The 2018 Writers @ Grinnell Armando “Mando” Alters Montaño Memorial Reading


– [Dean] I want to welcome you
all to tonight’s
[email protected] event. Our annual Mando Montaño
Memorial reading. I welcome also
and extend a welcome for the first time to our
livestream on the
[email protected] Facebook page. We have entered the 21st Century
at Grinnell so for the alums and
friends around the world, we miss you,
come back and visit and enjoy tonight’s reading. My name is
Dean Bakopoulos and I’m
co-director of [email protected] this year
and I want to extend a very
special welcome to a number of people. So I’m going
to do some introductory comments
and then my colleague, Ralph Savarese,
will come up to introduce
tonight’s featured presenter. Grinnell College is honored to
host today’s event in memory of a remarkable and talented
Grinnellian. Armando Alters
Montaño, class of 2012, known to friends as “Mando,” was
a beloved figure on Grinnell’s
campus. He was a dedicated writer and
editor onThe Scarlet &
Black and we had a lovely dinner at our house last night
with Mando’s parents and the
staff of the S&B. Through his talent, energy,
and considerable charm, Mando managed to earn the
respect of some of the country’s
leading journalists and media figures. Mando was doing
what he loved, serving an
internship with the Associated Press in Mexico City
when he died tragically only a
few weeks after his graduation. Each year,
I’ve tried to unearth a new
memory about Mando to share at this
event. And this year, as our
campus collectively mourns the recent death of
another wonderful soul gone too
soon, Jack Gustafson, I want simply to
offer my condolences to the
students here tonight. And to remind all of you
gathered here this evening that
good souls continue to speak to us after their
death. We understand our
memories of them in different ways as time
passes. We learned things from
them we didn’t see before. And we find their
spirit in places we didn’t
expect. That certainly has been true for
my relationship with Mando, it somehow continues. I think of
Mando pretty much every day on this campus. And one of the
things I’ve recently realized…
Every year this gets harder, it seems. One of
the things I recently realized
that I admired most about Mando was
his amazing capacity to live
without shame. More than any person I’ve ever
met, perhaps he seemed
comfortable to be exactly the person he was.
Mando was unabashedly curious, hungry for human connection,
proud to be a writer even when
his writing wasn’t perfect, and honest about
what he didn’t know, and eager
to learn from anyone who was willing to
teach. He allowed himself a kind
of emotional vulnerability in his
conversations, and yet walked
through the world with a physical grace and ease. What a
lovely sight it was to see him walking across campus in his
short red shorts and his
“Legalize Gay” T-shirt, earbuds in his ears en route to
dance class with a smile on his
face that you could see clear across campus.
This is the image of him I’ll never forget, but it’s also his
legacy in many ways. Whenever I
feel burdened by my own tendencies towards doom and
gloom, I trudge through one
meeting to the next and I can see him walking
towards me, beaming, curious,
and above all, happy to be here. His spirit, I
think, is a great testament to
the love he received from his friends,
like Tessa Cheek, class of 2012, who is with us tonight, and his
parents, Diane Alters, class of
’71, and Mario Motaño. Mando’s
parents have generously created
the Armando Alters Montaño [email protected]
Endowment Fund and many generous
donors, including many of Mando’s
classmates and friends, have
contributed to this growing fund. Each year, the
fund will support the Armando
Montaño Memorial Lecture as a tribute to
Mando’s dedication to
non-fiction and fiction writing, journalism,
and the creative process. I’m now happy to introduce my
colleague, chair of the English
department, Professor Ralph Savarese, to
present tonight’s speaker. Thank
you. – [Ralph] Good evening. I, too,
would like to acknowledge Diane
and Mario and Tessa. It’s a lovely event
and it allows us to celebrate
Mando’s memory, and allows us to remember why
we’re all here and giving so
much to what we do. So it’s my great pleasure,
honor, really, to introduce
tonight’s reader, Stephen Kuusisto. But I also
want to acknowledge, as Dean
said, the generosity of Diane and
Mario, and also a college buddy
of mine from Wesleyan, who donated very
generously to the fund to make
this reading possible in the short term. He gave
$25,000 and then challenged us
to raise $25,000 and, of course, we did that and then
he matched that $25,000. So I
was really moved by this gesture by my friend. I
sent him Mando’s story and he
just responded in a way that some
people do and sort of changed
how you think of people in the world. If the writer’s
job is to present the world
afresh, then Stephen Kuusisto offers the
strongest argument conceivable
for visual impairment as a fundamental requirement,
indeed, as the imagination’s
enabling engine. Listen to this description of
being in a department store.
