Thursday, August 31, 2017

Am I Disabled?

by Wendy Caster
My friends keep telling me I should go on disability. Granted, I’ve been sick and largely unable to work for over a year, but am I disabled?
When I look at that sentence, I feel like laughing at myself. After all, isn’t “sick and largely unable to work” the definition of disabled? But it’s not that simple.
Backstory: I was diagnosed with a mean uterine cancer in April of 2016. The usual next steps followed—surgery, chemo, radiation—but they were particularly aggressive versions of each step. Just as you fight fire with fire, you fight mean with mean. As of this writing, I am cancer-free, but the treatment beat the shit out of me. I have lymphedema of my left leg, so it is swollen and heavy and uncomfortable. I am wearing a series of Velcro wraps, hip to toes, which make the leg heavier and uncomfortable-er. I have anemia, which may be getting better, but I’m still tired. I have insomnia, so it’s difficult to tell if my lethargy is caused by the anemia or lack of good sleep. I may or may not be bleeding internally. (A capsule endoscopy should clarify that, but I’m experiencing some health insurance challenges, so I’m not sure when that will happen.) The area of my left hip and then down my leg often hurts. When it does hurt, it’s bad enough to make walking difficult or even impossible. It doesn’t seem to be related to the lymphedema. Sometimes it feels like it might be sciatica, but then sometimes its quality and location change.
Most importantly, I have lost the ability to maintain focus. Last year I had to return a freelance project undone, which was humiliating, even though the client was lovely about it.
I have good days, but I haven’t had enough in a row to commit to a job or even a short-term project. I’ve missed many social events, given up theater tickets, and so on. My world has gotten smaller.
So, am I disabled?
As I’ve gone through this process over the past months, I’ve come to see that it’s a two-level question. (1) Am I unable to make a living? (2) Am I willing to accept the label of being a disabled person?
The answer to the first question is pretty clear. I cannot make a living. The answer to the second question is trickier, but it’s important. And it reminds me of my coming-out process.
When I came out as gay in 1977, embracing a label was more than a personal decision. It was deeply political. It would affect how people viewed me. It would eventually lose me a job. It would occasionally put me in danger. But--and this is an important but--choosing to accept that label helped me change the world. Over the next decades, many people would improve their view of homosexuality and homosexuals merely because they knew me. My openness was a cure for bigotry and misperceptions. Multiply me by the millions of other openly gay people, and you have same-sex marriage, gays in the military, and other significant political advances. I was and am only one drop in the ocean that advanced gay rights, but I’m proud to be that drop.
During my coming-out process, I had to let go of my own misperceptions to learn what it really meant to be gay. Right now, I’m working on my disability-related misperceptions.
These misperceptions are more emotional than factual. I wonder, am I disabled enough? (Would my embracing the label be disrespectful to people in wheelchairs?) I wonder, will I be a different person if I’m disabled?
Years ago I worked on Mainstream: The Magazine for the Able Disabled. The managing editor often spoke of people’s reluctance to accept the word disabled. He would talk about people he knew who used hearing aids, who walked with a cane, who missed work due to various illnesses, but who would never use that word about themselves. Why did it matter to him? Because the disability community had (and has) insufficient political rights, resources, and protections, because it was (and is) misunderstood, because it needed (and needs) an ocean of support to make necessary progress.
Hey, that sounds like the whole gay thing, no?
The more I think about this, and I think about this a lot, I realize that there’s a whole ‘nother factor in operation here: my father. (See, it’s not always about the mother.) When I was a kid, I was only sick when my father said I was sick. I could feel terrible, but if he didn’t believe me or if he thought I wasn’t sick enough or if he was just in a bad mood, off to school I was sent. I internalized this to a ridiculous extent (I mean, that was decades ago), and I’m still not quite able to judge my own level of illness. Or disability.
My friends are right. I can’t work, I cancel appointments, I frequently feel pretty rotten. In a real, official sense, I am disabled. So here I am, 40 years later, coming out again.
After I wrote all those words above, I sent an email to my oncologist that ended with, “In order for me to apply for disability, I would need a letter saying that I'm too sick to work and/or I have a diagnosis with a less-than-positive prognosis. Would you be able to write such a letter for me?” She wrote back, “I absolutely support your need to go on disability.” And I went into an immediate depression.
My main tool for dealing with the past 15 months has been denial. When I’m not actively feeling bad or doing something health-related, I don’t focus on my situation (or, at least I didn’t until the disability thing came up). Even though I am a researching sort of a person, I didn’t do much research. It just upset me. And even though I completely believe in support groups, I didn’t go to one. I didn’t want to spend that time totally focused on my health, or lack thereof. But my doctor’s note fucked with my denial. “Oh shit,” I thought, “I’m disabled!” And I felt incredibly bad and sad. That’s the power of words. I was no sicker than I was before I read the email. I was in no more pain. I was no more disabled. But the words hit me hard. Luckily, the sadness didn’t last too long.
I guess this is a process. The coming out continues.

