Waking Up in a Strange Room

In the past month my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I have traveled to Seattle, Long Island, Milwaukee and Champaign. We’re home for a while now, and finally all three of the memoir-writing classes I lead for Chicago senior citizens are in full swing. We started out with a bang after my travel experiences inspired me to assign “Waking Up in a Strange Room” as a writing topic.

Whitney's used to planes, trains and automobiles.

Whitney’s used to planes, trains and automobiles.

None of the seniors came back with anything terribly lurid, but one 80-year-old did read a playful piece about being propositioned on the El back when he was “only” 76 years old. Bill wears leg braces and uses crutches to get around, and though he’d said no to the proposition, the mere idea that someone had wanted to “wake up in a strange room” with him left him light on his feet the rest of that day.

One of the more moving stories was about one writer’s first day in the dorms during her freshman year at Kalamazoo College. Her essay described her roommate’s mother eyeing her up and down before finally asking a question: “Where are you from?” She said she was from Chicago, and the mother pulled her daughter out of the dorm room and rushed down to the staff office to speak with school authorities. Sixty years later , this writer can still remember exactly how it felt to wake up by herself in an attic room the next morning — school authorities had moved her there after the mother insisted her daughter “not room with a Negress.”

We heard stories about waking up in hospital beds, in foreign hotel rooms, in an eco-lodge in Nepal, a palace in Venice, a hut in India. Mary’s piece was about waking up in a tatami room with a kotatsu (fire/footwarmer) in the 1950′s during a ski trip with fellow high school exchange students in Japan. “Four girls were in each tatami room, and we ate breakfast and dinner on the square table over the kotatsu with our feet down on the ledge in the pit so we could keep warm,” she wrote. “At night we used futons as floor mats and covering, and lying on our backs with our toes right under the edge of the futon that covered the table, the warmth flowed right into our cozy sleeping spaces.”

Mary’s train ride to the mountains was as intriguing as the room in the ski lodge. “The dash for the train was frenetic, with hordes of people crowding the doorways, but we all managed to get inside two cars,” she wrote. . “The girls got seats, while the boys climbed to the luggage racks or crawled under the seats to lie down for the six-hour ride to Nagano, the Japanese Alps.”

Mary had written another essay about her year in Japan back when I assigned “Feeling Homesick” as a topic, and she sent both essays to one of those gallant boys who’d slept in the luggage rack on that train. When Mary was driving me to class the other week, she told me she’s kept up with this friend ever since they were both American teenagers in Japan, and that he is developing Alzheimer’s disease now.

“He was still able to send me an email, though,” she said. “He told me my essay sparked a memory for him.” Mary’s essay had also motivated him to write his own piece about another train trip he’d taken during his year as an exchange student, and his wife sent a letter telling Mary that her Japan memoirs had not only motivated her husband to write, but also motivated him to try using a computer again.

“She said it was the first time he had used the computer in two months,” Mary told me, reaching over from the driver’s seat to pat me on the thigh. “So look what these memoirs produce!”

Mondays with Mike: Everything’s amazing and maybe that’s why no one’s happy

Let’s start with this: A hammer is technology. How you use it is what counts. Hit a nail. Good. Hit a person. Not so good.

I say this because I’m about to venture into the realm of cranky person complaining about technology. And I want you to understand that from a purely, 11-year old boy that lives inside of me point of view, I have always loved technology.

I loved cars. I loved TV. I loved Pong, the first video game. I loved the goofy little Sinclair computer. I about flipped the first time I saw a Mac. Getting Beth’s first talking computer up and running back in 1988 was like an epiphany. I worked for a company that was part of the dot.com era, and I remember the first time I saw a Web site, back in 1995.


Of late, I find myself tiring of it. It’s a lot of work keeping up with it. And it feels sometimes like it’s a solution in search of a problem that I don’t have. A couple of viral videos, one by the now well-known Louis CK and another, have sort of piqued my cogitating on all this. Not sure there’s a stand to take, just observations.

