The chef at La Diosa is blind, and man, can she cook!

You might remember my post about Laura Martinez, a blind woman who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and worked at Charlie Trotter’s here in Chicago until the five-star restaurant closed in 2012. After two frustrating years trying to persuade another restaurant to hire her, Laura has opened La Diosa, her own restaurant at 2308 N. Clark in Chicago. I ate there for the first time last Thursday. It. Is. Fantastic.

The food was so delicious, and the staff (Laura and her husband Mauri) so charming that I returned there for lunch Monday, and I’m having lunch there again today, too! Joan Stinton, a writer in one of the memoir classes I lead, took a CTA bus to La Diosa with Whitney and me on our inaugural visit last week, and she generously agreed to write a guest post about our experience.

Everything in its place

by Joan Stinton

She is adorable in her oversized toque and dark glasses. She wears the traditional white, double-breasted jacket and dark trousers of a chef. Her hand rests gently on the arm of her husband, Mauri. This is Laura Martinez, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, a survivor of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, and now, the owner of a tiny restaurant in a vintage building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

That's Chef Laura on the right, alongside her husband and fellow restaurateur Mauri.

That’s Chef Laura on the right, alongside her husband and fellow restaurateur Mauri.

Laura, blind since birth, has always wanted to cook. It sounds kind of crazy at first: sharp knives. Hot stoves. The kitchen can be a very dangerous place even for a sighted person.

But if you think about it, it makes sense. Sound. Touch. Taste. Smell. These other senses serve anyone well in a kitchen environment. In addition, a professional kitchen is a very organized place. “Mise en place,” the rigor of “everything in its place,” prevails. Chefs set up their work stations with meticulous precision. Knives, plates, spices, condiments: always in the same order, in the same place, every day. A chef is disciplined enough to prepare an order blindfolded. In a way, La Diosa is a perfect environment for Laura.

I got to meet this chef and her husband Mauri last week at their cozy restaurant. La Diosa is about two tables wide and four tables deep, and the menu has traditional Hispanic dishes and, true to her time with Charlie Trotter’s, exotic fish specials.

But this was not the first time I’d crossed paths with Laura.

After my husband Brian retired a few years ago, he became quite a foodie. When a local charity auction offered “A Day in Charlie Trotter’s Kitchen,” I saw an opportunity to give him something he would really enjoy. I won the bid. Brian would be in the kitchen during an actual restaurant shift. I made a dinner reservation with a few friends for that night so we could eat with Brian and hear all about his big day.

Brian was quite giddy when he sat down with us for dinner and recapped his afternoon. One detail stood out for him. At one point amid all the activity, he heard the words, “SHARPS, SHARPS” behind him. He turned and saw a petite, blind chef, arms stretched forward, holding knives pointed downward, walking confidently through the kitchen. The sort of image that sticks with you, I guess! That woman was Laura Martinez, of course. Brian said it would be easy to assume that this blind chef had an insurmountable obstacle, but she was clearly right at home in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen.

And so it is at La Diosa. Laura is right where she belongs—mise en place, everything in its place.

Beth here. I’m heading back to La Diosa one evening next week with my husband Mike and some other friends. Stay tuned to the blog for a review of their dinner menu.

Mondays with Mike: Draft Town and riots, oh my


Couldn’t escape this stuff for a couple weeks.

Trying to pay attention to what’s happening in this media drenched world is at once easier than it used to be, and harder. There’s more text, images, and video out there than ever—the news is running on little screens in elevators, for crying out loud. But there’s less quality control. That’s a subjective judgment, for sure, but I’m confident it’s true.

The other difficulty is the pure dissonance that all the images and reports create. How does one reconcile it all?

Take last week. In the papers—print and online—and TV and the blogo-tweeto-spheres—we had images of Baltimore protests and violence and fires and a baseball stadium sans fans. Stories about the incident that precipitated that were fragmented and undocumented. Same for the stories about the protests and violence that followed.

Overlapping this spectacle was the NFL Draft, resplendent in wretched excess.

