It was a lovely, if once again hectic week here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. Spring is not pussy-willowing around this year on Orcas. It’s barged in kicking ass and taking names. Just a few weeks after our worst winter blizzards, crocus, daffodils, tulips and iris are all shooting from the soil like spears thrust up from the underworld. Flowering trees are covered in blossoms, and already leafing out. Migratory birds of every stripe are back—and ravenous. Being paid birdseed by my clients is no longer such a bad thing! We’re going through a lot of it. Yes, spring! And you know what that means! ...Yup! Lots and lots of doctors appointments.
Back and forth to America all week—most recently for Shannon’s MRI, which we hope will tell us, tomorrow, what, exactly, is causing all this numbness and weakness in her arm and shoulder. And all this medical tourism puts me in a mind to share with you the joys of FERRY TRAVEL here in paradise.
San Juan County, Washington, is composed entirely of islands—which, as you may already have guessed, are each completely isolated by miles and miles of water. The ferry system here is analogous to your freeway system. Nothing but extremely local travel happens without it—unless you have a private plane or a private boat, which most of us 98 percenters don’t.
Now, imagine, if you will, that there were only three or four very specific times each day that you or anyone else could use the freeway at all, and so could never travel beyond your immediate neighborhood except at one of these times. Then imagine that you had to make a reservation to do so—two months—or two weeks—or two days ahead of time—always at 7AM, which is when the three groups of available spaces on any given ferry are made available for reservation. (No last minute decisions to go to the shopping mall.) During the busy season (basically April through September), those spaces will all be snatched up and gone within an hour of release—if not sooner. But if you’ve failed to get one in time, no worries: ten percent of the available spaces for each sailing are left, unreservable, for ‘standby’ passengers, who show up a few hours early—and hope. Among practitioners of the sport of ferry travel, this is called Reservation Roulette. And it is but the opening salvo of this game.
Now imagine that even with a reservation, you were still required to show up at the freeway onramp no later than half an hour before you wished to use it, and wait in a line there with hundreds of other cars until the onramp light turned—for just a few moments—green. I know, I know. This part is not so hard to imagine, eh? BUT—one minute late to this stand-still rally, and your reservation is instantly canceled and given to a standby passenger. No arguing with the station attendant about the herd of sheep crossing your island’s main arterial road, or the slow gravel truck in front of you all the way. That cancellation one minute before you arrived was not the station attendant’s decision any more than it was yours, and is just as utterly beyond their power to reverse. Your cancellation was made automatically, mindlessly, and unalterably by a computer somewhere far away, where everyone is free to go sit on gridlocked freeways whenever they damn-well please.
This aspect of the sport of ferry travel is particularly irksome when you, and the station agent, and everyone else who cared to look for updates on their smart phones has known for hours that the boat you are one minute shy (of being thirty minutes early) for is running 45 minutes to an hour late itself, and won’t even arrive to load you until long after it was supposed to leave. The mindless computer—off in the land of unreserved freeways—is not programmed to take the actual arrival and departure times of any given ferry into account. You must simply be there half an hour—to the minute—before your boat was supposed to leave, whether it will actually leave then or not.
Oh, well, you say, that probably doesn’t happen very often, does it?
Almost—every—frigging—day, during the ‘busy season’—which is ‘most of the year,’ remember—we get “Ferry System Alerts” on our phones or laptops that say, “The following ferries are running late today due to high traffic volume.”—which, in case you haven’t thought that through as carefully as we islanders have had ample time to, means: “The ferry system is broken, again today, because people are USING it—which no one who designed this system ever anticipated or planned for.”
But that’s okay. Because the waiting lines themselves are so entertaining. On Thursday, as we waited in line for our ferry to Shannon’s MRI—which was running forty minutes late—the weather was deliciously warm, which meant everyone’s windows were rolled down (since running air conditioners while parked in line is the leading cause of dead car batteries discovered just as everyone’s supposed to drive onto the ferry. Please don’t ask me how I know this. It’s...an awkward memory). So, as I was saying, the driver with her window rolled down next to us in lane 4 was listening to her radio, which was tuned to a station doing some kind of all-day fundraising marathon which involved playing Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing, Yeah, yeah, yeah,” over—and over—and over—and over... for the entire hour we were there. This ear worm was punctuated only by blasts of sound provided every time the woman on the other side of us held her toddler up to the steering wheel…and its horn…—a source of tremendous amusement for both of them, apparently. And when the ‘now-loading’ announcement came over the loudspeakers at last, lane 1...did not move...for reasons unclear...until a second loudspeaker announcement: “If the driver in lane one has a dead battery, please...” Like I said: endless entertainment.
And speaking of endless entertainment...where have I put those woods...? Oh yes! I remember now.
Last week, I predicted that this post would leave my idyllic childhood at last for the more exotic adolescent leg of my long train wreck. But several bits of very illuminating feedback since then—both online and off—have brought issues into focus that were right there on the page, yet previously unnoticed by me. As I composed responses to those discoveries, I began to think of other passing details from these first twelve posts that might merit one more glance back as well before we leave this neck of my woods. So the theme of this week’s post turns out to be, “A glance around before leaving.”
