Posts Tagged 'New Orleans Public Library'

Use your Mardi Gras voice

In my husband Mike Knezovich’s guest blog post about our trip to New Orleans last week, he described the “terrifyingly energetic” group of pre-schoolers who showed up to meet Whitney and me at the Latter branch of the New Orleans Public Library. What he forgot to mention was that a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune showed up, too – along with a photographer!

Reporter Leigh Stewart had already interviewed me over the phone before Whitney and I arrived at the library, which was a good thing: she wouldn’t have gotten a word in at the event with all those curious kids there.

Valentine and I regale the kids.

From the Times-Picayune article:

At the library, Finke spoke to the children briefly, read a section of a Braille version of “Hanni and Beth” and invited the children to ask questions.

A class of sparkly-eyed kindergarteners from Morris Jeff Community School were among the most enthusiastic participants, asking questions such as “‘How do you know when to cross the street?” and “How does your dog know a good person from a bad person?” One youngster even asked all in attendance to quiet down, as he thought Whitney was trying to sneak a quick nap.

This boy’s schoolmates took him seriously, using ssuch hushed tones that their teachers had to encourage them to use their “Mardi Graas voices” so I could hear their questions. Kindergarten teacher Ashley Millet was quoted in the Times-Picayune story saying that their class is learning about rules and regulations, so our library visit made for a perfect field trip. “They get to see that even dogs have rules,” Millet said with a laugh.

I did emphasize rules in my talk with the kids, and after I told them the rule about not calling out Whitney’s name while she’s working, I suggested we come up with a fake name to use for her while we were there. “If you use her fake name to say hi to Whitney, she wont’ notice,” I said. “She’ll think you’re talking to someone else!”

The day of our visit was February 14, so I suggested we call her “Valentine.” All the kids loved the idea. Well, except for one. She raised her hand and objected. “It’s not nice to call names,” she said. Touché.

Contributing writer Leigh Stuart did a terrific job capturing the sweet spirit of the children in her Times-Picayune article, and if you link to the entire story online you can admire the pictures staff photographer Rusty Costanza took that day. From what Mike tells me, the photos are sweet, too!

A toast to talking books and to libraries

That's the Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans

February is Love Your Library month, and I’m celebrating in style: I’m in New Orleans with Mike and Whitney, and tomorrow morning I’m the guest storyteller at the Milton H. Latter Memorial Branch of the New Orleans Public Library.

I am, and have always been, a huge fan of books and libraries. I am among millions of American kids who remember looking forward to trips to the library for a new stack of books to bring home every week. Flo flushes with embarrassment when she recalls dropping me off at the library one evening before heading to the grocery store, coming home and putting those groceries away, then realizing she’d forgotten to pick me up. “There you were, waiting all that time at the library door with your pile of books!” She says. “I felt terrible!” No reason for Flo to feel bad — I was in seventh heaven! I was so busy flipping through the pages and anticipating which new book I’d start first, I didn’t even realize she was late.

When surgeons told me in 1986 that the eye surgeries hadn’t worked and I’d never see again, one of my first concerns was how I would survive without being able to read. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) came to my rescue.

The Library of Congress administers NLS, a talking-book and Braille program available for free to those of us whose low vision, blindness, or physical handicap makes reading regular print difficult. A few years ago Woman’s Day Magazine published an essay I wrote about the talking Book Program, and that essay is still available on the American library Association’s “I Love Libraries” web site.

NLS mails books and magazines in audio and in Braille directly to enrollees at no cost. These days some materials are also available online for download, which means I can keep up with my book club — I’m the only one in the group who can’t see, and thanks to the new digital NLS program I don’t have to wait long to read new releases anymore.

When I was at the Seeing Eye training with Whitney I met a woman who loves — and uses — the talking book program even more than I do. If you watched that short one-minute Seeing Eye promotional video I linked to in a previous post, you saw Karen Keninger — she’s the graduate who gets a little teary-eyed in the video. On our last night of training, Karen and I sat down together over a glass of wine to talk about books and writing. She was heading home to Iowa the next morning (Karen is director of the Iowa Department for the Blind) but then getting on a plane again with her new Seeing Eye dog Jimi the very next day. “I have a job interview in Washington, DC.,” she said to me in a hushed tone, explaining that she was being considered for the position of Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

The folks at the Library of Congress obviously liked what they saw. Karen got the job. People who can read print may not think much of this position, but to those of us who rely on NLS, this appointment is absolutely huge. I was sworn to secrecy about this new appointment until Karen passed security clearance, and she emailed over the weekend to tell me it’s official.