Wendy Caster is an award-winning writer. She lives in New York City.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Grandfather and Grandson: A Tale of Two Disabilities

by Melissa Morgenlander

Every year, my family visited my parents at their home in Sarasota, Florida. We all liked to spend time in the pool. My daughter, Fiona, had a special bond with my mother, and they always ended up somewhere giggling together. My husband, Michael, and I enjoyed the warm-weather escape from New York City, relaxing with something to read. And my son, Quentin, usually spent the majority of his time quickly flipping through channels on the TV. 

This is a coping method for him. Quentin has autism and ADHD, and flipping channels was a way for him to deal with the fact that we were not in our regular routine. He always has a hard time when we travel somewhere that disrupts his routines and takes him out of his usual surroundings, including visits to my parents’ home. I think Quentin wanted to see the station logos at the bottom of the screen as each channel was changed. He loved the repetition, and seeing the logos brought him a relative calm: They were the same one we have on our cable system back home. 

While it took me a while to understand Quentin and his behaviors, my father merely grumbled. He always thought Quentin was simply misbehaving. He didn’t understand the coping part. Yet if we took the remote away or tried to prevent Quentin from channel switching, he’d have a meltdown. He would kick and scream and start to destroy things. So, I’d give him the remote and let him be. My father disliked this, and our disagreements about parenting always made the trip difficult. 

My father never really tried to understand Quentin. He disapproved of every strange thing he did – and believe me, Quentin did some pretty strange stuff. Quentin licked things like glass panels or coins, touched (and nearly broke) every fragile item in their home, and liked to jump into pools, even when fully clothed. My father once told me I was spoiling him by giving in to his tantrums. 

The funny thing is, my father also had a disability. His left arm was deformed – curved into a crook. His left leg muscles made him walk funny. He was born with physical deformities in the 1930’s, when no one labelled them with a diagnosis or condition; they were what they were. Through the modern-day powers of the internet, I learned that my father likely had Erb’s palsy, but we just called it “Dad’s handicap.” There was no physical therapy or medical help for this kind of condition when Dad was a boy; his mother simply did what she could to help him. 

My father grew up unable to play with the other boys in the ballparks and playgrounds of Brooklyn. He became skilled, though, at flirting with the girls who watched the games with him on the sidelines. Still, he needed help throughout his life. He needed help cutting his food, even as an adult. He couldn’t tie his shoes, so he wore loafers. And while he loved chemistry in high school, his teacher told him he couldn’t become a chemist without two good hands. So he followed his second-favorite passion: statistics. 

When I was growing up, we never talked about his arm, but not because Dad was ashamed of himself. There was simply nothing to say. He could hug me with one good arm. What else mattered? Occasionally, he’d say he felt bad he couldn’t play catch with us like other fathers, but that never made me feel like I was missing anything. 
Quentin was born in 2007, also in Brooklyn, along with his neurotypical twin, Fiona. Just as my grandmother had to learn how to adapt for my father, so I have had to learn to adapt for Quentin. 

