Book Review: Have Dog, Will Travel

In March, blind poet and writing professor Stephen Kuusisto released Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey — a memoir about his life with his first guide dog, Corky. This is an exceptional book that will resonate with a wide audience beyond the obvious blind people and guide dog handlers. Kuusisto was featured on the PBS News Hour; you’ll enjoy this preview of the book!

I reviewed the book for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, and the essay went live today. Here’s how it begins:

Corky, a singular yellow Labrador, transforms the gossamer existence of a blind poet. The extraordinary dog bounces in with generosity and poise, what Stephen Kuusisto calls her ‘keen affection.’ This is the shining through-line of Kuusisto’s latest book, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, released by Simon & Schuster in March, 2018.

Readers of Kuusisto’s earlier essays will recognize some of the themes he invokes here: the mother in denial, the hostile or incongruous strangers, the need to accept and remake himself. But Have Dog, Will Travel offers a perspective that is more optimistic than Planet of the Blind or Eavesdropping. It is a book that relentlessly pushes old ideas aside. The reader can feel Corky and Kuusisto’s forward motion, a consistent meter that rewrites Kuusisto’s whole life.

Read the full review here! And don’t forget to check out the rest of the wonderful content in the summer issue.



April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

  • Working For Love (Guide Dog Training Part 1)” was the first essay I ever wrote about York, in June of 2014. Little did I know how often York would inspire me to literary action.
  • Quartet Beyond Measure” details how my barbershop quartet came together and adapted to our furry fifth member.
  • Of Dogs and Dragons” examines the beautiful and rewarding inter-species partnership in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — and makes the case that her fantasy world of talking dragons and epic battles reflects our powerful real-world collaboration with service animals.
  • Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World“: I wrote this piece last April and it was published in The Hopper, an eco-literary journal from Green Writers Press in Vermont. To this day, “Working Resonance” is one of my favorite essays, a piece I am incredibly proud of. I reread it often because I believe it has a larger message than I even understood at the time. It expresses so much of what I want to achieve in the world.
  • How My Life Changed With a Guide Dog” started out as an open letter to the generous donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs, and it was picked up by a Jacksonville newspaper — further evidence that sincere gratitude cannot be contained.

I hope you enjoy these pieces and take a moment to thank your furry companions, even if they are not working dogs. If you want more wordsmithing about my adventures with York, just click the “guide dog” entry in the tag cloud on the right.

Happy International Guide Dog Day to all!

An Open Letter to the Donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs

I am excited to begin the new year in a spirit of gratitude. Your gift to Southeastern Guide Dogs blesses all future guides and graduates—but it also touches every member of the Southeastern community.

I graduated with my first guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs in July 2014. I had been matched with York, an 18-month-old black Lab whose large brown eyes shone with intelligence and determination. After a month of training in Palmetto, FL, I was ready to take my pup home, but I had only a faint understanding of how he would change my life.

The training process was not easy. Before York, I had used a white cane for safe and independent travel: independent being the key word. I knew how to trust myself, but I had to learn to trust York. On our third day of training, we paused at the edge of a curb, ready to step down. With my cane, I could have judged the depth easily—using the cane to touch the step and the sidewalk below. But with York, I wouldn’t feel the change in elevation until we stepped off the curb. I knew it was only one step, but I stood there for several minutes, afraid to trust another creature with my safety. I thought I could do it better. I thought we would stumble. I thought I would step down wrong and twist an ankle.

My trainer stood quietly beside me. She repeated, “Whenever you’re ready, tell him to go forward.”

When I finally gave York the command to step down, we moved so fluidly that my moments of worry dissolved in an instant. I was already several feet along the path before I could process what had held me back. Once I decided to trust, the obstacles disappeared. Steps up and down, crowded sidewalks, random signposts—these are now just arbitrary pieces of a world that York and I travel smoothly and confidently together.

York and I are an inseparable team in the most mundane and extraordinary places. From our favorite coffeeshops to the university campus where I teach, from the symphony and art museum to the regional stage at an a cappella singing competition, York is my constant companion. This year, we made our debut on the TEDx stage, giving a talk on disability and collaboration—and as far as I can tell, he is the first guide dog to grace this famous venue.

I knew that York would bring me a greater sense of independence and adventure, but I had no idea how his presence would transform my heart. It is not just that York helps me or that he has given me a way to express deep love and affection. York, like any partner worth having, challenges me to be the best version of myself.

When I would rather choose a quiet well-known path, York demands a crowded sidewalk full of obstacles. When I would rather stay on the sidelines, York demands attention. People stop to ask about his training or tell me how beautiful he is. On one memorable occasion, a woman sprinted across a hotel restaurant to meet us: she turned out to be a former puppy raiser for Southeastern and she was thrilled to see a guide dog team in action!

Perhaps what is most exciting for me is the picture York and I present when we work together. York and I are often the first blind woman-guide dog duo to appear on the conference panel, at the competition stage, in the coffeeshop. Though it seems like service dogs are everywhere, disabled people are still woefully underrepresented in professional and social settings. York and I get to show people that inclusion isn’t “special” or “exceptional”: we get to set a new norm, raise the bar for disabled people everywhere. With the simple act of walking up to a counter and ordering coffee, we teach the world that blind people can be just as competent and worthy of respect as anyone else.

But with York, it never stops at respect. He works so hard with me because he loves me, and this is a love that completely overwhelms me. It is as powerful as a symphony, as beautiful as a night full of stars. It’s a love I can never hope to measure or comprehend. But it’s a love I will spend my whole life trying to return.

Every time I grab my purse or put on my shoes, York runs to his special rug and waits for his harness, tail wagging. Every time we step out of the car, his nose sniffs the air, exploring. He sees the harness, and he turns from a wiggly explorer into a serious, focused companion. The harness slips on, and his body language says, “I’m ready for this.”

If you’ve never wrapped your fingers around the square end of a guide dog’s harness, if you’ve never needed to place your trust in a furry four-legged genius, it can be difficult to fathom the impact a guide dog has on the life of a blind or visually impaired person. Our dogs help us find independence, confidence, and self-worth. By extending an incredible network of dedicated humans, they teach us that our lives have value.

