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Guest post: Papa’s black leather jacket

November 29, 20177 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing

Here’s one last essay I want to share from the “The Best thing I Ever Bought, Borrowed or Stole” assignment I gave to my memoir-writing classes. This one is written by Michael Graff, who grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Flossmoor. The “Pink House” he refers to in his story is their family’s vacation home near Lake Michigan.

by Michael Graff

I didn’t buy it, I didn’t steal it. I must have borrowed it from my brother, Phil.

It was our grandfather’s black leather jacket. He’d given it to my brother, but when he went off to college, Phil left it behind. That’s when I borrowed it. Actually, I commandeered it.

The leather didn’t have the original shine nor the chrome hardware of a biker’s jacket. It didn’t have patches that said, “Hell’s Angel’s.” It had a narrow cloth collar and cuffs. The coat of a working man.

Photo of the author in a black leather jacket, sitting on the ground in front of his Dodge Dart.

Michael Graff in front of his 1966 Dodge Dart, sporting his black leather jacket.

Poppa told me he bought the jacket when he was 18. It was in decent shape with little wear on the elbows and cuffs. Seasoned, it had a faded look, but had years of life left in it.

I liked Papa’s jacket. It added a certain toughness to my appearance. It had an understated ruggedness that wasn’t intimidating nor confrontational, but also wasn’t the look of Flossmoor.

Poppa bought the jacket in 1918. It was over fifty years old when I obtained it. Phil saw me wearing it, but he never wanted it back. Maybe it fit me better. I wore it constantly from my teenage years until the jacket had its seventieth birthday.

That’s when the leather finally crumbled.

I couldn’t part with it. The coat remained on a coatrack in my office. The summer humidity allowed mold to fester on its sleeves. Even my elderly grandfather admonished me as to why I kept the old thing. He shrugged and said, “I suppose it holds some sentimental value.” By then he was in his late eighties.

What could I do with it? Goodwill wouldn’t take it. The trash heap seemed heartless and too disloyal toward a garment that had kept generations of my family warm. Burial seemed appropriate. I’d bring my beloved jacket to Pink House where it would degrade in our yard. The leather would serve as nutrients for our plants and trees. The jacket would remain in a place I loved forever, and someday one of my progeny would dig in the garden, find the zipper and wonder from whence it came.

But then the coat disappeared. In the nineties, Graff Valve and Fitting’s had it’s offices rebuilt. We moved into temporary space. My grandfather’s coat was moved into the warehouse, where I assumed it would remain on the old coat tree. When the reconstruction was finished, the jacket was missing.

At first I didn’t give it too much thought. Periodically, I’d wonder where it was, but I was certain it would turn up. After Papa died, I searched the warehouse for it. No luck.

Part of me still wants to find it. Occasionally, I’ll give a half hearted search, but I doubt it will ever turn up.

Another part of me is content in the knowledge that it’s lost in my warehouse because my grandfather is lost to me now, too. He loved our business and warehouse, but he never saw Pink House. I’m content his jacket vanished into space he loved.

Mondays with Mike: There but for the grace…

November 27, 20173 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, parenting a child with special needs, politics
Photo of Gus in his Badgers t-shirt.

We’re thankful Gus is happy up in Wisconsin.

We had a two-turkey Thanksgiving, with a different set of great friends on two consecutive nights. I am thankful for, among other things, the extra notches on my belt.

Of course I’m thankful for a lot more. The aforesaid friends, my nephew Aaron and his children, Beth and her million-member family, living two L stops away from White Sox park, a great sounding stereo, the list goes on and on.

In the background, always, there is thankfulness for the people in Watertown, Wisconsin, at Bethesda Lutheran Communities. They house and care for our son, Gus—and for lots and lots of others with developmental disabilities. And I’m thankful that my fellow Americans have deemed Gus and people like Gus worthy of our care. That we all take heed to the idea that the measure of our society is how we care for the most vulnerable.

