Thursday, October 31, 2019


The subtitle of Parallel Play is Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s. I put it down here in the text so it wouldn’t spoil the energy of the main title with something seemingly less mysterious. The irony, tho, is the real mystery: Asperger’s.”

Asperger’s syndrome, as it is commonly known, wasn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1994, yet this neurological anomaly had been identified fifty years earlier by the Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, who wrote of the relatively mild form of autism, “For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” Dr. Asperger’s vision for this benefit evidently did not extend to the more mundane human endeavors, such as business or evangelism, where we now find it mentioned in connection with two prominent individuals. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook. Thunberg proudly refers to her Asperger’s as “my gift.” While comics taking him to task for his politics have mocked Zuckerberg’s Aspergian-like mannerisms, the social media magnate has not addressed them publicly. If in fact he is “on the spectrum,” as insiders refer to the myriad degrees of autism, perhaps he does not know it. Such was the case for two other highly successful individuals, both who’d had no idea they met Dr. Asperger’s diagnostic symptoms until well into adulthood.

John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye, was forty when a friend gave him a copy of Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. “I picked it up. Warily. 'What the hell is this?'” He started reading, and recognized himself in the list of symptoms. These included problems with body language such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, postures, and gestures, and a lack of emotional interaction with others. He’d already struggled through a tortured childhood and adolescence to find success through technology, which led him to become the special effects genius behind KISS, the rock band known for it’s stunning pyrotechnics on stage. He progressed from there to the corporate world where he helped design some of the first video games and talking toys.
Tim Page

Tim Page made it to age forty-five wondering why he was so different from others—brilliantly intelligent but incompetent socially. Three years earlier he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism as chief classical music critic of The Washington Post. Now, depressed after failing at a senior administrative job with the St. Louis Symphony, he sought professional help.

“One psychiatrist concluded that I was bipolar and put me on lithium, which did nothing but make me feel weirdly outsized, as though my body stretched up miles from the ground, like a Giacometti figure. Another doctor suggested a new anti-anxiety medication, which I duly added to the clutter of bottles by my bedside. And then, after a series of family consultations, a New York psychologist named Keith Westerfield surprised me first with a thoughtful explanation and then with a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.”

He read a book of essays on Asperger’s then, and “felt as though I had stumbled upon my secret biography. Here it all was— the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests...had they created a developmental disorder just for me? I was forty-five years old when I learned that I wasn’t alone”...something that had tortured him especially as a child, which he describes as “an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness.”

Attempts to relieve his anxieties then included glucose-tolerance tests, anti-seizure medications, electro-encephalograms, “and an occasional Mogadon tablet to shut me down at night.”

On the positive side his mind was phenomenal. He recalls memorizing entire books, including “vast sections” of an encyclopedia merely by skimming the pages. Despite feeling socially incompetent, he persisted, gradually learning to interpret social cues and respond appropriately in conversation with strangers.

There still is no cure for Asperger’s, nor are “Aspies,” as we (yeah, me, too) call ourselves, likely to wish a trade-off—our gift for “normalcy.”

Overstimulation of any sort remains a positive horror,” Page tells us, “and I am most content either alone, with people I have known a long time, or with the occasional new friend I make and love instantly, as though we were born together.”

He can’t bear to make eye contact when speaking of things that arouse deep emotions. “Moreover, although I’ve had a prescription for eyeglasses for the past twenty years, I’m most comfortable not wearing them...I rarely wear my glasses now, for they make me aware of too much. All of a sudden, it feels as though I’ve been cast into a world of strangers, all staring at me, so clear and so close that I’m flooded by the intimacy.”

Without warning, a need to escape can demand that we flee, and we do.

In order to fit in, Aspies must learn to act, and Page describes various celebrities, mostly entertainers, who served as role models for poses and mannerisms. Yet, he maintains, the acting itself is sincere. “The fact that my understanding of affection, comradeship, and human empathy has been hard-won rather than hardwired from the start does not make those feelings less genuine.” Nonetheless intimacy has continued to give him problems.

At twenty-nine he married his best friend, “a brilliant and intuitive woman, someone I admired and cared for and to whom I felt and feel enormous loyalty. But my capacity for intimacy was then very limited and the marriage lingered but couldn’t last. Our best moments were the births--gory, violent, and spectacularly beautiful—of our three sons, when I held on to one of her legs, mopped her brow, gave whatever comfort I could, and eventually cried for joy as a brand-new child was laid on her belly. How I pity my father—and his father and most Western fathers back to the beginning of the modern world—so long excluded from these astounding communions!”

