Posts Tagged 'Urbana'

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!”

Mondays with Mike: You may find yourself in a beautiful house…

That's 14-year-old Hanni on the left, 5-year-old Harper on the right, and Whitney with her back to the camera.

That’s 14-year-old Hanni on the left, 5-year-old Harper on the right, and Whitney with her back to the camera. (Photo by Larry Melton.)

Sunday was dogapalooza in the suburbs. Beth and I and Whitney took the train to Wheaton, where our friends Steven and Nancy, with Hanni in tow all the way from Urbana, picked us up. From there, it was on to Chris and Larry’s, where Hanni, Harper and Whitney—Beth’s last three Seeing Eye dogs—met and rollicked until they and we were exhausted. Continue reading ‘Mondays with Mike: You may find yourself in a beautiful house…’

There’s still time to get passive

Passive House Institute US , the non-profit organization my husband Mike Knezovich works for, is holding it’s 7th Annual North American Passive House conference at the Marriott Hotel in Denver next week, and Whitney and I are going along for the ride.

That’s a home built to the passive house standard in Bethesda, Md.

Passive house is a building energy standard — the most stringent such standard, to be exact. To be certified as a Passive House, a building has to fall below a certain threshold when it comes to the energy required to heat and cool it to comfortable levels. The principles behind passive house  were developed in the 1970s at places like the Small Homes Research Council at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When interest in conservation waned in the United States in the 1980s, the Germans picked up the ball and developed what in Europe is called the Passivhaus standard and building method.

Katrin Klingenberg — a German-born and trained architect — came to Urbana to build her own passive House  as a proof of concept nearly 10 years ago. Since then, she founded Passive House Institute US and has built a community of folks who are building these high-performance buildings around North America. Several hundred of these folks will be getting together in Denver next week.

I’ll be spinning my wheels to  keep up with all these architects, builders, engineers, policy makers,
and academics in the Mile High City next week — trust me, I’m no Passive House expert! I hear about it often enough to be able to tell you this much, though: Windows on houses that meet passive house energy standards usually face the southern sun, but the passive house goes a lot further. Passive house construction uses thick walls and super-insulation — a wall of a passive house is about three times as thick as a typical building. The buildings are super-tight; they use tape-sealed construction to keep cold out, and heat in, during the winter. Vice-versa during the summer. That means air doesn’t leak in or out through cracks and holes. You can open the windows on nice days if you want, but the air quality inside is still fine when the windows are closed — there is a constant, low level ventilator operating. And it uses a heat exchanger so that exhaust air (already heated) transfers heat energy to the incoming air. Mike told me that some homes are heated with the equivalent of a blow dryer. Most don’t need a conventional furnace — or cooling system.

Mike’s been in a bunch of these houses and he says they’re really comfortable and quiet. He wants to live in one someday, and I like the idea, too.  Sound interesting? Well, then maybe you should join us at the conference to learn more! I happen to know there’s still time to sign up (I have connections). For more information, email (pssst, email sent to that address goes to Mike).

Life Itself

The great Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself comes out today, and I’m eager to read it. From what I’ve heard, he writes a lot about his middle-class Midwestern upbringing in Urbana, Ill., a place Mike and I were proud to call home for many, many years, and the town where our son Gus was born. Ebert was born in Urbana in 1942. Early reviews say he glows about his dad, an electrician at the University of Illinois, in his book.

You might remember me glowing about Roger Ebert in a post I wrote when he was given an award from Access Living, a disability advocacy organization here in Chicago. Access Living’s Lead On award “recognizes national leaders who have helped reframe the understanding of people with disabilities and who have helped to remove the barriers–physical and attitudinal–that exclude people with disabilities from career pursuits and everyday life.”

Roger Ebert represents the very embodiment of what the award stands for. Thyroid cancer has left him unable to speak. He has no lower jaw, and friends tell me his face can be difficult to look at. Others might stay inside, slow down, retire. Not Roger. He just keeps on doing the work he loves–reviewing movies, blogging, attending film festivals and continuing to manage his own festival, too.

I pretty much gave up on movies after I lost my sight. Until Roger Ebert started his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign Urbana, that is. Mike, Gus and I were living in Urbana at the time, and the before-and-after lectures made the overlooked films more accessible to people like me. My guess is Roger didn’t have people with disabilities in mind when he decided to host talks and panels before and after films there, but hey, ain’t life grand when ideas like that turn out to be “universal design?!” Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, affectionately known as “Ebertfest” by locals, helped me realize I can still appreciate movies.

