Mayville

Teachers in Mayville, Wisconsin had read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe &Sound  aloud to their students before I arrived there last week, so when I showed up without Hanni, the star of that book, a few of the kids were – quite reasonably– disappointed.

Hmm. Might be good to start my presentation with an explanation. Hanni had retired from guide work, I told them. She lives with friends, she plays in the forest preserve a lot, and she just had a birthday. “Hanni is 15 years old now,” I said. After explaining what dog years are, I asked them to multiply 15 X 7. They were amazed.

From there I described how frightened my next dog Harper became after he heroically saved us from getting hit in Chicago traffic. “He saved us from getting killed,” I said. And for that, he deserved an early retirement.” I sensed them nodding in agreement.

I told them how another pair of friends took Harper in, and I shared stories of how happy Harper is now in a quiet suburb with a big back yard to play in.

Then I introduced them to the dog sitting calmly at my feet. When Whitney heard her name, she sprung up, flipped over and kicked her legs, hoping for a belly rub. The kids laughed and clapped,overwhelmingly approving of this silly new dog.

Whitney loved being off harness, and the kids loved it, too.

Whitney loved being off harness, and the kids loved it, too.

While Whitney and the kids started settling down, a hand shot up with a question. “How come you didn’t bring those other dogs with you then, too?” The questions went on from there. Some examples:

  • How did you get blind?
  • How do you drive?
  • How did you get here?
  • How does it feel to be blind?
  • Do you ever get tired of the color black?
  • How do you write books if you can’t see the paper?
  • Does your dog ever make a mistake?
  • How do you open a door?
  • How can you use a key?
  • How do you know what year and month and day and time it is?
  • Why do you keep your eyes open if you can’t see?
  • How can you sit on chairs and not fall off?

Whitney and I had a ball in Wisconsin last week –the temperature was below zero, but the people we met were so warm we hardly noticed. The staff at the Radisson in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin took turns taking Whitney outside for me whenever she needed to “empty.” The thoughtful teacher who picked us up at the hotel to drive us to school had a cup of hot coffee waiting for me in her warm car, and the Mayville students were bright and curious and thoughtful – one girl had painstakingly glued beads onto a sheet the night before to create a Braille note I could read on my own. It all warmed my heart.

Mondays with Mike: It’s their world now

Among the least important but most acute annoyances of modern life are the vocal patterns of young people. These patterns include the phenomenon known as vocal fry, where the last word of a sentence just sort of evaporates into the back of the speaker’s mouth. Check out this video for annoying examples.

Worse yet is the thing called uptalk or upward inflection—which can leave every sentence sounding like a question. This one really drives me nuts, as it goes beyond a stylistic annoyance and actually can confuse meaning. As in: This is a car vs. This is a car? Anecdotally, it seems like young women do it more than men, but in either case, for oldsters like me, it really hurts the credibility or authority of the speaker. Plus, the Esther Knezovich in me (my mother the school teacher and eternal internal language enforcer) just wants to choke these people.

It can be infectious, too, as I’ve heard contemporaries with teen and 20-something kids start adopting the mannerisms, as well as college teacher friends (here’s a nice piece on that). It’s a scourge I tell you.

Then again, I heard a This American Life piece on the subject that admonished curmudgeons like me to “Get over it.” Well, sorry Ira Glass, but it’ll take more than a skinny metrosexual to get me over it.

I was talking about all this over the weekend with a contemporary. She’s an architect who regularly employs student interns, and she put her finger on what is probably the larger concern lurking about these youngsters. She said, “Yeah, and you realize, it’s their world now.”

I imagine my parents and countless generations before them coming to the same terrifying conclusion. But there is some comfort. I happen to work with two young women, both hard-working, diligent, intelligent and always learning—an neither exhibits vocal fry or uptalk.

If it’s their world now, I’m perfectly fine.

Is your husband blind, too?

If you haven’t signed up to follow BlindBeader’s Life Unscripted blog yet, I highly recommend you do. BlindBeader is a gifted young writer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her husband, three cats and guide dog Jenny. She wrote a guest post for our Safe & Sound blog last month with recommendations for visiting New York City, and when I contacted her this week to let her know how much I enjoyed her Life Unscripted post about “inter-marriage” she generously agreed to let me reblog it here for you.

So, Like, he takes care of you!” Or…?

Blogger Blindbeader and guide dog Jenny waiting for a water taxi in NYC.

