Monthly Archives: December 2014


Another Restaurant, A Happy Ending

Sometimes all it takes is some communication.

A couple of years ago, Sabrina and I went to Sake O, a Japanese restaurant in Healdsburg, with Ripley at my side. We were met at the door with a perplexed, although very apologetic, waiter. He said, with great discomfort, “I’m so sorry. But we can’t allow dogs.”

I lived in Japan for three years, and know how much most Japanese hate conflict. It was clear on this man’s face. He was in a predicament, and wasn’t quite sure how to resolve it. I immediately moved into education mode. I said, “This isn’t just a dog. She’s a special kind of dog, who helps me. She’s a working dog, a service dog, who assists me because I have a disability.” He still looked very concerned, and glanced over his shoulder towards some of his co-workers, obviously seeking backup.

At this point, I reached into Ripley’s vest pocket, and pulled out my copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Business Brief, a one-page guide that explains the rights and responsibilities of businesses owners with regard to service animals. (You can find a link to it on my resources page here.) I handed it to him, and quietly pointed out the parts that were relevant. He took it, glanced over it, and with a quick nod, picked up menus, and escorted us to our table.

As we were choosing our food, we saw the waiter and another man who appeared to be the manager or owner reading the sheet of paper. When the waiter came to take our order, he said, “Thank you so much. This is very helpful. We have always worried – we didn’t know how to explain to other customers, if they would complain that there was a dog in the restaurant. But now we have this. We can show it to them.”

Later, as we were eating, we glanced up towards the sushi bar, into the open kitchen, and saw that the entire kitchen crew was reading our ADA Business Brief, heads bent in a circle. When we left, everyone smiled and thanked us for coming.

Since that time, we have returned to Sake O on several occasions, and we are always greeted warmly — all three of us.

These are the moments when I value community, communication and, as I do every day, the wonderful dog who keeps me safe.


Not Welcome

Ripley and I are out in the world so often, that I must preface this post by saying that the vast majority of the time we are treated very well. Store owners are gracious and kind, and respectful of our working relationship. However, that can make it even more of a jolt when we run into outright hostility. Nothing can change the mood of a casual outing so quickly as an icy encounter.

Today we were invited to go to Kirin, a Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa, to celebrate the birthday of a friend. It was to be a large gathering, about twenty people. My friend Wendy agreed to drive me to the lunch, and we were the first to arrive. We waited a bit in the parking lot, until a couple of other women showed up. Then I headed for the front door. Ripley and I were the first to step inside, with Wendy close behind.

As soon as we crossed the threshold, the manager came forward and blocked our passage. Without saying a word, he began looking disapprovingly from me to Ripley, back and forth. He shook his head repeatedly, still mute, making hand gestures indicating that we would not be allowed access.

I said, “She’s a service dog. It’s the law. You have to let her in.” No response. I have in the past a few times run into problems in restaurants and stores managed by people who are first-generation immigrants. They have come from countries where service dogs are not a familiar concept, and are sometimes unaware of local laws. I thought this might be a similar situation, and tried to deal with this as I had dealt with it before. I showed him my Medic-Alert bracelet, and said, “I have a disability.” Still, not a word from him. I was beginning to wonder if language might be part of our problem. I tried several more times to state my case. Nothing. Then I reached to Ripley’s vest, and unzipped a pocket. I pulled out a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act Business Brief, a one-page sheet that explains what rights and responsibilities businesses have with regards to service dogs. On other occasions, I have used this successfully to help with communications, as sometimes reading is easier than speaking.

As I attempted to hand the paper to him, he finally spoke. “I don’t need any papers,” he said, in very clear English, still with a disapproving and unhappy look on his face. “What I want to know is how the dog assists you. Does it guide you to the table?” Then I knew what I was up against – he knew all about service dogs. He just did not believe that I needed one. Legally, he was asking the one question that a business person can ask: “What tasks does the dog perform?” But he should have asked it the moment I walked in the door. Not kept me standing there, flustered and confused for three minutes, feeling judged.

At this point, several other members of my party had begun to gather behind us. I knew stating tasks at that point wouldn’t be enough. I said, “I have a condition called periodic paralysis disorder.” He was barely listening to me. But several women behind me began to speak up. “She’s a service dog. We have seen what she does.” Realizing that it was going to turn into a scene if he pursued it, the manager threw up his hands, and said, “There are two tables. Go ahead,” and walked away from us.