During an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show, Louis CK observes that we are living in a marvelous age, when we can travel in the air at 500 mph and we log onto the Internet to get information about absolutely everything. And still we complain when the experience isn’t perfect.

It’s a funny, observant piece. It suggests that we ought to be celebrating, instead of complaining about delays on the tarmac. So why don’t we? I think the answer is self-evident: As phenomenal as these things are from a quantifiable, technological point of view, they aren’t intrinsically satisfying.

For example: Intellectually, I know flying on an airliner is incredible. The accumulated knowledge that goes into one of those planes is enormous. The idea that I can be in Chicago at noon and walking Times Square a couple hours plus change later is still breathtaking (and still somewhat confusing).

But the experience of being wedged into a small space breathing crumby air is just that. And all the wonder in the world doesn’t salve it (and that’s not even mentioning the airport experience).

And this: Traveling 500 mph is incredible, intellectually. But from a sensory pleasure point of view, going 60 mph on a motorcycle beats flying in a jetliner like a drum. Heck, 30 mph downhill on a twisty lane on a bicycle is more memorable than a lifetime of airline rides.

The other video that has me thinking about technology is by Tripp and Tyler. It’s a brilliant little enactment of a conference call—played out in person, with all the glitches that we now sort of ignore because most of us get stuck in these awful exercises on a regular basis.

For example, for all the technological advances, on conference calls (and on cell phones) people can’t talk at the same time. In the video, there is the inevitable and familiar exchange where two people alternate “you go, no you go, no you go.” The video calls out multiple ways that we accommodate technology in absurd ways.

On the subject of phones, yes, my iPhone is pretty incredible. But if I want to talk to someone, nothing beats a land line. That’s a fact, Jack.

You’re reading this on a blog or in an email that was delivered to you, so I’m grateful for technology. I’m just not as enthusiastic for technology for its own sake as I used to be.

Which I think, brings me to something like a point: Technology has induced us to do things because we can, not necessarily because we want to or because it makes sense. It’s worth staying mindful of that, and to use technology rather than have it use us.

Catching up: our trip to University of Illinois

Remember my post a few weeks ago about heading to Champaign to give a talk to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois? My friend Nancy Beskin generously agreed to come along with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me on the train, and her guest post today describes what our trip was like from her point of, ahem, view.

A living field trip into Beth’s history

by Nancy Beskin

I think Beth was surprised at how quickly I said yes when she asked if I wanted to come with her and Whitney to Champaign, but the trip was compelling to me for all sorts of reasons:

  • The train ride would be effortless and give me lots of time to catch up with Beth.
  • It was a chance to go back to my Alma Mater.
  • We‘d be staying overnight in the Illini Union.
  • I would see Beth give a presentation to a different sort of audience: college students.
  • It would be a mid-week adventure, and I love little adventures.

Beth and I became friends during our sophomore year at U of I when we lived on the same dorm floor in Scott Hall. We lost touch after graduation when I headed to Berkeley for grad school. During that time, I heard bits and pieces of Beth’s problems with her eyes, and then ultimately that she had lost her sight.

One of our stops was at Charlie Sweitzer's woodworking shop, where he and his son craft beautiful furniture.

One of our stops was at Charlie Sweitzer’s woodworking shop, where he and his son craft beautiful furniture.

We reconnected in 2003 at a book signing for Beth’s memoir Long Time, No See at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous to see Beth again, feeling a little guilty that I had not contacted her during this difficult time in her life. My fears were unfounded, I’m happy to say. We fell right back into the easy friendship we’d left behind in 1980.

So, yes, the train ride was fun and Beth and I were able to catch up. Being back at U of I was fun, too, but I didn’t feel the nostalgia I thought I might. So many buildings have been torn down and replaced that it was a real comfort to see the quad still looking exactly the way it did back in the 70s.

Beth and I agreed that staying at the Union made us feel grown up, and when I saw that my beloved (and ex-employer) Illini Union Book Center is now a conference room, it really sunk in: It is not MY U of I anymore.

