My writers have kept some good company

October 28, 20175 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, public speaking, writing

Whitney and I gave a presentation at Bethany Retirement Community yesterday. Bethany sponsors a weekly memoir-writing class for residents there, and yesterday’s event began with a lovely reading of short pieces six of the writers in their class had written. Each participant had provided photos. While staff members read the essays aloud, the photos that went with that particular essay appeared on a big screen so audience members could see what the characters in each story looked like. What a great idea!

My short presentation came afterwards, and during the Q&A portion I was asked, “You’ve been leading your memoir classes all these years, of all the stories you’ve heard, is there one that is your favorite?”

I was stumped. No one had ever asked that question before. The room fell silent. Oodles of stories started swimming around my head, so, so many good stories. Which one to pick? And then, of all things, I remembered reading in Writer’s Almanac that yesterday was the birthday of famous poet and novelist Sylvia Plath. She would have been 85, and a writer in one of my memoir-writing classes knew her in college.

“I get a kick out of hearing about some of the famous people the writers knew way back when,” I said, finally breaking the silence. ”It kills me how nonchalant they can be about knowing famous people.” I’ve talked about some of those writers here on the Safe & Sound blog:

  • 80-year-old hair stylist Bob Eisenberg shared a cocktail (or two, or three) with Vidal Sassoon.
  • At an Antioch College reunion, Judy Spock reunited with her friend Corrie Scott, whose married name was Coretta Scott King.
  • Regan Burke moved to Little Rock to work as Bill Clinton’s scheduler during the 1992 campaign and moved to D.C. to work there after he won.
  • And of course Wanda Bridgeforth sang in high school musicals with Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.
Photo of Haven House.

Haven House at Smith College.

And then there’s Giovanna Breu. She worked for Life Magazine after graduating from Columbia University’s School of Journalism and, before that, from Smith College. “I did not pick my college. My mother did,” Giovanna wrote when I assigned “Choosing a College” as a writing prompt. Her essay pointed out that back then prestigious colleges like Harvard, Yale and Princeton did not admit women. “The argument was that women would lower their academic standards.”

Her mother had attended Smith, a women’s college, and loved her time there so much she wanted both daughters, Giovanna and Diana, to go there. “I suppose I could have objected and headed in a different direction, but I was young, only 16 when I was graduated from high school, the first of my siblings to go away to college.”

Giovanna lived at Smith’s Haven House all four years. “My mother said I should pick Haven House because it was where she lived, and she loved it.” A three-story frame house built in 1865, Haven House was painted bright yellow on the first two floors, white across the top, with windows flanked by black shutters. “A porch, held up by slim columns, enlivened the front of the house,” Giovanna wrote, describing other side porches stretching back into the college’s grassy campus as well. “On sunny days we’d dress in our shortest shorts and stretch out on the porches trying to get a tan.” The last paragraph of Giovanna’s essay is a perfect example of how nonchalant these writers can be about the famous people they hung out with when they were younger:

The rooms at Haven were different configurations. I lived on the first floor with a roommate my freshman year, and then in a single room, part of a suite, for the next three years. When I was a senior my room was directly across from a freshman named Sylvia Plath. That is another story.

I shared Giovanna and Sylvia Plath’s story with my audience at Bethany, they asked a few more questions about memoir, and when the event was over we gave each of the six writers whose work had been featured at the beginning of the talk a copy of my book Writing Out Loud as a gift. Four more copies were given to Bethany’s library for other residents — and their visitors — to read. As I put on my coat to leave, Bethany staff members told me a lot more residents were already talking about joining Bethany’s memoir-writing class now. I call that an unqualified success!

This is one thing that always makes me feel happy

October 25, 201722 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guide dogs, questions kids ask, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, visiting schools

Whitney and I took a commuter train to Deerfield, Illinois yesterday to talk with third graders at Wilmot Elementary about what it’s like to be blind and get around with a Seeing Eye dog.

Whit's always up for a class visit.

Whit’s always up for a class visit.

