from flying away in the storm.

When I’m out and about I see long lines at gas stations. I stand in long lines myself at grocery stores and big box stores. Pre-storm activity. People have been friendly for the most part. “Are you ready for Irma?” is a typical conversation starter.

On our neighborhood’s page on social media, new Florida residents are looking for advice from Hurricane survivors of previous years. Plywood has been a hot topic. Where is it available? Should we board all the windows? Why aren’t you covering your windows? The questions go on. Should I cut that tree down? When do you drain the pool? Do you have a generator? Which gas station has gas? Where can I find bottled water? When do you make the decision to leave?

If you are asking that one, it is too late.

Our son Robbie and his family live in South Florida. They’ve made the difficult decision to move to a shelter, and we are relieved to know they’ll be in a safe place. Robbie works for the city of Boca Raton and needs to stay in the area: he’s part of the city recovery team.

On social media, our daughter’s good friend Amy asked her Facebook friends to imagine someone telling you that a huge, scary monster is going to come along in a couple days that might destroy everything you own. “They don’t know if that will really happen or when, but they keep talking about it and warning you,” she says. “You buy Pop Tarts, and you wait and wait and wait. Yep, hurricanes suck” And then yesterday our daughter Jen added this:

We have heard of Irma for weeks. We have agonized over her all week. We have cleared shelves of water, canned goods, and bread. And now on this beautiful sunny day, where schools have been closed in preparation, we wait. We sift through memories of past hurricanes. Will we be without power (ever important AC in Florida) for a day, two weeks? Will our roof survive? Should a major gust hit our huge beautiful oak trees, will they crush our car or house? Only time can tell us. So in these final days as we sit in anticipation we prepare our house as best we can (patio furniture indoors, boards on windows, sandbags at the doors), batting down the hatches and ensure our kiddos everything will be okay. When ultimately none of us have any idea what lies ahead! Please be kind Irma.

So as we prepare for another date with destiny, we feel confident and yet wary about what might come of this meeting. We will let you know how it goes. In this case, we are hoping that the date is a flop!

Mondays with Mike: A night to remember

September 4, 20177 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Last night Beth and I joined friends for a celebratory picnic on the lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. The occasion: Our friend Janet just became a full professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a testament to her brains and fortitude. As we noshed, we listened to jazz—it was the final night of this year’s Jazz Festival—and the evening was capped by a performance by The Rebirth Brass Band.

High school kids from Joseph Clark Senior High School in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood founded Rebirth in 1983. Members have come and gone, but the second line tradition, the raucous, powerfully rhythmic music that makes you move whether you want to or not, goes on.

Beth and I lived in Urbana in the early 90s, and it must have been 1992 when the two of us began planning a trip to New Orleans. When we struck up a conversation with Jon—who booked bands for a music club in downtown Champaign called The Blind Pig—and asked for recommendations. He didn’t hesitate: “There’s a band you absolutely have to see,” he said. “It’s called Rebirth Brass Band. It’s not like anything you’ve heard, and promise me you’ll go.”

We found care for Gus through a Respite program, and we flew on Thanksgiving day because it was cheap. We headed to a touristy place called Seven Sisters in the Quarter for dinner and picked up the local weekly. Sure enough, Rebirth was playing that night at a place called Kemp’s.

It’s not the Rebirth we saw at Kemp’s, but here’s a nice taste:

I asked the waitress if she knew anything about Kemp’s. Never heard of it. Back to the hotel we asked at the desk. Nothing. Finally, we just headed outside with the address and found a cab.

The driver didn’t know the name but he knew the area. Sure you wanna go there? Yep.

The listing said the show started at 9, and me being me, we got there like an hour early. Kemp’s was a ramshackle one-story building that looked like a house more than a club, replete with bars on the windows.

“Let me check it out for you,” the driver said. He left us in the cab, walked into the place and a few minutes later said, all right, if you’re sure. We paid the fare and headed in.

On the inside it looked like it did on the outside—a functional dive. There were a couple bartenders with not enough to do. There were maybe two or three other people. We took seats at the bar. I ordered a beer, and the bartender asked if I wanted a straw. It was a thing there.

Time passed and by 9, well, there were maybe 10 people there, all from the neighborhood and known to the bartenders. No sign of any performance on the horizon.

Then, a slim but muscular guy in black jeans and a tight, white T-shirt—think a young Bruce Springsteen—walked through the front door.

“Johnny!” shouted the locals at the top of their lungs. Johnny swaggered to the jukebox, took out a ring of keys—the kind you see maintenance guys carrying—stuck one into a recess in the front of the juke box, and motioned to the patrons. They ran up and started making selections—while Johnny was in the house, the jukebox was free.

As we neared 11:00 p.m., the place got very crowded. And then around 11:15 one of the bartenders yelled, “Everybody out, pay your cover and come back in.” One of the bartenders went to the restrooms—they found a kid standing on the toilet in the stall of the women’s bathroom trying to sneak in free.

Because of Beth’s blindness, they let us pay at the bar and hold our seats.

