Since I learned about Asperger's, I've done a lot of "time travelling"...reviewing my past through a new lens. In this process, I made some very surprising discoveries, some of which I've written about previously. Sometimes these discoveries have come from places that I least expected.
As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the first ten years of my life on the west coast. Most of my extended family, however, lived in the Midwest — including my paternal Grandmother, and several aunts, uncles and cousins. My father had always been close to his family, and did his best to keep in touch. Especially so after my Grandmother, a country singer and musician, had been severely injured in an on-stage electrical accident. But long distance calling was costly, and in those early years after the accident, my Grandmother's ability to speak was severely affected, making reciprocal phone conversations difficult.
One day, when I was quite young, he got an idea. We'd make recordings — an "audio diary," if you will, and send them home via the US Mail. This way they could get to know me, and keep up with what was happening in our lives, at a level that we could not afford if reliant solely on the telephone. He was excited about his new idea, and set to it with enthusiasm. But, he ran into one major obstacle. Me.
It soon became very clear that I struggled with the social engagement necessary for the format he intended. My attention seemed to ping-pong from one subject to the next, and I quickly became overstimulated when he engaged me in reciprocal conversation. Once I reached my social limit, my behavior would become oddly erratic.
I'd break down in nervous giggles to the point that could no longer speak, I'd stutter and stammer. In one memorable instance, I stopped mid-interview, after being challenged to name my Grandmother's dogs. Stuck on a name, I froze, then suddenly started randomly calling out the names of every object in sight. (To be fair my younger self, she did have a lot of them one of her biggest joys in life was rescuing abused and neglected canines)
After several attempts to rein in my shouts and giggling, my father realized that he had to change his approach. So, he decided to vary the format a bit. Rather than the "talk show" format he'd originally envisioned, in which we simply spoke to the recorder, it now became more of a variety show. He had me sing songs I learned in school, tell stories — and he'd do Q&A's with me, but for only a short period of time, as long as I could tolerate. Then he'd split the program with music.
This was, of course, his master stroke — because he realized early the power of my special interests to motivate, and figured he could use this to advantage. But, he couldn't put Muppet songs on a tape meant for adults, that would just seem strange. However, he could include the original versions of songs that had been redone by the Muppets. Since many of these were popular in their own right, prior to being covered (or parodied) by the Muppets, that wouldn't seem strange at all. Only another fan would figure out the common denominator between them.
As a strategy it worked well — too well. Once the tapes were done, it became difficult to get me to let them go. There were ongoing negotiations, in which I'd beg to listen to them "just one more time." Eventually, some of them never made it at all — either because I simply took possession of them and wouldn't let them go, or because I ruined the continuity by attempting to make my own additions.
Which is why I still have some of them today, although by now they are all but worn out. A few years ago, I decided to take them out of storage — and see what, if any, context they could give me about my history. What I found was amazing...
Outside of the social issues I've already mentioned, which come across loud and clear — there were countless other little things that now stand out like a sore thumb. Especially when it comes to patterns of speech. As long as I can remember, I was told how precocious my speech was, and how superficially perfect it was. How fellow shoppers in the Safeway would do double-takes, at the tiny little creature in the cart, spouting perfect sentences learned from TV commercials.
But, as I listened, other things became immediately apparent. The odd vocal prosody that varies from singsong, to strangely flat. Unusual usages of pronouns, and ideosyncratic word usages that verge on neologisms. How I seem to play with prosody — elongating sounds, changing emphasis, speeding up, slowing down, varying volume — not for any communicative reason other than to see how it sounded. Stimming with the sound of my own voice.
Even my own attempted additions yield something interesting. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I recorded right over my father's solo speech...but in my additions, there is no speech, unless you count the voices of the Sesame Street Muppets in the background. Accompanying them is a very strange sound...one most would struggle to recognize, but oddly enough, I do recognize it. It's the sound of one of my favorite repetitive behaviors, dragging the mallet of my toy xylophone back and forth across the keys, "Scritch a scritch a scritch, Scritch a scritch a scritch," over and over and over again. A more autistic addition, I can't imagine.
But the discovery that impacts me the most, is one I least expect. A quarter of the way through one of my favorite recordings, I notice a shift in the musical selections. One I hadn't really noticed before. These aren't Muppet songs, they're something else. And there's a trajectory to them, that I hadn't realized before.
After a short song-singing and Q&A session, with my mother's voice to be heard quietly prompting in the background, my father plays a song, a duet between Hoyt Axton and Renee Armand: "Boney Fingers." I sing along:
Rain comin' down and the roof won't hold'er
Well, I lost my job, and I feel a little older
Car won't run and our love's grown colder
Maybe things'll get a little better in the mornin'
Maybe things'll get a little better
Hoyt Axton and Renee Armand: Boney Fingers (Lyrics)
Turn the tape over, and suddenly, there's only one voice on the recording: My father's. No wife. No daughter. He leads with the aching sadness and loneliness of Kris Kristofferson performing "Sunday Morning, Coming Down."
In the park I saw a daddy
With a laughin' little girl who he was swingin'
And I stopped beside a Sunday school
And listened to the song they were singin'
Then I headed back for home
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin'
And it echoed through the canyons
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.
Kris Kristofferson: Sunday Morning Coming Down (Lyrics)
Then I'm back - but my mother is nowhere to be heard. My father follows up with the Statler Brothers - a song about deep regrets, entitled: "Who Am I To Say?"
I wish I had a dollar for every time I was unkind
I wish I'd had an answer for the questions on her mind
I wish I'd had the time for all the times she needed me
I wish I'd realized but I was much too blind to see
All she wanted was to love me
But all I did was turn away
If I'd known how much she needed me
She might be here today
And if I'd only been more open
And understood her ways
She might be in my arms tonight
But who am I to say?
Statler Brothers: Who Am I To Say? (Lyrics)
Finally, my father is alone again. He describes dropping me off at my mother's new home — and finishes off the recording with Buffy Sainte-Marie's anthem "Gonna Feel Much Better."
Tell it to a bear, judgin' at a fair
Tell it to the leader of a cause
Tell it to the mayor, sittin' in a chair
Tell it to a jolly Santa Claus.
Tell it a fool, makin' up a rule
Tell it to a rabbit in a tree
Tell it to a mule, swimmin' in a pool
Tell it to a bubble in the sea.
But don't tell me about your troubles
Don't tell me about your tears
Don't tell me the worries that you know
'Cause I'm packing up my heartaches in your suitcase, honey dear
And I'm gonna feel much better when you're gone
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Gonna Feel Much Better (Lyrics)
These songs, sandwiched in between a chronicle of our daily lives, form a completely different one. A chronicle of my parent's initial breakup. It's a bittersweet realization. But there's something else about it that's interesting.
Other than their appearance on this recording, I can't remember a single time my father ever listened to these songs, or even these artists. In fact, although my father had a more eclectic musical taste than just about any other human being I've ever known, his preferences tended more in the direction of rock and folk. So why did he choose these songs?
That's when it hits me — although the recordings were meant for all of his family, he knew his most rapt audience would be my Grandmother, obviously a huge country and western fan. This was another example of my father's style of emotional expression. He chose to express his feelings to his mother in his native language, music. But he did it in a dialect she would connect with. There's something ingenious about that.
All this drives home a point that we see illustrated time and again in the autism community. Even those that communicate differently reach out to connect with others. And it's amazing what can be communicated, without ever saying a word.