I started our presentation to the eight- and nine-year-olds explaining three rules to keep in mind if they happen to see a guide dog with a harness on: don’t pet the dog, don’t feed the dog, and don’t call out the dog’s name. “Those things can distract a Seeing Eye dog,” I told them. “It’d be like if someone nudged you or kept calling your name wile you were working on your spelling words at school. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate on your work.”

I suggested we come up with a fake name for Whitney. “We’re going to be here at your school for a while today, and you might want to say hello if you see us in the hallway,” I said, explaining that if they use my Seeing Eye dog’s fake name to say hello, Whitney wouldn’t look their way and get distracted from her work — she wouldn’t realize they were talking to her.

I asked the kids what their principal’s name was. “Mrs. Brett!” they called out. “Does anyone know Mrs. Brett’s first name?” I asked. After a moment of silence, one sweet little voice rang out. “I do! It’s Eileen.” And so, it was agreed. The kids would call Whitney by her code name: Eileen.

Most of the questions during the Q&A part of the session had more to do with blindness than dogs:

  • Your dog is really cute. Do you know what she looks like?
  • How do you drive, I mean, like, can you?
  • How do you know what to wear?
  • Did you ever bring your dog to the vet and then he had to stay in the hospital?
  • How do you get in and out of bed?
  • Do you ever even get into a car?
  • Do you know what made you blind?
  • Isn’t it hard to get around when you can’t see?
  • Does it ever make you feel sorry being blind?

I tell kids at school visits they can ask me anything. I promise to give an honest answer, so when that last question was asked I had to say yes, sometimes I do feel sorry being blind. “Not right now, though,” I was able to answer sincerely. “Just beeing here with you guys, hearing your smart questions? That makes me feel happy!”

Mondays with Mike: We cannot “Just Get Over It!”

October 23, 20175 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

Hi all. Mike here. We just had a joyous weekend spending time with our friends Pick and Hank, who visited from Washington, D.C. Or more specifically, from Alexandria, Virginia. We’ve posted more than once about this dynamic duo. It’s not a stretch to say that at this point, we’re all like family–only better, because we’re not family. 

That’s Hank on the left, me, Pick, and Beth during a vacation we took together in New Orleans.

We are fortunate people, which is something Hank understands perhaps better than anyone. His parents outlived their time in concentration camps during WWII. But his mother and father didn’t live long afterward–and that had everything to do with their hellish time at the hands of the Nazis. 

Apart from their own suffering and Hank being deprived of his parents at a very young age,  Hank recently had an encounter that reminded me that anyone’s suffering is all of our business, and anyone’s suffering should be understood as our own. 

Hank wrote–movingly and courageously and hauntingly–about this encounter. And he generously agreed to our sharing his writing with Safe & Sound readers. With that, I give you the words of our friend Henry Londner.

I Cannot “Just Get Over It!”

Yesterday, upon learning that I would not be keen on taking a river cruise through Germany and Austria, someone said to me “The Holocaust was 75 years ago. Why don’t you just get over it?” Well, I cannot “just get over it.”

My grandparents, many aunts and uncles, and even first cousins, along with 6 million other Jews were gassed, then mutilated to remove their gold teeth and fillings, and finally incinerated.

So, I cannot “just get over it.”

I never knew the unconditional love of grandparents that almost everyone I know experienced. I know I longed for it too and still do. So, I cannot “just get over it.”

I grew up in a community of walking wounded; Holocaust survivors living with debilitating physical ailments that often shortened their lives and PTSD so severe that some ended up taking their own lives years after the war.

So, I cannot “just get over it.”

My own parents were among those whose lives were cut short, leaving me an orphan at the age of 13 and forever longing for the unconditional love of parents. Even at 66, sometimes I still feel like a motherless child, so I cannot “just get over it.”

Other children of Holocaust survivors and I suffer from PTSD even if we were born after the horrors. In my happiest times, there is a cloud over me that I cannot dispel. I can never just “let loose.”

So, I cannot “just get over it.”

It is difficult for me to trust anyone completely, and even while making progress I am again set back by the resurgence of hate that is all around us.

So, I cannot “just get over it.”

Even though I was born after the Holocaust, I sometimes feel survivors’ guilt and even guilt that the wonderful life I have is built upon the bones of the millions whose lives were cut short.

