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My Kind of Town

November 20, 200810 CommentsPosted in guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized

I brought my White Sox cap with me to the conference Hanni and I went to in Austin this week. I wanted everyone there to know we were from Chicago.

It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to come “out” as a proud Chicagoan. And what an odd sensation to have national columnists take note of this, too. I was so pleased with Garrison Keillor’s November 12 column about Chicago that I emailed it to all my poor, sad, uncool friends who find themselves living somewhere outside the new center of the universe. In each email I highlighted the last few sentences.

And Chicago becomes The First City. Step aside, San Francisco. Shut up, New York. The Midwest is cool now. The mind reels.

And then today, another column about Chicago’s rise to the top of the heap! Titled A New Wind Is Blowing in Chicago, it came out in the New York Times. You’ve heard of that paper, haven’t you? It’s published in a little town east of here that used to call us the Second City.

Chicago has long been a place that seems comfortable — or, at least, well adjusted — to losing, a place where you put your head down and shoulder through whatever hand is dealt you.

But not anymore! The column goes on to quote famous Chicago chefs, authors and musicians describing the “hope:” and “change” we are experiencing here.

“It seems like there are eight million people walking around here congratulating each other,” said Scott Turow, the best-selling novelist who was born in the city. “Chicagoans are unbelievably proud of Barack and feel of course that he’s ours, because he is.”

Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the band Wilco, lives in Chicago and is a longtime friend of the president-elect.

“I think people really do enjoy the idea that we’re living in the center of the world all of the sudden,” Mr. Tweedy said.

It’s true. For days –even weeks — after the election it seemed all the people Hanni and I encountered on the streets and sidewalks were happy. I heard people being downright nice to each other, offering help to strangers. Even the Chicagoans (what were there, hmm, three of them, maybe?!) who didn’t vote for Obama are walking taller, just for all the attention we’re getting. And the city’s new tourism campaign? “Experience the city the Obamas enjoy.” It’s great fun for all of us. I spent a lot of my time in Texas this week gushing about Chicago to anyone who would listen. And you know what? They actually were interested! They all laughed as much as I did, though, when I told them about an encounter I’d had just the day before leaving for Austin — en experience that serves to remind me the Obamaglow can’t last forever. I’d taken Hanni out to “empty” at her favorite tree, and when walking back I brushed shoulders with a woman walking the other direction. “Excuse you, bitch!” she snapped. I don’t think she was referring to my female dog there. The comment didn’t alarm me – it made me laugh. At myself, really. All the bragging I’d been doing about Chicago, my pride, group hugs, happiness…and then this dose of reality. Somehow it struck me as funny. Still does. And I’m still delighted to live in a place where, every day, I can “Experience the City the Obamas Enjoy.”

Dignity

November 15, 200810 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

 Who can resist a face like this?! Out in public, people pay more attention to Hanni than to my disability. What a relief!
Over 300 kids gathered in Nelson Elementary School’s gymnasium Thursday morning to hear me give a talk about my blindness, my children’s book and my bond with my Seeing Eye dog.

Okay. That’s a lie. The reason they came had nothing to do with me. They were there to see Hanni! A second group of 300 would come to the gym in the afternoon. Both groups were full of good, curious listeners. And like always, they had great questions. In-between presentations Hanni and I spent time in Helen Lee’s fourth-grade class — Helen is the teacher who coordinated our visit to nelson. I took Hanni’s harness off while we were in that classroom – that way she could run around a bit and enjoy belllyrubs from the kids. One kid who’d been rolling around on the floor with Hanni jumped up afterwards and asked, “What’s the best thing about having a Seeing Eye dog?”

There were so many ways to answer that question. Hanni helps me feel safe, Hanni keeps me company, Hanni gives me courage, Hanni does so much for me. But the best thing? “She makes it so people don’t feel sorry for me,” I said.
“Instead of staring at me because I’m blind, they look at her — they think she’s cool!”

The fourth-grader understood.

A story published in the New York Times last Tuesday (Veterans Day) tells me that injured veterans paired with dogs feel the same way I do. The article quotes Harvey Naranjo, who works with severely disabled veterans at Walter Reed Hospital.

“Veterans can feel vulnerable walking around with these disabilities,” Mr. Naranjo said. “When they go out with a service dog, it draws attention away from the injury.”

The story goes on to highlight three soldiers – two men and one woman. I think Sue Downes, a 28-year-old mother of two said it best. Downs was a military police officer in 2006, when her military vehicle exploded after hitting an improvised explosive device. In August 2007 she was paired with Lila, a yellow Labrador who helps her walk with her prosthetic legs.

