Sunday, January 29, 2012

Into the Dream


Wouldn’t you know it? Just when I was planning on cleaning my room, Avatar is on TV.

Have you seen it? I’ve seen the latter half before, and now I’m seeing it again. I’m sure you’ve heard enough about it that I don’t have to give you a synopsis. It’s a great movie, and of course I’m tickled by how nearly plausible it is. It may be totally plausible. Actually, the first time I had a real conversation with Tom (whom you know) we ended up spending most of a long car trip figuring out how Eywa could evolve. Ask me about it some time, if you want to; our version involved a type of bacteria with a mutualistic relationship with a mutagenic virus. We even explained why the people on that planet are blue.

But, this time the movie falls into place among several others we have seen recently. Funny how that happens? It’s like how the various required courses first semester wove into each other, like voices singing together the disparate notes of a single chord? I assume that was done on purpose, though I’ve never asked. But the same thing happens sometimes even without any apparent orchestration, and it’s happening now.

A few months ago, we saw Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a strikingly heart-wrenching movie, of course, and a surprisingly ecological movie. Sitting Bull’s argument in favor of his traditional way of life was not sentimental, nor even religious in the European sense. His argument was that living by farming on the Great Plains is stupid; “grasshoppers eat corn; you tell them to plant it!” I don’t know if that was historically accurate, but it is plausible that he would know why his people lived as they did. The focus on livelihood certainly added a new dimension to the issue of cultural survival. More recently we’ve been watching the Centennial mini-series, which you may, or may not, remember from the seventies. Chris did, and got the series on DVD. The series is based on a James Michener book of the same name that traced a family through over a century of history in the Rockies and the Great Plains. The first main character is a mountain man, then the focus passes to his Arapaho sons and their sister and her husband. Eventually, we get into cowboys and so forth, but the whole thing is accurate historically—no racism. The genocidal sequences shocked even me, though I didn’t see anything I didn’t already know happened. Actually, that made it worse, I think. It would be one thing to see fictional atrocities committed, another thing to know that while the details are fictional, the atrocities are real. I mean, when one character orders two little kids shot because “nits turn into lice,” I’m pretty sure someone actually said that. The kids were too little to even run away when they were dumped on the ground so the soldier could get out his gun. The shots were fired off-camera.

Then, we saw a documentary on Custer, which was sympathetic to him but only so far as history will allow, which isn’t very far. Then, we saw Cowboys and Aliens, which is just as fun a movie as you’ve expect, but also really good. The aliens—and I don’t think this is giving too much away, if you haven’t seen it—are interested in resource extraction, and are on a scouting mission. If the scouts get home to make their report, there will be no stopping their invasion. A nice touch is that a remnant band of Apaches joins to cowboys to fight off the aliens, so it’s actually cowboys and aliens and Indians—also done with no racism. The Apaches are people. And now, here is Avatar, in which painted, ululating people riding animals and carrying bows defend themselves against more aliens bent on resource extraction, except this time the aliens are human (and apparently American). Cowboys and Indians again.

What is this collective recurring dream? I’ve long thought that as dreams are to the individual psyche, stories, and, in the modern context, movies, are the societal dream. Just as some unresolved idea or tension may work itself through in the symbols of recurring dream, society gets to know itself, recreates itself, through its movies. Monster movies, spy movies, war movies, these recurring tropes are clumps of culture-stuff we are collectively pulling on, like someone might pull at a tangle of yarn to free it of knots. Or like someone might prod the edges of injury or bite down on a teething tooth. Or, like someone might pace and pace over familiar ground in order to find something gone missing.

What does it mean that our country exists at the expense of other countries? Who are we? What exactly happened? When the dreaming is done, we as a country will be able to make amends, I think. If we last that long.

I’m going to have to go back to cleaning my room, now. The annual housecleaning is upon me—not that I only clean once, but every year I go through some portion of my stored stuff and get rid of what clutter I can bear to part with. I’m a definite pack-rat; I have sentimentally valuable twenty-five year-old homework assignments. Going through my stuff involves going through my past, my memories, reclaiming some and letting go of others. It’s a psychological process, as well as a physical process. Today I agreed to burn my old journals from my early adolescence—they were completely illegible, my handwriting is not now what it once was. Why keep something I can’t read? But some aura of memory, of felt self, goes with the objects, or seems to. I got rid of letters written to creepy ex-boyfriends—I no longer need their warning note. I kept the writing assignments I did when I was twelve, marked as they are with my teacher’s diplomatic hand. I put them in a drawer with the early drafts of my thesis and another teacher’s equally diplomatic hand.

