Monday, April 26, 2010

My Special Boy

In honor of Special Education week (if, in fact it truly is SN Week and not just some old Facebook campaign that's been circulating), I post this essay of mine that's been kicking around for some time. Jamie is turning 7 in June, and will be entering his first full-inclusion class for the second grade. This news is just days old. Our journey with him has been at times harrowing, and inspiring, not just in his progress and hard work but in the work of the unexpected kind people we've met along the way. Here's how it started...

My Special Boy

Jamie’s regressed into a lot of baby talk lately. “Ba da beee ba ba.” He says this in a very high-pitched voice as he crawls all over me, twirling my hair. He has a hair fetish, and at the age of just 4, seems to have a foot fetish as well. “Mommy, your feet look hot. Take your shoooeees off.”

Since December, 2006, my son has been deemed technically Special, with a capital S, at least in the eyes of the New York City Board of Education. Of course, to me he always was and continues to be a genius of capital proportions. He memorizes songs from his favorite musicals (The Music Man and The Sound of Music trump others at the moment) and his favorite song from the latter begins “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

This has become a sort of family joke because Jamie was, in his first year and a half of nursery school, the Problem, with a capital P. While other kids were playing with the little oven peacefully next to one another, Jamie was “talking with his hands” which meant hitting the other children, pulling their hair, yanking on hoods of jackets, thus choking other children, and doing it with a frequency that created pits in my stomach when I’d drop him off in the mornings. Parents who were intoxicatingly friendly at first grew downright chilly in the hallways and at parent meetings. Meanwhile, Jamie was unable to grasp the concept in any long-term way that this was bad. That he hurt people. That he got too close to them when they didn’t want to be near him. And yet, in the short term, his reaction was always the same: He would want to hug the child he’d hurt, regardless of whether they wanted him to be near them or not, and he would cry and feel terrible about himself.

One staff recommendation led to another. We sought outside counsel from psychiatrists and pediatricians. He had multiple evaluations. New terms were flying at us like “low muscle tone” and “sensory integration.” Cognitively, Jamie seemed fine, but was angry and easily triggered. It was agreed that he could be eligible for Early Intervention special services (occupational therapy and speech) that might help him regulate his physical actions and communication skills. His services escalated until he had his own Special Education Instructor at the school, also known as a SEIT, a body guard pulling him out of social situations like circle time, when he would twirl his dream girl Coco’s hair without asking, or jump up and race around the room. But pulling him away from these problematic situations seemed to have a horribly negative effect on his self-esteem. Christmas break brought him the boot… with one tearful conversation with the school’s director we cleaned out his cubby for good. Yet it also brought about, ultimately, our unexpected relief.

I’ve had to relearn what Special Education means. I was reluctant and even petrified to be faced with this term; he’s not mentally retarded, I quietly told myself. I’ll admit I had visions of severely autistic children rocking in corners, or even, in an especially shameful moment, the Special Olympics, which somehow manifested in my mind as a track race with wheelchairs. When my own son found his way, miraculously, into a Therapeutic Nursery school with one available slot, I was scared. Scared he would be on a track that he couldn’t come back from. College would be out of the question.

Five months into his new school setting I could see as bright as the stars the difference that a good, meaning “appropriate,” fit makes for your child. Jamie’s new environment was incredibly structured, down to the minute. His teachers were trained in Special Education, and for seven struggling boys there were three of them. His self-confidence began to reemerge, and his speech and fine motor skills improved. In Jamie’s new school, he wasn’t getting “No’d” all day; for the first time he was getting “Yes’d.” As he grew less frustrated, tense, and upset, so did we. Language skill focus on conveying emotions, and he uses his new words to tell us he’s angry, or sad; he even tried to tell me what “jealous” means a few days back. It takes Jamie a moment longer than “typical” children to gather his thoughts and to process them into following commands, but understanding that and giving him the extra beat he needs gets easier by the day.

It’s a story that’s by no means over yet, but for now I’m so grateful for his newfound status, and can even thank his old school for showing us the door, and leading him into his light.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Little Miss Minty Python

I haven't yet blogged about charitable events or philanthropy. It's not that I don't have an interest in these things, but rather my circle of editor and writer and teacher friends are generally big-spirited in ways that don't necessarily involve $500 tickets to events of said nature.

