My Favorite Place? In class with memoir writers

July 23, 201621 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Uncategorized

The living room couch with an afghan nearby. Jamaica in the 1950s. Our backyard in the 1950s. A sandy cliff on Grenada. Petra. The woods near the family farm. The dining room table. A rocking chair. A Buddhist temple. A Wisconsin monastery. A Catholic church. Anywhere with trees. Grannie’s Jackson Heights apartment. Our garden. Eating ice cream with dad on the front steps.

Those are just some of the places writers in the memoir classes I lead wrote about last week. The writing prompt? My Favorite Place.

I lead four memoir classes in Chicago every week now, and each has its own feel. Our Lincoln Park Village Monday class meets in Mel and Pam’s living room. The two of them have been married 50+ years, and eight years ago they moved into a condo overlooking Chicago’s gorgeous Lincoln park. Pam opened her essay saying, “My favorite place is…right here.”

I was certain Pam’s opening line would be my favorite of the week. But then, at the Thursday Lincoln Park Village memoir class, Judy Roth started her piece with this: “My favorite place is…first!” She edged Pam out with that one.

Pat is in the class I lead at Grace Place across the street in Printer’s Row. Her essay describes going to a concert at the Quiet Knight on Belmont Avenue in Chicago when she was 17. “The opening act was a young local singer-songwriter named Steve Goodman,” she wrote. “After that epic introduction to the Chicago music scene, I went to folk clubs every chance I got.”

Writers in my Me, Myself and I memoir class downtown grew up on Chicago’s South Side, on farms, as military brats, in plush Chicago suburbs, in India, Canada, Germany and the Philippines. Their favorite places were as diverse as their backgrounds, but when they each read aloud in class, we noticed one similarity. They’d all chosen places that helped them escape the everyday world.

Sharon Kramer is in that downtown class, and one of her favorite places to be is “in a large dark movie theatre with comfortable seats and a handful of strangers.” She acknowledges curling up on a couch to watch a movie can be pretty good,“but it is not the same as going to the movies, purse swollen with snacks concealed in baggies.”

That's me with Sharon Kramer and three other writers from our downtown class:, Audrey Mitchell, Wanda Bridgeforth, and Darlene Schweitzer.

That’s Sharon Kramer to my left and three other writers from our downtown class: Audrey Mitchell, Wanda Bridgeforth, and Darlene Schweitzer.

When Sharon enters a theater, she looks for a spot with empty seats on either side. She imagines her mother sitting on one side, her grandfather on the other. “It seems natural to enjoy a movie with two people I miss, two people who loved movies as much as I do.”

Sharon’s grandfather was the father of seven children, and he was married to “a wife who could think of a thousand chores he hadn’t finished.” The movie theater was her grandfather’s secret office away from home, and if Sharon’s mother wanted to talk to him, she knew where to look. “In the nearly empty movie theater, she would slide in next to her father. He would say, ‘What’s the problem, girl?’ And, they would talk.”

Her mother was overwhelmed with sadness when Sharon’s grandfather died. “ She Walked to the Embassy Movie Theater and sat down next to the seat her father used to occupy,” Sharon recalls. “A great sense of calm came over her.”

Sharon says now, sitting between the empty seats she saves for her mother and grandfather, she feels a sense of calm as well. “Sometimes I find myself turning and smiling to let them know how much I enjoy their company,” she writes. “I wish I could tell them things I didn’t have the courage to say while they were alive.”

Sharon’s essay was a superb example of how a relatively straightforward prompt – My Favorite Place – can spark a myriad of meaningful memories. I’ll say goodbye here and leave you with the conclusion of Sharon Kramer’s “The Magic of Movies:”

Leaving the theatre is a shock. Especially if it is daylight. It takes a while to come to grips with reality. The story that was so engrossing is made up. The characters I felt a fellowship with are just actors. My mother and grandfather are gone. But it was a great moment.

How would you dress if you couldn't see yourself in the mirror?

July 22, 201621 CommentsPosted in blindness, Blogroll, careers/jobs for people who are blind, Uncategorized

I feel good in this outfit, and my Seeing Eye dog Whitney likes the fur coat she is wearing, too.

I was 26 years old when I lost my sight. A Vietnam Veteran who was blinded in a military training accident was assigned to teach me how to cook.

A friend who visited me at Braille Jail (that’s what I called the facility I was sent to in order to learn new blind skills) told me what this teacher looked like. “That guy? He has long sideburns and long hair. Bell bottoms!” my friend said. “He looks like a rock and roller from the 70s!”

The year was 1985. I was horrified.

I started fidgeting with the buttons on my denim jumper, wiggling my toes against the flat cotton shoes on my feet. These clothes I’d bought when I could see would wear out sometime. What would I replace them with? Would I forever DRESS as if it were 1985?

