Dispatches from 20th century immigrants, part one: Annelore

December 16, 20168 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, travel, Uncategorized

A number of the writers in the memoir classes I lead are immigrants, and for the next couple weeks I’m planning to feature essays these wonderful writers wrote when I asked them to describe the role food plays in their holiday traditions.

Let’s start with Annelore. She was born in Germany and met her American-born husband Roy in the early 1960s, when both of them worked in a small town on the Czech border. “I was working as a medical lab tech and Roy was in a special division of the U.S. Army,” she told me, explaining that he maintained Radar equipment for listening in on Czech and Russian conversation along the border. “It was a unit of 20 engineers and linguists and very secret – you could say he was a spy.”

A depiction of Christkind, the Christmas angel.

A depiction of Christkind, the Christmas angel.

The two of them married in Germany and relocated to his hometown in North Dakota in 1963, where they had three children. “Everybody knows that when we are far from home, when we are expatriated we tend to cling to tradition, to customs we are familiar with and that make us feel at home,” she wrote in an essay she titled Christmas Traditions. “Missing the wonderful winter Christmases from my childhood in Germany, I tried and tried to reconstruct them for my children year after year.”

Recreating her German Christmas traditions became even more challenging when Roy accepted an engineering position that required the family to spend the next couple decades relocating from country to country around the world. “It was not always easy to find the right ingredients to make it happen,” she wrote. “Live pine trees for example are sparse in deserts like Southern Patagonia or Egypt or in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.”

Listening to Annelore read her essay out loud in class made us all hungry. They started baking in late November, she said. Gingerbread. Stollen. Hazelnut cookies. Almond crescents. Cinnamon stars. Marzipan. “It was not always easy to bake in ‘third-world-ovens,’” she wrote.

For the children, the baking was all part of the anticipation for Christmas Eve. Depending on which country they were living in, it might start with a candlelight service at church. Wherever they were, friends were always invited to join them later for a small meal of Sauerkraut, sausages, steamed salmon, and dark bread. The Christmas tree usually was in the living room with the doors closed.

“Then, a tiny sound!” Annelore wrote. “The tinkling of a bell – Christkind must have come to put presents under the tree. “ She said Christkind comes in the guise of a small angel who slips through a window left open for that very purpose. Only then could they open the door to the sound of music and the sight of the beautiful tree. She described the large tray of cookies waiting in that room as well, and if they were living in a country where the weather outside was cold enough, the aroma of Gluehwein would fill the air. “For the adults this would be the time to settle into the spirit of Christmas, enjoying along with the children, presents, sweets, and music by candle light until late into the night,” she wrote. “Was there room for dessert? Never! But there was plenty of room for being grateful for friends, a delicious feast and of course, the tradition of celebrating together.”

Annelore’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center on the Beth’s Class blog, and you can read Annelore’s essay in its entirety there to find out how searching in Buenos Aires for a traditional goose almost left her serving fish for their feast one year.

One-eyed waiter claims discrimination

December 14, 20168 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, Uncategorized

That’s a whole lotta eyeballs there looking for a home. (photo by Chuck Gullett.)

Now, here’s a new one for you.

A waiter in Mississippi was fired for refusing to wear his fake eye at work. Discrimination? I dunno. But this story strikes close to home.

Eye surgeons did all they could to restore my vision when retinopathy set in thirty years ago. One of my eyes is still intact, but the other one shrunk so much from the trauma of all those surgeries that I can’t hold that eyelid open. I wear a prosthesis in that eye.

Jared Ellis, a married father of two children, lost an eye five years ago in an accident. He told a reporter at news station WREG in Mississippi that he wore a prosthetic eye for a while, but it was so uncomfortable that it gave him headaches. Eventually he decided not to wear it at all.

I still remember the first time an oclularist (that’s what specialists who make fake eyes are called) spread open the lids to my poor shrunken eye and plopped the prosthesis in. “Okay,” she said. I could hear her wiping her hands on a paper towel. “It’s in.”

Intellectually I knew all along that the prosthesis was not meant to improve my eyesight. It was meant to improve my looks. But it felt so much like the contact lenses I used to wear. For one split-second, I expected to open my eyes, look in a mirror and see what I looked like with this new eye. I was disappointed.

