Posts Tagged 'Amtrak'

Mondays with Mike: 50 years ago, the train from New York to Washington was faster

A few years ago our German friend Gerald visited with us on his way to an extended hiking holiday in Alaska. He’s smart, perceptive and analytical, so it’s always fun, and sometimes painful, to get his take on us Americans and our America. (For the record, he’s a good sport and takes his share of digs from Beth and me about the myriad quirks of life in Germany.)

Gerald sat in the passenger side of our car as we toured. Whenn he noticed the warning on the side mirror that says “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear,” he looked at me in wonder, his expression begging for an explanation. The same thing happened when we stopped in a convenience store. He bought a lighter for his upcoming camping trip, read the warning sticker out on the Bic out loud, and flashed me the same look. I came up as empty as before.

During this same visit that Gerald wondered aloud, “I don’t know why Americans are so proud of this place.” So many places he’d been were so shabby. “Your roads, airports, trains—they’re like a poor country’s.”

I had no argument then. Still don’t. Our public infrastructure has only worsened since that visit, and I blame it on bottled water.

Well, not bottled water per se, but in my lifetime it sure seems like we have devalued the idea of public space and common interest. It’s like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street has won.

So bottled water. Apart from the idiotic waste in transporting it, packaging it, getting rid of the packaging—and the fact that it’s often not any higher quality than tap water, there’s something more insidious about it. Making water a consumer purchase begins moving away from the idea that clean water is in the public commons that belongs to all of us, and that we all have an interest in keeping it clean and available.

When water is a purchased good on an individual level, it becomes something different altogether. Clean water becomes another thing that some people can afford to have and others can’t. And the ones who can afford it aren’t as likely to be interested in keeping lakes and streams and public supplies clean. We’re not there yet, but I can see it from here.

This every-person-for-him/herself dynamic is playing out everywhere—public schools, public transportation, public spaces like airports. And Amtrak.

We have the money in this country to have the best rail system in the world, the best airports, the best roads. And no hungry people. That tells me something isn’t working.

If we want these things to be better, they will be. We have the money, if we remember the “we” part.

I have a notion about what’s not working, and I’m working on it. In the meantime, as long as we’re talking about Amtrak and the broader ideology around it, read this New Yorker piece. Please do. (Thanks Lydia!) Here’s an excerpt:

We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem.

Please read it. And vote. And don’t watch TV News. And remember, we’re in this together.

Mondays with Mike: Our version of all right

A couple weeks ago as I walked to a sandwich shop I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a boy in a wheelchair and a man, presumably his dad, collecting themselves on the sidewalk. They had clearly just unloaded from the car parked nearby, and were readying for a walk.

We had a nice visit.

We had a nice visit.

It wasn’t the kind of wheel chair designed to be propelled by its user. It was, instead, focused on holding the boy—who clearly had substantial physical disabilities—in proper posture, with a headrest, and foot rests arranged for that purpose, and with high handles to make it easy for someone else, in this case his dad, to push. Seeing it was a flashback to my own rituals of outings with our son Gus.

The father made a last round of adjustments to the boy’s ball cap, to his seatbelt, and then gathered himself to push his son on a walk.

For a moment, I wanted to walk up to him to say something like, well, I didn’t know what. That it’ll be all right? What the hell did I know about whether it would be all right? And as a frog the size of Alaska grew in my throat, I thought better of saying anything to him just then, because well, a stranger walking up and breaking into tears might not lift up his day.

By the time I left the shop with my sandwiches, and I was more composed, the man and his son were long gone.

This past weekend Beth and I traveled to Wisconsin to see our son Gus, who is 28 and living in a group home with three other guys. The weather was nice, and—though Gus did eventually learn to propel his own wheelchair, I supplied the horsepower this time, pushing him with Beth holding onto my arm. (Whitney stayed in our hotel room, as she is either jealous of or unnerved by Gus; a little of both, I think.)

We had a happy, uneventful visit, like we always do, and are always grateful to have. We took our Zipcar back to our Milwaukee area hotel, visited with a friend who moved up there recently from Chicago, and spent a quiet night.

The next morning, we headed to the Amtrak station and boarded right on time. We sat up front in the disability seats so Whitney had room to stretch out. A woman who was sitting in the disability section across the aisle from us noticed the dog after we settled, leaned over and asked whether we wanted her space, as it provided more space for Whitney.