Roger Ebert uses a text-to-speech program called “Alex” to make presentations at film festivals and conferences now. “For me, the Internet began as a useful tool and now has become something I rely on for my actual daily existence,” he told an audience at the Ted Conference earlier this year, explaining why he considers himself fortunate to be born in this era. “[If this had happened before], I’d be isolated as a hermit; I’d be trapped inside my head. Because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not have to scream.”

I can relate. I mean, sure, technology can be annoying at times. For many of us with disabilities, however, technology is a lifesaver. Thank you, Roger Ebert, for the courage and fortitude you’ve shown in getting your voice heard. We all benefit from hearing your reviews, and now, thanks to technology–my Victor Reading Stream and the National Library Service–I can look forward to reading your life story, too.

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!”

Mike’s gone passive on me

One night when Mike and I were still living in Urbana, we sprung for a babysitter and headed to a nearby bar to hear some live music. The band was fun, the place was packed, and two young strangers invited us to share their table.

That's a just-completed residence built to the Passive House standard, in Salem, Ore.

Through the din of the band and the beer we managed to make conversation and discover that the two of them were newlyweds, both working as architects in Chicago. Katrin was born in Germany. Nic was born near Urbana. They were in town that weekend looking for an inexpensive empty lot where they could build something called a Passive House. I couldn’t make out Nic’s explanation of what a Passive House was, exactly, but before the night ended, Katrin had slipped a business card to Mike, and we promised we’d let them know if we heard of any property for sale.

The next time we saw Katrin, she was a widow. Nic had an undiagnosed brain tumor. He died suddenly. Unexpectedly. Katrin

That's Katrin Klingenberg.

left Chicago and moved to Urbana alone, determined to build a Passive House in Nic’s memory.

The Passive House concept began in Germany and represents today’s most stringent — most aggressive, you might say  — building energy standard. Buildings are constructed or retrofitted to cut the standard slash heating/cooling energy consumption by a whopping 90%. Windows usually face the southern sun, but the Passive House goes a lot further. Passive House construction uses thick walls and super-insulation —  a wall of a Passive House is about three times as thick as a typical  building. The buildings are super-tight; they use tape-sealed construction to keep cold out, and heat in, during the winter. Vice-versa during the summer. That means air doesn’t leak in or out through cracks and holes. But the air quality is still fine — there is a constant, low level ventilator operating. And it uses a heat exchanger so that exhaust air (already heated) transfers heat energy to the incoming air. Mike told me that some homes are heated with the equivalent of a blow dryer. Most don’t need a conventional furnace — or cooling system. Katrin told me that if Americans started using the Passive House design it would help energy conservation in the United States, her new home.

Twenty-five thousand certified passive structures — from schools and commercial buildings to homes and apartment houses — have been built in Europe. Katrin Klingenberg’s Smith House, completed in Urbana in 2002, was the very first Passive House built in the United States. Her determination to get the Passive House standard, literally, off the ground in America did not end with the completion of the Smith House. Local builder Mike Kernagis pitched in on other Passive House projects in Urbana, and in 2007, he and Katrin founded a non-profit called Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). They asked my Mike to sit on the board, and he’s been involved ever since. Since the completion of Smith House, more Passive House structures have been built in the United States, with more in the works. From a story in last September’s New York Times:

Ms. Klingenberg echoes many building science experts when she calls for more rigorous standards for energy-efficiency benchmarks, particularly if there is to be any hope of tackling the environmental and climate problems related to the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. “We have to stop using halfway measures,” she says. “Each new building that we don’t go all the way with now is putting us deeper in the hole.” Ms. Klingenberg was a co-founder of the institute in 2008, intending it as a domestic outlet for the design philosophy espoused for the last 14 years by the passive-house movement’s official sanctioning body, the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany.

To date, Passive House Institute-U.S. has educated about 160 builders, architects and engineers in the standard through a series of training programs and a final certification exam. By year-end, the number is expected to be 300, and Ms. Klingenberg said the institute was having difficulty meeting demand for its courses.

The PHIUS board is meeting in Chicago this weekend, and of course Mike will be attending. Not as a board member, though — as an employee! PHIUS needed someone else on staff to help meet the growing demand for information on the Passive House energy standard, and in January they hired Mike as Director of Marketing and Outreach. Learn more about Passive House Institute U.S. in a February article in USA Today and in another recent article in the Chicago Tribune.

If you like what you read, check out the PHIUS Web site or the PHIUS Facebook page.

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.

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