Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Heath Ledger: An Appreciation

Heath Ledger has been gone for just over a year now. And to think I've only recently begun to fully realize how immensely much was lost on January 22, 2008, when he died in New York City.

It says so much about what a brilliant actor he was that even from the very little I'd seen of his work until recently--"Monster's Ball," "The Patriot" and "A Knight's Tale"--I knew he was something special, and had high hopes for his career. (And was quite certain after getting a glimpse of just a few stills of his Joker, long before "The Dark Knight" was released, that Heath would be the perfect Joker, like no other Joker we'd ever seen!)

Even my introduction to him in "A Knight's Tale" made me stand up and take notice and think, this guy is gonna go places. Sure, he looked a bit the young heartthrob with his sun-bleached, surfer-dude good looks. But right off the bat, he conveyed many qualities onscreen that set him apart from the legions of other young heartthrobs.

What came through so delightfully in "A Knight's Tale" was his very apparent sense of humor, his willingness to be the butt of jokes, to appear awkward, inept, and perhaps not quite cut out for the job of noble knight. Instead of trying to be the flawless hero, he refused to take himself too seriously, invited us to laugh at him a bit.

Maybe that was his Aussie heritage showing, part of the whole "tall poppy" syndrome. (The Aussies have a saying that goes something like: The tall poppy gets cut down first. So most of them try to keep a pretty low profile, try to avoid standing out in a crowd through boasting, arrogance, etc....even those who've got a lot going for them that they could boast about if they were so inclined.) Whatever their source, I've always found those humble, softspoken, self-deprecating qualities extremely appealing in actors (and in people in general).

So yeah, I knew who Heath was, and always regarded him as a young actor of great promise. But I hadn't seen him in anything since those three movies I mentioned, which came pretty early in his career. So until in a recent one-two punch I saw first "The Dark Knight" and then, just days later, "Brokeback Mountain," I had no idea just how much he'd already reached that potential, how high he'd already climbed as an actor. And now I fully understand (and agree with) what "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan said when he accepted the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for Ledger recently: that "a hole had been ripped in the future of cinema" with Ledger's passing.

Now movies about comic book superheroes normally are not my thing at all. So in spite of the fact that I was anticipating Ledger's take on The Joker, I didn't rush out to the theater to see "The Dark Knight" when it opened last summer. It wasn't until my kids suggested we rent the DVD recently that I finally sat down to watch it with them.

I'm so glad I did. Ledger exceeded my wildest expectations. Like most everyone else who's seen his incarnation of the Joker, I was blown away by his performance. The movie in general caught me offguard; it had a lot more emotional resonance than your average comic-based movie. I was surprised to find myself almost tearing up during a few scenes, or getting a lump in my throat, which is a credit to the cast, director and screenwriter. The only other Batman movie I'd ever seen--the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson--had left me cynically laughing when I wasn't supposed to be and thoroughly bored.

"The Dark Knight" does go on a bit too long. As my husband succinctly put it, "Too much Two-Face." But as for the Joker, you can never get enough of this guy! Whenever he's onscreen, you can't take your eyes off him. And whenever he's not onscreen, you miss him--as much as one can miss a psychopathic, mass-murdering clown--and want him to come back. He becomes this sort of presence lurking at the edges of every frame of the movie, even those he's physically absent from.

The look is just right, from the dapper purple and green, "custom made, NOT cheap suit" to the long, stringy, unkempt hair, to the ghoulish clown makeup that's always smeared, giving the Joker the air of one stumbling home from a Halloweeen party that went on too long. The flat Midwestern accent is just right too, especially considering that much of the movie was shot in Chicago. Making him sound "local" makes him more scarily real than if they'd had him speak in a British-inflected, typically villainish voice. This Joker sounds like he comes from the neighborhood, not from Planet Hollywood Villain.

The word "real," in fact, is a key to the frightening effectiveness of Ledger's performance. All previous Jokers were played as campy cartoon villains. But it's not laughs Ledger's Joker induces so much as shudders of horror. He offers us the Joker as a man gone bad--really, horrifyingly bad--but a man rather than a two-dimensional character. The black makeup around his eyes might give him a zombie-like appearance, but this Joker can't be written off as a soulless monster. Behind those eyes lurks a soul...a malevolent, murderous soul no doubt, devoid of all compassion. But there's such fierce intelligence and awareness glimmering behind those eyes that we find ourselves wondering what makes this guy tick, how he really got those scars, what unspeakable cruelty wounded and warped him for life.

And because this lean, lanky Joker has got so much charisma, so much unaffected cool, we find ourselves thinking that if only this guy didn't have a tendency to inflict death by pencil and push fair damsels out of skyscraper windows or blow them to bits, he'd probably be one cool cat to hang with. He's a magnetic force who somehow manages to attract us while he's repelling us, and vice versa.

It would be a difficult task to try to compile a "Best of the Joker" video, though I'm sure many YouTubers have tried. There isn't a throwaway line among the many he delivers. And how he delivers them! From "Here...we...go!" to "I love this job!" to "Why so serious?" to "I'm so glad you could come, Batman." to "Look at me!," he offers them up with just the right level of demented glee, deceptive cordiality or satanic fury. It's the kind of performance where almost every line, every movement he makes or action he takes, is memorable, iconic and worth hitting the rewind button to catch again. He's that mesmerizing, that commanding.

