Sunday, March 30, 2008

Autism and Abigail Adams

I'm composing with pen and notebook by candlelight because it's Earth Hour. I've even suspended the teakettle on two overturned cups over a candle. Don't laugh; the water is starting to steam. Maybe because I'm using the tools I started journaling with 30 years ago, I'm not stumbling in fits and starts tonight. It could also be the lubricant of my passion-fruit margarita with dinner. Cause it was before that drink that I mumbled to Randy how leaden the writing has felt this week and it was after the drink that I realized the sympathetic connection between the beleaguered mothers of Autism: The Musical and Abigail Adams, as portrayed by Laura Linney in the HBO miniseries I've been grooving on.

(I just looked out the front window - I think most of our block missed the Earth Hour memo.)

Director, cinematographer and producer Tricia Regan's documentary Autism: The Musical follows a group of autistic kids as they take part in the Miracle Project, a theater workshop that helps them use their often unappreciated talents to write, rehearse and perform in their own show.

Elaine Hall, the Miracle Project's director, uses guided improvisation, creative movement and cooperation in an environment of acceptance. "I don't know what will happen," she confesses to the parents at their first meeting and this open-mindedness leads to some pretty amazing interactions between the kids and some displays of surprising talent. Fourteen-year-old Lexi may not be able to cross the street or wash dishes by herself, but she sings lyrically and melodically sophisticated songs with the voice of an angel. She's riveting to watch and listen to, especially as she sings Stephen Schwartz's "I'm Not That Girl," a song about the uncrossable distance between reality and "what-might-have-been."

I watched the film and shed plenty of tears, (apparently not an uncommon reaction.) (note to me: I've got to write another post about my tendency to use tears as a criterion for excellence in movies...) I mean, it's one thing to hear the stories of autistic children losing their communication skills; it's another thing entirely to watch the home videos of smiling toddlers cuddling with their parents, then see footage of the same child, slightly older, withdrawn, blank, growing unreachable.

We do see stirring scenes of hope. The children build friendships, show perseverance and joy. Elaine Hall's son, who we have seen utter nothing more than syllables, uses a talking keyboard to offer a piecing and perceptive request to his mother. The final wonderful performance is no more moving than the small moments of closeness we've witnessed with these remarkable children.

There's much courage shown here and some of it is not pretty. The film gives voice to a father's complaints about how mothers of autistic children often turn megalomaniacal as they pursue advocacy for their children and so drive their husbands away. The mothers battle despair, fears for the future of their vulnerable kids, frustrations with their children, their spouses, inadequate support systems, schools that underestimate or misunderstand their children. We watch marriages fall apart.

One mother talks about the possible causes of her son's autism. "I'm one of the people that believes it's like the kettle of beans. You know, you throw in a bean: Here's the vaccinations, here's the antibiotics, here's the toxic environment, here is the mercury in the fish his mother ate while she was pregnant. You throw enough beans in a kettle and it's going to tip over."

Other than this perspective, the film steers pretty wide of the controversy over the possible contribution of childhood vaccinations as a cause or contributing factor to the disorder. A wise editing/directorial decision - these parents have misgivings enough about the care, education and the uncertain future of their children.

Which brings me to Abigail Adams. So far in the miniseries, she is essentially a single mother, raising her children alone as her husband, the statesman and ambassador John Adams travels to Philadelphia to found the country and then to Europe to find funding for its war of revolution.
Abigail works the farm, keeps up the home front and in episode two, makes the agonizing decision to inoculate her children and herself against smallpox. In a horrific scene, we see the doctor, without the aid of antiseptics or anesthesia, cut Abigail's arm and inserts matter from the open sores of a dying boy.

Abigail is aware the procedure will result in a mild, yet miserable, case of the disease with some risk of death. David McCullough writes with some restraint, "the ordeal of the patient could be considerable." As Linney portrays her, Abigail suppresses her own pain and fear and asks briskly of the children watching, "Done. Who's first?"

Agonizing over the social responsibility, the safety and the efficacy of vaccinating my children, what I supposed was a thoroughly modern problem, suddenly is revealed to be ancient. The time comes so soon when we know we cannot protect our children from pain, when we need to lead them towards it for the greater good. What Olympian leaps of faith, leaps into the dark, are required by motherhood.

Read "10 Things I Learned from Abigail Adams" by Urban Momma here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Gone Too Soon: Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply

News of the death of film director and playwright Anthony Minghella came as a sad surprise. Only 54 when he died, Minghella joins the angel ranks of Jean Vigo and Welles, directors with so much unused talent that we mourn the films they did not have time to make.

