Hanni and Whit: Safe & Sound

April 15, 201617 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guide dogs, Hanni, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized, visiting schools, Whitney

It’s been a busy travel week for my Seeing Eye dog and me. We flew back from our fun-filled Sisters’ Weekend in the Pacific Northwest Monday night and then turned around Wednesday to take a three-hour train ride from Chicago to Champaign, Illinois. The next morning the two of us gave a presentation for an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. While there, we stayed overnight in Urbana at the home of an old friend: retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni.

There’s Whit with Hanni’s bone during a previous visit to Urbana.

Whitney and Hanni are both Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses, they are both graduates of the Seeing Eye school In Morristown, N.J., and both of them are very, very smart. I had no trouble telling them apart, though. Hanni is a tail wagger — you know it’s her when you hear a thump, thump, thump on the floor. She’s taken on more and more of her Golden Retriever side in these matronly years: she wears her hair long and full. Her coat matches her personality: fluffy.

Whitney, on the other hand, is a lean, mean machine. She’s six years old now, and she no longer shows signs of childish jealousy that she used to on visits with her predecessor.

Sixteen-year-old Hanni is in very good hands with her people Steven and Nancy. She retired five years ago, and she’s slowed down since then, of course.

Hanni no longer runs to greet us when we enter the room. Like the royalty she is, she simply lifts her head and acknowledges us from her bed. The only person she gets up to greet at the door now is her beloved Nancy. At 16 years old (you figure it out in dog years, I can’t do the math) Hanni still gets out regularly with Nancy for walks. Sometimes, when they head to Homer Lake, Hanni even runs.

Nancy and Hanni came in our bedroom Thursday morning to check on us just as I was picking up the Seeing Eye dog harness — it was time to head over to campus for the guest lecture. “Whitney, come!”

“Think Hanni will want you to put it on her instead?” Nancy wondered out loud. I held the harness up, Whitney lifted her head to slide in, and as I buckled her in, Hanni answered Nancy’s question loud and clear. She turned 180 degrees and happily left the room. The girl enjoys her retirement, and who can blame her? It’s a joy to behold.

Dissatisfied with candidates this year? Vote for Wanda instead

April 13, 20168 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Uncategorized

The writers in the Me, Myself and I class I lead in downtown Chicago entered a contest. If they win, the Lyric Opera of Chicago will help them produce an opera about the class!

Only problem? Writers in that class aren’t exactly computer savvy, and to win, they need fans to vote online. That’s where you Safe & Sound blog followers can help.

Wanda at her 90th.

Wanda at her 90th birthday party with the writers.

First, some background. Earlier this year, Lyric Opera of Chicago launched a project called Chicago Voices. Lyric Unlimited asked community groups to submit applications for an opportunity to have their stories told opera-style. I brought the information to our Me, Myself, and I class in January, and writers put their heads together to answer the questions on the form. From a Lyric Opera press release:

After receiving numerous applications showcasing diverse, compelling and community-focused stories, a panel from the Chicago Public Library diligently reviewed and scored each group based on a predetermined set of criteria. Eight dynamic groups have been selected to move forward as semifinalists, each of which will have video profiles featured online for public voting beginning today.

Me, Myself, and I is one of the eight semi-finalists chosen, and now you can vote online for a 90-second video of writers Wanda Bridgeforth and Audrey Mitchell describing our class.

Three groups will move on to the next round and receive 16 weeks of classes from professionals at the Lyric to create original songs and scripts. Artistic support from Lyric Unlimited will help the finalist present its “fully-realized production” to the public in the fall.

Can’t you just imagine? Ninety-five-year-old Wanda as diva…

In order for this to happen, though, you’ve gotta vote for the Me, Myself and I 90-second video. ?After you vote, please share the link with your friends and family. Members of the public can vote once every day for the story they find most intriguing, and we need you to do just that to stand a chance against the young computer-savvy whipper-snappers we’re competing against. Please vote! Your reward? When we win, we’ll invite you to the opening in the fall.

Mondays with Mike: Alone time

April 11, 20163 CommentsPosted in baseball, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

As Beth just posted, she’s been in Anacortes, Washington, for the last few days, hanging out with her sisters.

And I’ve been here. At home in Chicago. She got the better of the weather. But I did all right.

