Category Archives: Relationships

Impossibly Imperfect

This blog post deals with topics of a sensitive nature, and some of what follows may be considered NSFW and/or TMI for some readers. Continue at your own discretion.

I lived in Asheville, North Carolina for a couple years while growing up, which is located in the mountainous western part of the state. Our neighborhood was perched on the side of Beaucatcher Mountain, and was comprised of a lot of hilly, windy streets. One particular neighborhood street was especially steep, with a sharp S-curve at the bottom of a long, straight hill. Just beyond the S-curve, the terrain dropped off dramatically into a rugged, wooded ravine. If the street had been a busier road, it would be one of those notorious stretches of highway that has a nickname like Death Hill or Blood Alley.

As it was, the street didn’t have very many houses on it and was lightly traveled by cars, so it became a favorite spot for us to play. I’d pull my red Radio Flyer wagon to the top of the hill, climb on board, and then ride at top speed down the hill, with the wind blowing in my face. The feeling of flying downhill was as ecstatic as the first big drop on a roller coaster, but was tempered with the very real danger of missing the curve, flying off the pavement, and ending up broken and bloodied at the bottom of the ravine.

The memory of flying down that hill in a Radio Flyer wagon at high speed, with a near-certain bloody and painful death at the bottom of the hill rapidly getting closer, has become somewhat of an unfortunate metaphor for my love life over the years. The whole realm of relationships and sexuality has been a very difficult one for me, and it’s not without a degree of hesitation that I write about it here.  While I do a pretty good job at maintaining close friendships with quite a few attractive women, things always seem to fall apart whenever there’s a hint of romantic feelings involved.

Part of it may have to do with the uptight Calvinist background I grew up in, where sexuality was hardly ever discussed except in the context of there apparently being far too much of it on television and in popular culture. And then there’s the fact that I was sexually abused as a child, by an older neighborhood kid who promised to allow me into his “club” if I performed certain acts down in the woods behind the house. Somehow my membership card to his secret club must have repeatedly gotten lost in the mail, because I kept having to go through the initiation process over and over again.

I also have mild Asperger’s syndrome, and that no doubt plays a big role as well, even though I never knew I was an Aspie until I was well into adulthood. Nowadays I can do a pretty good job of pretending I’m at least somewhat normal, but as a kid I was clueless. Nobody really had a name for my condition at that time; I just assumed I was a weird misfit due to some horrible character defect on my part. While my classmates were playing with their Transformers or G.I. Joe action figures, I was usually off in the corner sketching pictures of bridges and space ships. A few years later when they were having their first sexual experiences, I was still sketching (slightly more refined) pictures of bridges and space ships. It’s not that I didn’t have sexual feelings or wasn’t incredibly attracted to certain girls at school; it’s just that I was too chickenshit to actually act on those feelings. My classmates assumed I was gay or asexual, and bullied the living shit out of me accordingly. During bus rides home in 5th grade, a few of the popular kids would corner me in the back of the school bus and ask me invasive questions about my sexuality. If they didn’t like my answer, one of them would give me a swift punch in the stomach.

As you might imagine, relationships and sexuality – things that, in an ideal world, should be sources of joy and happiness for those involved – had come to be strongly associated with feelings of guilt, shame, rejection, and violence in my mind. When you crash the Radio Flyer wagon into the ravine too many times, you start to dread the idea of hauling it back up the hill for another ride.

Fast-forward to this past week, when a random bit of news during my workday brought back vivid memories of a time when I flew down that metaphorical hill way too fast, and ended up crashing into the ravine in a most spectacular manner.

As it turns out, a former crush of mine is getting married on Saturday, and not to me. You’d think I’d be over it after almost a decade, but this one really stung. For a few months in late 2002 and early 2003, “Jennifer” and I had developed what I considered a pretty deep long-distance relationship, which culminated in her flying to Philadelphia and meeting up with me during her spring break.

I’ve always had a pretty specific picture in my head of what my ideal partner is like, and it was uncanny just how close she came to that mental image, in a number of important ways: her intelligence, her emotional maturity, her overall great looks, and so forth. Nobody else before or since then has come quite so close to my idealized version of Miss Right. I was much more religious back then than I am now, and I was convinced she was the gift from God that I had been praying for almost my entire life.