Like my father, Quentin has difficulty playing ball or on the playground with other kids. We got stares or complaints if Quentin took someone’s toy away or did something to upset another child. I was lucky to have found Extreme Kids & Crew before he got too big to cause too much trouble. I loved coming to Extreme Kids because I could celebrate both of my children without stares or judgment. I could compare notes on therapies and schools with other parents. I wonder, sometimes, if my grandmother ever felt as lonely as I did.

My parents came to visit just as Extreme Kids was beginning to take shape. I was eager to show them this community I’d found. They sat on folding chairs and watched the kids play. I remember my father eyeing one boy who had severe physical disabilities. I knew my Dad was thinking of his own disabilities; I could see it in his eyes. Later, he said to me, “I wish I had a place like this when I was a kid.” I wish he had, too. 

Last summer, my father died at the age of 85. In retirement, he spent half the year in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the other half in Sarasota. In both places, he pursued his favorite hobbies: bridge and going to the theater. He and my mother traveled the world and visited his many friends. He was having a fantastic retirement -- the kind we would all hope for. He had come a long way from being that kid who couldn’t play ball or become a chemist. 

The last time my kids saw my Dad, we were in Sarasota during spring break. He took me aside the day we landed and quietly said, “I really want to try to connect to Quentin. How can I do that?” 

The question choked me up a bit. For all his years of lacking sympathy, my father was finally opening up and accepting Quentin for who he is. I told him to sit quietly next to Quentin and engage him in his own world: If he’s watching TV, watch with him. If he’s reading a book, read with him. Comment and point like he does. 

My father tried. It wasn’t the biggest connection by any means, but Quentin sat with him for a bit. Dad watched as Quentin flipped channels. He sat close and occasionally remarked on a logo. This image is imprinted on my brain. This simple act of trying to interact with Quentin on his level, to forge a difficult relationship: this is the greatest gift he ever gave me.  This simple act showed acceptance and love. 

We are not all alike. We come together at spaces like Extreme Kids & Crew to celebrate  our differences, no matter what. It’s hard. The differences might be difficult to get past, but we must try. Just because my father had a disability didn’t mean he immediately understood my son’s. But his attempt at acceptance and understanding – after a long period of not wanting to try – is exemplary.

Dr. Melissa Morgenlander is a children's media curriculum designer, researcher, and writer. She works with a variety of educational television shows, apps, and after-school programs. She also writes about the intersection of autism and media and technology on her blog, the iQ Journals.  Learn more about Melissa’s professional experiences from her website.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Project Ability

Daniel Mui - Gravity
Gravity, by Daniel Mui

Many of you won’t have heard of Project Ability (est. 1984). We are a Glasgow, Scotland-based visual arts organization creating opportunities for people with disabilities and people with mental health issues, ages 5 to 80+, to express themselves and achieve artistic excellence.  Our Create program engages with 5- to 28-year-olds in a range of creative activities including visual arts, film and new media. We offer printmaking, painting, drawing, ceramics, textiles and more in our studios.
Jack Hynes - Untitled
Untitled, by Jack
All activities are fully inclusive. The professional artists who deliver the program are highly experienced in working with young people with a wide range of support needs.  Project Ability has a gallery two floors down from the studios, where we put on up to 12 exhibitions a year. Several more exhibitions are held in Glasgow, other parts of the U.K. and beyond.  Often parents will stay for workshops, helping their children alongside the artists and tutors. The tutors are all trained artists, and all have extensive experience working with young people with additional-support needs. The environment during our workshops is one of joy and creativity. It can get quite loud, so we have areas that are quieter for those artists who prefer to stay away from all the noise.

