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What’s the best thing you ever bought, borrowed or stole?

November 11, 20178 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, politics

This week I asked writers in my memoir classes to put together 500-word essays about the best thing they ever bought, borrowed or stole. Essays came back about a yoyo, a wedding dress, college educations, a maternity dress, a black walnut dining table, condos with lake views, a black leather jacket, artwork, a stylish mmauve jacket from Paris and more — I’ll leave it to you to guess which of those were stolen, borrowed or bought!

By far the one thing most of them wrote about was…their first car. This one, called “The People’s Car,” was especially fun, and the writer has generously agreed to let us publish it here.

by Sharon Kramer

The VW Beetle was unmistakable..

One of the best things I ever purchased was a 1962 cherry red Volkswagen Beetle. You may remember, it had a motor in the back, was air-cooled instead of air conditioned (whatever that means) and was said to be water tight. The myth was that it could survive being completely submerged in a lake.

The important part was what it didn’t have. Except for minimal fenders, it hardly had any chrome, and not even a whisper of a tail or fins. It didn’t have a powerful v8 engine and could get 32 to 40 miles per gallon of gas — which was only 30 cents, by the way. In place of angles there were curves. It didn’t look like an American car.

I had just graduated college, was still living at home and had a job with the Chicago Public Schools for what I thought was a significant amount of money: $5,250 a year. With my great job, and no rent to pay, I decided I could afford a car. I didn’t know anyone who owned a Beetle, but I thought it was cute. It looked like it was fun to drive. And, it was.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d made several major decisions in life because of the cute factor.

I never thought owning a Beetle was part of a movement or the beginning of the 60’s rebellion but soon realized it was more than a way to get from one place to another. When I passed another Beetle on the road, there was waving, shouting and horn blowing. I was part of something, I just wasn’t sure what.

My parents were opposed to the car. “How could you buy a car that was made in Germany? Don’t you know that the Volkswagen was Hitler’s idea?” At age 22, I regarded their opposition to anything as a signal for me to fall totally in love with someone or something. I named my car Schroder. All Volkswagen Beatles had names and for some reason mine was a “he.”

Driving a Beetle wasn’t exactly like moving to San Francisco or joining a commune, but it did make a statement. Driving Schroder said that I was against the war in Viet Nam. It said I was a non-conformist and against capitalist values. It said that I really wanted to own a new age bookstore instead of working for the Chicago Public School System.

I don’t know what became of that car. I think I had it for three or four years and then I got married and traded it in for a car that would do better in a below-zero Minnesota winter and had a heater that worked.

I always regretted selling Schroder as I seemed to be exchanging my youth and optimism for a conventional life of husband, children and working as a teacher. Saying goodbye to Schroder was the first of many struggles I would have between passion and convenience. It marked the end of thinking things were so simple that instead of standing up for what you believed, you could let a car say it all.

Guest post: Aunty Maggy restores her spirits

November 8, 20178 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing

When I assigned “Spirits” as a writing prompt over the Halloween weekend, I expected the writers in my memoir classes to come back with stories of living in houses that were haunted, going to psychics, reading Tarot Cards, seeing ghosts or visits from the “other side.” Instead, I heard essays about team spirit, kindred spirits, vodka, Christmas spirit, you name it. This one, called “My Spirits Restored,” was particularly moving, and the writer has generously agreed to let us publish it here.

by Maggy Fouché

In 1994, three years after we got married, my husband and I became homeowners. Claude and I had acquired a collection of artworks while we were both single, and our new home transformed into an art gallery. Paintings and carvings of all sizes and colors filled every room in the house. Fortunately, our taste in art was similar, with only a few exceptions. Pieces I didn’t like ended up in the unfinished basement. Throughout our life together we acquired more art from travels abroad and visits to local art fairs and galleries.

Photo of Maggy the writer with Djenane and husband Jacob.

Djenane and her husband Jacob with their Aunty Maggy

When Claude died, I had to sell my house. The paintings became a casualty of the real estate agent’s dictates. “Put all that away,” she said. “Prospective homebuyers don’t want to see any of your personal effects.”

Everything got wrapped in brown paper and put in the basement, and I prepared to transition from a three-bedroom house to something smaller. Trips to Goodwill and the city’s recycling center on Goose Island became a routine part of my life, and the art collection became just another thing to get rid of.

Unfortunately, my attempts to sell art on line went nowhere. My home’s antiseptic makeover worked, though, and the house was sold.

On moving day all the paintings got put in various boxes simply labeled “Art.” Without knowing which box contained the pieces I really liked, I put them all into the storage unit in my new apartment complex. I’d dispose of them later.

My opportunity came just a few months ago when my niece Djenane was getting married. “Aunty Maggy,” she said one day, “Jacob and I need some art to decorate our new home. I love the place, but the walls are so bare!” I gave her one of the paintings I had tried to sell on Craigslist. She was thrilled.

So was I.