But there was more to her than just a nice personality and physical attractiveness. Jennifer was born without arms, and used her agile feet to do things that most people do with their hands. A real-life Venus de Milo, I found her unique condition to be incredibly fascinating and sensual. I didn’t think of her as disabled, and she didn’t think of herself that way, either. She had never known any other way to live, and her body was as normal to her as mine is to me.

I’ve always been drawn to the unique and unusual. In a neighborhood full of bland McMansions, I’m the guy who would buy something like the Mushroom House. Whenever I’d get a handful of candy corn around Halloween, I’d always pick out the mutant pieces and eat them first, because they were special and stood out from the others. I was somehow convinced this made them taste better.

Likewise, for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by and found beauty in people with certain unique physical characteristics – even something as relatively minor as having a pair of webbed toes – but particularly with people who are missing one or more limbs, either by birth or through circumstances later in life. Jennifer wasn’t the first amputee I’d felt romantic feelings toward, and she likely won’t be the last. The first crush I ever had was toward Carol Johnston, a gymnast who was born without part of her right arm. Her story was the subject of a Disney film I saw on TV while growing up, and I was enthralled with the shape and movement of her partial arm, which ended with a small, round stump just below her elbow. (Carol is almost old enough to be my mother, but she appeared much closer to my age in the film, which had been produced a number of years before I saw it.) Jennifer was completely armless, not unlike Simona Atzori, an Italian artist and dancer who was also born without arms. No stumps or even scars, just perfectly smooth shoulders where a pair of arms would normally begin. Her use of her feet for daily tasks was as fluid and natural as most people’s use of their hands. I’d gladly pick somebody like her over any number of plastic-looking supermodels.

There’s a lot more to it than just the physical attraction, though. What I find equally appealing is the fact that people like Jennifer have a unique story to tell, that they know what it’s like to be different and to overcome obstacles. My favorite people in the world are those who strive to overcome life’s challenges with grace and humor, and who embrace their own uniqueness. This might be the one element that all my closest friends have in common, regardless of how many limbs they have.

An army of therapists could spend countless hours speculating on all the reasons why I have these feelings, and still not come up with a satisfactory answer. I wouldn’t really call it a fetish, although sexual attraction is certainly one part of it. I’ve always felt different throughout my life, and I think maybe I find a kindred spirit in somebody who is as different on the outside as I am on the inside, and who has spent a lifetime overcoming obstacles and dealing with other people’s stares and clueless comments, as well as more mundane things like a lack of wheelchair ramps or doorknobs that are difficult to grasp. To be clear, the attraction has nothing at all to do with any hardship or suffering that comes with being an amputee. I’ve had a few close friends over the years who are amputees, and I wouldn’t wish those phantom pains, ongoing medical issues, or the cost of a prosthetic limb on anybody.

As you might imagine, being attracted to amputees brings forth a lot of conflicted feelings that include heavy doses of shame and guilt. Pop culture values physical perfection to an obscene level, and people don’t like to be reminded that they might someday lose a leg in a car accident, or give birth to a child that has less than ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes. Veterans who lose limbs in combat are either swept under the rug and ignored by the people who sent them into combat in the first place, or are maybe put onto a pedestal and briefly worshipped as folk heros – but never portrayed as the guy next door who lost his legs and a couple of close friends to a roadside bomb, and who still has nightmares about it. But I didn’t choose to have this attraction any more than Jennifer chose to be born without arms, and I reject the notion that I should beat myself up over an aspect of my psyche that I never willingly signed up for.

Soon after high school, my family got a computer and I was introduced to this new thing called the Internet for the first time. After doing a couple of Alta Vista searches (I’m really dating myself here), I soon discovered that I’m not the only person who has this attraction; people like me are typically referred to as devotees within the community. (The phenomenon also has a very dry technical term: Acrotomophilia.) Personally, I find the terminology inadequate – the term admirer has also been tossed around, which I find more apt – but for better or worse, devotee seems to be the accepted label.