Yet, when an old friend reaches out to me and says her friend's daughter has a rare type of brain cancer (anaplastic ependymoma), and that there will be a stylish benefit to support this sweet and gorgeous little Bee, I feel it's my duty to put forth the word about the impending "Minty Python Benefit."

Little Miss Minty happens to be the daughter of a crew member of Sex and the City, and so with the event will come many a New York star sighting and chance to win prizes like a date with Cynthia Nixon. The event is an auspicious way to celebrate May Day; it will be at the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO on May 1 from 6-9 p.m. Bring yourself, bring a friend, bring your wallet, and certainly bring your camera. Mr. Big himself might be on hand to shake it or stir it, your choice. If you can't spring for the tix, there's a little "Donate" button on the website, and I know anything would be appreciated.

If you can't open your wallet, open your heart and take part in this visualization exercise:

1. Unzip Minty’s head, and take the lid off like taking the lid off a jar. 2. Drain out all the fluid. 3. With a golden rake, or golden feather duster, dust off Minty’s brain. 4. With a blue laser beam, imagine zapping the tumors and seeing them shrinking, until they get smaller and smaller and disappear. 5. Put crystal clear fluid back in Minty’s head. See it filling up over the top of her brain. See her brain lighting up like heat lightning in the clouds at nighttime. 6. Knowing that Minty is healing, dust off the inside of the lid with the golden feather duster. 7. Put the lid back in place, and zip Minty’s head back up.

Be well, sweet Minty! xoxo

Monday, April 19, 2010

Henri Cartier-Bresson at MOMA, part 1

I've been hitting a lot of museums lately (thank you, MOMA, for honoring my New School Faculty ID). This morning I dropped in for an hour to get a first glimpse of the Henri Cartier-Bresson show; I love him, I love Magnum, I love his Magnum-founding partner Robert Capa, and I know that I will visit this show at least a handful of other times.

When I worked at American Heritage magazine from 1993-1997, one of my favorite tasks was to do historical photo research. Editors would assign me stories, and it was my duty to find appropriate images to go with them. This was before archives were digitalized and moved into storage caves, and for me this translated into field trips away from the office. I would visit the main branch of the NYPL on 42nd Street, or the Bettmann Archives on Broadway, or the John Hay Library at Brown University to gather never before printed illustrations by H.P. Lovecraft, or even in a broom closet (literally) of the soon to be closed St. Vincent's Hospital, where I found a very early image (tin-type? daguerrotype? I can't recall) of an ambulance that took the form of a horse and buggy.

Visiting Bettmann was by and large one of the pinnacle points of my Heritage years. I'd be guided by a picture editor, usually Ronny Brenne, to rows and rows of file cabinets, each stuffed with prints, many from Magnum. On the backs of these prints were stamps which told the story of how each image had moved around: a Robert Capa would be printed in a Magnum laboratory in Paris; sent to London; sent again to be reprinted in New York, etc... all of this through the mail or by courier. (Some of his photos were actually that of his lover Gerda Taro, but that's for another day.)

So when I saw at this show a framed image of the back side of a print, not the print itself, I got sort of choked up. It was covered with pencil scrawlings by photo editors, and red and black stamps of vanished, or vanishing, agencies and publications (LIFE, MATCH, or LOOK), each told a part of the photograph's journey. Especially sensitive of the curator.

The show itself is a stunner; too vast in its scope to be absorbed in a single visit (the name itself was an early tipoff: "The Modern Century"). There are some images that I had trouble moving away from: a portrait of Colette; a mobbed train carrying the ashes of Gandhi; an especially menacing-looking banker circa 1950; and some post-WW 2 photographs of children, particularly one of five little Roman rascals sitting in a stairwell dealing cards, obviously a pack to be contended with. For now I'll let these settle before heading back for round 2.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Miroslav Tichy at the ICP Museum

Ending May 9th at the International Center of Photography is a retrospective show of Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. This is the first North American exhibit of the 80-year-old photographer's work.