Your gift does not just help us be more independent. It helps blind people reclaim their dignity and their self-determination. Your generosity reminds us that people believe in us and that we should believe in ourselves—that our greatest joys and successes derive from profound collaboration. None of us is meant to strive alone: we all need to hold onto someone. I am honored to be working with York—and with the community of trainers, sponsors, and puppy raisers that made this brilliant partnership possible.


Emily K. Michael, with York


A sneak peek at my TEDx Talk and a radio spot for Blindness Awareness!

I’ve got some exciting things to share!

First up are two short promo videos I did for TEDxFSCJ: each one offers a sneak peek at my upcoming talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

Here’s the first promo:

And the second one:

If you’re interested in coming to my performance of the talk, I’ve got the details for you.

When: Tuesday, October 18, at 2:30PM

Where: FSCJ Downtown Campus, A1068 (the auditorium off the lobby)

In a similar vein, I spoke with a local reporter today about guide dog etiquette. My spot aired on the radio this afternoon. You can read and listen here: Jacksonville Blind Woman Talks About Service Dog Etiquette.

Essay: “Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World”

I’m excited to announce my first publication in The Hopper, an ecologically minded literary magazine from Green Writers Press! Today they published my essay, “Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World.” Here’s how it begins:

“In darkness, the audience rises, applauding the last performance of the evening. Before I can bang my hands together with wild abandon, I slide my guide dog’s leash back over my arm, into the crook of my elbow. My companion rises from his prone position and assumes a dignified sit, scanning from left to right. He recognizes the applause as a signal for our imminent departure.

The house lights come up, and I pull on my heavy coat. In the presence of my wiggly Labrador, this maneuver requires some concentration: hold York’s leash with left hand and slide right arm into sleeve, loop leash over right arm and slide left arm into sleeve, loop leash back over left arm and fasten inside buttons, fasten outside buttons, pick up crossbody bag and slide strap over left shoulder, don’t tangle with leash. When I’m fully equipped to handle the chilly night air, I stand beside York and we wait for the crowd to thin out.

‘Beautiful dog,’ a man remarks as he pauses by my seat. One foot rests on the next step up, and he leans around a large column to stare down at my pup. York’s shiny black fur contrasts with his leather guide harness. ‘Does he like the music?’

My hand moves to York’s silky ear, a gesture of habitual comfort. ‘Actually, he prefers Romantic composers. But he said he would come hear Mozart with me.’”


Read the entire piece here.

October Interviews: Elaine from Pennsylvania

Our next interviewee is Elaine Mara, age 28. She lives in Pennsylvania and works with disabled individuals at the high school level, preparing them for the transition to college or work. She enjoys public speaking, disability awareness, guide dog lifestyle awareness,  creating and delivering dynamic presentations, and composing music for piano.

How would you describe your vision loss? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

Without getting too technical, here’s the simplest way to understand it: I was born with
underdeveloped optic nerves and a host of other diagnoses. Growing up, my vision was pretty stable, though I needed large print to read and I tripped over my own two feet all the time. As an adult, I had noticed that my periphery on my right side was closing in and so began four long years of tests, two brain surgeries, and many follow-ups. Today, I have 20/50 vision in my left eye; 20/70 vision in my right eye; 20/50 vision with both eyes open (all on a good day) but I have a visual field of around 10 degrees in my right eye and somewhere around 20 degrees in my left eye. I have nystagmus, an eye movement disorder, that makes focusing very difficult but I’ve worked hard over the years to learn to live with all of this!

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

Most currently, I am using a cane to get around because my first guide dog, who I trained with back in 2014, decided to retire early. Before I got him, I was an avid cane traveler but I found my confidence dwindling as my eyesight was changing; that’s where Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) came into my life and changed it drastically. I am currently waiting to go back into class at GEB to train with a successor dog, hopefully early next year. I much prefer the dog to the cane.

With the cane, I’m always bumping into things and running up the backs of people’s feet when I’m walking much faster than they are. With a dog, we avoid the obstacles and the travel is much more fluid and friendly, too. I have met so many wonderful and unique people just doing my day-to-day activities when I’m with my dog than when I’m with the cane. People, kids especially, have a great love for the fur at the end of the harness and they marvel at what he can do for someone like me, so they’re more apt to approach me and socialize with me than when I’m accompanied by a stick with no personality. Who want’s to cuddle a cane? Not I!

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your low vision? How do you handle it?

For me, low vision means I’m constantly in limbo. Sometimes I can see and do a task flawlessly with the vision I have and other times, I’m lucky I don’t make a mess. Personally, I laugh it off and let it go because I know what’s really going on. Some days, my vision rocks and others, it decides it doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning but that’s all internal; it’s not like everyone else can see it, so some days, it does get tiring having to explain the same concept to ten different people, though I know it’s usually because they’re curious.

What resources have helped you to handle your low vision best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I truly believe everything in this life takes a village. My biggest assets are the people I have on my team. My family has been my rock. The last four years have not been easy with my vision and neurological conditions and yet, they’re still by my side, taking me to appointments and holding my hand when the news comes down. We celebrate the good days and shake off the bad…together. I have two amazing eye care specialists and a neurosurgeon who are always available if and when I need them. I have rehabilitation professionals who have hearts of gold and care only about my success. I have the technology and skills, too, but nothing is more important than trusting, caring relationships when life hangs upside down.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about vision loss? How do you cope with this belief?

I think the most harmful belief that people have is that vision loss is all or nothing: that we are either sighted or we’re blind. I don’t think people understand that, like anything, vision loss exists on a continuum and because it is not a static, unchanging characteristic, there are going to be days where a pot on the sidewalk will be seen and avoided without contact and there will be others where that same pot, on that same sidewalk will fall in an area of blindness and not avoided, tripped over and harm done. The truth of the matter is: vision is constantly changing. We live in a world where so much of life is consumed by the visual that those of us who use different senses have a unique way of looking at the world and it should be appreciated for what it is.

What’s your favorite way to celebrate autumn?

I love walking in the autumn weather. Hearing the leaves crunch under my feet. Smelling the burning firewood from nearby bonfires. Fall is such an aromatic season, built for the senses. When I have my guide dog, I love taking them out to play in the leaves and making huge piles for them to romp in.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

I could read Shel Silverstein’s poetry over and over again because there always seems
to be subtle nuances and imagery that come to mind when reading his work in all different moods.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered as a writer?

