Archive for the 'Hanni' Category

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.

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: 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.

That’s 105 in dog years — but hey, who’s counting?

Me, seven-year-old Hanni and our book when it first came out in 2007.

My retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni will turn fifteen years old this weekend! She was only five years old when I started sending Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound out to agents and publishers, and now, ten years later, the book and its star are still going strong. Just this past weekend a brand new review of Safe & Sound came out on a dogblog called Reading with Rhythm, And the good news? They liked it! Here’s an excerpt :

This book presents a great picture of what it’s like to be a working dog. It’s about the job at hand, but the story is also about the relationship between Beth and Hanni. How they had to learn to trust each other because both their lives depended on that trust. How that trust was the foundation for a deep love. It’s a lovely tale.

The star of the Reading with Rhythm blog is a real-life Black Lab named Rhythm who visits schools and the Somervell County Library in Glen Rose, Texas, where kids come and share books with her and sharpen their reading skills. The latest Reading with Rhythm post reports that Electra, a guide-dog puppy, came along with Rhythm on a recent school visit…and so did a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound! The review says our book was “perfect for 3rd-graders” and “suitable for all ages, young and old.”

Hanni will be celebrating her birthday this weekend with Nancy and Steven, the wonderful couple who adopted her when she retired, and this book review sure is a great way to kickstart that celebration. Thank you, Reading with Rhythm, and here’s to you, Hanni. As the Beatles like to say: “So glad it’s your birthday — happy birthday to you – oooo!”

Do Seeing Eye dogs really know their left from their right?

Whitney posed as Hanni during our visit to Sears School last year — can you tell which is which?

Whitney usually leads me to the train station in downtown Chicago on her own, but when my gem of a husband, Mike Knezovich, generously offered to walk us this morning, I said “YES!” Reasons:

  • Freezing temperatures — if Whitney and I got lost or turned around for just a few minutes, we’d end up with frostbite!
  • Snowy slippery sidewalks
  • Salt (Mike can spot it on the roads and help us avoid those areas so it doesn’t end up in Whit’s paws)
  • The train we’re catching leaves at 7:52 a.m., which means we’ll be approaching the train station precisely when commuters are getting off trains and rushing to work

Today marks the start of our 2015 year of visits to schools — we’re heading to the Joseph Sears School in suburban Kenilworth. We were at Sears School last year about this time, and the kindergartners squealed with delight when Whitney led me in wearing snow boots on her paws. “That‘s our special guest Mrs. Fink,” their teacher announced. “And that’s Hanni, the dog from the book, too!”

We’d arrived late to Sears School last year (our commuter train had been delayed in Chicago due to weather) and our opening assembly had to be cut back to 15 minutes. After that, Whit and I gave separate fifteen-minute sessions for each and every kindergarten and first grade class.

Fifteen minutes was not enough time to explain that my last name, Finke, rhymes with “Pinky” and really, I prefer you call me Beth, that Hanni, the star of my book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, had retired, that this was a new dog, I’d had to decide when it was time for Hanni to retire, I could have kept Hanni as a pet or brought her back to the Seeing eye but I decided to find friends to adopt her, that she’s doing fine and is living an enviable retirement in Urbana, that I had another dog after that, his name was Harper, he retired early and lives in Wheaton with friends, and now, this new dog is Whitney, a sassy urban girl who is a ball of energy.

And so, I did what I had to do. I referred to the dog at my feet generically. She was “my Seeing Eye dog.” Ick snay on it-whey ee-nay. The questions during the classroom visits last year reflected what the kindergartners and first-graders were learning to do in school:

  • How do you put on your shoes?
  • How can you print your name if you can’t see the paper?
  • How do you read those green signs that tell you what street it is?
  • How do you get dressed?
  • Can you tell time?
  • Does your dog really know right from left?

