Archive for the 'writing' Category

Guest post by DJ Mermaid: Giddy-up DJ!

DJ Mermaid rides Horses? Who knew?!

by DJ Mermaid

My life isn’t a Western cowgirl movie where girls get to ride around on horses screaming like dying banshees. I do have Walk On Farm to my advantage though.

DJ Mermaid rides!

DJ Mermaid rides!

Walk On is a horse riding farm hubbub dedicated to helping Americans with cognitive and physical disabilities. I have been riding Equestrian-English Style on their lovable horses since I was about three years old.

My favorite — not that we are picking sides here — is Foxy. Though you might think he is a Palomino because of his name, he is actually a brown Appalachian Mountain Horse with white spots.

Riding lessons isn’t all Walk On Farm has to offer, though. They also offer a horse grooming class right before my lesson. You really get to know the horses and where all of the equipment goes on the horses. That is very important for when you go to represent Walk On at the county fair 3 years in a ROW!!!!!!!!

I don’t usually ride Foxy during these events because he isn’t a new horse. I ride another horse named Rocky (who is equally as handsome). Cuteness!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Walk On has a great team of people who help me there. Mary Illing, the program director, is SUPER NICE and really cares about her horses and her participants. Walk On has many volunteers who act as “side-walkers” and “leaders.” A side-walker is someone who walks along with the horse and rider to make sure the horse doesn’t buck (a kick so strong an untrained rider would fall off like eraser shreds on a paper) or try any other antics. A leader is someone who leads the horse other than the rider.

Walk On has many fun games to play while we are riding. Some of them include “Red Light, Green Light” and “Horse Hangman.” Walk On is a very fun stable and program to participate in.

That’s the end of my 5th post!

Guest post by DJ Mermaid: Oh, my old friends

“Books are like old friends that you can confide in.” -DJ Mermaid

I have two favorite books that are all time American Classics and are a pleasure to read. They are Charlotte’s Web and To Kill a Mockingbird. Here’s a sneak-peek into why I like these great books.

DJ Mermaid is six years old in this photo --her mom and dad found her asleep before bedtime with her nose in a book. Looks like it was another E.B. White favorite: Stuart Little.

DJ Mermaid is six years old in this photo –her mom and dad found her asleep before bedtime with her nose in a book. Looks like it was another E.B. White favorite: Stuart Little.

Charlotte’s Web:

“I dare say my trick will work and Wilbur’s life will be saved.” – Charlotte A. Cavatica

This is the story of friendship, trust and great smarts. Wilbur is like me in a sense because he is so honest. Fern is so devoted to Wilbur it makes me happy inside. Please don’t get me started on Charlotte and how compassionate she is. That spider made WEBS of GREATNESS to save Wilbur’s life. Of course I always cry on page 171 when she dies, but I guess it is the circle of life.

Wilbur and Charlotte are an amazing team in my opinion. Go FRIENDSHIP!!!!

To Kill a Mockingbird

“You can kill all the blue jays you want if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” – Atticus Finch

This story is about the Jim Crow southern region and how a lawyer and his family tried to protect one innocent African American victim from the benches of a jailhouse and the wrath of a fictional court case. I do think that if Atticus was alive today he would work to change the ways that people with mental illnesses, different races and people with disabilities are being discriminated against.

Actually, guys, I was wondering if you could do me a favor? I am very bored in tutoring for reading because I already know everything. My tutor (for school, not Beth) suggested we do a novel study and I was wondering if you knew of any good books for me to suggest to her. If you do please say so in a comment.

What good timing!

That’s the end of my 4th post!

-DJ Mermaid

The writers in my memoir classes all deserve Oscars

During Oscars week this year I asked the seniors in the memoir-writing classes I lead to choose a title of one of the films nominated for best picture and use it as the topic for their next essay.

  • The Big Short: Know any short people with big personalities? Any stories about investments? Short circuits?
  • Brooklyn: Ever live there? Know someone who does? Were you a Dodgers fan?
  • Mad Max: Any friends/enemies/ family members/pets named Max?
  • Room: Is there a certain classroom you still remember? Do friends and family gather in the kitchen at parties? If you are a musician, do you have a favorite practice room? What room do you do your writing in? Explore that room in words, as if you’re seeing it for the first time.
  • Spotlight: Do you love/hate being in the spotlight? Anyone you know who does?
  • The Martian: Describe a time or event in your life when you felt like you were from another planet, or describe someone you’ve known in your life who was so unique or unusual that they seem like they came from another planet. Orrrrr, if you were a fan of Gemini, Apollo or other space missions, tell your readers why that is. do you like science fiction? Write about that.

The Revenant and Bridge of Spies were also on the list, but I didn’t share any advice on how to approach those two titles, because, well, I didn’t have any idea.