The unexpected surprise of our whirlwind trip was learning so much about Beth’s years in Urbana after college…when I had lost touch with her. It was a living field trip into her history.

I met her other Nancy B. friend — Beth met Nancy Bolero while she was a volunteer at the local hospice. Nancy and her boyfriend Steven are the couple caring for Hanni in her retirement years. I met her friends Judy Ciambotti and Jim Spencer, who live across the street from Beth and Mike’s Urbana home, and who Beth met through some musician friends. I saw Beth and Mike’s Urbana house, easily identifiable by the wooden ramp that was built for Gus and his wheelchair. We walked to downtown Urbana, with Beth knowing each step and every building along the way.

The train back was late, but we made the best of it.

The train back was late, but we made the best of it.

And I met Charlie Sweitzer, a talented woodworker who Beth had met when she attended church after Gus was born – Charlie used to be a preacher there. Charlie gave Beth, Judy and me opportunities to see, feel and smell the woodworking projects he and his son are working on.

Our train back to Chicago was delayed, so we spent the last moments of our trip enjoying a draft beer across the street at the Esquire Lounge. In the course of 30 minutes, numerous old friends came up to say hello to Beth and catch up.

So, did the trip live up to my expectations? Yes, and beyond. It gave me a glimpse into a part of Beth’s world that I was never a part of, and that makes my friendship with her all the more rich. Cheers!

Mondays with Mike: You may find yourself in a beautiful house…

That's 14-year-old Hanni on the left, 5-year-old Harper on the right, and Whitney with her back to the camera.

That’s 14-year-old Hanni on the left, 5-year-old Harper on the right, and Whitney with her back to the camera. (Photo by Larry Melton.)

Sunday was dogapalooza in the suburbs. Beth and I and Whitney took the train to Wheaton, where our friends Steven and Nancy, with Hanni in tow all the way from Urbana, picked us up. From there, it was on to Chris and Larry’s, where Hanni, Harper and Whitney—Beth’s last three Seeing Eye dogs—met and rollicked until they and we were exhausted. (As a bonus, our friend Greg was also there, visiting from Seattle.)

I probably don’t need to explain much about Hanni, the one on the left in the photo, given that she has her own book. I will say this: she looks pretty darn good at age 14. That’s thanks in no small part to the care she receives from Steven and Nancy, who adopted her when she retired three years ago. Hanni’s having a great retirement in Urbana.

The male Yellow Lab on the right is five-year-old Harper. If you’re a regular reader, you know the story—but if not, here’s the scoop on Harper. Right from the start he seemed somewhat ill at ease as a Seeing Eye dog. He walked very briskly, but in retrospect we realize he went so fast because he wanted to get his work over with as quickly as possible. He was stressed out by his responsibility, but still, he did his job—and saved Beth from a catastrophic accident. That incident, though, led to a canine version of post-traumatic stress disorder—he refused to walk more than a block from home. Hence, early retirement, and placement with a great couple (that’d be Chris and Larry) in a sweet little house in a quiet neighborhood. It took time, but he got his mojo back and he’ll walk for miles now.

And of course the copper one with her back to the camera is Whitney, my current favorite. Whitney’s great at her job, but off the harness she’s a bit of a deliquent. She licks. She sniffs. And she destroys toys. Sunday afternoon, she ate through a Frisbee, ripped a tug toy and ate through to the stuffing of one of Harper’s squeak toys.

It was great fun having them all together, but as much as I love the dogs, it was better seeing our friends. At one point I stopped and had a moment where that Talking Heads song–”Once in a Lifetime”– played in my head, “You may find yourself…”. And I wondered how Beth and I found ourselves on a quiet street in Wheaton, with three former and current guide dogs and five adults, all of whom I pretty much adore.

Of course, the answer is Beth, who is a sort of one-person network. But more specifically, it dawned on me that it was, of all things, Beth’s work with hospice back in Urbana many years ago. That’s where she met Greg, when they were both volunteers. It’s also how she came to meet Gladys Bollero—Nancy’s mother. Gladys had severe MS, and Beth visited her regularly, and we eventually got to know Nancy and Steven that way. Back to Greg—he introduced us to his friends Chris and Larry, with whom he regularly hikes the Grand Canyon—when we moved to Chicago.