The excess was especially excessive if you live in downtown Chicago. About two weeks ago, on the plaza in front of the building where I work, the NFL and Pepsi installed giant football helmets representing each team in the league. Bypassers were encouraged to take a selfie and send it in for a chance to win tickets to the NFL draft, which was, finally, held this past Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Bus stops and billboards were plastered with promotional graphics for “NFL Draft Town.” The draft was held in the historic Auditorium Theater, forcing the Joffrey Ballet to relocate its scheduled performances to another locale. Michigan Avenue and Congress Boulevard were closed for days, and you couldn’t even walk down Michigan between Van Buren and Balbo.

Police and other security measures—portable video monitors, giant salt-spreader trucks and dump trucks positioned as blockades, and cops and cop cars everywhere—probably were only exceeded by the presence in Baltimore.

The NFL and Mayor Emanuel say it won’t cost taxpayers a dime. But so far they refuse to release financials on the operation. The real question is: Why wouldn’t the cash-rich NFL pay out the nose to use our beautiful city as a backdrop for its event, money that could be used for schools, parks, etc., in other parts not so beautiful?

(There will be those who say it’s an economic positive: These things—olympics, whatever, rarely, if ever, are, and the data has proven it again and again.)

But, how is one to jibe the lavishing of cash and resources on the NFL Draft while seeing the Baltimore images, reading the Baltimore stories. Forget Baltimore, how to jibe the NFL orgy with what’s going on in Chicago neighborhoods a few subway stops away?

It’s easy to dismiss any connection between the two. I’d like to. But every cell in my body tells me that there is indeed a connection.

It’s not that the NFL is a causal factor for what happened in Baltimore. Or Ferguson. Or the mean streets of some South Side and West Side Chicago neighborhoods.

But it is an illustration of a pervasive pattern of screwed up priorities by our leaders and by us–that do cause these things.

If you read one thing this week, read this. It’s a brilliantly reported and written piece by Greg Easterbrook about how the NFL fleeces taxpayers across this great land. (Easterbrook, by the way, is a giant NFL fan who writes a weekly football column during the NFL season called Tuesday Morning Quarterback for—this isn’t about the sport, but the business.)

Now think about this scenario repeated again and again—whether it’s the misuse of TIF funds in Chicago to divert funds from the people and neighborhoods TIFs were intended to help or Wall Street bailouts or….

Here in Illinois, we have big budget problems. And, as in lots of other places, we’re taking our problems and angst out on poor people and public employees (especially teachers), who are villafied as fat cats causing the problem. This, even though, as Rich Whitney writes:

The fundamental cause of our state’s financial woes has nothing to do with exorbitant spending, exorbitant pensions or “big government.” Illinois has the smallest number of state employees per capita in the United States, at 4.1 per 1,000 residents. And while the occasional abusers of our public pension systems make headlines, the media rarely tells the other part of the story: Illinois ranks in the bottom one-fifth of all states for retirement benefits paid to its state workers.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t waste that can be found—and cut. Just the opposite—but why do we always start at the bottom, and begin at the place where the cuts will hurt people who are already on the edge the most?

I’ll be happy to have public discussions about Medicaid and mental health services for the poor, two of the first targets here in Illinois.

But only after we look at the gratuitous and unnecessary subsidies and tax loopholes for those who can well do without them.

Right now, that doesn’t happen, because the really big money makes sure it’s protected.

We’ve got things upside down.

Come see Whitney and me at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore today

 That’s the star of the book in front of Sandmeyers Bookstore with me back in 2007, when Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published.Today, May 2, 2015 is Independent Bookstore Day in Chicago, and Ulrich and Ellen Sandmeyer have graciously invited my Seeing Eye dog Whiteny and me to come help them celebrate:

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore:
11 am- Meet Beth Finke, author of HANNI & BETH: SAFE & SOUND, and her Seeing Eye dog and learn how they work together.

I’ll be signing books in print and in Braille, and my Seeing Eye dog’s pawprint will be rubber-stamped into each sold copy as well.