My writers had ideas, though. Michael chose Bridge of Spies and wrote about working on a ship in the British Virgin Islands when he was just 20 years old. His opening line? “Captain Kimberly had one eye.” Mel used Mad Max to write about a friend in high school, and Judy did that, too: She wrote about her pal Maxine. Andrea chose The Big Short and wrote about two guys she’d dated in her teens. Both happened to be 6’7”, and one of them liked to slow dance. “I spent a lot of time smashed into his stomach!”

Most writers chose Room as a topic. We heard fun stories about making room, running out of room, rooms in dining halls, roommates, dorm rooms and hospital rooms. Nancy grew up on a farm in central Illinois and wrote lovingly about their kitchen. Every day after school their oversized oak kitchen table transformed into a desk. “My sister and I sat at the table, enjoyed a snack, and then began our homework.”

The kitchen became an office anytime Nancy’s father conducted farm business. “During income tax season he always had piles AND PILES of papers all over the table,” she wrote. “We had to put up a card table for a few weeks while he dealt with the paperwork.”

No one chose The Martian or Revenant as a writing topic, but a few wrote about being the center of attention at some part of their lives and how it felt to be in the…you guessed it…spotlight.

A couple writers chose Brooklyn as a topic. One of the Lincoln Park Village classes happened to meet on the very Thursday that Marjorie’s granddaughter in Brooklyn turned nine. Marjorie wrote about Simona.

Wanda chose Brooklyn as a topic as well. She’s been in the class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center more than ten years, and still, every essay she writes lets me in on something new about her life story.

This one was no exception.

Wanda will be 95 years old this year, and while yes, she suffers with aches and pains, she is not a complainer. She credits her own upbeat attitude to her hardworking mother and her beloved uncle, Hallie B. “Hallie B. always told me that people who sit and mope with their head in their hands, well, they never see the good things coming their way.”

That's Wanda from way back on her 90th birthday.

That’s Wanda from way back on her 90th birthday. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

Wanda has lived in more than 50 different apartments or houses in her lifetime. Her mother Geneva Johnson worked “In private family” and had to leave Wanda every Sunday to take off and live at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with different relatives or family friends here and there. Sometimes, she lived with strangers. The class she is in is subsidized by the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging and meets downtown on Wednesdays, which has long been Wanda’s favorite day of the week. “That was mama’s day off.”

It wasn’t until Wanda was 15 years old that she discovered her beloved mama was not her birth mother. Her birth mother, Ruby Betty, lived in Brooklyn. Wanda didn’t meet “Mizz Betty” until she was 32 years old. “She had a personality all her own, and I had to fill in some of the gaps of her life story,” Wanda wrote. “She and a twin sister were born in Kingston, Jamaica to a black cobbler father and a French-Scottish mother.”

After Ruby and her twin attended secondary school in England, they moved to Hamilton, Ontario. Wanda was born in Canada. “Here the story gets fuzzy,” she wrote. “I have heard several Reader’s Digest versions of the events that led up to me and my coming to America.”

Wanda and Mizz Betty visited back and forth for the next 32 years. “I enjoyed a warm association with the little lady with the Jamaican, British, Brooklyn, and Yiddish accent,” she wrote, acknowledging that in the end, she realized their “personalities were at the opposite ends of the pole.” She ends her Brooklyn essay saying she has no regrets. “I am happy for the life I had with Mama Geneva.”

Wanda’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers in the Wednesday “Me, Myself and I” class on the Beth’s Class blog. You can read Wanda’s Mizz Betty from Brooklyn essay in its entirety there — and see photos of Mizz Betty, too.

Guest post by DJ Mermaid: A day in my fin

In my meeting with DJ Mermaid this week we talked (among other things) about expressing our honest feelings in our personal stories, and the importance of using strong verbs to express ourselves. DJ Mermaid is a very fast learner, and you’ll see an example of this in today’s post #3. IN her original draft she said she was “in casts,” and I asked for a stronger verb.

by DJ Mermaid

If you stepped into my shoes — or fin — right now you would realize that I am going through a difficult and awkward time in my life. I am imprisoned in casts on both legs from my ankles to my hips (I am wearing casts to put my heel down and make myself straight) and am stuck at home with my mom! (Uggh!)

Yesterday my friends came over and we decorated s'more cupcakes. Loads of fun.

Yesterday my friends came over and we decorated s’more cupcakes. Loads of fun.

Just in case this sounds exciting to you, I am going to show you a day in my fin through words and numbers.

