Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's Disordered?

Is my inability to write anything about Slovakia unless I understand what I'm saying a disorder?
A disability?
I don't know, but it's a genuine problem. Trying to understand the raison d'etre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which we never studied in school, in order to write two sentences about it in the History chapter seriously slows me down. All I have to do is paraphrase some expert's opinion on the empire, I don't have to formulate my own opinion about it. But I feel compelled to.

Problem. The publisher pays a flat fee, not by the hour and not much, for compiling these kids' reference books, so I consistently end up turning my work in late (my first one, left, took me months, while other people crank their country books out in a few weeks), and I earn something like $0.78/hour.
I think of it as a poorly paid but interesting internship, one that doesn't afford health insurance. You can see, I also slow myself down considerably by blogging. You can't see, but I also stare into space a lot.

I've always been like this. In fifth grade, for instance, I wrote an in-depth 15-page illustrated report on horses (my passion when I was ten) but never bothered to do my math homework, even when my father threatened me with physical punishment. My report cards looked disordered, all right.

But, on the other hand, my "disorder" (I don't know what string of letters to attach to it) also means I am a handy person to know if, say, you are inviting descendants of the Hapsburgs to William Shatner's annual charity horse show. (They seemed to like horses, or anyway having Velazquez paint their portraits on horseback. Philip III of Spain, here.)
So maybe it's a good thing.
I like to think so, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way.

Last night Laura took me out to dinner and we were talking about this, and she said that our personalities could be seen as a bunch of disorders. And maybe our gifts show in the way we work with or around our eccentric qualities, the ones that are out of the center of the social norm.

To borrow a line of thinking, just for a moment, from Harry Lime in The Third Man, if we were all neurologically normal, we would never invent anything more interesting than a cuckoo clock.

II. Spock on the Spectrum

I recently wrote that I objected to the new Star Trek movie making Spock too human, as if he were merely an Earth person with Asperger's syndrome, one of the autism spectrum disorders (ASD). I objected because that's a human condition, not because Asperger's is bad--in fact, I used the word "adaptation" rather than "disorder" on purpose. I meant I want Spock's character to reflect Vulcan, where he grew up, not Earth, home of other fictional characters on the spectrum, Cliff, Mr. Bean, and Lisa Simpson (left). If Vulcans cultivate a philosophy and way of living that happens to look a lot like Asperger's (which it does), fine. But keep Spock rooted in Vulcan.

Momo sent me a link to this wonderful article:
Autistic Trekdom, by Matthew Baldwin (of defective yeti), who says, "As I watched this film last Saturday, and Mr. Spock walked onto the bridge with his stiff demeanor and his formal language, my initial reaction was: 'Oh man, that guy is so Asperger’s.'"

Baldwin writes as someone whose own son is autistic, and he finds hope in the movie that in the future his son, like Spock, will be "perfectly comfortable" with who he is. And further, that he "will be judged not by the conventionality of his cognitive process, but by the content of his character.”


Annika said...

I've always felt an interest in and an identification with Asperger's, actually. Reading interviews with diagnosed people makes me feel that that's what I'd be like if I was a little more lazy, or if I'd never had my "awakening" at age 16 that made me start investigating how social relations work and sparked an interest in the rules of conversations. Still, a friend who works with people with various disorders seemed genuinely surprised when I told her this, and replied that she herself sometimes wonders if she might have mild ADHD - which I definitely don't see in her. I suppose we all have an image of normality as an ideal that others live up to, or that we tend to see personality traits in our friends as charming and interesting, but in ourselves as symptoms of weirdness. Also, the gap between self-image and what others see is vast.

I know you don't always exactly love your job, but it's wonderful that you can support yourself doing something where you don't have to deny yourself and your "disorders", isn't it? The end result is, I'm guessing, ten times better than that produced by your less analysing colleagues, and however much it sucks that the employer doesn't pay for quality, it's an income and you do seem to be happy at least with some sides of this occupation.

Hmm. I tend to see the cuckoo clock as a symptom of mild insanity. In my opinion, a neurologically normal person would never build a clock shaped like a little house with a cuckoo (of all birds) darting out of it at regular intervals. Which is why they make me smile, of course.

I agree that Movie Spock was more "human" than expected, but I wasn't as disturbed by it as you. In my experience, there's only two major strategies available if you're different: either you play up on it, or you play down on it. I've tried both, and since it's my brain that interprets Star Trek for me, I see Spock deliberately choosing the first strategy throughout the TOS episodes. I have no trouble believeing that he might have tried the second strategy before (especially if we count the first pilot episode, with the much more movie-like Spock, as canon), and discarded it. Before TMP, he continues on this tangent to the extreme in trying to be a "real" Vulcan, then ultimately transcends his perceived duality and finds his true self. To me, Spock is not about unchanging perfection, he's on a constant journey, and although embarrassing, I don't find it improbable that he started out with attempting to cultivate and/or explore his human side.

(By the way, I took that test published in The Wire a couple of years ago, trying to score as low as possible, and got something like 28. Today, still choosing the less "extreme" alternative when in doubt, I ended up with 33 (32 seems to be the magical number). I've been wanting to take it again, so thanks for finding it!)

fresca said...

Hi, Annika!
Thank you for helping me rethink Spock's humanness in the new movie.
It makes so much sense, as you suggest, that he's trying the human role on, playing it up, as we do when we're young. Good point. But where are the movie-makers going to go with it? I felt like they were trying to wipe Vulcan out (they did destroy the planet), or portray them as bad guys, almost. Well, we shall see.

It's been fun discussing the movie and trying to fit it to TOS, but all in all, it simply didn't move me much. I liked some stuff, hated some stuff, but mostly didn't care.
I felt the same way about all the follow-up ST series too. I watched a few episodes of each one, and liked most of them OK (I rather like the female captain), but they just didn't catch me.

You know, I have been and shall always be a Shatner-Kirk fan.

I took the Wired AQ test right now, after reading your comment, and I only scored 9. So my "disorder" isn't on the autism spectrum. (I feel like I failed... *grin*)

Actually, I never thought I was on the autism spectrum.
I'm usually very good at socializing, and sometimes I've even felt like a performing seal: people have told me I could hire myself out to parties to get other people talking.
However, I don't really enjoy that role, because at parties people usually just chat at a surface level, and I always want to have a real, meaningful, in-depth conversation.

A-ha! I've discovered my "disorder": wanting to talk and think about things more deeply than people usually do at parties! (What initials should that have?)

Just because we're good at something doesn't mean we like to do it, either:
I would almost always rather go to the library than a party. In fact, I worked at libraries for many years and loved it.

You're right-- my geography books are often more interesting than some of the others, and it's not a bad job for me, since I do have to have a job. (Darn.) I know I'm extremely lucky to have such a job, and to have as much free time as I do to blog and drink coffee and watch movies.

I never thought about the cuckoo clock, but, hmmm... it does seem a bit demented, doesn't it.
Have you seen "The Third Man"?
The character of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) was actually disparagingly contrasting the cuckoo clock with Michelangelo's sculptures, and Michelangelo was surely not "neurologically normal" either.

Thanks for writing!