But wait! There’s more! Sandmeyer’s Bookstore is holdidng a drawing, and a lucky winner will win a free signed copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, too. I’ll be there with Whitney for about an hour — come early and see us. More about Chicago’s Independent Bookstore Day from their web site:

What is Independent Bookstore Day?
Independent Bookstore Day is a day when readers, booksellers, authors and book lovers all over the country celebrate the local independent bookstores in their community.

What day is Independent Bookstore Day?

Saturday May 2nd!

What’s going on that day?

Some stores are having events. Some stores are having raffles. Some will have author appearances. Check the events page for what’s going on. There’s even a special short story written by Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek and illustrated by Dmitry Samarov!

What’s the deal with the story?

Written by Stuart Dybek, the story is a previously unpublished work illustrated by local author and artist Dmitry Samarov. The print run is limited to 120 copies.

How do I get the story?

You go to one of the participating bookstores early in the day and spend $25 to get a passbook. Then visit each of the remaining 11 stores to collect a page of the story. When you collect and combine all 12 pieces, you’ll have a book!

All of them?!

Yes. All twelve bookstores. That’s half of the fun! You’ll get to see everything the indy bookstore world of Chicago has to offer.

Check out  Chicago Independent Bookstore Day’s events and giveaways page for information on what all 12 participating Chicago bookstores will be offering, and start the day out at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, 714 S. Dearborn St. (312.922.2104). Whitney and I will be listening for you there.

Warning: this blog post contains material which may be unsuitable for children

Who could resist an invite to a panel discussion called “Disability and Sexuality: Everything you wanted to know about disability and sex but were afraid to ask…?”

That's Bethany Stevens.

That’s Bethany Stevens.

I sure couldn’t. At the very least, the panel would give me material for my part-time job moderating the Easter Seals blog. At best, I might pick up some pointers for personal use!

The panel took place last Friday evening at Access Living (a non-profit organization in Chicago for people with disabilities) and was promoted like this:

A panel of “sexperts” will join our guest speaker, Bethany Stevens, J.D., M.A. (blogger of Crip Confessions) for a juicy, frank and sexy conversation about CripSex!

The promotional material also teased, ahem, that before the panel started, “disability-sex-friendly businesses will join us for a CripSex fair, providing free goodies and important information.”

I made sure to get there before the panel.

When Whitney led me into the “Crip Sex Fair,” she pulled me forward about ten or twelve feet and then suddenly stopped. I figured we were at a table, but I was reluctant to reach out and discover what “goodies” were laying there. I finally mustered up the courage, stretched my arm out to grope the goodies, and felt…the push handles of a wheelchair! We weren’t at a table at all. We were in line to talk to a saleswoman from one of the “sex-disability-friendly” businesses there.

I eavesdropped on the woman in that wheelchair, of course. When she reached the front of the line, I heard her using halting speech to compliment the saleswoman. “I love your store,” she said. I paid close attention to understand every word, and I’m quite sure I heard her say she’d celebrated her 18th birthday by going to that shop with a friend.

I won’t disclose what she was looking for there, but I can tell you that staff members helped her find what she wanted. “They actually wanted me to take my time and look around — they said I could stay as long as I wanted,” she marveled. “You all were nicer to me than the people at Wal-Mart.”

The saleswoman sounded pleased. “I’m really happy to hear that,” she said. “We train our staff to be open to people with all sorts of needs.” I didn’t hear any of the people from the sex-disability-friendly businesses mention devices or toys made especially for people with disabilities, just a lot of talk on things they sold that might be easier to use than others or could be adjusted to fit a person’s particular needs.

The CripSex Fair was only open one hour. I picked up a free goodie before they closed, and just like the old classic movies used to do, I’m going to leave the intimate details about that to your imagination.

Time for the panel discussion. Only two panelists: Sergio Tundo from Chicago House (a social service agency serving individuals and families disenfranchised by HIV/AIDS) and Bethany Stevens, a faculty member at Georgia State University who studies, teaches and writes about disability and sexuality. Bethany has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair. Sergio never said anything about having a disability himself, and without being able to see him, I couldn’t tell.