Ms. Downes is retired from the Army and said she feels that she has adjusted “pretty well,” with good days and bad. She tires easily and does not go out as much as she used to. However, on a good day she and Lila might visit the local veterans association or shop for groceries; Lila also likes to go to PetSmart. Ms. Downes said she was thankful that while out in public, people tended to pay more attention to Lila than to her disability.

When I went to train with my first Seeing Eye dog, a Black Lab named Pandora, I thought the best thing she’d do for me was lead me places without bumping me into things. After a few months home with her, I honest-to-God noticed I felt taller – I was holding my head up higher – when I traveled anywhere with Pandora. Same goes now, with Hanni. Who would’ve guessed? Dogs can provide the one thing everybody needs: dignity.

Went to This Cool Party in Our Neighborhood Last Night

November 5, 200834 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized

 

Mike and me at the Obama rally. With 75,000 close friends.

Mike and me at the Obama rally. With 75,000 close friends.

I called my great-niece while Mike and I were standing in line last night. Anita is 13 years old. Her father is from Jamaica. Her mother (my blonde-haired, blue-eyed niece Janet) raised Anita on her own. “Remember the part of that video Obama showed at the convention?” I asked Anita. “You know, where his mom woke him up at 4:30 in the morning to go over his spelling words before she went off to work? That reminds me of you and your mom when you were little.” I could sense Anita rolling her eyes. She is a teenager, after all. “Who knows?” I said. “Maybe you’ll be president someday!”

sterlings

That's my niece Janet (left), Anita's sister AnnMarie (center), and future president Anita (right)

Mike and I were in line at least an hour longer after making that phone call to Anita last night — we were waiting to get into the Barack Obama rally in Grant Park, just four blocks away from our apartment. Hanni watched the election returns from home. There was a heavy police presence around the rally, of course — especially on horses. More than once Mike had to route me around a big pile of dung! In keeping with that theme, we staked out a spot near an oversized handicapped portapotty once we made it into Grant Park.

After using that lovely facility, I was approached by a rally official. “You know, you can stand over there if you want.” I looked at Mike, who explained that the official was pointing to a wide wooden ramp for people in wheelchairs. We moved there, which meant Mike could see the stage. Two older African-American women were standing next to us; they were with a friend in a wheelchair. The women were spunky. I mean, they were having fun, calling friends on their cell phones and all that, But at the same time they were pretty serious. They didn’t want all the pageantry to let them forget how important this day was.

The crowd was huge, but mellow. Kids were texting, calling their friends, and constantly checking their iPhones for updates. “It’s like Woodstock,” Mike said. “Except instead of drugs, people are using electronic devices!”

When they announced from the Jumbotrons that Virginia had gone for Obama, the crowd went crazy. People started chanting “Yes We Can, Yes We Can!” And a short while later, when the words “Barack Obama Elected President” flashed on the Jumbotron screens, the atmosphere was ecstatic. No one had to read the screen aloud for me – I knew. Jubilation. People laughing and cheering. Friends and strangers hugging and crying. Very, very fun and energizing and well, I’ll say it: inspirational. I mean, being around all those people who had voted or volunteered or just cared enough to trudge downtown to Chicago to be there…wild!

We stayed to hear Obama’s speech, and as we waited, they played recorded music over the loudspeakers. The first song was “Signed, Sealed Delivered” by Stevie Wonder. I was dancing! After that they played some country western song I’d never heard before. I thought that was very funny. “He really is trying to unite *all* of us,” I told Mike. A couple more tunes, then “Sweet Home, Chicago” and then, drumroll, please…”The next First Family of the United States of America” — Barack and family got on stage. The crowd roared. Obama spoke. People cried.

After the speech, we walked along with others moving slowly and happily out of Grant Park -– we practically floated across Michigan Avenue, which was magically closed to traffic for the night. T-shirt and button sellers were everywhere, especially near Michigan Avenue. We picked out a t-shirt for Anita. I’ll give it to her this afternoon, when Hanni and I head out to Elmhurst to celebrate over a glass of wine with my mom and sister –- Anita’s Great Grandmother and Grandma.

Janet emailed me this morning to thank me for calling them from the rally. “The phone call really stuck with Anita,” she said. The first thing Anita asked Janet when they woke up this morning was whether Janet still had her “I voted” sticker. When Janet said she did, Anita asked, “Can I have it?” .

Sandra Casts her Vote

November 4, 200811 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized

What a pleasure it is to introduce guest blogger Sandra Murillo today, the day she voted in her first presidential election. I met Sandra when she was still in high school – I interviewed her for a Chicago Tribune story about how kids who are blind are educated in the public schools. Sandra is now a sophomore at South Suburban College, planning to transfer to the journalism school at the University of Illinois next year – that’s my alma mater!