I feel like there is no one person or perspective that can center a writer. Yes, there is
subject matter that each of us excels in writing about but that subject has many perspectives, many details, many events that combine to make that person an expert. I enjoy reading blogs the most because they tell a different kind of story; I feel that they give meaning to a person’s life and provide their perspective on the world in which they live and their readers gain another insight into the world in which they live. Blogs can be so very inspiring and uplifting and if a reader is committed to a particular blog, that individual will get to know the writer or creator in a way that stories and articles can’t.

Blogs have added an entirely new dimension to the world of literature and how we experience the world. I believe in the power of words and using as many formats to put those words into action as possible.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

In the next ten years, I would love to be a published author, traveling the world with my guide dog, telling my story and inspiring others to work through the difficult times in their lives because there is always something bigger on the other side of challenge. I want to make a difference in this world and I want my story to mean something to someone somewhere. I’d love to be married and, maybe have a family, but I want to know myself first!

Of Dogs and Dragons

In May of this year, I followed a friend’s recommendation and began reading His Majesty’s Dragon, a novel by Naomi Novik. The book is the first in Novik’s Temeraire series, a historical fantasy narrative that chronicles the adventures of Capt. Will Laurence and his combat dragon, Temeraire. Reviews often describe this series as “the Napoleonic War…with dragons.” Laurence and Temeraire fight for England, and each book places them in a different cultural setting, complicating their sense of patriotic duty. There are eight books so far, and the final Temeraire novel is expected at the end of this year.

After discovering the Audible version of His Majesty’s Dragon, I wanted to experience the whole series in audio rather than print. Fortunately, the series maintains the same narrator throughout: the incredible Simon Vance. Vance is already a staple in my audiobook library—having narrated my favorite versions of Great Expectations and The Picture of Dorian Gray. His low, supple voice never cracks or stumbles. His native British accent complements the mostly British cast and setting of the Temeraire series. His narration is smooth and expressive, and his gift for dialects produces believable character voices.

In these novels, dragons are highly intelligent creatures, able to speak the native language of their captains. Temeraire, a rare kind of dragon, masters several languages throughout the series—most notably French and Chinese—and often tutors Laurence and the other members of his crew. Despite their intelligence and the love of their captains, dragons are underestimated or disrespected beyond the ranks of the aerial corps, and Laurence and his fellow aviators must constantly challenge the public’s opinion.

The most remarkable feature of the Temeraire series—what keeps me awake late into the night, laughing and crying—is the relationship between Temeraire and his captain, Laurence. At first, Laurence is unwilling to leave his Navy career for a position among England’s questionable aviators, but love for his newly hatched dragon begins to change the shape of his whole life. As they embark on a more-than-working relationship, Laurence uses Temeraire’s happiness to measure his own.

Like most readers, I am drawn to this relationship because of its intensity. Laurence learns to love his dragon above anyone else in his life, and Temeraire protects and adores Laurence as a true friend. To the “civilized” civilian world, Laurence’s affection for Temeraire seems indulgent or delusional—like a lady’s fondness for a favorite lapdog. But Laurence has recognized Temeraire as one of the few people in his life who truly understands him. This relationship is beautiful, dynamic, and sincere.

I experience a daily parallel to the Laurence-Temeraire bond in my relationship with my guide dog, York. York is not a talking dragon—he’s a quiet Labrador—but some similarities are obvious from the start. Like Temeraire, York is a shiny black, and his appearance receives frequent notice. Like Temeraire, he works in harness, a leather contraption that connects us and enables him to perform his job. And like Temeraire and Laurence, our relationship has far exceeded its original motivation.

In the series, British dragons are only assigned to aviators so that they can be trained in combat. To a poorly informed public, a captain’s relationship with his dragon is a working relationship only: the dragon is a beast of burden, not a conscientious, unique creature with a mind of its own. People beyond Laurence’s circle of friends often assume that he can leave Temeraire behind without hesitation; they doubt that Laurence could prefer the company of a nonhuman companion to their own.

With the same ignorant benevolence, strangers often assume that I will be content to leave York behind—especially in situations where they see him as an added obstacle. I’ve often struggled for tactful answers to the questions, “Wouldn’t it be easier to leave your dog and take someone’s arm?” or “Don’t you think it would be better to leave York at home?” The reply that rises to my lips is always a call for empathy: I want people to recognize that what they see as drawbacks—keeping York calm, helping him stay focused, taking care of him—comprise my half of the bargain. As Laurence cherishes the company of Temeraire, I enjoy York’s presence for more-than-practical reasons. Yes, he keeps me safe and helps me travel independently, but he is also a source of daily joy.

As Laurence and Temeraire discover one another’s passions, strengths, and weaknesses, their affection deepens. Laurence often sees Temeraire’s friendship as a remarkable privilege that he doesn’t quite deserve: Temeraire is a superior scholar and he seems to possess an endless supply of fantastical abilities. Only Temeraire’s unwavering affection can help Laurence recognize his own value. But Laurence’s never ceases to regard Temeraire as extraordinary—and their relationship as an extraordinary gift.

Laurence’s feelings of thankfulness and wonder most closely resemble my own. My companion is not magical in the way of fantasy novels; he does not command natural forces or speak my human language. But his skills are far from ordinary—and any glimpse of the extraordinary in our lives is a glimpse of magic, of miracles, of power beyond ourselves.

York can stop for a flight of steps or an unexpected car, the sudden motion of his harness sending a message for my hand alone. He can guide me through a crowd of people, shopping carts, wet-floor placards, line ropes. He solves complicated problems, altering our route to accommodate new obstacles. And he shows me, through his attention to his job, that I am worth keeping safe.

Stories rarely revel in the literal. We love metaphor because it takes us beyond our bread-and-butter world. If York and I cannot fly, I’m glad that Laurence and Temeraire can, because their relationship reflects the delights of living in a more-than-human world.

Two Essays Published!

Today two of my essays appeared in the June issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. The first, “Designing the Parachorus,” was originally posted on this blog (that’s right folks, you read it here!), and is now in a section of the online journal called “The Arts.” In this piece, I described my problematic position as a blind musician and my thoughts on the ultimate disability-friendly ensemble.