  • Wake up happily!
  • Eat a delicious and healthy breakfast like an over hard egg with a fresh fruit smoothie.
  • Do homework while mom takes little bother to school (I hate this part because I already know the material! It is wayyyyy too easy!)
  • Mommy Math Time! (while standing up) Hate!
  • EXERCISE — Super Girl lifts, toe curling, one arm raising and so on.
  • Standing and watching TV.
  • Eat lunch like mango and a PB&J.
  • More standing exercises, sometimes typing on the computer, sometimes Facetime, reading.
  • More exercises.
  • Mom picks up little bother from school.
  • Tutoring (this is soooooooo boring).
  • Dinner.
  • Facetime with my bff (he knows who he is!).
  • More standing, reading or TV.

Here I take a break from my list and I am going to tell you what the top ten best reality TV shows are that I am allowed to watch:

  1. Project Runway
  2. Project Runway: Junior
  3. All- Star Academy
  4. Kid’s Baking Championship
  5. The Profit
  6. Shark Tank
  7. Cake Wars
  8. Cupcake Wars
  9. Guy’s Grocery Games
  10. Chopped

We also like to bake delicious treats. I am inspired by some of the baking TV programs. My favorite is the Brownie (Chocolate Chess) Pie. Basically it is a brownie on the inside with a pie crust outer shell. NOTE: Serve with Dad’s French vanilla ice cream if desired. Another favorite is an apple and pear breakfast crumble. Put your filling of apples and pears together and then create a streusel type of crust top.

I write stories, too. The one I am working on now is called The Old Pioneer Westerner. It is about a girl and her family who, after being split up, work to make a better life for themselves. In 1847 they go from Colorado to their destination of Salem, Oregon. This story captures the heart of the American Dream.

Have you gotten to flap in my fins enough?

Well, that’s the end of my 3rd post!

-DJ Mermaid


Reasonable questions: our visit to St. Francis Xavier School last week

I’ve been visiting elementary schools with my Seeing Eye dogs more than 25 years now, so it’d be reasonable to think I’ve heard every single question a kid would dream up when it comes to blindness or guide dogs.

That's us at St. Francis Xavier.

That’s us at St. Francis Xavier. (Photo by Jackie Petrozzi.)

Jackie Petrozzi

But hey, who ever accused kids of being reasonable?

Last Friday afternoon my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I took a commuter train to Wilmette, a Chicago suburb, to talk with 400 students at St. Francis Xavier School. School leaders wisely broke the students into two groups – I spoke with the kids between kindergarten and 4th grade first, and then spent an hour with the kids between 5th and 8th grades.

Teachers read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to all the younger ones before Whitney and I arrived. The older students prepared for our visit by watching our wonderful What’s it Like to Go Blind? video – that’s the YouTube the guys at The Good Stuff put together for us. With all that advanced research under their belts, the kids were armed with some very well thought-out questions when Whitney and I arrived.

In addition to asking the classic ones about how I get dressed, how I cook, and how I drive, the kids at St. Francis Xavier came up with some questions I’ve never been asked before:

  • How long did it take to adapt to your blindness?
  • When you write your books, how do you see the edits?
  • You know how, sometimes, when the sun hits your eyes, and you squint, but you keep looking at the sun for too long, and then, you close your eyes real tight, and it makes you see colors? You know, like fireworks? Well, if you do that, can you still see those colors?
  • Does your dog ever make a mistake?
  • If they didn’t pick a dog for you, and you could choose your own Seeing Eye dog, why would you choose Whitney?
  • How did you get here to take chances?

I really appreciate — and encourage — children’s curiosity, so I assure kids ahead of time that I’ll answer absolutely every question they ask during my presentations. I repeat each question before I answer it, too, so that one, I can make sure I heard it right; two, everyone in the audience can know what the question is; and three, most importantly, I have time to come up with an answer.

The kids were all seated criss-cross applesauce on the gym floor during our presentation, shortest ones in front, tallest in the back. That last question, the one about taking chances? It came from the front rows during my first presentation, which made me think the boy who’d asked was in kindergarten.

“How did I get to the point where I have to take chances?” I repeated. “Why do I have to take chances?” I’d never, ever been asked that one before. “Hmmm,” I said, turning my head toward the sound of the little boy who’d asked. “I’m going to need a couple seconds to think that one over.”

I started pondering my answer. Why do I still take chances? Didn’t I just break my hand in December after a fall? Wouldn’t you think I’d take fewer chances, seeing that I’m blind and all? Maybe this boy was right, maybe I should slow down….

Just when I was about to credit the kindergartner  for making a good point, he interrupted. “Not chances,” he said, sounding exasperated by his lisp. “Francis! How did you get to Saint Frances?” He just wanted to know how Whitney and I had managed to make it on our own all the way from Chicago to his school in the suburbs that day!

Guest post by DJ Mermaid: No thank you, peeps!

