Posts Tagged 'Champaign'

The Hanni hop

Nancy has the full attention of both the 6-year-old and the 16-year-old. Or, the treat does.

Nancy has the full attention of both the 6-year-old and the 16-year-old. Or, the treat does.

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I took an Amtrak train to Central Illinois Monday to give a presentation to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. While there in Urbana, we looked in on retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni. Her human companions Nancy and Steven report The 16-year-old star of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound is still going strong.

Steven and Nancy hosted their families for Thanksgiving this year and headed to Homer Lake at a nearby forest reserve afterward to walk their dinner off. Hanni came along, and when they took her leash off, she took off for a run.

“Well,” Nancy conceded. “It was more of a lope.” Hanni suffers from joint pain in her back hips, but Steven says the female Golden Retriever/Black Lab cross is still determined to go for runs around the lake. “She’s learned to lift up both back legs together and hop while she pulls herself ahead with her front legs,” he marveled. “She ran like a rabbit for more than a mile!”

Good and tired

That's us at the Drummond Thomas Montessori school, one of several gigs last week.

That’s us at the Drummond Thomas Montessori school, one of several gigs last week.

Whitney and I visited four different classes at Drummond Thomas Montessori School in Chicago last Wednesday morning. After I told one class that even when my eyes are open, all I see is the color black, one preschooler wondered, “Then how do you know when you’re tired?”

I can tell you this much: I’m pretty tired right now! Stimulated, too –Whitney and I traveled nearly 500 miles last week giving presentations everywhere from Central Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin:

  • Tuesday we were in Champaign, Ill., giving a guest lecture in an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois
  • Wednesday we were at that Montessori School
  • Thursday we spoke to students enrolled in a disability studies class at DePaul University here in Chicago
  • Friday we took an Amtrak train to Milwaukee to give the keynote and lead a workshop for an organization called Vision Forward

That Vision Forward conference is all about kids in the public schools who are blind. Many of their parents, some grandparents, and teachers and other staff members who work with them attended the writing workshop I gave after my keynote. These folks hav a lot to say, and I hope the workshop encouraged them to get some of their thoughts down on paper. It’s amazing how therapeutic writing can be.

Oh, and about the keynote: I ended it with that seven-minute Good Stuff video. If you’ve seen What’s it Like to Go Blind? you might recall the part where there’s a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces on the screen? One mom came up afterwards to compliment the visuals and ask for the YouTube address. “We have such trouble explaining what our daughter’s vision is like,” she said. “Those missing puzzle pieces, that’s a perfect way to describe it.”

I signed books after my keynote and workshop were over, and it was no surprise that we sold more Braille copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound than print ones.

While a 9-year-old who is blind waited for me to Braille my name into his book, he asked a question about Whitney’s harness. I took it off, let Simon check it out firsthand. He returned it when he was done, and before I buckled it back on, I asked, “You want to pet her?” He sure did, and Whitney wriggled and wagged and kissed Simon in return. Don’t look now, but I think we have a future guide dog user on our hands.

Whitney and I had a lot of fun and made a lot of new friends last week, and now that we’re home, you know what? Somehow, someway, even without being able to see, I know we’re both tired!

Working like dogs

A couple weeks ago I was interviewed for a show on Pet Life Radio: “the #1 Pet Podcast WiFi radio network.” I just love that tag line.

You can hear the “Working Like Dogs” show online now — I was interviewed by a lovely woman who has spina bifida, and her service Dog Whistle was at her side for the entire interview. We spend the first part of the show talking about the work our dogs do. The second half is devoted to the different jobs I myself have held since losing my sight. From the Working Like Dogs web site:

She even shares one of her most humorous stories about how a woman who is blind and her guide dog landed a job as a nude model!

Ah, that infamous stint as a nude model. I must say, it did launch my career as a writer. Staying still for 50 minutes at a time for that job gave me a chance to think about my writing, how to reformulate a lead, how to get across a certain idea. I used that quiet time to put together an essay about my modeling experience. Nude Modeling: Goin’ In Blind was published in The Octopus, the alternative weekly newspaper in Champaign, Ill., and was picked up by alternative newspapers all over the country. I started writing regularly for the paper after that, and only quit working for them after Mike finished his master’s degree in journalism in 2002 and took over as senior editor.

Like so many other weekly newspapers, The Octopus is out of business now. Smile Politely (an online magazine in Champaign) published an oral history of The Octopus this week, and music editor Marci Dodds is quoted about an assignment she gave me to interview bar owners and find out the positives and negatives of hosting live music.

She {that’s me} was thorough — and very good at getting people to talk. Club owners, who had never been asked, had quite a lot to say. Even though she was balanced, the upshot of the piece wasn’t “all live musicians are wonderful and all club owners are greedy, bloodsucking pigs.” I think we pissed off every musician in town with that piece — and oh, my. The scathing letters I got! I had wanted to establish the music section as independent and maybe even a little provocative. I think I succeeded. Perhaps a smidge too well. I swear sometimes I think there are musicians in town who are still mad at me from that story.

