A rewarding five days in Florida

One woman at the Teaching Children About Blindness session I gave last Friday was a teacher trainer at Head Start in Tampa. That very morning she’d been told that a three-year-old who’d just enrolled is blind. “I have no idea what to tell the teachers to do with him,” she said. “I thought coming to hear you might be a good place to start.”

Another audience member taught sign language at a nursery school that regularly has teenagers who are blind come in as volunteers. She’d come to find out if there was some way to incorporate Braille in her preschool. Another audience member had taught at a school for the blind years ago. “I came just to hear what you have to say,” she said.

And so, here’s what I had to say: screw my presentation. We need to help this Head Start woman!

I'm happy. Baby bbKennedy's happy. Callie, not so much.

I’m happy. Baby Kennedy’s happy. Callie, not so much.

Okay, not really. What I actually said was, “How about we move our chairs and sit in a circle?” Everyone there had the handout I’d put together with lists of resources and ideas to teach children about blindness that they could read on their own when they got home, so instead of talking about that we all shared ideas and resources about how to include a child who is blind into a preschool classroom.

At the end of the hour the Head Start teacher trainer walked out armed with the Braille copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound that I’d brought along, and a list of names and email addresses others in the circle had come up with for her to contact for help. Most importantly, she left with reassurances from people in the room who had dealt with blindness before. “I bet you’ll be surprised at what fun this boy will be at Head Start,” the teacher who had taught at a school for the blind told her as she left. “You’ll all end up learning a lot.”

My reward for a successful session? I got to spend the rest of the weekend wining and dining and swimming and playing and… holding babies!

I have a niece and nephew in Florida, and both had daughters born this past year. My sisters Cheryl and Bev flew down with Whitney and me, and our brother-in-law Rick greeted us in their Orlando home with a very special dinner: Sloppy Joe’s made from Flo’s famous recipe. He even made red Jello with bananas, Flo’s signature dessert! His wife (and our sister) Marilee drove us miles and miles to visit their grandbabies

That's Whitney leaping into the water to chase the ball I just threw.

That’s Whitney leaping into the water to chase the ball I just threw.

Whitney was a trooper for the entire trip, whether squeezing under the seat in front of us on the airplane or curling at my feet in the front passenger seat of Marilee’s car. She didn’t mind sharing my attention with baby Callie and baby Kennedy, either. Her reward? Chasing tennis balls in my niece’s backyard pool.

Po’ Boys and Yellowjackets

I just got back from New Orleans Friday with sore feet (courtesy of a trade show I attended for work) and a full belly (courtesy of NOLA). I love New Orleans and even though I was busy with work most of the time, I still managed to get out for a sumptuous fried oysters and spinach salad, a perfect fried shrimp po’ boy sandwich (the bread was just right), deep brown gumbo, and a sazerac (it was after the trade show).

More than that, I got to take my favorite walk: Down Royal Street, with countless antique shops and art galleries and street musicians. It’s in the French Quarter but it’s peaceful and civilized (in other words, it’s not Bourbon Street). We had to detour where the street was blocked due to a building collapse. Well, you know, the French Quarter is pretty old. Then it was across Esplanade to the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.

Beth and I first discovered this place maybe 20 years ago — we’d go to Snug Harbor to hear Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of the Marsalis jazz family, play in a trio. It was something of a find back then for us out-of-towners, but it’s been found out big time since. It’s not ruined by success, though, far from it. There is music just everywhere. Stop at one place for a bit, cross the street, hear some more. Repeat. And there are people hanging out on benches, talking all kinds of stuff. And everywhere, it’s funky.

If you like straight lines, plumb walls and doors, smooth sidewalks — probably it’s not your place. It’s just different down there. And if I lived anywhere except Chicago, I think I’d live in New Orleans.

The Yellowjackets' Bob Mintzer takes a solo at Jazz Showcase.

The Yellowjackets’ Bob Mintzer takes a solo at Jazz Showcase.

