Archive for the 'Beth Finke' Category



So yeah, that really happened

Hi,

My husband Mike’s giving me a blog break again. Here’s his latest:

She's back on top of the world.

She’s back on top of the world.

Today Beth had her first followup visit with one of the cardiologists who treated her the morning of her emergency surgery. Three notes about our time with Dr. Ranya Sweis today:
  1. She’s the best cardiologist in the world in my book, not to mention a helluva human being.
  2. Beth’s doing great, on or ahead of schedule on all counts. She’ll be swimming laps before you know it.
  3. Dr. Sweis recounted the events of that Thursday for both of us. I had most of it right, but she added some missing pieces. And her  account confirmed that when my own heart missed a few beats that morning out of fear that I was losing Beth, it was for good reason. I wasn’t over-reacting. Beth was on very thin ice. The team at Northwestern worked magnificently, heroically, efficiently. They have a lot to be proud of.
We’re lucky. And one of these days maybe I’ll feel lucky. And triumphant. Until then, I’m just content to feel a little numb and worn out and not so much lucky as … grateful.
Grateful that we have health insurance. That we flew Beth home from Vermont early. That she had her first scary incident in a cardiologist’s office, and that Northwestern Memorial Hospital was the nearest trauma center.
That I could get a concerned call at 5:30 a.m., take a shower, step into a cab and be at the hospital in roughly 18 minutes. That all those people with all that training and experience were there. Fantastic young people. Twenty-something Amandas and Beckys and Christophers and Laurens with knowledge and presence beyond their years.
Grateful that they all told me everything as soon as they knew it, before, during, and after the surgery. That Dr. Sweis made me promise her — after delivering the news that Beth’s heart had gone bonkers and had to be shocked back into rhythm, and that she was heading to emergency surgery — that I’d call a friend to be with me. That I made good on that promise, something I probably wouldn’t have done 25 years ago.
And that when I called our friend Greg he said he was on the first day of five days off. Greg’s a flight attendant. He never has five days off. “Do you want me to come down there?” I said yes. And he did. Within an hour. And he brought a fresh new Hav-A-Hank, some sugarless gum and salty junk food. And he shepherded me through the next few hours when I was in a kind of trance and couldn’t make mundane decisions about things like whether to go for a walk to get some fresh air or not.

Grateful that the cab driver who took me to the hospital on Saturday morning was tuned into WBEZ and This American Life. After I got in he turned it down to be polite. I asked him to turn it back up, and we rode to the hospital listening to David Sedaris read his story about his jazz-loving father’s record collection, his dad’s ill-fated attempt to enlist his children into his own private jazz combo, and listening to Sedaris’ uncanny Billy Holiday impressions. The cab driver and I laughed together the whole ride.

And grateful that family and friends made respectfully, perfectly timed visits that broke the hospital monotony. (And later, after the hospital, took Beth on walks, took Whitney on walks, and delivered meals to our door.)
I have relived those terrifying hours in the hospital, retold the story again and again;  I’m grateful to all of you who’ve listened. Once I start I have to tell it all, just to get to the good ending, almost afraid that if I get stopped in the middle it’d end differently. It’s crazy all the vignettes that still stream through my head.
I imagine the heartbreak of folks who do lose someone suddenly, unexpectedly; to illness, to accident, to violence. And I wish so hard that they all had our outcome. And I hope they have the kind of support I’ve had, we’ve had.
Thank you all.
Time for the next chapter.

For my first cardio rehab walk, I’m heading to 7-Eleven for a Megamillions ticket

Mike chauffeured me home on Tuesday.

Mike chauffeured me home on Tuesday.

Listening to Mike read all your loving and glowing blog comments out loud to me in my hospital room over the past week sometimes gave me the feeling I was attending my own funeral. Doctors did have to shock my heart back to work last Thursday, so it was kind of like that. But I’m still here, and I’m more grateful than ever for my wonderful friends and family.

I am a lucky girl.

