Disengaging or: Does it matter how many people attend my funeral?

Cover of "The Thing About Life Is That On...

Inside: learn the many ways your body deteriorates on the slow, but inevitable, march to death! 

I realize the title is a bit morose. Why am I already thinking of my death? Don’t worry: I’m not suicidal. It’s just that it gives me more serenity to think of death — more specifically, my inevitable death — than to avoid it. I don’t obsessively think about; I just imagine it from time to time. The “Western” view sees that as strange. But in Buddhism, there are meditations that require practitioners to visualize their dead body in its casket or examine corpses in various states of decay. I’ve tried it several times (imagining my dead body, not examining corpses) and it’s more comforting than you’d think.

My view might be influenced, ever so slightly, by a book my wife gave me which I recently read, David Shields’ aptly-titled “The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead.” It’s part anecdotal, about the author’s Nonogenerian father, but mostly about the steady march of death and profound transformations that occur daily in our bodies. He cites lots of data, none of it good news. But somehow, the exhaustive descriptions of shrinking, shriveling, softening and drying are, paradoxically, life-affirming.

By now, if you hadn’t several paragraphs ago, you’re probably asking what this has to do with Asperger’s. I myself wonder that same thing. (That was a joke. And not a very good one, since I had to explain it with a parenthetical.) The answer is, within several months of being diagnosed with Asperger’s — in other words, about a year ago — I started to, well, disengage with the social (interpersonal) world around me.

Here’s what I mean when I say “disengage.” I rarely go to parties. I hardly ever invite people to my house. I go to few social functions, unless they involve co-workers. I even closed my Facebook account (I guess it would be more accurate to say I put it in abeyance, as Facebook really discourages permanently deleting one’s account). I rarely contact old friends. My social circle has grown smaller.

Instead of socializing with the outside world, I spend almost all of my time interacting with the inside one. I am fortunate to have an amazing wife and daughter, who give me lots of love and attention (although recently, my daughter has started texting so much I sometimes am tempted to send her a text even when she’s sitting next to me on the sofa). They are, quite simply, the focus of my life.

Part of why I’ve chosen, at least for now, to disengage from the non-family social world is because of discoveries I made during sessions with my psychologist (I’m not sure he would approve). After diagnosing me with Asperger’s, he would frequently ask me, “What do you want?” As in, what do you want out of life? In other words, do I want to have more friends? Do I want to be more social? Do I want to “network” more? Or could I care less?

I watched so many TV shows over the years where the characters have a reasonably large group of close friends they see every day (and often live next door to, or meet up at the same coffee shop every day, for some strange reason), that I came to believe that’s-how-people-are-supposed-to-live. Fast-forwarded to its chronological extreme, the goal seems to be to have as many people as possible at one’s funeral. But my psychologist pointed out the absurdity of such a measurement. What does it matter how many people get dressed up and congregate near my dead body? I won’t be alive to see it!

Perhaps you already knew the idea of how many friends one has at his funeral was absurd. But stepping back from funerals, what about the focus on milestone birthdays or other occasions for celebration? The point is, it often seems like the quantity of one’s friends is supposed to say something about the person. How many people show up at a 40th, or 50th or 60th birthday? How many go to that person’s wedding, or that of their children? And of course: how many “Facebook friends” does he or she have?

But, I now realize, the number of one’s friends is irrelevant. The point of friends, or anybody or anything in life, really, is to make you/me happy. Happiness is the goal (Aristotle said it thousands of years ago).

So, I guess you could say I’m experimenting with the idea of having fewer people in my life who I count as close friends and who I interact with on a regular basis. I still have work friends, and old friends I occasionally hear from, other family members, tennis friends and other locally-based acquaintances.  But the overwhelming focus is on family and solitary activities.

I don’t know how it will turn out — the experiment isn’t over yet. But one thing I’ve discovered is that I no longer fear not having “enough” friends. I’m learning to value what matters to me, rather than what others perceive to matter. And that, to me, is the most life-affirming.