I go over these objects, these artifacts, and…that illegible handwriting is me. That self-important, adolescent poetry is me. Those drawings of unicorn skeletons is me. What? Don’t most eleven-year-olds draw unicorn skeletons? I wasn’t being morbid, I was interested in unicorn biology. It occurs to me that if some historian gets a hold of my stuff, those drawings could well be misinterpreted. Perhaps I should annotate them? If they survive future culls.

I used to have dreams that my house was a sinking boat, and I had only an hour to rescue all my stuff. I don’t have those dreams anymore. I think when we become willing to look at our stuff, see it for what it is, we have a chance to move on to other dreams.

-best, C.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the Edge of the Sea

Hi, again;

Not surprisingly, Chris' beach-walk went well. About two hundred seventy people showed up, including his bosses and various big-shots who made speeches to the effect that Chris is awesome--which he is--and gave him awards. My mother and her partner showed up--a surprise for Chris but not for me--and Chris gave one of his best talks ever. We took him out to dinner afterwards.

I like that his last public talk was a beach walk. He was originally planning to finish a few weeks later, but some scheduling complication made New Years' Day work out better logistically--I forget the details--but this was one of his signature programs, so the way it worked out let him go out with a bang.

And of course, the beach is such an iconic place, a line of transition, obviously, and thus a great symbol as a place to retire, but beyond that Chris just likes beaches (and forests, and snow, and Chinese food, etc., but that's not the point). There's a sign above a front door, on the inside, that reads "A Day At The Beach Is Worth A Month In Town." There's a Jimmy Buffet line (of course) that has always reminded me of him;

I'm a tidal pool explorer
from the days of my misspent youth
I believe that down on the beach
where the seagulls preach
is where the Chinese buried the truth.

Of course, there are no tide pools on our beach, not in the traditional sense, just sand. Sometimes pools form and hold back water for a while until the fluid cuts a channel through the sand and pours itself back into the sea. The pool is gone on the next tide. But Chris has connections to rocky shorelines as well, skipping stones on the coast of Maine as a little boy.

It's always delighted me that he and I, though separated by a generation, have so much from our pasts in common--like vacationing in Maine as children. Maine is where I first really got to know the seashore, and Maine is rocky. I explored tide-pools some, but mostly I climbed on rocks. I remember one day we went down to the end of the island to the little beach between the arms of rock by the tourist-trap where they sold fudge, and we brought a picnic lunch. We left our sandwiches on a table-like rock, and ran off to play on the rocks by the water. When we turned back around, there was a seagull standing on our lunch-rock, with my little sister's peanut-butter sandwich in its bill.

Do you know how big a seagull is?

Of course, you know the size of all of the various gull species I was even remotely likely to have seen that day. That's not what I mean. No, I don't mean how many inches run from here to there on a Herring Gull, I mean how big is a seagull when it's on the ground and it's got something of yours in its beak and you are eight. Bigger than you had thought one was when you were seven, that's how big. I took one step towards that sandwich and the bird flew.

I no longer remember how we knew the taken sandwich belonged to my sister and not to me, but we all knew it, so I gave her half of my sandwich, and felt very noble for doing it. The beach is a child-place for me, and for Chris, so it is a fitting place for him to retire, because Chris remains childlike in the best sense.

Of course you say you are jealous of his retirement. Everyone says that, and I know you're more or less constantly exhausted. But I wonder, could you retire? I mean psychologically. Some people can't. I've heard of people who fall apart when their careers end.

I've thought a lot about life transitions. I spent several years more or less obsessed with transitions and their accompanying rituals--coming of age, initiation, eldering...I think I was overdoing it, over-thinking things that should be allowed to be more intuitive, but it has made me sensitive to the psychological impact of things like retirement. Any time one part of life ends and another begins is a moment of crisis, because the big question is when the context that has defined your life changes, who are you now? The crisis could be transformative, but if a person can't negotiate the shift, can't use the momentum as it suddenly shifts directions, he or she can get dropped.

Change is, of course, why Chris has chosen to retire; he is ready for a new game, ready to become a new version of himself, the new adventure, as he says. He is psychologically buoyant, he has made his decision freely, and he'll be ok. But I've seen people, too, who didn't seem to be fine.