During Communist-era Czechoslovakia c. 1950s, Tichy was prone to psychotic episodes following his tenure at an art school in Prague. He lived in a the town Kyjov, and became known by townspeople unaware of his artistic history for being creepy. Citizens of Kyjov didn't believe the cardboard tubes and broken camera parts he carried around were real; his tools of choice were the absurdly rustic cameras made by his own hand using spare parts and found objects, like the elastic from sweatpants, or empty spools of thread, or metal bottle tops. Rather they thought he was only pretending to take pictures of people in public spaces, like swimming pools, squares, and parks. Now, he's well-known for capturing slivers of the jubilant daily life of a repressed time (note: his objects culminate largely in a collection of Lolita-esque girls).

In some ways, critics have found a way to make his work political. Moving through the show, I wasn't stricken by this aspect of his work, though there's no doubt truth to this given the climate of the day. Maybe these anti-Communist themes didn't leap out at me because a recurring theme of my own life has been accidentally befriending the odd recluses others shy away from. I don't see them as bucking the system politically, but rather as being mentally ill, unable to conform and function with clarity in the world around them. Not to say they don't carry throughout their lives the occasional special stamp of artistic brilliance.

I went to see this show with two of my Parsons independent study students, both of whom weren't particularly impressed by his work. I can sort of see why-- many of the tattered black and white images would alone have a snapshot quality that make you feel like you're looking at someone else's grandparents' Heyday Shots. There are black and white photographs of laughing girls with their arms around each other, sometimes posing for the camera, but more often than not the images are of women walking away from him, oblivious of their role as Muse. Together, the collective sum of all the photographs shown, along with the foreboding cases of simultaneously brilliant and insane makeshift cameras, stuck in my mind for days.

The 2004 82-minute film by Tichy's longtime neighbor, psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum, loops in a room off of the main show. The film offers up a space for another side of Tichy's legacy; his charm and humor. He's fully aware and in command of his eccentricities, and beautifully unapologetic about them. "Something perfect and beautiful is of no use to anyone," he says in the film.

Monday, April 12, 2010


This weekend I took Jamie across the river to North Bergen, where my parents have a little apartment. It was a strangely relaxing weekend, and for the first time in months I lost myself in a book. When I'm stressed, the first thing to go is my attention span. I'll read the same paragraph over and over again before realizing I have to make a mundane phone call or wash my hair or look at Facebook. At night time, I'll muddle through three pages or so before falling asleep (don't stress and tiredness go hand in hand?).

And so it's been, this hard cover book heartily recommended to me by dear friends, my constant companion since December.

Zeitoun is a non-fiction account of Hurricane Katrina by Dave Eggers. His story is told through the eyes of a man of Syrian descent, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who is a small business owner in New Orleans who decides not to evacuate with his family, but rather stay back to take care of his properties and home. What happens next some might guess. There are floods, and there is great sadness. There is also political outrage. I'm not a spoiler, and so I won't treat this as a shabbily written high school book review and detail the plot. What I will say is that I'm grateful for this beautiful story that shook me out of my reading stupor with a poetic vengeance and made me think about far more than Katrina's aftermath. I also thank the computer chess game which occupied my son for more than a couple of chapters.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Victorian Photocollage at the Met

My beloved Uncle Steve in Texas is a brilliant collage artist. I've spent loads of time over the last two decades staring at his layered work, spotting scattered meanings in each painstakingly made piece along the way. His work has often been rooted in his study of mysticism; the Photocollages of the Victorians, currently on show at the Met, seem to have been rooted... well, in boredom.

Who but the wealthy Victorians had time to take professionally shot photos of their loved ones (cats and dogs included), and spend hours meticulously cutting their heads and bodies from the prints, arranging them into natural and supernatural scenes (think Audobon meets Lewis Carroll)?

This diminutive and quirky show is riveting. Forty-eight images from the 1860s through the 1870s "turn early photography on its head", yes, and when the Met's own press release tauts that it does so, take it literally. Heads are literally stripped from bodies and stuck onto other creatures (like ducks) and objects (like trees) with abandon.

I'm sure a scholarly look into this collection has yielded deeper political underpinnings of the Victorian Age. Bored and contstrained married women and wealthy widows are able to offer up their regard for dear ones by planting them into fantastical worlds made permanent in thick and irreplaceable albums, heirlooms in their own right. Loved ones who have passed on are forever remembered in this uninhibited way by Mistresses with names like "Viscountess Jocelyn". What does it really mean that a beloved daughter now sits forever, guarded beneath a giant mushroom, like a toad?

Before these Victorian souls depart the Met for good, try to catch their show. It's on through May 9th.