Monday, June 18, 2012

The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch - A Teaser

Life has been busy and I haven't been a very good at posting.  We had a five month slow-motion train wreck of an outage, took down a dead locust tree, planted a small garden, did some remodel on the sprinkler system, and took a week long trip to Denver.  It isn't that I haven't had any thoughts, it is just that mostly they are jumbled and competing with each other for precedence.

One thing did stand out, and that is this book.  I heard the author on NPR, giving a synopsis of it, and of his life and I was hooked.  I haven't bought it yet but Wednesday is payday and I probably will then.  Until then, the introduction paints such an interesting picture and that picture is so full of possibilities that I am content for a while with just the introduction.

The core of the story is David's discovery that he has Escher's syndrome.  As most of you probably know, Asberger's is a mild for of autism.  I'm no expert on the subject, but worked with a man at work who struggled with the things that David Finch did, but never found a resolution to his different-ness.

Not being a doctor, or having any credentials as a mental health expert, my conclusion that 'Bill' as I will call him, had Asberger's is hardly conclusive, but it made a huge difference in how I saw him, and how I interacted with him.  For many years I just thought he was very weird.  He had OCD issues, he had a flash temper over seemingly insignificant things, he was quite bright, but seemed to lack judgement on many issues.... the list goes on.  I would get really impatient with him sometimes and be (for me)  shockingly straightforward to him about the subject at hand.  Strangely, this didn't seem to bother him in the least, it was more like it was a relief.  After a little study, and reading about autism in general in working with a young man at church, I realized that it probably was a great relief to have some clarity as if you have Asberger's it is very hard to pick up on verbal or non-verbal cues.   I realized that I had badly misjudged this guy, and had given him years of abuse when I should have been giving him support, clear communications and compassion.  I've tried to mend my ways, but it is kind of too-little-too-late.  He has retired, and I hardly see him anymore.

Hence my interest in this book.  What follows is the sample text from the book.  You can buy  it here.  Since this is what you can read online, I don't think I'm infringing on any copyrights.  It's very possible that you will see someone that you know it this short introduction. I'd be interested in any comments.

Kindle Sample Book:  The Journal of Best Best Practices by David Finch

Do all that you can to be worthy of her love.