After a chaotic re-entry and more people filing in, the place was absolutely crammed. Somehow, though, as soon as we heard the first notes from a tuba, a path was cleared and Rebirth marched in. There was no amplification, but I’ve never been in a more electric space.

The band somehow fit themselves onto a tiny platform that could hardly be a stage. I should say they were on and around it.

It’s cliché, but you could feel the music. All those young kids pushing air out of all those horns and a bass drum beating a rhythm that could make Elaine from Seinfeld look good dancing.

I know, because Beth and I danced for hours, and we did it like no one was watching. We danced with each other, with the people next to us; we were just one big, ecstatic, sweaty, undulating mass of people having the best possible time humans can have.

I don’t know how many sets they played, but I know they didn’t quit until after 4:00 a.m., because we were still there.

That’s when things got dicey. The bartenders called us a cab. None showed up. The bartender then suggested that they give me the phone—that if they heard a white guy calling for a cab from this address, a cab might show up.

No luck.

Beth and I were, in fact, in a very small minority of white people at Kemp’s. In the beginning we were the only white people. After it filled, I’d say there were maybe 10 white people.

I’ll confess: especially back then, I saw color. I was self-conscious at first. But by the time we left, I couldn’t have cared less. We were treated like gold by everybody there.

I did some research and found that Kemp’s—no longer in existence—was owned by a musician named Fred Kemp, who was a horn player with Fats Domino’s band. It was at the corner of LaSalle and Washington, in the midst of a giant public housing project—which also no longer exists. (You can read more about the area and its history here.)

So it was rugged.

But still.

We were exhausted, no cabs coming, and so we did about the stupidest thing we could do—we began walking. Especially stupid because Dora was back at the hotel—we knew it wouldn’t work to have her in a crowded place. Dora was hardly a killer, but people don’t know that.

Within a couple blocks, I saw a phone booth. I dropped in the change, called a number on a card I’d gotten at Kemp’s. The voice asked where I was—“Where?” was the incredulous reply.

OK, we’ll get someone there.

Minutes later a taxi showed and not long after that, we retired, just before dawn.

The next day we quizzed each other to make sure all that really happened. We had a great time. We learned some things and lost another bit of naiveté.

And we thought, how lucky we are.



A thousand words are worth a picture

September 1, 201728 CommentsPosted in blindness, memoir writing, Mondays with Mike, travel, writing

That’s Bobbie at the center of this Finke family photo, taken in late November, 1961. I’m the two-year-old sitting to her left.

My sister Bobbie died a month ago today. Mike wrote a tribute to her after we got home from her memorial service a few weeks ago. Today I’m sharing an excerpt from an essay we published in my newsletter –it’s about how writing helps me remember her.

My oldest sister Bobbie got married and moved away months after my first birthday. Bobbie was 20 years older than me, and when I was growing up, our age gap prompted people to ask whether she really felt like a sister to me. My answer was always the same. Well, yes – she’s been my sister my whole life!

During the ten-day lag between her death and her memorial service, the Finke nation (I am the youngest of seven and have oodles of nieces and nephews) dug through boxes of old photos to post pictures of Bobbie on Facebook. Friends and family members left comments about memories those photos evoked. You can well imagine that I would like to be able to see those photographs, too, but rest assured that my own reminiscences of Bobbie are not diminished by my inability to see them.

I owe that to writing.

When I think about Bobbie now, the episodes I’ve written about her are by far the most clear and vivid in my mind. Perhaps it’s the result of writing and rewriting, getting just the right verb, working and reworking each piece until it’s as true as I can make it. Maybe the saying is backwards.

Maybe a thousand words are worth a picture.

In writing my memoir Long Time No See, I revisited a short stay at Bobbie’s house while recovering from eye surgeries in 1985. That was a difficult exercise. But because I took the trouble to get it as right as I could, I can still feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, breathe in the mix of dirt and foliage from her garden, savor the taste of those breakfasts she made me every morning, hear the laughter and voices of my other sisters gathering with us there, and feel my little niece Jennifer’s hand guiding me so, so carefully to the bathroom, placing my hand on the toilet roll when we got there so I’d know where I was.

Writing about that time again now reminds me of how courageous my oldest sister was. I was seven years old when diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Bobbie was diagnosed a year after that, when she was 28. Years would go by before complications set in, and when I was losing my eyesight, Bobbie was valiant enough to take care of me in her home. That, even though it meant facing what could possibly be her future.

As the saying goes, she didn’t blink.

Mike and Seeing Eye dog Whitney flew with me and my sister Bev to the memorial service in South Carolina a few weeks ago. Two members of the Finke nation flew in from Brooklyn. Others flew in from Orlando, and more drove in from Louisville, from Indianapolis, even as far away as Minneapolis. We all loved Bobbie, and for me, writing helps to hold Bobbie especially close.

Come see us at Women & Children First bookstore next Wednesday, September 6 at 7:30 p.m.

August 30, 20174 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, public speaking
Photo of John Craib-Cox.