As promised, here’s guest post #2 by DJ Mermaid. In our hour together this past week she and I discussed some of the positive comments you left to her post last week. She isn’t quite ready to respond online to the comments you leave here, but trust me, she does read – and reread – them, so keep ‘em coming. Her guest post this week gives you a glimpse, ahem, of what a role model she is for me when it comes to self-advocacy.

by DJ Mermaid

Humans are very kind and helpful, even when you do not want it (although it is nice to have help “sometimes”). I have a physical disability and I get a “Do you want my hand, sweetie?” a lot.

DJ Mermaid and her little bother, er, brother.

DJ Mermaid and her little bother, er, brother.

I have cerebral palsy (CP) and I move a little different than anybody else does. Here are my tips on how to decline help when not needed:

  • In public always do things with your head up high and with a confident air to them. (That makes people know you are a PERSON!) It also may reassure people that you do not need help.
  • Say no politely when people ask you if you need help when you don’t need it.
  • If people just grab your hand or another part of your body physically without asking first, say NO quite loudly!

I have had a few experiences that I want to share with you so that you can get in my shoes — or fin, as I should say.

I was in Schaumburg, enjoying dinner at Bonefish Grill with my grandparents. (If you go I recommend Bang Bang shrimp). We were walking down the sidewalk when out of the deep blue sea this weirdo woman extended her hand and expected me to TAKE IT! (I was doing quite fine on my own if you ask me.) Of course, like I should have done I ignored her hand and said to her, “No thank you!”

Thankfully I survived that, but sadly human nature struck again at school when I had a substitute teacher’s assistant one morning. My amazing mom and I ascended the stairs leading into the school facility when an aide walked out and put forth her hand to take me into the building. I brushed by her and said, “No thank you!”

Just before I went in, my mother hugged me and said, “The first thing this woman wanted to do was grab your hand. Make sure you educate her today.” DUH. I know, mom.

One person, though, treats me like all the rest. Introducing… my little bother — er, brother that is. He always wants to win games that we play, always wants more dessert and so on. Sadly with him I can’t use CP to my advantage. Although I sometimes despise him, he and I protect and stand up for each other.

At school once I heard some of his classmates making fun of me. Literally the next morning in SCHOOL (!!) my brother and the boys marched up to my desk and somberly apologized. I didn’t even know it, but my brother SCREAMED at those boys and he and his teacher made them apologize.

Well that’s the end of my 2nd post!

-DJ Mermaid!

Good friends, good music, good wine

Our friends Jim and Kathy Zartman invited Mike and me to a pretty cool event tonight. We’re going to a gala that benefits the Chicago School of Violin Making, and it sure sounds like my kind of party:

  1. Starts early – 6:30 p.m.
  2. Begins with a sampling of three to four wines
  3. Promises ”substantial”  Hors d’oeurves along with the wine
  4. Features a string quartet during cocktail hour
  5. Ends with Acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine playing a number of different violins – one of them made by the violinist from the quartet we will have heard earlier.

I’ve known Jim Zartman for nearly five years — his wife Kathy is in the memoir-writing class I lead on Thursday afternoons for Lincoln Park Village. Jim often drives Whitney and me to that class, and during those rides together over the years I’ve had the privilege of hearing his stories about growing up in a small town in Illinois, the mother who gave him his first violin, and getting free room and board in exchange for working as a houseboy for John Kenneth Galbraith’s family at Harvard. “They said they named their son Jamie after me,” he told me once. “But I’m not sure that’s true.”

Jim is not exactly forthcoming, but when I ask questions, he answers. In our 20-minute rides to class he’s shared stories of raising a family with Katherine, his appreciation for his talented grandchildren, his work writing the Illinois Power of Attorney Act and then getting it through the state legislature during his career as partner in the Chicago firm of Chapman and Cutler, and his role as president of the board of the Chicago School of Violin Making.

Jim and Kathy Zartman.

A couple years ago Jim arranged for me to have a tour of the school, wich is one of just three violin-making schools in the United States. Jessie Gilbert, a graduate of the school who took over for Jim as president of the board there last year, led my one-on-one tour. Her strong hands guided me along blocks of maple and spruce that were to become instruments, and I met teachers and students who had come from all over the world to participate in the schools three-year program — students aspire to the quality craftsmanship of the 17th and 18th century classical masters and are ready to enter the violin making and repair field as professionals once they graduate.

I didn’t stay long — it wasn’t fair to distract the students from their work. While I was there, though, I was taken by how quiet the workspace was  — no music to work by, just the intense sound of careful carving and fine sanding. And tonight, I’ll have the privilege of hearing Rachel Barton Pine perform on some of the results of all that hard work. This. Is. So. Cool.

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