When Wordgathering asked if they could (re)publish this post, I proposed a follow-up piece that would describe how my theories played out on a real stage. I wrote “Quartet Beyond Measure,” an essay that describes my quartet’s first experience of Regional Competition. Here’s how it begins:

In the noisy hotel lobby, Jeanie and I take our places behind several women checking in at the front desk. We guess that they are fellow Sweet Adelines—barbershop singers who have arrived in Daytona for Regional Competition. As we step forward to offer our names and credit cards, Jeanie turns to me: “Is it too bright in here for you?”

“Absolutely,” I flick one brief glance over the receptionist’s shoulder. Behind the tall desk, huge windows offer a view of the sunny Florida beach. I look down, grateful for the dark surface of the desk, the small black wallet in my hand, and the even blacker Labrador in harness sitting by my left foot. Through my sunglasses, I watch as my guide dog slides to the floor, enjoying the feel of the cool tiles against his belly. While I converse with the receptionist’s blurry silhouette, I bless York’s dark coat—a visual anchor in an otherwise unfamiliar place.

As my fellow singers and I walk to our rooms, I steel myself for the unfriendly or intrusive comments that other handlers have warned me about. Although York and I have completed two pleasant hotel stays, I still feel compelled to prepare myself for incivility—or at least ignorance. But I meet neither of these as we traverse short flights of stairs, carpet, and tile. Instead, I listen to our porter’s cheerful commentary: “Yes, this is one of my favorite weekends of the whole year! We just love having you singers staying with us.”

Read the full essay here.

Market Day

I love the shape of the Starbucks in Riverside. The open doors reveal a wide, welcoming interior with counter and pastry case along the back wall. Seats at short round tables are the most common, but a few high-tops and one long wooden table break up the monotony.

The pathway to the counter is easy to travel. Katie, York, and I don’t have to fight our way through displays of teetering ceramic mugs or bags of whole-bean coffee.

As we wait in line, enjoying the rush of cold air from beneath the pastry case, I overhear a conversation near the central wooden table. A mother instructs her young child, “No, you can’t pet that doggie. He has very important work to do.” Without knowing exactly where she stands, I turn and smile at this benevolent educator; I’m touched to hear a stranger illuminating service dog etiquette without my help.

Behind me, another customer acknowledges York: “I’d love to pet him, but I know he’s working.”

“Thank you,” I offer her a smile.

After paying for my iced latte, I ask the cashier to transfer my remaining gift card balance onto the aged braille Starbucks card I’ve been carrying in my wallet. In October, Starbucks always releases gift cards for Disability Awareness Month—some autumnal design with the store name in braille. As this is the only braille card in my wallet, it’s always identifiable as my passport to strong coffee. So I transfer every new gift card onto the braille one and hand the blind-friendly card to each cashier: fulfilling my duty as a responsible consumer-activist.

At our own round table, Katie and I hash out plans for our morning. Because of the lovely breeze and sunshine, we’ve decided to visit the Riverside Arts Market. While we converse, a man approaches our table and greets us.

“Hi, can I pet the dog, or is he considered working?”

I explain that even though York looks to be taking a break—lying half-asleep at my feet—he is a working dog and shouldn’t be touched. Accepting my words without complaint, the man collects his coffee and moves away.

As we head to the car, Katie and I compare notes on York’s treatment: in 30 minutes at Starbucks, he has received three positive interactions and no negative interactions. We contrast this with the treatment he received last night when we attended the season finale at the Jacksonville Symphony.

Though all symphony personnel were courteous and respectful, several patrons were rude or intrusive. To justify his attempt at a pet, one elderly man insisted that York “doesn’t know he’s working”—a sentiment disproved by the very presence of York’s harness. If York couldn’t treat the harness as his work uniform, recognizing that his priorities and responsibilities change when he wears it, he would never have graduated as a guide dog. It’s the thoughtless dog-lovers, not my thoughtful companion, who disregard the difference between work and play.

Another woman attempted a stealth-pat as I conversed with an usher. Luckily, Katie was on the alert, and used her knee to push the woman’s hand away—a maneuver she explained to me after getting us out of the woman’s range. The stealth-pat is a particularly insulting gesture; it shows that the person knows the petting isn’t allowed, yet does it anyway.

If I have to find a silver lining in these moments, it’s the incontrovertible proof that York understands his role better than most humans. And when I feel embittered by these unpleasant interactions, I remind myself that I am surrounded by friends and family who respect my relationship with York.

Unlike the symphony, the Arts Market presents no particular doggie challenges. Katie and I enjoy our cool walk from the car to the market—though York is determined to inspect several smells in the bushes along the sidewalk. As we approach the Market, I experience a rush of music and traffic mingling with the smells of lavender soap and beef jerky. Now I know why my mobility instructor told me not to follow my nose; the savory smoke of the beef jerky coils around the corner, well before we actually reach the stall. The wind tosses and scrambles the scents, so that I can only navigate by smell if I’m standing immediately before the vendor.

The Arts Market is a dog-friendly place, and the presence of many dogs on leashes makes York less novel. Even so, several people stop to comment on his looks, asking about his breeding and training. I overhear the familiar parental advice to children: “The puppy is working, so we can’t pet him, okay? He’s helping that lady.”

Perhaps because dogs are a part of this market culture, patrons are more familiar with service dog protocol. Though more people stop to speak with me, no one pets York without asking—which means that no one pets York at all. Every person understands that he is working and is pleased when I thank them for asking my permission.

Apart from York, Katie and I have developed our own market protocol. As it’s hard for me to read prices at most of the stands, we use a code phrase to signify the two most awkward messages: “This item costs more than you’re willing to spend” and “This item is not very attractive.” Because we’ve just eaten breakfast, today’s phrase is, “No, I’m really hungry.” While strolling through the wide aisle and enjoying the unfamiliar melodies of a saxophone, we test the phrase to see if it works:

“How do you like that jewelry over there, made from old board game pieces?”

“I don’t know—I’m still really hungry. Starving actually.”

We exchange grins. Today’s code is a success.

Fortunately, we don’t find much need for the code as we visit some of our favorite stalls. The FreshJax display offers homemade cookies, trail mix, and spiced nuts—with the added charm of free samples. After a tour of the entire stall, I settle on the chili-lime cashews, and Katie snaps up some cookies, oatmeal-chocolate-chip with macadamia nuts.