After a few seconds, she realized we had the same kind of spacious accommodations and said, “Oh, I didn’t see you already have room.”

Minutes later, after the train eased out of the station, she leaned over and said to Beth, “Can I be so bold as to ask how long you’ve had that dog and how it’s working for you?”

Well, 20 minutes later we’d learned that she’d lost her sight in one eye and the other was in bad shape. All to diabetic retinopathy—the same thing that got Beth’s eyesight decades ago. That she was a couple years older than us, and that she’d been diabetic for 50 years. A nurse herself, she’d always been praised by her doctors for being a model diabetic. But that’s not always enough.

She and her husband’s situation is a lot like Beth’s and mine had been some 30 years ago. She’d had good doctors and bad doctors and doctors who had the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. She can see some out of one eye and is in that awkward phase where she is doing just well enough and badly enough by herself to annoy or frighten the people around her. She isn’t blind—yet, but she wants to get ready in case total blindness comes. But how? She needed help but didn’t want to drag down her husband with endless needs, nor did she like losing independence and needing his help. For his part, her husband, a “type A” as she put it, seemed to be struggling not to over protect.

Her experience rang so familiar that it gave me that feeling I had when I saw that man and his son. This time, though, Beth could carry the conversation while I reset myself. Eventually, as Beth and I related our experiences—and how similar they were to our new acquaintance—it seemed almost revelatory to the woman across the aisle.

On her request, I wrote down the title of Beth’s book and said, “I added my email address, too” and let her know she could contact us. We said goodbye and I followed Whitney as she led Beth off the train. An Amtrak redcap came to assist our fellow traveler.

I would’ve liked, I suppose, to tell her everything will be all right. The same thing I guessed I’d hoped to be able to say to the young father on the street.

But I didn’t. Because I couldn’t, honestly. Beth and I are better than all right. But it isn’t the all right either of us had in mind. And it was harder than hell to get to our version of all right. That’s what the father and his son on the Chicago street and our stranger on the train face. Even if they have great friends and family and resources, it’s going to be really hard.

What I realized, though, was what I saw in that woman’s face was not so much a revelation as relief, relief in knowing, even briefly, that she wasn’t alone.

And if I ever see that man and his son again, that’s what I’ll tell him. You’re not alone.

“My name is Beth, and I am an Amtrak rider”

I love the idea of traveling by train. I speak well of Amtrak in conversations with friends, I think Amtrak has a good heart, it has been good to me at times, it apologizes for its mistakes, and it suffers from a long history without a strong support system. But over and over, and over and over and over and over again, Amtrak lets me down. It’s time to get out of this abusive relationship.

The best part of my day was at the Princeton Library. (Photo: Paula Morrow)

The best part of my day was at the Princeton Library. (Photo: Paula Morrow)

My presentation at the library in Princeton, Illinois yesterday was terrific – the kids were curious about Whitney, and it was a pleasure to meet their parents and grandparents as they came to our table afterwards for signed (and Brailled) copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. Princeton really was a sweet little town, and Paula Morrow, the Youth Services Librarian, treated Whitney and me like royalty. Everything was swell, until the 1 pm train back to Chicago didn’t arrive.

No announcements were made at the Princeton station. Why should they bother? Everyone knows Amtrak trains almost always run late. We all just shrugged and sighed. The two-hour wait became a support group meeting, all of us sharing stories of previous train delays and missed connections. Whitney served as a therapy dog — I took her harness off so passengers could pet her and give her belly rubs. Our train was supposed to be back in Chicago by 3:15 p.m., and I thought Whitney and I might stop by my office at Easter Seals Headquarters at Willis Tower on my way back from Union Station. Maybe at 5 I’d meet Mike for happy hour at the piano bar at Sullivan’s. But we had another delay as we approached Naperville and didn’t arrive in Chicago until after six.

I still love Amtrak enough to have applied for their Amtrak Residency. The writing fellowship is new this year, designed “to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment.” Selected writers get round-trip train travel on a long-distance route, on-board meals, and a private sleeping roomette with a desk and a bed. The following letter was waiting in my in-box when I finally returned home yesterday:

Dear Amtrak Residency Applicant,On behalf of Amtrak, I’d like to thank you for submitting your application. The response from the literary community has been absolutely tremendous and we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to read so many heartfelt applications. We had over 16,100 applications and had the difficult challenge to select only 115 semi-finalists. The quality of applications was high, which made our decisions even tougher. We evaluated each applicant based on the quality and completeness of their application package, as well as the extensiveness of their social community and ability to reach online audiences with content.