The panel discussion was promoted to people with disabilities of any sort, but the focus was really on people with physical disabilities. They gathered cards with questions from the audience, and Bethany announced that the questions fell into three categories. “Raise your hands or make noise for the category you’re most interested in learning about,” she said, listing the three as:

  • Relationships
  • Nuts & bolts, or
  • Miscellaneous

The panelists sounded as surprised as I was when the audience chose “Miscellaneous,” but they just shrugged and took it from there.

“Since we have people here with expertise in things like sex workers and other ways of doing things, this first question is an important one,” Bethany said, and my heart sank as she read it. “What is the best way to start a conversation with your personal care assistant or personal assistant agency about sex facilitation?”

Jeeeez. It’s hard enough to get around day to day when you have a physical disability, isn’t it? They have to think about this, too?

In the end, most of the questions in the “miscellaneous” pile had to do with personal care assistants:

  • If you’ve been using the same personal care assistant for a long time, and you like them, and you know they will probably not be open or comfortable with helping you with this, should you even bring it up?
  • How does it affect interaction if there is a need for another person to assist in the sexual experience., but that third party is not sexually involved with the other two?
  • If two people with physical disabilities would need an able-bodied person to help them move, how does that third person behave in the relationship?
  • What are some of the best practices for facilitating the experience if you are the personal care assistant?

I didn’t hear one lewd comment after these questions were asked, and not one titter, either. I did hear some answers, and learned about some new ideas, too. Example: San Francisco is working on a program similar to e-harmony to match people with disabilities and personal care assistants. The person who needs the P.C.A. spells out what they need, the personal care assistant fills out a form describing the services they are willing to offer, and you match up that way. Others shared things that have worked for them –- and things that haven’t. By the time I left, I’d changed from thinking it all was sad to thinking it was all pretty cool. People together, talking frankly, sharing stories and offering suggestions.

And I came home with a free goodie, too.

Mondays with Mike: The 12,000-step program

My tracks are being tracked.

My tracks are being tracked.

A few weeks ago I downloaded a new version of my iPhone’s operating system and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to any changes it included. I’d already read that the update included the Watch app (whether I wanted it or not), but I didn’t know much else.

Then, last week, fiddling with my phone while riding the subway, I swiped my screen and accidentally opened a folder called Health. Up came a fancy graph that showed me how many steps I’d taken so far that day, that week, that month, and my daily average.

So this thing had been monitoring me without my even knowing it. Which was a little disconcerting. But once I got over that little thought, I was gratified to confirm what I knew intuitively: I walk a lot. I’m averaging about 12,000 steps a day.

I’ve learned that’s a pretty healthy total, which is good. Even better, I do this without thinking much about it. But it hasn’t always been the case.

Beth has always liked to walk—to destinations but also, to walk for its own sake, just to be outside, talk (or not), and get a little exercise. I was never crazy about it in the other places we lived because driving was easy and therefore quicker for errands and what not.

Not so in downtown Chicago. Having a car is expensive, you can’t count on parking, and when you can it can cost an arm and a leg. Plus, there’s public transportation, which routinely requires at least a quarter to half-mile stroll to and from stops.

There’s a lot of stimulation, enough to make the steps and the time fly by: People watching, architecture, the lakefront. And concentrations of worthwhile walkable destinations—restaurants, museums, theaters.

On the other hand, it has made me wonder why on earth I didn’t walk more in the other places we lived. In Champaign-Urbana, for example, downtown Champaign is two miles from downtown Urbana. Now, that’s a healthy walk, but not monumental; nevertheless I would never have considered it while I lived there. (Nor would I have considered taking the bus—even though CU has a terrific system.)

I think it was sheer habit as much as laziness. And the sense—accurate or not—that I didn’t have the time. I feel a little silly about all that, even a bit ashamed. Could’ve burned a lot less gas and a lot more calories.