Blogger Blindbeader and guide dog Jenny waiting for a water taxi in NYC.

by Blindbeader

Beyond my blindness, which is fairly visibly obvious, one of the first things people notice about me is the ring on my left ring finger. Many of them will say something about me being married, and the topic comes around to the fact that my husband is sighted.

“Oh, that’s great!”

Are they happy that I am married, happily, to someone who loves me? That I share my life with someone who carries me through dark times as I try and do for him? That we own a house, laugh at the antics of my guide dog and our three cats, cook, clean, bicker, smile, laugh, share hobbies, misunderstand each other, argue over money or sex or in-laws, smile and nod at little quirks that we just accept about each other?

Or are they happy that he can see?

Thankfully, Ben has told me that we don’t often get people staring at us, unless he is walking me into tables and chairs (something he has struggled with since we started dating). There are no noticeably pitying looks, or no outward looks of admiration…

But it is not uncommon for me (and others with sighted partners) to hear comments about how great it is that their mate is there to “take care of them.” Sure, he cooks a mean lasagna and picks up groceries, but I do laundry and clean the bathroom; if that’s taking care of me, then my contributions to our household are obviously considered “lesser” than his. Often times (though this is not unique to my husband), staff at stores or restaurants will ask what “she” would like. Few things annoy me (and him) more, so often times I will assert myself, or he will direct whoever to speak to me directly. Ben says he often gets questions about how I can read, what I do for work, or if I have a dog – questions that are par for the course when people meet or hear about a blind person. What is incredibly disconcerting is that it is assumed that Ben is my friend, and my blind guy friends are my FRIENDS (my emphasis). It has never been said in Ben’s presence so far as I know, but I have gone for coffee or worked out with blind male friends, and it is assumed that they are the giver of the ring on my finger.

My friend Meagan is engaged to Gregg, who is also blind. I have known them for quite a while now, and find them cute. Not CUTE (“Oh, the little blindie couple!”) but cute (two people who care about each other and still make each other smile despite distance, time and any difficulties that come their way). She says people do think they are adorable in the blind-couple sense, but are alternately upset that Meagan and Gregg (Meagan in particular) don’t have someone to take care of them. It’s a double-edged sword, contingent on the idea that a blind person needs someone to watch over them; it is not a matter of finding someone to love, who happens to be blind (or sighted, in my case). My friend Alicia agrees, going one step further: “First time someone learns I was dating, especially if the curious person was a parent or family member, that was the first question out of their mouths. I used to get angry and ask them why that was their first question, now I just answer it and move on. Usually their second is, what caused his blindness,” she says.

Conversely, I do know other blind people who are resistent to the idea of dating someone sighted, and seem to carry a resentment for those of us who have. On one hand, it appears that blind people with sighted partners enjoy a certain elevated status; on the other, it is assumed that we think we’re too good to “stick with our own kind.”

Click here to read the rest of BlindBeader’s original “So, Like, he takes care of you!” Or…? post on Life Unscripted. Be sure to read the comments, too. Her well-written and thought-provoking post received dozens of responses from readers who can see and who are blind, some who are deaf, others who are deaf/blind and from some spouses, too. I haven’t come across any other bloggers who’ve tackled this subject matter, and I commend BlindBeader for taking it on.

Cold enough for ya?

The predicted high today is 4º. Some of our Chicago friends have escaped to Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica. Whitney and me? We took off north, to Wisconsin.

I’m writing from our hotel in beautiful Menomonee Falls, just outside Milwaukee. Whitney and I are preparing for our visits to schools in nearby Mayville, which, according to the city web site, is “a growing city of 5,240+ residents.” How is it that this tiny town found out about me and my dog and my book and asked us to come? Let me explain.

horacemann

Hanni and I during a visit to Horace Mann School in 2009.

Six years ago Hanni, the star of my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound and I spent the day at Horace Mann elementary school in West Allis (a suburb of Milwaukee). A high school friend was teaching there at the time, and our visit was billed as a reading incentive program.

After our day of class visits, Hanni and I returned to the school in the evening to spend time with the kids and their parents. Families wrote books together that evening, and when I signed copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in print and in Braille for the kids, they had me sign my name into the books they’d written with their parents, too. As the evening drew to a close, I told these budding young authors that I had to get home. “I need to get some sleep!” I said, explaining that Hanni and I were waking up early the next morning to be interviewed on Morning Blend, a show on WTMJ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee.

After hearing this, one of the kids there asked my very favorite question of the entire day: “What does it feel like to be a world famous author?”