But I live in Chicago, and I’m not ready to trade Printers Row for any place on earth just yet. It reached an impossible 70+ sunny degrees Saturday and I can’t tell you exactly what I did all day other than find excuses to take walks. (Beth was out of town, so I was on my own.) I did manage to get some groceries. Mostly just soaked up the sun while doing piddly errands. And I treated myself to some top-notch pasta at Sofi, a great little Italian restaurant just downstairs in our building.

Sunday afternoon, after laundry, the gym and other weekend chores, it was a walk down the street to Jazz Showcase. The Showcase has been operating since 1947, the labor of love of Joe Segal, who turned 88 this past spring. The club has moved several times over the years — lost leases, rent increases and the like have chased Joe and the Showcase around. When it landed most recently in our neighborhood in the historic Dearborn Station, Beth and I pinched our selves. Segal still introduces every show, and is dogged and cantankerous in his belief that jazz music is superior to the likes of pop, hip-hop, you name it. (He makes this clear each time he introduces an act.)

This past weekend it was the Yellowjackets, a band that’s been around in one form or another since the 80s. It’s morphed from jazz fusion to smooth jazz and then to jazz-jazz. The players have changed over time, too, and judging by their Sunday matinee performance, I’d say they’re sounding better than ever.

We live in an age when one day you’re walking the funky, uneven, sultry streets of old New Orleans with the sounds of music leaking out everywhere, and the next you’re dodging traffic, El trains roaring, and find yourself at a table in a venerable old jazz club 1,000 miles away from the funky Marigny.

It can be disorienting — and it often is — but when it comes to New Orleans and Chicago, somehow I feel right at home in both.

Teaching children about blindness

I’ll be showing off my children’s book in Orlando this week.

Tomorrow afternoon Whitney and I head to Orlando to give a presentation about ways to teach children about blindness for the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children. Part of my presentation includes ways to use my book
Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in the classroom, and as long as I’m gathering resources to share at this conference on Friday, what the heck, why not share them with you, too?

An entire lesson plan devoted to Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound is right there for the taking on a web site called Learning to Give. The site suggests “Reading Experiences to Inspire Acts of Kindness,” and features lists and lists of activities for kids who read our book. Example:

During Reading

ASK: How does Hanni keep Beth safe during the day? What senses does Hanni need to use to help Beth?

SHOW: Look at the pictures of Hanni guiding Beth.

CONNECT: How is the way that Hanni takes care of Beth similar to how your parents or friends take care of you, or how you help others? For example, have you ever helped a younger child or elderly person cross a street or perform a task? Imagine what kind of help you would need if you could not see or hear or if you could not move easily.

The site also mentions Braille:

“In addition to having special dogs to help them get places, those with a visual impairment also have a special alphabet that helps them read.”

marthaAnd here’s another idea for you: Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound is one of the books on the Martha Speaks Read-Aloud Book Club list. Martha Speaks is an animated show on PBS, and each book selected for the Martha Speaks Book Club is coordinated with a Martha Speaks episode. For Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, PBS suggest kids watch an episode where Martha wants to pursue her dream of becoming a real firehouse dog, but then realizes the job is not as easy as it seems.

You can download this episode from the PBS Kids site here.

The Martha Speaks Read-Aloud Book Club resource guide is three pages long so I can’t go into all the details here. It does suggest inviting a special guest to read-aloud sessions, so if any of you teachers or librarians are thinking ahead about special events for the next school year, please know: Hanni has retired, but my current Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I would love to come.

And finally, you can download four lessons at Teachers Pay Teachers to use with Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound at home or in the classroom. The total cost for these four lessons is five dollars, and right now anyone can download the one aimed at third graders free of charge – you don’t have to be attending the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children conference to take advantage of this deal, and you don’t even have to be a teacher! I think you do have to register to download that lesson, but it only takes a minute, kids seem to really like the fun activities suggested in that lesson, and hey, it’s free!