“It looks great!” the ocularist exclaimed with pride. I faked a smile. The eyepiece felt weird at first, as if, well, as if there was something in my eye. I’ve become used to it now. It only bothers me when dust or grit gets in there. If that happens, I take it out, clean it with regular hand soap and water, and plop it back in. I try not to do this in public restrooms, though!

Last month Ellis told reporters he didn’t wear a prosthetic eye or eye patch when he interviewed for the restaurant job or at any time he worked there. He said there’d been no mention of complaints from customers about him, and that he enjoyed his work.

A month into the job, however, a manager took Ellis aside and told him the restaurant owners wanted him either to wear a prosthetic or an eyepatch. Ellis quit on the spot.

As for me, of course it was crazy for me to ever think the fake eye would restore my vision. Not so crazy to think the fake eye would help restore my confidence. My fake eye is pretty realistic. It helps people feel more comfortable talking with me and listening to what I’m saying. With my fake eye in, it can appear I’m looking at people as they talk. They open themselves up, rather than pre-occupy themselves with my blindness. In turn, so do I.

So, what’s your guess? Which one is fake? (photo by Chuck Gullett)

Forgive the blind puns here, but it’s pretty interesting to look at this from two different points of view. I think this waiter’s customers might feel more comfortable and less pre-occupied with his missing eye if he wore a prosthesis, but Ellis says he’d like to use his restaurant experience to send a message to others in his shoes. “It’s about everybody who’s ever looked in the mirror or had somebody tell them there’s something wrong with the way they look,” he says in the WREG report. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You are beautiful. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

Mondays with Mike: Looking forward to it

December 12, 201616 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, travel, Uncategorized

As this year crawls toward its end, I’m left struggling to feel just a little bit of holidayness, and to hope that nobody else whom I like and care for – musician, astronaut, journalist, friend’s family member, dog or pet – dies this year. Please everyone, just hold out for awhile, if only to prevent this miserable 2016 from becoming any more miserable.

Meantime, Beth and I have adopted the bromide of planning things to look forward to to ward off low moods. Actually, I think it’s more a thing where Beth is making sure we have things to look forward to keep me afloat.

Back in 1984, we started our honeymoon in Edinburgh, and got as far as Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. Oban is on the Firth of Lorn, and Beth had fun feeding the gulls.

Back in 1984, we started our honeymoon in Edinburgh, and got as far as Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. Oban is on the Firth of Lorn, and Beth had fun feeding the gulls. We won’t make it to Oban this time, but Edinburgh will do nicely.

And so I look forward to celebrating Beth’s birthday come December 23, which—given her childhood diagnosis with type 1 diabetes —is not a trivial occasion. It’ll mark her 50th year with her unwelcome companion. Last year we had a blowout party with gourmet food made by our friend Chef Jim. This year I expect we’ll keep it more quiet. No one likes birthdays more than Beth does, so whatever we do, it’ll be good.

And we’re looking forward to seeing the great jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove when he comes to Jazz Showcase for his annual end-of-year residency. He’s somehow always even better than the last time we saw him.

Beth’s family’s homemade gift exchange comes a little later this year—we’ll be celebrating on December 31. Every year, the gifts range from actually useful things (I still use a toolbox from a handy brother-in-law, and we still use a microwaveable rice bag for aches and pains that Beth’s nephew made) – to the bizarre (I’ll spare you the story about the foot stool).

And best of all, in January, Beth and I will be headed to Edinburgh, Scotland via London. Going to Cleveland when the Cubs were playing the Indians here in Chicago in the World Series was a smashing success, and great fun. So, come inauguration day, we’ll be out of the country, and what better place to mark the event than Scotland? Besides that, Beth and I spent part of our honeymoon in Edinburgh back in 1984, so there’s a little nostalgia involved.

I expect it’ll refresh and renew, and I may have a single-malt or two. And I’ll return braced for whatever comes next.




His Sign Said ‘Please Help.’ So Jean Tried.