Gabriel and his mother, working together
 “Art is not for one ‘individual’. It is for everyone," says Cameron, one of our artists. "Anybody can do it. It’s all about pushing yourself – going over the so-called ‘boundaries’ and exploring your inner capabilities.” 
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Line T2 On West Highland Way, by Cameron Black
"It's been too much fun hanging out with these kids and seeing their ideas come to life," volunteer Seamus Killick wrote about his experiences in the workshops. "It kind of reminds me why I got so into this art stuff back in school - it's a chance to share your private world with others. To become an explorer not only in your own imagination but to pick other people’s brains too. The to-and-fro of idle chit chat is wonderful brain food for me, especially the frankness of children which can be hilarious."
\\ABILITY\Data\Exhibitions\Gallery Programme\Main_Gallery\2017\Young Talent\Woken and Broken Blog\Catriona Macfarlane - Merida.jpg

We typically offer a ratio of one artist to four young people. Creating a fully inclusive environment is important to us, and siblings and friends are welcome to attend our classes. Our in-house program is delivered from our fully accessible and specially equipped Trongate 103 workshops and from our outreach program at venues nationwide. 

Without the tutors’ expertise the workshops wouldn’t be as successful as they are. We are proud to have an amazing team of professional artists working with us. They share their creativity with the young people and help to increase the confidence and skills of each of our young participants. 

"Our young artists are always willing to embrace new artistic challenges and are excited about trying out all of the materials that our studios offer too," according to one tutor, Tracy. "As tutors, we learn a lot from how our young artists approach their art making too, with their lack of inhibition and freedom, come some incredible results.

Dominic Hemphill-Whyte - Untitled 2
Untitled, by Dominique

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Untitled, by Greg

Work in Progress, by Lauren

Obi working on "Car and Birds"

We have some young artists that have complex support needs, and Project Ability is one of the few places where they can come and express themselves. Some of our projects are designed specifically with those artists in mind.

Create Workshop 4
Guy working with a super long brush on this large scale painting
The finished work from one such program, ‘Found Impressions’went on to be exhibited in two galleries, including ours. Artists Guy and Gabriel have been with us for quite a while now. Their parents always join in the workshops, and our Saturdays wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without them. 

Young Talent Exhibition
Collage mixed media piece in progress by Aidan

IMG_7492Every summer our gallery puts on a ‘Young Talent’ exhibit. This year's is on July 8. Every young person that works with us is encouraged to submit a piece. 

Young Talent is now in its 8th year and has become a highlight of the calendar.  A reception is held at the start of the exhibition for all our young artists, their families and support workers. Children run around proudly showing off their masterpieces to friends and strangers alike. For the most part, the young people really love to see their work on display, and you can feel the happiness and excitement buzzing around the space. 
Young Talent is one of my favorite shows of the year.  It covers so many styles and mediums. With dozens of artists, the show covers a lot of ground. There's no set theme because we don’t want any barriers to participation. 

Create Workshop 8
Super Pink Abstract
Young Talent 2017 promises to be as varied as the ages and interests of the artists. There are plenty of TV- and movie-themed works, including the Smurfs, Dr Strange, The Simpsons, Adventure Time, Godzilla, R2D2, Pocahontas and the Muppets!

Owen Scullion - Godzilla (2)
Godzilla, by Owen

Ruth - Pikachu
Pikachu, by Ruth
Not all our artists want to exhibit their creations. Some choose to take their works home to hang on a bedroom wall or give away as a gift. Others may not want anyone to see their work and find a secret space where it will be safe and unseen. Some lose interest in the work once it's finished. Anything goes. Whatever the children make is theirs, and if they sell it they get a commission of 50%-60%. Project Ability keeps the rest. 

Being able to help encourage and empower others to enhance their quality of life through the act of making art and being creative is what Project Ability is all about. 

Ross Agnew - Untitled
Untitled, by Ross

Please visit our website and/or follow us on Facebook and Instagram if you’d like to learn more about the work we do!

