Thank You Verdi

“They’re playing our song.” Music has a way of transporting us to a certain time in our lives that was especially happy or especially tragic. Happily, whenever I hear the Grand March from Aida, I have good memories.

I heard it played on the radio just the other day, and a friend of mine just recently mentioned how much he enjoys it, so the irony of hearing it twice in the same week inspired me to write about it. I don’t imagine it’s ever been on the top 40, not in my lifetime anyway, but in opera theatres, it brings down the house.

My introduction to this magnificent piece of music was at the summer series of the Cincinnati Opera, many years ago, held at the Cincinnati zoo. Yes, the zoo. My mother and I attended several operas there. It was one of the many gifts she gave me. It was so amusing when during a beautiful aria, a seal would bark, or an exotic bird would screech, and the audience would suppress a little giggle. At the end of the intermission, a trumpet player would come out where people were milling around and play a few notes of the upcoming music in the next act. It was like a little tease to get us excited to come back and get seated. Then, as the Grand March began, it was thrilling to hear those trumpets announce the beginning of one of the most stirring and absolutely gorgeous creations of all of opera.

Apparently, my daughter was moved by this piece as well, because she chose it for her wedding procession. The grandeur of this music was so appropriate for how I felt, watching my daughter walk down the aisle on the arm of her father.

2 wonderful memories come to mind each time I hear it or think of it. 15 years ago this month, my daughter glided down the aisle in her splendor. 50 years ago, I heard it for the first time in the summer air of an outdoor pavilion. These memories swell in my heart and make me so thankful for the gift of great music.

Movie Time

Let’s go see a movie. Yes, I said “see” a movie. In previous posts, I have pointed out the usage of some common words, such as see, watch, and look, so I’m not going to talk about that today.

Last night, my friend Anna and I went to see Gone Girl. Many theaters these days are equipped to provide audio description through a special device for patrons who can’t actually see the screen. Audio description, also called video description or descriptive video, works like this. When you buy your ticket, you pick up a receiver that is about the size of a deck of cards, with a headset or ear pods. While the movie is playing, you hear a trained describer tell you what is happening in the scene that you can’t tell just by listening. You hear the dialog, but you also hear what the other people in the audience are seeing. For some movies, you can kind of get by without the audio description, but for this one, I would have been completely lost. Even if Anna had been able to lean over and whisper what that spooky music was about, or what that crash was, or what happened in that gruesome scene near the end, she would have had to have been talking the whole time.

Last night’s experience was good, from the moment we stepped in the door. There was no line, because we saw the 4:05 movie, with about 8 other people, and the guy behind the counter knew what I was talking about when I asked him for the descriptive video device. Actually, he didn’t even wait for me to ask. He asked me if I wanted it, although he didn’t know what to call it. In just a few minutes, he appeared back with it, and he assured me it worked, because someone had called yesterday and wanted to make sure it was working, because they were coming today. Hee hee. That was me. The system works well, but often, you have to be proactive and think ahead about what can go wrong. Several times, I’ve gone to this theater, and the equipment did not work. So there I sat, through the whole movie, without the benefit of any description. When this happens, my friend either has to whisper to me throughout the whole thing, or he or she has to run back to the office to get a manager to fix it. By that time, my friend has missed the first 15 minutes of the movie. But last night, it was perfect.

We chose a seat in the top row, where nobody would step on Dora, and she could sprawl out in comfort. I laughed at the humorous parts and gasped at the horrifying parts, just like everybody else. At the end of this intense film, Anna said, “I’m exhausted.” I knew exactly what she meant. I experienced it all, just like she did. There are still a few kinks to work out in the system, like not having to call ahead and speak to 3 different people to make sure it will really work, and to make sure that they don’t give you the headset for hearing impaired people, but we’re finally on our way. To read more about descriptive video, visit