Okay. Enough. I’d better get packing.

Mondays with Mike: Handle with care

We were back in Wisconsin again this past Saturday, this time to visit our son Gus, and for me, to attend a meeting of the Bethesda Parent Guardian League. The League is exactly as its name implies — parents and guardians of developmentally disabled people served by Bethesda Lutheran Communities. I’ve been on the board of the League for about 10 years now.

The League’s members meet regularly to get updates from Bethesda Staff and present our concerns about how our people our doing. Maybe most important: we get to share company with people who know. Know what it’s like to have children and siblings and loved ones who have developmental –and typically also physical — disabilities. We don’t have to explain fundamental things to one another. We can look into each others’ eyes sometimes and just nod. It’s kind of priceless.

For the past 10 years or so, Bethesda has been negotiating and navigating the community placement movement. In short, there has been a national effort toward downsizing and eliminating large, standalone institutions in favor of group homes in community settings. Bethesda’s campus once was the home for hundreds of residents. I can’t recall precisely how many were living there when Gus moved there in 2002, but I think it was around 175. It’s been shrinking — by state mandate — ever since.

Gus moved into his little home with three other guys only a couple years after he moved to Bethesda. When Bethesda staff first presented us with what was then an option to move from the main campus — where he lived in the equivalent of a small dormitory in his own room — we were deeply conflicted. He’d settled in well on campus and we cringed at his having to make another big transition. But it appeared to us to be inevitable, and this was a pretty ideal situation, so we went forward. Gus has done extremely well — for that, and especially for the folks who care for him, we are immeasurably grateful.

Bobby Ladwig -- a staff member at Gus' house -- took Gus and other residents to the local carnival last year. That's Bobby's son on the left.

Bobby Ladwig — a former staff member at Gus’ house — took Gus and other residents to the local carnival last year. That’s Bobby’s son on the left.

Right now, the few residents remaining at the building on campus are there largely because they have more demanding medical issues than others like Gus. Their parents and guardians have been reluctant to make the change, something those of us — even we who have seen the group home option work for a wide variety of people — completely understand. But because of state mandate, it is no longer a choice. The campus has to be empty by next year, everyone needs to be in community placements, and Bethesda has been furiously acquiring lots, building homes, or finding alternate placements with other providers.

On one hand, everyone in the Parent Guardian League feels and expresses gratitude for having the likes of Bethesda on the case. On the other, there’s frustration and fear –some of the folks who are moving have been there for decades. It’s all very stressful. So these meetings aren’t always rosy-even if they’re always, in the end, therapeutic and constructive.

A running source of stress in providing care for people with developmental disabilities is staff turnover. It’s a hard job, there’s burnout, and the pay stinks. And that was a topic of discussion Saturday. Bethesda staff outlined an ambitious new program to recruit and retain direct service professionals (DSPs). That was the good news. The bad news concerns pretty much all of us, not just those of us who worry about our developmentally disabled loved ones. Bethesda is facing what the nation is facing: An acute shortage of the folks who do the difficult, admirable, invaluable-yet-undervalued work of providing direct personal care. This NY Times blog reports that right now there are 1.3 million people on the front lines, coming to homes to help people stay in their homes, staffing places like the one where Gus lives. And according to some, we’ll need 5 million by 2020.

No one knows where they’re going to come from. Right now, they tend to be less-educated, and are disproportionately from minority and immigrant population. Lots of the funding for these people come from Medicare and Medicaid, programs under their own stress. I don’t know the specific answer to filling these jobs, but it does seem the fundamental problem is our collective values and how they’re playing out in our economics. My take is the likes of gazillions-earning Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase could disappear tomorrow with little consequence. There’s a parade of operators behind him. Same for hedge fund managers, private equity moguls and other masters of the universe. Not so for any of the people I’ve seen care for Gus at Bethesda, for my sister during her final days in hospice care, Beth’s mom in her last weeks.