Anthony Mingella's version of The English Patient was a graceful, sensual and sensitive adaptation of a beautiful book and Cold Mountain had some powerful moments, but my favorite Minghella film is his first feature, Truly, Madly, Deeply.

This small movie, an antidote to the schmaltz of Ghost, is the story of a woman (brilliantly played by Juliet Stevenson, for whom Minghella wrote the film,) whose grief for a dead lover is so deep, she calls him back from the grave.

I first watched this movie from one of the cramped seats at the Three Penny when it came to Chicago in 1991. I shed tears at the scenes of Nina's unrelenting grief. I fought back sobs at the raw emotion of her reunion with Jamie (Alan Rickman). I thought, "I've got to remember this Minghella guy."

The director handles the lovers' surreal situation with an odd but appealing mix of realism and dry wit, but Minghella ultimately moves beyond the question "What's it like to share an apartment with your dead lover?" to larger reflections about what it really means to be alive and what it takes to move forward from a past that you love.

Rickman is great at playing villains, or those who appear to be, but here he plays against type. With his elegant voice as deep and sonorous as Jamie's cello and his intense eyes, he is a sexy, charismatic and funny romantic lead.

Like Thanksgiving with my family, Truly, Madly, Deeply has warmth, pain, humor, moments I love more than anything and a couple of moments that make me cringe. For every lovely duet between Rickman and Stevenson (we get an awesome bit of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You"), there is a cloying scene with her dorky new beau (the usually fierce Michael Maloney).

Here is a great clip. Rickman recites from the poem "La Muerta" by Pablo Neruda, Stevenson is easy to fall in love with and Minghella's writing sings.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dan's the Man

Every mom in playgroup has heard me get the giggles each time I retell my story of seeing Ralph Covert lift his shirt at a live show during a song about tummies. Once I caught sight of those rock 'n' roll abs, I transformed in a heartbeat from clap-along mommy-fan to gooey groupie-wannabe.

But this post is about another show, another rocker-turned-kid's-music-star and his very different but even more appealing vibe - Dan Zanes, formerly of Del Fuegos. Not that Dan is unworthy of a little crush. But the always smiling thin man with the crazy hair (he washes it with baking soda!) and electric guitar comes across on stage (and on the airwaves) as so earnest and kind, his innocent appeal is contagious.

Dan Zanes and Friends rocked the Harris Theater in Millennium Park on Sunday afternoon. He opened the show by inviting the whole audience to come down front and a toddler mosh pit instantly materialized, full of bouncing little heads and circles of dancers holding hands.

"We did go to church!" I said to Randy while Dan and company sweetly crooned the South African hymn "Siyahamba." "We are marching in the light of God." And there was a respectful holiness to the gathering. Here is a children's performer who makes no ironic asides, no winks at the grown-ups. "This is my immigration song," says Dan. "We should be doing more celebrating of all the cultures who come to America, don't you think?" Big cheers.

My girls were shy, more content to sit on Daddy's lap than dance while Mommy jumped around to our old favorites, "All Around the Kitchen," "Dance Party Time." But who can resist "Catch That Train"? At Dan's insistence, the audience turned into long snaky lines of children and parents with their hands on each other's shoulders bopping round and round the auditorium.

Like Bruce Springsteen's recent Seeger Sessions, Zanes brings a freshness and sense of discovery to roots music and old favorites. Always smiling drummer Colin Brooks, sweet-voiced Sonia de Los Santos on guitar, charismatic John Foti on accordion and penny whistle, local Elena Park on violin provided backup and fun.

By the end of the show, the stage was a wall of joyous sound, with Dan's thrift shop styled band; a guest, Yuri Lane, pulled away from his infant son in the audience to do some cool beat boxing (how DOES he do that?); Derick Grant and his bring-on-da-funk style tap dancing; a flamenco dancer and the local Sones de Mexico Ensemble all wailing away. A beat-boxer and a box-beater - one of the ensemble beat percussion on a wooden box with his hands - the rhythm was infectious.

During the last number, the entire crew marched off the stage, still singing "Sweet Rosyanne," up into the audience, climbing up the steep aisles, playing and dancing all the while, Dan in front like a Pied Piper leading no one to harm and taking us all to the land of togetherness and harmony.