The highlight was getting to the White Sox home opener on Friday afternoon. That Friday morning—that gray, cold, windy, rainy Friday morning—it didn’t look good for the game. But the rain stopped, the sun popped out while I was on the Red Line headed to the park, the anthem was sung, the Polish sausage (wit onions, and no, no “h” on the wit) was purchased, I wiped off my seat, and play ball!

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor ....

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor ….

It was cold, and there would eventually be snow—enough to cause the Cleveland centerfielder to lose a ball in the flurries temporarily—and the Sox really played like drek. And it didn’t matter. It was a gas.

I like going to games by myself. Not all the time. But I can listen to chatter, move around the park as I please, and be alone in a crowd. There’s something really satisfying about that.

I think I have an alone-in-a-crowd disposition. But it goes beyond that. I think probably my and Beth’s circumstances make my alone time all the more important to me. If you read Beth’s last post about navigating travel from Chicago to Anacortes, you got a notion about the tedious and sometimes daunting logistics that come with blindness. I know them well. .

Apart from travel, the truth is the logistics of my daily life have also been complicated by Beth’s blindness in so many small and large ways–but we’ve been at this for so long that I’m not even aware of the extra little things or the different things I need to do or can’t do in day-to-day life. It’s only when she’s gone that I understand that, wow, life can be a lot simpler on my own. It’s nice.

But it’s not as good.

Beth gets home tonight.

How can people who are blind navigate airports on their own?

April 9, 201621 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, technology for people who are blind, travel, Uncategorized, Whitney

Hello from the Pacific Northwest – my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I flew here from Chicago Wednesday for Sisters Weekend. The long flight from Seattle to Chicago gave me time to write out answers to questions I get about how I navigate O’Hare alone with my Seeing Eye dog:

Whitney makes the most of travel time.

Whitney makes the most of travel time.

  • How do you get to the airport? Many people who are blind use public transportation to get to airports, but I’m afraid of using the subway alone with my Seeing Eye dog – I’m nervous about falling into the tracks. I’d be open to taking a Chicago Transit Authority bus, but I’d want to do a trial run ahead of time to know exactly where they’d be dropping me off. I usually use a hotel shuttle, taxi, limo, or van service, and I tip well.
  • Where do you tell them to drop you off? Before I leave home, I check and double-check which airline I’m using and have the driver let me off at that specific Curbside check-in. Even if I’m not checking a bag, the workers at curbside check-in can check me in, get my boarding pass and sign me in for airport assistance. The curbside check-in worker guides my Seeing Eye dog and me to a seat inside and lets me know what my call number is. I tip them well.
  • What do you do in the waiting area? I empty my pockets and put my change, iPhone, keys, and all into a compartment of my carry-on (will make it easier to go through security). Then I listen for a red cap to come call out my assigned number.
  • How do you get to security? When a red cap calls our number, I get their attention and have them place my carry-on bag onto the seat of the wheelchair they brought along. I give my Seeing Eye dog the “follow” command and we shadow the red cap to the security line.
  • How do you get into the screening area? For obvious reasons, I don’t have a valid driver’s license. I use a State of Illinois ID card instead, and show that along with my boarding pass as I enter the screening area. I have a cool wallet with a long pocket that holds my boarding pass and ID in it, very handy if/when I need them again at the gate.
  • How do you get through security? I take my laptop computer and hand it to my airport assistant to place in a bin along with my shoes, jacket, and carry-on bag.
  • How do you get through the magnetometer? After giving my Seeing Eye dog the “sit” command, I lengthen her leash and give her a “rest” command so she’ll sit still while I let the TSA screener know how I intend on getting through. My dog sits while I explain, and her leash remains in my left hand as I extend my right hand to the scrrener and ask them to pull me through the arch. If I brush against the interior wall by mistake, the alarm sounds. I remind my Seeing Eye dog to “rest” where she is and I return, turn around, extend my right hand to the screener and walk through the arch again. Once I get verbal confirmation from the TSA agent that I’ve cleared successfully, I turn around and call the dog to come through. The alarm goes off when my dog comes through, but going through by myself ahead of my dog makes it clear to the screeners that her harness and leash set off the alarm, not me.
  • So do they have to wand the dog, then? Sometimes the screener wands her harness, and they always feel around her collar and pet her to inspect as well. I often quip to the TSA worker that my dog is the only creature who actually likes going though security. “It’s the only time I let someone pet her when her harness is on!”
  • How do you get your stuff off the conveyor belt? It’s important for me to remember what color jacket I was wearing, what shoes I had on and what type of laptop I use so I can describe them to the red cap helping me — they collect my things once they’ve cleared security. I’ve added Braille stickers to some of the keys on my laptop. So I often open it quickly and feel the keys to confirm its mine.
  • How do you find the gate from there? The red cap knows where the gate is, so I give my dog a “follow!” command and we shadow them from there. Once we’re at the gate, the red cap finds me a seat, heads to the desk with my boarding pass and returns with a pre-boarding ticket for us. I tip my red cap well.

