Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Inside the Autistic Mind

Several weeks ago I started working with autistic children. Let me tell you, they have the biggest, most beautiful eyes, which always makes me wonder whether they can see spirits. Isn’t that sort of a rule of thumb for psychics—to have big, beautiful eyes? Hmm, that would make a great novel. Stop! My mind is wandering! Anyway, what I really want to address in today’s Conundrum Corner is my curiosity when it comes to the autistic children’s stimming. Stimming is a self-stimulatory behavior pattern like flapping hands, twirling hair, sticking a hand in front of the face, drumming on a solid surface, making sounds like tiki-tiki-tiki, or other repetitive motions and sounds. I always figured that the senses of these children are elevated to a level in which everything seems louder, brighter, has a stronger scent, and so on. Often, when I think of writing a story (like I did just a few seconds ago), I want to get into the head of an autistic child and feel as they feel, see as they see, hear as they hear...to make my story as genuine as possible. I had the “luck” to get into such a situation this weekend.
My migraine was at its full swing, and during the four days of elevated sensory intakes I was ready to crash and make a dark, silent cave out of my home for the weekend. I, however, granted a wish to my husband, who decided that he wanted to try out Burgers and Beer in La Quinta. Thinking that the place would be quiet and almost empty since no big games were going on, I agreed to have a quick dinner under the condition that he would leave me alone (if you know what I mean) for the next two days.
Burgers and Beer offered nothing of what I had hoped for. TV screens were hanging from the ceiling and the walls; we even had a TV attached to our table, on which my children decided that they must watch the Cartoon Network. In front and around me lights flashed and flickered as baseball players scored home-runs, hockey players knocked their teeth out, football players patted each others asses, golfers attempted the hole-in-one, while behind me basketball players screeched their shoes on the floor, extreme sportsmen grinded their skateboards on the metal pipe, and someone at the bar kept yelling for no particular reason. The lights, the noise, the smell of various meals, the people walking back and forth as if they were on speed...it was the most horrible experience. I felt like I’d just walked into an autistic child’s nightmare. My hands were cupped over my ears, eyes tightly shut, and I began to feel my body sway in a dizzying motion, the same one that seems to sooth one of my students. I was so relieved when I finally got out of there; and I guarantee that I’m never going back! That place is safe only for people with ADD. I’d like to keep my sanity, thank you very much.

And to conclude today’s conundrum: Be careful what you wish for!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I Was Born This Way

Last week my creative writing professor and author, Cheryl Klein (you can find her work here), offered to be my thesis adviser for the MFA program in which I am enrolled. I was thrilled of course. It is very difficult to break through as an emerging writer and have someone notice your craft. I constantly have to keep up with writing contests, nonrefundable fees to the judges, submission deadlines, agents accepting queries, publishing houses accepting unsolicited manuscripts, promoting my books, etc. It is like a full time job. NO! IT IS A FULL TIME JOB! My real teaching job, for which I actually get paid on a consistent basis unlike my writing, can be considered a part time job in comparison to my writer job. And did I mention that while I have to keep track of the above, I also have to write, come up with characters, plot lines, subplots, narrative arcs, flashbacks, settings, scenes, dialogue, time frames, and on and on and on.
Often I think to myself, “What the hell did you get yourself into?” And I have no answer. I don’t think being a writer was really a choice. You know, like if you’re gay or autistic or a red head or have green eyes...you’re just born that way. I was born a writer. The first signs were my reading of everything that had letters: sings in the streets, backs of the cereal boxes, all the birthday cards at the store, movie end titles, etc. Then, some of my friends refused to talk to me because they said that I was lying; but I was only telling stories. When I was a teenager, I began to hear voices in my head, and soon I was able to see to whom those voices belonged. At first I thought I had some sort of a sixth sense, and that I could see dead people. But when you hear a unicorn talk, you know it’s not a sixth sense—you’ve gone crazy. And NO, I didn’t do any drugs. Later, these voices demanded that I start writing down what they are telling me. And so I did. I wrote my first good story when I was fourteen. It was about four teenagers, who figured out a way to fix an old Ferris wheel on the outskirts of town, but somehow they could not control its speed, and it ended up chopping their bodies into pieces as they tried to jump off it. I was heavily influenced by Stephen King during this period of my life, can you tell?
Now I’ve gotten to a point where I see the entirety of my future novel flash in front of my eyes in a span of seconds. I see the characters, their development, manner of speech, how the plot progresses, how the settings look like...it’s kind of like a movie, but better because I’m inside my own head, if that makes sense, able to observe and hear up close everything that I need to write down. This anomaly gave birth to my novel, The Guardian, which I’m currently revising and for which Cheryl offered to be my thesis adviser. I know that both my novel and I are in good hands. So please, look it up in the near future. It supposedly has the best elements of Poe and Lovecraft (according to one of my peers) and, according to one of my creative writing professors, it is a novel over which Hollywood will salivate. But I’m not here to brag. I’ll let you be the judge. Enjoy this brief excerpt.  
* * * * *
The six o’clock sunrise slowly illuminated the bedroom window of Dr. Josef Stein’s apartment. Its glow tickled Stein’s eyelids, and its warmth etched a peculiar awareness into the most innate part of his mind—the old brain—about which he once read that it controls the feelings of love, fear, instinct, and intuition.
Stein opened his eyes. He focused at the ceiling for quite some time, which was what he usually did. What he found unusual, however, was that his blurry sight was suddenly able to distinguish the vein-like cracks in the white stucco from the indescribable expressions on the faces of strange beings he used to see there when he gazed up. Like the illustrations in his books about myths and monsters, the ceiling-beings habitually looked down at him with piercing eyes, and Stein felt as though his mind had been invaded, as though the eyes could read every thought in his head. At times he was afraid, but he always composed himself and shook the fear off. He knew that the mind liked to play tricks on the eyes.
The odd faces were nothing out of the ordinary for Stein, anyway. He was the head physician and psychiatrist of Prague’s prestigious sanatorium, the Ch√Ęteau, and over the years he’d seen quite a variety of odd expressions on the faces of his patients. But unlike the eyes of the ceiling-beings, his patients’ eyes were absentminded, not looking into Stein but through him. It was these inattentive expressions that led Stein to believe that there was something within or even without the human body—a spirit or a soul—that was somehow detached from the patients in his care. Stein was curious about that something because of an event he had experienced many years ago. He did not like to talk about it, but that experience was the foundation of his desire to learn about the human body and mind.  He turned to the study of medicine and psychiatry. And while Stein was trained as man of science and rationality, he always allowed room for intuition and things that could not be explained in a reasonable manner, things that did not have tangible evidence to influence his behavior and thinking. He gave in to what his colleagues would call a “blind belief based upon perception.” But wasn’t perception at the root of all belief?