Use Words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but they would be wrong when it comes to helping a blind person get oriented in a new place. I have a new mantra, whenever a well-meaning sighted person tries to get me to a chair by pushing me, grabbing my dog’s leash, or worse, the harness, or says right over here. I try to freeze, stand perfectly still and say “Please use words”. I’m surprised at how effective this practice can be. The first impulse is to try to steer me. I know they want to be helpful, but in my mind, that’s manhandling. Using words like “to your right,” turn to 9:00” or “straight ahead about 3 steps.” There is also a tendency to “help” me find a seat by physically turning me around, hands on my shoulders with a little push, toward the chair. I never sit down until I have found the chair with my hand or the front of my knees. The most effective way to help, especially if the chair is not against the wall is to discretely place my hand on the back of the chair. This way, I will not only be aware of exactly where the chair is, but also, I will no which way the chair is facing. I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve sat down, only to realize that it’s not a bench with no back, but that’s I’ve sat on the chair facing sideways.

I am blessed to have a few savvy friends who make finding a place in a restaurant as smooth and efficient as possible. When we approach the table, they will say, “Take the chair to your left,” or they will say, “the table is on your right,” and when I touch the table to my right, I then can slide into the booth almost gracefully. With a guide dog to get settled as well, it might take an extra minute or 2, especially when your dog is like mine, feeling a compulsion to clean up the floor with her tongue before she settles in. But once you’ve practiced this a couple of times, it becomes quite natural and does not draw attention. I love it when I stand up after a meal, and someone says, “Oh, I didn’t even know that dog was under that table.” We who are blind don’t want to make a scene when we enter an establishment, a meeting, or a church service. We want to blend in, be regarded as any other patron, participant, or worshiper, and the best way to accomplish this is to use words.

Dora Learns Her Way to Giant Eagle

There’s a Giant Eagle grocery store 1 mile from my house. It’s mostly a straight shot, once you get out of my neighborhood, except for the very end of the route. This is where it gets a bit tricky for a dog, and it’s the place where my previous dog never got it. For that reason, I’ve been very careful to introduce this route well after Dora and I had established our relationship. I also prepared myself better this time for success with the training session.

First, I asked my friend Eve to help me with this project. Before we left the house, I engaged Dora in a short clicker session, while Eve observed in amusement. It is pretty funny to watch a dog get so excited about dinging a bell with her nose and then getting a treat, which in this case was just a piece of kibble. But a kibble out of hand is even more exciting than out of a bowl.

Next we drove to a spot about 2/3 of the way, since Dora already knows that part, and we left the car there. The first part of the new route is to cross the interstate on a bridge. It’s terrifying to me, but a wall prevents Dora from seeing the traffic below us, so she marched on fearlessly. We then have to cross 2 side streets, not a problem, but they need to be observed with a full stop and a wait until I give her the command to cross. Now here comes the first really tricky part. When we turn toward the parking lot, we have to cross 2 islands. In order to execute this route to the door of the store, the dog needs to not wander into the parking lot but to stay on course and take me to each island. I have absolutely no vision, so it is essential for the dog to do this right. On our training session yesterday, I came prepared with treats for each success. Before I asked Dora to guide me to each island, I took Eve’s arm, and I heeled Dora and treated her when we got to each island. Then it was her turn to do the guiding. It took a few tries, because she remembered that once upon a time, we had parked in that section of the parking lot, so she probably was looking for the car. Just a guess, but dogs do remember even one occurrence of an event. After mastering the 2 islands, we strode ahead to the door. Again, I took Eve’s arm, and she led us to the customer service desk, which involved making a wide left turn around a display and then another left turn to the counter. Then, I pulled out the clicker gear, and we practiced targeting that counter. Soon, a little group of onlookers had gathered to watch this process with fascination. No problem. Dora was focused on those kibble treats, and she was determined to please me. Finally, it was time to start from the door and find our way to the counter on our own, with Eve trailing behind my right shoulder. I have to congratulate Eve for not interfering with Dora’s learning process. On this final trip, I suspected that she had gotten distracted and was way off base, but I hung in there with her, and Eve never said a word. In a couple of seconds, Dora zoomed around to the left and came to a screeching halt at the counter. As if it had been planned, there was a cart in the way so she had to take a detour, but she got us there.