Usually at this point I wait for someone from the airline to approach us and let us know they’re about to announce pre-boarding. I give my dog the “follow” command and follow the staff member to the jetway, hand over the ticket, board the plane, find our window seat and position my Seeing Eye dog under the seat in front of me with her head sticking out between my feet

On Wednesday, my sister Bev would be boarding along with my Seeing Eye dog and me once her flight from Grand Rapids arrived. After saying good bye to the red cap, I took my iPhone out and used VoiceOver to send Bev a text: “At gate.” Bev’s text came back immediately. “At airport Cubs bar. Meet you at gate soon.” Right then I knew: it was going to be an entertaining weekend with the sisters!

Mondays with Mike: Getting to the mountaintop

April 4, 20161 CommentPosted in blindness, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

We had a splendid weekend spending time with our friend Fiona, who is visiting all the way from Edinburgh, Scotland. Our time included an overnight in Champaign, Ill., where we joined friends to see Mavis Staples, who is carrying on the Staples Singers tradition with a joyous, infectious energy.

Our visiting friend got a crash course in the volatility of Midwestern weather as we drove home on Saturday afternoon. Vicious cross-gusts left overturned semis scattered in both directions and brought us to an hour-long dead stop on I-57. As we arrived in Chicago, there was blizzardy snow. And then, a couple hours later, sunshine, and then on Sunday, 60 degrees. Fiona has been a good sport.

First Church of Deliverance.

First Church of Deliverance.

On Sunday morning, I dropped Beth and Fiona off at the First Church of Deliverance on South Wabash in the heart of the historic African American Bronzeville neighborhood. We befriended the choir director there years ago, and he made it clear we were welcome anytime. When we have out of town visitors who want to experience something uniquely Chicago that isn’t the top of a skyscraper or hot dogs, Beth likes to take them there.

That church is on the National Register of Historic places. Of course, it’s more than that. It’s a center of gravity. Beth has sought out these places wherever we’ve lived. There’s nothing like them. I’m not religious, but the power of righteousness is the power of righteousness, and when the gospel choir sings, it penetrates the soul. You float.

Bronzeville is still proud — there are magnificent historic stone homes as well as charming clapboards, and there are signs of renaissance. On the drive there, though, we were struck by the condition of the roads — bad. Just a million signs of benign neglect of public infrastructure, neglect, a history of housing segregation, local governmental ineptitude and corruption. And of course, of our collective messed up history.

As I pulled up to the curb, a well-dressed gentleman approached the car and greeted us. He escorted Beth and Fiona into the church, and I drove off. When Beth and Fiona returned, they talked of the typical experience at First Deliverance: Gracious, friendly, and welcoming to all comers. They also said that the sidewalk they took to catch the 29 bus home was so jagged it was hard to navigate. Good sidewalks, roads, enforcing care of abandoned lots, sound public schools — that’s basic stuff that everyone should expect from local government everywhere. Apart from the physical value, it says that the broader community and government cares enough to bother.

A clip from MLK's last speech.

A clip from MLK’s last speech.

Yesterday was also the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s last speech — the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” one in which he seemed resigned to his imminent death.

That came soon enough, 48 years ago today. That speech is worth reading or listening to. I hope you will.

In the middle of an especially nutzoid presidential campaign it’s easy to get caught up in talk of top-down solutions. To be sure, what leaders do at that level matters. But perhaps it’s more about us pushing a boulder up a hill — which is exactly what Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing. He was there in Memphis, after all, to support striking garbage workers. Real change starts from the bottom up. The “leaders” will eventually follow if we make them.