To start with, then, one very kind reader referred to last week’s tale as ‘heart breaking’—which made me wonder if my posts have come across as ‘tragic.’ The reader whose caring remark raised this question for me says this was not her take, and spoke eloquently on the very real distinctions between ‘difficult or painful’ and ‘tragic.’ I agree heartily with her observations, which you can see in last week’s comment thread. But just in case ‘poor, poor pitiful me’ is what’s come across to anyone out there, I’d like to say before going any further that this is not how I see—or ever meant others to see—the story I have been trying to ‘organize’ and make sense of here. Challenging, yes. And engagingly (I hope) well stocked with ironic puzzles, potentially instructive misunderstandings, well disguised mistakes, and painful passages—on which I am concentrating in this exercise for reasons—yes. But virtually all of what I’ve reported and reflected on here—however Burtonesque at times—has ultimately left me and my life better, not worse. I hope this assessment will become clearer as we go, but I’ve suddenly realized that it might not be obvious to anyone else here yet, as I can’t remember directly saying so in any of these posts before now. If anything, I expect this story—still very much in progress—to leave me even better off going forward as I make further sense of components that may still be hobbling what I’ve come to this lovely house on this peaceful, inspiring island, with my remarkable, supportive wife, to do next!
Another issue I think worthy of further exploration popped onto my radar this week when that same, generous reader credited some of my behavior as ‘extreme empathy.’ That assessment isn’t so surprising—especially in regard to my account of that fistfight in the park. But by way of looking twice at the first appearance of things, I’d like to propose that what happened during that fistfight in the park—and many of the other ‘empathetic-seeming’ exchanges reported in these posts—was likely more ‘projection’ than empathy.
The big difference I see between true empathy and what I’ll call ‘empathetic projection’ is that true empathy would spring from—and be entirely about—some genuine and accurate recognition of ‘an other’ and/or their actual experience—truly seeing and recognizing them, rather than seeing one’s self or one’s own experience ‘in them.’
Whatever weird thing happened for me that day in the park, I did not actually feel my opponent’s pain. I projected my very vivid imagination of his impending pain onto him. I doubt very much that I truly saw and recognized anything at all about that boy—then or later. I wanted to hit him! I just couldn’t do it—for reasons of my own, not any reasons of his. When he came to my yard a few days later, crying about how I was the only friend he had left—I still saw and recognized nothing about him. I just said, ‘too bad, so sad, screw you, buddy,’ and went on with what I was doing. Empathy? Later that year, this same boy made the mistake of poking and slapping at me from behind, as our whole class was walking up a steep flight of stairs. His physical position on those steps was significantly lower than mine, so it was a cinch to turn around, knee him in the groin, and, when he bent double in pain, slam both fists down on his upper back, knocking him completely to the steps before I turned without further ado to continue toward our classroom with everyone else. Where was my authentic recognition of him or his experience then?
In a rare turn-around for me, I was very briefly revered as some kind of ninja for that move by a few of the real boys in my class. One of my greatest moments that year—though sadly anomalous, and thus inconsequential in the long run. ...And isn’t that an empathetic observation! :] Nope. No empath, me. I’d have gotten so many things so much righter with so many people over the years if only I were. In fact, I’d likely have seen right through—and easily sidestepped—the mind games people played with me as a child if I had actually seen and experienced those people and their true experience so clearly.
But, just as they reacted to ‘me,’ seeing nothing but their story of me, I saw and reacted only to my stories about them, carefully steering around pitfalls that were never there—except in my story—and falling right into others that my story didn’t see—even right in front of me. Painting your experience or imaginings—even sympathetic, caring ones—onto others is still you—painting—not you recognizing and experiencing an actual ‘other’—or so it seems to me, at least. I believe we all project our stories onto others. Regularly. It’s an inevitable consequence of human story-crafting and defending—and like those other elephants I mentioned, as dangerous, or not, as our awareness of it, and ability to manage it, make it.
Before moving on to the adolescent jungle portion of our tour, I’d also like to clarify my decision to review and sort out this story here—in front of you.
As I suggested in the earliest of these posts, I hoped doing things this way would ‘make the effort stick’—for me—which seems to be working great. Here I am, still at it twelve weeks later! A record in ‘journaling’ for me—which would likely have collapsed eight weeks ago if you had not been there, looking over my shoulder. I am—as I’ve already observed—a person formatted early to apply far more attention and effort to the expectations of others than to my own. If I could change that formatting, I’d have done so—long ago. But there it is—still. So I’m running with it! Experience has convinced me that the elephants in one’s room—especially those acquired at an early age—are therefor life. No therapy I’ve ever encountered will rid you of your core formatting. I believe that those who try and try to edit their basic profile—or acquire someone else’s—are on a fool’s errand. But I believe just as strongly that anyone can learn to manage one’s own inescapable elephants so differently and effectively that they come to function more as strengths than weaknesses. Put up a nice flag-strewn corral in your backyard, and a festive ticket booth, and the elephant that used to crush your furniture and crap on your guests in the living room becomes a sensational attraction and a secondary income in your backyard. Same elephant—kept in different places and used in different ways. Just sayin’...