“I’m moving swiftly through abutments of stacked
perfumes. We passed what must be
a line of women’s coats. To me they
seem like a herd of white deer,
a chorus line of dancing egrets.” Or listen to
his description of seeing the
Brooklyn Bridge. “It occurs to me that my
experience of the bridge is so
completely cerebral, it is in fact an imaginary
headdress like those body-linked
hats worn by Tibetan women. In my version,
the bridge falls over me in
layers of amethyst, gold, purple, and
silver. These are the threads of
being.” Earlier, inPlanet of the
Blind , the book from which
these marvelous descriptions come, Kuusisto
wrestles with the paradoxical
inheritance that his impairment provides, asking
rhetorically, “Who would choose
to be blind and struggling to resist the impulse
to try to pass as sighted? My
ego crawls around blindness,” he says,
“like a snail exploring a piece
of glass.” If the very instruments of
poetry, metaphor and simile, are themselves visually impaired
presenting to the world as
series of blurred distinctions,
this is like that, then art, Kuusisto discovers, is the most
hospitable and habitable of
spaces, a planet in his parlance where,
“no one needs to be cured, where blindness is just another
form of music like the solo
clarinet in the mind of Bartók.” In the writings of
Stephen Kuusisto, we encounter a
disability consciousness that exorts the
temporarily able-bodied to
renounce their attachment to norms in favor of that much
more generous of concepts,
namely difference. His new book,Have Dog, Will
Travel: a Poet’s Journey ,
with an exceptional Labrador just published by Simon
& Schuster presents the story of
his first guide dog, Corky, with whom,
he says mischievously, he has an arranged marriage. We
will hear from that book
tonight. Steven Kuusisto is the author of
two acclaimed memoirs,Planet
of the Blind , a New York Times’ Notable Book
of the Year, and
Eavesdropping:
A Memoir of Blindness and
Listening . He’s also the
author of two collections of poems, “Only Bread, Only
Light,” and “Letters of Borges.” He is currently working on a
novel about the Italian opera
singer, Enrico Caruso. His work has appeared in
Harper’s
,The New York
Times Magazine ,Poetry,Partisan
Review , and many other
journals. He’s appeared on
numerous programs including The Oprah
Winfree Show, Dateline NBC,
National Public Radio, and the BBC. A graduate of the
Writers’ Workshop at the
University of Iowa and a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches at
Syracuse University where he’s a
distinguished university professor. Please join me in
welcoming Steve to Grinnell. – [Steve] Wow, I don’t know that
guy. I want to meet him, though. This is Caitlyn, she’s a little
bored. She’s had a long day. So if I magnify the living
daylights out of this text, I
can read it with one eye for a short period. Often, what
I’ll do is I’ll put an earbud in
my right ear and listen to the text
and recite it but that can be a little halting. And so I
thought, “Well, let’s try this.”
I could get lost, though, because once you magnify a text,
it’s a little bit like being in
the wrong corral with the horses running.
So this references a moment in
my life when I was going to have a home
visit from a trainer from
Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which is one the nation’s
premier guide dog schools. A guy
named David See, that was actually his name,
David See, was going to come
visit me to see if I was the right kind of guy to have a
guide dog. Anyway, he’s about to
come the next day and I’m really on pins and
needles about this. I feel like
I’m going to…it’s like an adoption agency, it’s a
test, it’s everything. And my
mother who was an alcoholic and very strange,
didn’t want me to be blind which
is, you know, I mean, not really a
useful world view. So part of
the story is how I kind of overcome this and
decide, you know, I’m going to
get a guide dog because I don’t want to get run
over. And not only that, I want
to go places in the world and have a bigger
life. So this is from chapter
four. The evening before Dave’s visit
I talked with my mother who
lived an hour west. There was a buzz on the phone
line and she sounded drunk,
though it was just dinnertime. “I’m getting a
guide dog,” I said. My voice was
high and happy, in effect I was a child saying,
“I’m getting a puppy!” “Oh,” she
said, “I think that’s a dreadful
idea.” “Dreadful how?” I asked. “People will know you’re on the
fritz,” she said. “On the
fritz?” I repeated. “You mean like a household
appliance?” “Yes,” she said,
“you should never let people see you’re defective.
They’ll think less of you.” I announced I was excited and
said she should think about
that. Then I hung up. I had a Chinese herbalist
neighbor who kept giving me
chrysanthemum tea. I drank my chrysanthemum tea,
chewed the blossoms, and understood my future dog
shouldn’t carry the burden of
weak self-esteem. “No dog should have to do that,”
I thought. My parents were
essentially decent people who’d survived the
Great Depression. Both were
working-class kids and both went to college after
the Second World War. My dad got
his PhD in political science at Harvard in 1950.
Having fought in the Pacific in
the Army Air Corps, he told my mother,
“I need to learn how these damn things happen.” In turn, my
mother was accepted to law
school in 1951, a true feat for any coed in
those days, but instead, she
chose to raise a family. Later, the decision haunted her.
She belonged to a larger world
than the one offered by postwar
domesticity. She became a
housewife in Durham, New Hampshire, a college town,
and became a hostess for faculty
parties. Insert “ugh.” No one knew how to
confer about difficult or
liminal subjects. Not talking became its own
drama. As I grew up, I formed an
anti-narrative. My parents’ silence about my
eyes sent me in two directions.
One was physical and daring. The other was inward
and bitter. When climbing trees
or becoming the unchallenged king of
hide-and-seek, I secretly knew I
was the most deficient child alive. The feeling,
however wrong, didn’t get better
as I grew older. “If I’m going to get a guide
dog,” I thought, “then I need to
do more than just hit the gym.” I needed to access
my proper life, not academic
life, not something from the Gospels.