I told her I had more pieces and she could come and take whatever she wanted. To prepare for her visit, I spent a weekend unpacking all those boxes marked”Art.” Removing the brown paper wrapping and seeing my favorite pictures emerge was like being reunited with old friends. Something inside me was being restored.

The paintings Maggy looks at every day.

Now Maggy looks at her favorite paintings every day.

I’d discarded much more than I thought in those four years of purging, and now I found something I didn’t even know I’d lost. I separated the pictures I wanted to keep and showed Djenane the rest. She took two paintings and four carvings – Hurray! A major dent in the inventory.

Now my focus was on reuniting with my old friends and making up for the years of neglect. I took advantage of a 60% off frame sale from Michael’s to get two of them properly mounted and framed. Then I called my handyman to come help me hang them in the living room.

Now, as I read, write, or just sit in my new art gallery, I feel their warm embrace. “Hi, Maggy!” the paintings seem to say. “It’s good to be back.”

Mondays with Mike: Gus’ long and winding road

November 6, 201711 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, parenting a child with special needs

We just got back from a visit to Gus in his new home. Ordinarily, the term new home triggers anticipation and excitement—in this case, Gus’ move to new digs was more about anxiety.

I’ve posted about Gus before—short story: He was born with a rare genetic disorder that left him with severe developmental and physical disabilities. He’s 31 years old now, and has always needed help with bathing, toileting, dressing, grooming—with about everything.

Photo of Gus smiling.

Gus seemed happy in his new digs.

Until 2002, he got that help from mom and dad. Then he moved to a newish facility in Watertown, Wisconsin operated by Bethesda Lutheran Communities. He lived in what was essentially a really nice single dorm room—each building had sixteen such rooms, and they shared a large, open, sunny lounge and dining area and a specially equipped bathroom and shower area.

When Gus moved away, he and we had a hard few months of separation. But he eventually adapted and had a lot of fun propelling his wheelchair up and down the long hallways. He even managed to open a door and get out of his unit once, the little stinker. (OK, I confess, I wasn’t alarmed. Truth is, hearing that news made me a proud papa.) The facility was purpose built, it was accessible by design, and was equipped with devices that made it as easy as possible for staff to help residents with daily living. There was also a nurse on hand.

Gus’ home building was situated among others like it, as well as an older building, on a green patch of land next to a river. It was a pretty little setting.

But, it was, in a real sense, segregated from the broader community. The residents got out on special field trips from time to time, but just going outside for a walk could be problematic depending on staff.

And there was the rub. For decades now, there has been a movement away from institutional settings—ones that separate people from the general community—toward group homes. That movement advanced, in a hurry, after the landmark Olmstead Supreme Court decision in 1999. In brief, that decision led to a mandate that citizens who relied on Medicaid—which includes pretty much anyone with severe disabilities or requiring a nursing home—be placed in the least restrictive, most average environment possible.

For so many, many people, the decision was a Godsend. Lots of people had unnecessarily been warehoused in the kinds of places that gave the term institution its odious reputation. Many of these people were capable of living much fuller lives in the community.

But, as is often the case, there were unintended consequences. Namely, there were lots of people—and their families—who were completely happy in their institutional setting. Some of these people were very medically needy, and their guardians believed they were much safer if left where they were. And they put up their own fight.

The advocates for community settings were pretty dogged—they believed it was good for everyone. And many adopted the position that group homes in community settings were more economical than larger facilities. In addition, in our case, there would be better staff to resident rations. Essentially, in a group home, there’d be one staff per two residents, where on campus there might be a handful for 16.

I believe in certain situations, community settings can be more economical—but in general, they’re not. It seemed counterintuitive to Beth and me even back then. For example, certain equipment has to be made available at dozens of locations instead of just one. (Vans, lifts, etc.)

It was an attractive–if fundamentally faulty–idea to think there would be financial savings across the board.

A couple years after Gus moved to Bethesda, we learned that the wind was blowing strongly toward group homes in local neighborhoods, and away from Gus’ campus setting. We were told a new home was opening nearby, there was space for Gus with three other guys who lived on campus, and he was a good candidate for a group home. They weren’t going to force us to take the opportunity, but it was clear that he was going to have to leave the institutional setting eventually, and waiting too long would limit our choices.

So we took the opportunity. We were relieved when the transition went smoothly—there were some hiccups but not the gut wrenching few months we experienced when Gus moved away in the first place.

And Gus has lived happily ever after with the same three roommates ever since.

Until last Friday.

We got a call about a month ago informing us that his little home was being phased out. In 30 days. A lot of stomach acid and a few phone calls later, we ascertained that he could move to another nearby group home, also operated by Bethesda. And that’s where we visited Gus this past Saturday.

In some ways, it’s a better situation: The new home was purpose-built with accessible features, where his old home had been retrofitted. But it’s a duplex arrangement with four bedrooms on two sides, connected by hallways. There are eight residents, and there were two staff while we visited. The previous house was across from a cute little park where we walked Gus to watch Little League games. The new one is across the street from a construction equipment storage lot.