Karen Keninger was born and raised in Vinton, Iowa, the third of seven children in a happy and lively farming family. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and was completely blind by the age of 20. She graduated from Drake University in 1973 with a B.A. in Journalism and went back to school and graduated in 1991 with a masters degree in English. She served as Rehabilitation Consultant with the Iowa Department for the Blind, Program Administrator for the Iowa Library for the Blind and Director of the Iowa Department for the Blind before accepting her new position. In addition to all of that, she raised six, count them, six children!

I could go on and on about Karen Keninger, but hey, this is my last night in New Orleans, and Mike, Whitney and I are heading out to meet friends for one last decadent meal, and we’ll toast to Karen then. What a comfort it is to know that my beloved National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped will be in such good hands.

Practice makes perfect

Last month I published a post about two trips I took to New York City with Whitney during our training. Here’s an excerpt:

I am happy to report that corrections don’t shake her confidence. “Oh, you meant for me to turn into Penn Station, Beth?” she seemed to say once. “Well, then, let’s back up a few steps and do it again, get it right this time.”

Those two NYC trips were part of the “freelance” period of our training: during our last week at the Seeing Eye, instructors expose us to some of the specific things they know we’ll be facing once we return home. The confidence I gained working with Whitney in NYC is coming in handy here in Chicago.

I work part-time for Easter Seals, and their headquarters is located in Willis Tower (the tower formerly known as Sears). Our route to work involves going down steps to the Blue Line El stop (we don’t take the subway, I just use the stop to go under a very busy street), and then coming up the steps on the other side before embarking on a seven-block walk of lefts and rights. Once we get near the entrance of the building, I feel for a dip up and down to indicate we’ve crossed the entrance to a parking garage, suggest left, avoid the revolving door and find the button to open the accessible door instead, and…voila! We’re there!

My husband Mike trailed us on our first trial run to Willis. The next day, Whitney and I did it on our own. Whitney was a trooper, and she handled all the city hustle-bustle with eagerness and confidence.

Whit and I headed back to Willis Tower last Wednesday. A friend met us there to help me teach Whit how to get through security, navigate the lobby, go through the turnstiles, find the elevator, head to Easter Seals reception desk, find my cubicle. We went through the route more than once, and the third time was the charm. “Good girl, Whitney! You got it!”

A lot of temptation for a pooch who likes kids (photo courtesy of The Seeing Eye).

The next challenge: children. I visit a lot of schools with my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, so while I was still training with Whitney at the Seeing Eye, Jim Kessler (one of the Senior Managers of Instruction) arranged for me to visit his daughter’s elementary school in New Jersey.

The gymnasium was empty when we arrived, and I had Whitney follow Jim to a seat. After I sat down, I commanded Whitney to do the same. “Whitney, down!” She lay down and stayed still. Until the kids marched in, that is. That’s when she started crying.

”Great,” I thought. “She’s not afraid of Penn Station, but she’s afraid of kids!” This did not bode well for my career as a children’s book author. “Rest!” I told Whitney. She whined and sat up. “Whitney, sit!” She stood up and tried to wrangle out of her harness. I panicked. Jim Kessler to the rescue! “Put your finger under her collar,” he suggested, his voice totally calm. “Lift the collar closer to her ears.” It worked. She settled in and lay down at my feet. By the time we got to the Q&A part of my presentation, Whitney was asleep.

I’d assumed Whitney was scared of all those kids crowding her space in the gymnasium, but it turns out she likes kids. The reason she cried in the gym? I wouldn’t let her play! We don’t run across a whole lotta kids in our Chicago neighborhood, but any time we do, Whitney loses focus, turns towards the kid and invites them to play.

Well, I should say, that’s what she did when she first came home with me. Since then I’ve learned to snap a quick “leave it!” any time I hear a kids voice anywhere near us, then snap the leash if Whitney ignores my command and lunges towards them anyway. Whitney is a quick learner. She’s starting to leave kids alone.

