Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Mythology of Bullying

(Article for Adam Feinstein’s  Awares International Online Autism Conference)

I have always been a huge fan of mythology!  I believed in fantastical beings like Santa Claus long after my neurotypical peers naturally moved on to priorities like “girls, sports, and MTV.”  Growing up was a sloth-like process and I continued the nonsensical dance far longer than was appropriate.  But it feels good to celebrate nonsense and we are all guilty of this guilty pleasure to some extent.  How many of us passionately hold onto the urban legend that a Munchkin hanged himself during the Great Depression-era filming of “The Wizard of Oz?” because there is a faint image of something swinging behind the scenery.  But there is a form of mythology that is absolutely deadly and hopefully we will let go of its remnants soon enough.  This is the mythology of…bullying.

These myths were strengthened because I was part of the last generation when Asperger’s syndrome was unrecognized by mainstream society as a legitimate disability and was treated as a genuine character flaw.  Being extremely weird and occasionally acting like a jerk was not seen as a condition deserving of mercy. The brutality of being tormented and/or taken advantage of was viewed as a self-inflicted consequence created by the victim himself.  My mother eventually had to take me out of a fifth grade class because I had a teacher who told her, “It has been my experience that if a child is being bullied in my class, it is usually something he is doing to create it himself.”  This anecdote pales in comparison to others.  Alex Plank, the founder of a popular web page called: had his grade school principal take him into a room during recess where he was staring into the faces of classmates.  Each classmate had to say at least one thing that annoyed them about Alex.  These well-meaning, medieval tactics did nothing beyond creating a cache of haunting memories and scars.  Furthermore, bullying was viewed as character-building when common sense should tell us that nothing about constant abuse builds anything beyond a lasting trauma.  And there was nothing character-building about what happened to me at age seventeen.

As a senior in high school, I was a victim of what we now call cyber bullying.  It was flattering when a female classmate contacted me even though I had never met her before.  We continued communicating throughout the summer and I even met her at a local diner.  I persisted even after she severed contact with me for absolutely no reason.  My energy toward “Liz West” peaked when she claimed a man had raped her over the summer and resulted in an aborted pregnancy.  It took six months to finally learn that “Liz West” was a figment of someone’s imagination.  A group of students had created an online hoax and even went to the extremes of finding a young woman from a neighboring school district to meet me at the diner.  There was a human face to associate with the online persona and I had absolutely no idea that I was being bullied for those six months.  I thought they were my good friends.  Scars do not heal and this incident happened to me twelve years ago.  We are only now starting to grasp the magnitude of this deadly crisis.
The great American poet, Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better…you do better.” This should hopefully tell us something….

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t…but Just Barely Was!

It was a Halloween none of the little kiddies will ever forget and has earned its place in a lifetime of permanent memories unless the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease someday take it’s toll.  A snow day on what should have always been deemed as a national holiday?  A nostalgic, winter wonderland landscape?  Even with the childlike qualities of my Asperger’s syndrome, the magic was a little less potent for me as an adult.  But Halloween is still MY Christmas.  My self-proclaimed, Asperger’s Independence Day.  It is the only day someone like me may go out in public looking extremely weird, but pale in comparison to the rest of the world.  For just one magical day.

I refer to this freakish, autumn snowstorm as “Snow Leaf:  The Sequel.”  Of course, I am referring to the last time something of this magnitude happened when I was only five years old.  My memories of that event exist in the form of a few lit candles to counter the power loss and the rest is obscured by a childlike haze.  This event occurred later in the season and is much more memorable.

I looked out my front door on the morning of Sunday, October 30th and stared directly into the landscape of Tim Burton’s  “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”  The dark side of this blizzard could create an even darker reality for us all!  If there is a chance of such a wintry scene before Halloween…perhaps the retailers will feel more justified in breaking out the Holiday merchandise by the beginning of September.  God help us all or unite with me to create a petition making it illegal to advertise the Holiday paraphrenalia before November 1st!

The freak storm came at a very inconvenient time in my life!  (As if there is such a thing as a convenient time for a blizzard unless you are a gimlet-eyed schoolboy gazing at the saturated night sky on Sunday night with an uncompleted book report languishing on his desk.)  I was supposed to attend a Benefit for the Maplebrook School in Amenia, NY where they were featuring my book as one of the Silent Auction prizes.  For some reason, they had the Benefit anyway as at least one foot of snow fell on humanity.  It also threatened to interfere with the mother of all Holidays.

The older I become and the more I advance in my career…the more I am forced to let go.  I do not believe in letting go, but acknowledge sometimes there is absolutely no choice.  The other choice is a path toward doom.  I acknowledged that in order to complete my book in 2010, I would have to give up my marathon cards that start in early December.  The two weeks devoted to this obsession were put to much better use on two book chapters.  Life and consequences do not always work with my most potent obsessions.
The one obsession I cannot and will never let go of, however, is Halloween.  No matter how relentless it becomes to keep up with life, I shall constantly make time for carving Jack O’Lanterns and even visiting a few “understanding” houses for Trick-or-Treating.  This year was an extremely close call, however.  The time spent shoveling snow and powering up generators created a profound exhaustion.  I also had business with Anderson Center for Autism that could not have waited until after Halloween.  But in the end, I held on just as I hope to do for the rest of my life.

My mother berated me for wanting to carve four Jack O’Lanterns and this was the first time in my life I agreed it would be too much to stay up all night to accomplish this task.  In the end, I compromised on carving just two, but only had time for ONE.  But it was one amazing scene of a witch meant to look like Marilyn Monroe in that “Seven Year Itch” scene on the subway.  It was a Jack O’Lantern that was praised by the neighborhood and Halloween has been saved.  We should avoid letting go when possible, but I will always teach my peers to find the compromise….

Just when I thought the night could not have been any better with more last-minute closure, I managed to squeeze in my only major scare that day in a world where kids are desensitized to the most grotesque Halloween costumes.  I walked in the dark to the house of a high school acquaintance/friend in a remote area where they had never entertained any Trick O’Treater….EVER.  Panic set in amongst the family when I knocked on the door to say hello.  “This has never happened before and we have no candy!!  What are we going to do…?!”