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Monday, February 13, 2006

You got served

Last fall, when word went around the disability studies circuit that Johnny Knoxville was going to star in a movie called The Ringer, the premise of which was that his character feigns a developmental disability in order to defraud the Special Olympics, people were—shall we say—skeptical.  I, however, was curious.  For the past few years, I’ve been telling people that the Farrelly Brothers (who produced, but did not write, The Ringer) have been trying, with mixed success, to do something smart and interesting with the dynamic of disability.  Sometimes their efforts have taken the fairly traditional form of deploying characters with disabilities as the moral barometers of their narratives, as in There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hal was, among other things, an attempt to redefine beauty in terms of an ethic of care (wherein the most beautiful people in the world are those who serve others selflessly).  But in Stuck on You, by contrast, they tried to pull off something like a disability comedy from an anti-normative perspective: when, at the outset of the film, an obstreperous patron at Greg Kinnear’s and Matt Damon’s burger shack (the two are conjoined twins and short-order cooks) demands that the “freak” be removed from the place, the regulars agree—so they get together and toss the insensitive jerk out of the restaurant.

I imagine, though, that the Farrellys were getting a little tired of exploring disability sympathetically and not having anyone notice.  So The Ringer takes the subject and puts it front and center.

I’ve been asked a couple of times about how I see the film, as a parent of a 14-year-old with Down syndrome.  “With popcorn,” I say, “and a large bottle of Dasani water.  Jamie gets himself a Coke.” Actually, Jamie’s seen it twice—once with Janet and Nick over the Christmas holiday winter solstice break, and once with me.

It’s not quite successful as a comedy, largely for the reasons Stephanie Zacharek explains in her Salon review: we really don’t have a lexicon for developmental-disability humor yet, and we don’t quite know when or how to laugh.  But on the most obvious (and accessible) level, the film is a biting and overdue sendup of the Daniel Day-Lewis/ Dustin Hoffman/ Tom Hanks/ Sean Penn/ Cuba Gooding tradition in which nondisabled actors win Oscars and/or the hearts of millions for portraying adults with developmental disabilities [edited in response to reader comments:  Daniel Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown had cerebral palsy.].  In The Ringer, Knoxville’s disability act is exposed quite quickly by the Special Olympians themselves, and they proceed to take over the rest of the film.  (The National Down Syndrome Society and the Special Olympics have enthusiastically endorsed the movie, and the Special Olympics were given control over the final script and the use of on-screen ad-libs as well.) As in There’s Something About Mary, one would be forgiven for coming away with the impression that angels walk this earth in the form of attractive female siblings of people with developmental disabilities.  But you know, perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world for mainstream Hollywood films to glorify the siblings of people with developmental disabilities.  I mean, it’s not like everybody’s doing it.

In the end, then, we weren’t offended by the film; we were intrigued.  And Jamie liked it (and asked to see it again) in part because it reminded him of his own Special Olympics experience this past November, which I’ve been meaning to narrate on this humble blog for a full three months now.  So here goes.

While I was at the University of Michigan on November 10 and 11 of last year, Jamie went with his volleyball team to Villanova University for the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival.  Those of you who are either family friends or very diligent readers of this blog will know that this constituted Jamie’s first-ever road trip and overnight hotel stay with people who are not members of his immediate family.  The deal was this: Jamie would travel with his YMCA team, the Red and Black Attack, on Friday afternoon; they would check in to the hotel that evening, and Jamie would room with two teammates and one of the coaches.  That night, I would fly home from Michigan, get up the next morning, and then drive to the outskirts of Philadelphia, three-and-some hours away.  The day’s volleyball games would be over by the time I arrived, but Jamie and I would catch up, maybe go swimming, get dinner, and (most important of all) go to the Special Olympics dance that night.

I arrived at Villanova around 4 in the afternoon.  One of Jamie’s roommates greeted me in the lobby of the Doubletree Suites, telling me that Jamie was a little wild; another roommate spotted me on the second floor, and said, “he’s bouncing on the bed and he wants to watch cartoons.” (Jamie is by far the youngest member of the team; the first person who spoke to me was in his thirties, and the second was in his early fifties.) “Has he behaved himself?” I asked.  “He’s a handful,” the roommate replied, in a singsong kind of voice.  When I was finally ushered into Jamie’s room by roommate number two, he was watching college football, and he was thrilled to see me.  Which is to say: he looked over at me, smiled, and said, “hi, Michael!  now can we go swimming?” before turning his attention back to the football game.

As I packed up Jamie’s suitcase and led him down the hall to our room, the coaches stopped us to say that Jamie had been simply wonderful the whole time, and that he’d done absolutely everything they asked (except maybe for eating too much ranch dressing at the previous night’s dinner), and that he was due for some “kid time.” They also told me that Jamie had had some fine kid time earlier in the day at the Olympic Village, where he danced with Darth Vader and some Star Wars storm troopers, introduced himself to dozens of people, and sat on a few of the motorcycles that were on display.  They gave me a Polaroid of a very cool-looking Jamie on a small Yamaha.  It sounded like he was managing to enjoy himself.

The dance, they said, would start at 8, and Jamie could come to dinner with the team or we could have some father-son time on our own.  We took option (b).  Jamie swam for a while, and then we went to the local mall (we were in one of those post-postmodern sprawl complexes that consist of generic motels and shopping centers) where we found that the casual-dining chain, Thank God It’s Ruby Tuesday Applebee’s, had a 45-minute wait.  So we got some slices of pizza at Sbarro and split a salad.

