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Do I Look Like Michelle Obama?

August 29, 200817 CommentsPosted in Beth Finke, blindness, Uncategorized

It’s weird, not being able to see myself in a mirror. Instead of dwelling on things I can’t do, though, I try to take advantage. Brush my teeth, comb my hair, wash my face. Smile, and assume I look like I did when I was in my twenties.

But then, every once in a while, a comment throws me off for a while. Yesterday I got an email from my dear friend Steve:

you’re probably tired of hearing this, but every time I see Michelle Obama, which is a lot lately, there’s something about her face that makes me think of you. Which makes me like her even more.

Ironically, shortly before receiving that note, I’d been talking to a woman in the locker room where I swim.

“Have you seen Barrack Obama?” she asked. I couldn’t’ know for sure, but from the sound of her voice, this woman was older. And African-American. I started to tell her yes, that I’d seen Barrack Obama in Chicago when he was promoting his Audacity of Hope book. But for some reason, Right before opening my mouth, I realized: she wanted to know if I’d ever seen Barrack Obama. So I told her no, that I’d been blind almost 25 years.

“He’s cute!” she said.

“Does he have a nice smile?” I asked. I can often tell — from the sound of a voice — that someone has a big smile.

“MM-hmmm,” she nodded. With a big smile on her face, of course.

And then I asked about Michelle Obama. I knew two things about her looks. For one, I’d heard on the radio that Michelle Obama is tall.

I’m tall, too.

For two, after Michelle Obama’s speech Monday night, I overheard a guy at our local tavern say, “Well, that Michelle Obama proved one thing: if you’re a woman, and you’re a Democrat, you can still wear a dress.”

I like wearing dresses, too.

“What did she do, did she go to school at Princeton or something like that?” the woman in the locker room asked me. “She looks like a school teacher. Or a librarian.”

“You mean she looks serious?” I asked.

“She looks smart,” the woman answered.

Note to my friend Steve: I’ll never get tired of being told I look like Michelle Obama.

My Date with Billy Balducci

August 26, 20087 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

Hanging at Hackneys with bartender Billy Balducci!You know who Billy Balducci is, right? The bartender at Hackney’s, our local tavern? The guy sitting next to me in that photo from an October blog post? You know, the post called Cheers!?

It’s been a year since I started this Safe & Sound blog, and out of all the posts I’ve published, thatCheers! one got more traffic than anything else I’ve posted here. The Cheers! ball got rolling after a woman from Long Island left a comment:

Christina S.
October 30, 2007 at 3:40 pm

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that Billy Balducci is a total hottie?

Once word got out about the Hackney’s Hottie, everyone had to take a look. My “unique visit” stat went sky-high! I became a blog maven.

The Hackney’s Hottie is a White Sox fan, and when I found myself with two free tickets to a game, he agreed to go with Hanni and me. (Mike couldn’t go — the game was in the afternoon, and the poor guy had to work.)

Hanni came along as chaperone, guiding me as usual until we got close to the park. Crowds were forming, so I switched to the “follow” command: Billy took the lead, Hanni and I trailed behind. That didn’t work for long, though. White Sox Park was so packed with fans that day (the White Sox are in first place, after all!) that it was too hard for Hanni to keep track of Billy. So I dropped Hanni’s harness, signaling to her that she doesn’t have to lead anymore. I kept track of Hanni with the leash in my left hand while hooking onto Billy Balducci’s arm (just above the elbow) with my right. This was a first for Billy – when he and I get together, there is usually a bar between us. He had never been a “sighted guide” before, and he seemed nervous about—and a little tickled by – the responsibility. I could follow his body movements once he learned to hold his arm naturally and close to his side, and he knew intuitively to stop at stairs or curbs. I showed Billy how to warn me when passages got too narrow for the three of us to pass through – he would move his arm to his back, as if he were reaching into his hip pocket. That was my cue to stay directly behind him.

Hanni usually enjoys walking “sighted guide” for a while – it gives her a break from leading. Remember, though – even though I don’t have my hand on the harness, she still has it strapped to her back. This means no one can pet her, and she can’t snarf up food from the floor or sniff at other people. So after a while, she gets frustrated. As long as her harness is on, she figures, she might as well be working.

Julie Taylor, Director of Guest Services and Diamond Suite Operations for the White Sox (and, more importantly, a dog lover!) couldn’t help but notice us. She called us over, asking if she could see our tickets. “I think we can move you somewhere better,” she said. We ended up right behind the Texas Ranger dugout.

Billy gave me play-by-play when necessary, the White Sox came from behind to win, and we had a ball.

The next time Mike, Hanni and I walked in to Hackney’s, we found Billy Balducci behind the bar telling the owner about the game. He waited until we were within earshot before adding one last detail. “And Jim, here’s the best part,” he gushed. “I was arm-in-arm with Beth the whole time!”

