Archive for the 'writing' Category



Happy Birthday! (Or should I say “Bon Anniversaire!”),

Today, January 4, is the birthday of Louis Braille. He was born in France in 1809, and his father had a leather shop. Note to children: be careful out there! Three-year-old Louis lost his sight after playing with his father’s sharp tools and accidentally poking his eyes.

Louis Braille’s parents did what they could to give their son a normal life. He was the best student in his school, and he became an accomplished organist and cellist. When he was 15, he simplified an idea that had been used in the French army to send messages that soldiers could read in the dark, encoding individual letters rather than sounds. He represented each letter by a different arrangement of six dots packed close enough that each letter could be read by a single fingertip.

Today, reading and writing of Braille is something of a dying art. There are now far more audio versions of books than there are books printed in Braille, and there are software programs to convert written text into audio. Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Technology is cool, but how will these children ever learn to spell correctly? How will they know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on? I didn’t lose my sight until I was 26 years old, so I was fortunate to learn all of that when I could still read print. I’m not proficient in Braille now, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I want to confirm what floor I’m on when I get off an elevator or to label CDs, file folders and buttons on electronic devices at home.

S & S

You blog readers out there who have a print copy of Hanni And Beth: Safe & Sound on your bookshelf should pat yourself on the back. You know a good children’s book when you see it, and your purchase has helped create more Braille books for children: My publisher, Blue Marlin Publications donates a portion of the proceeds from sales of every print version of Safe & Sound to Seedlings Braille Books for Children, a small non-profit organization in Michigan that provides high quality, low cost Braille books for children.

Over the past seven years, Blue Marlin Publications has Seedlings Logodonated thousands of dollars to Seedlings.

By producing Braille books for children, Seedlings helps promote “literacy for the blind,” providing visually impaired children equal opportunity to develop a love of reading. Safe & Sound is one of the books available in Braille from Seedlings, which means I’ve been able to read parts of the book aloud at the presentations I’ve been doing since Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published in 2007.

To find out how to order a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in Braille, or to donate to Seedlings to help them create more books in Braille for kids, link to www.seedlings.org. Every ten dollar donation makes another Braille book possible.

Seven favorite Mondays with Mike posts for 2014

That's Mike with Gus during an earlier visit.

That’s Mike with Gus during an earlier visit.

2014 marks the year we inaugurated our “Mondays with Mike” feature on the Safe & Sound blog. My husband Mike Knezovich had been writing guest posts here for years (particularly when I was away training with Seeing Eye dogs), and it was high time to make his posts a regular feature. You blog readers reacted favorably, so to celebrate, today I’m sharing links to my seven favorite “Mondays with Mike” posts from 2014. Those of you who missed them the first time around can read them now, and those of you who liked them when they were originally published can link to them again. Cheers!

  • Mike hit the ground running – his initial post was a tribute to troublemakers. We published it when the 2014 celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday came on the heals of Nelson Mandela’s death.
  • I especially liked his post about the kindness of strangers and how grateful we are to the people who have helped us get where we are today. Mike wrote this one after a visit with our son Gus in his Wisconsin group home.
  • A number of you ordered Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown after reading Mike’s review of that book here. The book, and Mike’s post about it, are two very honest and heartfelt accounts of what it is like to be the father of a son with a disability.
  • My mother died earlier this year, and Mike’s post about Flo during her final days was so beautiful that my brother and sisters and I had him read it out loud at her funeral.
  • His Thanksgiving post was a tribute to the parents we’ve lost, the work we still need to do to make our country better for everyone, and the babies who give us hope. Mike’s an award-winning photographer, and along with that particular post we published a very cute photo he took of Whitney the Seeing Eye dog with one of our great nieces. We’ve learned that posting photos of dogs and babies always results in a lot of hits!
  • We also received lots of positive comments when Mike took you along on his morning commute. We live in Printers Row, a Chicago neighborhood so close to the Loop that Mike walks to work.
  • And speaking of lots of hits, as NFL’s regular season draws to a close (thank God) all of us in Chicago look forward to the 2015 baseball season. Take a look back at Mike’s 2014 Time begins on opening day post, and I dare you to claim Mike’s cup is ever half-empty. When it comes to spring and baseball, the man is forever an optimist.