After cookies and trail mix, we find another stall that offers samples: Little Black Box. A bakery that sells cookies as well as homemade jam, their display boasts several neat rows of jam jars—dark with the promise of their delicious contents. Here, we sample numerous jams, including Plum Gin and Blueberry Red Wine Lavender. Katie and I both prefer the Blackberry Bourbon Vanilla, dreaming up occasions to use the jam as we slide our money toward the friendly vendor.

Making our way toward the quilts, jewelry, and other crafts, we enter a pottery stall with beautiful mugs, plates, and pitchers. Here, Katie takes down pieces that she thinks I’ll enjoy, while I keep York’s curious nose from nestling among the fragile creations. As Katie hands me each piece, she directs my attention to certain colors or styles. My particular favorites are the small round-bellied pitchers that narrow to a graceful spout. Together we discuss the remarkable colors and textures and fantasize about  taking pottery classes someday soon.

Feeling the abrupt wagging of York’s tail against my left leg, I turn my head toward the stall’s entrance. A family stands some distance away with their dog, and judging by York’s posture, he would very much like to meet her. He pretends to sit, keeping his rump hovering an inch off the ground, his tail thrumming against my leg. The adults laugh and remind their child that York is a working dog. I ask him to sit again, and he resumes his good posture, aware that he’s on display.

As we leave the stall, I ask Katie, “Was there anyone running that display?” and I’m surprised to hear that the stall’s proprietor was present throughout our short visit. Completely silent, he (or she) was totally undetectable—his behavior an inhospitable contrast with the friendly vendors who welcomed us and spoke readily. Perhaps he guessed that we wouldn’t buy and didn’t want to waste energy in talking. But by not acknowledging us, he turns a hasty guess into a certainty.

Just as inconsiderate patrons won’t keep me away from beautiful classical music, rude vendors won’t deter me from visiting the Arts Market. I am fortified by the many courteous conversations—alive with genuine interest—and the dozens of people ready to honor the intelligence and heart of my nonhuman companion. I wonder how it must be to confine others’ potential by their shape: to see a dog as only a dog, to imagine that he cannot ever share our human capacities for reason and empathy.

It is much more pleasant to let York show me his strengths and struggles—as any human friend would.

Designing the Parachorus—Or Why I Sing with a Dog

In his 2011 TED Talk, British conductor Charles Hazlewood insists that music-making depends not on skill, but on trust. Describing past and present musical projects, Hazlewood emphasizes how trust grows through collaboration. “Where there is trust,” says Hazlewood, “there is music—by extension life.”

One of Hazlewood’s remarkable projects is the British Paraorchestra, an ensemble of disabled musicians. Paraorchestra, which debuted at TED in November, 2011, is Hazlewood’s attempt to provide a space for professional musicians with disabilities—often overlooked by professional musical organizations.

Though disabled musicians may be more prominent in 2015, the prevailing question is always, “How will they cope?” How will the blind doctoral piano student handle complicated printed music? How will the paraplegic horn player keep up with the orchestra?

Guesses made by nondisabled authorities can outweigh the actual circumstances of a disabled person’s life – as an employer, a graduate advisor, or a teacher attempts to foresee every pitfall. This preemptive troubleshooting –regularly  performed without the disabled person’s input, despite their closeness to the situation – is an example of what Benjamin Zander calls “the world of measurement.” Zander, another influential British conductor, describes two worlds: the world of measurement and the universe of possibility. (Find out more here.) In the world of measurement, every “what-if” is a potential snag, a hiccup in the smooth machinery of organizations. Every deviation is an error, and all errors are preventable, as long as we never let our guard down. In the universe of possibility, every “what-if” is a chance to learn, to imagine.

Paraorchestra is a project in the universe of possibility, a chance to re-imagine the kinds of people we expect musicians to be—and the kinds of instruments we expect them to play. It’s a chance to reinvent how we judge our bodies and our instruments – where one ends and the other begins. By establishing Paraorchestra, Hazlewood helps us question the traditions of musical performance—norms set by nondisabled musicians. If every musician onstage is disabled, “disability” can no longer be imagined as a barrier to music-making. The troublesome “what-ifs” are banished by the most effective brand of activism: people sharing their passion with others.

Though I’m not an orchestral musician, I want to bring Hazlewood and Zander’s ideas into my musical endeavors. In my 15 years of choral experience, I have always been the only singer onstage with dark glasses, my white cane tucked between the folds of a black chorus dress. No director has ever taken issue with my onstage needs, but I feel a pressure to conform every time the chorus receives a speech about “visual unity.” Even when I have mastered the choreography, body angles, entrances, and exits, I am aware of my sense of difference on the risers.

But awareness is not shame. Now, when I think about the singers who stand beside me, I ask myself, Where are the other blind musicians? Why aren’t they here with me, forging trust and performing a message of inclusion? For each time I stand on the risers with my dark glasses, I am offering a message of what it means to live a life. I want my presence to show the audience that there is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about a blind singer fully participating in a musical organization. There is no magical “overcoming” here. I carry my disability into rehearsals and onstage. Performing on the risers doesn’t make me nondisabled; it makes me human.

Two new developments are allowing me to extend my musical activism to new audiences: my guide dog and my new quartet. Though York has been to several chorus rehearsals, he and I shared our first chorus performance earlier this week. The informal setting was an ideal place for York to practice his performance training:  I placed him in a down-stay at my feet and kept one foot on his leash.

When I tell people that York will not be on the competition stage with my chorus in April, they laugh and say, “Of course not!” Because our contest songs are accompanied by vigorous choreography and because I am placed in the center of the chorus, I have chosen to leave York backstage with a friend. As I acknowledge the logic of this choice, I drift into the universe of possibility. Will all ensemble musicians be forced to leave their service dogs in the wings forever? What would happen to a guide dog in a Parachorus?

While I rehearse and perform with my quartet, I can conduct my own Parachorus experiments. With advice and encouragement, my quartet members have helped me develop York’s performance etiquette. He lies at my feet throughout every three-hour rehearsal and transfers this behavior to our live performances. We are perfecting his position because he will accompany us on the competition stage in April. When we sing with York, my quartet and I can redesign the performance space and create new expectations.