But in the shadow of that thankfulness is searing fear and smothering dread. Fear that the rug will be pulled out from under Gus and his housemates—a real possibility if some have their way—and dread that we simply wouldn’t know what to do if that happened. I’m in relatively good health and reasonably fit—but I struggle to get Gus in and out of his wheelchair these days, let alone in and out of a shower or a car seat.

That’s why a supremely sad story that played to an end yesterday has lodged in my consciousness and probably isn’t going away anytime soon. A 57-year-old woman was found dead in her Schaumburg house on Saturday, an apparent suicide.

The woman. Bonnie Liltz, was scheduled to go back to prison today, after she’d been released for several months to receive health care she couldn’t get in prison.

A couple years earlier, Liltz had pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter—she’d given her severely disabled, 28-year-old daughter Courtney a fatal dose of medication through Courtney’s feeding tube.

Liltz had serious health issues of her own, and she succumbed to the fear and dread I just mentioned—she couldn’t bear to think about how or if her daughter would be cared for if she died. Or what would happen when her own deteriorating health made it impossible to care for her daughter.

It was a reasonable concern, even if you think Liltz’s actions were not reasonable. Illinois routinely ranks near the bottom of 50 states in terms of care available for the developmentally disabled population. It’s shameful—and it’s a large reason we travel 2-1/2 hours to see our son, Gus. Wisconsin, as well as pretty much every other state, does a lot better job. Much poorer states, by per capita income, do a whole lot better—I put at least some of it down to the corruption tax we all pay here in Illinois, but that’s for another blog post.

Liltz had been sentenced to four years. She served several months before being released conditionally for medical care. She apparently couldn’t bear returning to prison knowing she was very likely to die there.

I completely understand that the court held Liltz to account. Even if she was motivated by her love for her daughter, it’s a slippery slope when we start thinking about treating people like our son Gus or her daughter Courtney differently under the law because of their disabilities.

So yes, a crime was committed. But I can’t consider Liltz a criminal. I think I’ve traveled some of the same roads she traveled. Fortunately, I never reached the point she did. But I‘ve been close enough to see it.

Guest post: The author says “Cheese!”

November 26, 20176 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing

I love being a special guest at book clubs. Bookworms tend to be the polite type — no one criticizes an author who is sitting right there!Sipping on wine,munching snacks, talking about writing, what’s not to like? I had such a good time at a neighborhood book club that I asked Mel Theobald, one of the attendees, if he’d be willing to write about it for our blog. Thank you for saying yes, Mel. I may just start using “The Nearly Famous Beth Finke” as my signature now!

More than a Book Club
by Mel Theobald

Publishing a book is no easy feat. Neither is walking into a roomful of strangers to talk about it. Yet, there she was, the nearly famous Beth Finke, author of Writing Out Loud, sitting in the unfamiliar turf of our party room with eleven eager souls, ready to respond to their most pressing questions.

Beth and the book club.

Although there was no shortage of snacks and wine, the author asked if there was cheese on the table. No cheese. Yikes. I rushed to fetch my favorite smoked gouda and returned midway through the introductions. It was already apparent when I took my seat that this was going to be a fun evening.

Al Hippensteel, my altruistic next door neighbor, happens to also be one of Beth’s students. Anyone who knows Al is aware that he possesses a droll sense of wit and irony. At his invitation Beth was our condo association book club’s first ever visiting author. With humility and humor, she impressed everyone with her ability to remember names and recognize their voices after a single round of verbal, mini-bios.

Photo of Beth and Al Hippensteel.

That’s Al Hippensteel looking on as Beth signs a book for one of the club members.

From the outset, those around the table peppered our guest with questions. They were most interested in her teaching techniques and the secrets of the publishing industry. Beth answered every question. She confessed to changing the names of a few characters. At one point she admitted getting miffed that her editor for asking her to withdraw a story. “But you pick your battles,” she told us. To be a writer requires patience, detours and sacrifices.