I’m not saying the financial wizards don’t provide value. I’m just saying we overvalue their contribution — by my reckoning, anyway — and we undervalue the care givers. (And a lot of other folks, but that’s another story.) By my way of thinking, this is a gigantic market distortion, and something is wrong. Not sure how to fix it. But it’s worth bearing in mind, I think, in national discussions about the health care system, Medicare, Medicaid, and even immigration.

No one gets out of this place without needing caregivers for themselves or their loved ones. So I would hope that no matter our differences in ideology, most people agree that these caregivers deserve our praise and admiration and gratitude — and a whole lot more than a fast-food wage that often comes with no benefits. I think we’re going to have to make sure that happens, for all of our sakes.

I should have known she’d ask that

I have a children’s book published, but here’s a confession: I don’t know a whole lot about children’s literature. Not modern children’s literature, at least. I read a ton of books when I was little, but after I traded my children’s library card for one that got me into the adult section of the Elmhurst Public Library, I never looked back.

This means that when the Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival started touting the writers who’d be there last weekend, I didn’t recognize a single name. I just figured everyone on the list was like me: Midwesterners willing to travel to this out-of-the-way Wisconsin town to sell a few books and enjoy the quiet.

The organizers created trading cards for all the authors, including moi!

The organizers created trading cards for all the authors, including moi! The front’s above, back below

Boy, was I wrong.

The Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival is spearheaded by two retired children’s book librarians who volunteer their time to the festival, and every year these two dynamos manage to bring a few very highly-regarded children’s books and authors to small-town kids in Wisconsin. Here’s a sampling of just four of the 16 writers at the festival last weekend:

  • Kevin Henkes won a Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon and Newberry honors for two of his novels, Olive’s Ocean and The Year of Billy Miller
  • Blue Baliett wrote Chasing Vermeer and other mysteries for children that regularly appear on the New York Times best-seller’s list
  • Peter Brown won a Caldecott Medal for Creepy Carrots, and he came from Brooklyn to be at the festival
  • Raina Telgemeier traveled from Astoria, New York to be at the Sheboygan festival, and she has a graphic memoir called Smile that was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

So was I intimidated by all these famous writers? Heck no. I was impressed! Both with the fair organizers who got these writers to come, and the writers who took planes, trains and automobiles to get to Sheboygan.

And besides, who needs the New York Times or some fancy-schmancy medal? I’ve got a secret weapon: Whitney.

A volunteer driver chauffeured Whitney and me to visit small-town schools as part of the festival Friday, and at one school a starstruck boy approached to shake my hand. “You’re the first blind person I’ve ever met,” he said. When I took Whitney’s harness off at another school to let kids pet her, one girl crawled up on all fours. “I’m a Seeing Eye dog,” she said. Her friend was right behind, closing her eyes and grasping a belt loop for guidance.SheboyganTradingCardB

Our presentation the next morning was in a section of Bookworm Gardens dedicated to Helen Keller. the flowers and plants feel — and smell — sensational there. A six-year-old with visual impairments came to hear me speak, along with her brother and her parents. Maya is learning Braille at school, and she came up to the front to help me answer questions from the audience afterwards.

My favorite question from the entire festival came later. I sat on a panel about “Animal BFFs” and a woman in the audience wondered if losing my sight had heightened my sense of intuition.

“Whoa, I’ve never been asked that before!” I said, taking time to ponder. Do I? Sometimes I’m right about guessing which elevator will open first. Hmm. The other day I thought about Colleen, and when i got home there was a message from her on the answering machine. You think…and suddenly I realize I had my answer: no. if I’d had a good sense of intuition, I would have known she’d be asking that, and I would have been ready with a response!</p>

Mondays with Mike: Local color

Elkhart Lake, Wis., has a population of 900+ by the Census Bureau’s count, but by the locals’ estimates, that balloons to 10s of thousands during big tourist weekends in the summer.

I know this because I just got back from Elkhart Lake. I accompanied Beth, who had multiple gigs at the Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival, which she’s likely to report on later this week.

