Monday, January 19, 2015

Report from Cuba - 1

I'm dusting off my old blog.   field of vision -- what was I thinking when I gave it that name?    Please forgive the pretension.

On this MLK day, wanted to upload the short essay I wrote in response to the "homework" I was given by the U.S. Department of Treasury.  No kidding.    In order to get our visas in order to travel down to see the Havana Film Festival,  the Department of Treasury,  demanded that Al and I give some kind of presentation -- an essay or a talk would be fine -- about the Festival.

Of course -- after everything that's happened -- no one is going to check on us.  But I did write the essay as an exercise.   Eventually I'll get to it, and paste it here in sections (been trying, without success to get it published) , but now,  I just want to retrieve some memories and offer some impressions

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Background: We went down as independent travelers,  with an official mandate to see the film festival, and that information was included on just about every document we had to fill out.  So I wasn't surprised that when I walked through customs at the Jose Marti airport,  I was immediately button-holed by a government agent.  He was young and very handsome, and brought me to a quiet spot off to the side on the main floor.    Al -- my husband -- didn't see this little move, so for about fifteen minutes he was baffled about the location of his wife

I liked this agent -- he asked what my purpose was in visiting Cuba, and what I hoped to gain from it.  I told him I  wanted to get a sense of Cuban film, as well as LatinAmerican film in general.  He nodded, and filled in the gaps -- you want to learn about social problems, right?  And added some of his own biography.  He told me he was studying social work, and was interested in this too.  I had the feeling we could have talked for another hour,  but Al suddenly spotted me and came running over.  

 We left the airport, and tried to get our bearings,  though part of me was still back in New York.  We left December 4,  just a few days after the failure to indict the police officer in the killing of Eric Garner,  and everyone from our home city of New York was on edge.   

Much had changed since our first visit to Havana in 1997, but one thing remained stubbornly the same.  The broad, increasingly bustling avenues are still missing  news stands.   You still can’t find  any type of newspaper aside from the eight page (very unsatisfying) daily State publication, Granma.    And,  wending our way through the venerable old hotel, La Nacional, to log on to the internet,  and typing,  we found the page blocked. (We had hoped against hope.)  There were no other cyber-news sources.  

We arrived at our casa particulare (or home hostel)  and  turned on the television in our room to find that we couldn’t find much of anything there either.   There were about two seconds -- literally --  depicting a nighttime protest.  But no word on where it was taking place, the numbers, the daily pounding message of the protest.   You wouldn’t know there were thousands of people peaceably marching up 6th Avenue in New York City,  essentially taking over the streets.  The reason may have been diplomatic of course.  Cuba can’t have any journalists in the States, even if they wanted to, but they seem to have chosen not to show any of the other broadcast news shows available --  say, the BBC or Al Jazeera.  Isolation from the sweep of the day’s events felt complete and impenetrable.   That evening,  the gatekeepers had chosen an interesting alternative, however -- Stephen Vittoria’s 2012 documentary, Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal.  There we were on an old mattress in our room watching Cornell West and Amy Goodman!  It was a hard-hitting documentary about race in America.  But we desperately wanted the current situation.  

Today,  I think -- that might be a good film to revisit.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Besse Smith

past two posts reside on

The latest is titled -- oh I've already done it -- Besse Smith

Friday, October 14, 2011

How it was

Occupy Wall Street:

Afraid this morning that this whole, astonishing, peacable and peaceful act of social protest might come to a crashing end this morning. In a little more than an hour, Bloomberg's orders will be put into effect -- such stupid orders. Dragging out the hundreds, maybe thousands! of people doing nothing more than voicing a much needed message of conscience, awareness, dare I say it -- love.

Below some impressions of my first and I hope not my last visit to Zuccotti Park. It should have been posted a week ago, but my pics won't load for some reason. So, pictureless!

I went down to Liberty Park (amazingly, that really was its name) also known as Zuccotti Square this past Wednesday and wandered around just to take it all in. It was my first visit, and there was a lot to take in. Just a few impressions for now, with a few of my pics below. You can’t avoid the feeling of an open air encampment, mounds of sleeping bags, a huge blue tarp, sleeping heads poking out here and there. There’s a (large) library, a place you can get food. It’s a village. Artists, some with easels, some with black magic markers and pages of thick paper, scrawling on the pavement. I was handed a sign by James De laVega (I’ve learned later he’s a hipster muralist and street artist) The Game of Capitalism Breeds Dishonest Men it read. I joined in a march heading uptown, proudly holding up my message.