Raising Puppies for the Seeing Eye

August 18, 200829 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized, Writing for Children

Our Friday flight from O’Hare had been delayed four hours. By the time Hanni, Mike and I got to Morristown, I was ready for a glass of wine. Or two. Or three.  “Will Merlot do?” Jim Kutsch asked. “If not, just let me know — we have a wine cellar in the basement.”

Yeesh! Jim and his wife Ginger both are blind, they’d held a myriad of major     

Ginger Bennett (L) and Jim Kutsch (R), great hosts and great guides to Morristown, NJ. (That's me and Hanni bringing up the rear.)

Ginger Bennett (L) and Jim Kutsch (R), great hosts and great guides to Morristown, NJ. (That

big-time jobs between them, they manage a household on their own, they both have Seeing Eye dogs, he’s now the President of the Seeing Eye. Isn’t that cool enough? They are wine connoisseurs, too?!

“We’re not collectors,” Jim explained. Our dogs were scrambling at his feet, acquainting themselves with each other. ” The cellar came with the house.” Keeping track of the wine in the cellar had been difficult at first. “I was feeling through all the shelves one day and it dawned on me,” he said. “The wines were arranged in a sort of grid.” And so, of course, he did what any other blind computer geek would do. He used his talking computer to create an excel spreadsheet of the cellar.

Other Reminders Our Hosts Were Both Blind

1. Ginger would pet a dog, then ask aloud, “Which one are you?” She’d feel for their necks (each of the three had different sorts of collars) and then she’d know for sure.

2. Jim set a talking timer when he put our burgers on the gas grill outside. When it chirped, he knew to turn the burgers over.

3. Ginger poured my first glass of wine and set it in front of me. She had no way of knowing where I might have set that glass after that, though. So when I ask for a second Merlot, she set the bottle near me and tapped it with her fingertips. I heard where the bottle was and could pour that second glass myself.

4. I heard Jim flip a switch as he led us into the room we’d be sleeping in. Then he asked Mike, just to make sure. “Is the light on?” The next morning we paraded to the Kutsches’ favorite coffeeshop for breakfast – Colby leading Jim, Peyton leading Ginger, Hanni and me bringing up the rear. Poor Mike had to walk alone.

After breakfast we spent a glorious day at the Seeing Eye’s Family day for Puppy Raisers — a day of dogs, demonstrations, videos, free lunch and ice cream to help puppy raisers realize the rewards of their dedication. Nearly 2000 volunteers showed up for the fun, and the Seeing Eye ordered caseloads of special copies of Safe & Sound for the event. Puppy raisers lined up to have me sign (and Braille) my name into each book. Hanni’s pawprint was rubber stamped on each copy, too, of course. Ramona, the wonderful Seeing Eye staff member who’d been tracking our flight delay the day before, was assigned to help with the signing. “I’m glad you guys made it!” she said with relief in her voice. “Those O’Hare-Newark flights are notorious for being late.”

She led me to a signing table and we got started. A few minutes later she was already so busy opening containers of books that she couldn’t help me rubber-stamp Hanni’s pawprint. Mike was called to action and was a good partner — he had no trouble hurrying me on if the line got too long. Anyone who has been to one of my book signings knows how I LOVE to chat with everyone who comes to the table.

A Surprising Thing Mike & I Learned from the Puppy Raisers

I thought puppy raisers might secretly hope that in the end their puppies wouldn’t make it into class. Dogs removed from consideration as a guide are offered to the volunteer who raised the dog as a puppy. If the puppy raiser cannot take the dog, the dog becomes adoptable to others. But as the puppy raisers counted off the number of puppies they’d raised, I could hear their voices fill with disappointment when naming the ones who hadn’t made it. “He had toileting issues,” one little girl told me. Another dog was too protective. One lab suffered from chronic ear infections. As the event was drawing to a close, I asked a member of the Puppy Placement Department what the hardest part of her job was. I expected her to say it was taking the dogs away from the families to start training. “Oh, yes, that’s hard,” she acknowledged. “But the families all know that is going to happen.” The hardest part, she said, was phoning the families whose dog had been removed from the training program. “They take it hard,” she said.

One of Many, Many Examples of Nice New Yorkers

Booksigning over, we were whisked to the train station in Morristown for an overnight in New York City. Hard to imagine where NYC got the reputation of being rude — everyone was so kind to us. When Hanni, Mike and I exited Penn Station, Mike told a transit cop the address of our hotel. “Is it possible to walk there?”

“Too far,” the cop said. We headed to the taxi cue. All of a sudden we heard that same cop calling out to us. “Over here!” he said. He had hailed a cab four us himself.

The whole weekend was fab, from staying at the home of the Seeing Eye president and his wife in Morristown on Friday night to hanging out with Ramona and meeting all those dedicated puppy raisers during the day Saturday to our night at the “Desmond Tutu Hotel” in Chelsea. When I emailed Ramona today to thank her for all her hard work, I told her the good news about our flight back: it actually left Newark on time. “You oughta buy a lottery ticket,” she said in her email message back to me. “You’re awfully lucky.”

