Sunday, August 10, 2014

Alone with Alone

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring —
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow — I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone —
And all I lov'd — I lov'd alone —
—Edgar Allen Poe
When I was a boy I never fit in. Growing up in the big city, this was no problem. My school was cosmopolitan enough that eccentricities were tolerated. But things changed when we moved out to a small town in the country. I was nine at the time.

For one thing, I discovered that I could make rather cutting remarks without meaning to. This didn't improve my social status any. But I had little use for people anyway. Entomology was my great passion. I'd memorized the orders, families, and so on, but chiefly I was interested in hymenoptera. I often spent my recesses watching honeybees at the trash can. This bothered the monitors, who were always trying to make me play with other children, so I eventually took to collecting twelve-spotted cucumber beetles in the back corner of the playground. Another great passion was Greek mythology. I pored over the family trees of the gods and heroes and great houses, and decorated my bedroom with genealogical charts. My specialized interests have carried over into adult life, though I've managed to route them into productive activities.

Other peculiarities abounded. Anything colored, such as cereal or candy, I had to eat one color at a time in spectral order. I talked to myself under my breath. My appearance was always disheveled. Certain loud noises made me almost frantic, as did buttons on clothing. (To this day I don't even like saying the word "button.") I stuttered. I had about as much difficulty telling faces apart as some people would have distinguishing two sheep, which led me into embarrassing situations. (This is still the case. Once I recognized my wife's nose from a distance in a crowded public place, but it wasn't until I was walking past her that I realized my wife was attached.) Direct eye contact was unbearable, and I was sometimes accused of lying, as often happens now when I have the misfortune to interact with law enforcement officers or border patrol agents. I am also often accused of being on drugs.

Eventually I did make two friends, boys, and we joined the scouts together. Without them, and the scouts, I don't know what would have happened to me. They helped me to become a more integrated person. I'm friends with them to this day.

At any rate, adolescence was bad enough as it was. The cracks and crannies of the school day were filled with jabs of physical pain against a background of fear. But even when I was safe from the maladjusted, overdeveloped cretins who swung through our junior high like rogue orangutans, I was constantly reminded of my deficits through being unable to interact with my peers. They were maturing in ways that I was not. The social cues they thought obvious were to me a secret language. Also, I felt remote from myself, watching everything through inverted telescopes, moving my limbs as though my body were a skill crane, hearing my voice as from the mouth of a stranger.

As I've matured, I've come to realize that I lack the ability to interact with strangers or acquaintances. I have to study a person for a long time, learn their mannerisms and way of speaking, before I can interact with them in anything like a normal way. I have a set of rote responses and gestures that I use on people I haven't researched, but when these run out, as they quickly do, I become an inert object. Before I knew better, I generally gave monologues on my interests, but my schoolmates broke me of this habit.

It wasn't until grad school that I started to realize there might be something wrong with the way my brain works. Once I passed my qualifying exams my difficulties suddenly became almost insurmountable. It wasn't that I was unintelligent. I'd graduated with a 4.0 in my upper-level math classes; on the GRE, I'd scored in the ninety-eighth percentile on the analytic portion, and in the ninety-sixth on the language. But, you see, I'd gotten to the point where I was no longer able to learn from lecture notes and books. Taking and passing tests wasn't enough. I had to learn from people, and this I was unable to do. It just sounded like gibberish to me. And I couldn't socialize. One time, for instance, I asked my wife to the department barbecue. My mute inertness, to which I was of course quite used, so distressed her that she burst into tears, and we left early and never went to such an event again. (It didn't help that my political and religious views were, shall we say, in the minority, but that's another story.)

I also discovered that I had a hard time seeing the mathematical forest for the trees. In all things I have this narrow, hyperfocused, and perhaps rather pedantic view. What's worse, my field was differential geometry and global analysis, which is all about the big-picture view. What drew me to the subject and my advisor was this very view, and I believe it had a salutary effect on my mind. But at the time I was continually vanishing down rabbit-holes and getting lost in a maze of abstract considerations. My advisor, by all accounts a most terrifying teacher, a renowned geometer who contributes to string theory and listens to research lectures in his car on the way to work, had a way of turning me into a gibbering lump when I tried to tell him what I'd been about, and in order to communicate with him intelligibly I had to spend a significant part of my week just rehearsing for our regular meetings. My officemates sometimes referred to me as a "robot" (a term used by my junior high schoolmates) or forgot I was in the room, I was so intent on my studies and unresponsive to anything that went on around me.

Then by chance I read a story about an eccentric mathematician who never looked anyone in the eyes, and who, when invited over for dinner, ended up under the table with an encyclopedia. I'd never crawled under a table, exactly, but I'd done plenty of peculiar things, and his traits reminded me so much of my own that I felt certain we shared the same disorder. He had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

So, I sought out a psychiatric clinic specializing in cognitive disorders, where I was given a battery of tests. The upshot was indeed a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. The results of the IQ tests were especially intriguing. They showed that I was at the top of the population in some respects, but below average in others. This spiky pattern is apparently quite typical in the autistic. It explains why I can do some things so well, but still be hopelessly incompetent in others. Most significantly, I have a slow processing speed, so casual conversation is difficult, especially in the presence of background noise or music. Thinking about math while talking to another person is out of the question.

Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum
I gathered that my psychiatrist found my case an interesting one. I suppose I should be honored. At any rate, the clinic had asked for samples of my work (in younger patients this would be schoolwork), so I took in copies of my paintings. They were mentioned in the evaluation because of their obsessive, repetitive detail. This tendency of mine is something I'm conscious of, and have worked hard to bring under control.

At one time I'd wanted to be a fantasy artist like Frank Frazetta. But I was put off by the lack of freedom most illustrators have. After I switched from art to math I continued to produce fantasy illustrations, mostly not very good because my sense of proportion (or lack thereof) makes it difficult to draw good figures in a global sense. I've been practicing a lot, though, so perhaps one day soon I'll start producing some pulp illustrations. Recently I held an art show in a local gallery and sold ten pieces or so, and not all to my mom, either. But my approach to art is so different from my approach to writing that these days I'm feeling stretched a bit thin. So I'd like to illustrate some of my stories soon, as a way of relieving the tension.

And I guess that's really what this post is about. I'm analyzing where I've come from and where I'm headed because, for various reasons, I'm feeling discouraged right now. Teresa of Avila* says: begin and end with self-knowledge. So, what am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing what I'm doing? Is it really worth it? Is every single thing I do, every thing I produce and every judgment I make, warped by my disorder? Am I truly able to make contact with other people, or am I just shouting at passers-by from my little island in the middle of Town Lake?

Let's say I'm considering self-publishing my novel, with a Ballantine-style cover, maps, and illustrations prepared by yours truly. If I knew that only ten people would ever buy it (nine of them being me, my mom, and my seven aunts), and that only two of those (me and my mom) would actually read it, and that my mom would write a glowing Amazon review that would somehow make it clear that she's my mom, would I still do it?

And the answer, of course, is yes, because what the hell else am I going to do?

* I'm in formation as a Carmelite Secular, about to make First Promises, if the Council approves me, which they may not, since I make trouble for them just like I do for everyone else.

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