Sandra Casts Her Vote

State ID and voter registration card in hand, I left with my mom for our polling place this morning at 7:30 AM. It was not as crowded as I imagined. While my mom and I were waiting to sign in, we were having a chat with some of our neighbors. I really enjoyed that part of my first voting experience. When my turn to sign in finally came, I felt a sense of anticipation.

“I would like to have audio access on a touch-screen machine,” I told the poll worker. I had given thought about how I would word this statement. Voters who are blind or visually impaired need to know about their rights before going out to vote. I could either ask them if they had this equipment, or kindly request this accommodation. Since I knew that recent legislation demands the availability of this equipment in every polling place, I decided to choose the latter option.

“Sure!” the worker told me. “When you get to the touch-screen machine, a poll worker will set up the audio equipment.”

Her confidence surprised me. I’ve heard it is fairly uncommon for workers at a polling place to have knowledge of the availability of this equipment, but she seemed to know what she was doing.

After a few minutes, another kind poll worker greeted me and gave me the special keypad and earphones I would be using. The keypad is in the shape of a TV remote control; it is connected to the touch-screen machine. All of the keys had tactual markings as well as Braille labels — arrow keys (up, down, left and right,) a select button, volume and speed controls, and a help button.

This was the worker’s first time setting up this equipment. She had technical difficulties at first. After restarting the machine two times and numerous apologies, she finally got the sound going. “It worked!” I told her with a huge grin on my face.

“Great!” She said with a sigh of relief.

I was finally in action! After reviewing the instructions on how to navigate through the ballot, I began to make my selections. I used the arrow and select keys to do the actual voting. The audio was clear, and best of all, I could adjust it to the volume and speed I wanted.

This voting experience was very positive for me. I would advise voters who are blind or visually impaired to be patient and assertive at the same time. If a pole worker cannot work out the audio equipment, it is not because they don’t want to, but because this is also a new experience for them. Be persistent, but kind at the same time, and you will have a positive experience.

I highly encourage everyone — whether you can see or not — to register and vote. This is a wonderful opportunity — it enables you to be heard. Voting for the first time gave me a better appreciation for my country. I realized that not many people have this privilege, and we often take it for granted.

My Brother's Indecision: Read All About It in the NY Times

November 2, 200810 CommentsPosted in blindness, Uncategorized

My brother Doug and his wife are featured in a story in today’s NY Times about undecided voters. I’m proud of my brother — he’s a smart guy and an excellent jazz musician. (You can listen to a song he wrote and performed–complete with a political reference–using the link at the bottom of this post.) I feel like we are close, but we really haven’t discussed politics lately. It wasn’t until I read today’s New York Times piece that I realized: I am related to…gasp…an undecided voter.

For weeks I’ve been wondering who these undecided voters could possibly be, what more do they need to know? And then, I read today’s Times. After getting past the part about my brother and sister-in-law, I started reading quotes from other undecideds in the story. And, okay. I was wrong. There still is something to be learned about the upcoming elections.

A Florida woman quoted in the story voted for Gore in 2000 and Carey in 2004, but said she had misgivings about Obama – she is Jewish and isn’t sure of his stance on the Middle East and Israel.

” She also worries about his “share the wealth ideas” and says that Michelle Obama comes on a little too strong. (“And someone should teach her how to dress, too.”)

Michelle Obama needs help figuring out how to dress? Who knew?! After being told I look a little like Barrack Obama’s wife, I just assumed she dresses impeccably.

So a note to Michelle: I get a lot of help from shopkeepers, friends – and Mike – in figuring out what looks good on me. Ask for advice. Trust me: people are happy to give it.

And if it’s true that Michelle Obama comes on too strong, well…you read this blog. You might say that Michelle and I have a lot more in common than looks!

Speaking of good looks, though, everyone tells me that Doug and Shelley Finke make a handsome couple. Apparently the NY Times graphic designers thought so, too – link to the article and check out the big photo of them that appears with the story.

Nearly one-and-a-half million people read the Sunday Times. And so, it’s decided. Doug and Shelley Finke are famous!

Here’s a song Doug wrote for me–and performed with his band. It was Doug’s homemade Christmas present to me in 2007. Thanks again Doug! Just click the “play” arrow/button below to start the player. You’ll hear a little musician talk before the song begins, so be patient. (For screen-reader users, hit the JAWS key and F5 key simultaneously. When prompted by Macromedia Flash player, hit “Enter.”)