Mondays with Mike: Accidental goodness

March 20, 20177 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

As I posted last week, I often listen in as Beth listens to books. The latest of Beth’s audio books I’m eavesdropping on is by Wallace Stegner. Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel. It received an extensive and positive review in the NY Times when published. But Stegner probably didn’t care so much by then. I know he didn’t care so much for the Times—he felt, and probably rightly—that the paper had not paid proper attention to his earlier work. The Times never reviewed his National Book Award winner (The Spectator Bird) and only acknowledged Angle of Repose after it won a Pulitzer.

Click image to go to book description at Goodreads.

The cover of Crossing to Safety.

I regret that it’s the first Stegner I’ve read, but I look forward to reading more. The writing’s superb for many reasons, one being that he chronicles nature in a sort of prose version of Ansel Adams. I’d tell you more but trust me, it’s more fun to Google him and go on a little virtual history expedition. There you may just bump into something serendipitously nice.

I know this because reading Stegner recalled a publication I worked on back in 1989 when I was an editor at the University of Illinois. I worked in a department that offered design and editorial services to other campus departments. We were engaged by the English Department to do the catalog for an exhibit called Dandy & fine: Accent to Ascent (1940- ): correspondence on the occasions of work published in literary magazines at the University of Illinois.

Whew, that academically stuffy title didn’t do it justice. The exhibit collected letters—handwritten and typed—from literary figures including Eudora Welty, Katharine Anne Porter, E.E. Cummings, Flannery O’Connor, and—as I recalled, Wallace Stegner.

These writers have all been published in one or the other of two literary magazines published at Illinois over the years. Back in 1989, the English Department had discovered and filtered through archives from those journals. I can tell you, those people could write a letter, and it was a privilege to literally get my hands on them and read them.

Cover of exhibit program.

The cover of the exhibition catalog. If you care to look inside, click on the image, scroll down, then you can download two-views–but they take a long time.

I was the project manager on this one, and I worked with my favorite ever graphic designer, Julie, who is still a friend. Julie was the star of this show. This was before desktop publishing. Some of you may remember “mechanicals.” Designers would use real colored paper on one layer, type on another layer, another color paper on another—and each layer got shot on graphic film and then composited together. There weren’t no Illustrator or Photoshop or InDesign back then.

Anyway, thanks to Julie, the catalog for the exhibit ended up being a work of art in its own right, and lots of the people who pay attention to such things thought the same. It won multiple awards. It had a beautifully intimate look and feel, a very organic scrapbook of pieces and excerpts from the letters, accompanied by brief anecdotes about the editors of the journals over the years.

Too lazy to unbury my banker’s box of old publications I’ve hoarded, I made a couple Google queries and damn if I didn’t find the catalog online. Well, sort of. What I found are full scans of eight two page spreads. I could look at the whole publication two pages at a time. I was delighted to find that, in my view, it hasn’t aged, and Julie’s work remains as beautiful and appropriate to the subject as ever.

I was not as delighted to realize that it was Wallace Stevens, a great artist  in his own right, and not Wallace Stegner who was one of the featured authors.

But I didn’t mind, really. It all took me back in time, and reminded me that some accidents are lucky ones.

A blind theatregoer is suing Hamilton — think that’s reasonable?

March 18, 201710 CommentsPosted in blindness, technology for people who are blind

An NPR story this past week reported that a theatregoer who is blind is suing the producers and the theater that’s offering the hit musical “Hamilton” in New York City because they are not offering headsets with live audio description for theater-goers who are blind or have visual impairments.

You regular blog readers know that I’m a huge fan of the word “reasonable” when it comes to reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but in my view, the “reasonable” part applies to both parties. Is it reasonable for a blind patron to insist the theater have a paid audio describer on hand at live productions of Hamilton for people who can’t see the stage?

Sure, someone would be there live to describe the actor’s movements, but at what expense? And let’s get real. Would anyone with a good pair of ears want to mask the sensational sound of the live music on stage by wearing a headset?

Thanks to my dear friend Colleen, I was able to attend a preview of Hamilton when it opened in Chicago last year. Audio description was available at the performance we went to, but with so much information out there about the hit musical online and in audio books, I didn’t use them. This is one theater piece that is more about music than action. Here’s an excerpt from my review. It opens with a description of Mike buying me the CD ahead of time :

He even bought me the CD and read some of the lyrics to me before I figured out where to find them online 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’d turn it off. More fun to listen alone anyway. Then you could dance and sing along.

In my review, I report on what a good sport Mike was 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 before we went to Hamilton. And, being a non-fiction kind of guy, Mike 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 after the performance with  Lafayette. Or me and Jefferson. Whichever you prefer.

That’s me and Lafayette after the Chicago performance. 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 more than 26 written volumes of work and oodles and oodles of personal letters behind when he died. And when he was alive? Alexander Hamilton 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. One thing that is stunning about Hamilton is that it never stops, and there are no speaking parts. Every word is sung. You wouldn’t want to miss a note, and I think you’d miss a lot with someone in your headset describing the action.

The NPR story reports that Scott Dinin, the attorney representing the blind theater-goer, is not seeking damages for his client. “He can’t under the terms of the ADA. He’s trying to make sure that theater becomes more inclusive by spotlighting the problem using Broadway’s biggest hit.” Is that resonable? I don’t think so.