It just so happened that I'd recently added "Brokeback Mountain" to the top of my Netflix queue, so after being astounded by Ledger as The Joker, I was glad to have another one of his highly praised performances waiting in the wings. "Brokeback" had long been on my list of must-see movies. But I don't find much time or money these days to keep up with movies as I'd like to, so I was as usual long overdue for this one.

If only I'd known what I'd been missing, I would have seen this one long ago. Amazingly, Ledger is just as utterly gripping and perfect as the wounded cowboy who resigns himself to a life of loneliness and sadness in "Brokeback Mountain." As Ennis Del Mar, he's as heartbreaking and vulnerable in this movie as he was horrifying and untouchable as The Joker in "The Dark Knight." It's hard to believe it's the same person playing two such polar opposite roles!

"Brokeback Mountain" is a thing of beauty, the kind of movie that some of us live for. It makes you care deeply about and ache for the characters, treats you to stunningly beautiful (and often bleak and lonely) landscapes both geographical and emotional, and lets a heterosexual woman like me see the world through the eyes of two men in love.

It's the kind of lyrical, exquisitely shot film that moves as languidly as a herd of sheep through a valley. It has as many wide open spaces as the undulating Wyoming foothills much of it takes place in, and sometimes it's as forelorn and quiet as the dusty, barren smalltown tableaus it captures.

Each of the major players is wonderful. But Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar is a beautiful, astounding revelation. It's no hyperbole to say that this is as good as anything James Dean, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Russell Crowe or any of our greatest actors have ever done.
Ennis breaks our hearts as he resigns himself to the fact that he can never truly be with the love of his life, that he lives in a time and place where a love so great it should be shouted from the mountaintops must be kept locked inside him forever. As he tells his lover, Jack Twist, played well and sympathetically by Jake Gyllenhaal, "If this thing grabs hold of us at the wrong time, in the wrong place...we're dead."

Ennis is the embodiment of still waters running deep. Because he's got so much overpowering emotion locked up inside him that he can't express, he's literally a clenched man. He walks around with his fists clenched, his chin tucked low--even his mouth barely opens when he manages to grumble a few carefully chosen words.

It's to Ledger's great credit that none of this ever comes across as forced or stagey...it's just Ennis. Everything about this character feels real and lived in and just right. Whether he's packing his gear for the trail, gracefully riding his horse, shooting a gun, whittling in his tent, awkwardly trying to dance with the waitress at the local honky tonk, or gently cradling one of his sick girls, we totally buy this young man from Perth as a young ranch hand from Wyoming.

And we care about him...deeply. We want to see him happy. But like the waitress--who tries and fails to bring him out of his lonely shell--tells him with tears of exasperation: "Girls don't fall in love with fun, Ennis!" No, they often fall in love with sad, wounded guys like Ennis, hoping they'll be the special one who can bring a smile back to that handsome face.

But Ennis, of course, wouldn't be Ennis, wouldn't be the incredibly sympathetic character we grow to care so deeply about, if he was always walking around smiling and happy-go-lucky. It's the sense of sadness and deeply buried emotion he carries with him throughout the movie, and especially after he loses Jack, that touches us in a very deep place. And the true marvel is the way Ledger conveys that sense of loss so profoundly with rarely a word being spoken.

When he visits Jack's parents (this whole sequence another high mark in the annals of screen acting), Jack's mother invites him to have a look at his bedroom, which she's preserved just as her son left it. While riffling through Jack's closet, Ennis discovers his own long-lost shirt (bloodstained from a fist fight they'd had on Brokeback Mountain) on a hanger with one of Jack's jackets. At this moment he realizes that Jack had "stolen" his shirt and secretly kept it as a precious memento of Ennis for all these years. He takes the shirt and jacket in his hands with exquisite tenderness, clutches it to his chest, closes his eyes and inhales the scent of Jack. And in so doing, he conveys more movingly than any words ever could just how much he misses him, how deep the pain of his grief.

And the entire coda of the movie, beginning when his daughter pulls up to his trailer and ending with his moment at the closet, is some of the most quietly, profoundly moving acting I've ever seen. Again, the relationship between father and daughter feels totally credible, as does Ledger as a 40-ish man. We fully believe their long history together. Pretty amazing when you consider he was about 25 at the time he made this movie, and the actress playing his daughter about 18 or 19.

They play out this scene with exquisite tenderness and delicacy. Many years after her parents have divorced, this sweet, loyal daughter has never given up on her father. She seems a bit baffled by his lonely lifestyle, can't quite understand why he chooses to live so far out of town in his shabby, sparsely furnished trailer, why he's never found himself another wife.

But her eyes are filled with love as she tells him about her upcoming wedding, and then a hint of tears as he indicates that his work might keep him away from her big day. Her momentary sadness and our disappointment in Ennis make it all the more redeeming and satisfying when he gets up, pours two glasses of wine and proclaims with a smile and a devil-may-care tone that they'll just have to find themselves "another cowboy," because a daddy can't miss his daughter's wedding day.