Much later, after his Asperger’s diagnosis, he fell in love, which, he says, astonished him. The marriage lasted four years. He describes it as bliss:

“I had never imagined sustained contentment, and certainly not in the company of another person. Yet here it was: even making the bed together in the morning, an act that had hitherto struck me as Sisyphean, took on meaning, as the prelude to another gloriously ordinary day, to be followed by tea, the newspapers, a couple of hours of work, and then lunch in the neighborhood. While it lasted, everything was enhanced; the only thing I can compare it to is that moment when The Wizard of Oz turns from black and white into color.”

He says he resisted the relationship as long as he could, worried that “if I let her in, what could I ever do if she went away? But I found myself invaded, physically and emotionally, and, for the first time in my life, I was ready for it. Thereafter, I considered any day not spent with her a day diminished. I was no longer a scared kid being taken to bed but a full and eager partner, and I lived for several years in a constant state of amazed and grateful surprise…

“And then, suddenly and without warning, she had to leave and she was too regretful or too solitary or maybe simply too compassionate to tell me why. And I became a crazy man, so stunned and shocked that I felt mortally wounded. I’d finally found a mate— somebody I liked, loved, respected, admired, and lusted for all at once. Now I was alone again. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened, and whenever I believed it, even for a moment, the pain was unbearable.”

Then came the familiar stuff of heart-broke country songs...

Neither of his two marriages are listed on his Wiki bio page, which tells us he is currently Visiting Scholar in Residence at Oberlin College.

“Aspies are predetermined individualists,” he concludes in Parallel Play, “people both condemned and liberated to live in our own worlds--but, after a while, if we can summon up the courage, we stop apologizing for it.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, October 24, 2019

LIBRA – Don DeLillo

This is not a book review, contrary to its appearance and what you may have been expecting. I will explain shortly why I cannot review Libra by Don DeLillo, and I will give you links to bonafide reviews of the novel by two people vastly better versed in DeLillo and skilled in reviewing any literature than I. And I would advise reading them before embarking on the book itself. Fair warning.

What I hope to do here is to help  those who have yet to read Libra, to prepare them for the invasion of voices. For as you read along you will find these voices, so real and so familiar and yet so alien, camped in your head mingling with your voices, yours and their multiple voices, each struggling for dominance, theirs insinuating with such uncomfortable intimacy you will begin to squirm, worrying, wondering how come they are hanging around and how long do they plan to stay. For me thus far they continue to haunt, especially at night, several days after I’ve read the book. The most persistent are the single voice of Nicholas Branch and several belonging to the man we know as Lee Harvey Oswald, the name which, oddly, Oswald had used so seldom he barely recognized it when he and the world heard it interminably mouthed and broadcast soon after those seven November seconds in Dallas that changed everything.

Branch, for me the most psychologically accessible character in the novel, appears infrequently in a CIA-provided office addition to his house, where he labors alone sifting through literally tons of material and writing the secret official history of the assassination for the Agency. His reflections are ours in confronting a mystery, which, despite every available tendril of even remotely plausible evidence and state-of-art analysis, remained as distant then—Libra was published in 1988--as it does today and most likely ever shall.

His voice is a touchstone, reminding us that while what we are reading is fiction the story’s roots are not, and that those earlier voices are the ones making the mystery that seems to unravel itself now, but only in the imagination. It is there the voices haunt. Not so much with what they say, but with the atmosphere, the bleakness from what we know is coming, that covers every thought and word and movement of these tragic ghosts that can never rest. They spoke to DeLillo, and he brings them to us.

I thought I would be haunted by this story and these characters for some time to come,” he tells us in an interview, “and that turned out to be true. Libra will have a lingering effect on me partly because I became so deeply involved in the story and partly because the story doesn’t have an end out here in the world beyond the book—new theories, new suspects and new documents keep turning up. It will never end. And there’s no reason it should end. At the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary one newspaper titled its story about the assassination ‘The Day America Went Crazy.’ About the same time I became aware of three rock groups—or maybe two rock groups and a folk group—touring at the same time: the Oswalds, the Jack Rubies, and the Dead Kennedys.”