The folks who were running OWS are astonishingly polite. It – the good manners -- takes you aback. I’m of the generation that marched, shouting angrily, veins popping in the neck, fists raised. No veins could be seen anywhere. While I was snapping pictures I inadvertently strayed into a group of people who had started a slow, quiet group “walk” (I wouldn’t call it a march) around the park, chanting a slogan, calmly. I was standing like a boulder in a stream and I needed to be nudged aside. Someone told me, with a tinge of impatience “can you move please?” He then came back to me to explain why it was he had to ask me to do this. He actually did this. In the middle of a political demonstration.

This isn’t a minor characteristic. It’s telling of what this carefully crafted movement wants to convey. And they’re distinguishing themselves as decidedly mature, neat, and together.

The people’s mic – the mechanism and the messages. ‘Lovely’ Sounds dated, but something like that is the way you’ve got to describe it. The people’s mic is how they (whoever they are. A small group of Canadians I’ve heard started this and helped put in place the tone and method) have chosen to amplify the short speeches which are given on the Broadway (Eastern) edge of the park, where there’s a slightly lower amphitheater effect. At around 4:00, they called a halt to the bongo drumming and sporadic, undulating dancing of a few, and get us prepped for the expected arrival of the union faction. (Will it be a lasting, contributing faction? If so, I think OWS will definitely not be able to be ignored) Tens of thousands of union delegates from the SEIU, TWU, District 37, CUNY, NYU, The New School and others were massing from all parts of lower Manhattan and were expected to join together at this spot. We were getting our instructions. The way they told us about it, about how proper we needed to be, how we needed to make room, and move back, how we had to welcome them, etc. was all made clear in short succinct sentences that were repeated by concentric circles of us, participants, stretching all the way to the back to Trinity Place (the Western edge of the park). There was a church like, call and response feel to it, which turned into a concentric giggle when said organizer said – “Don’t fuck it up.” The group of people surrounding him repeated dutifully, ‘don’t fuck it up,” and the message travelled back. Then a young woman mounted something that enabled her to be taller than all of us, the huge orange arms of DeSuvero’s sculpture soaring above her head, and talked about how this was all in partnership with the Arab Spring. I thought at the moment -- what she’s saying, it isn’t a metaphor, it’s an answer, a huge people’s mic, stretching from Manhattan to Cairo, a rippled shout to those in Egypt wanting freedom, telling them, at that moment, that thousands of people across North America, wanting something as yet unnamed have linked arms with them. She said, ‘the people in Egypt. They have it much worse than we do. However bad it gets here, they have a very very difficult situation…” I had to head uptown to work, and I had to wrench myself away.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A new shoot, a new blog

I just returned from New Orleans and St. Bernard, my first trip since last August. Almost a full year. And I haven't recovered. Yeah, there was the insufferable heat. ( I'll never forget what that felt like, heat index in the three digits, every day, the minute the sun the hoisted itself into the sky until well after nightfall) Mama Sue is not well at all, and what tore me up was that she seemed not to care. Sue, whose irreverent, Southern humor has warmed and astonished, shocked and delighted me for the past five years, is succumbing to something very dark, where conversing is beside the point. Where tending a garden is irrelevant.

Sue is a large part of my film, whose title, Mama Sue's Garden, alludes to her changing, fantasy garden. It was never all "real," but intermingled silk flowers, glass stems, cherubs and shards recovered from Katrina with palms and climbing vines. It was a curiosity shop-garden and a world.

I've long ago crossed the line that some friends say I should never have crossed. I've stepped from behind the camera to hold hands and join forces with the people I"ve been shooting. I"d love to start a conversation among other doc filmmakers about this. Are most documentarians full of " scruples" about this? Anyway, I'm all about blurred boundaries. I can hold a camera one minute and talk about revitalizing the soil with buckwheat and sunflowers (can you imagine that shot if that happens?!) the next. So I've crossed over into a garden rally-er. They've got the land. (For more details, scroll back through this blog) They've got a name -- Garden of H.O.P.E. Sue suggested the name, attached for a while to a scrappy group of volunteers, which she says stands for Helping Other People with Everything.

But this blog has become too -- um, all over the place. My few readers must be exhausted. St. Bernard, filmmaking, Mama Sue's Garden, Nicaragua, the flu, Prospect Park, Spanish lessons and Alan, my brother who has autism and some other disabilities. So I decided, why not make some partitions and start another blog, one devoted just to Alan, and his just started music sessions while this one will chronicle the progress towards completing a documentary where the end is really still an unknown.

