Archive for the 'Harper' 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.

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.

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!

Should athletes with disabilities pay more to participate?

My friend Eliza Cooper is blind, and she’s been training to race in NYC Swim’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim across the East River tomorrow. Eliza is a strong swimmer – she’s

That's Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.

That’s Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.

completed six, count them, six, triathlons already. The distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn is less than a mile, but now that NYC Swim director Morty Berger has decided that athletes with disabilities have to pay an extra fee, she probably won’t participate.

Eliza is 28 years old, and I got to know her in Morristown, N.J. when I was training with my third Seeing Eye dog, Harper. We liked each other the minute we met, and when she got matched with Harper’s brother Harris, we knew it was fate, and that we’d stay in touch.

This guy look familiar? He’s Harper’s bro, Harris!

Eliza trains with Achilles International (they help athletes with disabilities prepare for races) and NY Info published an article this week after she and five other Achilles athletes were told they’d have to pay extra to participate tomorrow.

NYC Swim director Morty Berger said he added extra requirements for athletes with disabilities because of construction around the South Street Seaport and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Due to the construction, this year all athletes will need to jump off a water taxi docked on the Manhattan side to start the race. They’ll have to climb onto what Berger calls an “uneven” exit at the Brooklyn Bridge Park to end the race, too. And so, Berger decided that Achilles would have to ensure that its swimmers are covered under Achilles’ policy if they want to participate, And Achilles must pay $700 for boats to trail swimmers with disabilities in case they need help. “I am the lifeguard and I have to make the calls as it relates to safety,” Berger said. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I want to go swimming when there’s lightning out,'”

Achilles rejected the additional demands. “I told them if it was unsafe for my athletes, it was unsafe for everyone else,” Achilles coach Kathleen Bateman said in the article. Eliza is quoted in the article, too, questioning whether any other minority group would feel okay about paying extra to participate in an event like this: “We do not need extra boats or extra help,” she told the reporter, and I believe her. A few years ago Eliza was featured in a piece Eleanor Goldberg wrote after competing in the New York City triathlon with Eliza and 11 other Achilles athletes. They swam 1 mile, biked 26 miles up and down hill terrain, and ran 6.2 miles in Central Park. Eliza managed to fix three flat tires during the event and never once considered giving up.

Eliza is training for her first half Ironman now, and based on her previous times, she stood a pretty good chance of winning an award at tomorrow’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim. From the article:

“It’s especially unfair when they don’t know how hard they’ve trained or how much of their heart and soul go into it,” she said. “We always find a way to do things, that’s how our team works… for someone to say no, it’s really disheartening.”

So what do you think? I understand the organizer’s concerns, but I’ve learned a lot from Eliza. Maybe swimming in a tidal estuary is too dangerous, but if the other swimmers are given the option to make that judgment for themselves, then the Achilles athletes should be given that choice, too. Agree? Disagree? Eager to hear what you blog readers think — leave a comment and let me know.

It’ll be freaktacular, that’s for sure

Know what a beer circus is?

Me, neither.

I’m about to find out, though: On Sunday Mike and I are joining our friends Art and Dana Bergeron to head over to the Lagunitas Beer Circus to celebrate the new brewery the California-based company is  opening on Chicago’s south side. A story in Time Out Chicago says the beer circus Continue reading ‘It’ll be freaktacular, that’s for sure’

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

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

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

Sunday was dogapalooza in the suburbs. Beth and I and Whitney took the train to Wheaton, where our friends Steven and Nancy, with Hanni in tow all the way from Urbana, picked us up. From there, it was on to Chris and Larry’s, where Hanni, Harper and Whitney—Beth’s last three Seeing Eye dogs—met and rollicked until they and we were exhausted. Continue reading ‘Mondays with Mike: You may find yourself in a beautiful house…’

Lindy

Just got word that my friend Lindy Bergman died. Lindy was a well-known art collector who found a way to continue living and loving her life after losing her sight. She was very smart and extremely charming, but you know what I liked best about Lindy? Her surprisingly wicked sense of humor. The frigid weather, combined with a bad cold I picked up a few days ago, kept me away from the memorial service today, but in her honor I’m reblogging a post I published about Lindy here back in 2012. You sure are gonna be missed, Lindy.