I was thirty years old and had been married five years when I learned that I have Asperger syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism. My wife, Kristen, a speech therapist and autism expert, brought it to my attention one evening after harboring suspicions for years.
Receiving such a diagnosis as an adult might seem shocking and unsettling. It wasn’t. Eye-opening, yes. Life-changing, yes. But not distressing in the least. Strangely, it was rather empowering to discover that I had this particular condition. In fact, the diagnosis ultimately changed my life for the better.
I received the news the day before my niece was born. I remember this not because I’m a wonderful uncle but because she was born on March 14, 2008, which is well-known among my fellow nerds in the math and science communities as “Pi Day” because pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is equal to 3.14. Also 3 + 14 + 2 + 0 + 8 totals 27, which is divisible by 3, and I love numbers that are divisible by 3, particularly numbers whose digits sum to 27, of which 3 is the cube root. (Are you starting to see why Kristen had her suspicions?)
The day had been chaotic but really nothing out of the ordinary for two young working parents. Kristen was in the kitchen, trying to put it back in some kind of order, and I was upstairs saying good night to our kids. After walking with our ten-month-old son, Parker, in little circles around his dark room and whispering the lyrics of an Eric Clapton song until he fell asleep, I cuddled with our daughter, Emily, until her restless two-year-old squirming subsided and her breathing slowed and deepened. I crept out, whispering “I love you,” the words all but dissolving into the whir of her electric fan.
As I descended into the warm amber glow that bathed the first floor of our house, I could hear the hum of the dishwasher in the kitchen and the soft clunk of toys being put away in the playroom. Something was up; the house was never so tranquil right after the kids went to bed. Usually, the television was on, the kitchen was a disaster, and books and toys were scattered everywhere. I expected to find Kristen in her usual spot: sitting on the couch among stacks of paper and thick binders, her laptop resting on her legs as she feverishly prepared for the next day’s work. But everything was different that night.
In the kitchen, my dinner was cooling on the clean counter, and I felt an unusual sense of peace as I prepared for my evening routine. At eight thirty each night, after the kids have been put to bed, I circle the first floor, counterclockwise, starting in the kitchen, where I check to see if the patio door is locked. Then it’s back to the kitchen, where I usually wander around in circles until Kristen asks me what I’m doing.
But that night, before I began, Kristen approached me by the refrigerator in her pajamas and wrapped me in a tight hug.
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Hello there.” I couldn’t remember the last time she had given me a hug for no particular reason. I hesitated for a moment, trying to play it cool, then squeezed her close.
“Hi,” she said into my chest. Her blond hair darkened to a shade of honey and shimmered lightly in the dimness. “Do you want some pizza?” she asked.
“Yeah, thanks for making it.”
“Sure,” she said. “When you’re ready, why don’t you bring it down to the basement?” Without letting go, she looked up at me and smiled. “There’s something I want to show you.”
“Okay, I’ll be right down.”
Understanding the importance of my routines, she playfully patted my butt and headed down to her office in the basement. Stunned by this rare and remarkable display of affection, I completed my rounds. I proceeded through the dining room and living room, then it was on to the foyer, where I always take a few moments to stare out the front window, visually lining up the neighbors’ rooftops (the alignment is the same every time, which is so gratifying it makes my shoulders relax, and for a moment my head is clear, my thoughts organized). As usual, I took note of which lights were on. I don’t normally shut them off, I just like to check in and see how they’re doing. Dining room light on, piano lamp not on, foyer not on, hallway on, kitchen off (that’s kind of rare . . . how ’bout it, kitchen?), oven hood on. I grabbed my pizza from the counter, swiped a Pepsi from the fridge, and made my way down the loud, clunky steps to Kristen’s office in our basement, where she was sitting in front of her computer. She turned and beamed at me.
“Sit here,” she said, pointing to the empty chair beside her. I had no idea what was going on, but there was pizza involved, and for the first time in weeks, I’d made her smile. Whatever it is, I’m in.
“Ready to get down to business?” she asked in a tone that seemed to suggest that I was.
I laughed. “Wet’s get down to bwass tacks!”
“Huh?” She looked thoroughly confused.
“It’s from Blazing Saddles. I’m ready.”
Embarrassed and disappointed that my movie reference tanked, I shoved my hands under my legs and swiveled back and forth in my chair.
“All right,” she said. “I’m going to ask you a list of questions, and you just have to answer honestly.” She must have realized that she was setting herself up by telling me to answer honestly. I tend to be verbose when people ask me to talk about myself; some would even say exhausting. I have no filter to limit my discourse to relevant things, and that puts people off. When I am invited to speak about myself, often what comes forth is the verbal equivalent of a volcanic eruption, spewing molten mind magma in every direction.
“I mean, you don’t have to deliberate each question,” she said, backpedaling. “I don’t need big, long answers, just honest ones.”
“Got it.”
She began: “Do you tend to get so absorbed by your special interests that you forget or ignore everything else? Just answer yes, no, or sometimes.”
“Special interests?”
“You know,” she said, “things like practicing your saxophone for four hours a day, or when you wrote scenes at the Second City and I hardly ever saw you . . .”
“Oh, well, sure,” I said. We both laughed. “I mean, doesn’t everybody get into stuff?”