Alan, who doesn't speak, who seems to inhabit another reality, has, at 60, started music *therapy.* I put it in asterisks, as I don't like the oxymoron-ish feel of that. How can music be anything BUT therapy? Alan drums like a jazzer, his music therapist said. What a wonderful thing to be -- a jazzer. Anyway, he does sound like a seasoned jazz drummer, taking the baton and crashing it down on the cymbal like an almost in-control madman. Does it four or five times and then stops, a wistful, far away look coming over him. So, the blog will be called

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Where is the Family?

In response to a harrowing article on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, about three weeks ago, I wrote the following op-ed to the Times. It wasn't printed, or you can be sure you all would have heard! Funny, though, I didn't notice any op-eds in reponse to this very disturbing article (Abuse and Impunity at New York Group Homes, March 13, 2011). And although it was described as the first in a multi-part series, no other articles on the subject have appeared. Somebody on the editorial staff it seems has been doing a lot of "killing" of reportage. I wonder why. Anyway, below, to the small audience of my blog, you'll find what I had written.

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When we would pull up to the grounds of Letchworth Village, one of the large state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled in NY State that in its heyday housed up to 5,000 developmentally disabled men, women boys and girls, we felt like guests at another planet. We were there to pick up my brother and take him out for a drive, but as we signed our names in a large black ledger, no one gave us more than a nod, and we weren’t allowed into the day room, from which the strangest howls and moans emanated, nor the back room where Alan, my brother, slept. Alan would be led by the hand out to the waiting room, usually fitted out in a natty checked suit. (I’ve learned since then those nice clothes were kept aside for visits. Inside the day room, Alan’s worn and generic clothing was frequently covered in feces). But, oddly, we were all dismayed when we learned that Letchworth Village was closing.

My brother, who is now 60, is what they then called profoundly retarded and autistic. He has never spoken a word. When he’s upset he’ll raise his arms and flap his hands wildly.

My parents knew about the abuses. Rivera’s reports on network TV in the early 70’s included Letchworth Village along with Willowbrook. But they, along with the vast majority of parents, objected strenuously to the institutions’ closing, in large part because they feared that there would be poor oversight out in the community.

We were far luckier than the consumers described in the Times article (Abuse and Impunity at New York Group Homes). Alan’s IRA is an airy, light filled home, with a highly competent staff. Alan resides for most of the evening in a large soft armchair, waiting for a hearty home cooked meal. He has learned to smile.

But one line in the piece stood ut for me. “In many cases, the developmentally disabled do not have families actively involved in their lives.”

There are complicated reasons for a parent or sibling to not visit their family member. But one of the less discussed realities is that there’s an uncomfortable relationship between the family member and the staff in these State run group homes. You do a sort of “dance,” as a fellow sibling described it. And this is actually a very large problem, affecting the welfare of our disabled family members.

The one thing that stayed the same was that we still tiptoed around the staff that cared for my brother. We gauged what they wanted from us was – nothing. We were not expected to intervene in any significant way with our family member’s care. My parents accepted this without question. It was only after my father died, and I became Alan’s Legal Guardian that I began to question the status quo.

The issue that ultimately forced me to upend my learned acquiescence felt like a holdover from the institution – namely the persistent use of psychotropic drugs. Without any evidence of a behavior problem, other than a loud vocal “tic,” or involuntary repetitive sound, Alan was on at least three of these, some of them so strong they’re used typically on people with schizophrenia. And, indeed, Alan’s diagnosis was rewritten to include mental illness, so that the drugs could be prescribed. I would sometimes show up to take Alan out for a drive and, indeed, found him excessively groggy.

I swiftly learned it was not easy to budge the meds. I spoke to everyone -- the team leader, the team psychologist, the head psychiatrist of the DDSO, and the director of the DDSO, only to have my request for a trial reduction flatly denied. The reason I was given was that Alan would become too loud. (When I wrote Albany, I was promised an investigation, but soon they stopped returning my calls.)

Finally, a no-nonsense administrator told me that, as Legal Guardian, I had the authority to refuse permission for these types of medications. In other words, I could terminate them just for the asking. Every last drug was eliminated over time, without any negative effect on Alan’s behavior. Even his team now agrees that Alan is a calmer and happier individual.

However, as I write this, I’m experiencing a bit of those old, inherited anxieties -- will speaking out incite staff members to “take it out” on Alan? I know better of course. I now have a reasonably good relationship with Alan’s team. They’ll read this and groan and then we’ll move on.

But for more than two years I stopped attending the yearly review meetings, and no one seemed concerned. I know now that the team should have been worried. Having a family member present at meetings and in their family member’s life is essential.