As she drives away, he realizes she's left her sweater behind, and tenderly folds it up and places it in his closet. And that's when we see the shirt and jacket hanging there. Along with a photo of Brokeback Mountain tacked up on the closet door, they form a sort of shrine to Jack. They're all Ennis has left of their 20 years of secretly loving each other.

He fumbles with the shirt's buttons, straightens out the photo...and then comes The Moment. Suddenly the tears well up in his soulful eyes, he quietly whispers, "Jack, I swear," and we feel the ocean of grief and loneliness and loss he's been holding inside him wash over us. And then he closes the closet door and walks away, and that's it. And we're left heartbroken for Ennis, and we don't want to leave him like this, living all alone in his little trailer on the bleak Wyoming plains, with nary a friend left in the world.

That Moment of Ennis Del Mar in his sad little trailer with those tear-filled eyes has now joined the ranks of other such Moments I've experienced and never forgotten throughout my years of watching movies. Certain moments in certain movies can touch us deep within our core, in a place that's usually touched only by those big moments in our own lives: when we fall in love or recite our wedding vows, when our babies are born, when those same "babies" graduate, when we lose someone we love or experience any kind of trauma or tragedy, etc.

Sometimes a moment in a movie will shimmer like a gem, stirring those same heightened emotions we sometimes forget--in our everyday, paying-the-bills existence--that we're capable of feeling. They can send waves of elation, heartbreak, tenderness--or on the flip side, anguish, anger, dread or horror surging through us . They make us Feel.

Some of my cinematic Moments have been Meryl Streep and her "silent scream" in Sophie's Choice, or friends Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran sitting together in silent communion throughout the night in "The Killing Fields," waiting for the dawn and the Khmer Rouge to come and take Pran away to nearly certain death. Or the moment in "Damage" when Jeremy Irons watches his son fall over a balcony railing to his death many stories below, then has to make the agonizingly long run down many flights of stairs to cradle his son's lifeless body in his arms. Or the breathtakingly exuberant "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in that classic musical.

Ennis in his trailer with those tear-filled eyes now has its hallowed place among such Moments.

And now the actor who created that Moment is gone, the actor who obviously had so many more such moments inside him just waiting to emerge. He was clearly on his way to being one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. For The Joker, Ennis and Sonny in "Monster's Ball" alone (and probably a few of those performances I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing), I'd say he's already earned that distinction. Yet even with all these achievements already under his belt, it seems he was just hitting his stride, just beginning to really soar. And now he's been grounded forever.

Oh how I wish he could have been here through all these weeks of awards ceremonies, basking in all the recognition, acclaim and standing ovations that have come his way for his incomparable work in "The Dark Knight." He died six months before it was released, which means he never got to see an audience's reaction to his performance, never knew how much we all love his Joker. And now he won't be here tomorrow night to pick up the Oscar that's practically got his name written on it. We won't be treated to the lovely sight of a tall, tuxedo-clad Heath Ledger walking up to the podium and making a characteristically humble, gracious speech of gratitude and appreciation for his Oscar.

And of course, as sad as it is that we've lost such a fine young actor just hitting his prime, his little daughter Matilda has lost her daddy. She was just two years old when he died, and she already bears a striking resemblance to him. So this is one of the ways that Heath Ledger will live on.

Another way is through his movies. Thank you Heath for your beautiful spirit, which shines through in every one of your performances. Thank you for all those "moments" you've created and left behind for movie lovers and lovers of great acting everywhere. Even in your tragic early passing, you've left us one more such moment, which will come tomorrow night when our own eyes well up with tears and a bittersweet mix of heartbreak and joy and mourning and happiness for you surges through us as we watch your family accept your Oscar.

And we'll now have a new phrase to replace that very sad one, "the late," which often precedes your name these days. From here on out, you'll forever be known as "The Academy Award-winning Heath Ledger." That is just as it should be. It fits you so well, like that cool purple suit.

Goodnight, sweet Australian prince.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Absences

I read a great piece of advice about blogging awhile back. It said something like, "In order for your blog to survive, you have to feed it regularly."

I hope it isn't too late, that I haven't starved my blog to death by not feeding it in more than a month.

I just haven't had any time at all to devote to it lately. My life in real time, real space has occupied all of my time lately. But there's always the nagging regret that there aren't more hours in the day, because I really DO love to write my thoughts down in here every once in awhile, share them with the solitary reader who happens to stumble upon my blog every now and then, just get 'em down and off my chest.

But just weeks after I started this blog in September, I got a call from a company I'd recently sent an application to, went on my first job interview in nearly 20 years, and surprise!...got the job. So the little time I used to be able to spend posting to my blog is now spent mainly on...reading posts submitted by others to online obituary guestbooks, and then deciding if they're appropriate to publish or not. (Bet you never would've guessed that that's how I was going to end that sentence. I guess you could call it the quintessential odd job!)

