Saturday, March 04, 2006

Fantasies of Flight

It's been really hard to keep up entries after starting the part-time job. And, as if juggling poetry & MFA work with the job weren't enough, there have been a series of Robert crises/interventions: Robert's long coughing illness, the communication device that is about to arrive, fighting with the County special ed department, trying to figure out a new insurance plan.

We get the device, it looks now, probably 3/10 when we go for training on it. This Eyegazer device was originally developed for space and military applications, when personnel might be in a situation where they needed to communicate or activate controls and would not be able to speak aloud or use their hands, due to communications glitches, G-forces, or whatever. It feels somehow appropriate that the military, which originally brought me as a kid to the WDC area through my dad's Guard service, is indirectly responsible for this promising piece of equipment. You can see the device at

I remember hearing Ellen Voigt lecture at Bread Loaf in 2001 on poetry and the development of language in children. There were many things about the lecture that I liked, although I can't really recall specifics at this point, but I remember how put-off I felt about the way in which her sources (and, thus, her lecture) precluded or excluded linguistic development in children who lacked expressive language ability (the ability to speak--receptive language is the ability to understand what is said).

Robert was four that summer. I may be doing Ellen a disservice and misremembering some things, but I seem to remember that she drew connections between children developing language and a child's coming into being as a complete person. At the time, I saw Robert developing his personality even without expressive language ability--I saw him taking things in and understanding. And, looking back, I still see that to be true.

But, as Robert has grown older, this inability to express his thoughts has been, well, tragic. It has impacted his learning, the way people see him, and the way our family interacts. It is clear to me that there is a very complicated emotional being inside of Robert, and that person only becomes more complicated as he ages. When he gets upset, yes/no questions don't cut it much in trying to figure out what's going on.

Yesterday afternoon, I took the kids (with friends) to see a matinee, Curious George. Robert has a tendency to cry in movies--he seems to be a very sensitive kid. Sometimes it's what we refer to as 'sad music', which is anything the gut-wrenchingly emotional to the mildly melancholic--the scale is relative to how long it actually takes Robert to burst into tears. Edith and I were at a family event in Vermont last December (without Robert and Roger), and my brother and sister sang 'Ave Maria.' After the opening bars, Edith and I looked at each other (my daughter is 5) and said practically at the same time, 'Robert would be crying by now.'

The Curious George soundtrack was often just one emotional shade above the mildly melancholic, and I kept looking at him, wondering if it would affect him or not. I mean, I often wonder, why not just make happy cartoons? What's the point of trying to make the characters emotionally complex? We're talking about kids, here--they're in it for the good time and the laughs, why suggest to them, oh, these characters might be sad sometimes? The kids know it's OK to be sad, they're frequently sad about all kinds of trivial things.

Anyway, I kept thinking it was great that Robert was handling this. Then George is floating away from the zoo on a set of balloons, while the Man in the Yellow Hat grabs a bunch of balloons to chase after him. George heads to a building that has decorative spikes on it, the balloons pop, George starts to fall, the Man in the Yellow Hat catches him, then realizes how much he cares about George--then, and only then, does Robert start to cry.

So I wheel him out and try to talk to him while he's wailing, which is acutely impossible as he squinches his little eyes closed so he doesn't have to look at you. And his tone increases so it's difficult for him to raise his arms to say yes or no. I do manage to get out of him several times that he doesn't want to go back in. I can't figure out why. And it's not because it scared him.

So this is where we are: Robert, watching previews for the movie is enthralled by some dinosaur cartoon where pteranodons (pteradactyls?) are flying and swooping around--I mean, this is apparently the coolest thing my kid has ever seen--these are dinosaur birds (give me a break, I was never into dinosaurs, even as a kid) that are characterized, with several little kid dino birds--then we get into Curious George--then the balloon flying scene comes up, which Robert apparently likes--then George loses his ability to fly. Is this what upset him? That George's ability to fly is taken away? It seems reasonable for a kid that is wheelchair-bound, the fantasy of flying would be pretty intense.

Who knows? I just hope the eyegazer works. It would be nice to hear my child formulate his own thoughts at some point.

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