Mike, Whitney and I head off to Union Station for our train ride to Wisconsin later this afternoon – we’ve got a Christmas visit with our son Gus planned. If you want to keep up with what happens afterwards, consider signing up to follow the Safe & Sound blog (enter your email in the box at the upper right of the blog and hit enter to receive email updates anytime we publish a new post). Mike will be back with a new MWM post this Monday. Thanks for reading, everyone, and…happy holidays!

Mondays with Mike: Podcaster for a day

When we lived in Urbana, Ill., I had a morning radio show on a local community radio station called WEFT (WEFT, rhymes with LEFT). WEFT Radio was a nearly anarchical operation, run by citizen volunteers, meagerly funded by donations and grants, but thanks to dedicated people over the years, it
survives to this day.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you'll be glad you did.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you’ll be glad you did.

WEFT carries some syndicated programming, but mostly it is local volunteers who piece together each week’s shows. You find blues shows, jazz shows, old time country shows, political shows, gospel shows, GLBT shows. It’s sort of a grand mess, the airwaves version of a community parade.

So like I said, back in the 90s (boy, it hurts to write that), I was in the middle of it with a morning show, once a week, that I called Adult Children of Parents (ACOP). You may recall that the terms dependent, co-dependent,
enabling, adult children of (fill in the blank) and recovery-speak was entering the vernacular back then. The title was my snarky response.

I read headlines from the Chicago Tribune and sometimes the local paper, I commented, I played music, I had guests, Beth played the accordion during fundraisers. I came to love it. Put me in front of a large live audience and my palms sweat and my voice cracks like an adolescent. Put me in a studio with a microphone and I become, as one friend once put it, verbally incontinent.

So, last week, when I got an email blast from Steve Rhodes of The Beachwood Reporter linking to his latest podcast – and inviting volunteers to appear as guests on The Beachwood Radio Hour and The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour – I stepped up to the plate.

He wrote back right away and suggested we get together to record a show this past Saturday. Which gave me a quick shot of sweaty palms, I mean, in concept it sounded fun..

About Steve: He’s first and foremost a smart, affable, honest, witty and likable guy. He’s also a superb and accomplished journalist – he’s worked at dailies, at Newsweek, Chicago Magazine, among others. And he cares, deeply, about journalism. That led him to create The Beachwood Reporter, a Web publication that rounds up pivotal Chicago (and sometimes national) stories. (The name is borrowed from a classic old Chicago tavern called the Beachwood Inn, so named because it’s at the corner of Beach and Wood.)

The Beachwood Reporter is an indispensable resource for anyone who cares about public and cultural affairs in Chicago and beyond, and it’s a one-of-a-kind resource for people who care about the state of journalism.
Reading it gives you a sketch of the current news, but also tips you to what the reporter may have missed, the questions they should’ve asked, and what the politicians and bigwigs are getting away with as a result.

We got to know each other years ago when Steve began linking to my now dormant blog called Reading with Scissors. We’ve stayed in touch since. Steve knows I’m a White Sox fan, and with the Sox making a series of big
trades and free-agent signings at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings last week, he suggested I join him and regular sports contributor Jim Coffman to the Beachwood Sports Hour to add a Sox element. He also
invited me to join the Beachwood News Hour, which I did.

It was a gas. Jim’s a churning, burning urn of Chicago sports, we mostly good-naturedly talked about the Cubs-Sox rivalry, and a good time was had. The News Hour with Steve was a little more serious in tone: We talked about the Illinois Office of Comptroller, Torture, and the Chicago Mayor’s race. Also enjoyed that, but in a different way.

You can listen to the Beachwood Radio Sports Hour (free) here — there’s an audio player plus show notes.

You can listened to the Beachwood Radio Hour (also free) here–Steve also provides show notes for the news.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll be back on, but meantime, I hope you’ll give it a listen, and I hope you’ll become a Beachwood regular.

Thanks, but no thanks

In honor of Thanksgiving, I asked seniors in my memoir-writing classes to write on the subject “Thanks, but No Thanks.” To explain what I was looking for, I said, “Say you were offered an opportunity, a job, a marriage proposal, a real estate purchase, an adoption, anything, and are sorry you refused that offer, you could write about that.” I told them that on the other hand, if there was something in their lives that they were oh so thankful they said no to, they could write about how relieved they are that they said thanks, but no thanks to that offer.