Turns out the cardiac surgeon who happened to be on hand to do my emergency open-heart repair job last week is one of the top cardiac surgeons in the United States. Patrick McCarthy came to Northwestern Memorial Hospital via the Cleveland Clinic. And a Couple nights ago, he came to my hospital room to introduce himself and see the miracle girl sitting up in a chair and talking. The benign tumors he’d removed were like a sea anemone, he said. “It was flapping around your aortic valve and attaching itself here and there for a while, and then flapping around again.” He’s done over ten thousand heart surgeries and has seen a benign tumor on the aortic valve a few times before. Never one this big, though. He said it was as big as a marble.

The famous doctor sounded very pleased to have a photo of the tumor he could send to the cardiologist who’d had me ambulanced here last Wednesday. “It really is very exciting.” Considering the outcome, I had to agree.

Mike and I both thanked Dr. McCarthy profusely before he left the room , of course, and I told him surviving all this has given me a lot to ponder. As we shook hands to say goodbye, I jokingly asked if he thought I should join a religious cult now and move to an underdeveloped country to help people less fortunate. Dr. McCarthy didn’t bat an eye. “No,” he said. “I think you should buy a lottery ticket.”

Thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts

Hi folks–it’s still Mike here, Beth will be back on the job soon. Meantime, thought I’d share a letter of appreciation she wrote to the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded her stay at the Vermont Studio Center — it gives a pretty nice summary of her time there. 

April 19, 2013

That's us in Johnson, Vt., just outside my studio. Photo by Susie Cronin.

That’s us in Johnson, Vt., just outside my studio. Photo by Susie Cronin.

Dear National Endowment for the Arts,

I am writing from the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) to thank you for awarding me a Creative Access fellowship. My Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I have been here a month now, and it’s been a privilege to share ideas with the 50 other poets, writers and visual artists who have come here from all over the world to work on their own projects.

It has also been a privilege to devote time to my writing in the quiet living and studio space the Vermont Studio Center provides. I take breaks from time to time, too: three times a day my clever three-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever Whitney leads me down a path from our writing studio, over a river, across a highway, and up to the Red Mill building for meals. Trust me, the chef and his staff here make it well worth the journey! Sharing those lovely meals with Vermont Studio Center staff and resident poets and visual artists is a joy, and listening to their stories has expanded my appreciation for the arts.

Vermont Studio Center runs an ongoing arts program with Johnson Elementary School, and Whitney and I spent a lively afternoon there sharing my children’s book and answering questions about writing and what it’s like to be blind and work with a guide dog. VSC also sponsors lectures by residents for the community, and their reading resident night gave me an opportunity to try out new assistive technology with a friendly audience. The technology worked, and that success will encourage me to try it out at the talks I give at libraries, schools and other civic organizations when I get back to Chicago.

I lost my sight when I was 26 years old and took to writing after that. Over the years hard work, supportive friends and family, and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act have combined to help me create a busy, fulfilling life.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have two books published, I have a part-time job moderating a blog for Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago, I write and record essays for Chicago Public Radio, I speak at schools and conferences about blindness and guide dogs, and I teach three memoir-writing classes for Chicago senior citizens every week.

I’ve been thinking about writing a book about all I’ve learned from the writers in these classes, and now, thanks to this Creative Access fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’ve started writing that book. In one month at the Vermont Studio Center I’ve accomplished far more than I ever could have in my busy life in Chicago, and I’ve developed some good writing habits I plan to take home with me as well.

It has been a real privilege spending every day here in a quiet studio space. I am composing this note from my usual perch here: a cozy chair right by the window. From time to time I take a break, turn off my talking computer and open the window so Whitney and I can stick our noses out and enjoy the fresh air and listen to the river rush by outside. I’m black and blue from pinching myself so much.

Thank you, National Endowment for the Arts, for awarding me the Creative Access fellowship. Look for a copy of my new book in the mail once it gets published!

Yours,

Beth Finke

 

Whitney and Beth (and Hanni), Safe and Sound

Beth and Whit have settled into a routine up at the Vermont Studio Center.

Beth and Whit have settled into a routine up at the Vermont Studio Center.

Hi all — it’s still Mike here. Beth’s taking this work retreat seriously, staying offline as much as she can — but the short of it is, all is well. That staph infection that put a scare into us has passed, thanks to some attentive and caring folks up in Johnson, Vt. at the Vermont Studio Center, and to the the good people at Copley Hospital.Beth spent two nights at Copley, and so did Whitney — which presented a little bit of a logistical challenge when it came to taking Whitney out for “park time.” Well, the hospital staff rose to the occasion. They took Whitney out and played with her while Beth stayed attached to IV pole. And Beth and her publisher — Francine Poppo-Rich at Blue Marlin Publications — thanked them by shipping copies of “Hanni & Beth, Safe and Sound” to all the caring people who helped Beth and Whitney.