We didn’t have much money back then, but my husband Mike saw to it from the start that I shop at the most expensive and exclusive clothing store in town. My first time there, I paraded out of the dressing room in a tight pair of leggings. The store owner gasped. “Oh, honey – you’ve got some big hips!” Now here was a woman I could trust.

I’ve never put on leggings again, but most of the clothing I wear comes from smaller boutique-type stores. I get to know the store owners and staff and trust them to be honest about what looks good on me –and what doesn’t.

Shopping online is cheaper, I know. A computer screen doesn’t allow a person to feel a piece of clothing, though, and I choose what I wear by how the fabric feels — and I feel — when I wear it.

People with disabilities get stared at. I can’t see the stares, but I sure can feel them. And as long as they’re watching, I want to look good.

Apparently, I do. That’s what people tell me, at least. And Without being able to look in a mirror and judge for myself, I have the luxury of believing them.

This post was published on the Easterseals National blog this week afterEasterseals Thrive hosted a Twitter chat about disability and fashion.

Mondays with Mike: Sean’s last night in town

July 18, 20166 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

Regular readers know that Hackney’s is our local pub. We’re there enough that Ulrich Sandmeyer, of Sandmeyer’s Bookstore halfway down the street between our condo and Hack’s, calls it Beth’s office.

Where everybody knows our name.

Where everybody knows our name.

It’s a luxury of sorts to finish up a day of work and have a friendly place just a block away. Apart from the food and libations, one of the great things about having a local is that Cheers culture of people who know you, put up with you, stand by you, and are just there when you need to see some familiar faces. (Better yet than Cheers at capturing what can be good about a local is a book called The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer.)

One thing that’s been especially gratifying is getting to know the staff. For as long as we’ve been going to Hackney’s, we’ve seen a stream of college-age and post-college kids come and go. Lots have been students at Columbia College at one time or another, or at other downtown schools like Robert Morris or DePaul.

These kids work very hard. Most are either going to school and working at Hack’s or have a second or third job. They belie the stereotype of the coddled millennial.

Since Beth and I are wont to sit at the bar—even when we are eating—we tend to get to know the bartenders better than the servers—though they’re all of the same good lot. And it’s a helluva lot of fun to watch them grow up before our eyes.

There’s been Billy, who left for what he called a “big boy” job. He’s now married and has two painfully cute children. And Stephen, who landed enough videography gigs to make it a full-time deal. Lynda and Jean left for greener pastures. Sarah became the general manager.

And just last night, we bid adieu to Sean, who’s about to embark on the kind of adventure that everyone in their twenties ought to have. He’s taking whatever fits in his car and driving toward Washington state, where a friend has said “come on down, you can hang out here.”

It was something of an ironic curtain call. So many of his fans showed up that he had to work his tail off to keep up. But he managed, and a good time was had by all.

Like all of the good young people at Hack’s that move on, Sean will be missed. But not forgotten. And we hope to sit with him on our side of the bar at his local, wherever that is, in the not too distant future.

Woebegone but not forgotten

July 17, 201616 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, radio, travel, Uncategorized

Our guest blogger John Craib-Cox is the proud father of a son and two grandchildren in London and a daughter and granddaughter here in Chicago. He signed up for a memoir-writing class shortly after his wife Tessa died unexpectedly on July 17, 2012. That was four years ago today. She was 67.

Today's guest blogger, John Craib-Cox.

Today’s guest blogger, John Craib-Cox.

Tessa Craib Cox was born in England and met John when she was on a graduate fellowship at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s. Young newlyweds John and Tessa moved to Chicago in 1974, the same year A Prairie Home Companion first aired. The poignant piece he read in class last week about Garrison Keillor’s final appearance as host of that show is a beautiful reflection on love, family, nostalgia and loss.

by John Craib-Cox

In 1974 Public Radio began to broadcast A Prairie Home Companion. At the time, with two small children and few satisfactory baby sitters, weekend evenings were spent in our apartment and this program became a welcome source of entertainment.

The host, Garrison Keillor, was roughly our ages, and had a familiar dry sense of humor and similar musical taste. This proved to be a winning combination. Friends also liked the weekly program and it provided many shared subjects for conversation.

Many of our friends had grown up, like me, in the Middle West and found Keillor’s Lake Wobegone reminiscences struck a familiar regional note. Our children liked the ragtime music heard on the broadcasts. They would dance whenever the band played something bouncy and up tempo.

Throughout the ’70s we weekly would listen together to Garrison Keillor on the radio, and whenever he was at Ravinia Park we would be in attendance. Keillor had a wonderful sense of the absurd. As they grew, our children would laugh whenever he referred to the freeze-dried mouse morsels obtainable at Bertha’s Kitty Boutique.

After several years the Prairie Home Companion ritual faded in favor of other activities. Then Garrison Keillor left for New York. It was never the same again. Keillor’s first New York program opening monologue opined that it was rather odd to be starting to broadcast from a city where most parked automobiles had a dashboard sign saying “No radio.” That thought wasn’t enough to hold us, however. We ceased to tune in, save on the very rare occasions when we were driving and could find nothing else to listen to.

