The right dog at the right time

April 21, 20178 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, Dora, guide dogs, Hanni, Harper, public speaking, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, visiting schools, Whitney

Just got back from Champaign, Illinois — I gave a presentation to an Animal Sciences class at the University of Illinois yesterday. I speak to this class once a semester, and this time I spent a fair amount of the hour going over some of the qualifications necessary to become a guide dog instructor.

Most guide dog schools require instructors to have a college degree and then do an apprenticeship, and apprenticeships can last as long as four years. I hope I did a decent job explaining how complicated it can be to train dogs, train people, and then make a perfect match between the human and canine. That way the college kids might appreciate why the apprenticeships last so long.

Once apprentices finish their training and become full-time Seeing Eye Instructors, they’re assigned a string (a group) of dogs and given four months to train that string. Throughout the training, instructors pay close attention to each dog’s pace and pull, and they make careful notes about how each dog deals with distractions, what their energy level is, and all sorts of other characteristics. And then? We blind students fly in from all over North America to be matched — and trained — with a new dog.

Photo of Whitney and Hanni.

Whitney and Hanni have an aloof tolerance for one another, but not much more. Whit wants to roughhouse. Hanna the doyenne is so over that. (Photo: Nancy Bolero.)

Seeing Eye instructors have to be as good at evaluating people as they are evaluating dogs. Our instructors review our applications before we arrive on the campus in Morristown and then ask us tons more questions when we get there. Instructors take us on “Juno” walks (they hold the front of the harness to guide us through all sorts of scenarios to get an idea of how fast we like to walk and how strong of a pull we’ll want from our dog). After that they combine all of this information with what they know about their string of dogs, talk it over with fellow instructors and the team supervisor, mix in a little bit of gut instinct, and voila! A match is formed.

Each Seeing Eye instructor trains more dogs than they’ll need for a class. If a dog has a pace, pull, or energy level that doesn’t match with a blind person in the current class, that dog remains on campus with daily walks and care, and perhaps more training, until the next class arrives. My first dog was one of those Seeing Eye dogs who went through a second round of training before she was matched with me. Back in 1991, the Seeing Eye knew that the dog they matched me with would be landing in the home of a very unique five-year-old boy named Gus, and that the dog would be in the hands of a woman who had never had a dog before. They must have figured Pandora would need all the extra training she could get!

Hanni was the perfect dog for everything going on during her years with me. We stayed overnight with this 17-year-old wonder and her people Nancy and Steven while we were there in Urbana, and I can assure you, that girl is enjoying her retirement. Yellow Lab Harper saved me from getting hit by a car on State Street and retired early. The most dangerous encounter he’s had since was with a skunk in the leafy suburb he lives in with his people Larry and Chris now. My fourth dog Whitney had big paws to fill, and she’s managed beautifully.

My seven-year-old Golden/Labrador Retriever cross is a hard worker who loves to play as much as she loves to work. Her curiosity gets her in trouble sometimes, but when she guides me down busy Chicago streets, she is directed, determined, and driven. The only time she lollygags? When she realizes we’re heading back home. She wants to go, go, go! Whitney’s confidence is contagious, and she’s smart enough to know when to bend the rules without getting in trouble. So Whitney and I make a good match — we see eye to eye.

My upcoming book Writing Out Loud will include stories of all these dogs and more, and you can get a sneak peek of a short chapter online now by signing up for my newsletter here.

Mondays with Mike: An affordable luxury

April 17, 20176 CommentsPosted in baseball, Mondays with Mike

There are a lot of things I love about going to White Sox games. For one, it’s easy from where we live—three stops on the Red Line. Door to door it’s 15-20 minutes.

And it’s always fun to ride with fellow fans, as well as the out-of-towners wearing their colors. On the walk from the L stop to the gate, there’s a cacophony of vendors and people looking for or hawking tickets.

Entering the park, there’s the smell of onions and peppers and various encased meat on the grill. And there’s eating said encased meat, sometimes meats. With a beer. Sometimes beers.