I was honest with the little girl who asked that last question. I really wasn’t sure. “We say the word ‘left’ when we want our dogs to turn left,” I told her. I went on, then, explaining how Seeing Eye trainers teach us to point to the left and face our shoulders left, too, at the same time we give the “left” command. “So I don’t know if my Seeing Eye dog understands the word ‘left’ or she sees my body language….” I could hear the kids starting to fidget. I was losing my audience, so I stood up to show them how it works.

In the real world, out on the street, a blind person memorizes or knows the route before leaving home. The pair gets themselves situated on the sidewalk and faces the direction they’ll start. The blind person commands “Forward!” and the dog guides them safely to the curb. When the dog stops, the person stops. That’s how a blind person using a guide dog knows they have arrived at an intersection.

If the person wants to turn right or left at that corner, the person commands the direction, simultaneously turning their upper body in that direction and pointing in that direction, too. The dog turns, and the blind companion follows the dog’s lead.

Back in the school classroom, I woke up the dog sleeping at my feet and lifted the harness off her back. And then, uh-oh, it dawned on me. These kids all thought my dog was Hanni.

Dog is my co-pilot. I offered a quick prayer. “Please, Whitney, go along with the ruse.” Pointing both shoulders and my pointer finger left, I commanded, “Hanni, left!” My Seeing Eye dog turned left with more exuberance than usual. She was onto the fake. I gave her another command. “Hanni, outside!” Whitney led me to the door.

This morning we should be there in plenty of time for me to explain to the students that Hanni, the star of Safe & Sound, has retired, and Whitney is my new dog. Our school visits this past year taught me that the kids are intrigued by a dog “retiring,” and it makes them feel special to meet the young dog – especially when she misbehaves and I have to put her through her obedience ritual. “It’s like a time out!” a boy at one school we visited exclaimed.

Just pressed the button on my talking clock. “It’s 5:52 a.m.” Uh-oh. Time to get ready. Wish us luck!

Mondays with Mike: My Wife’s out of Town, Her Seeing Eye Dog Isn’t

So, it’s already been a week since my last post? Yikes. A lot’s happened, and not all of it uplifting (though we had a swell Thanksgiving, and hope you did, too). So, bereft of inspiration, I’m repurposing a little something I wrote around 10 years back when Beth visited our friend Sheelagh in Northern Ireland and left Hanni home with me. I hope you enjoy it.

I was Hanni's favorite...until Beth got home.

I was Hanni’s favorite…until Beth got home.

For years after my wife lost her eyesight, I dreaded when she went away without me. Not trusting a world of redcaps, connecting flights, and shuttle buses, I worried about her travels more than she did. I always imagined the worst, fretting until she returned home, safe.

Now she travels alone regularly. I’m still unhappy, but for less admirable reasons. A couple days before she goes out of town there’s a mix of sadness and tension. For her, it’s all anticipation and packing and every once in awhile an “I’m going to miss you.” For me it’s “I’m going to miss you, have a good time, but how come I’m stuck at home taking care of things while you’re having a good time?”

On her last trip she went to Northern Ireland, which meant she couldn’t take Hanni, her Seeing Eye guide dog. I’ll save the explanation, but it has to do with rabies quarantines and such. For a week, while Beth yucked it up and drank Guinness in a nice little pub with our friends, Hanni and I would be stuck with each other.

Still, on the day she left, I got a jolt of that thing that made Tom Cruise dance in his underwear in Risky Business when his parents left him home alone. No rules!

Except I’m not a teen-age Tom Cruise. I’m not an anything Tom Cruise. And there’s nothing I want to do that I haven’t done or don’t do regularly while my wife’s around. After 20 years of marriage, she’s seen it all; it’s not like I have to wait until she’s gone. If I had friends she despises I would make a point of seeing them. Except all my friends are her friends, too.

So my guilty pleasures amounted to eating food she’d never eat—barbecued ribs that night—and incessant channel surfing, watching sports, staying up into the wee hours catching fragments of action movies she’d never watch on cable TV. All because I could. The next morning I was groggy and heart-burned, wondering why I did this to myself.