You know how when you read an obituary in the newspaper, at the end it often says, "Sign the online guestbook." Well, that's where my company comes in. They host these online guestbooks for almost all the major U.S. papers, plus hundreds of other smaller newspapers throughout the country. And they've branched out into Canada and the U.K. in recent years too. So with thousands of these entries coming in every day, they've got plenty of work to keep a large staff of "screeners" busy on shifts that cover most of the day and night. And as of early last October, I'm one of those screeners.


You'd think it might be a bit of a downer, being involved in an industry that owes its very existence to the fact that people die, by the thousands, every single day, reading posts saturated in death for hours at a time, five days a week. Well yeah, there ARE times when it can get to be a little much, when it's hard to detach yourself, when all this talk of death and the deceased can get you down and make you feel sad. It makes me all-too-keenly aware of the transient nature of life, that's for sure, of how quickly it all can end. It makes me acutely aware that there are heartbreakingly sad deaths happening every day, that many of the good really DO die young, that life--even for those who live to be 100--is just waay too short.

But in many ways that's been a good thing. Even before this job, being well into my 40s now, I long ago lost that sense of immortality, that life would go on forever. I've long been aware of the urgent importance of making the most of each day, of truly savoring every moment with those we love. But this job gives me such clear, concrete examples of those precepts every day. So with every post I read, I'm reminded to deeply appreciate every moment, every smile exchanged, every tenderness shared with those I love. To not sweat the small stuff too much. Every day I get vivid, well-written and extremely poignant reminders of how it can all be over in the blink of an eye.

And reading all these entries, there are a few "themes" that emerge over and over again:

1) The block you grow up on becomes your first little "community," which is why so many writers seem to have such vivid memories of the years they spent growing up on a particular street, the special neighbors they had, all the carefree, happy times they spent playing with the other kids on the block, etc.

2) Many people seem to have a lake somewhere in their past. So often I come across entries that recall magical, golden summers spent "at the lake."

3) No one seems to be remembered for their fancy house, how much money they did or didn't have, or the material things they gave to others. From reading these posts, it's usually hard to tell if the deceased was rich, middle class or poor. People talk almost exclusively about the special, priceless emotional qualities the person possessed, the things that can't be quantified. I honestly don't think I've ever read a post extolling all the wonderful "things" the person had, how rich they were, etc. Well, a really nice set of wheels has left a lasting impression on more than one poster, and the fact that someone was a sharp dresser sometimes gets noted. But usually the things that matter most to the writer about the person who is gone are the ones that have no price tag.
4) I guess this could be seen as another elaboration of point #3, but in the end it really does seem to boil down to "friends and family" being the most important things in most people's lives.

5) Some of the qualities people seem to admire most in others are the ability to put other people before themselves, to give of their time and talents to help others, to be truly interested in others' lives, yet be humble and modest and low key about their own accomplishments. So, self-centered is "out," other-centered is "in."

6) Whenever you sense that nagging feeling of guilt and regret about not being in touch with someone who means a lot to you for a long time, by all means pick up a pen or the phone, or drop them an e-mail, and let 'em know you're still out there and you still remember and still care. So many posters to these guestbooks express feelings of anguished regret for not doing so when they felt the urge or necessity, and then learning it was too late. Remember, there's a reason for those adages like "life is not a dress rehearsal" and "your life is now," other than the fact that they make for good T-shirt or bumper sticker slogans.

And finally 7) The word "privilege" has got to be one of the most misspelled words in the English language. :)

So that's my feeble and rather peculiar excuse for not posting more lately: I've been wallowing in death notices. But I think I'm adjusting a bit to this new schedule, getting accustomed to work taking up certain hours of my day on a very regular basis. I hope to be able to figure out a way to hold down a job, raise my family, keep my house (relatively) clean, make those phone calls, do those errands, and still find time for the occasional blog post.

And so my dear readers (if there are any of you out there), I hope you won't give up on my blog entirely.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Brushes With Greatness

(Inspired by a post from a chat forum I regularly visit)

The poster wrote:

"I reckon it would be nice if there was a "Brushes With Greatness" archive that compiled all these bits together."

"Brushes With Greatness," hmmm.... Yes, this could be a fun and interesting topic.

My brushes with greatness include the time my 5th grade class went on a field trip to see Marcel Marceau perform his pretty amazing mime act in a dinner theater, and then had the honor of a private audience with him for quite awhile after the show, because he and my teacher had somehow struck up a friendship. Mrs. Stamberg was the kind of teacher who took art classes at night, then came back to the classroom the next day and taught us every thing she'd learned about drawing or painting. She was one of those teachers who literally changes the way you think, has a direct hand in shaping you and your interests.

And there was the time I met...ah, you've already heard enough about me meeting the four blokes in Led Zeppelin in a previous post. So I won't go into that one again now.

But my most intense, sustained brush with greatness was the time I sat opposite the white-haired man in the red-and-white checked shirt and the bright red socks as he let his tape recorder run. If you haven't figured out the answer to my "riddle" yet, I'm talkin' about Mr. Studs Terkel.

