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Mondays with Mike: Far and away

January 23, 20175 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, travel, Uncategorized
The weather has been, all things considered, very pleasant.

The weather has been, all things considered, very pleasant.

Greetings from the land of towel warmers and biscuits. It’s gloriously sunny and only a little brisk in Edinburgh, Scotland. We’re a few steps downstairs at a little café drinking some potent black coffee, eating croissant and a bacon and cheese scone. We found it after being directed to a Starbuck’s just across the street—we chose wisely.

Wellington Coffee, our little slice of caffeine heaven.

Wellington Coffee, our little slice of caffeine heaven.

Last night we stopped at The Oxford Bar, the spot frequented by the fictional detective Inspector John Rebus in the entertaining series of mysteries by Edinburgh’s own Ian Rankin. Rankin has penned his thoughts about the real-life tavern.

Oxford Bar was all that. Or, I should say, it wasn’t all that. It was quiet. Civilized. It acknowledges its Rebus connection, but this is no Maragaritaville. It’s still just a pub.

The conversation was rich. Bartender George and Harry the patron were deep into talks about music. George used to play in a band full-time back in the 70s and 80s, and he’d taken up music again for fun. Business was at a civilized pace and between patrons, and between serving patrons, Harry reviewed the lyrics of Whiter Shade of Pale, which his present-time band had added to its repertoire. All of us found lots of common ground in our awe of songwriters, including Carole King, whom Harry absolutely revered.

Later we visited with Fiona and John and their two handsome sons, Andrew and Douglas. You may remember that Fiona is the sister of Sheelagh, our longtime friend who died from cancer several years ago. Fiona visited us last year. We are lucky to remain connected. We had a lovely evening, starting at a grand and traditional pub called Bennett’s, followed by dinner at Fiona and John’s.

George the bartender reviews lyrics while Beth and I enjoy a pint.

George the bartender reviews lyrics while Beth and I enjoy a pint.

Throughout our journey, conversation has inevitably turned toward our current president. What was striking is how well informed our UK friends are. For example, back at The Oxford Bar, Harry and George knew the intricacies of our three-headed system, and held out hope that it would insulate us and them from catastrophe. They also knew our election cycle: “It’ll be better in two years,” said Harry, hopeful for the prospect of a Congressional turnover in the wake of two years of expected nuttiness.

Before heading to Scotland, we spent three days with our friend Jim Neill at his London flat. We were in his living room on inauguration day. Jim is a political junkie and he and I watched the ceremony on BBC television while Beth sequestered herself for a nap.

For the record, things back in the USA don’t look a lot better from across the pond. (Also for the record, Jim immediately commented on how less-crowded the mall seemed compared to what he had remembered from previous inaugurations.)

An American should be reminded that, for better or worse, we have carved out a primary and incontrovertibly important (as opposed to “alternate”) role in world affairs. These people in the UK are dealing with two unnerving developments: Brexit and a president that to them appears to be at a developmental level somewhere between high school senior and college sophomore.

Our time with Jim included a visit to his father’s home in Hartlepool, located in a region that the Motorway signs label simply as The North. Hartlepool was once a shipbuilding power, but went through the same kind of hollowing out during economic transitions that our so-called rustbelt cities of the USA did.

Hartlepool is also a long, long way from London—not so much in distance as culture. Our talks with people along our journey confirmed that some things are universal. For one, the urban/non-urban divide. We have a good friend, Lydia, who immigrated north (and I really think that’s the best term) to Chicago from the South to the chagrin of her family. They routinely and painfully referred to Lydia’s adopted home as That Chicago. Someone spoke to us and used the phrase That London in much the same way Lydia’s parents used That Chicago.

We stayed overnight at Jim’s father’s house. Jack is a hale octogenarian who walked us at a remarkable pace to the house of Carol and Phillip, his daughter and son-in-law who live about a 10 minute stroll away.

Our hosts served wine and finger food and we didn’t have to work hard to coax his father and sister into telling embarrassing stories from Jim’s childhood. We also got to know Carol and Phillip’s youngest daughter, and learned about their son who is working in London, and their other daughter, a student at university.

At some point, Phillip recalled his time as a teenager in the Navy, when a few of his ports of call included American stops. Out of the blue, as he gazed off in his own imagination, he said, softly but firmly, “I love America.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly and asked him to repeat it. He went on to tell stories about his times in the USA, stories that his daughter hadn’t heard and which opened her eyes to the idea that her father had not always been her father.

Phillip recalled one stop in Norfolk, Virginia, where his British aircraft carrier moored next to the U.S.S. Nimitz. “Our ship was the biggest in our navy, and the Nimitz was twice as large!” More than that, though, he was impressed by the kindness of the American families that met the Brits at the dock to offer them housing or any help they needed during their stay. Norfolk’s residents know what it is to have loved ones at sea for extended periods.