Libra summoned dark nuances from my interior archive and added mummified flesh to the bones of shock I’d begun stashing away starting with the visual of an Air Force officer running toward us in Philadelphia where we’d deplaned temporarily to allow refueling on our passage from basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. to Fort Devens, Mass. for specialty schooling. I don’t remember which voice broke the news, the officer’s or one of ours, that JFK had been shot. And this was all anyone knew until our flight ended at Worcester, Mass. and the bus conveying us to Devens stopped in a Boston suburb in response to the first experience I’ve ever had with a newsboy on a street corner shouting, “Extra!!” He came aboard, and we bought all of his papers. The headline screamed that our president was dead. After three or four paragraphs, containing little more than this, the story went on, backgrounding Kennedy’s visit and noting what was planned for him the following day. Most if not all of those collector’s editions remained on the floor when less than an hour later we zombied off the bus at our new duty station. I fell ill almost immediately, and was still sweating away a fever in a barracks bunk when someone announced that Oswald had just been shot. I remember weeping on and off, but, characteristically for me, not for the significance of what had happened, but from the mournfully comic Peter, Paul and Mary tune, popular then, which triggers bathos in me to this day whenever the wailing strains of Stewball chance to reach my aging ears.

Were I to hear that damned song right now, a long untapped well of salty hysteria just might spew forth and short out my laptop’s circuitry, bringing this shifty effort to chase old ghosts back into the deep night to a halt.

On the positive side, while the DeLillo novel, thought at the time to be his darkest and most complex, flushed out one of the darkest corners of my psyche’s hidden vault, perhaps Libra helped me get a handle with reasonable clarity on what I’d truly never wanted to be so starkly reminded of again.

And in doing so it also enabled me to banish what I now see was an inexcusably irrational refusal to read anything by this master of story, sentence, character, dialogue, and frightening insight. I won’t even try to go there, other than to suggest now, tongue half in cheek, that maybe some metaphysical caution was in play keeping my sensibility pristine, safe from this wizard of thunderous letters, until I was ready. My father’s flight instructor, after the usual series of takeoffs and landings in the little Piper Cub he eventually credited with saving his sanity, stepped out and onto the ground. “She’s yours, Lloyd,” my dad said Luke Altschwager told him, “Take her up.” He soloed then, my dad, thank the heavens, saving his family’s sanity as well. My thanks to Fictionaut’s Chris Okum for somehow managing to persuade me to face my own uncertainty and take this leap out of my DeLillo denial zone.

At the start here I promised you links to a what a couple of professional wordsmiths had to say about this, for me, life-changing masterpiece. Here’s Anne Tyler’s marvelous review in The New York Times. And this essay, written more recently by Troy Jollimore for the National Book Critics Circle, should accompany assigned reading of Libra in any college lit course.

And here...oh, what the hell: Stewball

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

DANCING IN SANTA FE – Beate Sigriddaughter

Beate Sigriddaughter dances with breathtaking grace and daring across the pages of her latest offering, a slim volume of fourteen exquisite poems she's given the beguiling title, Dancing in Santa Fe.

A former instructor of dance, and recent poet laureate of Silver City, New Mexico, Sigriddaughter is known for her sparing use of words with a precision so sly nuances can slip unnoticed into the most alert sensibility before revealing their connections to a greater yet not unfamiliar choreography.

Her poetry is widely celebrated for championing women in historically patriarchal cultures. She dedicated her previous collection, Xanthippe and her Friends, to Socrates’s wife, known for pouring the contents of a chamber pot over the great philosopher’s brilliant, balding, bilious head. But while we modern men (excluding me) are likely as deserving of such excremental scorn from the women in our lives as was no doubt the father of western philosophy, Dancing in Santa Fe carries not so much as a figurative whiff of ordure nor does it boast of boots made for walking all over anyone. What Sigriddaughter’s poems do bring is the occasional well-placed blade through the heart, and an invitation for sober reflection on the lack of progress my gender has made over the centuries in its appreciation of hers.

She's hidden from your benevolent contempt in the moss of morning dew. You thought I was going to eat her? – from The Dragon’s Tale

She’s a princess. The dragon has taken her away and hidden her “from your strange world of corsets and obedience...from your male fantasies.” It’s the last poem in Dancing in Santa Fe. The first one plays on a fairytale, The Seven Ravens, about a king who turns his sons into ravens because one of them made a mistake at their sister’s christening. When the girl learned of this she went looking for her brothers. She found them locked in a mountain, but had to cut off her little finger to use as a key to unlock the door. All ends happily, but the last stanza injects this thought: “...if seven girls were cursed because of one son, it wouldn't even be noticed. It happens all the time.” I sat silently, staring at the page awhile.

Why...a dreadful burden handed down,

one generation to the next?

Scheherazade, the legendary murderous Persian sultan’s bride who won his “love” by telling him 1,001 stories, one per night, comes in for lyrical questioning in the poem named for her. The sultan, enraged because his queen had been unfaithful, was killing one virgin per night. Then along came Scheherazade, who distracted him with her tales.

The poet asks her, “Did you save us all or merely raise the bar?” Pause to ponder, and then, “I cannot imagine the cost of making nice with the entitled predator like that.”