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Speed kills

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As a political junkie, I often think of campaign adviser James Carville’s famous motto / catch-phrase during the 1992 presidential election: “Speed kills.” He meant that campaigns must strike quickly and respond quickly to attacks from the opponent. And that’s exactly what he did. The message is: move fast … or lose the race, literally and metaphorically.But the speed that makes me most anxious is the speed of social interactions. It’s ironic, because I have an overactive thyroid which accelerates many physiological processes. But as an Aspie, I am slow to process, and to respond to, the words and body language of others.

You know how every school or office has a “clown,” the person who, in a group setting, always delivers a witty retort that makes everyone laugh? Well, I’m the anti-clown. I’m the one who thinks of a response several seconds (or minutes) later. By then, the conversation has progressed. My response isn’t necessarily glacial or tortoise-like. But it’s slow enough to be a problem in social settings, where information is being communicated at lightning speed.

The vast majority of communications, and responses thereto, happen extremely quickly and almost imperceptibly. When a person is talking, very little is communicated through the spoken words themselves.  A UCLA psychology professor famously claimed words account for only 7% of the message communicated. While the research behind the 7% claim has been criticized, there’s wide agreement that words are only a very small part of interpersonal communication.

I think everyone recognizes there are non-verbal aspects to communication. But I don’t know if their speed is fully appreciated, or how many of them happen simultaneously. The term “body language” is often used. When it’s unpacked, though, it turns out there’s a lot to communication that the listener must process to understand the speaker.

There’s the way the words are spoken: their tone, pitch and emphasis, whether the statement is ascending or descending, the volume, the speed, how much the speaker articulates. And there’s the face: how the eyebrows move, the eyes’ gaze, the shape of the mouth, the movement of the eyes. And we can’t forget the arms and hands (positioning and movement of the arms, movement of the fingers, what part of the speaker’s body she touches, whether she touches and listener and where), or the feet (tapping, etc.) or the shifting of the body, proximity to the listener, and so on.

Aspies, myself included, are notoriously bad at reading all these non-verbal forms of communication. I’ve gotten better, now that I learned the “rules,” at least for some things, like rolling of the eyes, the “eyebrow flash,” tapping of the feet and folding of the arms.

But here’s the thing: even now that I know a lot of the non-verbal cues, I often process them too slowly, kind of like how a computer overwhelmed with commands, exhibits “lag.” I know the obvious signs of impatience (blank stare, folded arms, tapping feet, rapidly nodding head) But conversation, particularly in group settings, involves so much more, and it’s-all-happening-at-the-same-time.

Neurotypicals also forget, I think, that our environment is composed of nearly an infinite number of stimuli. We unconsciously filter out all but a select few. But Aspies tend to filter out a lot of the socially-related ones, whereas we notice many things that most people probably find boring and irrelevant — maybe the shape of the computer keyboard, the arrangement of cabinets in an office, the number of cars in a parking lot, discolorations in the carpet, unusual colors or shapes. By observing and processing these things (which don’t involve interpersonal interactions), our personal computing power is necessarily slower to observe and process other things (which do involve interpersonal interactions).

One-on-one, I’m now usually able to process non-verbal signals with sufficient speed. In fact, even my wife and psychologist — two of only five people who know I have Asperger’s — say it’s almost impossible to tell I’m an Aspie from one-on-one conversation. But add a bunch of people into the mix, and it’s a different story.

The problem is that when, for example, ten people are sitting at a table for a meal or other social gathering, the amount of non-verbal communication increases (almost) exponentially. Now, it’s not just about reading body language but figuring out who to read it from, and when. It’s information overload. I think this explains, in part, why many Aspies get mentally and physically exhausted from being with large groups of people.

Information overload and exhaustion. That’s probably as good a place as any to end this post. (Not a very smooth transition … but then I’m an Aspie.)

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts (and tricks, if you have any) on processing non-verbal cues. Or speed. Or both.