Seeing Eye dogs never get a day off

March 15, 201711 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Whitney

The snow this week has a lot of people asking me if my dog Whitney likes being out in winter weather. Truth is, she doesn’t have much choice. Poor guide dogs, they never get a day off work!

The snow started falling in Chicago Sunday, and it was still coming down last night. Snowy weather is often more time-consuming, more physically and mentally tiring and can be more dangerous than traveling in good weather.

Photo of Beth and Whitney, Beth showing the cleats on the soles of her boots.

Whitney and I get a little help from our friends–my brother-in-law Rick gifted me these nifty cleats I can stretch over my boots for traction.

When I was a kid, I thought it was magical the way snowfall muffled the sound around you. I still do. But my walks with Whitney this week haven’t been the magic I’m looking for. Enough snow fell to mask the audible cues I use to navigate the city. Commuters who could see were trudging through the Loop (downtown Chicago’s business district) with their heads down to avoid the snow pelting their faces. That would have been fine if they all had dogs like mine to guide them, but they didn’t. Whitney was on her own, weaving me around the blinded commuters in our path.

And that’s not all: Snow has accumulated between the raised, circular bumps I’ve come to rely on to tell me we’re at the edge of a curb ramp, so I’m not always sure where we are.

“Stay home!” friends and family tell me. Easy for them to say, but some of us have to go to work! And then there’s this: We live on the seventh floor of an apartment building, and Whitney needs to get out and “empty” every once in a while. Not to mention, get some exercise.

Eyebrows up! All I have to do on days like this is take a deep breath and remember what trainers drummed into our heads when my blind peers and I were first learning to work with our guides: Trust your dog. Hold on tight to Whitney’s harness, and follow her lead. “Whitney, forward!”

Mondays with Mike: The power of a newspaper

March 13, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

As many of you know, Beth is a voracious reader. Or, to be technically accurate, a voracious listener. Between the Library of Congress’ fantastic free audio book service and the commercial offerings of publishers and services like, she’s always got several books on her cool little listening device—it’s called Victor Reader Stream. Bad name, great product.

I’m a voracious but impatient reader. I consume magazine style pieces, newspapers of all stripes, but I infrequently invest in whole books. I’m not proud of that. It just is.

But because of Beth, I get to sample both fiction and non-fiction books, because she listens when we go to bed. If it’s something that I don’t want to hear, she puts her little device under her pillow, but otherwise, she puts it between us and I listen with her. And, because she usually falls asleep before I do, I end up hearing  more each night than she does. The penalty is that I then hear stuff again—she rewinds to the last part she heard before she snoozed away.

The current work we’re listening to is The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.

It’s a great read/listen. For those of you who’ve read The Warmth of Other Sons, you’ll be very interested in the enormous role a weekly newspaper on the South Side of Chicago played in the Great Migration.

And if you want a taste of it, check out this excerpt in The Atlantic.

I love living in Chicago, warts and all. And one of the reasons is that, in large part owed to Beth and her memoir-writing classes, living here has taught me the huge role black people have played in the city’s and the nation’s history. I, like a lot of people, I think, had a Cliff’s Notes understanding of the struggles and triumphs black people have faced that are traceable to our awful history of slavery.

The full, real stories are so much richer, so much more awful, and so much more triumphant than my abridged version was. And more enlightening.

Here in my Printers Row neighborhood, we have construction cranes all around building shiny new towers, and a few miles away, children getting killed by stray bullets. It’s hard to reconcile that and understand and figure out how to change things.

We’ve got to get past simplistic ideas like bootstraps and vouchers on one hand, and vilification and labeling on the other. And, as a practical matter, I don’t think we can understand how to do better until we face, understand, and reconcile the past.

P.S. The Defender is alive and well.

Happy Birthday, Dave Eggers

March 12, 20176 CommentsPosted in blindness, memoir writing, writing

I subscribe to something called The Writer’s Almanac and wake up every morning to a poem and an email message listing things that went on in the literary world that day in history. Today’s listing includes something about writer and publisher Dave Eggers that I thought worth sharing here.

Cover of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and link to review.

This book launched an empire, of sorts.

I could still see when I was a student at University of Illinois, and I worked at the Daily Illini, our college newspaper. Dave Eggers worked at the Daily Illini, too, and it’s his birthday today. “When he was in college at the University of Illinois, both his parents died of cancer within six months, and he was completely on his own at the age of 21,” the Writer’s Almanac reports. “He was also made the guardian of his eight-year-old brother, Christopher, so he had to drop out of college to support the family, and wrote about it in his best-selling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

Eggers went on to launch his own publishing company and start a tutoring center and writing school. He’s written and edited dozens of books and screenplays, too, but what really struck me about his mention in today’s almanac was something he said about those life-altering events during his college years. I didn’t have anything nearly as catastrophic happen to me when I was 21, but the life-altering events that occurred a few years later help me understand his reaction to it all. I’ll end here with that quote — see what you think:

He later said: “On the one hand you are so completely bewildered that something so surreal and incomprehensible could happen. At the same time, suddenly the limitations or hesitations that you might have imposed on yourself fall away. There’s a weird, optimistic recklessness that could easily be construed as nihilism but is really the opposite. You see that there is a beginning and an end and that you have only a certain amount of time to act. And you want to get started.”

Thank you, Dave Eggers. Happy birthday.