The last part of this training trip was to navigate back across the parking lot, crossing both of those islands. Because the first one is a little offset from the sidewalk in front of the store, it’s a little trickier. We have to cross at an angle. Here’s where my shoulders have to be exactly in the right position, before I give her the forward command. After we’ve done this a few times, she’ll do it on her own, but for right now, everything has to be just so, for success. After a few more practice runs, I’ll be able to say, “Let’s go shopping,” and I’ll have to hold on for dear life.

Dora Is Back From Vacation

Mary with tea

Tea time

You know how you are exhausted when you come back from vacation? You think you should be refreshed from the break from your normal routine, but all that play tires you out.

My friends Tricia and David took care of Dora while I was at my annual hiking trip, The Hen Hike, in northeastern Pennsylvania. They returned her to me a few minutes after I got home from the airport. I have never seen her so joyful. She was jumping and licking and even biting my nose and my chin. I think maybe she missed me. Even though she had a grand time at their house, playing ball several times a day and going on really long walks, she seemed to be worn out. Usually, when I unpack from a trip, my dog follows me around as I put things away, but Dora lay sprawled out on the bedroom floor and just watched me from there. I felt like lying down with her, I was so tired myself, but I’m rather compulsive about getting unpacked, doing laundry, and even taking a hot bath after a travel day.

The hike this year was not nearly as challenging as it usually is. The trails were flat and free of rocks and roots. I sort of missed those kinds of trails. The most climbing I did this year was trudging up the 30 steps to my room on the third floor several times a day. We stayed at an inn that was 105 years old, complete with fireplaces and a front porch with wooden rocking chairs.

The Hens

The Hens

The fellowship was fabulous as usual. All 10 of us were seated together at 1 long table for breakfast and dinner, so there was always laughter and story-telling at each meal. We heard stories of recent trips and memories of extraordinary events, like being in a hurricane. One woman told about what it was like to be a child in Norway during WW 2. Another told a hilarious story of how she tried a marijuana laced brownie, and the paramedics had to come. 2 of our visually impaired gals described their adventures in parasailing. We are from all over the country and range in age from 50 something to 70 something. But we share our love of the outdoors, laughter, and adventurous spirit.

One of the things that I love about women is our ability to find something in common, almost immediately. 2 of our gals were new to the Hen Hike, but there was no problem in embracing them into the group. 3 of us have guide dogs, and we missed them fiercely, but normally, it wouldn’t be practical to have them try to guide us on skinny trails with drop-offs and boulders to climb over. Oh they would love it, but I could just see myself being dragged down the mountainside to chase a rabbit. So I’m guessing that the other dog guide handlers had a joyful reunion as well. We’re exhausted, so we must have had a wonderful time.

The Mysteries of Medicare

When you get something for free, you tend to think, this is too good to be true. And then you find it is, that is, too good to be true.

For a while this year, I had the envy of my blind friends. Once a week, a young woman from a home health agency came to my home and helped me with a few tasks around the house, running the sweeper, checking my clothes for spots, reading directions on cake mixes, things like that. The bonus was that she also took me on errands, including running to the bank, the drug store, the doctor, and even to clothing stores. We had a great time. She enjoyed helping me, and I was enjoying having the free service provided by Medicare. Sound like a dream come true? Not quite. Nothing is free.