Here's another take from Jordan at The Wonderwheel about Dan's second show that day.
(I didn't take this shot, Nabeel H did; and it's not at the March 16 Chicago concert, it's from a New York show last year, but it's got the feel of the show and you get the picture.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Disney Snapshots - Part Three

Despite Nora's urinary tract infection that had her calling for a bathroom every few moments, (we watered a few patches of Florida sawgrass), despite Mia's vomiting in the back seat after the Polynesian luau, I can't help but describe our week with a word Disney has nearly trademarked: Magical.

I'm not talking breathtaking thrills (we rode no roller coasters) but a quieter kind of otherworldliness. Nora's mesmerized "Let's watch them," at the sight of Alice, Tweedle Dum and Dee and the Mad Hatter running past us to climb aboard their spinning tea cups. Watching fireworks over the water as our boat drew us home to Wilderness Lodge after a day at Mickey's. Sunset over the same lake, its entire shoreline as magically dark as any Minnesotan boundary water – here in the development-crazy metropolis of Orlando.

I got swept up in the Disney Experience, even finding myself a little verklempt as I watched the wholly committed actress who played Snow White gently talk to my awe-struck girls.

(This is no place for irony, but it was funny to hear Snow White trill in her helium-high voice, "I'm just having a hard time writing on this surface," as she tried to autograph with our uncooperative pen.)

(Sorry. Another grown-up giggle: "What movie is he from?" asked Randy.
"That's not a character. He's an Amish man who happens to look like a leprechaun.")

“Hello, Princess,” say the "cast members" (the Disney name for employees.) “Welcome home.” “Have a magical day.” This place makes Six Flags and their ilk look like fly by night carnivals, run by sullen teenagers. Here, they hire competent and unflappable grown-ups and indoctrinate them in an ornate building off I-4 named “CASTING.” When Nora bursts out “Pee-pee!” in the middle of an Animal Kingdom jungle walk, a woman in khaki appears instantly to whisk us behind a rope to a hidden bathroom. Friendly street sweepers seem overjoyed to give us directions.

It was the kind of magic that renewed my appreciation for carefully designed stagecraft.

I get the impression we really are walking through an acres-wide theater piece. Hair and make-up? The face painting pavilion and the Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boutique where little girls get their hair teased, pinked, kinked and DID.

Since our girls had no tolerance for any ride with more G than the gentle teacups, our "rides" mostly consist of sitting down and being transported past stages with animatronic or cardboard "actors." It's a Small World, Pooh's Wild Ride, The Carousel of Progress.

At Mickey and Minnie's houses in Toontown and on the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, we simply walk through the elaborate sets and imagine the actors who seemed to have just stepped away.

Our home for five days was the Disney Wilderness Lodge. When we step outside the villas building to walk under the curving breezeway constructed of enormous logs, I can smell pine and fresh air. Every time I take a deep grateful breath and every time I wonder if the scent is piped in.

Running in the woods around the lodge, among the ruins of trees strung with dead kudzu, I saw sprawling lantana bushes bursting with tiny clusters of pink and white, pink and orange flowers. I passed brown rabbits, a red cardinal, a turtle in a closed shell. Does Disney truck these in for our pleasure?

Every bit of The Experience is designed. Surfaces, corners, views have all been considered. Randy and I have visited over-designed spaces that defied the adage "form follows function." But here, comfort and ease are enhanced by the decorative. Even the guts of rides are beautiful – exposed struts are wrapped in bronze and purple with studded flourishes. The subtle pitch of the sidewalk quickens our hearts at the outset of the day when we confuse exertion with excitement and soothes us with ease as we turn towards home.

Mia pauses to pick up tiny bits of metallic confetti off the ground. Each piece is a bright color outline of the three intersecting circles that create an outline of the mouse’s head. “Even the garbage looks like Mickey!” I say to Randy. Frank Lloyd Wright had his sphere and cube, Charles Macintosh had his rose and Disney has three connected circles, one large, two small. It’s the shape of plates, of decorative ironwork along our hotel hallway, of an enormous pylon supporting power lines.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Snapshots from Disney - Part Two

My favorite advice from Kim Wright Wiley's very helpful "Walt Disney World with Kids 2008" : "If you want to relax, you're going to the wrong place. Disney World is a high-stimulation environment, a total assault on all five senses mixed in with a constant and mind-boggling array of choices. This is not a week to take your kids off Ritalin or discuss marital issues with your spouse . . . . You can sleep later, when Mickey is done with you."

Breakfast with Mickey. The child’s face was purple, her mouth open but silent, her little sister screaming in terror. The mother pounded her back, then hugged her from behind in a rough embrace. Adrenaline shook me, but I could do nothing but half rise from my seat, gasping, “She’s purple. She’s purple!” and look around -- for what? An EMT? A fairy godmother?