So, I cannot “just get over it.”

I know the Germany and Austria of today are not the same, and I even have friends who hail from these places. and yet, I still cannot “just get over it.”

Hearing these words from someone I have known nearly half my life, and knowing that in an instant they changed our relationship irrevocably is just one last thing — I cannot “just get over it.”

Mondays with Mike: The play’s the thing

October 16, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield (left) leads a discussion with the cast of The Rembrandt during Sunday’s touch tour. From left to right, cast members are Francis Guinan, John Mahoney, Karen Rodriguez, Joe Dempsey, and Gabriel Ruiz.

Back in 1974, I was a high school senior courting a girl who was in the drama club and who aspired to a career in the theater. To impress her, I saved my shekels and bought two tickets to a performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives when it was at the Blackstone Theatre. It starred Maggie Smith, whom I only knew from the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

At that time, I knew nothing of theater. It seemed like the symphony—a lofty thing.

Well, it was a hell of a good introduction. The whole thing was magical—those real live people up there on stage. Just being there made me kind of nervous for them. But they pulled it off with aplomb—Smith was, as always, fantastic. (I found this interview Roger Ebert did with Smith while she was in town for the performance.)

I haven’t always lived where theater was plentiful or affordable. But if I did a top ten list of things I’ve loved about living in Chicago, theater would be right up there. This past weekend reminded me of how lucky Beth and I are in that way.

To start, we got a Saturday morning call from our friends Steven and Laura—a friend of theirs couldn’t make it to a matinee performance of A View from the Bridge at Goodman Theatre that afternoon—and the price was especially right: Free thanks to Steve and Laura’s generosity. Did Beth or I want to go? Beth had enjoyed Teatro Vista’s production of A View from the Bridge at Victory Gardens Theatre back in 2014, so I lucked out.

It was a gray, rainy, coldish Saturday, and let’s say the content of the play didn’t bring sunshine to bear. But, the quality of the play, the extremely unusual staging, and the performances were inspiring in the way only live theater can be. Really powerful—the guy who plays Eddie, the main character, is unbelievable.

The next day, Beth and I headed to Steppenwolf for The Rembrandt, a play starring two stalwart ensemble members, Francis Guinan and John Mahoney (he of Frasier TV fame). Steppenwolf regularly puts on touch tours for people with visual impairments—Beth’s written about the one she attended for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s a privilege to get in on these things—if Beth invites you, go. To start, Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield—who puts these things together—and the entire staff are remarkably helpful and at ease. That last part ain’t easy—I get nervous when I’m around more than one blind person at a time.

Set designers, artistic directors and other crew come on stage to talk about the play, prompted artfully by Hatfield, who serves as a sort of MC. They explain why they made certain choices in the production—and then a crew member describes the physical set in great detail. For The Rembrandt, the set used an ingenious Transformers-like assembly that allowed them to convert a scene set in a present-day art museum into Rembrandt’s studio in a few seconds while the lights were out.

But that was topped by a discussion with the cast members, who always are amazingly generous and down-to-earth. That includes those, like Mahoney, who’ve gone onto great fame and fortune. Hatfield draws them out to describe—physically and otherwise—the characters they play. One funny thing: These are people who remember, by rote, line after line after line. But when Hatfield asked each actor to recite their first line from the play, some had a difficult time remembering their first line outside the context of the performance.

Regarding Mahoney: he was incredibly warm, articulate, self-effacing—he’s a treasure professionally but also a guy you’d like to have in your family.

Guinan was also terrific—he got right up on stage before the play when the people with visual impairments are invited to walk on stage and touch the sets. He acted as sighted guide and answered questions.

The play runs without intermission and is divided into four parts. It sort of lived up to the mixed reviews I received, which cited unevenness and choppiness. The first and the last parts were marvelous in my opinion, the others were far from bad but didn’t seem connected with the others.

Then again, I have a friend who likes to say, “If you find a talking horse, don’t criticize it for bad grammar.” That’s sort of how I felt about this one. Two out of four was good enough to make it all worth it. In fact, the last part—featuring an intimate conversation between Mahoney and Guinan playing a couple who’d been together for decades—was worth it by itself.