Mostly, I’ve stayed away from news sites and social media as much as possible. While we’re away, I’m taking a badly needed break. But I did see the reports about the marches around the world, in cities across the USA, and particularly, my Chicago friends’ social media dispatches. It was heartening, and I got the same feeling—strangely—that I’d had when we were stranded in New Orleans (how awful!) a few years ago because a huge snowstorm had shut down Chicago’s airports.

My first impulse: I wanted to be there, despite it all. It is home. All of it, good and bad.

Than again, a single-malt later, I realized I’ll be there soon enough.

See you then.

Looking for something hopeful? Non-political? I've got it right here

January 18, 20178 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

Mike and I donate to the Seeing Eye (surprise, surprise!) and in return, this year the school sent us a video with staff and volunteers explaining how they work together to prepare puppies to grow up and guide people who, like me, are unable to see.

I write a lot here about my guide dogs, but not as much as I should about the human effort and energy poured into making them the heroic dogs they are. This video does a fantastic job of that in just four short minutes. Vet techs, trainers, a kennel associate, someone from the breeding station, a retiree who volunteers to walk dogs, a genetic specialist and a couple little girls from a family who volunteers to raise puppies all give short and sincere thanks for supporting their work. The video is not over-produced,and, best of all, each person starts their bit by introducing you to the dog at their feet.

The video made me appreciate all over again just how many people devote their lives to keeping me safe with my Seeing Eye dogs. Just listening to it left me teary-eyed. Take a look at the video yourself (use this link or click on the image above) — I can only imagine how blubbery those of you who can see will be once you lay eyes on the dogs as well.

Mondays with Mike: The rest of the story

January 16, 20173 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

Thanks everyone for your caring and kind wishes after you read last week’s post about my trip to the emergency room. And apologies to anyone who was left concerned about my state of health.

When I wrote the post, I thought “I’m fine” covered it.

But a phone call with our longtime friend Jean Thompson indicated otherwise. Jean is a great writer whom I was lucky to have as a writing teacher in grad school. As Jean put it during our conversation, “You might have added just a sentence or two of expository writing about the I’m fine part.”

I never, ever argue with my instructor on these matters. So under the better-late-than-never heading, here’s what happened: I had a bout with atrial fibrillation. I’d had a couple minor episodes months earlier and seen a cardiologist, who diagnosed them as afib. So we were on it. But this one lasted long enough to send me to the ER.

You just stick the sensors on the back of the phone...

You just stick the sensors on the back of the phone…

Once there, the plan was to shock me back into rhythm and keep me overnight. But around midday I dozed off out of sheer boredom, and after I woke from my short nap I thought to myself, “Hey, I think it stopped.” And it had. Once I was no longer much of a priority, I was there for several more hours until tests could be performed and reviewed. Which is why I was there so long. I was OK. Nothing more boring than being OK in a hospital. But it beats not being OK in the hospital.

It’s all good now, though, under control, blah blah.

Sorry. That’s probably TMI. But, it leads me to the best part: My doctor told me about this thing called Kardia. It’s a phone app and a pair of special sensor pads that you affix to the back of your mobile phone (or the back of your mobile phone case). The upshot: You can do an EKG in 30 seconds using your phone. And it works.

Since I had this episode, I keep finding out that lots of people I know have afib or have had a bout or two. So I thought it worthwhile to let y’all know about this little gadget. It’s very accurate—they compared results on my phone to the monitor at the hospital and it was right on. And it helped break up the boredom.

download the app and it's instant EKG.

download the app and it’s instant EKG.

Plus, it’s just so damn cool I can’t stand it. You just put two or more finger tips of your right hand on the right sensor, the tips of your left fingers on the other sensor, click the Record button on the screen with your thumb, and the dang thing shows you your heart rhythm for the next 30 seconds on a readout. It uses the phone’s microphone to measure your heart rhythm.

It keeps a journal, and, you can talk while you’re testing to describe how you’re feeling (fine, dizzy, whatever) and the thing records the voice and transcribes the note. You can also make notes about what you ate, drank, physical activity, etc.

The sensor device costs $99—but I got it at the holiday price of $75. Once you get it, you stick it to your phone (it’s extremely thin and light), download the free app, follow the instructions, and you get yer EKG done. Voila! When I’m not using it, it’s just another app, and doesn’t interfere with anything I normally do with the phone.

Oh, and the name of the company is Alivecor. The tagline is “Keep living.” I’m on board.

Fear itself

January 14, 201715 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, Uncategorized

I have a side job moderating the Easterseals national blog, and with the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday coming up on Monday, a colleague there emailed us all this quote she found on a Friendship Circle Special Needs Blog post titled 10 Disability Awareness Lessons Learned From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

The quote brought to mind an New York Times article called “Why Do We Fear the Blind?” that tried to explain why Blindness is the most feared and misunderstood of all disabilities — the article quoted everyone from the 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot to modern essayist Christopher Hitchens to find the answer.