I felt terrible. We were in, but not welcome. I chose a seat at the end of the long table. The tables had large, round metal supports, so Ripley could not sit underneath. I had her lie down just alongside me at the head of the table. There was a small chest right behind her, creating a a narrow space for her that was protected. It was easy for the wait staff to walk around the chest and still get to every seat at our table to serve. Yet at one point, the manager tried to cut through that space, and couldn’t, seeing Ripley, and again, I saw the exasperation and hostility on his face.

It’s so hard to know what to do when finding oneself in situations like this. Part of me wants to stay, to prove a point. Damn it, I have every right to be here, and I will be here. I should be here to maybe make it better for the next service dog/handler team. And the other part of me says, why should I stay where I am not wanted?

We compromised. We stayed for most of the meal, but we were the first to leave. I felt a huge wave of relief when we stepped out the front door.

And I had to remind myself that this is an anomaly, and not the norm. For which I am sincerely grateful.


The Perfect Cup

We went to The Bean Affair, a favorite coffee shop in Healdsburg, and I ordered my usual soy latte. As always, I asked to have my drink in the big bowl mug – love the way that it fits in my hand, the warmth. When we went to the counter to pick up our drink, the barista said, “I chose a special cup just for you.” Couldn’t be more perfect. These are the days that we feel loved as a service dog/handler team. Thanks, Bean Affair!


A Big Heart

Tonight we went out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Diavola in Geyserville. Sabrina, Ripley and I were meeting my aunt and uncle, who were driving up from Santa Rosa. It was their first time at the restaurant.

Our good friend Wendy Dayton introduced us to Diavola about a year ago, and it has become a regular haunt. They have killer thin-crust pizza, plus great pasta, and all of their ingredients are local, farm-fresh, and sustainably-raised. It is a cheery, bustling place, always busy particularly on the weekends. In warmer months, we eat out back on their cozy patio.

The nice thing about becoming a regular is making connections. Brooke has waited on us often enough to know that Sabrina’s favorite is the Dictator Pizza (so named because it has ingredients like kimchi/North Korea, jalapeños/Latin America, etc.), that I special order the pasta dishes to make them vegetarian, and that we share a single chocolate gelato for dessert.

But beyond that, from the very first time we walked through the doors of Diavola, the entire staff has been welcoming and attentive to Ripley. They all seem simply pleased as all get-out that she has come to dine with us. They do not cross the line, giving unwanted attention by asking to pet her, which would be a distraction. But they always make sure she is OK. One small gesture that happens at every visit – someone appears with water for her. The container varies. Sometimes it has been brought out in a plastic container, other times in a takeout box. But always, unprompted, someone brings Ripley water.

Tonight was no exception. Soon after we sat down, a young man arrived and set down a wax-lined cardboard takeout box full of water on the floor where Ripley was lying at my feet. I knew that she probably wouldn’t drink from it; I bring water with me, and make sure that she is hydrated whenever we go anywhere, usually stopping for a drink as we get in or out of the car. But it is such a beautiful gesture, that I appreciate it nonetheless. I thanked him, and forgot about it.

Floor Heart-crop-sm

The Water Heart

We sat for a long time through dinner, as we hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle in several months, and had lots of catching up to do. Finally, after two and a half hours, when we were among the last people in the restaurant, we stood up and readied to leave. As I moved out from my bench seat, I bent over to pick up the water dish to place it on the table, so no one would accidentally step in it. Glancing down at the floor, I did a double take. A heart? Was that a shadow? No. Some water had leaked through, and left a perfectly shaped heart on the floor.

I looked up into the box, now placed on the table. There it was — the heart, a darker shape inside of the box.

A little love for Ripley, from the wonderful folks at Diavola.



Farewell to Ripley’s Ride

I sold my Honda Civic this week. A very nice man named Agustin bought it for his 18-year-old daughter, her first car. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the entire transaction. Still, as I signed over the title, and handed him the keys, I felt myself fighting back tears. Just a car, right?

No, not just a car. In all likelihood, the last car I will ever drive.