I would vanquish old
embarrassments. As I set out on my dog journey,
I knew it was time. When I was
12, my mother, who’d already become a heavy
drinker, met me one afternoon as
I came home. I’d hoped to find safety after
seven hours of bullying in
school. Instead, I found my mother
clutching a smoldering sofa
cushion in her arms. “I don’t know how I did it,”
she said. “Get out of my way!” She ran across the yard holding
the thing at arm’s length and
for some reason she didn’t drop it. She just
staggered from place to place
until flames singed her hair. Finally, she threw it
into a neighbor’s hedge, where
it sent up smoke signals. That was a
gradient point on the arc of
withdrawal. My job was to endure by stamina
whether in school or at home. So
blindness became a tortoise-like affair. My blind
soul stayed quiet in its shell. My mother was generally drunk by
mid-afternoon. Like most
alcoholics, she had several modes of
intoxication. There was a giddy
vaporous kind born from merriment. Then there was a
drunkenness forced by what I
came to call her misery gauge. I pictured a
glass indicator on a submarine, pressure was building against
the hull. She also engaged in
vengeful drinking, the kind Nixon did as president,
a mumbling paranoia. If I was
lucky, she’d be asleep when I came
home, stretched on the living
room sofa with the curtains drawn, her highball
glass on the floor, and one shoe
off. I’d race to my room, lock the
door, and strip off my torn
shirt, for daily bullying always meant
the death of a shirt. I’d lie on
the rug and listen to the shortwave radio. There
was a station from Belgium that played only Duke Ellington.
Something in his music felt
right to me, the Duke was complex, buoyant,
I didn’t know what to call it, but I always luxuriated in it.
Because my father was an
academic, and moderately less guarded than
my mother who refused to talk
about my eyes, he told a colleague just how
little I could see. One night he
came home with a large cardboard box containing a
dozen sealed and labeled mason
jars, his friend was a scientist of
some kind and the jars held dark
specimens floating in formaldehyde. The idea was
that I could hold the jars close
to my one good eye and see things. Alone in a circle of
lamplight, I held the first jar
close to my face. A white human fetus
floated in viscous, brown
liquid, trailing its umbilical cord. The
jar was so near my left eye my eyelashes brushed the glass, and
owing to my shaking hands the
fetus turned gently, that gentleness
of the drowned, until its face
was straight opposite my cornea. It had gray
veins across its temples and a
determined frown. I thrust the jar back in the
box. I wanted to go downstairs
and tell my father to take it away but he
was fighting with my mother and
I shoved the whole collection into the back of my
closet behind a heap of shoes. After that, I lay in bed knowing
the fetus was in my closet,
suspended in its soup with its little face all closed
up. I wanted to grow my hair
long like the Beatles’ guitarist, George
Harrison. In public, I was a
marked boy, stole my glasses, pushed me into
walls, shoved me on the stairs
all because I was the deviant. I could feel their
contempt all the way down to my
spleen. Long hair would save me. My
mother was painfully drunk…
You know, the later George Harrison, he
looked like Rasputin. It was
great, it was a great look. My mother
was painfully drunk when she called me for supper one
evening. Before I knew it, she
had me in an arm lock and was dragging me across
the kitchen. “You look like a
fairy,” she said. “What’s a fairy?” I
asked. I really had no idea. “A faggot,” she said.
She was blowing whiskey vapor, clutching my hair, poking my
skull with scissors. I pushed
her. She fell backwards waving her
shears and fell into the trash. Because she hated domesticity,
she’d long ago decided a
30-gallon garbage can was perfect for the kitchen.
You didn’t have to empty it
daily and of course it stank and then she
was in it. I should say it’s
quite likely she’d have fallen into the trash without my
help as she was always unsteady
on her feet, drunk or sober. The can tipped
over as she fell and the lid
popped off. And together she and the can had
a rendezvous. And there she was
covered with Myer and ashes and waving
the pruning scissors and
howling. She’d bruised her elbow.
I was the inciting factor. In the weeks that followed, I
was the one who ruined her
elbow. With three months to go before
guide dog school, I decided to
attend Al-Anon meetings. I wanted to be
new both inside and out. An
offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon
is designed to help the families of drunks. A group of strangers,
seven of us, sat around this
card table in a community center in
downtown Ithaca, New York. There
were coffee cups at hand and ashtrays. A woman in her
late 70s named Margaret who’d
once been an Atlantic fisherwoman and radiated
competence spoke up and recited
lines from Ephesians, “Let all bitterness and wrath
and anger and clamor and evil
speaking be put away from you without all malice.”
Margaret looked up from her
Bible and said, “Now, ain’t that the
truth?” We laughed. Everyone at
that table had once lived with or was still
living with a drunk. Each had
bargained meager coins of the psyche while living with
a dramatic, angry, and addicted
person and often more than one of them.
Margaret’s former husband was
also a fisherman and a boisterous drunk
who once stole a trolley filled
with passengers when the motorman stopped to
take a leak. “The cops chased
that streetcar for blocks while Bert sang filthy songs and
demonstrated uncommon driving
skills. They finally cut off the
electricity and cornered him.