No one should be surprised to see a disabled musician waiting to audition or perform. If disabled and nondisabled musicians can make music together onstage, they can make lives together offstage. I want to replace the skepticism of measurement with an invitation to imagine, to collaborate.

A Good Boy for Emily [Guest Perspective]

I am lucky to enjoy regular correspondence with York’s puppy raiser, a dynamic and intelligent woman named Melissa. A few weeks ago, she sent me an essay she wrote about the emotions of Puppy Raiser Day – the day when a student meets the family who raised their dog for a year. With Melissa’s permission, I am sharing her piece here.

*   *   *

Guide Dog Puppy Raisers are given a fantastic opportunity, one not readily available to the average Joe. For a short time we are allowed to possess an elite dog. A dog of extraordinary intelligence and unparalleled breeding. Dogs with “guide” level acumen are special and I was blessed to have the companionship of just such a dog for eleven amazing months.

A puppy raiser picks up a nine or ten week old puppy from the kennel and returns a one year old dog for guide training. In between you feed, you housebreak, you practice obedience, you attend meetings, you expose the pup to all kinds of environments…sounds…people, you try not to fall in love and fail miserably. You fail because it is impossible to raise such a dog correctly and not love, if you can raise without love you’re doing it wrong.

Being a puppy raiser is a yo-yo thing. You want so much for your pup to be successful but at the same time it is so hard to think of giving him up. Only a percentage of the dogs bred for guide work actually make it as working guides. The best of the best, the elite puppy corps. When the news comes that your puppy has matched, and you know he will be a guide, there is a moment of incomprehension. The puppy that ran “zoomies” around my house is trustworthy enough to guide someone? My goofy puppy is to be depended upon for someone’s safety? There is an arc to puppy raising. You start with a goofy pup and just about the time you think, “I could live with this dog”, you’re asked to bring them back for training. The dog you bring back is not the puppy you picked up so you know in your heart the dog you raised is ready.

Puppy Raiser Day is a yo-yo day. You’re so happy your former pup is one of the elite few. You did it! Everything you worked for has come to pass. You’ve accomplished what you originally set out to do which was to give someone a gift they couldn’t give themselves. You want so much to be selfless and useful and kind. The cost of the gift you give is the loss of the companionship of a being with which you have spent nearly every moment for almost a year. It leaves a void. It is hard to be a puppy raiser, it’s not for cowards. Some raisers believe it is wise to get another pup the same day their old one goes in for training. That works for many people but for me there was the fear I’d look at the new pup and think, “Who are you and where is my dog?” I couldn’t do that to an innocent pup. It seemed to me reasonable to allow myself time to grieve and accept the loss of this close companionship. Reasonable, acceptable, sensible. My sorrow made my gift more meaningful to me. A gift that comes at no cost has no value. But in the end I was given more than I gave. Upon reflection it is hard to conceive of an entirely selfless act, that would be a rare thing I think.

The person who is matched with a raiser’s former pup is called a “student” for the duration of their time in training with their new dog. For four weeks the student and dog reside together at the Southeastern Guide Dog campus living and working as a team. If we are to be truthful then we must admit that students are given a dog who is still in no small part puppy. A dog who will require patience and diligent attention to training methods for some time before they reach maturity. While this dog comes to the student at no monetary cost there is still a price to pay. This price is paid in constancy, in patience, in commitment, and in love.

Puppy Raiser Day is the day a class of students and their dogs’ raisers meet for the first time. It falls at the end of the on-campus training of the new guide dog team. On Puppy Raiser Day students are asked to walk a short route with their new guide dog for the puppy raiser before everyone meets. Puppy raisers are asked to wait quietly a short distance away so as not to distract their former puppy. It is an anxious time for student, puppy and raiser. My former puppy, York, lifts his nose into the air, sniffs, pauses and makes direct eye contact with me as he arrives at the first curb of his route with his new forever person. He is, as always, too clever and observant for his own good. With every fiber of my being I will York not to break, not to run to me. With everything in my heart I silently ask him to stay with his forever person. You see, I had taken my job as a raiser very seriously. York went almost everywhere with me consequently anytime it became necessary for me to leave him home, either in his crate or with my husband, York was very unhappy. He simply couldn’t conceive of any reason he should be separated from me. At the end of these short partings York’s joy at our reunion was unbounded. No one, nothing would have kept him from me in these moments.

I will treasure forever the zoom lens photo I have of that exact moment York made eye contact with me on Puppy Raiser Day. He saw me, he knew me but he stayed with his new forever person…guiding. I was so proud, my bright boy did his job. Clever boy, good boy.

Emily & York PRD

Melissa’s zoom lens photo: York looks straight at the camera as he helps Emily negotiate a turn.

After the route, polite introduction is made, small talk and the shaking of hands. York thrums with energy, trying with all his being to get my attention. I am delighted with my initial impression of York’s forever person Emily. We were read a short biography before the route. Emily’s bio makes it evident that she is smart and energetic and funny but she is obviously also captivated by York. I like her already. It is custom and courtesy to wait to be invited to visit with your old pup so I politely ask, “May I pet your dog?”, while York spins circles around me. Emily’s answering smile lights the day. She assents and removes York’s leather guide harness. Guide dogs are not to visit or play in harness, the wearing of it is meant to represent serious work time in their mind. York is a wiggling, happy mess. I leave my thoughtful husband to carry the brunt of the conversation with Emily because I’m having trouble taking my eyes away from York. I am riveted by the story York is telling with his ears, his tail, his eyes, the entire movement of his body.  I still hear the puppy heart that always spoke to me, it beats a language I understand.

York lavishes me with kisses then turns to Emily as if to say to me, “Do you see her, do you see my Emily?!”
While turned York says to Emily with his doggy tongue smile, “Look! Look! My old people are here!” We are old to York not in years for dogs do not see their people that way. Dogs do not see age or infirmity or disability or race, they see us only through the eyes of love. We are York’s old people. Old and dear and loved like a cherished childhood teddy bear now outgrown.

With a touch of his nose York tells me he has missed me, but he turns quickly to check on Emily. He lets me know how wonderful he thinks she is.