One of them — Penny Hester — took care of Whitney for an hour and a half while Beth was in the MRI tube (they were checking to be sure the infection had not spread to muscle and joint tissue). Penny is a speech/language pathologist. After she received her copy of the book, she wrote Beth a very thoughtful note — turns out Penny has a therapy dog that helps with some of her patients:

Dear Beth,
You have no idea how much it meant to me to receive your book. I used it with a patient the next day who had no idea of what being “blind” meant. With limited words he would close his eyes and point to the book-“no see Beau.” Beau is my pet therapy dog and Hanni looks very much like my Beau, in the beautifully illustrated pictures of  your book. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to open his world to a new concept.

That Hanni. Even in retirement, she’s winning friends. So is Whitney — though she’s doing it a little differently…Penny sums up Whitney’s goofball personality pretty well:

I found your sweet, clowning companion an absolute joy. She was hysterical playing with Beau’s squeaky toys. She would push her nose against the toy until it would squeak and then jump back a bit and yip.  I loved spending time with her and I was honored to be entrusted with her. When you instructed me about not letting her off her leash — it brought chills up my spine to imagine you having to worry about that when others provide her with “park time.”

Well, Beth says that thanks to Penny and all the good folks out there, she didn’t have to worry at all.

Fantagstic!

If you liked that guest post an engineering student wrote for the Safe & Sound blog last month, you’re gonna love this update on what Ebay and his classmates came up with as ways I can keep track of the colors of my clothes. Freshmen in other Design Thinking and Communication class sections were working on other projects for people with disabilities at the same time, and here are some examples

  • A man who uses a wheelchair wanted an easier way to fold up the footrests when it came to transferring into a car or a regular chair
  • A man with cerebral palsy was looking for a more efficient way to pull his trousers up on his own
  • Occupational therapists asked for a device that might encourage their clients with Parkinson’s disease to do finger exercises on-the-go
  • The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago hoped a class could figure out a way for clients with visual impairments to know how fast (and at what speed) they were walking on exercise treadmills
  • a woman who uses a wheelchair and enjoys outdoor concerts was looking for a way to slide from her chair onto the lawn, then get back into her chair again on her own when the concert was over.

Ebay’s engineering class divided into four different groups to tackle my color identification problem, and Whitney and I traveled to a Design Expo at Northwestern Saturday to hear

A poster from the Fantagstic team's presentation.

A poster from the Fantagstic team’s presentation.

all of the students present their completed projects. Sixteen students had visited our apartment in February with prototypes ranging from carabiners to iron-on tags to QR codes that my talking iPhone could read to me, and seeing (okay, touching) what these four teams had come up with in the end made me glad I’d come out of the closet about my wardrobe woes.

Right now I put a safety pin in the tag of anything I own that is black, and a paper clip on anything white. I wear other colors, too, and I memorize what color those other things are by the feel of the clothing. On their February visit, the students watched me go through my closets and asked lots and lotss of questions. In the end all four teams expanded on my tried and true safety-pin method, each team inventing different things to hang from the pin to correspond to the color of the item.

Ebay’s team came up with acrylic shapes on cloth tags called “Fantagstic!” They reasoned that cloth tags would be lightweight, so I could use two or more at a time to identify multi-colored items. The tags another team came up with were laser-cut acrylic shapes called “Depindables”. The tags all the teams came up with had been tested to withstand high temperatures in the washer and dryer. “Tag Team” was the only team to use traditional Braille code on its tags – the other teams learned from research that a majority of people who are visually impaired do not read Braille. Ebay’s team designed its own palettes of shapes (lines, S’s, C-shaped arrows, dots, corners, and triangles) that they’d tested on me earlier to confirm the shapes were easy to feel and differentiate from each other. The “Code of Many Colors” team used small glass beads on the safety pin: one bead means black, two beads mean white, and so on. Judges from engineering firms were on hand to decide on winners for each proposal, and the winner for mine was…drumroll, please…Tag Team!