December 11, 20168 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized, writing

1987. A hot, humid day in Champaign, Ill. Mike and I are perched on stools at the Esquire Lounge. My folded cane sits atop the bar, forming a rigid white line that separates my beer glass from Mike’s. The discussion? How can I get to the pool on my own to swim laps.

The stranger sitting next to me interrupts. Her name was Jean, she said, and she couldn’t help but eavesdrop. “Are you talking about getting to the pool on campus?” she asks. I nodded. Newly blind back then, I didn’t have a Seeing Eye dog yet. I could hardly make it to the mailbox down the street. How was I going to get to the bus stop on my own? Not to mention the locker room, then to the edge of the pool to swim?

That's our friend Jean in her writerly book jacket photo.

That’s our friend Jean in her writerly book jacket photo. Click on the photo for more on her and her books.

“That’s easy!” Jean said. She was a swimmer. “I drive over to the campus pool every other day. I’ll just pick you up and take you with me.”

And that’s how I met Jean Thompson. During our drives to the pool, I found out she was a writer. A real writer. A really good writer. She taught creative writing at University of Illinois. Jean was a natural-born teacher, really — she knew when to set me free, let me try taking the bus and handle the pool on my own.

I’ve been swimming on my own ever since. I’ve been Jean’s friend ever since, too. And what a generous friend she’s been to me.

So it came as no surprise to hear Jean helped a man who was homeless — the real surprise is that an essay she wrote about doing so was published in the New York Times today. She didn’t tell me! Mike saw the piece, though, and read it aloud to me. You can read it online here.

I hope you do — you’ll see why I feel lucky to call her my friend.

Guess who's seven years old?

December 7, 201623 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, Whitney

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney had a birthday yesterday. While reminiscing about our years together, I came across the Puppy Profile the 16-year-old who raised Whitney wrote about her as a puppy. 

She's lucky 7.

She’s lucky 7.

Seeing Eye puppies are born and bred at the Seeing Eye breeding station in New Jersey. When they are six weeks old, they go to live with a volunteer for a year. Puppy raisers give the dogs affection, teach them basic obedience, and expose them to social situations they might encounter as Seeing Eye dogs.

When these wonderful, generous, selfless volunteers return the dog they raised to The Seeing Eye campus for formal training, they’re asked to write up a Puppy Profile to give to the blind person who is eventually matched with the sweet puppy they raised.

Today, in honor of Whitney’s birthday, I am sharing Whitney’s Puppy Profile with you, our loyal Safe & Sound blog readers. Those of you who have had the honor of meeting Whitney will see that many of her childhood behaviors endure — I take her youthful attitude as a sign she’ll be around for a long, long time to come.

Puppy Profile

Whitney was raised in rural New Jersey by myself ( I am a 16 year old girl) my sister, parents and my grandmother. We live in a large house that sits on almost two acres of land. She could access a lot of the property and we also took her for walks in the woods every chance we got.

Whitney had a very strong relationship with our 2 year old Golden Retriever and they were best buddies right from the start. Whitney also wanted to be friends with the cat in the beginning but the cat was not into that. It took a while but they did become friends after some time.

We were able to take Whitney to most places we went. She especially loved gatherings of friends or family because she loves attention. She has also been to the movies, the mall, the post office, of course Petco, because it is where the pets go, club meetings and the county fair.

Whitney loved to chew her Nylabone and of course loved plush toys but would ALWAYS destroy those. She is a very bright dog and was extremely obedient. When given the command to lay down, sometimes she would aggressively go right to the ground, others she would do a bunch of circles before going down with a grunt. She doesn’t like to have her head pet but loves to be scratched on the chest and rubbed under her jaw.

Whitney has always been impressively smart. We have had many dogs but none as smart as her. When you ask her a question she will actually look at you as if she is pondering an answer.

When she needs to go out to the bathroom she sits quietly by the door until someone notices her, if that doesn’t happen she will start to whine as if to say, I need to go out! She will always park on command and will even squat if she doesn’t actually need to pee.

Happy birthday, Whitney, and many, many thanks to you, Whitney’s teenage puppy raiser. How can it be that you’re a 22-year-old young woman now? Whitney hasn’t aged a bit!