John Craib-Cox is one of two writers who will join me on September 6.

Writers who are featured in Writing Out Loud come along to book events to read their own published essay from the book, and I am really looking forward to having Regan Burke and John Craib-Cox up in front with me at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago next week. From the Women & Children First web site:

Author Reading: Beth Finke, WRITING OUT LOUD
For this event, Beth Finke will discuss her new book Writing Out Loud: What a blind teacher learned from leading a memoir class for seniors. In this memoir, readers learn the inside story on how one call from Mayor Daley’s Department on Aging changed Beth’s life and the lives of her students. John Craib-Cox and Regan Burke, two students from Beth’s memoir class, will join her to read excerpts from Writing Out Loud, too. The reading will be followed by a Q&A.

Beth Finke is an award-winning author, teacher, and journalist. She also happens to be blind. Beth’s Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, leads her through airports and hotels to events all over North America to speak on memoir writing, disability, workplace accessibility, and overcoming adversity. Beth leads writing workshops at Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference and at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest. She is the recipient of a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh award for children’s literature. The Lisagor Award Beth won for a radio piece about the Chicago White Sox makes her the only blind woman in America to be honored for sports broadcasting, and she appeared on the Oprah Show in a short segment about working as a nude model for university art students before her writing career took off. Beth is married to Mike Knezovich. They have one grown son, Gus, and live in the Printers Row neighborhood of Chicago.

Event date:
Wednesday, September 6, 2017 – 7:30pm
Event address:
Women & Children First
5233 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640

Photo of Regan Burke in a rain slicker.

Regan Burke, another writer from my class, will also join us.

About the writers appearing with me: John Craib-Cox has lived in Chicago’s historic Lincoln Park neighborhood since 1974. Known for his dapper dress style and the color of his socks, John has spent years as an interior designer retrofitting older buildings to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act while honoring the Guidelines for Historic Restoration.

Regan Burke is a lifelong civil rights activist and was Bill Clinton’s scheduler during his presidential campaign. She left Chicago to work in his administration for a few years before returning back home.

We’re expecting a number of other writers from the memoir classes I lead to be in the audience, too, so don’t miss this opportunity to schmooze with these senior stars. And just to be contrarian, when it comes to the guest readings, I may have John go first.

Mondays with Mike: Privacy intrudes on the public

August 28, 20174 CommentsPosted in Uncategorized

Sometimes I think we, as a culture, are learning and improving. Other times, I’m pretty sure we are all going to hell (WAAGTH).

For example, on one hand, I feel—totally anecdotally—as if more people know better than to have a loud conversation walking down a public sidewalk, exposing fellow pedestrians to TMI. (My favorite awful example as I walked down Dearborn: “Don’t tell anyone, but she has cancer.”)

But then I observe Beth and Whitney nearly colliding head on with an oncoming walker who’s looking at her cell phone or texting. Or I get on an elevator and instead of good morning, there’s a guy with headphones who’s pretending hard that I’m not there, all while I can hear his shitty music leak out of his ears.

So yeah, it brings out Mr. Grouchy Mike.

I don’t begrudge their enjoyment, it’s not the end of the world. Or, maybe it is.

I was thinking about all this the other day and I remembered an essay by Jonathan Franzen that I read many years ago, and which he wrote many years prior to that—1998 to be exact. It was a most interesting take on what was then a new concern: a loss of privacy, particularly in the context of the then nascent Internet age.

He argued that privacy is hardly at risk. That we can isolate ourselves and be more private than ever in many ways. That in a small town in 1892, the shopkeeper knew everyone’s business, and really, that everyone knew everyone’s business. That today, small families live in giant homes where everybody has their own room and even bathroom. And that we are inflicting our personal privacy on everyone else.

I can’t do his full thinking justice—you can read an excerpted preview here, and I hope you will. It’s called” Imperial Bedroom” and it’s in a collection of his essays called “How to Be Alone.”

Anyway, what Franzen rued more than privacy was a loss of the public space as he (and I and many of us) have come to understand it. That a sense of order and decorum in public spaces that has served us well is breaking down. An excerpt on walking down a public sidewalk:

All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy. They say things like “Should we have couscous with that?” and “I’m on my way to Blockbuster.” They aren’t breaking any law by broadcasting these breakfast-nook conversations. There’s no PublicityGuard that I can buy, no expensive preserve of public life to which I can flee. Seclusion, whether in a suite at the Plaza or in a cabin in the Catskills, is comparatively effortless to achieve. Privacy is protected as both commodity and right; public forums are protected as neither. Like old-growth forests, they’re few and irreplaceable and should be held in trust by everyone. The work of maintaining gets only harder as the private sector grows ever more demanding, distracting and disheartening.

That rings true to me. That we care so much about our privacy and our little virtual gated communities, that we ignore the person three feet away.

Franzen again:

A genuine public space is a place where every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted. One reason that attendance at art museums is growing is that museums still feel public in this way.

And here I had been debating whether to renew my membership to the Art Institute. Debate over.