The winning "Tag Team" team

The winning “Tag Team” team

The Tag Team system is more than a label to safety-pin onto my clothes. It’s also a way to organize my closet and laundry. Tag Team includes a laundry hamper that holds a number of mesh bags, each bag with a tag attached that corresponds with a single color. They figure doing laundry will be easier if I don’t mix all my clothing in the hamper, only to have to resort it all again when the wash cycle is over. “All you do is put your clothes in the bag it belongs in, take the bag out, tighten the string, and throw the bag in the washing machine.”

What about times I’m too lazy to put dirty clothing into the proper mesh bag, you ask? “No worries,” said Tag Team with pride. With the Tag Team system, everything you wear has a tag pinned inside of it. ”Wake up the next morning, feel the tag on the shirt you wore the night before, and you’ll know which bag to put it in in your Tag Team hamper.”

I had to hand it to ‘em. But if you ask me, all the teams at the design expo were winners. These kids are just freshmen, and not only have they learned about design process, but also how much it can mean to work together to help people with unusual, unique, and unmet needs. I was the biggest winner of all, though: I got to work side-by-side with these talented and thoughtful young people, and when design expo was over Saturday afternoon, I walked out with custom-made prototypes of all the tags!

Folks I talked to Saturday from the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University told me they’re looking for new project proposals from people with disabilities and organizations who work with us. If there’s something you need and you live in the Chicago area, I encourage you to submit a proposal soon.

Understanding blindness–through photography

My husband Mike does the Facebook thing, and earlier this week he posted a link to a collection of portraits of people who can’t see there. That post of his got so many comments that I thought maybe my blog would be a good place to explain how we met the photographer.

One of the portraits in the “Fade to White” project.

A couple years ago I got an email from a stranger who said he was taking portraits of people who can’t see. “I am emailing you to inquire if you would be interested in participating in the project,” he wrote. “It would be an honor to take your picture!”

Uh-oh, I thought. Another nutjob who heard about my job modeling nude for art students. Before hitting the delete button, though, I did a little research. And guess what? The guy was legit!

Charlie Simokaitis is a sought-after commercial photographer whose 13-year-old daughter has a deteriorating eye condition that will soon leave her completely blind. Faye Simokaitis is the inspiration for Fade to White, a compilation of the portraits her dad has taken of people who are visually impaired or blind. Charlie Simokaitis describes the project as an “effort to try to understand the impending reality” of his daughter’s loss of sight. From his artist statement:

As I spend more time with blind people, I am developing a perverse kinship with the very condition that will eventually lay claim to my daughter’s eyesight. For me, solace lies in the creation of this work.

After reading that, I hit the reply button on his email message. Y-E-S, my talking computer parroted the letters I typed. Sitting for a portrait would be an honor.

Charlie likes to meet with his models to chat before a shoot, so I suggested we meet for lunch at Hackney’s. Once Mike took a look at some of the portraits Charlie already had up on the Fade to White web site, he decided to come along. “These pictures are great, Beth,” he told me. “I want to meet this guy!”

Charlie is as striking as the photographs he takes. Over lunch, he told Mike and me a little about the research he had done before starting his project. Photographing the blind has its roots in street photography, he said. It was pretty much voyeuristic. “You know, the blind person would have no idea the photographer was there.” In contrast, Charlie wanted his subjects to know exactly what he was up to, and he didn’t need us to be grasping white canes or posing with our guide dogs. “Most of my portraits are from the waist up.” More from his artist statement:

This work looks at the unseeing Other while attempting to understand the fetishism of other people’s perceived pain and the taboos and tacit responsibility of representing a blind person.

It was hot the afternoon we scheduled the photo session, and I showed up wearing a dark red tank top. Charlie knew right away where he’d want me to pose, and our session took about an hour. “Look up at the sky,” he’d say. “Don’t smile. Look towards the sound of that truck. Chin down. Don’t smile. Shoulders back.” For most of my shots, I’m standing against a yellow brick wall in Printers Row Park. The session gave me an idea of what it might be like to be a fashion model.

Charlie used film to take his portraits, and he completed his project — and his Master’s thesis — this past year. My portrait is included in the collection, and it’s getting rave reviews. See for yourself: Charlie’s Fade to White photos are available online.