One day my phone rang, and there was the slightly nasal voice of an old man on the other end. Said he'd seen my op-ed piece in The Chicago Tribune, and had gotten my number from the editor. Said it was Studs Terkel. Me being pretty young and unexposed to Studs at the time, I'd never heard him speak before. So I didn't yet recognize that voice that's so highly recognizable once you've heard it. At first I thought one of my friends was putting me on. More than once I expressed my doubt about the veracity of his claim to be Studs Terkel, almost to the point that he was beginning to get a little irritated with me. :)

Well, he somehow finally convinced me that he was indeed the real McTerkel. And then the poor man had to endure me gushing profusely about what an honor it was to have him call me, about how I couldn't believe it was really him. Then (a bit apologetically), about how I'd read "Working" and loved it, and really meant to read the rest of his books, especially "Hard Times" and "The Good War."

Long story short, he eventually asked me if I'd drop by his office at the public radio station where his program was broadcast, and be one of the interview subjects for his next book. So I headed downtown to the WBEZ offices, where Studs and I chatted for more than an hour while his signature tape recorder captured every word.

And that was the problem. I tried to give him thoughtful, pithy answers to his questions about what the neighborhood I grew up in was like, stuff like that. But I was only in my 20s at the time, still kind of naive and a bit of a crusader. And it probably didn't help that I was feeling kind of down on my old neighborhood and former cohorts at the time, as I'd recently made an abrupt and unexpected return to life in the suburbs after five years at university. So I came off sounding a bit, hmmm...not much like myself at all.

I think it was a combination of me being a little bit shy and nervous under the circumstances and Studs sort of leading the interview a certain way to get the information he needed from me, then just taking little bits of our conversation--sometimes out of context--to use in his book.
But for whatever reasons, in the finished product I come across as a sort of cigarette-smoking, gum-chewing, street-corner or barroom philosopher, a little on the self-righteous side. To keep with that total blue-collar vibe to my character, he never even mentions the (Vietnam-related) opinion piece I wrote that had inspired him to look me up in the first place. So yeah, I'm one of the subjects in one of Studs' books. But I ain't gonna tell ya which one or under what pseudonym. ;)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Some Things Are Just Meant To Be

My oldest son, Daniel, was born with Down syndrome. Because I've never wanted to define him--nor have others define him--purely by his disability, I always try to view him more as a young man who happens to have Down syndrome than "My Down Syndrome Child." He is above all else a human being, deserving of the same dignity and respect as any other human being. That's why I like to stress the things he has in common with other human beings, rather than focus on his differences too much.

Acknowledge them I freely do. I know, for instance, that he'll probably never marry and have children, never drive a car, never earn a Ph.D., learn to play an instrument, become a star athlete. But I also believe that focusing too much on his physical, emotional, intellectual and behavioral differences would only serve to limit him in life, and limit how others perceive him.

So until now I've avoided writing posts that focus on his disability. I don't intend for my blog to become Down Syndrome Central or anything. But because, as I said in my previous post, October is National Down Syndrome Awareness month, I hope you won't mind if I indulge myself in one more Down's-related post before the month is out.

I have a few thoughts to express today about how, in retrospect, it almost seems as if Daniel was destined to come into the lives of my husband and me.

There's the issue of genetics, of course. I had a great uncle who had Down syndrome. Lived to the ripe old age of 69, he did, which is quite old for someone with this disability. I attribute his longevity to the fact that, in an era when so many handicapped infants were whisked out of the arms of their heartbroken mothers and fathers to be hidden away in institutions, my great grandma and grandpa--a hearty Minnesota Swede and German, respectively--kept their boy at home, where he was raised alongside his three "normal" siblings, and where he remained until both of his parents had died. Only then did his siblings look for, and find, a wonderful group home for him, where he had a job, friends, and a thriving social life, and where he was eager to return after his weekend visits with family. (Which is always a good sign. It's when they DON'T want to go back that you should worry.)
So was it simply a question of genetics that brought Daniel to us? Surprisingly, it wasn't. When the doctors did all the blood tests, they discovered that neither my husband nor I was a carrier of the gene that causes the extra chromosome associated with Down Syndrome. So it was purely an "accident." And because we were quite young when we had him (early 20s), it was against pretty high odds (about 1 in 1000) that he was born with the disability. Everyone knows that the odds of having a baby with Down syndrome increase greatly with the mother's age, so that by the time a woman is in her 40s, the risk is very real, and goes up higher with each year. But to be 23 and have your first child born with Down's...well, let's just say it takes you completely off guard.
So what makes me feel that I was destined to have a baby with Down syndrome? Call it intuition if you like. First there was the fact of growing up with Uncle Tommy around. Everytime dad would put mom and all of us kids (there were *ONLY* five of us at the time in our still-growing family) onto a train in Chicago's Union Station and we'd head up to Minneapolis to visit her relatives--there Uncle Tommy would be, just he and great-grandma left in the old white clapboard house he'd lived in since his birth around 1930.