“No,” she replied, marking down my answer. “Many people can do something they enjoy and not let it consume their whole life so they forget to pay bills, or put on shoes, or check in on their family from time to time.”
“Well. That’s their problem if they don’t have the intellectual capacity to engage constructively with an activity.”
“Next one: Is your sense of humor different from the mainstream or considered odd?”
I reflected back on the moment thirty seconds earlier, when I had cracked myself up by throwing my head back and bellowing what would be for most people a forgettable line from a Mel Brooks movie. Then I recalled going to a Victoria’s Secret store fifteen years earlier with my friend Greg and convincing the salesclerk that my girlfriend was shaped exactly like me, just so that I could quickly try on some lingerie against store policy (apparently) and give Greg a good laugh. That joke had been a success. But then I remembered the time in junior high when I glued a rubber chicken head to a T-shirt and wrote LET’S GET SERIOUS across the chest in permanent marker, only to be told at school that I’d have to wear something more appropriate. That time nobody had laughed. Finally, I recalled going to dinner with a customer a year earlier and taking a series of dirty jokes so far that he abruptly stopped laughing and asked what was wrong with me.
“Put me down for a yes,” I concluded.
“Do you often talk about your special interests whether others seem interested or not?” she asked. Her smile was answer enough, and I assumed that, like me, she was thinking of all the times in which I’d waxed lyrical about having perfected the art of using public toilets.
“Yes.” What else is there to talk about?
On and on it went, for over 150 questions.
“Do you take an interest in, and remember, details that others do not seem to notice? Do you notice patterns in things all the time? Do you need periods of contemplation?” All emphatically answered yes, with a follow-up, “This is fun!”
“Do you tend to get so stuck on details that you miss the overall picture? Do you get very tired after socializing and need to regenerate alone? Do people comment on your unusual mannerisms and habits?” Absolutely!
I found the questions rather amusing until we came to a section so personally revealing that it pulled the air from my lungs and made me forget how to blink.
“Does it feel vitally important to be left undisturbed when focusing on your special interests?” she asked. “Vitally is the key here.”
“Yes. You know how—”
“I know,” Kristen said, interrupting. “Before doing something or going somewhere, do you need to have a picture in your mind of what’s going to happen so as to be able to prepare yourself mentally first?”
This question seems rather insightful. “O-oh my God,” I stammered. “Yeah, that’s totally me.”
“Do you prefer to wear the same clothes and eat the same food every day? Do you become intensely frustrated if an activity that is important to you gets interrupted? Do you have strong attachments to certain favorite objects?”
“Those are all yes.”
“I know. Do you have certain routines which you need to follow? Do you get frustrated if you can’t sit on your favorite seat?”
“I literally have ended friendships over the seat thing. In high school—”
“Do you feel tortured by clothes tags, clothes that are too tight or are made in the ‘wrong’ material? Do you tend to shut down or have a meltdown when stressed or overwhelmed?”
All yes. But I was too stunned to answer aloud.
“How about, do people think you are aloof and distant? Do you often feel out of sync with others? In conversations, do you need extra time to carefully think out your reply, so that there may be a pause before you answer? Have you had the feeling of playing a game, pretending to be like people around you?”
I had chills. Actually, my skin was on fire. Actually, it was both.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Just keep answering honestly.” Kristen patted my leg reassuringly. “You’ll find out when we’re done.”
One by one, the questions described everything I already knew about myself—everything that I had always felt made me unique, beautiful, yet removed from other people. Folding my arms tight, I began to cry, which surprised both of us.
Kristen asked if I was all right, and I said that I was, so we continued. Another batch of questions brought back the laughter. In fact, most of the questions from that point forward were rather potent, evoking one strong emotion or another, though there were a few that seemed odd and out of place, such as “Do you sometimes have an urge to jump over things?” and “Have you been fascinated by making traps?” (Admittedly, it sucked a little to hear myself answering yes to both of those.)
We finished the quiz, and Kristen took a moment to gaze at me before asking, “What do you think?”
“I think that was a very telling list of questions,” I said. “Did you write those?”
She explained that she had stumbled upon the questionnaire while searching online for Asperger’s evaluation resources, though, notably, she offered little explanation as to why she had been looking for those resources. I had to assume that it wasn’t strictly for her job.
I felt like I was free-falling. “Okay,” I said.
“Ready to find out what it says?”
“Sure,” I said, though I was anything but.
Kristen clicked the mouse and my score flashed onto the screen: 155 out of a possible 200.
“One fifty-five?” I asked. “What is that? Is that a lot?”
“That’s a whole lotta Asperger’s,” she said, nodding.
“Are you serious?”
“That’s what it says.”
“I have Asperger’s? I have autism?! I mean . . . holy shit! Right?”
“Dave, you don’t have autism. You don’t even officially have an Asperger’s diagnosis. This is just a self-quiz and I’m not a doctor, but I think you may have Asperger syndrome. That’s why I wanted you to take this quiz. Based on your score, you’d probably receive the diagnosis if a doctor gave you a formal evaluation.”
I repeated myself: “Holy shit!”