Obsession (Not the Fragrance)

The word “obsession” reminds me of those Calvin Klein TV commercials from the 80’s. You know, the ones featuring a beautiful couple gazing passionately at one another, in the shadows, and ending with the woman whispering something mock-profound, like: “Where do I end and you begin? Obsession.” (If she really doesn’t know, then she’s got some serious identity issues.)

Obsession is a word I know well, and not because of Calvin Klein. I also am familiar with “obsessed” and “obsessive” and “obsessive compulsive.” I know these words well because, well, I become easily obsessed. It’s (only a little) comforting to know it’s a trait I share with other Aspies.

The object of my obsession changes. Not day to day, but more like year to year. I’m not someone who, for example, devotes his life to building model trains. I don’t think I could devote my life to anything. With me, I get deep into a subject, and it’s like I sink my teeth into it and can’t let go. Or a better metaphor would be that my teeth get stuck and I’m forced to chew and chew and chew until I’ve finally devoured the subject, to the point that no one wants to hear anymore about it. Ever. Again.

Over the past year, my obsession has been tennis. (Were you surprised, given my last post?) That includes not just tennis players, but tennis tournaments,  techniques (I’ve spent MONTHS practicing my “kick” serve), strategy, the history of tennis, ranking the greatest players, and perhaps most of all, tennis racquets (or as some prefer, especially those who have a pathological hatred of the French, rackets).

For the uninitiated — and that includes close to seven billion people, I’m guessing — there are hundreds of models of tennis racquets. Thousands, if you include historical racquets (I can tell you about the development from wood to metal to graphite to present day graphite blends, if you’re interested … which you’re probably not).

Different racquets have different characteristics: flex/stiffness, size of the face, how “headlight” or “headheavy,” the size of the beam, the length of the racquet, their swingweight. And then there are the strings, which are as important as the racquet. There’s multifilament and the newer polyester and nylon strings. But the gold standard is still natural gut. (It’s not cat gut, by the way, but cow gut. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, but it smells when it’s wet — ponder that.) Besides the type of string, the tension is important too; pros, and even casual players now, use everything from super loose (45 pounds per square inch), to being so tense the strings frequently break (75 pounds per square inch). If that’s not complicated enough, most players now use a hybrid mix of two types of strings … which often have different tensions!

The only silver lining is the practical application of this knowledge, that is, it helps me choose a racquet, or should in theory anyway. But what it’s done mostly is make me question whether my racquet or strings (or grip, or vibration dampener, or anti-sweat gel or whatever tennis-related thing I’m obsessing over) could be better. I’ve tried out about 40 different racquets over the past several years and only recently did I find what I think might (I cautiously say “might”) be The One. So, to a large extent, it’s knowledge just for knowledge’s sake. It also leads to new obsessions, like the one that is supplanting tennis (but that’s for another post).

Obsession is also distracting. Not distracting to me, but distracting to what I’m supposed to be doing, whether at home or work (or, in the past, at school). I’ve read Asperger’s books pointing out that being obsessive can be a positive, because detail-oriented people who can focus on a single topic for long stretches without interruption are often valued. In other words, obsession is actually less, not more, of a distraction. That view was recently validated when German software company SAP announced it’s actively seeking to hire Aspies. And I find some truth in it: every group, family or enterprise needs different personality types to function effectively. But for me, it’s a perpetual struggle to hold back the obsession demon, to concentrate on all the many work or home tasks I’m supposed to, rather than the particular subject I want to. (Case in point — I’m at work, and yet writing this blog; in the interest of full disclosure, though, I don’t have much work to do today.)

I’m not sure if, on balance, my obsessive nature is a positive or negative, although I’m leaning toward the latter. But I also know that fighting it only makes it worse, and makes me unhappy. So I try to manage my obsession the best I can, to let it run free until it (hopefully) tires itself out. There’s also the pharmacological route. But that too is for another post.

Hmm. Maybe my next obsession should be time management techniques.

(Any thoughts on techniques to manage obsessions are welcome.)