Some people said it was the best ride they’d ever had.” That
was the thing we all agreed, drunks are vivid, manipulative,
and dramatic. They can convince
you of anything, until being
convinced becomes your job. So I
told them about my blindness and how I’d lived
according to my mother. Margaret
and I reckoned that Bert and my mother would get
along famously. Both believed in
swashbuckling with whiskey and believed mind
over matter makes the world go
around. It was Margaret who said what
should have been obvious, if I
wasn’t blind then my mother wouldn’t have anything to
feel guilty about. Moreover, if
I wasn’t blind, if I never actually went
anywhere, then I could look
after her. “It’s the old love-hate dance
all drunks waltz to,” she said. “Alcoholics love their own
guilt,” she added. “It gives
them reasons to keep drinking.” So here I am now, going to the
guide dog school, I just get
there and this is sort of what the beginning of that
was like. And, you know, this is
sort of like that Wizard of Oz moment, you know,
“We’re not in Kansas anymore,
Toto.” I’ve just catapulted into the
far side of a universe I didn’t
know existed. Four months had passed since
Dave See’s visit. It was early
March and snow was falling as I arrived at Guiding
Eyes for the Blind in suburban
Westchester County, a forty-minute drive north of
New York City. Though my vision
wasn’t seriously reliable, I noticed
the pleasant grounds with old
trees, a white colonial house,
and a neat brick dormitory. Nearby stood a veterinary
hospital. Guiding Eyes looked
like a small community college. “You must be
Steve,” someone said as I
stepped from the airport shuttle. “I’m Linda,”
she said. “Welcome. I’m one of
the trainers.” “Great,” I said. “Is it okay if
I admit I’m kind of nervous?” “Well, the dogs never bite,” she
said, laughing, “but you never
know about the trainers.” “Come on,”
she said, “I’ll show you to your
room.” As we walked, Linda asked
questions about my type of
blindness. There are hundreds of
blindnesses and no two people
experience vision loss the same way. Linda was asking,
“How is it for you?” “It’s like I have Vaseline in my
eyes,” I said. “Up close,
pressing my nose on a printed page, I can read large
print but only with one eye.”
“You know there are so many variants of the low
vision-no vision experience,”
Linda said. “I’m amazed by every blind
person who navigates this
planet.” It was such a simple thing to
say and yet I was truly warmed.
There we were, the two of us simply standing in
a dormitory hallway and for the
first time in my life someone had affirmed
what it was like to be me. I’d
been in the building 60 seconds. I
remembered John Prine’s great
folk song about aging,Hello In
There . A person who didn’t
know me was acknowledging my existence. My
room had a dog crate and a
wall-mounted radio with oversized tactile
buttons. There was a back door
that opened onto a cement sidewalk where we’d be
relieving our dogs when the time
came. “The dogs have been trained to
do their business on cement,”
Linda said. Linda then left me to unpack.
She said students and trainers
would meet together in one hour. I thanked
her, and after she left, I wrote
a few lines in my journal. March
1, 1994. I have an hour to kill
before the first group meeting. This is a good
time to think about trust. Trust
probably has something to do with luck, as
in, making peace with it. I’ve grown up not thinking of
luck. Like most Americans, I’ve imagined I’ll get ahead by
thinking my way forward. I think
this might be a place where people know a lot
about trust. Before arriving at
guide dog school, I actually thought I’d be handed a
dog who knew some commands and
that would be it. It would be simple. Looking
back, if I’d known how much my
life was about to change, I might have
experienced some apprehension. I
was going to be enlarged in several ways. All I
knew for sure on day one was
that I’d made a commitment. At our
first group meeting, I saw we
were old and young, American and
Israeli, men and women, northern
and southern. Some of us were kids straight
out of high school. We were
black and white, Latina. One of us was very tall. Four of
us had already had a guide dog. The rest were newbies.
Everyone was chatting. The simmer of talk was pleasing.
We were Tina, Mike, Aaron,
Joseph. We were Harriet, Doug,
Constance, Sally, Jeff, Anna,
Bill, and Steve. The trainers were Linda and
Kylie, and Hank and Brett. We
were drawn together not just by blindness but also
because training with a guide
dog is about the future. Linda called
the meeting to order. She said,
“Let’s talk about dogs. Let’s talk about how
tomorrow is going to unfold.”
“Oh, boy, dogs,” someone said. Everyone
laughed. Linda turned to trainer
Kylie and said, “I don’t know, do you think we
have any dogs here?” “I think I
saw one,” said Kylie. “Probably a stray,”
Linda said. “Okay, jokes aside,”
said Linda, “tomorrow we’ll ask each of you
to take a walk with us. The
trainers will pretend to be guide dogs. Our goal is to
get a sense of your walking
gait, your speed, and what kind of pull is
comfortable for you.” She
explained there were multiple dogs in waiting, dogs all
trained up and ready to go.
There were 24 dogs for 12 students. “Just as no two
human beings are alike, no two
dogs are the same,” Linda said. “Part of a
trainer’s job is match-making,”
she said, “knowing which dog will fit each
and every one of you. In the
morning, we’ll walk the grounds of the school.
Trainers will move fast and pull
the front end of a dog harness and you’re
going to hold the handle and
pretend you’re walking a real dog.” I wasn’t sure what
I thought about walking around
with a pretend guide dog. Somehow it seemed
embarrassing, oddly
performative. But my comfort
wasn’t as important as my safety and
ultimately getting the right
dog, this much I knew. At 8:00 the next morning, I
stood beside a fountain with
Kylie who was ready to be my dog. I was
going to walk a harnessed woman around a parking lot. Once in
college, a friend persuaded me
to help him walk about in a donkey suit.