She’s right.

Odd Man Out

August 12, 20086 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized, Writing for Children

Hanni is not particularly fond of baths!Hanni heads off to Doggie Bath House again this Thursday. She needs to look – and smell! – good for our trip To New Jersey. We’ve been invited to the Seeing Eye’s annual “Family Fun Day on Saturday –it’s a day to honor the puppy raisers and other volunteers who do so much to make our guide dog partnerships possible. The Seeing Eye ordered FIVE HUNDRED special copies of Safe & Sound for the volunteers, and Hanni and I will be on hand to sign my name (plus rubber stamp Hanni’s pawprint) inside each one.

A car will meet us at Newark Friday to drive us to the home of Jim and Ginger Kutsch. Jim – or perhaps I should say, ahem, Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr. – is the first blind person to be named president of the Seeing Eye. I learned a lot about Jim while writing a profile of him for the Illinois Alumni Magazine. Jim lost his sight when he was 16 years old, then ended up getting a PhD in computer science from the University of Illinois.

Jim Kutsch hoped the chemistry experiment would impress his high school buddies. When his homemade explosives backfired in a fiery blast, however, the explosion not only left the 16-year-old totally blind, but also resulted in the amputation of half his right hand.

Thanks to friends leading him through school hallways and relatives and neighbors reading textbooks to him at night, the determined teenager from Wheeling,
W. Va., managed to graduate from high school on time. After finishing his first year at West Virginia University, Kutsch traveled to Morristown, N.J. to train with his first Seeing Eye dog, a German shepherd named Sheba.

Thirty-six years, three college degrees and five dogs later, Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr. doesn’t need outlandish science experiments to impress his friends. A career that has taken him from academic professor to the high-tech business world does his bidding for him. This year another achievement has been added to his list: In September, Kutsch became the first blind person to be named president of the Seeing Eye.

Jim’s wife Ginger Bennett Kutsch was the Associate Manager of Development at the Seeing Eye before Jim took his position there. Ginger is blind, too — the pair met while training with new Seeing Eye dogs. Jim’s German Sheppard Anthony couldn’t keep his eyes off Peyton, Ginger’s yellow Lab/golden
Retriever cross. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mike is coming along with Hanni and me on the trip. Poor guy, I’m afraid he might feel left out Friday night. After all, he’ll be the only one at the Kutsch’s house without a guide dog!

Sit Stay Read! on NBC TV

August 7, 20086 CommentsPosted in Uncategorized, Writing for Children

A literacy organization Hanni and I volunteer with in Chicago was featured on the What Works segment of NBC Nightly news Monday evening.

Hanni and I got involved with Sit Stay Read! (SSR) after meeting the Executive Director and co-founder at a book signing last Fall. She keeps a blog about SSR and reports that their mailbox is flooded with good wishes and inquiries from folks all over the WORLD (hello Melbourne!) who saw the feature and are eager now to bring Sit Stay Read programs to kids in their cities.

The Sit Stay Read! web site explains the program like this:

Reading aloud is a critical component of early childhood literacy. Children who have difficulty reading have an especially hard time reading aloud in front of peers and adults. SIT STAY READ programs allow children to read aloud to specially trained therapy dogs. The dogs increase confidence and generate excitement.

The SSR director asked if Hanni and I might want to be Guest Readers/listeners at a Sit Stay Read school program in the Chicago Public Schools sometime. “Our kids would be thrilled to hear you, “she said. They’ve had opera singers, firefighters, poets and other professionals as guests, she said. “You and Hanni would be a wonderful addition.”

Who could resist a pitch like that? We said yes, and in March Hanni and I visited Hendricks Elementary School on Chicago’s south side. Hanni and I had just been to a very wealthy school district in the Chicago suburbs the week before, and the contrast was striking. One thing that was similar in both schools, though: the kids had the same curiosity, and they asked similar questions. You know, things like “How do you know if it’s time to wake up?” and “Is it scary being blind?”

Beth and Hanni both enjoy watching the White Sox. Illustration from "Hanni and Beth, Safe & Sound."

Beth and Hanni both enjoy watching the White Sox. Illustration from "Hanni and Beth, Safe & Sound."

Hendricks is located near White Sox Park, and since Safe & Sound has an illustration of Hanni and me watching a ballgame, the kids had all sorts of questions about that. “What if you got hit by a ball?” I told them we try to sit under netting. “What if there’s a hole in the net?” I told them Mike usually comes with us to ballgames, so he warns me if a ball is coming. “What if he is going to get hot dogs so he isn’t there and the ball comes?” the ballgame questions went on and on. And it was really, really fun.

My publisher at Blue Marlin Publications watched the Sit Stay Read! segment on NBC from their home on Long Island. Her son Jude Tucker watched it with her, and he was sure the boy on the segment was reading Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound — even though he could only make out a blue back cover! Gotta love my supportive fans on Long Island!