What was this post supposed to be about again? Oh, yeah

Two of the memoir-writing classes I lead each week are sponsored by Lincoln Park Village, a non-profit organized by older adults who want to age at home. The Village boasts over 300 members, and its classes — everything from meditation to a “boot camp” that enhances memory  –  meet in people’s homes.

To kick off the new year, the Village Newsletter took an in-depth look at the human brain and perhaps it’s most valued — and vulnerable — aspect, memory. Hollis Hines, a writer in my Monday afternoon writing class, was asked to write an article for that newsletter about how blindness affects her writing teacher’s ability to remember things. Here’s an excerpt from that story:

The visual memories from the 26-year-old girl she was, understandably, are frozen in time. In some respects she will never age, nor will her family and friends; they and she are as they were in her perception long ago.

My sister Cheryl loves this about me, and just last weekend a friend from college happened to mention how she enjoys this aspect of my blindness as well. Both of them follow my blog, so I hope they aren’t too disappointed to read that Hollis also pointed out in her article that I am aware those perceptions may no longer be accurate! “But with no visual cues to replace them, the past is the present. Perhaps this partially explains the spunky, youthful energy that Beth exudes.” Ha! Maybe blindness does have its advantages after all!

This might be what Hollis means by spunky.

Hollis explained how I sing a song of the list of U.S. presidents my great-niece Anita learned in school in order to navigate the streets in the Loop — “Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson”  –  and how I do simple math in my head for banking in order to keep an edge with numbers.

She swims at least 20 laps in a pool, and the first lap she thinks about what she must do today, and with each subsequent lap she thinks of a day in the future. That way she exercises both body and brain.

Questions Hollis asked when she interviewed me for the article got me thinking about how blindness can serve to both enhance and foil my memory. The lack of visual cues really does help me remember things: I’m not bothered by visual distractions. On the other hand, without seeing words in print, I can have a hard time remembering the name of an item or of a celebrity, much less how to spell them.

My mention of celebrities during the interview left Hollis wondering if I get any enjoyment from movies or television. Not really. It’s too much work keeping up with the action and the characters. I told Hollis I’d rather listen to an audio book, and that’s when it dawned on me. “You know, with all the imagining and memorizing I do all day long,” I told her, “Living my life is like reading a book!”
Hollis agreed and added, “it’s your own book of non-fiction.”

Needless to say, she got an A+ in class the next Monday.

Worst in show

It’s guest post time again. Here’s my husband Mike Knezovich.

Dogs ain't the problem.

Dogs ain’t the problem.

It’s Westminster Dog Show time — bringing infinite Facebook posts of mugshots of canine contestants, and, for those of us who love that kind of thing, internal laughs just thinking about the movie spoof set at this annual event, “Best in Show.” (Best line from the movie: “We met at Starbucks — not at the same Starbucks. We saw each other at two different Starbucks across the street from each other.”

Apparently, though, Westminster also brings a behavior that is absolutely not funny. Before and after the show, airliners in and out of town are filled with an inordinate number of “service dogs,” at least according to this blog post at The Bark.

The author of that blog post has traveled to many Westminsters and notices that lots of folks bringing their dogs to the show falsely claim their pooches are service dogs. I get why these people want to do that—I don’t get, never will, why they don’t understand why they absolutely shouldn’t.

There are two issues going on here: one, outright lying about the status of one’s dog and one’s disability (or lack thereof). The other issue is stickier: what kinds of dogs qualify as service dogs—more to the point—what kinds of disabilities/maladies constitute a legitimate need for a service dog to travel on a plane with its companion.

Warning: I am a hawk on both fronts.

On the first, there is no wiggle room. You’re lying. You’re disrespecting people who really need the dog for basic issues like mobility, and all the work The Seeing Eye and others have done to advocate for guide dogs to be admitted to public places. And all the work the respected schools do breeding and training a dog to behave flawlessly so as not to be a nuisance in public.

I got news for you dog lovers who think it’s cute to lie about your dog: It ain’t. And Beth and I have encountered it countless times. A young woman who sat next to Beth on a flight actually told the story, giggling throughout, about how her father regularly dons a pair of dark glasses and puts a fake harness he fashioned onto their German Shepherd so the dog can go on board with them. Haha.