Text by Heather Lander, Exhibitions Coordinator at Project Ability

Monday, May 1, 2017

The 2017 Felix Awards Go to Steve Silberman and Liana Finck

Ever since Felix was born, I’ve been dogged by the word disability, unable to come up with a decent definition. The more I think about it, the more universal it becomes, and the more I fall back on my suspicion that disability is simply the condition of being human, or maybe mammalian, or maybe just alive. The conventional view is less broad. Legal language tells us that disabilities are conditions that hamper essential “life activities” like working, talking, seeing, driving, taking a test, getting a date. My not being able to find my keys, whistle, think in a straight line, or remember my neighbor’s name may impede my life activities, but they don't weigh them down unduly. Therefore, I am not disabled. It's a question of degree. I understand that I’m not as disabled as my son, who needs other people and equipment to help him get from one place to another, and who cannot converse in conventional language. But where do we draw the line between cumbersome and crippling—and why do we insist on drawing this line? 

Liana Finck plays with these sorts of questions in her New Yorker cartoons and the marvelous charts, drawings, and questions that animate her Instagram feed. Take “Superman and Unexceptional Bird.” It’s the “unexceptional” that makes this picture so funny, and gets my mind churning. I wonder: If you were born with the ability to fly, and if you regularly fluttered up to the ceiling, annoying your teachers and parents, would your wings be deemed a cool super-ability, or part of a larger disability? 

Finck's work provides excellent, amusing tools for writing and thinking about the boundaries of weird and normal, and the conundrums of such divisions, as in this analysis of acceptable out-of-the-box-ness. Where do you fit into this chart? And which you? You as a son or daughter, as a juggler, as an essay writer, as an eater of macaroni? Recently, my 10-year-old daughter worried that her laughter sounded weird. Is she a quirky laugher, or an unfortunately outrĂ© one? Is there such a thing as “in the box” laughter? 

Liana also explores with great tenderness that feeling of not knowing where you stand, but having a feeling you need to stand somewhere--the loneliness and uncertainty of being caught between this and that. 

At Extreme Kids, we don’t concern ourselves much with diagnoses, partly because they can be arbitrary or socially determined. These days, for example, the wealthier you are, the more likely your child will get an autism spectrum diagnosis, and with it, greater chances of receiving services, support, and increased public understanding. The poorer you are, the more likely your child will be labeled emotionally or behaviorally impaired, or even shipped off to JV. But even if diagnoses were more of an exact science, and more justly acquired, we at Extreme Kids would not lean on them too heavily, for our desire is simply to bring together people who do not fit the mainstream mold. No matter what their diagnosis may be, we know of one way that we can help them all: accepting their difference and trying to figure out how to learn from and connect to it.

In his celebrated book Neurotribes, Steve Silberman has delved deeply into the shifting meaning of and history of one such diagnosis: autism.  In so doing, he provides much-needed evidence that autism isn't a new phenomenon, but has been observed over centuries by researchers in many countries--notably, Hans Asperger, who lived and worked in Vienna in the 1930s. Reading about the Children’s Clinic where Asperger worked is like reading about the sort of school many parents seek for their children today: a place of inquiry guided by openness, encouragement, and attentiveness to each student’s individual personalities and passions.  

Asperger and his colleagues understood autism to be a cluster of traits, including social awkwardness; a fixation on rules, laws, and schedules; difficulty with basic life skills like dressing, bathing, or proper table manners. These traits were shared by a variety of individuals, some precocious in the arts and sciences, others so hampered that they could not speak. Asperger didn't sugarcoat autism, but he also didn't view it as a deficit. Instead, he saw it as a type of intelligence. He once said, “for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” This is because people with autism are often unaffected by conventional thinking, and approach subjects with a freshness and originality that eclipses those who are more bound by social mores. Asperger’s work was cast into shadows by the depravities of World War II and the professional rivalry of Leo Kanner, who viewed autism in a far more narrow and negative light. 