And so, there’s your answer. How did the tiny town of Mayville come to ask me to come and visit their schools? I’m a world-famous author.

And now, the rest of the story: one of the teachers who taught at Horace Mann when I visited with Hanni in 2009 teaches in Mayville now. She emailed late last year to ask if my Seeing Eye dog and I could come, then asked the local Lions Club if they would donate the funds to bring me up here. They said yes, and after a cab ride to Union Station in Chicago, a train to Milwaukee, and a bus to our hotel in Menomonee Falls, that teacher is picking me up tomorrow morning for a day full of classroom visits. Like every good teacher I’ve met, this one is resourceful!

I’m looking forward to visiting the Mayville Schools,and who knows, if one of the schoolyards there is fenced in, maybe Whitney will be able to get out and play in the snow.

Mondays with Mike: The lost week

A week ago yesterday my Sunday started pretty typically: Did the Times Crossword, started laundry, got a pot of chili in the oven (I like to braise chunks of chuck roast), then headed to the gym with Beth.

Sometimes normal is stupendous.

Sometimes normal is stupendous.

I hadn’t been feeling exactly sharp all day, but I’d hoped working up a sweat, hitting the sauna, and showering would change all that. Well, I lasted 10 minutes on the treadmill, had to cut the sauna short when I started feeling faint, and by the time I got home, I was an achy mess.

I had the flu but was still holding out hope that it was a garden variety bug until I got the worst case of the chills I recall ever having. Even with layers of blankets and the heat turned up, I could barely hold the cup of water Beth brought me to down a couple Advil.

The rest of the mornings, I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the only thing missing was Sonny and Cher. I’d open my eyes. My head ached. My body ached. I’d take my temperature, hoping this was the day I’d see 98.6, it’d be 101 or thereabouts, I’d get down a hot tea or some broth, I’d feel good enough to check email and do a couple of work things, and then suddenly feel like my skeleton had been removed and I would just will myself to the bed where I would dissolve for several hours.

There were fever dreams, and I remember beginning to concoct what played as a bluesy-rock song in my head, with a chorus that went something like:

Chillin’ and a shakin’
Achin’ and a bakin’
I got the flu
Fa fa fa flu

I hadn’t been that sick for sometime, and I forgot how it leaves you vulnerable and nutty and schmoopy. I thought about people sicker than I was, people in the midst of chemo. Good God, like I needed to feel worse. I imagined being this sick—but being homeless, or in jail, or all alone or even sicker than I was and I just curled up tight in crazy gratitude that I was lucky enough to feel so awful in my own home in my own bed.

There were smatterings of news—Beth would have the radio on in the bathroom as she got ready to go out and teach her classes. Somewhere along the line I remember hearing about the journalist Bob Simon being killed. In a mundane traffic accident, of all things. I have this thing about dying in a car accident—I think it’s the absolute stupidest way to go—and truth be told, the older I get the stupider driving and its attendant risks seem. I mean, going out on a motorcycle, that’s a different story. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “better to be shot out of a cannon than to be squeezed out of a tube.” Anyway. To hear a guy who’d cheated death and done so much good work under perilous circumstances got killed in the middle of Manhattan just left me deflated.

And then there were more stories about kids getting measles. When you feel like death, it reminds you how much grief is visited on people regardless of their best efforts. And to think any kid or any one is suffering because some morons won’t get their kids vaccinated was all the more infuriating. It’s a good thing for the anti-vaccine people that it took everything for me to get from the bedroom to the living room, or they’d have been in big trouble. (FYI, I did get the flu shot this year, as I have for the past 10–and this is the first year I’ve had the flu since 2005.)

Of course, there was the healthy living version of a foxhole conversion, also. I whispered in a fevered haze that I’ll only eat healthy food, I’d drink less, sleep more, and generally be much more boring as soon as I felt better. As if someone could grant that wish.

Then Saturday…I awoke…and my temperature read 98.4. No headache. No ache at all. Just looked like a ghost and felt limp. My appetite was back. Unfortunately, Beth had finished the chili the night before. It’s like it never happened. The chili, that is.

Right about now, though, pizza and beer sound pretty good.

It’s good to be back.

To get to the steamy scene, scroll right to the bottom

Four different editors at University of Illinois Press went over the rough draft of my memoir before they published it.Memoir Cover All of them suggested changes.