Which I guess may all sound kind of mundane. But to me, for a moment there, taking stock in Chris and Larry’s living room, dogs running, us chatting, I thought it kind of miraculous the way we people find each other.



Why bother making hybrid cars noisy?

If a hybrid idled at an intersection...

If a hybrid idled at an intersection…

There’s been some noise, ahem, lately about regulations to add soundmakers to hybrid cars. You know, so they’d be safer around pedestrians — especially those of us with visual impairments.

I don’t get it.

Maybe it’s because I live in a big city. I walk around a lot with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney. There’s so much traffic here that It’s not likely we’ve ever been at an intersection where one silent hybrid car was sitting alone waiting for a light. If that has happened, we didn’t know it, and it didn’t matter. We still got across the street safely.

People who are blind don’t use the sound of idling cars to determine when to cross a street. We listen for the traffic moving at our parallel to know when to cross. The tires on hybrid cars make noise when they move, so we hear them along with the rush of other cars at our parallel, and that noise tells us it’s probably safe to cross.

I don’t cross a street the minute the light turns green. I wait until traffic starts going my way – the cars stopped in front of us can’t be moving if all that traffic is rushing by in front of them. I give Whitney a command. “Whitney, Forward!” Whitney looks to make sure no one is making a fast turn and that it’s safe, and then she leads me across.

A Chicago benefactor – he doesn’t want to disclose his name– donated a hybrid car to the Seeing Eye School back when I was training with Harper. The donation helped the Seeing Eye figure out a dog’s reaction to the car’s silence, and exposed students like me to what a hybrid does — and does not — sound like.

This morning my brother-in-law Rick Amodt sent me a link to a story from AOL Tech about the European Parliament’s decision to back a proposal that would “require sound-making hardware in new electric vehicles by July 2019.” I must be missing something. Is this really necessary?

Here’s what worries me about ride-sharing services

An op-ed piece I wrote for the Chicago Tribune called Should ride-sharing services adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act? was published today — I’m not fooling!

Billy, who first told me about ride sharing.

Billy, who first told me about ride sharing.

Our bartender friend Billy Balducci is the first person I remember telling me about ride-sharing. Billy can get off pretty late from work at Hackney’s, our local tavern, and he says going home using UberX works great.

Ride-sharing services like uberX, Lyft and Sidecar allow regular people to offer their personal cars for hire. The rides are usually cheaper, you can order and pay for it with your Smartphone, and you don’t have to tip the driver. “The picture of the guy who’s picking you up comes up right on your phone, so you know who to expect when they pull up,” Billy marveled, leaning over the bar to show me before giving it a little more thought. “Guess that might not work so great for you, Beth!”

We both laughed. I was confident I could figure out a way to tackle that problem. What I was more concerned about was what might happen if a ride-sharing driver showed up and didn’t want to let my Seeing Eye dog in the car, and that’s what my piece in today’s Chicago Tribune is all about. It opens with an account of me heading to court in 2007 to testify against a cab driver who had refused to pick my Seeing Eye dog Hanni and me up outside the Chicago Hilton on Michigan Avenue back in 2007.

Now how could a cab driver ever refuse these two smiley faces?

Mike helped me hail a cab outside our apartment building the morning I had to go testify. And yes, truth really is stranger than fiction: A cab driver refused to pick me up on the way to court! The guy slowed down for Mike, but then when he saw me standing there on the curb with Hanni, he said, “No dogs!” and sped off. Mike took down his license number and I reported the second cab driver, too.

Chicago cab drivers are required to take classes to learn about service dogs, and they have to pass a Public Chauffeur Licensing Exam before getting a livery license. They know they are required to pick us up, and the cab drivers I reported were fined for refusing to do so. More importantly, each had their livery license temporarily suspended.