We were going to perform at a children’s fare. My job was to
hold up the backend. “It would
be perfect,” my friend said. I didn’t have to
see, just keep myself upright. Of course, the problem was,
my friend couldn’t see either. The eye slits kept shifting.
We stumbled into a trash can. We walked over a beach blanket
and broke a toy. I grasped my
friend’s arm, he staggered, I laughed so hard
I fell out of the donkey and lay
on the grass. “Look,” someone said, “the
donkey has given birth to an
idiot.” I thought, “Okay, I can be the
backend fool.” “When I’m a good
dog, you’re going to tell me,” said Kylie.
“When I’m a bad dog, you’re going to give me a
correction with this leash.” She
showed me the leash. This is really probably the most
embarrassing moment in my life. “How will I know when you’re a
bad dog?” I asked. “I’ll stop
when we’re supposed to be walking because I want to
sniff the grass,” she said, “or
I’ll veer off the path.” “And what do I do
with the leash?” “You’re going
to give it a tug and you’re going to say, ‘No. Hop
up.'” “Hop up?” “Yes. Hop up.” “What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s an old guide dog command. It tells your dog to refocus.”
“Kind of like a reset button.”
“Exactly.” “Does it mean anything else?” I
asked. “Yes, it can mean it’s
time to go faster.” She went on to explain that when
she stopped for curbs or steps, I should praise her.
For the purpose of the exercise, her imaginary dog name was Juno.
“All the guide dog schools use
the name Juno for this exercise,” she
said. “There’s no real guide dog
named Juno.” Juno, I thought, Roman goddess
of war, fertility, and youth. It was one of those throwaway
thoughts. Juno, Juno, make me
young. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s go.” We walked and Kylie pulled with
steady force. “A real guide
dog,” she said, “will pull. They’re not like
pets trained to heel. The pull
allows your dog to have fluid movement as you’re
walking. She’ll see an obstacle
and guide you around it without breaking
stride. You’ll also learn during
training that the pull creates a trust factor.”
“Yes,” I thought, “trust, my weakest area.” “Good dog,
Juno,” I said, as Kylie stopped
at a curb. “Now you’re going to tell her to
go forward,” Kylie said. “Juno, forward,” I said. Off we
went, we veered and zigged and
zagged. I said, “Hop up,” when Kylie
turned toward a flower bed. We
recommenced our little journey. When our Juno
walk was over, Kylie said I had
a good handling technique. I had no
idea what this meant. She also
said I was a speedy walker. That night,
I wrote in my journal, “Can trust be taught? Is trust
related to embarrassment? Maybe I should have risked more
embarrassment in my life. Tomorrow is dog day.” By the
second day, I’d come to see
Guiding Eyes as a sailing vessel. It was a
contained and intense place. We
were on the ocean together, trainers,
students, and dogs. At 6:00
a.m., the intercom crackled,
it was time to hit the deck. There’d be a morning class and
then in the afternoon, we’d be
given our dogs. I stumbled around my room, I hit
my head on the bathroom door. I rubbed my brow and thought,
even with a poor start this was
a different day from all others.
It was dog day. “Dog day,” I
thought, “is like getting married but
it’s an arranged wedding. The
bride and groom don’t know each other.” Our
first class was about technique. Everyone received a stiff,
leather leash. We learned how to
use brass clips and rings to make it long or short.
“The short leash,” said Linda, “is for working dogs in harness.
You’ll learn more about this
tomorrow. The short leash is kind of like
a dog’s throttle and break. The
long leash is for potty breaks or letting your
dog sniff the grass.” We
practiced making our leashes long and short. We
learned the proper command to
encourage a dog to relieve itself, “Get
busy.” It felt silly to say it
but we did. “Guide dog,” said Linda, “will
get busy on pavement or cement. They don’t need grass.” “Now we
need to talk about your dogs,” Kylie said. “Later on this
afternoon, each of you will be
united with your dog. Remember, this will be as
powerful and beautiful for her
as it is for you. When we release her, you’re
going to call. She’ll be
excited. She may come straight to you or she might run in
circles before she comes. She’s
been in a kennel for months working each day with
her trainer. Today will be
something new for her as well.” “By the way,”
Kylie said, “I’m using ‘her’
when speaking of the dogs but half the dogs in
this class are male. There is
absolutely no quality distinction between the
genders, both male and female
guide dogs are equally good at their jobs.”
Linda added, “All the dogs in
the class are Labrador Retrievers, some
are black labs, some are yellow, there’s no difference between
them, in fact, they occur in the
same litter of puppies. Some dogs are big,
some are smaller, again, there’s not difference.” “Don’t
compare your dogs,” said Linda. “Your dog won’t be better
because it has a longer tail
than your neighbor’s dog. This is a group activity
requiring encouragement.”
“Well,” I thought, “here’s where a guide dog school
isn’t like the Navy, no admiral
describes a flotilla as a matter of
encouragement.” “The next three
and a half weeks will be stressful, engaged,
tiring, and even thrilling. But the goal behind everything
we do is to see that you and
your new dog become a superb team. Your dogs need
encouragement and so do you. And
you should give it to each other,” Linda said.
I thought of lines from Dickens’Oliver Twist. For the
rest of his life, Oliver Twist
remembers a single word of blessing spoken to him by
another child because this word
stood out so strikingly from the consistent
discouragement around him. “A single word of blessing,” I
thought. A single word of blessing.