But the poet is ambivalent. Neither can she imagine the cost of “not making nice when the cold sword is already drawn.”

I wasn't—the war—born yet

is never over.

from the title poem, Dancing in Santa Fe, in which the poet gives us glimpses of a soul struggling to affirm life--how beautiful you are, world, with jewels in the juniper moments after rain. When will I be allowed to touch your beauty and keep it alive?--while “the enemy within just laughs.”

These two forces entwine and grapple continually throughout the poems, as if locked in a deadly tango—affirmation under assault by near crippling dread.

an unspeakable filter on this gorgeous world.

There’s physical dancing in Dancing in Santa Fe: One evening with Chico at the Skylight they “jelled,” and it was wonderful. Then there was Gabriel, who danced okay, but they had a country in common. “Gabriel, all I could ever do is honor your pain.” Her words reach beyond this moment, beyond Gabriel, gathering passion: “I want to honor you, life, by living with joy. The enemy within just laughs. Those others, they just wanted to live, never mind joy…

Who, not born German, can possibly comprehend the guilt I am condemned to feel for sins I haven't committed? It is an unspeakable filter on this gorgeous world.

I haven’t danced much since.”

Her appeal for help in undoing “the curse that keeps me uneasy in this shimmering world,” is answered only by the wind in an ancient juniper telling her, “this is the task that has been given to you.”

The “enemy within” is daunting. Yet, “once you learn to dance you never forget.”

In her search for deliverance from this yin/yang dilemma she looks at the Hindu concept of nirvana, which, she tells us, “I don't trust this. I never have,” calling it a “withering of all...just self-effacing consent.”

Isn’t that like suicide?”

In Wandering Night Notes she returns to what she knows, and enjoys.

I pray for courage to dance
my anger now, my fear, my dreams,
and dance my hunger loudly.

        What is the point of limping through
this superfluous life? Why not
make it a pleasure for each other?

Teach me your scratchy ropes.
I will learn. I will climb. I will love.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

SEA OF CORTEZ – John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts

It was early 1940. War was raging in Europe, and the U.S. was tooling up, evidently expecting to be drawn into the fighting eventually. Two Californians had a different plan: a six-week expedition in the Gulf of California sandwiched between Baja and Mexico to study the water creatures and to “see and think and even imagine” everything they could along the way.

The two were close friends, one a marine biologist and the other a novelist about to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that very year. What attracted me to their account of the expedition, which they called by an earlier name for the Gulf—Sea of Cortez—was my respect for the novelist, John Steinbeck, whose work I admired but had not read in a long while. Accompanying him was Ed Ricketts, whom I had not known of except as the fictional “Doc” in Steinbeck’s later novel, Cannery Row. Another contribution to the book’s attraction for me was the enthusiastic endorsement by Jane Hammons, a writer acquaintance whose work I also admire.

And so off we went, me tripping the pages replaying the expedition aboard the Western Flyer, a seventy-six-foot diesel-powered charter boat, nearly 80 years after its principals, now long dead, made the meandering journey down the “long, narrow, highly dangerous body of water...subject to sudden and vicious storms of great intensity,” albeit March and April being “usually quite calm and dependable.” I sensed from the mostly leisurely narrative with its well-crafted, luminous sentences my guide was primarily Steinbeck. The scientific and academic-sounding philosophical stuff, I’m guessing, would have been Ricketts’s contributions, as meeting those passages for me was akin to veering off a manicured-though-fascinating trail into a dense patch of sharply authoritative briars.

Because the book was initially sold as co-authored neither Steinbeck nor Ricketts are named, and first-person pronouns are invariably plural. The captain and four-member crew come through as well-developed and interesting characters, who evidently became close as brothers during the adventure, meeting natives and Mexican officials and collecting invertebrates for Ricketts’s marine biology business. During their six weeks in the gulf and its estuaries they collected thousands of specimens, among them some four dozen unknown species. I skimmed over much of the detailed descriptions of these items, with their Latin names and curious attributes, while finding some examples as fascinating as the products of a child’s imagination. One I found most interesting was the crab known locally as “Sally Lightfoot...these little crabs, with brilliant cloisonne carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time. In spite of the fact that they swarm on the rocks at the Cape, and to a less degree inside the Gulf, they are exceedingly hard to catch. They seem to be able to run in any one of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter.” Their speed and agility so enraged one of the crew members one of them pinched, he “declared a war of extermination on the whole Sally Lightfoot species.”
Steinbeck @1940

I found these descriptions of the various creatures and their behavior almost a comic relief from the philosophical conjectures the two men occasionally contrived projecting them up the evolutionary scale to the hominid species. I found these digressions absorbing, but welcomed the back and forth focus between direct observations of lesser creatures and speculation on how their lives might explain patterns in ours.