York noses the leather harness Emily has handed off to a trainer to take back to her room. He urges me to see this brilliant contrivance that allows him to be truly connected to Emily. “See…See this, together Emily and I do wonderful things with this! Have you ever seen such a great thing?”

York continues his back and forth dialogue with me for several minutes. So happy to see me, so thrilled with Emily. Finally he slows a little and I undertake to join in on the conversation between Emily and my husband, worried that I might seem impolite by not participating more fully in exchange. When York notices that I am occupied he lowers himself to the ground next to Emily. He closes his eyes and sighs, his chin hugging Emily’s feet. He tells me how much he loves her. I must remind myself he’s a dog, he’s a dog, he’s a dog, he doesn’t really speak to me, but my heart knows otherwise.

Puppy Raiser Day includes a delicious brunch. York sits quietly under the table on Emily’s feet during brunch but he presses the flat of his nose against me. The more I get to know Emily the more I feel York has hit the puppy lottery. Emily is wonderful and kind and funny, a talented writer, a gifted vocalist. She leads a very active life, which is just perfect for the energy-filled York. They are, in so many ways, a great match. The brunch, the day, pass quickly and in a blur. When we’re making our goodbyes I give Emily a hug. I whisper in her ear, “Give him a job, he needs to work.” I hope she understands that work is something I can no longer give him now that his puppyhood is past. Real meaningful work, something York with all his breeding, truly needs, something Emily can give him, the special thing they would share. I cup York gently around the ears, kiss his nose and tell him to be a good boy, a good boy for Emily. York walks away with Emily without hesitation, head and tail up, wearing that happy, goofy, tongue hanging dog grin I recognize so completely and then they are gone. In that moment I know I’ve played my part well.

York is the best of the best, a member of an elite puppy corps. I was lucky to have him even for a short while. I will never forget him or be incognizant of the rare opportunity I was given to know such a great dog.  I will be always thankful for the joy we shared for eleven wonderful months.

I’ve come to think of guide dog puppy raising in a very specific way. Being a puppy raiser is a bit like opening someone else’s gift. Some generous soul has allowed that you should borrow their astonishing new gift and play with it before they even get to see it.

Thank you, Emily, for lending me your puppy. IT. WAS. AWESOME.

An Early Celebration

For the past few years, I’ve prepared the same two Thanksgiving favorites: a batch of hot spiced cider and a colorful fruit and cheese platter. The cider mulls in the crockpot for several hours, glorifying the house with its perfume of cloves, oranges, cinnamon, ginger, and cranberries. The cheese platter usually consists of fresh blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries, surrounded by neat piles of crackers and cubed cheddar. In one corner of the oval platter rests a petite wheel of brie with a discreet triangle already removed; I cut the first slice so that the wheel looks more inviting.

While waiting for the forthcoming meal, ravenous family members amble through the kitchen, comforting themselves with hot cider, creamy brie, and cold fruit.  We ladle the cider into coffee cups and mix in a little apple brandy. We wander past the pans of cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes, the plate of warm dinner rolls. I listen for the sounds of Dad’s carving knife and begin a slow, nonchalant stroll toward the kitchen – arriving just in time to sneak a sample of turkey.

As I mentally pack my canvas bags with the necessary ingredients for tomorrow’s festivities, I must add some new items to my list. A water bowl, a nylabone…In my mind, I am moving items from my backpack to my grocery bag. This imaginary exercise assures that I won’t forget any essentials. Tomorrow, York and I will celebrate our first Thanksgiving together, and he won’t feel very festive if I forget his food.

In addition to its national flavor, tomorrow marks a special day for York and me – Match Day. Five months ago on June 27, I accepted York into my life, and I’m delighted that our Match Day aligns with a feast of gratitude.

On June 27, I was completing my first week of training at guide dog school, away from home and among new friends. York and I had known each other for 3 days – a period of emotional upheaval. He was standoffish. I was desperate. But a few days’ work in harness showed me that York deserved my faith – and I cannot now remember which came first, my trust in him or his respect for me. Either way, the new feelings conquered the old, and without anxiety, I told my trainer that I wanted York: I couldn’t imagine working with any other dog.

These five months with York have taught me to appreciate strange, tiny experiences. To say that York is helping me find a new freedom sounds so bland when I relive the thrills of our movement together.

When I traveled with a cane, I chose familiar routes – away from crowds, sunlight, or random tables and golf carts. If the light or the crowd shifted, I had to slow down, regroup, and search for another way to my destination. My mental plan was an exercise in troubleshooting and error-spotting, the slightest change throwing my brain’s navigational systems into overdrive.

When York guides me, I can seek out sunlight; I can watch it slide sloppily over indiscernible shapes that might be trees or people or bicycles. If my path is blocked by a yellow caution sign, a poorly parked golf cart, or a cluster of students, York finds a way forward. And because he is more mischievous than compliant, he usually chooses the most improbable path – just to prove he can get me through tight spaces.

I realize how much York is changing me not in large, dramatic moments, but in small snatches of experience – the walk through the sun-bleached courtyard, the narrow escape from the ribbon-line in the coffee shop, the quick swerve past the standing “Wet Floor” placard. If I’m not paying attention, these momentary adventures slip out of the world of words and into the ether.

But I can remember how the caution placards used to catch my cane and crash to the floor. I can remember how rarely I ventured beyond my familiar routes. I never thought of myself as an explorer because I never wanted to explore.

So today and tomorrow – and for the rest of my life – I will thank York for waking me up, for helping me transform myself. I will thank him for the unexpected warmth he has kindled, the love he asks of me. I will thank him for the silliness, the puppy talk, the nighttime cuddles and ear rubs – all signs of a softness that he trusts.

I will thank York for walking and working beside me, for matching my pace and pulling me forward.

Article: Introducing my guide dog to the world of classical music

Today Minnesota Public Radio published my piece about York’s presence in my musical life:

“JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s Tuesday evening, and after a four-week hiatus, I’m finally attending chorus rehearsal again — but I haven’t assumed my usual place on the risers. I’m seated toward the back of the hall, awaiting a cue from my director and trying to curtail the explorations of my new companion: an 18-month-old black Labrador.”

Read the full article here.