The trainers shifted gears. “Now, we’re going to tell you
the name and color of your dog,”
said Kylie. “The dogs were named at birth
and each litter of puppies
receives a letter of the alphabet. Every dog in
the litter has a name beginning
with the designated letter,” said Linda. “Some of
the names are a bit unusual,” said Kylie. “We name a lot of
dogs.” “In other words, don’t
get wigged out about your dog’s name,” said
Linda. “Your dog likes her
name.” The names of our soon-to-be dogs
were read aloud. The names were
at once splendid and silly: Tinsel, Abbey,
Norway, Tammy, Henry, Whisper,
Captain, Johnny. I was amazed by the silly nature
of the names. Who’d have thought
a hero dog would be named “Whisper.” “Steve, your
dog is a yellow lab named
Corky,” said Kylie. “Corky,” I thought.
“Wasn’t there a killer whale
named Corky? It seemed both carefree and
tough. Perhaps that’s how we’d
be together.” “Our dogs were going to have
baths,” Linda said, then we’d be
united with them one by one. I waited in my room and
imagined a map, a might-be map
of life to come. What if the future would be
okay? What if it would be truly
lovely? What if having a guide dog
worked for me? I saw these were
the proper things to think about. And then my name
was called via loudspeaker and
it was my turn to meet Corky. I grabbed the
leash and walked to the lounge. Corky burst in like a clown. I
sat in a tall armchair and Kylie
told me to call, and damned if she
didn’t run full steam into my
arms. She placed her large front paws
on my shoulders and washed my
face. And then, as if she fully understood
her job would require comedy,
she nibbled my nose. She was brilliant and silly.
And I couldn’t believe my luck. Back in our room, she bounced,
cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back
all the while I kept talking. “Oh, let’s go any place we
choose,” I said, feeling I was
on the verge of tears. As our first hours unfolded, we
began the life-long art of
learning to read each other. She was
happy but she had something
else, a quality of absorption. She’d look me
over like a tailor. She took me
in, she wasn’t searching for a ball
to be thrown. Was it my
imagination or did she actually have the most
comprehending face I’d ever met?
There are times when you can’t describe your feelings,
you say, “So this is the new
life.” I thought, “So this is the new man with the
big dog, the big yellow dog who
cares not a wit about the old man’s history and
already believes in his
goodness.” All right, I’m going to read just a little
more here. Bear with me. So I’m now walking with the dog
in a city for the first time,
right? Then Kylie came and said it was
my turn, our turn. It was
Corky’s moment. She’d show me what she could do.
I’d show her I wasn’t afraid. There is even a moment in the
very beginning when you have to
jump across a precipice. We hurried
past storefronts, Corky pulled
and I concentrated on my breathing,
trying to stay loose. My arm was
straight, my shoulders squared, my posture
upright. In lecture, it had
sounded so easy but now I was moving very fast.
I was scared and joyous. Kylie was behind us, monitoring.
We were stepping out, as they
say in guide dog work. Corky was
going so swiftly I didn’t have
time to worry about oncoming shadows, people,
street signs, whatever they
were, they just dropped behind us. I’d
always been a tippy-toe walker. Now, I was putting everything
into my feet and for the first
time I felt vital in relation to my footfalls. It
was a circumstance for which I
had no prior lingo. A dog-driven
invitation to living
full-forward, racing up the sidewalk,
we were forwardness itself. Then Corky hit the brakes,
firmly. She’d arrived at our
first curb. “God,” I thought, “she’s doing
what the trainers said she’d
do.” Then she backed up slightly, the
harness, the well-known guide
dog accoutrement, is perfectly rigid. Its handle is a
steel fork with a skin of
leather. As your dog moves, you move.
I felt safe at the curb. “Earth will be safe,” said the
Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat
Hanh, “when we feel in us enough
safety.” “Nice stop,” said
Barbara, a trainer stationed just a few
feet away. “That’s our Corky
girl.” “And she’ll always do that?” I
said. It was half a question, half an exclamation. “Yep,” said
Barbara, “she’ll always do
that.” Block two came next. We stepped
out again. Corky guided
watching, looking a block ahead. “Man,” I
thought, “I could let go of all
my panic. All my fight-or-flee guesswork
walks might just be a thing of
the past.” Corky’s harness jingled.
Her harness actually jingled. A man called out, “That’s a
great-looking dog and you look
pretty good, too.” “Thanks,” I said, “so do you.” I
was feeling good and more than a little proud. We walked another
block. Again, Corky came to a
stop, we were at the corner of
Mamaroneck Avenue and Martin, a
tough intersection, urban, lots of cars, metro New York
drivers. It certainly wasn’t
Ithaca. It was all a blur of motion.
Corky tracked movement like a
predator. I felt her shoulders sway as she
looked from side to side. Dogs
track movement better than people and have a
wider visual field. A Labrador
Retriever sees 250 degrees while staring straight
ahead. A human being sees only
180. Without turning her head, a dog
can see a car with her
peripheral vision even if it’s still a
block away. She sees fields of
action. It’s a dog’s version of cubism,
a cubist cartoon, each zone
filled with activity. Standing on the
corner of Mamaroneck and Martin, I imagined what Corky might be
seeing. As I listened, she saw a
skateboarder weaving from 85 degrees right.