In order to get this service, I had to endure an annoying visit from a nurse, not once a month, not occasionally, but every single week. I protested that I am not sick. I am not injured. I am not recovering from surgery. I’m just blind. But the rule was that I had to have a checkup by the nurse every week, or I didn’t get the service. In addition, and even more aggravating was that I had to sign a paper stating that the “Aid” had worked 6 hours each week, whether she did or not. To make peace with myself, I tried to keep her busy for 6 hours. I didn’t need that much help, but rules are rules. The powers that be at Medicare say that if you don’t need at least 6 hours, then you don’t need help at all. What a crock. This meant that the aid was being paid for 6 hours when she only worked for 2 or 3. This is wrong. I finally decided that the obnoxious visits from the nurse and the deceitful paperwork were not worth the free help. I was told that I could offer to pay this young woman myself if I wanted to. OK, I thought. I can do that. I had a talk with her the next Monday and told her that I would pay her the same she was getting from the agency, but I would pay her only for the hours she worked, not 6. She was fine with that, but then, the agency barged into our little agreement and replaced me with another client for this aid. In order to keep her standing with the agency, she had to go with it, and her schedule didn’t allow fitting me in as well. So, here I am, back at square 1, recruiting friends to help and orchestrating ways to get things done. Stay tuned. I’ll figure this out.

Tape Pals

I called the post office this afternoon with a complaint. It’s not the first time, or the second, or the third or the fourth that I’ve told them that my mail carrier is ignoring the tape mailer that I put in my mailbox for her to pick up. I asked, “Have you stopped the service of picking up mail that people leave in their mailboxes?” The answer was no. Then why does she keep ignoring my outgoing mail? “Is it out where she can see it,” they ask. “Of course it is. It’s sticking out like a tongue” I replied. “She is tucking the mail behind the tape mailer, so I know she has to be able to see it.” The tape mailer is a plastic envelope, which holds 2 cassette tapes. There is a clear plastic window on one side with an address card that you flip over and reinsert when you want to send it back. Many organizations for the blind have used this method of sending out communications for years, that is, until say the 1990’s, or the turn of this century. For me, when email finally got into my vocabulary. I no longer receive tapes from the Library for the Blind, because now I download them into my lap top or my iPhone. But there is this one friend of mine, John, whom I met at the Seeing Eye back in 1982, who still enjoys a tape-pal correspondence with me. Maybe he tapes to other friends, but I doubt he’ll find anybody else with the patience to keep this up. In fact, I’ve often wished that he’d join the 21st century and just email with me, but there’s something about sitting down with a tape recorder and chatting to the microphone that is appealing to him, and I guess therapeutic for me. Sometimes, when I haven’t seen a human being in a couple of days, I welcome the chance to talk to a friend, even though I know he’s not going to get this monologue for a few days. It’s almost like writing an old fashioned letter.

John and I have never seen each other since that July in 1982, when we were both at the Seeing Eye to meet our first dog guides. Ours is not a romantic relationship, but we know a lot of things about each other that we don’t share with just anybody. Of course, the main topic is how are dogs are doing, but we also talk about our kids, our friends, and news of our daily lives. This relationship started at the Seeing Eye, when we were the only 2 left at the table having coffee, when all the others had jumped up and run off to their rooms or to groom their dogs or whatever. John and I seemed to be the only grownups at our table, the others being college students, and we found we had some things in common. It seemed like a good idea to start taping letters back and forth after we returned to our respective homes to see how we were doing as handlers of our wonderful dogs. He lives in Wisconsin. . When I get one of these tape mailers, I know that I’m going to be in for a nice long chatty letter. One of our shared interests is music, particularly the old standards and musicals. Sometimes, John allows the former radio engineer in him to come out, and he plays some of his music for me, especially if I’ve mentioned a particular song in a previous letter.

All this is very old fashioned and very very low tech, but the only snag seems to be my mail carrier. Maybe she doesn’t know what a cassette mailer is? It’s possible that that’s what the problem is. Maybe she sees it and wonders what the heck I’m putting in my mailbox. If it isn’t an ad or a catalog or a bill, then why is it there? But doesn’t she see the address label? And didn’t she just deliver it to me last week?