With barely a wobble, she wove the narration of her own writing into that of her students. Blindness is one of the themes that runs throughout her writing. In one chapter of Writing Out Loud she writes about being invited to drive a car on an open slab hundreds of yards wide. Paired with a professional race car driver, she chose to accelerate to a speed of 80 miles per hour. When asked what possessed her to do this, her face blushed red, “I got to sit in a Ford Mustang next to a friend of Paul Newman!”

Beth allowed that it was due to the success of one of her students that she was granted an audience with the future publisher of her latest book,and when asked about the pronunciation of her name, she answered, “Finke as in stinky.” Allright then.

As the evening drew to a close, Beth invited Al to read one of his class pieces. His beautifully written essay was impossible to finish without knee slapping laughter. In brief, it was about his courtship with the woman he would marry, who just happened to be right there with us: she’s a member of the book club. The piece was a light-hearted mix of metaphors of popular music, cars and youthful innocence. Everyone erupted in applause.

And just think. He might never have written it, had it not been for Beth’s class.

The Story Behind our StoryCorps Interview

November 24, 20172 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, radio, writing

More than 300,000 people lined Pennsylvania Avenue on this day in 1963 to watch a horse-drawn caisson carry President Kennedy’s casket from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda. Giovanna Breu, a writer in one of my memoir classes, was there, but Not as an onlooker. She was covering JFK’s funeral and burial for Life Magazine.

Screen shot of WBEZ page with the StoryCorps audio.

WBEZ’s page for the feature includes a photo of Giovanna’s press pass–click on the image to see it–and listen to the StoryCorps piece.

I didn’t know a thing about Giovanna’s illustrious journalism career when she joined our memoir writing class back in 2013. I suppose the essay she read in class about meeting her husband at the School of Journalism at Columbia University should have been a clue, but many more months would go by before I’d discover she’d worked at Life. “I don’t really like talking about myself,” she told me years later, acknowledging she was finding writing in first-person very difficult. “When you’re a journalist, You always have to keep that space between you and what was happening, you know, so you could look at it with a reporter’s eye.”

Giovanna was at Life Magazine’s New York office when legendary editor Richard Stolley was negotiating for the right to reprint stills from footage of the assassination filmed by Abraham Zapruder,
and in an essay she wrote for class she described sitting with her fellow reporters there, reviewing the film frame by painful frame. “It was horrific,” she wrote, explaining that out of decency and respect for the President’s family, they decided not to publish every single frame.

With so much attention to the JFK files released this past summer, and knowing the anniversary of the assassination was coming up, I contacted Chicago media types earlier this month to see if any of them would be interested in talking with Giovanna about her experience reviewing the Zapruder film. WBEZ responded, but they were more interested in Giovanna’s life as a female reporter in the 1960’s then specifically about her experience with the Zapruder film.

WBEZ and the Chicago Cultural Center are partners with StoryCorps, a non-profit set up to “record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Would I be willing to interview Giovanna for a StoryCorps interview?

I arrived at the recording booth last week with questions for Giovanna swimming around my head.

Giovanna arrived with November 1963 issues of Life Magazine in her bag. I’d been unnerved when WBEZ had asked me to have her bring something along to prove she’d actually worked there, but Giovanna understood. She’d started out at Life as a fact-checker. “They’ll see my name in the masthead,” she said. “I brought my press pass, too!”

I couldn’t believe she still had that press pass. Even more unbelievable: she was able to find it. When I asked her to describe the pass for me, I could picture her scrutinizing the little card, considering what to say. “Well, the front has a picture of a girl with lots of curls” she finally answered in a playful lilt. “Gray eyes, you can see her shoulders, must have been hot the day they took that photo, the yellow dress she’s wearing is sleeveless!”