With no payoff for her absence, I brooded. I was joined this time by Hanni, who acted like a child who’d been left with a mean relative. She went into a deep mope, curling up to sleep near the door to our apartment—she never, ever sleeps there otherwise.

And so for the first couple evenings, there we lay, me on the couch with remote in hand, she on the floormat by the door.

But after a couple of days, I started getting used to not having to consult with anyone on what to eat, what to do, where to go, or when to go there. To walking down the block to our local, just because I felt like it, to read the paper at the bar while sipping a beer. The good parts of being single that single people take for granted.

And there were good reports on the notes left by the dog-walker we hired for the week. “We had a great time at the park. Hanni was perfect, stopping at every curb. #1: Check. #2: Check. Gave her a treat.”

Hanni didn’t mind the new life, either. She wasn’t threading a blind woman through chaotic Chicago traffic anymore, but she still got fed and petted lavishly. I took her for long walks, she played with other dogs, and their companions struck up dog conversations with me.

Hanni and I bonded. I became certain we shared an ambivalence about my wife’s return. Who does she think she is, anyway? She goes away, we have to adjust. She wants to come back, we have to adjust. It’s all about her.

When a week passed, I left the office to pick up my wife at the airport. My cell phone rang, I answered, and a British woman introduced herself. She told me she sat next to my wife on the plane, that they had a great time talking, and that she’d help her to the curb with her luggage. I pulled up to find my wife and her British flying chum.

After I grabbed her bag, my wife said a hasty goodbye to her helper and we were off.

Like always, we started in as if resuming an interrupted conversation, each pouring out stories of the past few days as I drove downtown from O’Hare.

My stories stunk by comparison, of course. Between lists of who called, what teams won what games, and other droll details, I strategically mentioned the hardships I—and this time, the dog—suffered in my wife’s absence.

And like always, she ignored this accounting.

I made do with having made my comments for an imaginary record. We moved on to dinner plans for the night, the wheres, whats and whens, and charted out the rest of our week.

At home, whatever special bond the dog and I had forged evaporated before my eyes as Hanni, completely forgetful, forgiving, or both, threw herself at her partner without giving me a second look.

And it was like my wife never left.

A little thumpin’ thumpin’

Whitney and I took a train to Champaign Wednesday to give a presentation for an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. While we were there, we stayed at the house of an old friend: retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni.

There’s Whit with Hanni’s bone during a previous visit to Urbana.

Whitney and Hanni are both Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses, they are both graduates of the Seeing Eye school In Morristown, N.J., and both of them are very, very smart. I had no trouble telling them apart, though. Hanni is a tail wagger — you know it’s her when you hear a thump, thump, thump on the floor. She’s taken on more and more of her Golden Retriever side in these matronly years: she wears her hair long and full. Her coat matches her personality: fluffy.

Whitney, on the other hand, is a lean, mean machine. She’ll be five years old next month, and she no longer shows signs of childish jealousy that she used to on visits with her predecessor.

Fourteen-year-old Hanni is in very good hands with her people Steven and Nancy. She’s slowed down, of course, and when we enter the room, she just lifts her head and acknowledges us with the thump, thump, thump of her tail wagging against the floor. The only person she gets up to greet at the door now is her beloved Nancy. I use Whitney as a role model: I don’t show any signs of childish jealousy. Truth is, I’m joyous.

At 14 years old, Hanni still gets out regularly for walks. Sometimes, she even runs. I eavesdropped on Nancy in the other room as I buckled Whitney’s harness on to get ready for our trip back home to Chicago. “Wanna go to Homer Lake today, Hanni-boo?” she cooed. Whitney guided me out for our ride to the Champaign train station then, and we left to the happy sound of Hanni’s tail thump, thump, thumping her answer to Nancy’s offer.


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