Other news flash for you who think your dog is as well-behaved as a well-trained service dog. It ain’t. And every time your dog acts up, it’s an insult to everyone who really needs their dog, and to the airlines, hotels, restaurants and stores who are trying to do what’s right.

How do I know this? Well, years of experience. But I’ll bring up the most recent. While Beth and Whitney and I waited to check our bags to fly to New Orleans, a woman was making herself very conspicuous as she barked at the airline employee behind the counter. Conspicuous because she was very tall and very broad and wearing a leopard skin jacket and skirt. She had one of those luggage arrangements that looks like a wheelie luggage skyscraper. Down at the bottom was the actual wheelie suitcase; strapped above were several floors of who knows what.

She was up there for probably 10 minutes as we weaved our way through the maze. We checked in, headed to the gate and passed her just as she was about, finally, to wheel away from the counter. At that point a whir of grey and white spun around near the top of her little tower—two dogs were in a fabric cage of sorts with a screen in front, and shrieking barks—or something like barks—pierced the air.

The airline person said, “Oh, I didn’t realize–there will be a charge for those dogs.” At which point, the woman said, “Oh, those are my assistance dogs.”

I’m pretty sure the only person in that exchange who needed assistance was the poor airline rep. Beth wanted to ask the conspicuous woman what her dogs did for her, but I herded us on—not because I didn’t want conflict, but because when I travel, I’m crazy nervous until my butt is in the airplane seat.

Which brings me to the second issue. I’ve met people in wheelchairs who have dogs who provide critical assistance. And dogs that help people with hearing impairments.

But I’ve also met people who swear they need their dog for anxiety they experience when flying. My glib answer is, “Try alcohol. Or Dramamine.” I’m only half kidding; I had a short period where out of the blue, I had high anxiety on planes. Those two substances worked wonders.

But I’m also familiar enough with mental health issues to take them seriously. If a dog can help, good. But if the dog is not extremely well-trained, that dog doesn’t belong in public spaces. These people are basically bringing on their pets. I know you all love your pets, but many pets are not reliably well-behaved enough to bring them on planes.

I’m not sure where the line is. The government and the many, many legitimate organizations that train and match service dogs with human companions wrestle with it. Then again, the abuses seem obvious when encountered. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote of hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

I’ve seen too much of it.

When Pick met Henry. And Mike met Beth. And Mike and Beth met Henry and Pick…

Whitney and I are giving a presentation at the Waldorf School of New Orleans this Wednesday, and I’ve asked a few guest bloggers to fill in for me while we’re away. This first guest post is by my husband Mike Knezovich, who’ll be coming along with us to NOLA with some other dear friends, too.

I lived in Arlington, Va., in the early 1980s, and after coming home to Illinois for 
the holidays one year I headed back with three friends who were up for a
 road trip and a visit to D.C. We took turns driving and made it straight 
through.

On the left that’s Pick (a.k.a. Keith Pickerel) and on the right Hank (a.k.a. Henry Londner while touring Turkey on a recent trip. (They get around.) We’re lucky to count them as friends.

We were a little tired but swinging open the apartment door woke us right up again.  Dance music was blaring from the stereo, the living room was full of people, and my roommate Pick — all lanky 6’3″ of him — was right there in the center in the midst of a move. He looked like a figure skater, posted on one straight leg, the other leg raised parallel to the floor, and starting to whirl like a helicopter. He yelled “SQUAT!” to his dance partner, a diminutive woman friend who did as instructed, thankfully, and Pick’s propeller leg cleared her head comfortably and made a full rotation. She sprung upright, they completed their disco number, and I said to my Illinois friends, “This is Pick.” We weren’t tired anymore.

Today, with everyone videotaping and photographing everything, I imagine there’d be a YouTube of the whole thing. But back then, we focused on living life in real time and I can tell you, there isn’t a video on the net that’s as good as my memories of that night. Back then I was a green college graduate from the Midwest, wide-eyed, an eager worker at my first real job, but a little lost and a little lonely. Luckily, I’d met Pick through a colleague at work and we stayed in touch. He generously invited me to parties he’d throw with his old William and Mary college pals. They weren’t like other parties I’d been to. Playing and singing show tunes (and sometimes hymns) on the piano, doing helicopter dance moves, Pick occasionally donning the tap shoes for a number, and usually, there was the deliberate and artful telling of an off-color joke. (Pick came by it honestly, from his father Cecil, who could keep you spellbound and then deliver a punchline like nobody else.)