A wave of publicity alerted me to the impending final program. I made certain to be at home to listen to the broadcast. With the exception of the telephone call from President Obama it was more or less the familiar program that we had started listening to in the 1970s. This final broadcast became a receptive sponge for melancholic feelings contrasting the unchanging nature of the program over 42 years and the totally changed nature of my life in the 42 years since the first broadcast.

As it drifted into the final half hour, the clouds of melancholy became thicker and I became sadder. Suddenly the telephone rang. A friend calling from Italy. I was brought back into the present, making plans for my August trip to London.

One thing I have in common with new British Prime Minister Theresa May

July 13, 201626 CommentsPosted in blindness, politics, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized

She’s a woman, we’re about the same age, and we’re both survivors. The most significant thing I have in common with Theresa May, though? It’s actually one thing we both would rather do without: the new British Prime Minister and I have Type 1 diabetes.

Theresa May, the UK's new Prime Minister.

Theresa May, the UK’s new Prime Minister.

Millions of people have diabetes. Only a small fraction of us have Type 1, though. That’s the one that is also known as juvenile diabetes. I was diagnosed with Type 1 at age seven. Prime Minister May was diagnosed in 2013. This BBC story about her last Tuesday demonstrates just how complicated it can be to fully understand the chronic disease:

She has rarely opened up about her private life although she revealed in 2013 that she had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and would require insulin injections twice a day for the rest of her life — something she says she had come to terms with and which would not affect her career.

I looked up an interview where she mentioned her diagnosis. “I’m on an insulin regime so I’m injecting insulin four times a day,” she said (the emphasis on the number four is mine). In the interview She also explained that she takes additional injections when she eats extra carbs or her blood sugar tests run high.

Okay, I hear you. It’s just a number. What’s the difference between two, and say, four? Or more? Trust me, it’s a tremendous difference when you’re the one taking all those injections. Not to mention the blood test you need to take throughout the day to determine if you got the amount of insulin right the last time you took a shot. Or whether you still need to take more

Type 1 diabetes — the kind Theresa and I have — comprises only 5 percent to 10 percent of diabetes cases. Type I diabetics have to inject insulin –pills won’t work. In Type 1, the immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Researchers have not yet been able to figure out why that happens, but they do know it has nothing to do with the person’s behavior.

Ninety to ninety-five per cent of the people who have diabetes have Type II, and in those cases doctors often prescribe exercise and weight reduction. A number of people I know have been “cured” of Type 2 by exercising and losing weight. Type 1 is a whole different story. Prime Minister May and I could run, jump, swim, skip rope, lift weights and do cartwheels from sun-up to sundown (okay, truth is, I could never do a cartwheel, even when I was a kid, but you get the picture) and we could shrink down to a size 3 dress, but we’d still need to inject insulin. That’s because, no matter how much we weigh, those of us with Type 1 produce no insulin. None. Nada.

And so, Theresa and I — along with millions around the world who have juvenile diabetes — take insulin every time we eat. We test our blood several times a day to make sure glucose levels are within range. We balance meals, snacks, exercise and medication to prevent diabetes complications, which can include kidney failure, amputations, and … blindness.

Fast-acting insulins, insulin pumps and home blood monitors were not available 50 years ago when I was diagnosed. I took shots, avoided sugar, and tested my urine at home from time to time to get a guess at what my sugar levels were. I was advised not to have children, warned of the likelihood of complications and told I likely wouldn’t live past age thirty.

No surprise that throughout my childhood I saw my juvenile diabetes as a weakness. In early adulthood, though, I decided to fight back. I studied the disease, bought one of those new-fangled home glucose monitoring machines, and with my husband Mike’s help and support we started testing my blood regularly. I became more vigilant about exercise, walking everywhere and swimming every other day and closely monitoring how much that exercise brought my blood sugars down. I figured out how much my favorite foods brought my blood sugars up, too, and now I inject that new fast-acting insulin six, seven sometimes eight times a day to balance the meals and snacks I like to eat.

A new blood monitor at home talks — it calls my numbers out loud, so Mike doesn’t have to be around every time I want to check my sugar levels. Controlling my blood sugar keeps my weight at a steady level and gives me good overall health. Best of all: It makes me feel good.

Today’s appointment of Theresa May as UK’s new Prime Minister makes me feel good, too. Her appointment gives me even more reason to think that our Type I diabetes is not a weakness after all. It’s a strength. Living well with the disease teaches us perseverance, self-control, discipline and resourcefulness. Coordinating meals with insulin injections forces us to think ahead and make good decisions. Here in America we’ll be making a decision soon about a new leader. I hope we choose one with characteristics like those of my fellow Type I diabetic. Prime Minister May shows good judgment and is careful about her personal management. Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems having control of yourself is a good place to start when it comes to taking control of a country.