As we kids and our Minnesota cousins ran wild around great-grandma's cozy old house, Uncle Tommy would be sitting there in his big worn armchair like a king on his throne in the tiny living room, watching his favorite shows on TV. Every time we got too loud for him or blocked his view of the TV, he'd get all flustered and forcefully say "SHHH!" to us, putting a finger to his lips for emphasis. But other times he seemed to enjoy having all of us little kids bustling about and disrupting his normally calm, quiet house. A smile would crinkle his sweet slanted eyes as he'd
watch us play. Sometimes he'd even try to talk with us a little.
Ever since those days, I always felt somehow drawn to people with Down syndrome. Whenever I'd be out with my parents at the zoo, a museum, restaurant, etc. and spot a person with Down's, I'd just kind of watch them for awhile. I wouldn't stare rudely at them or be impolite in any way about it. I just felt compelled to acknowledge them, just because I cared, and felt a strong affection for them. Long before my Down syndrome baby was born, I often had to resist the overwhelming urge I sometimes felt to wrap my arms around people with Down's and give 'em a great big hug.

To be completely honest, in those early years I was also slightly afraid of and even slightly repelled by my uncle, with his thick tongue that was always pushing out of his mouth as if there just wasn't enough room for all of it in there (which of course I later found out is exactly why many people with Down's have the very same problem). And I was scared a bit by his droning, slurred speech and the moaning noises he'd make when he just couldn't find the words in his limited vocabulary to express what he was feeling, and so had to lash out somehow in frustration.

Yet at the same time, I was also mystified, fascinated, empathetic and curious about him. Though he was a grown man in his 30s at the time, he seemed so childlike and vulnerable with his lumbering, shuffling gait, his stubby fingers, his thick neck, his wire-rim glasses and that protruding tongue, so I felt almost protective of him, even when I was just 6 or 7 myself. I guess I just sensed that he was still a lot like a kid himself. He had a thing for Superman, liked to wear a towel pinned around his neck with a safety pin as a cape. And he loved cap guns. So how could a 7-year-old not relate to him, right?

So this background of growing up with Down syndrome as a normal part of my family life sort of groomed me for what was to come in my own life, though of course I had no idea then what the future held for me.

Then there was that textbook in my Intro. to Psychology course in college. I remember very clearly being drawn to pictures of people with Down syndrome in the chapter on "abnormal psychology." As I pulled an all-nighter to prepare for a test, I can still remember staring at those photos, quite mesmerized by the sweetness and innocence of those faces, feeling a surge of compassion, love almost, toward them...that protective feeling again.

And perhaps most strangely and presciently of all, there was the time in the hospital, just days before Daniel was born. My doctor had admitted me two weeks before my due date, after we realized I was quite small for my dates. After he'd studied the results of an ultrasound, he sat us down in his office. I clearly remember him sitting across from my husband and me at his desk, giving us the diagnosis: Intrauterine Growth Retardation. He must've noticed the involuntary reflex of fear in our eyes as soon as he uttered the word "retardation." Because he quickly added, "And I stress, this just means PHYSICAL retardation. The baby's PHYSICAL size isn't measuring up." (I guess he really didn't know about the Down's at this point, or I don't think he would've said that. At least, I hope he didn't know yet, and that he wasn't just withholding that information from us to postpone our grief.)

As I lay there in my hospital bed that weekend, missing my own baby shower, waiting for labor to be induced the following Monday, I picked up my copy of LaLeche League's guide to breastfeeding and started flipping through it. Though I'd exhaustively researched this topic over the past nine months, I figured it couldn't hurt to review. After all, I'd be needing this knowledge a little sooner than I'd expected.

And there in that book was a photo of the sweetest, most beautiful baby. My eyes kept being drawn back to it, almost involuntarily. Yes, you guessed it: The baby had Down syndrome. And he was a boy, in an adorable little baseball cap, I remember. He had the sweetest grin on his little face. I couldn't stop gazing at that photo, my heart swelling with love and tenderness for this pure, innocent little guy who'd drawn a short straw in life, who was starting out life with a huge strike against him. But he didn't seem to know that, or to mind. With that sweet smile on his face, he just looked so happy to be alive. He was in the chapter on nursing a child with special needs.

I finally forced myself to turn the page after awhile, truly thinking I'd never need such information. I still had that confidence that most first-time parents have that their baby will be absolutely "perfect."

And then, two days later, our Daniel was born...with Down syndrome. It was a devastating shock and a raw wound for quite awhile. But in some ways I'd been preparing my whole life for his birth. Strange how life works sometimes, isn't it? And he DID turn out to be quite "perfect" in his own way, after we, his parents, were able to do some adjusting, some rearranging of our initial dream. We just needed to learn to live with a new, slightly revised definition of the word "perfect."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Down Right Beautiful

(This post is dedicated to all the beautiful, remarkable people in the world who have Down syndrome, as well as to the families and friends who love them.)

October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month. With me being the very sporadic and infrequent blogger that I've been so far, it probably doesn't surprise anyone that it's taken me until the month is nearly over to write a post reminding people about it. But as one who is too-often running late and is an expert at procrastinating, I've come to learn that in most things, the old saying "better late than never" really DOES apply.

In that spirit, I present the following two-part documentary, which I discovered much to my joy on YouTube. It's about the very special Core Family, two loving parents and four big sisters who weren't about to let a little Down syndrome get in the way of loving and caring for their son/brother.