And, best of all, I can afford it. Especially in April.

The White Sox offer this thing called a Ballpark Pass. You download the Ballpark app to your phone. You pay $39.95. And you can go to all 10 April home games. That’s a  hair less than $4 a game. I know this because one of the dates was postponed and I received a very nice email the next day notifying me that I was being refunded my $3 and change for the lost date. So, you can well afford to not get to all the April home games and still be way ahead.

The seat locations show up on your phone a few hours before game time. So you might end up in the upper deck, but so far, we’ve gotten good lower deck locations. For another $25 you could add an opening day ticket. Beth and I skipped the opener (thank goodness, as it was cold and rainy and ultimately postponed). But we bought two passes this year, and I’ve already been to two games.

Last Saturday was the first sunny, warm day in forever, and our friend Patrick subbed for Beth, as she was toiling, toiling on her writing. We sat in the sun. We talked baseball some of the time. We just sat quietly taking in the chatter around some of the time. And we ate encased meats and drank beer some of the time. (I will add that it didn’t take Patrick very long to eat his—he could hold his own in an eating contest.)

I walked out of there about as relaxed and content as I have been in a long time.

Then Sunday, we bicycled down with our pals Jim and Janet. Sundays are family promotion days for the Sox—cheap tickets and cheap parking and cheap food—and there are a ton of families and kids there doing kid things like eating ice cream, and asking endless questions about the quirks of the game, like why a player can hit the ball a long way and still be out.

And I rode home as content and relaxed as I’d been since, well, the day before.

When’s the last time someone asked you to keep talking?

April 16, 20176 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Mike Knezovich, writing

My next book Writing Out Loud will be out by early May. I’d cross my fingers for good luck on that statement if they weren’t already occupied – I’m still busy typing last-minute revisions and rewrites! Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description–it’s straight from the Books by Beth Finke page:

Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors is the touching story of Beth’s experience teaching older adults how to capture their stories on paper – and deliver them aloud to their classmates.

In this memoir that reads like a novel, you will come to love the men and women whose poignant memories intertwine with Beth’s. Through telling their stories, the members of her classes come to know each other and connect more deeply with their own families. The experience is rich with life lessons for both students and teacher.

I’ve been meeting with Nancy Sayre, my editor at Golden Alley Press (a small independent publisher outside of Philadelphia) over the phone every week since we signed the contract last year, and her counsel over the phone has been indispensable. She’s made me feel like we’ve been friends for years, but, truth is, we hadn’t met face-to-face until last week.

Nancy was in town to meet with her Chicago writers, and my time slot was Sunday. She and I spent time together, and when Mike joined us for lunch at Blackie’s afterwards, he and I slid into a booth across from Nancy. As she quietly looked over the menu, Mike and I got involved in some lackluster discussion about the mechanics of our lives;  whether I was going to go swimming that afternoon, when he might go grocery shopping that day, whether he’d finished the crossword puzzle that morning. When I got a sense Nancy had made her lunch decision, I nudged Mike under the table and looked her way. “Oh, keep talking,” she said. “It helps me know how you two are when you’re together.” She said it might help when she’s editing, so we did as she asked.

I got a good laugh about that later. Gee, Mike and I have a reputation among people who know us firsthand for talking a lot. Can’t explain where that comes from, but I’m fairly confident that day in that booth with Nancy Sayre marks the very first time in my entire life with Michael Knezovich anyone has ever urged us to keep talking.

Nancy continues to help me shape my writing for the better, and you can get a sneak peek of a short chapter online now: Just complete the form here.

And stay tuned, there’s more to come.

Mondays with Mike: Fighting the good fight     

April 10, 20175 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

Last week Beth and I had the honor of attending an event held by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). If you’re not familiar with the SLPC, it’s a non-profit that does difficult and often-dangerous legal work and research to fight racial prejudice and injustice, and helps those who could not otherwise afford legal services. It also tracks and fights hate groups including but not limited to the Ku Klux Klan.