Really? It took famous philosophers and scholars to explain this? Let’s be real. People are afraid of blindness because, well, being blind looks scary. And maybe seeing someone like me, who is blind, serves as a reminder: this could happen to you, too.

Fear not. Odds aren’t great. Only 1.3 million people in the United States are legally blind. That’s not many. We human beings tend to be fearful of things we don’t know, though, and with so few of us out here, your chances of getting to know a person who is blind is rare.

The reporter who wrote the New York Times article described what it was like to put on a blindfold to try to understand what it’s like to traverse city streets when you can’t see. She can now feel proud about being sensitive enough to try walking around New York City with a blindfold on, but hey, we can’t take the blindfold off and wow our friends with stories of how scary that was.

People who are blind spend miserably difficult months with remarkably dedicated orientation and mobility trainers learning how to do simple things, like walk outside and mail a letter. After practicing and practicing, and getting around for years on your own with a white cane or a guide dog, it’s not nearly as scary as the first time.

Nothing to be afraid of here.

I started losing my eyesight in 1984, when I was 25 years old. Before then, I had a job advising college students who wanted to study overseas. The job entailed talking with students, checking out what programs might work for them, phoning different college departments or other universities to arrange for the transfer of college credits.

I was sure I’d be able to perform these tasks without being able to see. My boss, however, was equally sure I could not.

I tried proving her wrong. At first I didn’t use a white cane or a dog. I quit driving or riding my bike to campus, but I could still see well enough to walk to work with a walking cane (by chance Mike and I happened to have bought one as a souvenir during our honeymoon in Scotland months before, when I could still see).

As my eyesight got worse, I started making mistakes in the office. One morning I spilled grounds all over the floor on my way to make the morning coffee. I sat inches away from my computer screen to read the words. I ran into tabletops. At one point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues that year. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said.

Those were scary times.

By the end of that year, I had lost my sight completely. The Americans with Disabilities Act had not been passed yet. My contract was terminated. My confidence was shattered. How could I have been so naive? Did I really think I was worth hiring? Why would anyone employ someone who couldn’t see?

I considered pursuing a master’s degree in blind rehabilitation then, reasoning that if you work helping blind people, being blind would be an advantage, and I might get a job. After some soul-searching, I realized that with my personality I might be able to do more for the blind community by getting outside of it.

I am not shy, and I hope that just being out and about, using public transportation to get to the classes I lead and the elementary schools I visit with my Seeing Eye dog, doing things I like, and, well, being myself, might show people who might not come across a blind person in their daily lives that we are nothing to be afraid of. We can still live a full, creative, and pleasurable life.

It’s what I can do.

If you're blind, are you still able to cry?

January 11, 201723 CommentsPosted in blindness, Braille, questions kids ask, Uncategorized, visiting schools, Whitney, Writing for Children

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney usually leads me to Chicago’s Union Station to catch rides to the suburbs to visit schools, but when a friend from our Hackney’s days offered to drive us to Kindi Academy, a Montessori school in Lisle, Ill., yesterday I jumped at the chance.

Whitney and I at Kindi Academy yesterday.

Whitney and I at Kindi Academy yesterday.

It was raining in Chicago yesterday, and the train Whit and I would have had to catch left Chicago at 7:40 in the morning. That meant we would have been approaching the train station precisely when commuters were getting off trains. Commuters rushing to work aren’t on the look-out for ongoing pedestrian traffic, not to mention Seeing Eye dogs. We were safer — and warmer — in our friend’s car, plus Pat and I talked so much along the way that the drive flew by.

Kindi is a Montessori School for kids up to eighth grade., Our first presentation was for all the first, second, and third-graders. We spoke to the older kids after that, and the sessions were entertaining, as always. A sampling of their questions:

  • What does your dog like to chase?
  • If you’re blind, are you still able to cry?
  • How long did it take you to learn to read and write Braille?
  • How do you write books if you can’t see?
  • How does your dog tell you, I mean, if there was a twig on the sidewalk and it was in the way, how does your dog tell you it’s there?
  • What inspired you to write a book?
  • That day in the doctor’s office, when they told you and your husband that you would never ever be able to see again, were you scared?
  • Are all the books you write autobiographies?
  • Does your dog recognize it’s your voice when you give a command, or if someone else told your dog to sit, would she sit?

The girl who asked that last question said she thought of it as a hypothesis, and I offered to test it out. “Give it a try!” I told the girl to say Whitney’s name and tell her to sit. She did. Whitney ignored her. “Aha!” squealed the girl. “She only listens to you! With that hypothesis solved, I stood up, lifted Whitney’s harness, said her name and commanded a stern, “Outside!”

The kids were all sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the library rug, and Whitney threaded me safely past them to the hallway door. “Good girl, Whitney!”

The children were wowed, and so was I — by their curiosity, the good manners, and their thoughtful questions. And a special thanks to our friend Pat Gartner for getting Whitney and me to Kindi Academy yesterday — we had a ball!.