It's a beautifully filmed little piece of work (with kudos to Papa Core, who captured his children's 1960s childhoods so beautifully and poetically on his no-doubt quite primitive video equipment. The moving footage, combined with his eloquent, poignant commentary, brought tears to my eyes more than once while viewing this. The credit goes to filmmaker Roger M. Richards for the evocative synchronization of Core's audio commentary with his video images. Richards--Core's grandson, and the son of one of the sisters featured in the film--found his grandfather's audiotapes and home movies among boxes of tangled film spools he inherited upon his death, and edited them together to create this incredibly moving documentary.)

I think this "small" film says just about everything there is to say about the sacred bonds of family, and the incredible, abiding, unconditional love of four sisters for their baby brother. And--perhaps most important of all in these times when the prevalence of amniocentesis is leading to an alarming increase in the rate of abortions of fetuses revealed to have Down syndrome--it shows us the sweetness, purity and beauty (maybe not apparent to some on the surface, but there all the same) of people with Down syndrome. I think it shows quite clearly just what the world would lose if people like Dwight Core Jr. (and my son Daniel) ever became an extinct "species."

video

Think of Me First As A Person--Pt. 1


video

Think of Me First As A Person--Pt. 2

Monday, October 15, 2007

Loonacy

My husband and I caught the last half of On Golden Pond when it was on TV recently. It's a problematic movie, very uneven in tone, switching as it does from deeply moving scenes that ring so true to some downright melodramatic, even unintentionally silly scenes. Even the title is all wrong. I know we're dealing with acting royalty here, but excuse me Mr. Fonda and Ms. Hepburn, that's no mere "pond" you're on, that's a full-fledged lake. And a huge mother of a lake at that!

But there's one thing this movie gets absolutely right: the loons! And Norman and Ethel's reverential love for them--that's absolutely true to life too.

When they arrive at the beginning of the summer to open up their cottage, and their ears perk up and they get those blissed-out looks on their faces at the sound of the first loon call of the season, well...that isn't sappy melodrama, that's reality! In fact, it's exactly how my husband and I react whenever we hear them calling. Call us loony if you will, but we stop whatever else we're doing, and just listen intently. If the kids are talking, we hush them and demand that they listen too, until the last strains die down and we know this particular loon moment has passed.

And calling it a "loon moment" isn't hyperbole either. When you're fortunate enough to be staying at a lake that's got a resident loon family floating and diving around in its waters, you feel as if you've been blessed, that nature has given you a rare gift. You fully appreciate that you're being graced by their presence.

And this is not just because they're fairly rare birds, who live within a very limited range in North America. It's also because they're such special birds. They look, sound and act like no other birds around.



Once you've heard the lonely, hauntingly beautiful wail of a loon late in the night on a Northwoods lake, or its crazy tremolo warbling as it flies across the sky at sunset, you never forget it. If you've never been lucky enough to hear one, this is what it sounds like:

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/audio/Common_Loon.html

Loons have held an almost mystical attraction for me since I heard my first mournful but beautiful loon call as a child, while whiling away some idyllic summer days at relatives' cottages on Minnesota lakes. This was the "old days" of the '60s to early '70s, before cottages became "summer homes."

So I'm not talking about those palatial, fancy log homes with their second-floor lofts, prow fronts and huge banks of windows. No, these were honest-to-goodness, rickety old spider-web shrouded cottages. The kind with screen doors that squeaked when you opened them, and banged shut with a nice, satisfying slap when kids ran eagerly out the door after breakfast or dinner to explore in the woods, or fish from an old wooden pier, or skip stones on the lakeshore (looking for the perfect, nice flat rock in the crystal clear, shallow water along the shore was half the fun), or go for a swim out to the diving raft that was often anchored offshore. (Sometimes we made it home from our wanderings in the woods for lunch too; other times not.)

Now those were some happy, magical times, some of my best childhood memories. And the compelling call of the loon was the perfect soundtrack to accompany them.

It wasn't until I'd heard them for years, felt their unseen presence on many a Northwoods vacation, that I had my first actual sighting of one (or at least, the first one I remember). Finally it was my turn to wake before dawn and join my dad for an all-morning walleye-hunting expedition on his boat. We kids had to take turns, because there were 7 of us. Way too many to fit safely on his little rented motor boat at one time.

As we coasted along in the chill gray of dawn, a loon appeared ghostlike out of the thick mist that floated over the lake's surface. My dad pointed it out to me as we drifted silently by, not wanting to scare him.

To my untrained eye, it looked like a duck. But once you're familiar with those iridescent black/dark green heads, thick necks, long pointy beaks and red eyes that somehow don't look ugly or creepy (as you might think red eyes on anything would), and those black and white checkerboard feathers, you can never mistake a loon for anything else. They're magnificent birds!

And their calls...I can't quite express in words the primal hold they have on me. They're one of earth's oldest bird species, which might at least partially explain why their tremelos, hoots, and especially their signature wails, reach an ancient place deep within my heart and soul.