If people are now wondering what some of the answers are, I suggest that State IRAs actively encourage family members to engage in their child’s or sibling’s life. Family should be made to understand what’s at stake, and that, indeed, they have a precious responsibility. The laws which govern guardianship should be understood by everyone and spelled out clearly for staff and family alike. Perhaps, as they do in non-State run facilities, relatives of all the residents of a house can have the opportunity to meet one another. I think longingly of the private group homes that routinely facilitate family barbecues and parties. These aren’t feel good luxuries. These gatherings are essential to bringing into play the critical, and keenly observant eyes of a family member. Only when you have that kind of oversight, will abuses of all kinds end. Firing the largest abusers is only the beginning of the solution.

For more information on my brother, Alan, and his history, you can see some pictures and clips from the film, Without Apology, a documentary I made about him.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

missed appointment

So now – after Donna played the recorder for my brother, and he clearly was delighted by it -- I can still see Alan swaying like a drunken sailor in this posh restaurant in downtown Nyack, where we went to celebrate his 60th Bday -- I”m looking for a music therapist for him. I have no doubt that music therapy is what he must have. The first new thing I've learned about Alan, aside from his insane love of eating out, is that he loves music.

The compilation CD I had going in the car as we headed down to Nyack to meet up with a candidate for the music therapist job includes this very torchy song and -- great surprise to me – Alan grinned when this young singer from the bayous, Amanda Shaw, growled this come hither motif. Alan grinned. Was it possible that he caught the sexual innuendo of the music?. I should have pulled the car onto the shoulder. I don’t think I could have been more surprised than I was right at that moment, sitting next to my 60 year old brother, who's never spoken a word, and who seems supremely a-sexual.

Anyway, the other thing going on, while I was getting over the notion of Alan, my wild and wooly brother, having a universal response, was that I had “invited” my mother to this meeting with the music therapist, taking care to carefully go through the few items of hers that I’ve kept. And I had selected a shiny black bangle with a gold clasp. It’s understated and classy, and completely incompatible with the corduroy jeans and boots I was wearing. It would go more with a black cocktail dress. But I was, I realized, with a … jolt, dressing for my mother! She liked it when I dressed up (it’s not in my nature) and put on makeup. So there we were -- Alan next to me in the front seat, grooving to Amanda Shaw, and me, with a turtle neck that wasn’t stretched out, mascara, her dressy black bangle around my wrist.

And that makes me wonder – was I in some way doing this entire thing as much for my mother as for Alan? Was I trying to make it up to her somehow, help heal the wound that never would heal? And – also, endlessly endlessly, even after her death, working to find my way into her heart?

We stood for half an hour in a small off- the- street foyer that led into an apartment building, every so often, trolling the block looking for someone who looked as though he were looking for someone, and calling his number, to learn that he was nowhere. But I knew immediately that the music therapist had forgotten our appointment.

So Alan and I went and had pizza and then went to a cafĂ© and shared a dessert. On a side street, I found a thrift shop, and while Alan sat in a wooden chair, far more patiently than Al, my husband, ever would have done, I browsed through a huge pile of stuff. (I would never even suggest to Al going into a thrift store after lunch.) But Alan, I’m pretty sure would have sat in that wooden chair for hours, gazing at the hundreds of cups and saucers and sweaters that surrounded him. Again, I had this sense of Alan as this mature person, and at that moment, a charming and endearing person as well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

lost in translation

While studying Spanish at the Mariposa Spanish school I was a good student and I did in fact learn a little Spanish. I showed up with my notebook and pen every morning and dutifully copied down new vocabulary words and tense structures until I"d filled pages and at night before turning out my light I'd peer at the new words and examples and recite them in one quick attempt to commit them to memory.

But after I've long since forgotten how to conjugate irregular past tense verbs, I won't have forgotten (don't begin to name the tense that just flew by!) one of my conversation teachers, who -- like all my instructors there -- easily bridged the distance between us, getting down to real stuff pretty quickly and easily.

On day two, Raul, let's call him, asked what the last present that my husband gave me was. How that came up, dunno. I thought back. Was it my birthday present -- a top from my favorite catalog, presented in its original mail order wrapping? It was beautiful. Don't get me wrong! But I didn't mention the top for some reason, and said something about how travelling to Nicaragua was a joint present to one another. Raul smiled. And what about you I asked? "I give her grapes sometimes, or apples." I think I said "oh." And Raul looked a little embarrassed suddenly, saying "we don't have a lot of money." My "oh" wasn't, of course, about the modesty of his gift. I didn't know how to express how beautiful I thought a gift of grapes was. How sensual to buy a piece of fruit for your wife. How flattered she must have felt! But though we were both speaking English (this would have taxed the limits of my Spanish) I couldn't express it without then sounding like I was making a big deal out of it, which would make it seem like I didn't really mean it. So I said nothing. And that little missed bit of communication was probably the one regret I had during our trip.