Silberman’s expositions of the personalities and backgrounds of the people who tussled and strategized over the definition of autism, and their place in medical history, is a clarifying reminder of all the “not science” that goes into science, and the punitive and political uses to which medical science has been put—from institutions for “Insane Indians,” where rebellious Native people were kept in chains, to the claims of eugenics, variations of which we still struggle with today, to the psychological damage wrought by clinicians like Bruno Bettleheim, who popularized Kanner’s brand of autism in bestselling books and articles that considered autism a “suicide of the soul” caused by loveless parents. 

On a practical note, Silberman’s book explains the bureaucratic and pragmatic reasons behind the rising numbers of children diagnosed with autism today, breaking down some of the fear and misunderstanding caused by these numbers. If you haven’t seen his TED Talk on the subject, do! 

Both Liana Finck and Steve Silberman are wonderfully deserving of a Felix Award, and I am looking forward to meeting them on May 25 at Extreme Kids & Crew's annual benefit.  If you are in the New York City area, you can too! There’s no ticket. You just have to donate to Extreme Kids & Crew’s Build to the Bronx Spring Campaign.  Once you do, you will be automatically invited to the Felix Awards. Ours is not a rubber chicken gala--it's a night of dancing, celebrating, and thinking about what makes us different and the same.  I am proud to add that it has been dubbed Extreme Fun by Vanity Fair’s Agenda!

Even if you can’t come, please consider donating to our campaign—all money goes to creating and maintaining safe, creative, flexible playspaces, where families with kids with all sorts of disabilities congregate, explore, and celebrate themselves, together. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie put Tennessee Williams on the map, launching him from near-nobody to internationally celebrated playwright. Lavishly praised by critics and embraced by audiences when it premiered on Broadway in 1944, Menagerie has long since become an American classic. It has been revived on Broadway alone seven times--at least once a decade since the 1960s. But only the current revival (at the Belasco Theater through early July) has featured a disabled actor in the role of Laura Wingfield, the young woman who, following a bout of pleurisy as a teenager, has been left with a limp and very low self-esteem.

Julieta Cervantes
That the role is usually cast with non-disabled and often conventionally beautiful actresses (Calista Flockhart and Celia Keenan-Bolger played Laura in two recent Broadway revivals) isn't terribly surprising. Broadway--really, American mass entertainment in general--has a long history of boneheadedness when it comes to any kind of difference, starting with, oh, blackface minstrelsy, wending past every white actor in an Asian or Native American or Latinx role, pausing to wave along the way at myriad straight performers playing gay or trans people, and tipping a hat at all the thespians who've won awards for stuttering, contorting, looking vacant or vaguely crazy, or learning how to sit convincingly in a wheelchair. I suppose if mass entertainment's most indelible portrayals of disability continue to hover somewhere around Forrest Gump territory, then hiring a person with an actual disability to play a character with something as seemingly slight as a bum leg is hardly a cultural priority. But in casting Madison Ferris, a 25-year-old woman with muscular dystrophy, director Sam Gold upends the longstanding interpretation of Laura as a trembling waif so emotionally fragile and physically scarred that her psyche can be pulverized by a single dashed chance at love and a little broken glass.

Williams described Menagerie as a "memory play," and in it, he recalls his life with his doting if overbearing mother, Edwina, and his beloved older sister, Rose, whose struggles with schizophrenia ended with a botched lobotomy and subsequent institutionalization. Williams's alter ego, Tom Wingfield (Joe Mantello), narrates Menagerie, looking back on his youth as an aspiring writer supporting his mother and sister with factory work. Before he follows in his father's footsteps and splits for good, Tom sneaks off nightly to drink, watch movies and--at least as I read it--enjoy the occasional furtive tryst with other closeted gay men. Amanda Wingfield (Sally Field), Edwina's alter ego, is a bitter, aging southern belle who traded status and upward mobility for a marriage to a charming, philandering alcoholic. When the play begins, Mr. Wingfield has been gone 16 years. Amanda, still reeling from the abandonment, struggles to get by in a small, dumpy St. Louis apartment where she simultaneously dotes on and resents the hell out of her two grown children.