What a nice compliment! I mean, I hate to think of musicians in Champaign still walking around angry, but I gotta admit: it was fun to read that oral history and realize that some of the work I — and especially Mike — did for the weekly alternative newspaper in Champaign is still recognized down there.

I am forever grateful to The Octopus for taking a chance on me as a writer eleven years ago — it truly launched my career. And now, when new writers ask me advice on how to get a career started, I can just laugh and tell them it’s easy. “All you have to do is model nude for art students!”

Sweet Home Urbana

Picture of Harper and Beth

There's the Harpster. He and Beth will be back in Sweet Home Chicago Wednesday.

So, the latest news from New Jersey is that Beth and Harper had a great time in Manhattan. Apparently Harper had already been to the city three or four times during his training and was unfazed by the throngs at the Port Authority; then he led Beth on a walk in Central Park, and had no problem threading himself and Beth through the holiday crowds on the sidewalks. Also, Beth had another friend visit at school today, and that means more Harper photos, one which I’ll post here.

But enough about Beth. Have I told you about me lately? I just got back from dropping Hanni off with Steven and Nancy at her new home in Urbana. I left last night after work, thinking I’d lucked out with weather. It was warmer than it’s been in awhile, and no snow or rain. Except with the warmth came a thick fog from the downstate snow cover, and visibility was next to nil for some stretches. But it’s not what you’d call a challenging drive (can you say straight and flat?), and I have driven that trip — literally — hundreds of times.

I was raised in a Chicago suburb, but Champaign-Urbana feels like my home town. That’s where I really grew up. I went to college there at the University of Illinois. I met Beth there. Most of my friends — to this day — are connected in some way to my time in C-U. Gus was born there. My big sister Kris — who has helped me stay relatively sane through the years —  lives there with her husband Ed, and Kris’s handsome son Aaron lives there with his photographer wife Joanna and their three kids, who are the cutest kids on earth.

That's nephew Aaron and Joanna with the brood at the Champaign County Fair. If you say they're not the best-looking kids on earth, you're in big trouble.

The university is at the center of life in C-U, and why not: It’s full of whip-smart people doing remarkable things. People like the late physicist John Bardeen — a two-time Nobel Laureate (once for the transistor, once for the theory of superconductivity). Writers like Richard Powers and our wonderful friend Jean Thompson — if you haven’t read her, you should. And you’re looking at this blog thanks to the University of Illinois — where Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, was developed. Let’s just say the U of I is one of the grandest of the grand land-grant institutions in the land.

Photo of Nancy scratching Hanni's belly.

That's Nancy and you know who.

Some of the best people in town don’t have a thing to do with university life. Two of them are our friends Steven and Nancy. Steven’s the head of a local arts group, and Nancy’s a nurse practitioner. They live in a sweet place on the edge of town in Urbana, and we’ve visited and stayed there — with Hanni — several times over the past few years.

All of which is why, despite my growing sense of dread over the days leading up to last night, delivering Hanni to her new home was not a sad ordeal. OK, OK, I almost broke down into mush while packing her squeak toys, food, doggie bed, and other paraphernalia. But driving south felt like I was driving her home.

When we got to Steven and Nancy’s house, Hanni got excited and pulled me to their front door. When it opened, I unhooked her leash and she pranced around like she owned the place. I brought her stuff in from the car and Hanni watched intently as I ceremonially handed the big bag of dog food to Steven, and she followed him as he stowed it away. Next, he placed her ratty old dog bed next to an easy chair. By now, Hanni was on her back having her belly scratched by Nancy. Minutes later, Hanni was lying in her bed, surrounded by squeak toys while the three of us humans enjoyed libations.

When it was time for bed, Steven took Hanni out for her last constitutional. Back in the house, he gave her her goodnight treat. I headed for bed, and so did Hanni — she followed Steven and Nancy and slept in their room. As if it had always been that way.

The night before — on her last night in Chicago — I took Hanni for a long walk. Only instead of heading south to the park, I took her into the teeth of downtown. On her old routes with Beth. At Madison Street, she stopped, looked at me, and pulled me west, toward the Ogilvie train station that she and Beth have been to countless times. On the way home, as we passed Sears Tower (yeah, I know it’s Willis Tower, but I’m not doin’ it), she pulled me to the entrance door. That’s where Beth goes for office meetings once a week. I scratched her head and we went along on our way.

As we neared home, we stopped with a huddle of others, all bundled up on a snowy Chicago evening, on their way home from work. As we waited for the light to change, a

Photo of Steven, Nancy, Hanni.

So I guess Hanni's going to adjust to life with Steven and Nancy.

woman in front of me bent down, looked Hanni in the face and said, “You are one beautiful city dog.”

That woman was absolutely right, but not anymore. Now Hanni’s one beautiful Urbana dog.