My husband’s face said, “Let the mother do her work.” Moments later, the child was smiles again. I had to go over and see if the brave woman was okay, ask if I could give her a hug, give her a hug, for me as well as for her. The mother, a nurse, it turns out, was left shakier by the Heimlich than her newly revived princess who took my hand and asked me to visit Goofy with her. “And she helped a child in the park yesterday who was seizing,” added the grandmother. “It’s been an awful week.” “You’re a superhero,” I told the mother.

What is more zen than children, enchanted by an ant, filled with joy, unable to live outside this very moment?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Snapshots from Disney - Part One

Cinderella's castle and carousel from the flying Dumbo ride.

Minnie's shoes. The little person in there was WORKIN IT! The cartoon characters obviously can't talk to you, but this actor did so much more than bump around and flail her (his?) arms. This Minnie minced and flirted and cracked us up, all of it silent, with huge unblinking eyes.

Who looks like they're having more fun?

Mia watching a Georgia O'Keefe sunset on the trip home.

Friday, March 14, 2008

West St. Paul

"Make art, raise a family, have it all. In West St. Paul." DIY at its finest.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Now Entering The Area of Painful Self-Consciousness

Browsing Land's End swimwear online, I saw a tab that ominously asked for my "Anxiety Zone." Jeez, what happened to fun in the sun?

Read more at my new post on Chicago Moms Blog.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tagged - I'm It

(Jordan at The Wonder Wheel tagged me the minute the cab pulled up to take us to O'Hare for a nine day vacation/family reunion in Orlando. I was hoping to post in the intermissions between the family drama and the Disney spectacles, but it turned out the only access we had to the web was via my husband's phone. Ever try to compose via itty bitty keypad letters? Hw kdz doit?)

Thanks for the tag, Jordan. Here are the rules:

A. Post the rules at the beginning.
B. Answer the questions about yourself.

C. Tag 5 people and let them know in a comment on their blogs that they have been tagged.

What Was I Doing 10 Years Ago?
 Living with Randy in a converted bank building on busy California Avenue, waking before dawn M-F to put on dry-cleaned clothes and go teach goaty adolescent boys at a Catholic high school.

Snacks I Enjoy:
 California dried apricots – Randy calls them monkey ears. And not the Whole Foods organic ones – I want ‘em orange and soft, even if I have to ingest a little sulfur. In summer, raspberries and cherries. In winter, good dark chocolate and the last corner of any Starbucks scone my daughter doesn’t finish.

Five Things on my To-Do List Today:
 We’re on vacation! Sorry, folks, but my today list today included no more than floating with Mia down the resort’s lazy river, watching Nora splash in the zero depth pool, taking a quick run along the golf course pond, then showering in time for my father-in-law’s 80th birthday party in the banquet kitchen.

Things I Would Do if I Became a Billionaire: Partners in Health, 826 Chicago, Unicef, Doctors without Borders and Habitat for Humanity.

Three Bad Habits:
 (The "eeuww" category)
 Clutter. Bothering hangnails. Yelling “One more minute!” to the girls as I’m blogging and staying up too late writing.

Five Places I Have Lived:
1. Kansas City, Missouri (Most of my childhood)
2. South Bend, Indiana (Smells like ethanol)
3. Iowa City, Iowa (I had the cutest apartment)
4. Manchester-by-the-sea, Massachusetts
(Bad relationship, beautiful view)
5. Chicago, Illinois

Jobs I Have Had:
 Girl Scout Camp counselor (loved teaching songs to a lunchhall full of girls – kind of a formative experience), waitress at a diner on Boston’s North Shore (it was a greasy spoon, but we did have lobster on the menu, which I served back to the fishermen who caught it), assistant editor on a PBS documentary (I matched up “tink, tink” sound effects with images of sledgehammers hitting spikes into railway ties), office work in Boston and Chicago (graphic design and film post-production companies), high school teacher in Chicago (I most loved teaching Henry V, Rebel without a Cause and the how-to speech. I miss the kids, not the paperwork.)

Things People Don't Know About Me: I played a crazy character named Darla in an independent film called Sweet Dreams Driving School. Darla tap-danced in a cemetery and held bank hostages wearing a wedding dress, Mickey Mouse ears and cat-eye glasses. Don’t ask.

I'm tagging these five wonderful bloggers:

Glennia at The Silent I

Self-Made Mom

Sue at Close to the Sun

Kim at Hormone Colored Days

Cynthia McCune at McCunications