After carefully reviewing all the applicant packages, I regret to inform you that your package was not selected to move forward in this year’s residency selection.

Any self-respecting person would leave a relationship after receiving a rejection letter like that from the same folks who made me (and a lot of other passengers) very late. Not me, though. I don’t feel safe in Chicago’s bus station, and I can’t drive. I love visiting libraries and schools all over the state –and the country — with my Seeing Eye dog, though, so I can’t break up my relationship with Amtrak. I’ll continue to support subsidies for Amtrak, I’ll hope for positive change, and I’ll keep reminding myself to feel grateful to have train travel as an option at all — otherwise how would Whitney and I have ever met all those wonderful people in Princeton yesterday?!

Whitney’s going to Princeton!


Whitney, upon graduation from The Seeing Eye.

She graduated from a great school, scored well on her tests, and she participates in a whole bunch of extra-curricular activities. And so, it should come as no surprise to you that tomorrow morning the genius Whitney leaves for Princeton.Princeton Illinois, that is. Whitney and I will be boarding the Carl Sandburg Amtrak train early tomorrow morning and heading to Princeton to give a presentation at the Princeton Public Library:

July 10 (Thursday) 10:30 a.m.
Princeton Public Library
PAWS to Read Program: Whitney and Beth: Safe and Sound
698 E. Peru St.
Princeton, Illinois

Princeton is a small (population 7,700) town 100 miles southwest of Chicago, and it has a rich history: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Youth Services Librarian Paula Morrow will meet us on the train platform (“It’s a small station,” she told me) and treat us to coffee at the Four and Twenty Diner before we head to the library.

Whitney and I are both looking forward to this break from the city and our chance to meet the fine folks in Princeton. Check out the blog next week, I have a feeling I’ll have stories (and pictures) to share.

Catching up: our trip to University of Illinois

Remember my post a few weeks ago about heading to Champaign to give a talk to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois? My friend Nancy Beskin generously agreed to come along with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me on the train, and her guest post today describes what our trip was like from her point of, ahem, view.

A living field trip into Beth’s history

by Nancy Beskin

I think Beth was surprised at how quickly I said yes when she asked if I wanted to come with her and Whitney to Champaign, but the trip was compelling to me for all sorts Continue reading ‘Catching up: our trip to University of Illinois’

The truth about Middle Child Syndrome

Flo and Cheryl smiling for the camera

Flo and Cheryl smile for the camera

We had such fun with my sister Cheryl on our train ride to visit her daughter Caren and her family in Minnesota last year that she agreed to ride on the Texas Eagle with us to Springfield, Ill. Today.

I’m pretty sure Harper will do alright on this trip (he guides well inside train stations and hotels, it’s walking along sidewalks and crossing intersections that freaks him out) but it is oh so reassuring to know that my big sister Cheryl will be along to guide me, too. Cheryl has always had a way of boosting my confidence, and we always, always have fun together.

I grew up the youngest of seven children. Cheryl is fourth in line, and this explanation of middle child syndrome describes her perfectly:

Many times they go in the opposite direction of their oldest sibling to carve out their own place of achievement and relish in the satisfaction of being capable of doing it on their own. They are sensitive to injustices and much less self-centered than their siblings (first born and last born), which allows them to maintain successful relationships. They are put in the position to learn social skills that are extremely useful, not only within their household, but within their social community.

We were invited to Springfield by the Illinois School Library Media Association (ISLMA) to attend the Author Breakfast at their annual convention. The way I understand it, Illinois authors do a sort of speed-dating thing during breakfast: we sit at one table for a short time to describe our books, then hustle over to the next table for a short time to describe our books, then to the next table and so on. The idea is to make such a good impression on the school librarians that they’ll ask for a “second date” and invite us to their school to do a presentation sometime.

I will not be at all surprised if we get to the hotel tonight and Cheryl recognizes someone she knows in the lobby. Any time I am in a crowd with Cheryl and she sees someone that maybe just kind of sort of looks familiar, she does what any other self-respecting middle child would do: she approaches them and introduces herself. And if they don’t happen to be the people she thought they were, Her warm smile and friendly greeting wins them over, and she’s made a new friend. Its amazing.