I remember about ten years ago when I was a volunteer sailor, and I asked a more experienced, older volunteer to teach me another way to splice a rope. It was during a shipboard party, and what I didn't know was that this man was drunk, and getting drunker as we talked as his body soaked up its alcohol. The other thing I didn't know was that his poor eye-sight was more than poor. The man had glaucoma, and after years of adjusting his duties aboard ship to match his failing sight, the sailor was finally blind.

Night had fallen on deck, and he wouldn't let me move over by the light. He said I had to learn the splice the way he could teach it, or I should ask someone else. He said I should learn to function blind, in case I ever lost my sight. He said I was stupid for not having a "reading finger," the enhanced sense of touch that he was already taking for granted. So I learned to spice a rope by touch as a progressively more drunken sailor gradually confessed to me that his days of sailing were over.

He was retiring. I don't know what he did for a living, or whether he was still doing it or had started collecting a pension twenty years before. But regardless of his professional status, he was facing the retirement crisis as the life that he had known became closed to him. If he had asked me, if he at least had not been drunk, I could have helped him, maybe. I could have helped him find something else in and beyond the ending. He didn't ask. Maybe he felt better when he sobered up in the morning, I don't know.

Not everyone gets to choose the moment of retirement. Not everyone retires because he or she can; some do it because they can do nothing else. You are so constantly busy...what if something happens, if you have to stop, if you lose, say, the edge of your intellect to a stroke, as that sailor lost his eyes...?

But you've never asked for my counsel. I don't know what you are and are not prepared for, and do I know you are a man of strength. How you might handle your life transitions is probably a classic case of Caroline Should Butt Out. So never mind. I won't try to frame another person's life with under-informed warnings. Be busy or not, as you need to; you do noble work, anyway, and you do it well.

And when you do retire, you can come here for a while, and Chris will teach you to sail our boat. And we can find some little sandy isle somewhere and you can fall asleep on the warm sand and think about nothing at all, if you like, and Chris and I will put your lunch in a cooler until you wake up so not even the birds will disturb your rest.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Of Tiggers and Beatles

Hi, there!

You had not, until yesterday, acknowledged the existence of this blog, though you do, of course, acknowledge the letters this blog grows out of. I still don't know what you think of my literary effort here, or the public nature of it. I don't know what I think of my carrying on even an edited version of a private conversation in public, but I do enjoy the opportunity to expand on certain topics we have discussed, but not had time to fully develop.

Autism, for example. I remember the subject of Asperger's syndrome came up once, and you interrupted me to insist you didn't know what that meant. You had to insist, because I was off on a conversational tear, and not particularly noticing my audience. Someday, perhaps I will become humble enough, or interpersonal enough, to listen before I speak, to listen, even, while speaking.

Anyway, I think I provided a partial definition (Asperger's syndrome is a mild version of autism, etc.) and then emailed you some links, and we have not been back that way again. So many conversational roads to travel, and as Frost said, way leads on to way. But I never asked you if you had simply not heard much about Asperger's or autism, or had heard much but found no whole in what you heard? I have a suspicion that hardly anyone knows what these things mean, and that the experts think they know, to the frequent detriment of actual Aspies and autistics.

I re-watched "The Yellow Submarine," the other day (a tangent which is about to exhibit rather Beatlish behavior, for a line, by curving back around) and Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD, hit unexpectedly close to home. I assume you’ve seen the movie, even if you don't remember Jeremy’s name—I hadn’t, though I had remembered the character from previous viewings. He’s the “nowhere man” who appears in the void after the Vacuum Flask Beast sucks up everything else, including itself. I had always liked the character, even going back to when I saw the movie as a kid, and I always liked the song, but I never really thought much about him.

This time, though, it seemed clear that he was supposed to be preoccupied with obviously irrelevant stuff—that the editorial assumption here is that anyone using big words is obviously a figure of fun. There he goes, sprinkling his speech with Latin for no obvious reason, glued to a typewriter, happily oblivious to the Beatles' total non-interest in his monologue. But I bet I sound like that to some people--people who mimic me even use a similar accent and vocal mannerism to Jeremy's (do I really sound like an upper-class Brit, or do I just sound like I should?). Watching a movie make fun of oneself is never fun, especially when it’s clear the object of fun isn’t supposed to be in on the joke. But I'm not actually going on about nothing, and I don't think Jeremy is, either. As George keeps saying throughout the movie, it's all in the mind; we see the movie through the minds of its protagonists. And I imagine four young pop-stars with every reason in the world to be arrogant, might well listen to an admittedly geeky intellectual and hear gibberish.