And beyond ‘accountability,’ just having everything I’m trying to sort out written down here—in one place—is the only reason I remember any more than the vaguest outlines of any of it for longer than a day or two! I am well into that age where every probing, insightful, fascinating thing I think or say today was never thought or said at all tomorrow.
The second reason I am writing all this here—for you to read—is precisely to enable the kind of feedback I’ve started to get—from people who are ‘not me,’ and may never even have ‘known me’ previously. Many of you will not simply have learned to see or respond to my story in the ways I have trained you to over time—as even my dear wife must be getting trained to do by now. Any of you mightdo just what that generous reader did last week: reflect on what I’ve written in ways that—intentionally or unintentionally—help me look at my own story as I hadn’t thought to before—or see things in it I had missed or misunderstood even as I put them there.
As for glancing back at other aspects of these first twelve posts, what I want to revisit is less any one specific part than patterns in the whole that might have been missed—by you or me—or never even looked for. For instance:
Remember that trouble for scraping my teeth on the fork in grade school? ... I mentioned in passing during that post that I didn’t like the food to touch my lips. Did that observation seem ‘meaningful’—or even noticeable—as it passed by? I LOVE food. Virtually ALL food. Anywhere. It was the only sensual pleasure not regarded as sinful in my Catholic upbringing. Very few people seem to care much about the sin of gluttony—and certainly never any Italian I’ve known. Yet I still don’t like food to touch my lips as it goes in. My wife will tell you how widely I open my mouth when taking a bite, how oddly my tongue twists food off the spoon or fork, so that my lips—(or teeth, Mrs. Smith)—don’t have to be involved. Isn’t that how all of you eat too? ... No? ... Anybody? Hmmm.... Did you know that during the first year of your life well over half the sensory nerve receptors in your body are in your mouth and lips? That’s why babies cram everything they can fit—and much they can’t—right into their mouths. That’s one of he portals through which they learn the most about the world. Yet, from the start, I wanted nothing touching my lips—even when I ate… So, does that insignificant little oddity mean anything? Is it some kind of clue? If so, to what? Did you so much as wonder—before now?
By itself, it’s just odd—if that. But...
Along the way, I’ve also mentioned my long childhood habit of repetitive movement: from rocking on hands and knees to bang my head against the headboard of my crib for hours, to ‘other forms’ of repetitive ‘rocking’ well into high school. I even mentioned—in passing—that such behaviors can be associated with autism. Did you wonder about that? Did it even catch your attention?
I’ve also mentioned repeatedly—in passing—that I was (and am) a relentless talker—‘sometimes to no one in particular.’ And, in case the forest isn’t yet clear among the trees, my whole story so far all but shouts that I had, at best, very unusual ways of understanding and engaging with other people in normal social interactions, if not almost no understanding of normal forms of human interaction at all. And, of course, there was passing mention as well of the whole ‘real boy’ issue in my life: not belonging—or being even qualified, somehow, to belong. Would I be off in guessing that for many of you none of these little fun-facts added more than trivial ‘color and texture’ to my tale as they went by? And yet...
Add them all together in one place, and they begin to form a kind of question, don’t they? About what’s up in the background...? Now add to this list my mention of a mother who was also struggling in painful, ongoing ways with her family interactions, and was a compulsive control freak of pretty notable degree. I don’t think I mentioned that she too is a compulsive talker—but she is.
Both of us are unusually intelligent. (I have formal IQ tests to back that up.)
And all of that—if you happen to have ‘read up’ on such things—begins to bear a passing resemblance to the profiles of some people at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum... Neither I nor my mother has ever been tested—or even thought of being tested—for high-functioning autism. Autism, in general, wasn’t even a commonly known thing yet during most of our lives. And there are, of course, a host of other possible explanations for any and all of these behavioral quirks. But if there were some strain of high-functioning autism at work in our family—and I had known that earlier on—it would certainly have altered my entire view of events—and my ‘story’—significantly, I suspect. My question here is, did the possibility leap out at anyone else? Before now, I mean?
There are other ‘threads’ of this kind woven through these first twelve posts—which I will not test your patience further by exploring here. If they matter, they will almost certainly come up again—and again—as this ‘story’ advances. It’s not the individual pieces I wanted to revisit before moving on. It was ways of looking at them—as a whole. The forest, all at once—not just the trees. What some people call “gestalt.” A while back, you may remember, I suggested that important parts of this story and its meaning(s) might end up emerging very like the images in those confetti-strewn ‘Magic Eye’ optical illusions did. Before we start exploring the next batch of mine, it seemed worth trying to show you what I meant—a bit more clearly. A lot of clues to my long, wrecked-train-less train wreck aren’t likely to be found in the parts—as easily or at all. Only in the whole.
And with that eerie little item, I wish you all goodnight, and a wonderful week, cyber friends.