I found an NBC News story that said a blind man in San Francisco complained to UberX after one of their drivers refused to pick him up with his guide dog. UberX apologized and gave him $20 credit toward his next ride. The driver was not penalized. From my Tribune article:

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that “public transportation authorities may not discriminate against people with disabilities in the provision of their services,” but since the vehicles used by ride-sharing companies are privately owned and operated by independent contractors, this is a legal gray area.

The blind man who was refused the ride might take civil action, but that could take a lot of time. And money. And that’s my problem with this whole ride-sharing thing. I didn’t have to pay a cent to report the Chicago cab drivers who disregarded the law, the cases were resolved quickly and efficiently, and the drivers were penalized. If a driver from a ride-sharing service refuses to pick me up with Whitney, I’ll have little recourse. The burden will be on me to pay to take the ride-sharing service and the driver to court. So for now, I’m sticking with rides in regulated Chicago cabs. As it says in the final line of my op-ed piece, “I’m not against innovation, but I believe the new services should be subject to some regulation and required training — just like cabs.”

Mondays with Mike: Time begins on opening day

Right now, on a Sunday morning outside my window on Harrison Street, thousands of hearty runners are streaming east toward the finish line for the annual Shamrock Shuffle. Not sure why it’s called the Shamrock Shuffle two weeks after St. Patrick’s day, but … whatever.

Mr. Bones, comin' at ya.

Chris Sale, a.k.a. Mr. Bones, comin’ at ya.

It’s sunny, and the forecast says we’ll get to 58 degrees today. We just about have turned the corner on winter…and Monday we will. Here in Chicago, on March 31, the White Sox will open their season against the Minnesota Twins. And whatever the weather, things will be right again. Baseball will be back. (For the record, the season officially began with a goofy game played in Australia between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers, and Sunday Night baseball had the Dodgers and Padres—none of which counts for me.)

Chris Sale will be the White Sox starting pitcher, all 6’ 7” and 180 lbs. of him. We’ll have a Cuban import, Jose Abreu, at first base. And a new centerfielder named Adam Eaton we filched from the Diamondbacks in a trade. And Avisail Garcia, a 6’4” 240 lb outfielder who runs like a track star.

I don’t know how it will go, but as always at this time, I’m inclined to think the White Sox will reach the World Series, as they did the only time in my lifetime, in 2005. And win it, for the second time in my lifetime. And if the planets align, they will best the St. Louis Cardinals, forcing Cub fans to root for a real baseball team against their hated enemy.

Others have waxed poetic about baseball. There’s Roger Angell, of course. And the lesser known but totally worthwhile Tom Boswell whose books include “Why Time Begins on Opening Day” and “How Life Imitates the World Series.” I’m just here to say, Hallelujah!

Baseball is better than football. Than basketball. Than that ridiculous European football. About this, no arguments.

OK, well, to me it is.

And, as trite as it sounds, baseball has been a constant part of the fabric of my life. As a patrol boy in grade school, I got to go on school trips to the old Comiskey Park. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I adopted the Orioles but tracked the White Sox best I could via box scores and roundups in the pre-Internet days. Back in 1983, I introduced Beth to my parents at a game at Comiskey Park, and the Sox made the playoffs that year. The day after our wedding in 1984, Beth and I and some dear friends who had traveled from Washington, D.C. for our nuptials went to a game.

In July of 1985, three days before our first wedding anniversary, Beth and I visited her eye doctor for a follow-up visit after a last-gasp surgery to save her eyesight. We learned that she would not see again. Before heading back to Urbana to face our new reality, we drove to Comiskey to have a Polish sausage with onions (“wit” onions is the correct pronunciation), and take in a ball game. Twenty years later, in 2005, Beth and I and her Seeing Eye dog Hanni got seats in the handicapped section for the playoffs against Boston. Later, I sprung for game 1 of the World Series.

And so, here we are, after the longest slog of a winter in my memory. Not much is expected from the White Sox. Detroit’s the prohibitive favorite in the White Sox division—and in the American league. They’ve got 8-1 odds of winning the World Series. The White Sox are 40-1.

Who cares?

Play ball!




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