“We do not objectively observe our own species as a species,” our dual narrators tell us, “although we know the individuals fairly well. When it seems that men may be kinder to men, that wars may not come again, we completely ignore the record of our species. If we used the same smug observation on ourselves that we do on hermit crabs we would be forced to say, with the information at hand, ‘It is one diagnostic trait of Homo sapiens that groups of individuals are periodically infected with a feverish nervousness which causes the individual to turn on and destroy, not only his own kind, but the works of his own kind.’”

Pondering this passage alone drew me away from our voyage long enuf to arise from my laptop and stroll around the apartment, perhaps visiting a flushable facility or even finding in the kitchen something light upon which to sip or munch, or both. These breaks made the book last longer than do those I ordinarily read. In fact, just typing the above excerpt has my mind trying to wander once again.
Ed Ricketts

And then, quick as a Sally Lightfoot crab, we come to this, something I’ve been saying for years, tho with humbler diction and syntax: “Hope, which is another species diagnostic trait—the hope that this may not always be—does not in the least change the observable past and present...perhaps our species is not likely to forgo war without some psychic mutation which at present, at least, does not seem imminent.” Altho the irony of an imminent world war can be seen in this observation, I doubt either Steinbeck or Ricketts, who were to become actively involved in the fight against Germany and Japan, could have felt the full import of what seems here an almost offhand remark. An even greater irony perhaps is that also in the Bay, some fifty miles from the Western Flyer, Japanese shrimp boats were dredging up tons of shrimp, “rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And six thousand miles away the great bombs are falling on London and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

Eventually the Western Flyer caught up with the Japanese fleet and our voyagers were welcomed aboard the main ship. “The Japanese captain was formal, but very courteous,” Steinbeck, I’m guessing, writes. “He spoke neither Spanish nor English; his business must all have been done through an interpreter. The Mexican fish and game official stationed aboard was a pleasant man, but he said that he had no great information about the animals he was overseeing.”

Pearl Harbor was less than two years away.

Oh, and we mustn’t forget the cormorants. Most hateful birds, we are told. “It seemed that everyone in Cape San Lucas hates cormorants. They are the flies in a perfect ecological ointment...they are considered interlopers, radicals, subversive forces against the perfect and God-set balance on Cape San Lucas. And they are rightly slaughtered, as all radicals should be. As one of our number remarked, ‘Why, pretty soon they’ll want to vote.’”

Maybe on Cape San Lucas, but with the Western Flyer something else aroused more wrath than either the Sally Lightfoot or the cormorant. It’s “a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts and, we hope, some venom to our pen.”

This villain is...well, let’s let our venomous authors explain: “The outboard motor mentioned in this book is purely fictitious and any resemblance to outboard motors living or dead is coincidental. We shall call this contraption, for the sake of secrecy, a Hansen Sea-Cow—a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red. The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart. We took it along for the skiff. It was intended that it should push us ashore and back, should drive our boat into estuaries and along the borders of little coves. But we had not reckoned with one thing. Recently, industrial civilization has reached its peak of reality and has lunged forward into something that approaches mysticism. In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick [sic] has occurred. And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred. A soul and a malignant mind have been born.

Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing. In the six weeks of our association we observed it, at first mechanically and then, as its living reactions became more and more apparent, psychologically. And we determined one thing to our satisfaction. When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed. For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out...”

The rant continues thusly for several more pages, and the evil Sea-Cow itself rears its malfunctioning head periodically throughout the remainder of Sea of Cortez.

Alas, despite Grapes of Wrath having won a National Book Award the previous year and the Pulitzer shortly after the voyage, Sea of Cortez bombed at the box office when it came out in 1941. Steinbeck republished in ten years later, keeping only the narrative and omitting the appendixes. He retitled it The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and omitted Ricketts’s name as co-author.

I've deliberately omitted something deeply odd about the Bay trip only because I learned of it online after reading the book: the mystery of Carol, Steinbeck’s first wife. I found this strange detail in a single sentence of Steinbeck’s Wikipedia bio:Although Carol accompanied Steinbeck on the trip, their marriage was beginning to suffer, and ended a year later, in 1941, even as Steinbeck worked on the manuscript for the book.”

One does wonder what Carol was doing all the while the boys were gathering specimens, drinking beer, and behaving, boys. Perhaps my next stop should be a formal biography. Whatever I might find out, I promise to share with you who follow this blog!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]