And really, Cheryl is amazing. She was a teenager when our dad died, waitressed at Mario’s through high school and helped Flo raise we three younger ones. After she got married, she stayed in Elmhurst, our home town, and her house became a second home to us. She and her husband Rich raised three terrific kids, and now they have ten beautiful grandchildren. Cheryl is Flo’s caretaker, keeping track of her schedule and escorting her to all of her doctor visits.

And with all that going on (or maybe because all of that is going on?!) she’s agreed to this quick getaway with Harper and me, too. The quintessential last born self-centered youngest sister doesn’t say it nearly enough, but I really do appreciate everything Cheryl has done — and continues to do — for me. Once we’re “all aboard” I’m going to have her join Harper and me (and all the people she will recognize or meet!) in the club car for a toast. Here’s to Cheryl, and to all the other middle children I love so much. Cheers!

Number one

That's my great-niece Lydia showing off Anthony's illustrations.

Our eight-hour train trip to Minnesota on Thursday gave me lots of time to think. Doing the math on my fingers, I counted one, two, three, four years since our last trip to Minneapolis.

Our 2006 trip was all about meeting Anthony LeTourneau, the artist Blue Marlin Publications had chosen to illustrate Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. Tony lives with his wife and three kids on a Minnesota hobby farm 12 hours away from Chicago. Early that summer, Tony had asked my husband Mike to take photos of Hanni and me and mail them so he could get to work. “I’ll send some sample drawings back from time to time,” he told Mike. “That way you can check to see if I’m on the right track.”

A couple of the sketches Mike got in the mail were just a teeny bit off. Hanni’s harness is made of leather, but in the drawings it looked like plastic. In the illustration of Hanni confronting a hole in the sidewalk, Tony had Hanni’s body horizontally in front of me. Hanni is always at my left-hand side, a little bit ahead of me. When she stops, she stays facing forward. I stop, too, gliding one foot along the surface ahead of us to feel what’s there. If I don’t find a curb or the top step of a flight of stairs, or a hole at my feet, I wave one arm back and forth in space. Maybe Hanni saw yellow construction tape stretched along our path. Or a low hanging branch. Or a sawhorse.

I knew Tony would get a better “picture” of how the two of us work if he saw us in person, so on a beautiful autumn day in 2006 Hanni and I boarded a Megabus full of college students and took off on a ten-hour trip to Minneapolis. My niece Caren, who lives in Plymouth, MN, delivered us to a coffee shop where Tony and his family were waiting to meet us. His sketch pad and pencils were all set up already, and he didn’t waste time before asking us to pose. He photographed us, too. When Hanni needed a break outside, Tony followed us, taking notes on how Hanni and I work together. People in the coffee shop thought we were from Hollywood, and, I must admit, we did feel like stars.

Just about everyone who sees Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound now gushes about the artwork. “The illustrations are beautiful!” they say, admiring each and every oil painting. “The drawings look just like you!” So last Thursday, four years after posing in that Minnesota coffee shop, Hanni and I were back in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes to show off our beautifully illustrated book.

My sister Cheryl accompanied Hanni and me on our Amtrak ride to St. Paul, and just like in 2006, my niece (Cheryl’s daughter) was our chauffeur. Caren and her husband Mark have two delightful daughters, and it was a joy to visit Lydia and Audrey’s classrooms at Zachary Lane Elementary School on Friday.

And Audrey got her turn in her kindergarten class.

It was Audrey’s job to sit at my side and choose which kindergarten classmate would ask the next question. My favorite came after I’d explained that Hanni doesn’t scratch the door when she wants to go outside. “I need to be sure to take her out every four hours, though” I said, hesitating a second to decide what wording was appropriate here with kindergartners. “You know, to give her a chance to go #1 and #2. I sensed the kids nodding their heads. Some typical questions followed. “How old is Hanni?” “Does she like to play with other dogs?” That sort of thing.

Then came the question du jour, from a boy near the front of the class. “What is #1?” he wondered. I turned to Audrey for help. “What would you call it?” I asked. She looked at the boy in the second row, and using her quiet inside voice, gave a one-word answer. “Pee.”

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