If this sounds like a complaint, it’s not. To start, we’re lucky that Gus isn’t terribly medically  needy, and that he has done well in both his settings. Bethesda has stuck with Gus and us through this difficult situation, which has mightily strained the organization’s resources. The people who work in the homes are the salt of the earth. Beth, Gus, and I count ourselves as remarkably fortunate.

But it’s hard not to feel a little wistful. After all, in a real sense, Gus’ new situation kind of splits the difference between his original home on campus and his previous group home.

I think we’d have been happy sticking to the first, and skipping the angst—and cost to Bethesda—of two moves. I hope it’s the last move for a good while. I can only take so much antacid.

I swear I said Astros

November 5, 201714 CommentsPosted in baseball, blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, technology for people who are blind
Picture of Beth in Astros cap.

That’s Astros, not ….

When I fell a couple winters ago and broke some fingers in my left hand, I started
toying around with a dictation feature on the iPhone
. The microphone next to the space bar on the keyboard is far more accurate than Siri, and last

month I showed an 80-year-old writer in one of the memoir-writing classes I lead how to use it:

  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Swipe until you get to “General.”
  3. Swipe to Siri, and then turn Siri on. (Even if you don’t want to use Siri at all, you need to turn it on for any speech recognition to work.)
  4. Tap on the spot of the screen where you usually type.
  5. When the qwerty keyboard appears, look for the microphone icon by the space bar on your keyboard and tap it. When you’re done, tap the screen twice to end dictation.

I explained that she could include punctuation by just saying “exclamation mark” or “period” or “comma” and so on. She mastered it so quickly that she’s already using the microphone dictation method to write her essays.

One thing I still need to tell my octogenarian writer (and remind myself) is how easy it is to go back to the QWERTY keyboard to fix typos or edit a message  before sending it. I texted more than usual during the World Series this past week and was so excited by all the action on the field that I didn’t use the qwerty fix-it method as much as I should have. Some examples:

  • Friends texted to let me know South Loop Club had the music down, the TV broadcast sound was on, did I want to meet there for a beer and be able to hear the game? I dictated a text that said, well, “I am feeling thirsty.” The message they got said I was feeling 30.
  • In the game where the Astros fell behind by four in the early innings, I dictated a text encouraging a fellow Astros fan to stay positive. “Eyebrows up!” I said. The message he received read, I grows up!
  • When back-and-forth extra-inning games left me drinking  later than usual, I dictated a text to a friend and said I needed to practice “moderation.” The message my friend received said I needed to practice mortification.
  • After the Astros won Game Five, I dictated a note to a friend that if the Astros clinched the next night, I’d be free on Wednesday to go with her to a poetry slam. The message she got said I’d go with her to a piety slam.
  • I stayed home for Game Seven to listen to it on the radio, but Mike headed to Kasey’s Tavern across the street. Somewhere in the second or third inning I texted him by dictating, “I love these Astros!” the text he received said I love these assholes!

So take a lesson from me. Let’s be careful out there, fellow dictators.

Mondays with Mike: Right now is good enough

October 30, 20178 CommentsPosted in baseball, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Baseball fans are in the midst of a dramatic, entertaining, gut wrenching World Series. I’ve been enjoying it immensely. But then, I always enjoy the World Series. Which is why this headline and story from FiveThirtyEight drives me nuts:

This Astros-Dodgers World Series Is Already One Of The Best Ever

It’s not even over yet. And besides, how do you pretend to make subjective judgments objective? And why?

Photo of Bill Mazeroski being greeted by teammates as he arrives at home plate.

Bill Mazeroski brings home the winning run in game 7 of the 1960 World Series.

I think I know why. It’s playing to our vanity. What we are watching now is the best ever! What we are doing right now is more important than ever!

A few years ago, the term future-hall-of-famer was coined. And it won’t go away, and it never ceases to annoy the hell out of me. We’re watching a good player. Maybe a great player. Right now. And we’re talking about whether, five years after the player’s retirement, the player will be considered worthy of the MLB Hall of Fame.

Why? Isn’t watching the player perform enough? We have to borrow from the future to make ourselves feel even better?

Last year, when the first of two autumn tragedies occurred as the Cubs beat the Indians in the World Series, we were treated to statements like, “The best game 7 ever.”

It actually was a messy, badly managed baseball game. I’m 60 years old. It wasn’t even the best game 7 I’ve watched on live TV. That would be 1991, Twins-Braves, Jack Morris. You can look it up.

Or how about 1960. Pittsburgh Pirates vs. NY Yankees. Bill Mazeroski hit a walk off home run to give the Bucs the championship. This, despite the Pirates being outscored for the Series by more than 2-1.

So yeah. This 2017 World Series is wildly entertaining. On its own merits.

Just enjoy it.