Seniors worked on their essays over Thanksgiving and read them aloud in class this week. Shunned lovers and refused marriage proposals showed up in many of their stories. Other essays were about job offers they’d refused or schools they’d decided not to attend.

Ninety-four-year-old Wanda wrote that while she has learned how to use a computer to send email and write essays for class, she has no interest in tweeting or apps or looking at photos on instagram. When asked to embrace technology, she says “Thanks, but no thanks.” Judy wrote about how proud she was of the sit-upon she made while she was a Brownie, how intrigued she was by the wood-burning stoves they made from tin cans and cardboard toilet paper rolls once she’d “flown up” to Junior Girl Scouts, but then, when it came to joining a high school troop, she said no.

I can only think of one writer who wrote about regretting he’d said no to an opportunity, but even that essay had a happy ending. Dave hadn’t yet visited a foreign country by the time he graduated from college, but when he moved to Texas and a bunch of his buddies asked him to join them on a trip to Monterrey, Mexico, he decided not to go. His pals came back with all sorts of amazing stories. “I’ve regretted that decision ever since,” he wrote, but then acknowledged that foregoin Monterrey changed his life in a very positive way: he’s been adventurous ever since, taking on just about every travel opportunity that comes his way.

Mary’s essay was inspired by the title story in M. F. K. Fisher’s book Sister Age. Mary wrote that she noticed MFKSister Age visiting her 60-year-old mother, “softly draping a shawl around her shoulders on cold winter nights, fixing a breakfast of warm milk toast drenched in honey and butter, accompanying her to multiplying trips to doctors and hospitals, and comforting her in attending increasing numbers of funerals of old friends.” Mary’s mother died when she was 99 years old, and Mary said that by then “Sister Age was her constant companion and nurse.”

Now Mary sees Sister Age at her own door. “She brings pills and appointments with physical therapists for my hands that move with more difficulty and my joints that stiffen and creak, eyesight that requires stronger prescriptions, nostalgic conversations with friends from high school and college, rooms full of memorabilia from Japan and all our other travels around the world, and a list of things I want to do before I am slowed to a standstill.”

Mary explained how she knows Sister Age is there: she hears her knocking at the door, and when she peers out, she sees Sister Age through the peephole. “But I resist welcoming her completely into my life and accepting her invitation to pass the threshold into my consciousness,” Marywrote at the end of her essay. “I want to say to her thanks, but no thanks – but I know that I cannot do that forever.”

What Mike does

The success of our “Mondays with Mike” feature has a lot of you blog readers wondering: what does my husband Mike Knezovich do for a living? An online article in the Chicago Tribune helps explain. (The print piece is scheduled for Sunday.)

Katrin Klingenberg is featured in a Tribune article about passive house and PHIUS.

Katrin Klingenberg is featured in a Tribune article about passive house and PHIUS.

The Tribune story profiles architect Katrin Klingenberg, co-founder of a non-profit called Passive House Institute U.S. That’s where Mike works, but we usually refer to it as PHIUS.

I’ve written here before about how Mike met Katrin, and now this excellent short piece in the Tribune explains what Passive House is:

“Passive house” is a concept based on a set of design principles used to create buildings that use minimal heating/cooling, employing elements such as thick insulation, energy-recovery ventilation, high-performance windows and a steady supply of fresh air.

Born in Germany, Katrin had seen Europeans applying passive principles to buildings for decades. “But their principles only applied to the European temperate climate,” she told the Tribune reporter, explaining how she’d applied it to America’s extreme temperatures.
PHIUS started in 2007 and has already trained 2,000 architects, engineers, builders and energy raters. It’s certified 129 buildings, with many more in the works.

Now, PHIUS works with policymakers to get passive-house principles into local building codes.  They’re working with the U.S. Department of Energy on the next generation of climate-specific passive-building standards, too — those standards will be much more energy-efficient than the current International Energy Conservation Code. Katrin told the reporter that we absolutely must solve the climate crisis. “Energy-efficient buildings do make a difference,” she said.