And actually, the plot argues that Jeremy is not really the willingly blind "nowhere man" the song describes. If Jeremy were simply suffering from a character flaw, you'd expect him to open up through his journey with the Beatles. That's what such characters do on journeys, and while "Yellow Submarine" tried so self-consciously to be mind-bending, the plot is fairly standard in its barest outline. But Jeremy never actually changes, even when he becomes the pivotal figure of the story; he reconciles with the Chief of the Blue Meanies by reading snippets of poetry from a reference book.

What I think is that Jeremy is autistic. He is very aware of detail, and apparently brilliant in his several fields--among other achievements, he fixes the submarine's motor twice--but he is socially awkward and stiff, and does not appear to have a firm, immediate grasp of the big picture. These are all fairly standard characteristics, and although he never gets upset because his routines are altered, and never shows sensory over-sensitivity, it is possible he's just compensating well. Intellectualism is pretty standard for Aspies, but Jeremy is so off on his own trip that I think he is, more accurately, a high-functioning autistic.

The Beatles treat him thus. Of autistics, experts and science-writers alike so often say they are utterly alone, cut off from other people by their own strange indifference. Twice this past week I have seen public statements to this effect, one a newspaper article and one a documentary, and neither ever consulted actual autistics as experts in their own condition. If they are self-isolated originally, I think some people are content to leave them so. And the Beatles do to Jeremy exactly what these journalists did to their subjects; they briefly observe Jeremy's weird but creative and cheerful behavior, and then they feel competent to tell the world who and what Jeremy is;

"He's a real nowhere man,

living in his nowhere land,

making all his nowhere plans

for nobody.

He's as blind as he could be,

just sees what he wants to see,

Nowhere Man, do you see me at all?

He doesn't have a point of view

knows not where he's going to,

isn't he a bit like you and me?"

Jeremy can hear all of this. His typewriter disappears, and he appears in a tight spiral, going around and around with the Beatles, like they've pulled him into a record. Except the Beatles get off the spiral, and having issued their diagnosis, having declared Jeremy's life and interests and skills all completely meaningless, they back away, withdrawing their color and their music as they go. Jeremy's spiral gets smaller and smaller and he travels backward towards what looks like a drain, waving goodbye sadly as he goes. Finally, when his spiral has utterly disappeared, leaving him isolated in the void, without even his trusty typewriter and reference books, the Beatles prepare to go on about their business and we see this formerly cheerful man crying, sobbing as though his heart has broken. And maybe it has.

Jeremy is, like real autistics, frighteningly vulnerable. He needs the Beatles to tell him they want his company, because he can't ask for theirs. He needs them to ask him questions, because he can't figure out how to be of service to them otherwise. He needs them to be kind and generous because he can't protect himself from people who aren't. He even needs them to point him in the direction of his great heroic act; overcoming his guard and then disarming and befriending the leader of the Blue Meanies.

But we all need a little help from our friends--who doesn't?

And here I am going on and on. Shall I sprinkle my speech with scholarly phrases to make the comparison more obvious?

Meandering expansion of meaningless memes:

he bridges, bodaciously, psychic extremes

not wholly at home, camoflaged nowhere,

eloquence enters the ecotone of dreams.

Am I an Aspie?

Not quite, I think; not only am I not that bad, I'm also not that good--and I'm something else, I think, some variation along another spectrum as well. I get in moods--I've been in one most of this week--where I identify very strongly with the autism spectrum and I get very idealistically angry and go stomping off like a one-woman protest march on behalf of us autistics...but it doesn't quite ring true, not wholly, and at the end of the week I decide I don't really want to invite the whole world to consider my personal neurology, anyway.

But I like that Jeremy is the one who disarms and befriends the Blue Meanies. I like that he turns out to be the hero of the movie, not by triumphing over his strangeness but by being the exactly right kind of strange at exactly the right time and place. Like Sherlock Holmes (widely considered to be an Aspie, despite being fictional), Jeremy's difference is so obviously a gift.

I'm no neurologist myself, but I suspect that if everybody's difference were treated as a gift, if intervention and treatment were framed as ways to foster and unlock that gift, then people who are different in one way or another would live better--and so would everyone else. There would be fewer Blue Meanies.

-best, C,