Beth and I left exhilarated and tired in the way that only theater leaves us. And we marveled to think that the cast and crew were going to do the whole thing again later that evening—just as the cast and crew did at Goodman the day before.

I don’t know how they do it. But I’m grateful they do.

My fake eye shines for the Houston Astros

October 15, 20175 CommentsPosted in baseball, blindness, Mike Knezovich

Some of my best friends – and many family members –are Cub fans, and my dear friend Benita was born a Yankees fan: she grew up in The Bronx. But I have a long-term friendship with a guy in the Astros front office. In these 2017 MLB playoffs, I’m rooting for Houston.

Kevin Goldstein, Special Assistant to the General Manager of the Houston Astros, is one of very few friends to have seen me without my fake eye.

That's Kevin at home with one of his favorite pooches, Otto.

That’s Kevin at home with his pooch, Otto.

Some back story: my husband Mike Knezovich was Kevin’s supervisor in the 1990s, when the two of them were at a start-up company called Spyglass. Like so many others at Spyglass, Kevin was smart. Computer savvy, too. But Kevin stood out:

  • He didn’t have a college degree (he was one of the youngest people working there, and Mike says he was one of the smartest).
  • He shaved his head long before it was popular (and he let me feel his scalp).
  • He listened to The Pixies and They Might be Giants (long before Indy rock was a category on You Tube).
  • He paid attention to new-age baseball stats, otherwise known as sabermetrics (long before the book Moneyball was published).
  • He knew about minor league prospects (long before anyone else did).

I had a job in the ticket office at a minor league low-A team called the Kane County Cougars when Kevin and Mike worked at Spyglass. We enjoyed many a game there together, and when I went with Mike on a business trip to Phoenix once, we joined Kevin to check out a guy pitching during something called the “Arizona Fall League.” Kevin knew that a hot pitching prospect with the Cleveland organization named Jaret Wright was scheduled to pitch. Who knew there was such a thing as an Arizona Fall League back then, and if there was, what day Jaret Wright would be starting?

Kevin did.

When Mike left Spyglass, we moved to North Carolina. When Kevin left Spyglass, he moved to baseball. This story on the Astros web site explains:

It wasn’t until Goldstein, who dabbled in the interactive industry and worked in consulting and marketing, started writing for Baseball America and developing his email prospect newsletter did he one day envision working for a Major League club. “It was something fun that I had a passion for,” he said. “I started Prospect Report, and it started growing on a strange level and some teams were interested in the information I was putting out there.

Baseball Prospectus (BP) eventually hired Kevin to write for them–later on he took Nate Silver’s place at BP when Silver left to launch Five Thirty Eight. Kevin’s reputation grew as a go-to analyst of up and coming ballplayers, and Mike and I started getting used to turning on the radio or TV and, ho-hum, there was Kevin again, being interviewed on sports shows about prospects.

Major League Baseball teams started noticing Kevin, too. In 2012 the Houston Astros were in town to play the Cubs and their general manager Jeff Luhnow contacted Kevin for an interview. They talked for about three hours, and Kevin told Mike afterwards that he thought it went well. Jeff Luhnow must have thought it went well, too: he hired Kevin to oversee the Astros’ pro scouting efforts.

Kevin still lives in the Chicago area. He has a lively interest in the absurd, and when I asked him to come along to an unusual (for most people) appointment one year, he jumped at the chance: he accompanied me to the ocularist to get my fake eye polished.

Kevin thought the trays of fake eyeballs were awesome. We think he’s pretty awesome, too.

I had my fake eye back in when we joined Kevin and his partner Margaret at an Astros-White Sox game this past summer. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow sat with us for a few innings, and Kevin introduced him to Mike “He was my boss at Spyglass.” Jeff Luhnow got a good look at Mike and replied, “You did a great job!”

A week or two later, Kevin Goldstein was promoted to Special Assistant to the General Manager.

So between Kevin’s well-earned rise to a Major League front office and the rise of that adorable 5’6″ second baseman Jose Altuve (who was once told he was too short to make it to the bigs), I’m all about the Astros. Go Houston!