As Director of Communications, Mike
helps get the word out via the Web, Social Media, trade and general interest press, and the organization’s annual conference. This article — which includes what Mike tells me is a terrific photo of Katrin — will help those efforts. Give the article a read yourself, and don’t miss the extra Q&A with Katrin at the end.

A letter to my teenage self

Every once in a while my part-time job at Easter Seals Headquarters asks me to do something out of my comfort zone. Writing a letter to my teenage self was one of those things.

That's me in the hospital in high school. (Photo courtesy Laura Gale.)

That’s me in the hospital in high school. (Photo courtesy Laura Gale.)

I’ll try to explain. Earlier this month Easter Seals helped expand Thrive, a mentorship program for young women who have disabilities. Thrive’s Letters to Thrive blog encourages women with disabilities to write letters to their younger selves. The hope is that young women might read the letters and benefit from the lessons other women learned growing up with a disability.

I didn’t grow up with a disability (I lost my sight when I was 26) but my supervisor at Easter Seals still thought it’d be a great idea for me to write a letter to my teenage self. “They can post it on the Letters to Thrive blog, and we can publish it on the Easter Seals blog, too.”

I supposed I could write about the disease that caused me to lose my sight, but I don’t like thinking — or writing — about going through high school with Type 1 diabetes. I already had to write about that for Long Time, No See, and I much prefer thinking about the goofy and fun times I had as a teenager. You know, rather than the hospital visits. I respect my supervisor at Easter Seals, though, and I like working with her. I agreed to write the letter.

The Letters to Thrive site was easy to access with my talking computer, and it even has a What Should I Write About? link for those with writer’s block.

I’d love to tell you that composing this letter was enlightening or, ahem, eye-opening. Truth is, it left me feeling bittersweet — sad for my younger self, while simultaneously hopeful for the future. My letter was published on the Letters to Thrive blog last week, and I’ll paste it below. But first I must give credit where credit is due. Mike Knezovich provided the Nostradamus reference — I would have never come up with that on my own!

20 November 2014

Dear Younger Self,

The blip on your popularity chart peaked off the screen last week when you returned to high school — other kids think it’s cool to know someone who was in the hospital and was almost in a coma.

Right now the two shots you take each day are long-acting insulins, far too slow and weak to handle the carbohydrates in the popcorn you like to snack on, the ten-cent rice dish you buy to save money in the high school cafeteria at lunch and the ice cream you cheat with from time to time.

This was your third hospital visit during your high school years, and before you were released this time, your doctor declared you won’t live to see your 30th birthday. What you and your doctor don’t know right now is that before you turn 30, people with Type 1 diabetes will be able to test their blood glucose levels at home throughout the day. They’ll use an insulin pump or take a shot of fast-acting insulin to counteract the sugar and carbohydrates in all sorts of foods. You’ll be able to be more spontaneous, you won’t have to plan every meal, and you won’t have to feel guilty when you snack.

What your doctor could have told you as you left the hospital this time was to keep taking care of yourself the best you can — that way you’ll live to enjoy these breakthroughs. Your doctor isn’t a bad man, and in the end, the impact his Nostradamus prediction made on you won’t necessarily be the one he intended. In fact, it’s already sparked a sense of urgency in you: you want to squeeze in a full life before you turn thirty. You’re on a streak where you’re saying yes to almost any opportunity for adventure that comes your way, and now, speaking to you 40 years later, I say…go, girl!

One of the major (if only) advantages of having a chronic disease or disability when you are young is that it can give you the wisdom to understand life could be cut short at any time. Keep working at staying healthy — that way you’ll steer clear of the hospital and have more time for adventures.

Keep taking advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Open yourself up to all sorts of people. See what you can see. Experience what you can.

Choosing a full life now will expose you to many people of many cultures making many different choices. You’ll witness people going through transitions and see how the decisions they make during those times affect their well-being later.

Younger self, I can tell you now that you are going to live past thirty. I can also tell you that you are going to face a lot of life-altering changes along the way, and the people you meet the next ten years or so will be the role models who will inspire you when you go through these changes later on.

Get out there and meet them. Listen to them. Learn from them.