At some point both our leases came up and by then we were confident we wouldn’t drive one another crazy and we stood to save some money, so we got a two-bedroom place in a euphemistically named building called Country Club Towers. It was no country club, but we had a blast for a couple of years. I got to meet Pick’s family—including his beloved grandmother, who made the best damn fried chicken I’ve ever had during a visit to her Danville, Va., home. We motorcycled the Skyline Drive with some friends. Thick as thieves, as the saying goes.

Eventually, I decided what I’d never imagined I would: I wanted to move back to the Midwest. So I packed my stuff and headed back, thinking I’d settle in Chicago, but then I was re-acquainted with Beth, and I came to roost in Urbana, Ill.

After Beth and I decided we were going to get married, we made a trip out East to meet my Pittsburgh area relatives and to meet Pick. I think Beth was as anxious about meeting Pick as she was about meeting my extended family. And why not? Pick’s as close to a brother as I’ll ever have.

Pick and Beth hit it off immediately. To this day they sometimes entertain themselves by ganging up on me. We had a marvelous time and we got a bonus: We met Henry (Hank) Londner. Pick and Hank had met about the same time Beth and I got together. Hank sports a Long Island accent, a total contrast to Pick’s Virginia drawl. Hank’s Jewish—born in Belgium to parents who narrowly survived the Holocaust. After Hank’s mother died, Hank moved with his father to the United States to be near family who had emigrated. Pick grew up in rural Virginia a Southern Baptist. Hank’s a burly bear, Pick’s a lanky type.

Opposites attract. They’ve been together ever since. They live in Alexandria, Va., in a dee-luxe apartment in the sky. Pick works as a massage therapist, Hank has managed to retire, but stays busy volunteering for—among other things—a couple of blind people who need a little assistance with shopping, reading, etc.

I always savor trips to New Orleans—but none more than next week’s, when Pick and Hank will join Beth and me. Lately—perhaps it’s a stage-of-life-thing—I’ve been prone to reminiscing. And so it is with this upcoming visit. I grew up in the thick of what was called the New Math. You know: sets, subsets, bundles of pencils, and the best thing ever—Venn diagrams. In my mind’s eye, I see a Venn diagram. Each of us—Pick, Hank, me and Beth—a circle. And like in all Venn diagrams, the most interesting parts are where they overlap—the overlaps are a slightly different color, denser, and richer for the blending.

And I marvel that in the crescent city next week, we can share time and these four very different circles will overlap.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Help! I can’t see the ballot!

Blind justice!voting-image.jpg
I’ve researched the issues. I’ve studied the candidates. I’m ready to vote. Now I’m just hoping the talking voting machine works when Whitney leads me to my voting booth.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires voting systems to provide independent and private voting for all voters — including those of us with disabilities. I use a touch screen machine with audio output to vote — with sound added to the ballot, I put on headphones, listen to the choices, and punch a button on a special contraption connected to the keyboard. That is, as long as someone at the polling place knows how to get the machine and the contraption to work. It isn’t exactly intuitive.

My experience in the last couple of elections has gone something like this: I sign in, and poll workers scramble. All of them seem to want to do right by me, but few of them know what “right” is. Where are the headphones? How do you start the talking machine? Why isn’t the audio working?

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sets up a toll-free hotline (877-632-1940) on election days to help voters who are blind if we experience problems at polling places. Voting specialists are on the line to help blind voters and/or poll workers resolve the issue, but back during the 2008 election my issue with the voting machine couldn’t be resolved. My husband Mike can see, so he signed an affidavit to be able to help me with a written ballot. Voting specialists on the National Federation of the Blind hotline recorded details and referred my issue “to the proper authorities for follow-up action.”

I’m really hoping things go smoothly at the polling place today — not only for me, but for all of us who are blind and want to vote independently. It’d be swell if none of us have to make use of that hotline number this year, but I’m glad the NFB is ready to help if necessary. Now, off to the polling place. “Whitney, forward!”


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