Mostly, though, I am reminded: Listen to Beth.

More questions from kids

My sister Bev’s grandson is a kindergartner in Caledonia, Michigan, and when we were visiting there this week, young Bryce was kind enough to share his Great Aunt Beth and Whitney with his fellow kindergartners and first-graders at Paris Ridge Elementary School.

Bryce's class was full of questions.

Bryce’s class was full of questions.

Teachers read Safe & Sound to all the kids before we arrived, so they were all set with questions when we got there. Some examples?

  • How do you go to bed?
  • Does your dog drive?
  • Can you take a taxi with your dog?
  • How can you see if you’re blind?
  • What if the taxi driver has allergies?
  • Does your dog like getting a bath?

That last question gave me a chance to explain that Seeing Eye trainers encourage us to brush our dogs every day. “I lift her ear flaps to check her ears when I’m brushing her, too,” I said. “If they smell bad, that lets me know she might have an ear infection,” I said. When I brush her, I feel her coat, too, so I’ll know if she has any lumps or bumps that the veterinarian needs to check out.”

Back to that question about baths. Seeing Eye dogs are almost always on leash, so they don’t get into mud puddles and stuff like that. “And if we brush them every day, they never really need a bath.”

The question made me remember the one and only time one of my Seeing Eye dogs did need a bath, and for some reason I decided to tell the kids how that happened. “I was on a city bus with my first dog, Pandora, and someone a few rows ahead of us threw up,” I said. After pausing for a chorus of Eeeeeeooooooos from the audience, I continued. ”The puke seeped under the seat from the front of the bus to the back, and it got all over my dog. She really needed a bath that time!” I heard a chorus of “uh-huhs and “she sure dids” that time. The questions went on from there.

  • Does Bryce ever get to pet your dog?
  • When is it okay for your dog to disobey you?
  • I just want to say, I have a dog who is blind.
  • I think I saw you when I was in Chicago. Was that you?

And finally, my favorite of the day :

  • So, you know, when your dog had to take a bath that time, what color was the throw up?

Mondays with Mike: This Price is right

The political scene around these parts continues to depress. Particularly gruesome is the latest news about the head of the Chicago Public Schools being under Federal investigation. But that’s only a part of the ugliness—the conflicts of interest and big-money corruption is rife in a place that has profound ramifications for kids in the system, and for those who work for CPS.

But. But! I did run across one thing that buoyed my spirits last week. In my last post, I wrote about the masters of the universe who lose touch with the world inhabited by those who aren’t as fortunate as they are, and who never seem to have enough of everything.


Back in 2004, while still in college, a 19-year-old named Dan Price founded a Seattle-based credit card payments processing company called Gravity Payments that now employs 120 people. Price happened onto a study that Beth read about some time ago that looked at the relationship between emotional well-being and wealth. The short version of the results: As you might expect, being poor causes stress and unhappiness. As incomes rise, so does emotional well-being. But that well-being plateaus at around $75,000 annual income. In other words, people don’t get happier if they make $175,000. They can do more and buy more stuff, but their fundamental emotional state does not improve.

Price also looked into what living on less than 70k in Seattle was like–and it was harder than he’d imagined.

And so Price did something kind of remarkable: He raised the minimum salary of his employees to $70,000. (Not sure why not all the way to $75,000, but who’s going to complain?) To cover the cost, he’s reducing his own salary from $1 million to … $70,000, and putting a greater share of  annual profits toward salaries.

Here’s a quote from Price in the NY Times article about him and his company:

“The market rate for me as a C.E.O. compared to a regular person is ridiculous, it’s absurd,” said Mr. Price, who said his main extravagances were snowboarding and picking up the bar bill. He drives a 12-year-old Audi, which he received in a barter for service from the local dealer.

I’m sure some people think he’s crazy—but I hope you’ll read the whole article. Price doesn’t seem particularly political, he just seems to me to be a capitalist who practices it against the backdrop of a larger set of values. Thanks, Dan Price, for reminding us that’s possible. And for brightening my week.

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