The dance turned out to be quite a scene.  Hundreds of adults and teenagers with developmental disabilities, just hopping and bopping and having a great old time.  Dozens of student volunteers and Villanova athletes, as well.  Jamie led me through the thick of the crowd and then out again, asking me, “where’s my group?” When he didn’t find them, he decided he would just dance by himself for a bit.  “Do you want me to dance with you?” I asked.  “No, you sit right there,” he replied, pointing to a nearby foldout chair.  Clearly, this was his party.  So I took my seat as he danced to two or three songs.  Then “his group” arrived, he spotted them in the crowd, and they all danced together for about fifteen or twenty minutes—until I learned that the van would leave at 6:15 am the next morning for Sunday’s first game.  “But the game is at 9,” I said.  “Yes, but we’re going over for breakfast and some practice first,” the coaches said.  “Yow,” I exclaimed.  “Oh, you don’t have to join us,” they assured me.  “You can just drop him off at the van and go back to sleep for a while.” Good, I thought, but I would still have to get up at 5:30—after traveling from Ann Arbor to State College the night before and then from State College to Philly.  So I got Jamie into bed by 10:30 that night, and crashed a half hour later.

The next morning, the phone rang promptly at 6:05.  “He’ll be down in five minutes,” I said groggily, as Jamie brushed his teeth.  After seeing him off, I did indeed go back to bed, knowing that when the morning’s game was over I still had another three-and-a-half hour drive in front of me.  I packed us up, and set the alarm for 8:30.

Now, a word about Jamie’s volleyball career to date.  Last year he was part of the “skills” class at the YMCA (a half-hour every Sunday in the fall of 2004), at which he learned how to serve and set.  He didn’t move to the ball during games, having no instinct for position play, but when it was hit directly to him (not too hard), he was capable of hitting it back, and occasionally he even hit it over the net.  But that was about it.  He was able to strike the ball sharply when it was his turn to serve, but he never cleared the net from that distance.  This year, he’d improved to the point at which the coaches invited him onto the YMCA team, but he was (as I’ve said) the youngest person on the squad, and though his position play was better and he was bigger and stronger than last year, he still hadn’t cleared the net on a serve.  At the one-day tournament at Juniata College this past October, he played four games; he wasn’t a starter, so he saw far more action in between-game practices than in games (and he sometimes asked to practice one-on-one with me), but he did manage to assist on two winning points, setting up much taller and older teammates capable of hitting it over the net with brio.  Though he’s now over five feet tall, he looked tiny out there; his jersey (he wore number 2) came down to his knees.  But he wasn’t completely out of sync with the general level of volleyball being played at the tournament; each team seemed to have three or four adults with disabilities who were serious athletes, a couple of capable players, and a couple of people who might or might not be able to hit the ball back.  Jamie was somewhere between group two and group three (closer to the latter), I thought, but I loved the fact that he was on the team, I liked the fact that the Red and Black won a gold that day, and I knew he’d improve with experience.  I did notice, however, that some teams allowed their weaker players to serve from a line that was about six or seven feet closer to the net than the back out-of-bounds line, and I wondered why the Red and Black Attack coaches didn’t offer this option to Jamie, who was now capable of reaching the net on a serve.  But I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t want to be one of those sports parents. Why isn’t my kid . . . ? You know what I mean.

So that Sunday morning at Villanova, I got some coffee at a Dunkin Donuts and drove to the campus at a leisurely pace, untroubled by the fact that I didn’t know exactly where I was going.  Games were being played at three different gyms, and even after I found the information desk it took me another ten minutes of wandering through Villanova’s sports facilities before I found the Red and Black Attack.  The game was well under way, and when the Y coaches saw me enter the gym, they promptly substituted Jamie for the player at the front right corner.  This meant, of course, that on the next point won by Red and Black, Jamie would be serving.

I was sitting behind the Red and Black end of the court, and when the team rotated and Jamie took the ball to serve, I sat at the edge of my chair and bit my fist.  If I’d had a towel I would have looked like Jerry Tarkanian.  Jamie tossed the ball lightly into the air with his left hand, swung his right arm through, and . . . delivered a perfect serve, clear over the net and between two opponents, neither of whom was able to return it.


The YMCA crew clapped and cheered as Jamie took the ball for his second serve.  This one was a monster: soaring to the rafters, it looked for a moment like it would hit a light fixture and be declared out of bounds.  But it reached the crest of its arc just a few inches shy of the roof, and came plummeting down in the back left corner of the other team’s court.

Another ace.

In the lower-division Special Olympics volleyball games, no team is allowed more than three serves in a row.  (That’s one way in which they recognize the talent disparities among the players.) So Jamie’s next serve would be his last no matter what happened, and, no doubt a bit overeager by this point (for he was truly pumped), he shanked it.  But he had gotten his first two points in Special Olympics play, and when Red and Black won the game—which they did—he lined up with his teammates and shook hands with the other team before he was picked up and swung around in a circle by a very proud father. 

As Cubs fans say, wait til next year!

In the meantime, Special Olympics basketball begins soon.  I’ve been practicing with Jamie at the Y on the weekends, and yesterday, after five or six tries, he hit his first three-pointer.  Nothing but net.

Posted by Michael on 02/13 at 06:12 AM
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