SPLC founder Morris Dees.

Some might think SPLC’s work is less relevant or important than it was back in 1971, when it was founded. Current SPLC President Richard Cohen and SPLC Founder (and current Chief Trial Attorney) Morris Dees made it painfully clear that it’s as big a fight as ever. These folks do an enormous amount of legal grunt work, and they’ve gone up against some very dangerous, ugly people—at real risk to their own lives. (As evidenced by the stout security presence at the Harris Theater the night we were there).

I hope – regardless of your political stripe – you’ll visit the SPLC site and learn about their work. And, take a look at the tracking they do of some nasty, hateful groups.

Meantime, one interesting piece of work they’ve been at has involved Google. Specifically, they tracked the case of Dylan Roof, the shooter who shot eight African-American worshippers in cold blood at their church in South Carolina. (And who just plead guilty.)

Roof didn’t grow up in a racist household. But by tracking his online travels and his writings, it was clear that the Internet played a giant role in the conversion of nice kid into monster. Once he started searching on terms like black-on-white crime, Google returned a plethora of sites that spewed made-up statistics and hateful, inaccurate stories.

This last election cycle opened my eyes to sites I barely could believe—including the one that said Hillary Clinton used a D.C. pizzeria for child molestation. But I’m telling you, the sites the SPLC representatives showed us were downright chilling. And when you think of an adolescent swimming around in that stuff, it becomes easier to see how Dylan Roof could happen.

SPLC saw a problem in the way these sites are not vetted at all for accuracy by Google’s algorithms. Google, responsibly, has met with SPLC twice. There’s evidence that some good has already been done — and Google just announced another step in the fight against bogus information.

I hope you’ll consider supporting the SPLC. As Morris Dees said in his closing remarks they will continue their work, as Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”


Mondays with Mike: St. Joseph’s Day

April 2, 20177 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Yesterday, a lovely Chicago Sunday morning, I awoke to the muffled sounds of people outside our window cheering sporadically. And I remembered, it was the Shamrock Shuffle, an 8k running race.

I like running events. I especially like watching them, cheering them on, while I eat Jays potato chips. Seriously, the good spirit, people cheering on total strangers, it’s kind of contagious, even for curmudgeons like me.

But this one is different. First, It’s April 2. But it’s called the Shamrock Shuffle. Like we don’t get enough faux Irish here in Chicago all year.

To start, you’re not Irish any more than I’m Italian or I’m Serbian, unless you actually were born there, which, in that case, you’re probably not gonna act like an idiot pretending to be Irish.

Photo of Ducati motorcycle

Forget shamrocks, gimme a Ducati.

Second, if you live downtown, St. Patrick’s Day is a train wreck in Chicago. The city dyes the river green and hordes line up to watch that most unnatural act. Parade goers  watch  that awful toe dancing that that awful man Michael Flatly made popular with that awful Riverdance. People vomit on the street at lunchtime. They wear horrible clothes the color of their vomit.

Do I sound cranky? Well, yes I am. You would be, too, if you lived in downtown and had to put up with this lot. Beth and I were talking about this and she brought up a sort of antidote thought exercise: What if we celebrated St. Joseph’s Day instead?

We’d awake to opera.

Instead of putrid green getups, we’d have men in tailored slacks, fine leather shoes, and fedoras. The women. Oh the women. They’d all be Isabella Rossellini and Sophia Loren. Dressed in sensuously flowing elegance.

We’d sip some deep black espresso in the morning, as we watched gondoliers go by on the Chicago River.

The parade would be short but sweet. Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfas. And of course, all led by the sexiest motorcycles in the world, Ducatis, Moto Guzzis and MV Agustas.

Then we’d have a leisurely lunch, antipasto, primo piatti, secondo piatti, all with a fine Italian wine. Then dolce, and a bit of grappa.

Then we’d all go home and nap.

A person can dream.