Getting your children’s book published

Wanna write a children’s book? Know someone who does? Seems like just about every person who reads aloud to a little kid considers, “Gee, maybe I could write one of these someday.”

Hanni and me at the University of Illinois quad.

Hanni and me at the University of Illinois quad.

If you’re one of those people, here’s your chance to find out how it’s done! On Wednesday I’m doing a presentation in Champaign, IL along with two other authors about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing books for children.We chose this particular Wednesday afternoon because it happens to be one of those shortened days at Champaign schools (they get out at noon) and we thought a lot of teachers and staff members might want to come. Hanni and I will spend Wednesday morning visiting our great nephew Kieran’s classroom at Westview Elementary in Champaign, then off to Jane Addams Bookshop for the afternoon presentation.

The two authors I’m appearing with are a bit more accomplished than I am when it comes to writing for children. Alice B. McGinty has had 40, count them, 40, fiction and non-fiction children’s books published. Her latest, Darwin, is illustrated by Mary Azarian, Caldecott Medal winner for Snowflake Bently. Sara Latta has had dozens of children’s books about science and medicine published. The Good, the Bad, the Slimy: The Secret Life of Microbes and Lava Scientist: Careers on the Edge of Volcanoes are two of my favorite titles.

I see my role Wednesday as representing the person who doesn’t see children’s book writing as a career, maybe, but has an idea for a story they think might sell. I’ll talk about how I thought through my idea, wrote a rough draft, revised the rough draft, researched the market to figure out where to send it out, revised the rough draft, piled up rejection letters, revised the rough draft and finally, finally found a publisher.

I guess what I’m saying here is that Alice and Sarah have a lot more experience (and many more books published!) than I do, so they’ll be able to speak more on making a career of writing children’s books, working with agents and/or different publishers, that sort of thing. We’ll make a good team, I’m sure of that! We’ll all be available afterwards, too, to sign books for anyone interested. If you live anywhere near Champaign, I hope you’ll come:

May 12 (Wednesday), 1 p.m.
Jane Addams Bookshop
How to Get a Children’s Book Published
Panel discussion with fellow children’s book authors Alice McGinty and Sara Latta
208 North Neil Street
Champaign, IL 61820-4013

Champaign Bubbles

Book CoverMemoir Book CoverHanni’s breed may have been important to the Amtrak reservation agent last week (see my previous post) but my fellow passengers Thursday night couldn’t have cared less. The City of New Orleans train was sold out. Everyone was more interested in finding a place to sit than checking out the dog at my feet.
The ride went quickly. We got to Champaign on time. It was a good omen.
Every single thing Hanni and I did after our arrival in Champaign-Urbana went beautifully. We breezed down the sidewalks, crunching on fallen leaves, Hanni remembering all our routes. We ran into old friends everywhere we went – at WILL Radio, at Edison Middle School, at Urbana Free Library, and especially at Jane Addams Bookstore.
Hanni and I signed and Brailled my name – and rubber stamped Hanni’s paw – onto 40 books. We sold out. People were still waiting in line. What to do? Sign and stamp book plates instead!
Customers brought the autographed plates to the cash register and paid in advance for their copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. They’ll affix their bookplates into the front page once the books arrive.
I signed and stamped 39 book plates. My friend Judy, who assisted Hanni and me, joked that now people are paying just to have me sign slips of paper.
Forty books sold, 39 books promised. Plus I even signed six copies of my first book, Long Time, No See. That makes a total of 85 books! It was all extremely flattering. And great fun.
To top it all off, the weather in Champaign-Urbana was absolutely sensational. Mike drove down from Chicago to join Hanni and me Friday night. He still stores his motorcycle in Urbana, and he was able to take Buster the BMW out for a spin to the forest preserve Saturday while Hanni and I were buzzing around town on foot. Just like old times!
An excerpt from that first book, Long Time, No See helps explain:
“I’d fallen in love with the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana back in my freshman year at the University of Illinois. It didn’t matter that there was nowhere to hike or canoe, or that the campus was surrounded by, even included, corn and soybean fields. It seemed a vibrant place. I was caught up in the rush of thirty-five thousand students hustling from class to class. Now, working full-time there, I was every bit as fond of it….Champaign-Urbana may lack a striking natural beauty—it defines the word “flat,” and the creek that trickles through it, more of a drainage ditch, is known as The Boneyard. But what the two towns have, especially Urbana, is trees. Huge, magnificent old maples and oaks with an unearthly gift for turning brilliant scarlet and sunset yellow. A few white clouds set against a deep sky on a fall afternoon—we could watch them indefinitely from our vantage point on the porch swing.”
Hanni and I didn’t find much time to rest on a porch swing this visit, but boy, we sure enjoyed Champaign-Urbana. Thanks to all of you who greeted us on the street, listened to us on the radio, joined us for a lunch (or a beer or wine!), chauffeured us around, or stood in line for books. We are two very lucky gals.

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