I already have a number of presentations scheduled at elementary schools, colleges and conferences in 2012, plus a return to the children’s section of the Milton H. Latter Branch of the New Orleans Public Library in February. Whitney’s first test will come later this month at a disability awareness presentation for thirdsecond graders at Kipling Elementary School in Deerfield, IL. Let’s hope she gets an A.

Our entire visit to New Orleans was worth it…

That's the Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans

…just for this one moment. Eliot Kamenitz, a photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, came to my appearance at the Latter Library. His photos are terrific by all accounts, and you can see one of his best — and the whole gallery — at Nola.com.
To my blind readers: this is a photo taken by Eliot Kamenitz at the Times-Picayune. It shows the happy face of one of the kids at our appearance at the Ladder Branch of the New Orleans Public Library. The little boy is lying on the ground, face to face with Harper, and is entranced.

I’ll be back

Seth and Bess, our hosts

That's Seth and Bess, our gracious hosts and dear friends. Oh, the crawfish pasta was the best thing we've eaten on this trip to New Orleans so far, high praise indeed.

Talk about being at the right place at the right time! We landed in New Orleans late Saturday night, and we were scheduled to fly home after my presentation at the New Orleans Public Library (Milton H Latter Branch) tomorrow. But poor me, we may have to stay a few more days. From a National Weather Service Report:

The first phase of the upcoming winter storm will begin Monday afternoon and continue into Tuesday morning for portions of Northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana. The focus then turns towards the larger event beginning Tuesday afternoon and continuing through Wednesday.

Over 18 inches of snow is predicted for Chicago, and officials are warning those traveling through O’Hare to change their flight plans if possible. Yesterday morning we had no idea this storm was brewing, so like always, we packed everything we could into the short period of time we’d be here. In one day, I

  • inhaled some shrimp and grits (with a biscuit on the side, of course!) for breakfast at Lüke
  • felt chills listening to a God-fearing man belt out his own heartfelt rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” outside of Café du Monde
  • smelled the beautiful aroma coming from flowers and trees while passing by not just one, not two but three lush city parks on our walk to Stein’s Market and Deli on Magazine Street
  • raced through the rain (not snow–rain!) to get to our friends Bess and Seth’s long, narrow, and sweet shotgun of a house in the Carrollton neighborhood
  • took in the smell of green peppers and onions cooking in butter as Bess cooked up a crawfish fettuccini (she got the crawfish at her local grocery store)
  • danced to the blues at DBA after dinner.

As I wrote in a blog post long ago, New Orleans truly is a blind woman’s paradise.

Before leaving Chicago on this trip I happened to flip on the radio and caught the first part of a series by BBC reporter Peter White. He’s traveling around the world on his own and documenting his experiences. But here’s the rub: Peter White is blind. Peter’s first stop was San Francisco, and he said that he appreciated people taking special steps to make sightseeing more interesting for him. But sometimes, the saying about good intentions is true. From Peter White:

Specially recorded tapes for blind people, rails to follow so that you can go round unaided, a huge revolution in what you’re allowed to touch. In the desperate attempts of people to make me interested in ‘sightseeing’, I’ve clambered over Henry Moore sculptures, climbed the rigging in ships which felt as if they’d split asunder if I took another step, and listened to endless recordings of groaning doors and booming cannons in the attempt to make history come to life for me. 

The plain fact is, though, that however good the intentions, touch is not sight – and once you’ve run your hands over one piece of ancient stone, one stuccoed wall, one marble floor, well, you’ve touched them all.

The problem with touch really is that the hand is too small. You can only touch one little bit at a time. There’s too much missing; a sense of size, colour, perspective, visual contrast. With the best will in the world, you are playing at being able to see, and for me, that kind of self-deception has never cut any ice.
This, nevertheless, does not mean that travelling, visiting and poking about in other people’s cultures cannot be enormous fun for a blind person. It’s just that I think you have to be honest about what is fun, and what isn’t.

I agree! I love Peter White’s attitude, and I enjoyed his travelogue, I just wish he’d picked the right city to visit when coming through the United States. While Peter White may have Left his Heart in San Francisco, I Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.

Don’t worry, Chicago. I’ll be back. Just not absolutely sure when.


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