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Lord, The Boogeyman

I came to the United States in 1998 when I was twenty. It took some time to get used to many things. For one, I learned to say “hi” and smile at perfect strangers because perfect strangers would say “hi” and smile at me. Soon after, I realized that I wouldn’t get an answer if I asked, “Hi, how are you?” I also realized that if someone asked me the same question, they could actually care less about my state of being.

When I’d say to someone, “I’ll call you later,” I actually meant it and called back later that day. When someone would say to me, “I’ll call you later,” they actually meant later, later—like next week, next month, next century.

My first order at McDonald’s took over thirty minutes because I couldn’t comprehend what the hell the man at the counter was asking me, which turned out to be “for here or to go?” Try saying it fast to a foreigner. I bet s/he will stare at you as if you had just fallen from the sky.

I had to get used to bread tasting sweet, milk tasting like water, eating a big meal at night, the shitty aftertaste of Hershey’s chocolate, driving everywhere, being annoyed when a commercial would interrupt the good part of the program I was watching, not feel guilty when I hung up on a sales person or a telemarketer, pretend that I’m not home when the Jehovah came knocking on my door...America scared me. It was a lot to take in, I tell ya. Especially for a person whose life up until now has been the complete opposite: fresh bread with a crunchy crust, milk that came from grass-eating cows, big meal at noon/ light meal in the evening, the sweet and silky smooth taste and texture of European chocolates, walking everywhere, commercial interruptions only before and after the program, no one calling to sell things over the phone, no one knocking on my door to preach...
Several years later, when I’ve become accustomed to the way of life in America, my husband took it upon himself to introduce me to everything that was before my time. Before 1998, that is.
His lessons in “what I missed” are continuing to this day, and so it came as no surprise when last week he rented the film The Lord of the Flies (and as we are not a normal family, we forgot to take it back when it was due and now probably owe a shitload of money in late fees). 
I’d heard of this movie before. Well, only that it was about a group of boys stranded on an island, and that they had to hone some survival skills. My husband and I begged our kids to watch the movie with us, but they were adamant about not wanting to see something so old that was about flies. So, we watched it alone. And I’m glad we did. The movie was horrific. When I was a child, the worst that would happen in films geared toward children would be an accident in which someone would break a leg or fall off a bike or get a bloody nose. The kids in The Lord of the Flies were complete savages. And poor Piggy! Oh, I was mortified. Had I known that the plot would involve murders, I would have never asked my kids to watch it with me. 
While I feel the film should be rated R for REDRUM, I admire its message. I interpreted it as a portrayal of humanity and religion. The monster (the dying captain) in the film can be seen as God/Devil; the boys having never seen it are afraid of it and use this fear to control the group. But when one of the boys discovers the truth that the monster in fact is the captain who had just died, the boy is murdered before he can share his findings. Haven’t we seen this repeated throughout history? In the name of monster/God/Devil (or whatever that unseen force may be) we kill. We shouldn’t believe in a boogeyman that will scare us into obedience. So long as we realize that the only things worth believing in are respect, love, and tolerance.