Julieta Cervantes

In Williams's rendering, Laura's limp has left her even more awkward and shy than she was before she got sick. So anxious and self-conscious that taking classes or seeking work causes her to become physically ill, she spends her days listening to old records, wandering around town and playing with her collection of tiny glass animals. Her experience hardly plays into Amanda's near-obsessive desire to marry her off to the kind of handsome, successful man she long dreamed of for herself.

It's easy enough, then, to pair the fragile, diffident Laura with the driving, manic Amanda, which is how the show is often staged: mother becomes the emotional mouthpiece for the stunted daughter, who wants for herself what her mother wants for her. But Gold doesn't do that. An expert in family dynamics (he won a Tony for his direction of Fun Home), Gold subverts the play into one that speaks volumes about living with disability. His is not a traditional adaptation; the action here is taking place in Tom Wingfield's head. The production is starkly lit, sparsely set, often weirdly dreamlike, and at one point it rains, soaking the actors.

Some have accused Gold of exploiting disability for cheap effect. But as the mom of a special kid who hangs with parents of special kids, I'm here to tell you: This is a production that gets us.

In the opening scene, Tom bounds up a set of stairs and onto the stage. Amanda and Laura don't have it quite as easy: Mother drags a wheelchair, while helping her daughter negotiate the steps. Ferris is a wonder of strength and flexibility, and her meticulous progress up the stairs involves hands, legs, butt, and some remarkable folding. Gold stretches the moment to let Laura's efforts sink in.

Laura's disability is woven into life in the Wingfield household. I wish I could bottle the way Field's Amanda chats amiably on the phone while absentmindedly helping Laura, who is splayed on the dinner table, work through a series of PT exercises. These moments may challenge some audiences' expectations, but they're hardly exploitative. Laura's getting the treatment she needs, moving how she needs to move. In a world that wasn't designed with her in mind, that takes effort.

We notice how Laura moves because her moves are unique. Gold often has Mantello and Field sit cross-legged or in a kneeling position, as Ferris does when she's not in her wheelchair. The positions, which seem natural for Ferris, don't look terribly comfortable for other two actors, but families in close quarters can't help but pick up on each other's habits.

Because Amanda and Tom love Laura, they see her not as a collection of symptoms, but as a daughter and sister. This is something that's overlooked by many people who don't live with disability--people who stare at disabled kids or pity them, who call their parents "saints" for simply loving and raising them. In this version of Menagerie, Sally Field's Amanda comes off as less deluded than sad, a slightly broken, outspoken woman who loves her children and can't for the life of her understand why everyone else doesn't, too. She's sometimes a little inappropriate, but then, whose mom isn't?

When I saw the show, a few spectators snickered at Amanda's repeated, hotly defensive insistence that Laura was "not crippled." But when you love someone, you don't see them as a diagnosis--which is why I sometimes need to step out of myself and contemplate my son from a clinical distance or seek an outsider's perspective. I love him so much that I sometimes need to remind myself that he's not like other kids. I love him so much that I sometimes forget to see him. Amanda sees her daughter's beauty, the care she puts into her collection of glass animals, her potential. Her wheelchair? That old thing? What's the big deal?

Ferris's Laura is no shrinking violet like so many other Lauras are. She's more of a levelheaded badass than many Williams women--less a flighty, fluttery Blanche than a pensive, stolid Stella. This may frustrate purists who want Laura to have a quietly measured breakdown after the Gentleman Caller (here played beautifully by Finn Whitrock as both dim and bighearted) accidentally breaks her favorite glass animal (a unicorn, natch!). But Ferris makes a warrior of Laura: She controls of what she can and enjoys a fulfilling inner life, ultimately possessing far greater insight into the ways of an unfair world than her mother can. This upends the mother/daughter dynamic typical of The Glass Menagerie revivals, and if that bothers you, skip it. Maybe go see Phantom of the Opera.