At that point, all I knew about Asperger syndrome was what I’d heard from Kristen over the years. I understood that it was an autism spectrum condition and that those with Asperger’s had a difficult time engaging with others socially. I knew a few people with Asperger syndrome—diagnosed children and adults—and they seemed to function at different levels; some had obvious telltale behaviors while others could have been written off as shy or odd. I also understood that it could easily be misdiagnosed.
Wanting to know if the online quiz was a reliable weather vane, I asked Kristen—who is perhaps the most un-Asperger’s person that I know—to evaluate herself. She agreed, and scored an eight.
A few minutes passed as I sat on my hands, rocking back and forth, trying to process what I had just learned. Kristen sat patiently, keeping her eyes trained on me, waiting for my reaction. I was not upset. I was not conflicted. The knowledge felt amazing. It was cathartic. And it made perfect sense. Of course! Here were answers, handed to me so easily, to almost every difficult question I’d had since childhood: Why is it so hard for me to engage with people? Why do I seem to perceive and process things so differently from everyone else? Why do the sounds and phrases that play in a continuous loop in my head seem louder and command more attention than the actual world around me? In other words, why am I different? Oh my God, I have Asperger’s!
While someone else might question why his wife would sit him down and informally evaluate him for Asperger syndrome—in her pajamas, no less—at no point during that evening in Kristen’s office did I wonder about it. For one thing, there are certain orders and tasks that I simply don’t dispute; I just follow commands and generally do whatever people tell me to. But there’s no particular consistency to this, which is strange. Frequent requests from Kristen such as “Please remember to run the dishwasher tonight” don’t have much of an effect. But if I walked into a grocery store and someone grabbed my elbow and asked me to put on a hot dog costume, two minutes later I’d be standing there, a six-foot wiener in a neoprene bun, wondering how long I was supposed to keep it on.
What I found most remarkable about that evening—besides the part where I found out that I have Asperger syndrome—was that Kristen and I had shared some good hours together for the first time in months. There was laughter and insight and deep discussion. There was warmth and affection and unmistakable love—I could see it in her eyes, feel it in our closeness. Though we had been married only five years, such moments had become painfully rare. We both knew that our marriage had fallen apart, that our mutual feelings of helplessness and disappointment had pushed aside the fun and happiness we once shared, and more than once we found ourselves wondering if a separation was the only way out. Of course it wasn’t gloom and doom all the time, but I couldn’t deny the fact that we were estranged. That was not something we had ever envisioned happening to our relationship.
But once I learned that I have Asperger syndrome, the fact that we’d had these serious marital problems seemed less surprising. Asperger syndrome can manifest itself in behaviors that are inherently relationship defeating. It’s tricky being married to me, though neither Kristen nor I could have predicted that. To the casual neurotypical observer (neurotypical refers to people with typically functioning brains, i.e., people without autism), I may seem relatively normal. Cognitive resources and language skills often develop normally in people with Asperger syndrome, which means that in many situations I could probably pass myself off as neurotypical, were it not for four distinguishing characteristics of my disorder: persistent, intense preoccupations; unusual rituals and behaviors; impaired social-reasoning abilities; and clinical-strength egocentricity. All of which I have to an almost comically high degree. But I also have the ability to mask these effects under the right circumstances, like when I want someone to hire me or fall in love with me.
Looking back, I suppose a diagnosis was inevitable. A casual girlfriend might have dismissed my compulsion to arrange balls of shredded napkin into symmetrical shapes as being idiosyncratic or even artistic. But Kristen had been living with me—observing me for years in my natural habitat—and had become increasingly skilled in assessing autism spectrum conditions in her job as a speech therapist. While it is technically inaccurate to say that she diagnosed me (that wouldn’t have been possible or ethical, as she’s not a doctor), as far as I was concerned, I had received a diagnosis that evening. I went to bed 100 percent convinced that I had Asperger syndrome. I later received a formal Asperger’s diagnosis from a doctor, but that exercise hardly seemed necessary. Given my behaviors, it would have been just as easy to diagnose a nosebleed.
One of my most obvious symptoms is the way I handle myself in unexpected social interactions. Especially conversations, which involve many subtle rules. My problem is that I can’t seem to learn and apply the rules properly, though not for lack of trying. One is simply supposed to know the right way to respond to people or initiate conversations, but my attempts rarely pass muster. And due to my intense preoccupations with certain things, I have a tendency to discuss very strange topics at length, oblivious to the listener’s level of interest. A typical conversation might go something like this:
“How ’bout those Bears, Dave?” a colleague will ask.
“I don’t really follow sports, so I decline to form an opinion other than that I like their uniforms. It’s funny you mention bears because last night I was reading about grizzly bears, which are my favorite kind of bear, and I learned something rather unsettling about their mating habits.”
“Never mind.”
My responses confound people, I’m garrulous about all the wrong things, my speech is awkward, and then there’s also my not-at-all-charming delay in processing, which makes for disjointed conversation and missed social cues. Conversations either persist much longer than either party would like them to (“And here’s another thing that fascinates me about sewing machines . . .”), or they end too quickly (“You did hear correctly, we had a baby yesterday and it wasn’t without its complications. See you later”). Even if I manage to deliver my point, it’s usually somewhat irrelevant. (“So I guess what I’m trying to say about the Civil War is, how about the beards on those soldiers, huh? Where’s everybody going?”)