Heaven to me is two loons calling to each other on a full-moon summer night, their haunting cries echoing across a quiet lake aflame with silver ripples in the remote and wild Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Yes, I know Yoko Ono would have a field day with this one, but I'm talking loons in June under a full moon. But somehow I think Paul McCartney--who Ms. Ono famously scoffed at for such simplistic rhyme schemes and his sometimes saccharine expressions of emotion--might understand the overpowering emotions that can get stirred up by the haunting call of the loon.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Suspended In Mid Air

This is one of my favorite photos of my youngest son, for several reasons. I love the way it captures a carefree summer afternoon in our leafy backyard. Then there's the goofy pose my little guy is in, all lanky limbs akimbo. And there's something about the way the camera captures him suspended in midair, just before he takes his plunge into the cool, refreshing, aquamarine water.

The shot was taken more than two years ago. We were having fun experimenting with the "sport" setting on our new digital camera. My son was eight here, right near the end of that time when I could still safely get away with calling him "my little guy."

And just this past summer, I somehow got away with using this photo on the front of an invitation I made for a pool party he had for his friends.

Knowing how much he likes to avoid appearing "babyish" at any cost, I was actually pretty surprised I got away with it. He did protest when he first saw it, but only slightly. I convinced him that his friends would think it was pretty neat, that they wouldn't find it babyish at all.

But I also have a 15-year-old son. So I know full well that this is probably one of the last times I'll get away with something like that with my 10-year-old. I know that any day now, he could transform.

He's already showing signs of it.

One night after I'd pulled the covers up over him and bent down to give him a kiss on the cheek, all of a sudden he laid this one on me: he said he didn't need me to tuck him in anymore. He even pulled out the dreaded, "None of my friends' moms tuck them in anymore." It felt like a punch to the gut hearing my youngest say that, knowing that--after 23 years of raising kids--my days of "tucking in" are numbered. But I quietly absorbed the blow and jokingly persisted, because I could sense that he wasn't really quite ready to let go of our lifelong tradition. Just testing the waters.

My hunch was fortunately correct. As of this writing, I'm still allowed to tuck him in and get my goodnight kiss. But I know it won't be long now before he decides he really means it.

It happened this way with his older brother. This is the age when I first began noticing the little signs that he was preparing to "break away."

You spend years hoping they'll learn to pick up their Legos and put them away. Then when they finally do it, it's for good. And then you long for the days when there were piles and bins of them everywhere. You wish you were still stepping on them in every room of the house, that the vacuum was still sucking them up with that loud, telltale rattling sound.

And the bookshelves tell the story of their growing up too. The hardcover Dr. Seuss books that you spent hours reading together when your sons were toddlers and young boys give way to hardcover Harry Potters. The multitudes of thin Clifford, Franklin, and Berenstain Bears paperbacks--books you were always happy to read with them because they were just the perfect length for a quick pre-nap read--get replaced by longer chapter books about Lego Bionicle characters, or Pokemon or Sponge Bob. Then it's on to Goosebumps, then Artemis Fowl, and before you know it, he's graduated to those Japanese manga paperbacks. At first you protest that there's too much violence in those stories, that they're "graphic" in more ways than one. And then before you know it, your "little boy" is at the point where you think he might be mature enough to handle certain morally centered R-rated movies if he watches them "accompanied by a parent."

(All too soon, my boys will be sailing off on their own adventures.)

We read the first five Harry Potter novels together, spending literally years-worth of memorable evenings tucked in on the couch together, me reading aloud to him chapter by chapter. Then finally the time came when he told me he'd like to make the journey to Harry's sixth year at Hogwarts by himself. And that's when I knew our nights of bedtime stories were officially over. Now he sits at the kitchen counter before bed most nights, munching on multiple bowls of cereal while reading Ray Bradbury or Stephen King stories to himself.

You can mark the passages of their young lives by their sleeping arrangements too. In those early months of their infancy, all of my boys slept nestled in right beside me, as safe and warm and protected as they could possibly be. Then when they'd lost a bit of that newborn fragility, when they'd grown bigger and stronger and could sleep through the night, we found ourselves moving them to their crib in our bedroom. It was just a few feet away, but it felt like a big separation nonetheless.

Finally when they got to be toddlers of two or so, it was time for them to make the move out of their crib and our room into a room of their own. Here they had their own real bed for the first time. But they were still reassuringly close by, right across the hall, where I could check on their breathing if they had colds, or pop in easily to make sure they were all covered up and cozy before I retired for the night.

And now that 15-year-old has recently moved out of the room he shared with his younger brother for the past eight years. He's made his biggest separation yet from the family proper. He's taken over the space downstairs that used to be our family office/computer room. So now he's got that quintessential teenager's "room in the basement," as far away from the rest of us as he can be without actually moving away.

He would've been scared to death to sleep all alone in the basement until a few years ago. But now...he loves it! He and his friend have spent many hours painting the walls, arranging furniture, assembling the new nightstand we bought him, digging up little objects d'art that we'd packed away in boxes, setting them up on his shelf and dresser. And he's wanted very little help from us in this undertaking. He's made it quite clear that he can do it on his own.

And in many ways, I'm loving it too, this surge toward adulthood and independence. It's a beautiful thing watching a small boy transform into a big boy, then into a pre-teen, and finally into a full-fledged teenager, a young man.

But I'm going to enjoy every minute I can with my last "little guy" before he grows up on me too.