One of the most common request? Stronger verbs. They also wanted descriptions that were more precise, more colorful, more heartfelt. Now, 12 years after my memoir, Long Time, No See was published, I am leading four memoir-writing classes every week and urging writers to , you guessed it: use stronger verbs and include precise, colorful, and heartfelt descriptions in their writing.

The requests from my editors forced me to return to certain settings in Long Time, No See and focus on how events at hand made me feel at the time. Not always easy. Some of the most life-altering events in our lives are ones we’d rather forget.

An example: Surgeons operated on my left eye first. That surgery was unsuccessful. The first Try with my right eye didn’t work, either. They operated on it a second time. Each surgery was painful. Each required month-long stays at the hospital to recover, and I had to keep my face down every minute of every day of those long months away from home. My head was down when I “watched” television, when I listened to books, when I walked to the bathroom. I slept with my face in the center of a donut “hemorrhoid” pillow – eye surgeons didn’t want to risk me turning my head in the night.

In Long Time, No See I write about the retina surgeon examining my eyes after the third surgery and breaking the news to Mike and me that I’ll never see again. In the rough draft I told readers that after hearing this, Mike and I walked out of the office and headed to White Sox Park for a baseball game. Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! University of Illinois Press editors read that and said I absolutely must tell my readers what was going through my head when we found out my blindness was permanent.

Not exactly a moment I wanted to relive – who wants to re-enter that room and hear that bad news all over again? In the end, though, rewriting that scene turned out to be GREAT therapy. I had to think. When I was told I’d never see again, was I disappointed? Angry? Sad? Scared? The answer is here, in an excerpt from the published version of Long Time, No See (University of Illinois Press, 2003):

“I’m afraid there’s nothing else we can do,” he said in a tone I recognized from his final report on my left eye.

All I could think to ask was, “Can I lift my head up now?”

He said I could. Thankful for at least that, I raised my head for the first time in over a month. I was struck by a sudden feeling of freedom and relief. No more lasers, no more operations, no more weekly visits to Chicago, no more worrying whether or not this all was going to work. We’d been at this for nearly a year; now it was finally over.

I swiveled my head as if to look around. I saw nothing. Mike talked to the doctor, asking sensible questions, I suppose. Turning toward their voices, I asked if this was really it, if we’d really exhausted the possibilities.

“I’m a religious man,” the doctor answered, “and in the religion I follow we believe in miracles. I believe God has cured all sorts of ailments. This could happen with you, but there’s nothing else I can do for you medically.”

We stood up to leave. I reached out for the doctor’s hand. He clasped mine with both of his, and I thanked him for all he’d done. He was shaking. I felt sorry for him; I would’ve liked to tell him we were going to be all right.

The White Sox were in town that day. Going to a ballgame after learning I’d be blind for the rest of my life was probably a strange thing to do, but it beat heading home and sitting on our pitiful second-hand couch and wondering where to turn next. From the book:

The White Sox were having a rotten year. There were maybe 8,000 people in the stands; Floyd Banister pitched, the Sox lost. But it was strangely pleasant, sitting next to Mike with my head up, not giving a thought to eyes or surgery. We each had a bratwurst and a beer. Between bites and gulps and giving me play by play, Mike bantered with other fans, cursing the underachievers on the team. I laughed at Nancy Faust, the Sox organist—she’s famous for picking songs that play on player’s names. Mike marveled at the endurance of Carlton Fisk, and we both wondered out loud why every time we went to a game, that bum Banister was pitching.

The three-hour ride home was quiet, and once we got there, we found ourselves sitting on our miserable couch, just as we’d feared, holding hands and trying to imagine how we’d cope. Our only decision that night was to go to sleep, and today being Valentine’s Day, I’ll end the post with that steamy scene — editors agreed with me that it didn’t need more description than I had in the rough draft!

Our bed felt wonderful. I was home for good. Despite everything, a powerful relief came over me, a sense of security, such a change from how I’d felt during those months in my hospital bed. And I realized right away that sight isn’t needed under the covers.

Mondays with Mike: My partner’s partners

Beth here. We debuted our “Mondays with Mike” feature just about a year ago, and since then many of you blog readers have told us how much you enjoy starting your week reading my husband Mike Knezovich’s posts. Some of you newcomers might not know that Mike had been weighing in occasionally with guest posts long before we started his regular Monday installment, and since the poor guy is down with the flu today, we’re reblogging a guest post he wrote in 2013, before “Mondays with Mike” was born. Please accept my apologies if the photos are out of whack –Mike usually handles the graphics on our blog posts!