The 45 minutes we spent in the recording studio flew by. Whitney the Seeing Eye dog sat at our feet the entire time and never made a peep. StoryCorps editor Bill Healy (the renaissance man who took the photo of Whitney and me that’s on the cover of Writing Out Loud) did a heroic job cutting the piece down to four minutes.

One of the more poignant parts of the four-minute piece comes when Giovanna reads from the handwritten notes she’d saved from the funeral procession. “I phoned them in to the New York office,” she explained. Listen carefully to the StoryCorps interview online now and you’ll hear the pages rustling as she reads them out loud — the very notes she called into Life Magazine 54 years ago today.

How this sixth-grader discovered his spirit animal

November 22, 201715 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, questions kids ask, Seeing Eye dogs, visiting schools

This just in! The Hinsdalean newspaper did a great article on our visit. You can read it here if you want to get another point of view on our class visit.  

Photo of Beth and Whitney in front of class.

Whitney and I spent an entire day last week with sixth-graders at Clarendon Hills Middle School (CHMS). I’ve visited students at hundreds of elementary schools over the years to talk about disability awareness and service dogs, but last Friday marks the first time I’d ever been asked to visit a middle school and talk specifically about memoir-writing: the CHMS sixth-graders are preparing to write their own autobiographies.

Before we arrived, teachers had them read six chapters from my new book Writing Out Loud that demonstrate how autobiography and memoir can communicate a specific theme:

  1. Prologue, in which I explain how it is I decided to write a second memoir
  2. The Brown Envelope, in which I’m asked to lead a memoir-writing class for the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging
  3. My Turn, in which I relate my own family history
  4. Hanni and Beth Hit the Road, in which we start traveling to promote my children’s book Safe & Sound
  5. Mustang Beth, in which I drive a race car 80 mph
  6. Tough Guys, in which a man in first class worries if I was okay sitting between two scary-looking guys on a flight to New Orleans

I arrived in Clarendon Hills prepared to talk about making a memoir come alive, engaging readers, choosing which life episodes to include in your memoir, that sort of thing. What I wasn’t prepared for was how thoughtful and insightful the sixth-grade questions would be after my presentation. Some examples:

  • If someone asked you to sum up your life story in one word, and that word couldn’t be the word “blind,” what would that one word be?
  • How do you picture the modern world?
  • What is your favorite word to use when you’re writing?
  • Was Minerva the only one in your class who took a tape recorder?
  • Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you were an author who could see?
  • Do you think you perceive the world differently because you’re blind?
  • You say you can only see the color black now. If you could pick another color to be able to see all the time, what color would you pick?
  • What was your first thought when you got into the Mustang?
  • What is your favorite chapter in Writing Out Loud?
  • When you were driving the car with Tommy Kendall, was the experience what you thought it would be beforehand?
  • What is your favorite word to use when you’re writing?
  • If you met a kid who was blind, or a kid who knew he’d be blind someday, what advice would you give them?
  • If you could be sighted again for just one hour, what would you want to see?
  • Why did you laugh when that man in first class told you the guys next to you looked scary?
  • Did you write stories when you were little?
  • If the girl you were before you were blind could see the future and found out you would become a famous author, what would she say to you?
  • Has anyone ever judged you for being blind? How about for being a writer?
  • You told us how you learned to use rubber bands and safety pins to keep track of things. You’re a good problem solver, do you ever want to be in a group that invents things for people who need them?
  • How are you able to write about yourself without sounding pretentious?
  • Would you do all these amazing awesome things if you weren’t blind?
  • Did you think that guy in first class was being rude, or being helpful?
  • I don’t have a question, but I have a comment. I keep looking at your dog, and now I know Whitney is my spirit animal.
  • Do you wish you would have not been in the hospital all those months and just saw everything you could instead? I mean, do you wish you just went blind all of a sudden so you didn’t have to be in the hospital all that time?

Whew! What can I say? Those sixth-graders at Clarendon Hills Middle School are wise beyond their years.