Me? I'm hoping to return to catch Ferris' defiant reaction when Mantello's Tom, still haunted by memories of Laura, wishes aloud for her to let him be.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie are available for deeply discounted prices on TDF.ORG and at TKTS booths for day-of sales. You can also pay full price on the website, check for special offers, or try your luck with the TodayTix app.

Liz Wollman is associate professor of music at Baruch College, CUNY, and serves on the doctoral faculty of the theater department at the CUNY Graduate Center. She writes a lot of academic books and articles about the musical theater, and also contributes frequently to the Show Showdown blog. She's married to Andy, who edited this piece, and is the fiercely proud if occasionally inappropriate mom to Paulina and Philip. She's also an Extreme Kids & Crew board member, which makes her very happy.   

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Trembling Answers

A review by Eliza Factor

Do you ever have moments when you are brushing your teeth and realize with a sudden clarity that you have teeth, that they bite into flesh, that they are intricately shaped and rooted, that they are composed of such minerals as phosphorus? Phosphorous! Element number 15, blasted out of supernovae and glowing in the ocean. You are elated.  You want to celebrate this amazement with everyone you love, or at least someone you love, but by the time you’ve gotten the kids off to school, your mind has moved on to IEP meetings and dinner plans and the senator whose office you need to call. When you talk to your friends, all that comes out are goals and opinions and scheduling details.  Nor can you share your sense of wonder with your daughters.  You have learned from hard experience that they no longer want to talk about exploding stars unless they initiate the conversation.  And so your moment of delight sours into a nub of loneliness.  

If this sounds familiar, then you may find yourself consoled by Craig Morgan Teicher’s latest book of poems, The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions, Ltd.). Upon reading it, my mind probably leapt to toothbrush-centered revelations because his poetry rests so deeply in the quotidian and domestic.  His tools of day-to-day maintenance are all the more pressing and beautiful because in many of these poems the body being maintained is that of his son, born with an acute form of cerebral palsy.  A boy whose hand is “soft as tracing paper,” whose life is integrated with and dependent on “a certain amount of plastic,”  whose tending includes catheters and feeding tubes. Teicher’s sense of being encumbered and enlarged by his children is one I know well, but the way he turns these feelings into poetry is more mysterious.

I love these poems for their wit and kindness, their slaps of awareness, and their essential honesty about the limits of awareness.  It was difficult to select just one, for almost every page manages through mumbles or digs or sly appraisals to get at the sheer, lovely, agonizing beauty of it all.  But “Self-Portrait Beside Myself” is so very perfect for Broken and Woken, that perhaps it wasn’t that hard after all.

Self-Portrait Beside Myself

We’ve been lucky—March is over
and my son is still alive. My daughter
is about to crawl. And the golden
sunset light recalls
distant childhood light.
I feed my son while he sleeps
through a hole in his tummy
when the night nurse
has the night off,
and when I go to the mirror
it’s to see if the ocean-eyed man
the teenager I was had hoped to become
is anywhere in there.
The teenager is; he wants you
to see him, help him, tell him
he’s strong and gently
dramatic. He wants
to be part of a story, even
if not a true one. He wants
to fuck like mad,
even if I don’t. Standing over my son
at night, I feel quiet, only then,
no need to be me or anyone,
just listening to him breathe.
I can divide all life
into breath and waiting
for the next breath, and
the calm in the troughs
between. I wanted
to show you I could see the world
without me in the way; I can’t, not
even for a little while. I’m beside
that man watching over his son,
impressed with him and his humility.

But if that’s what it takes,
to keep my son safe—admiring
my better self rather than
being him—then ok. That’s ok.

Reprinted with permission from Craig Morgan Teicher.  The Trembling Answers may be purchased on Amazon or through his publisher, BOA Editions, Ltd.