And above all, keep having fun!

Love from your future self

Quiz show

Last Thursday I spoke to a U of I class in Champaign. Monday morning I spoke with second graders at Chicago’s Francis Xavier Warde School. Yesterday I spoke to visually-impaired adults at Blind Service Association.

Each of these three presentations ended with a Q&A, which lead’s me to today’s quiz. Tell me if the following questions came from a college kid, a second-grader, or an adult with a visual impairment :

  1. How do you know what you’re wearing?
  2. How does it feel to be blind?
  3. What is the name of your book?
  4. What’s your favorite thing to do with your dog?
  5. What is it like to be blind?
  6. When you’re up there in front of us, do you picture what we look like?
  7. Do you know my girlfriend?
  8. So is there one thing that’s happened since you’ve been blind that you just can’t picture, you know, like instagram, or, like something like that?
  9. Is it sad to be blind?

That’s the quiz, now for the answers – let’s see how you did.

At Frances Xavier Warde last week.

At Frances Xavier Warde last week.

  1. A college girl asked this. I was wearing black shoes, black jeans, a gold sweater and a colorful scarf. The shoestrings on my black shoes feel different than the shoestrings on my gym shoes. I put a safety pin on the tag of my clothes that are black, and the gold sweater is the only one I own that has a cowl neck (so I just memorize that the one with the cowl neck is gold). My multi-colored scarf is the only one I own that has textured stripes I can feel, and the woman who sold it to me said it’d go with anything. “Does it?” I asked the class. They chorused a yes.
  2. A second-grader asked this one. I’ve been blind half my life now, I told her. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it usually just seems normal.”
  3. A visually-impaired adult asked this. My talk was about memoir writing, so gee, you’d think I might have mentioned the name of my book, huh! I’d forgotten, though, and when I told him my memoir is called Long Time, No See, he said he knew my story sounded familiar. “I read the audio version!”
  4.  The college talk I gave was to an animal sciences class, so you’d think this question would have come from a student there. But no, it came from a very cute second-grader. I’d never been asked this before, and I needed to take a few seconds to think before answering. “You probably guess I’ll say playing fetch with a ball, or having her chase a Frisbee,” I said. “But really, my favorite thing to do with Whitney is have her lead me to a place downtown, you know, get there by ourselves.” I explained how good it makes me feel to have confidence in my Seeing Eye dog.
  5. Another second-grader asked this question after I’d answered it the first time. She was no dummy: she didn’t buy my first answer! This time I admitted that being blind can be frustrating. “It can take longer to do certain things,” I conceded. “And I always have to remind myself to slow down so I won’t fumble around so much.” They seemed to like that fumble word.
  6. A college kid asked this, and I told them the last time I was able to see was 30 years ago. “So I picture you all dressed like college kids in the 80s.” They gasped, and then they laughed.
  7. An adult with a visual impairment asked this. “She’s from Champaign,” he said. And know what? I do know her.
  8. A guy in the college class asked this one. There are tons of things I can’t picture, but the one that stands out is 911. “The plane going into the building, the smoke, the people jumping,” I said, explaining that I went up in the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building in Chicago when I could still see. I remember how little the cars looked from up there, and how slowly they seemed to be travelling on the highways below. “But I just can’t picture how little the people who were trapped on top of those towers looked, or what it was like to see them jumping off the buildings, all of that.” It felt shameful to be intrigued by such a gruesome event, but I try to be honest when answering questions people ask at the presentations I give. I didn’t want the students to try to describe 911 to me – heck, they were only 6 or 7 years old when it happened. “Lots of people have tried explaining it all to me already, I’ve read books and articles, listened to TV shows and documentaries about that day,” I told them. . “I just can’t get it into my head.”
  9. This same question about my feelings came from yet another second-grader. At Francis Xavier Warde School the students spend a lot of their year in second grade learning about special needs, and I think these second graders were worried about me. “You’d think being blind might make me sad, or maybe lonely, but it really isn’t that bad,” I assured them, explaining some of the benefits of being blind. “One of them is that I can’t judge people by what they look like — I get to judge people by what they say, and what they do.” Judging from the concern those little kids showed about my feelings Monday, the second-graders at Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago are beautiful.

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