From our left she saw a taxi
encroaching the crosswalk and ready to
accelerate. In the middle
distance on the far side, a man with a hotdog stand
struggled to raise an umbrella.
Far off 100 yards away, she saw a motorized street
sweeping machine churning up
dust. “Listen to the traffic going
with you,” said Barbara, who was
just behind us. I’d forgotten she was there.
I liked the fact she was nearby but wasn’t intrusive. Then the
traffic began flowing and it was our turn to cross. I commanded
Corky forward. Most people think
guide dogs are responsible for deciding when to
cross the street but it’s not
true. The dog watches traffic. This is
why she differs from a family
pet, guide dogs possess a trait
called intelligent disobedience. A blind person hears traffic and
decides when to cross, but a
guide won’t budge if her handler has made a bad
choice. She may in fact back up. So when you enter the crosswalk,
you can count on a safe
crossing. I said, “forward” and we entered the no
man’s land of a crosswalk where
a line of impatient cars emitted exhaust. Corky
zipped. Before I could think, we were at the far curb. As I
found the sidewalk with my foot, Barbara reminded me to praise
her. I was so wrapped in wonder
I was forgetting to say “good dog.”
“Love her up,” said Barbara, though it wasn’t in the lesson
plan. I dropped to my knees and
hugged my big yellow labrador and told her…
I’m sorry. I dropped to my knees
and hugged my big, yellow, ox-headed labrador girl
and told her she was the best
thing ever. Then I laughed because I was
neither here nor there, not the
old blind guy, and not quite the new, but I was
happy, phase one of trust,
laughing. How much time do I have? A few
more minutes? To read or… You
got to tell me. Five more
minutes? Okay. All right. So I’m talking with some blind
people at the guide dog school, they’re all training with their
dogs and we’re having this
really amazing conversation. And I
think you might enjoy this part, so I’m talking to all these
blind people here. Aaron was
working on a PhD in languages. He’d been silent
for the first few days but now
he was warming up. “So,” he said, “you’re in a
restaurant and 12 other folks,
strangers all, are eyeing you because you’re
significantly different. Sighted people enjoy novelty
and you’re the novelty du jour. Even if you’re just chewing a
muffin, you’re entertainment. And then a stranger can’t resist
and approaches and says, ‘I knew a blind person once.'”
“Oh, God, yes,” said Tina.
“There’s some nuance to this,” said Aaron, “the
stranger once knew a blind guy in college, or a blind person
who lived down the street.
Sometimes they’ll ask if I actually know the
aforementioned blind person
because after all, shouldn’t all blind people know
one another? You’re swallowing
the damn muffin and you think, ‘What if I ask if
he knows all businessmen who
wear London fog raincoats?'” “Now, you’re in a
fix,” said Aaron. “The
stranger’s invitation to chat is also a signal to you, the
blind one, to say moderately
inspirational things. Or in turn the stranger says
upbeat shit like, ‘I knew a
blind guy once who could take apart a radio and put it
back together.'” Aaron
continued, “He knew a blind guy who climbed
a mountain. He knew a blind guy
who went skydiving, who caught more fish
than the rest of them combined. And you want to say,
‘I knew a short guy once. I knew a short guy who could
reach the peanut butter on a
shelf with a special device called a step-ladder. He
was amazing.'” Faux-disability
heroism, I thought, is like every other
kind of American hero worship. If “one size fits all” is the
United State’s universal motto, then surely any distinguishing
quality makes a man or woman
remarkable. I knew a guy who could eat more
hotdogs than anyone in Peoria. I knew a woman who ate spiders
to amuse her children. In the
United States, anyone curious is refreshing.
I didn’t say this. I heard their proper frustration. “Can a blind
person just be customary?” I
thought. Judging by what Aaron had to
say, the answer was no. “I don’t
put down stray sighted people who ask me dumb
questions,” Aaron continued. “It
is better to be polite. Sometimes I use my
dog as a ploy and say, ‘I’ve got
to go, the dog needs to take a piss.'”
“Anyway,” said Aaron, “I don’t
talk about blindness, there are agencies for that.
I tell people I want to talk about neutrinos.” “One thing’s
for certain,” said Harriett,
who’d been listening and combing her dog,
“you’re a celebrity with a guide
dog, people always approach you.”
“Well, I’m not sure I’ll mind
that,” I said, then added, “I like the
small, sensible faces of life.” No one knew precisely what to
say to that. There was a brief
silence then Aaron said, “Well, you’re a poet but don’t
let strangers talk you to
death.” Listening to them, I wondered if
I’d have a problem with
strangers. My principle hang-up had always
concerned accomplishment, a
misunderstanding of accomplishment, as if
blindness was an obstacle to
success. I’d lived without any examples
of blind triumph, now triumph
was all around me. The other students were skilled
at living with their disability. Maybe Aaron didn’t like talking
with intrusive people but he was
in the world and could live as he wished.