My wife Sabrina gave me this beautiful, new blue manual transmission Civic coupe in 2006. I used it to drive over the country roads from Cloverdale to Calistoga, to my job at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, hugging the curves, loving the way it handled. Ripley was already in my life at the time, as a companion animal. When she became my service dog four years ago, she became my constant escort. We buckled up safely with a back-seat harness, and away we went. Off to work each day, and then all over Napa and Sonoma counties to poetry readings, volunteer engagements, concerts, dinners out with friends. The Civic has always been my Ripleymobile. The trunk held a water dish, an extra leash, her blanket, a towel in case we decided to stop for a walk at the river.

We were a Honda family. Sabrina drives a Ridgeline truck, which is the “family” vehicle. If we’re going somewhere together, Sabrina drives – she has a commercial license, and likes to be the one at the wheel. So the Civic was always just for me and Ripley. Our independent adventure machine, our dynamic duo getaway car. Together, we logged 130,000 miles.

But in November 2012, I lost my license for medical reasons. I had had two episodes which my neurologist and I thought, in all likelihood, were seizures. Back in 2004, I had also had a seizure, and had lost my license . After a medication adjustment, and being seizure-free for six months, the license was reinstated. I anticipated a similar result. This time, I had actually delayed going to see my neurologist, afraid to tell him about the episodes – they weren’t quite as severe, and I was so fearful of that loss of freedom. How was I going to keep my job, now that I was commuting from so far away? Finally, though, I realized I had to do something, for my own health and safety, and went in for a checkup. There were no new episodes, and by early February, I was nearing that six-month mark. My neurologist was in the process of filling out paperwork to reinstate my license.

Then out of nowhere, in a single week’s time, I had more than 30 episodes. They were not quite like seizures, because I remained conscious. But I slumped forward, could not move or speak. As Sabrina put it, it was as if someone pulled my plug. We were terrified. Three times we went to the emergency room, with episodes happening even when we were at the hospital. The first time, I was diagnosed with seizures and they upped my medications and sent me home. The condition worsened and we returned two days later. A new doctor in the ER put me on a different seizure med, much stronger, then discharged me. The episodes continued, but now I also had slurred speech and a drugged appearance from the medication. Two days later, we went in again. The first ER doctor was back on duty. After running tests on my heart and other things, he came in and announced that my condition was psychosomatic. I was furious. I did not have another episode that night in the ER, and he said that proved his point. This left both of us confused, hurt and angry.

For the next year and a half, my life was in turmoil. My neurologist, the chief of neurology at Kaiser, who I like and trust, believed that these episodes were some kind of seizure, but could not understand why they were not responding to any seizure medications. (I do have a seizure disorder, but my regular seizures are controlled by my other medications.) My psychiatrist, who I also like and trust, believed that they were psychosomatic, telling me this did not mean they were not “real,” but that there was an underlying emotional cause, and I needed to work with a therapist to find out what was triggering them. So I threw myself into intense practice with another helper, my psychologist, looking for answers. Still, the episodes continued. My boss allowed me to telecommute for those first few months, until it became clear I was not able to reliably do even that because of the impact of this condition on my life.

In a very short time, I went from logging seventy-plus miles a day to being virtually homebound, on our rural property, more than four miles from town. And the Civic sat unused in the driveway.

I had to turn in my license and get a state ID card. For two years, I paid car insurance and registration fees on a vehicle that was virtually unused. Sabrina would drive the Civic periodically to keep it running, and I made sure it got oil changes. Always in the back of my mind, I thought, “If it’s seizures, we’ll find a medicine. If it’s emotional, I’ll figure out what’s wrong. I’ll be able to drive again.”

Then in May of this year, I went for an appointment with my neurologist, and I had one of my “episodes” in his presence. That is when he made the diagnosis, finally, that has explained everything – and also changed everything. I have periodic paralysis disorder. This isn’t something that is going to go away with medication or therapy. There is no cure. And someone with this disorder is not safe behind the wheel of a car.


“All My Children Have Paws” license plate frame, Animal Rescue Site

As you can see, it still took a while for me to fully come to grips with this. To reach the point of letting go. Even though I have been relying on other people for transportation for two years, somehow having my Honda in the driveway gave me comfort. I still had my car. Someday.

But it was finally time to say goodbye to the Ripleymobile. Thanks for all the great times, for the adventures, for keeping us safe. For the incredible freedom, which I appreciate now only in retrospect.

And a humble, huge thank you to all of the wonderful people in my life who have stepped forward to help me stay connected with the world. Dog hair and all.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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