Over the years, I have learned some ways to compensate. When I know ahead of time who I’ll encounter in a particular situation, I can prepare. I have a strong tendency to assume characters—versions of myself that are optimized for the social environment at hand. Conversations must be scripted, facial expressions rehearsed, personalities summoned. This strategy has enabled me to succeed at work and in school and to do well enough socially. If I’m with conservative work colleagues, I’m reserved and willing to discuss Christianity and handgun rights. Neighbors enjoy a lawn-care enthusiast and classic-rock fan when I arrive at the block party, and Kristen’s relatives are always excited to see the gregarious, supportive man who values a respectful handshake. Whatever the occasion, and whichever corresponding persona I choose to wear for it, pulling off a successful social exchange is a lot of work. It’s exhausting. I don’t know how neurotypicals do it, let alone how they look forward to it.
Under the right conditions, I do enjoy going out with friends. We’ve already established common ground and I know what they expect from me. I get high from making people laugh, from performing. Goofing around with my buddies is still tremendously hard work requiring much preparation, but at least there’s a payoff: laughter. When I am on, and I’m with the right people, I am killing and full of deranged brilliance (I like to think). A pita may be swiped from someone’s plate and used as a potty-mouthed talking vagina, or I may demonstrate what I believe would be a controversial but effective new wiping technique for the bathroom. They laugh, go home, and wake up the next morning with real-world problems on their minds. I go home to review my performance. Was the talking pita vagina too potty-mouthed? Did the elderly couple a few tables over think I was boorish? How might I incorporate beating off into the bit about folk musicians? My head spins as it hits the pillow.
The social aspect, however, is only one piece of the Asperger’s puzzle. Sensory issues present another problem for me. As humans, we learn about our world through sensory stimulation. But for me, certain sensations become so overwhelming that I lose control of myself. While most people can go about their business oblivious to their partially untucked shirts and itchy sweater collars, I suffer major emotional tailspins over something as supposedly minor as pilly jean pockets. On many occasions, I’ve had to excuse myself from meetings at work to duck into the men’s room, take off my clothes, and completely redress myself because my underwear has bunched up, or my socks have twisted around my shins, or, heaven forbid, my shirt has static buildup. My solution is to buy several identical garments that feel all right against my skin, then wear them over and over until they fall apart. Take away the black jacket (those sleeves would drive me mental), and I’m like the Michael Kors of the Asperger’s community.
Of course, sensory issues and clumsy social exchanges don’t ruin marriages. What brought my marriage to its knees were my God-given egocentricity and inability to cope with situations and circumstances beyond my control. Put the two qualities together, and you’re left with something that looks like a combination of pathological closed-mindedness and an obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD might not take down a marriage, but I’m certain that pathological closed-mindedness isn’t one of the top qualities a person would look for in a spouse.
Everybody likes to have things in order, and everybody likes things to go according to plan. But because of the way my brain developed, I need things to be in order, and I need things to go as planned. If they don’t, I come unglued. If left unchecked, my reactions resemble the tantrums my two-year-old would throw whenever someone would disturb his meticulous line of toy train cars. My inability to cope partially explains my horrible flash temper. If the grocery store is out of my preferred hamburger buns, for example, three hours later it will result in a nuclear reaction of cynicism and anger. The disruption of my routine is so upsetting that I can’t—not won’t, can’t—contain myself, and everyone around me sees the unpleasant effects. I’ve been told a million times to “get over it,” but I can’t. My brain won’t let me. Just as I can’t seem to prevent the regrettable outbursts that usually follow.
End of this sample Kindle book.


Mike said...

Interesting book. I will have to add it to my list of things to read. I wonder what the cut-off limit is with the quiz.

Sailor said...

It is an interesting story. I started out with my main interest on the Asberger's Syndrome aspect, but after a few chapters came to see that we all have many of the same habbits to one degree or another. Mostly now I'm impressed on how hard he and Kristen work to build their relationship. He kind of takes away all the excuses that we hang on to. I'm not done with it yet,but already it has been very rewarding.

Carol Riddell said...

Have just ordered the book (thank you). It does sound a very promising read. I think many people do have certain traits which could be described as being linked to Asperger's, some more strongly than other of course - but interesting the author found this label a source of comfort. I'm not entirely certain putting a name to one's psychological make-up (or boxing people together as if they are somehow the same) always helps - people who pose no danger to others are just people after all - but individuals tagged as 'different' do hold a great fascination for me, possibly because I've heard the word used so many times with regard to myself ever since I was a very young child. Anyway, I enjoyed the read so far and thanks again for posting.