I resolved not to care too much about curious strangers. In a
way, questions might be a relief
after living so long with blindness as a
largely unspoken element of my
life. – Good job. I will… We have
some little bit of time for
questions so I know some of you at the round table this
afternoon but if you would like
to ask a question, Alyssa and I will be around with
the mics. Because we are
live-streaming this on Facebook, if you don’t mind
standing if you’re able when you
ask a question, it would make the filming easier,
if you’re able and willing to
stand. If not, that’s okay but we’d
love you to stand if you are
able. Any questions? Yes. – [Man] You also
read Homer, I assume. – Yes. – So my question is, do you
find… – You know, that Homer is
pretty good, by the way. – …what comparison
often…does it come up often
and how has reading his work influenced yours? – Well, that’s an interesting
question. Homer is quite
possibly the most vital story-teller among poets, you
know? And his capacity to
describe certain elements of landscape and
elements of Greek life tends to
indicate that he was probably sighted as a young man.
And in the Greek world, certainly the early Hellenic
world, it was the elderly who
were blind for the most part. So I’m guessing that
he had a capacious memory and so
that when he was blind later, he could recount
absolutely everything, which, by
the way, is part of the epic poet’s job because
one of the things the epic poet
has to do is to describe to the civilization
how to be a good Greek or a bad
Greek, an exemplary citizen, right?
And that meant everything, how to build a boat, how to
dress, how to fight, how to
anchor a ship. – Other questions? – [Woman] I was wondering about,
because you mentioned David See, and so there’s a certain level
of irony to that which seems
pretty obvious to a reader but is there a point at
which you include certain levels
of irony that you feel need to be more explicit in
saying, like, “Hey, reader, pay
attention, this is ironic”? Because it’s
kind of hard sometimes in my own
writing to kind of paint something as ironic,
when I think it’s ironic, but
other people might not get the reference. – Yeah. Yeah. No, there are so
many types of irony, right? I
mean, some are just the extraordinary
aleatoric accidental ironies.
Like a guy from the guide dog school is named David
See, you know, that’s hilarious
and you can’t plan on that one. But then there
are the ironies that, you know, come to your rescue because of
the fertility of your own
imagination that can help you in all kinds of
settings, right? Particularly
comic irony, which is where you realize that
you now know more than you did
even 10 minutes ago, or a decade ago,
or a week ago, right? And you can bring to bear on a
situation what you know now,
right? And so that’s a kind of irony
that’s rather delicious in
non-fiction, right? I think the memoir can exist
without that. If it doesn’t have
that kind of comic irony where you reveal what you
know now versus what you, you
know, did not know before, then you’re
just writing a kind of Hollywood kiss-and-tell book and it’s not
literary at all. Literary memoir
depends on that irony. – Other questions. – And yes, the Boston Red Sox
are beating the Yankees right
now, I’m very happy, in case you wanted to know. – [Woman 2] Hi. I was struck by
that quote from your reading
about how you meet your dog and there’s a moment where
you feel essentially good. I
won’t get that exactly right. And it reminded
me that there’s a whole body of
dog literature which is different from your
book in some ways but I wondered
if you could speak to your relationship to a dog
which is in lit and all over the
place. Like, people have such special,
intense relationships with their
dogs, guide or not. – Well, the reason that the
subtitle of this book is “a
poet’s journey,” is because working with this dog
daily, hourly, in all kinds of
environments, in 47 states and multiple
foreign countries, working with
a dog who saved my life multiple times, the
closeness that I achieved with
her was extraordinary and, moreover, I
believe…I joked on Iowa Public
Radio yesterday…but I believe that
Corky made me a better writer
because she opened up the possibilities for getting
lost, for being curious, for
being spontaneous, for just simply doing something
on a whim. And of course, to be
a writer is to really relish in glory in experience.
And that was something that I
did not know how to do before her so I really
think that in this case, a dog
was my, you know, was my tutor in multiple ways,
both practical and spiritual. – [Man 2] Dogs, compared to
humans, have a very limited life
span. – Yes. – And they get old and sick like
humans do, only much sooner.
Have you written about that part of the
relationship? – Yes, the end of this book is
about her death. And I wrote it
in a way that would make Dickens proud. It’s the
death of little Nell. No, it’s
brutal, it’s very painful and I’ve said
goodbye now to three guide dogs. And I can’t bring myself to
scatter their ashes, I have them
all in urns on my mantle. And yeah, it’s
rough, it’s rough. I hold
Corky’s urn with her ashes in my arms at the end of
the book and I’m sitting under a
tree and I’m disconsolate and then I have
this moment where I ask, “Well,
what would she want for me?” And this is a dog who
spent every moment of her life,
you know, joyously engaging with me and
going places. “What would she
want?” And the answer was very clear,
that she’d want me to keep
moving. I’m not a brave person
necessarily, but when Corky had
a brain tumor and had to be put to sleep, I was about
to come apart. And I realized as
she was lying there on the gurney in the vet’s
office that if I began to cry, she would die in distress. And
so I held her and sang to her as she died. We had a little
walking song that we sang and
that was something I could do for her. All right, well, thanks,
everybody. I’m going to sign a
few books if anybody wants to buy one. – Steve will be signing books in
the back, thank you. One more
round of applause for Steve, that was beautiful.

One thought on “The 2018 Writers @ Grinnell Armando “Mando” Alters Montaño Memorial Reading

  1. Many thanks, I been tryin to find out about "rebuilding trust after cheating" for a while now, and I think this has helped. Have you ever come across – Qenamilla Strayer Magnet – (just google it ) ? Ive heard some decent things about it and my co-worker got cool success with it.

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