Essay: “Lightspending”

My essay, “Lightspending” was published in the September issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. The essay is part of a larger collection: blind writers responding to John Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.” Here is how the editors introduced my essay:

“Michael’s essay is a narrative of personal experience. It is pegged to Milton’s sonnet only in the oblique reference of its title and the images of light that she weaves throughout the piece. Still, it is a consideration of how light is spent — one freed of religious overtones in a way that Milton could probably never have imagined.”

Read my essay here.

Read the complete responses to Milton here.

Two-Way Teaching

On the first day of every semester, I always carry extra baggage. In spring, summer, and fall, I must replenish my office and bring in all the graded final assignments. As I trace the familiar path past the library and through Starbucks, I sag under the weight of several canvas bags filled with tea, travel mugs, books, air fresheners, and other teaching essentials. Generally I bear the bulk of this gear on the left so that my right hand and arm can manipulate the white cane.

But this fall, my hands serve different purposes: the left wraps around a square harness handle and the right is poised to handle the leather leash. My teaching gear has been crammed into a purple floral backpack, and my fabric lunchbox dangles from my right wrist. Under my right arm, I carry a tightly rolled rectangular carpet – a new necessity. An outside pocket on my backpack holds other items not needed in previous semesters: a collapsable water bowl, a pet first aid kit, a well-loved plastic bone, and several crumpled grocery bags. An inner pocket protects a tupperware container filled with kibbles.

New habits accompany the items in my bag. Now, while I walk, I carry on a quiet conversation with the pup at my side – giving directions and praise as he learns my preferred routes on campus. I stop when he stops, move forward when he moves, and adjust the leash when he buries his nose in the hedges. I receive many more greetings and prepare answers for the three most common questions: “Can I pet him?” “How old is he?” “Is he a full Lab?”

At my office, I ask York to sit while I find the electronic key. I unlock the door, usher him inside, and take off his harness. I clip one end of his tie-down around the leg of my desk and attach the other clip to his training collar. Then I gently push him out of the way so I can set up his space.

I unroll the small rug and tuck it into the far right corner of my office. I lure York to his new spot with a toy, but he doesn’t stay there long. While I unpack my backpack, he crawls under my desk to rest his head on my feet. He watches as I stash his lunch in a lower desk drawer, out of his reach. He sticks his nose in the trash can, noisily searching for my apple core.

Throughout the morning, York and I complete several errands – picking up photocopies, placing my lunch in the breakroom fridge, meeting with colleagues. I consolidate these trips so I won’t have to take York’s harness on and off several thousand times. I want him to have harness-free time in my office, and I have to consider the errands that York needs: busy breaks, water breaks, and meal time. I arrange these activities around my teaching schedule, mentally planning which paths we’ll take to get to each class.

On the way to my first class, I decide to introduce York to the staircase outside my office building. He has already learned the inside hallways I travel most; he can predict when to turn left or right as we walk. Once outside, I tell York “Over right, find the steps,” and he takes me to the staircase, stopping just short of the first step. I place my right foot on the step’s edge, reach for the rail, praise him, and say, “Forward down.”

We slowly descend with York a few steps ahead of me. The harness handle sways as he walks down, and he pauses every few steps to let me catch up. On the landing, he guides me around to the next railing, but he doesn’t step down until I give the command.

At the bottom, we round a corner and find a small triangle of grass. I take York’s harness off and give him time to explore. While York takes his break, a harried student asks me for directions. I answer the student’s questions as York wanders back to me, tail wagging. I slip the harness on and we walk to our first class.

Inside the bright classroom, several students are already seated. York and I enter through the door at the front, striding across the classroom to the large teacher’s desk. I ask York to sit and clip his leash around the desk leg. I present him with another of his favorite toys; hopefully he’ll settle down and chew away while I talk to the class.

The atmosphere changes as I unpack my bag and York snuffles around under the desk. Some students lean forward, whispering excitedly. One student asks Question #2, and I respond, “He’s 18 months, which is young for a guide dog.” I feel myself smiling as I answer – I’ve got the New Parent Glow, the face that says, “Yes, I’m perfectly willing to talk about all my pup’s accomplishments for several hours.”

When the classroom is full, I welcome students to the course. I introduce myself, adding, “And you may have noticed my teaching assistant under the desk.” I explain that York is a working guide dog, that they shouldn’t talk to him or try to pet him while he’s wearing the harness. While I present this solemn speech, York rolls on the floor – snorting, jingling his harness, and kicking his legs. I sigh, “It’s his first semester teaching.” The students laugh, and I promise that York will be free to play if they come by my office.

Two days later, York and I are traveling the same hallway, ready for our second class meeting of the term. York walks calmly beside me, undisturbed by the people rushing on either side. His head doesn’t even turn when a female student coos, “Ooohh he’s so handsome!” He’s aloof, work-focused. I feel a soft breeze across the fingers of my left hand – produced by York’s wagging tail. His tail swings up and out, keeping time with our feet; it’s something I’ve just started to notice when we walk together.

Halfway down the hall, the harness handle jerks upward, and I can feel York leaping in the air. I pull down hard on the handle and grab the leash in my right hand: “Easy, easy!” York halts beside me, panting, while I search for the distraction that got him so riled up. I hear laughing and cooing to my left.

“It’s us,” calls a woman from behind a folding table. “We’re from the Counseling Center. We’re handing out stress balls.”

“Oh, that explains it; he loves balls.” Beside me, York’s tail agrees. Though he is standing still, his whole body leans towards the table. Another woman at the table offers me a ball, and I shake my head. “He would tear it up.”

The table voices chorus: “Awwwww.”

As the workday ends, York and I walk downstairs and take the outdoor route around Starbucks and past the library. Near the sign that proclaims, “Brown Rice Sushi” in huge bubbly letters, York stops for some intense sniffing – something he shouldn’t do while he’s guiding me. I correct him, but he won’t pick his head up. This likely means that he’s found something to eat.

Again, I correct him, and he lifts his head. I reach for his mouth and tell him to “leave it,” – though, at this point, I don’t know what “it” is. Without complaint, York lets me run my fingers over his mouth, and I find his jaws clenched around something round and squishy. As I pry the squishy thing out of his mouth, I repeat, “York, drop it,” just for good measure. He doesn’t fight me, and once I’ve got the thing in my hand, I recognize it: a stress ball. I relieve some stress by throwing it away.