Meantime, I was reminded that despite all the homogenizing forces in modern life—mass media, chain stores, interstate highways and drive-thrus, distinct local culture continues to withstand all those forces.

From those looong Northern Plains oooooooooohs made famous (and exaggerated) in the movie Fargo, to drink specials at local joints offering $3.00 Old Fashioneds (do you want brandy or whiskey, sweet or sour?), to the Friday night fish fry featuring fresh Blue Gill, we knew we weren’t in Printers Row anymore. And it was glorious.

We stayed at a really big resort called the Osthoff, which is a nice place, but like all the best of Wisconsin, not so nice that you would ever feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. It sits next to the water, and the famous Road America race track is less than a mile away. Saturday and Sunday mornings brought the muffled distant roar of sports cars screaming around the four-mile circuit, but even that wasn’t really unpleasant, as it didn’t last, and it beat hell out of the sound of garbage trucks in the morning, which is our neighborhood’s version of the rooster.

The trees, according to the local newspaper, were at peak autumn color. I certainly wont argue. Speaking of the paper, it was delivered outside our door each morning. It’s a Gannett paper, but not the USA today. No, the Sheboygan Press. And I was happy to see that local print journalism is healthy and alive. And any question I had about Sheboygan, Elkhart Lake, and the Kettle Moraine area losing their identities was set straight when I read the round-up of coming events. It included:

Read it for yourself--Sheboygan!

Read it for yourself–Sheboygan!

  • A fundraising dinner put on by an animal welfare agency to benefit its Trap, Neuter, Return program—which is pretty much what it sounds like: a way of managing feral cats. Featured: a Spay-ghetti and No-balls dinner.
  • Juxtaposed in the next column, a Norwegian Lutefisk dinner, presented by the Sons of Norway Vennskap Lodge #5-622. This one promised meatballs—Norwegian ones, among other Norse delicacies.

And one other thing regarding cuisine: around Chicago menus often include “Sheboygan” style bratwurst. As far as I can tell, Sheboygan has meant a course grind, and not the whitish, veal based kind of bratwurst. And I assumed it was the pride an joy of, well, Sheboygan.

Well, Beth was chauffeured around by a volunteer and she kept asking about where to get a good Sheboygan brat. Finally, the volunteer, a great guy who was fearful of sounding rude, told her that they didn’t know of anything called Sheboygan style bratwurst. They just knew bratwurst. Served on a really good roll. They finally stopped for one between gigs, and Beth brought hers home to share.

Whatever it’s called, it was really, really, really good.

On Wisconsin!


It’s “Disability Awareness Week” at Wilmot Elementary School in Deerfield, Illinois, and the kids there had already enjoyed a special guest before I showed up there with Whitney yesterday. Melissa Stockwell, a three-time Paratriathlon World Champion and decorated U.S. Army veteran, had been at Wilmot the day before us.

Melissa was serving in Baghdad in 2004 when a roadside bomb hit the HUMVEE she was traveling in, resulting in the amputation of her left leg above the knee. She was the first female to lose a limb in active combat, and four years later, she was the first Iraqi War veteran to qualify for the Paralympics: she represented the United States on the swim team.

After Beijing, Melissa took to triathlons. She is currently a three-time World Champion, and When she isn’t running, swimming or bicycling, she works as a certified
prosthetist at Scheck and Siress Prosthetics in Chicago, fitting people who have had amputations with artificial limbs.

Whit's always up for a class visit.

Whit’s always up for a class visit.

When my talks at Wilmot were over yesterday, I took Whitney’s harness off and let any of the interested kids come by and pet her. As Whitney flipped over and over again
for belly rubs, one of the school volunteers there told me that after the presentation the day before, Melissa Stockwell had the kids come up and touch the prosthetics she works with.

“Wow! I want to go to this school!” I exclaimed to the gaggle of kids petting Whitney. “I know,” one of them said.

“We’re lucky.”

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