My friend Lindy Bergman was an art collector. Then macular degeneration set in.

When the disease became so severe that Lindy could no longer see the surrealist works on her apartment walls, she donated the collection to the Art Institute of Chicago. From a New York Times review of the Art Institute’s new modern wing:

The unsinkable Lindy Bergman

…and a wonderful little tropical fantasy by Leonora Carrington. This last work is part of the museum’s extraordinary Bergman Collection of mostly Surrealist art, which forms a kind of cabinet of curiosities at the heart of the third-floor galleries.

The Bergman trove includes a phalanx of 30 boxes by Joseph Cornell, an American. That collection contains the only artists on this floor who developed outside Europe, primarily Arshile Gorky, Matta and Wifredo Lam. (The exception is the Parisian expatriate Man Ray, who is in the Bergman collection and elsewhere in these galleries.)

After donating her collection, Lindy took to writing. Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind chronicles Lindy’s journey with macular degeneration and offers suggestions on how to keep your head above water when vision loss is trying to pull you under. Lindy is the perfect role model. In her 90s now, she swims a quarter mile each day, works out with her trainer, serves as a board member for a number of organizations, and goes to concerts and lectures. She is particularly enthusiastic about the audio cassette that comes along with her book — it features recordings of classical music as well as Lindy’s children and grandchildren. I recognized the voices of a few of the experts on the cassette — they are the same caring University of Chicago doctors that did my eye surgeries back in the 1980s. “I didn’t want it to just be my old voice droning on and on. Who’d want to listen to that?” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.”I wanted the book to be uplifting, not depressing!”

My friend Bonita has known Lindy a long time and was wise enough to introduce us when Mike and I moved to Chicago. On our first lunch date, I showed Lindy how to fix her talking watch so it’d quit announcing the time out loud every hour on the hour. She was so appreciative for what I saw as a small gesture. We’ve been friends ever since.

The stories Lindy tells me about tracking down art with her late husband Ed sound like Hemingway novels. “Ed always was a collector of something or other,” Lindy says with a shrug, describing a sun porch full of aquariums when Ed was collecting tropical fish, or his enormous shell collection.

“Not just a few shells. We had a lot of them. So he really was always a collector, and I just went along with it.” They’d already been married about 10 years when she and Ed decided to take a course on the Great Books at University of Chicago. A teacher there recommended a book by the Museum of Modern Art called Masters in Modern Art. “We had a lot of books to read for class, but every night we would start reading about art. That’s how it all began. We really educated ourselves.” By the late 1950s, the Bergmans were established as Surrealist collectors. They met Wifredo Lam on a visit to Cuba in the mid-50s, and the painter met them again in Paris in 1959 to show them around. Aside from that Salvador Dali poster with the melting clocks we hung in our college dorm rooms, I don’t know a whole lot about surrealism. Lindy met a couple artists in Paris whose names I actually do recognize, though: Man Ray and Max Ernst. She and Ed met Dali on another trip to Europe.

Time flies when I’m with Lindy. She loves hearing stories about my travels with my Seeing Eye dogs, and delights when Hanni — and now, Harper — sneak away from me under the table to lie on her feet. “It keeps me warm!” she laughs. The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind is honoring Lindy Bergman at a gala at The Four Seasons tonight, and Bonita is generously sponsoring me to attend. A description of Lindy from the invitation reads like this:

Lindy has been living with macular degeneration for nearly fifteen years and has become an exemplary benefactor of The Chicago Lighthouse. In 2009, she was among those who played a critical role in helping The Lighthouse realize its goal of a new building addition. Most recently, she has helped establish the Bergman Institute for Psychological Support, where our professional rehabilitation staff counsel people who are blind or are losing their sight. Finally, she has partnered with our professional rehabilitation staff on a second “Lighthouse” edition of her book on macular degeneration, Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind.

With all of Lindy’s accomplishments, the one area where she lacks confidence is … public speaking. At our last dinner together, and in subsequent phone calls, I’ve been coaching her for the short talk she’s been asked to give at tonight’s gala. I know she’s gonna wow them. She sure has wowed me!


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