They ain’t robots, they’re better

by Mike Knezovich

Beth’s on her fourth Seeing Eye dog—and, in a very real way, so am I. Everyone easily grasps the difference a guide dog can make in its partner’s life. What they might not consider though, is the huge difference a guide dog can make to their partner’s partner’s life, too.

After Beth lost her sight, life was a slog for both of us. She had to learn a lot of things, and many of them were only learnable the hard way. And I had to watch. It pushed me into something of a parental role—how much to protect? How much to let her (literally) take her hard knocks? Beth went to school to get orientation and mobility training—which taught her how to navigate with a cane. The instructors were great, the techniques are ingenious. But it’s hard as hell to learn. Like Braille.

And, as Beth will attest, she kinda’ sucked at the white-cane-mobility thing. So when she left to say, go to the mailbox, it was utter hell for me not to spring to my feet and say “I’ll go with you.” So, at first, I did spring to my feet. Or offer to drive her to wherever. Because the thought of her out there by herself with that cane just about killed me. But my being there with her all the time was not sustainable, from either of our points of view.

That's Dora.

That’s Dora.

Enter Dora. She was easily the most classically beautiful of all Beth’s dogs. A sleek, athletic, jet-black Labrador, Dora could jump and reach toys I held wayyyy over my head. She could swim in heavy ocean surf. She lived until she was 17. But she didn’t much love her job. She led Beth around and kept them safe —but she was stubborn and balky at times. Beth and I have often wondered if it had to do with us as much as Dora. And some of it surely did.

The Seeing Eye trains the people every bit as much as they train the dogs—and dreary consistency is vital. Beth and I were probably taken a bit by the novelty of a new member of our family, and we surely weren’t as consistent with our dog-training habits as we are now. Still, Dora had a defiant streak that I think would have, well, defied us, whatever our behavior.

The one. The only. Hanni. (Applies to Beth, too.)

Then came Hanni of course, and I probably don’t need to say much about that, given that she has her own book. Except, as much as I still love her, even Hanni wasn’t perfect. (Pretty close, though!) Her most annoying trait: She hated rain. A freaking Lab-Golden mix behaved as if rain drops were hot, burning acid. She’d walk slowly, and edge too close to buildings to try to get cover, walking Beth into things in the process. She also didn’t much care for swimming. Who can figure?

Harper came next, and from the start, he seemed somewhat ill at ease. He had an incredibly fast gait, but we realized in retrospect that he’d been treating walks as something to get over with as quickly as possible. He was stressed by his enormous responsibility, and why not? Still, stressed and all, he did his job heroically and saved Beth from a catastrophic accident. His ensuing canine PTSD could have been heartbreaking—except that it landed him with two fantastic people and he lives a helluva good life now.

Harper living the good life in retirement, with his best buddy Beau.

Harper living the good life in retirement, with his best buddy Beau.

Which brings us to my new favorite, Whitney. Whit came home with every annoying dog behavior Beth’s previous mates didn’t have. When she’s off harness she licks. She sniffs too much. She always wants to play. And she never gets enough attention. God I love her.

On harness, especially during bustling weekdays downtown, Whitney’s head is on a swivel, constantly looking out for her and Beth. She walks at a great pace but slows when she should—threading Beth around construction zones, slowing down for ice, creeping gently around WPs (wobbly people). Walking right up to the curb at each crossing and waiting for Beth to command straight, left or right. God I love her.

People sometimes tell us that they saw Whitney—or Beth’s other dogs—screwing up. In some cases, the people actually have it wrong. For example, they simply don’t know that the dog is supposed to go straight all the way until they get to the curb—and wait for Beth’s command to go left or right. This looks wrong, because it means overshooting the point where a sighted person would make a right or left. But it’s absolutely necessary. The person has to be the navigator, and the dog can’t take shortcuts.WhitneyPortraitIn other cases, the dog really is screwing up—weaving to sniff another dog (and our neighborhood is full of them). Responding to the whistle or petting of well-meaning but clueless passersby. Bumping into pedestrians who are texting. Beth is forced to correct her partner in those cases, which is no fun but absolutely necessary.

Without question, the dogs have flaws. All of them. But as the old adage goes, “If you come across a talking horse, you don’t complain about its grammar.” Beth’s dogs have probably added years to my life by relieving me of worry. So if they sniff or veer or bark occasionally, I’m OK with it. And I’ve loved them all.


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