How do amputees typically feel about this attraction? Opinions vary widely. Some find it very flattering and liberating; a common sentiment is that it’s nice to be seen as an attractive woman with no caveats, as opposed to being seen as attractive despite a disability. Others find it extremely repulsive and threatening, feeling that devotees are getting their jollies from what for many amputees is the most painful and traumatic episode of their lives. Most amputees’ feelings probably fall somewhere between those two extremes, perhaps accepting of the attraction despite some reservations. As a gross generalization, my experience is that amputees who were born that way tend to be more accepting of the attraction than those who lost a limb later in life due to trauma or disease. It’s a very controversial issue within online support groups and other amputee-related communities, with very passionate feelings on all sides of the issue. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to change anybody’s mind about it, but to simply articulate my own feelings.

Back in the 90’s there used to be a small online community of devotees and devotee-friendly amputees, mostly on IRC and an email listserv. There were even occasional real-life gatherings, and a number of marriages have come from those meetings. With a fairly intimate community it was easier to keep the predatory elements away, of which there are unfortunately quite a few. In the amputee-devotee subculture, the bad apples usually consist of guys who get off on some sort of power trip by being with somebody they perceive as helpless, or people who live out their fantasies by pretending to be amputees online.

Unfortunately, with the explosion in social media such as MySpace and then Facebook over the past few years, what used to be a fairly tight-knit and self-policing internet subculture has become a free-for-all, with some devotees pursuing amputees with all the grace and chivalry of the Nazgûl pursuing the One Ring, and ruining it for those who have better social skills and more honest intentions. There are still some vestiges of the old community left, but it’s a pretty small and isolated group with relatively little in the way of new blood.

I know of a number of amputee/devotee couples who couldn’t be happier. I also know of devotees who have gone their entire lives without finding their ideal partner to settle down with, and I know of others who ultimately married non-amputees only to find themselves depressed and frustrated, and their marriages failing. As for myself, it certainly makes things difficult because my ideal dating pool is a tiny fraction of the general population. I can go months or years at a time before seeing an attractive female amputee out in public, and the whole online scene is a crapshoot. On the rare occasion I see an attractive amputee out in public and I fail to make any kind of meaningful contact with her (which is almost always the case – I universally err on the side of keeping a respectful distance and doing nothing, rather than annoying her with any awkward advances), it can haunt me for months or years after the fact.

Mind you, I’m still very attracted to able-bodied women as well. The longest relationship I’ve had so far was with somebody who wasn’t an amputee, and I don’t regret a minute of it. But in looking for a long-term relationship or marriage, I face a bit of a dilemma. When I was in that relationship, there was always a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I wasn’t being true to my feelings and that I was “settling” for something that was less than my ideal, and I was overcome with feelings of guilt. I didn’t feel like I was being fair to either her or myself. Nobody likes to be told they’re a second choice.

Jennifer seemed flattered by my unusual form of attention, and I was thrilled with the idea that after so much longing and searching, I had finally found somebody to share my life with. But the day after she arrived in town and we first met face-to-face, she called me up at work just a couple hours before we were supposed to meet again, and slammed the brakes on any notion of a relationship. She never did give a clear reason, but seemed to imply that she wasn’t ready for a relationship and that the chemistry didn’t feel right.

On one level it was understandable, as there was a pretty significant age difference between us, we had different backgrounds and ambitions, and lived a couple thousand miles apart. At that moment on the phone, though, I felt like a bomb had just been detonated within my already-fragile psyche. I blame myself for getting my hopes up too high in the first place, but that euphoric feeling of being head-over-heels in love was incredible while it lasted. For a brief few weeks, I felt like I was racing downhill in that Radio Flyer wagon, and the S-curve and ravine were no longer a threat. I haven’t experienced anything like it since then, and part of me wonders if I ever will.

She said she wanted to remain friends, and held out the idea that maybe sometime in the future, things might work out between us. But it never happened. The phone calls and online chats became less frequent, and then stopped altogether. My greetings went unanswered, and after a lot of heartbreak and depression on my part, I eventually moved on. She became somewhat of a minor media celebrity with her motivational speaking gigs and amazing accomplishments, and I continued quietly making slow but steady progress toward my academic and professional goals.

I had pretty much put her out of my mind until now, but learning that she’s getting married this week brought it all back. In all honesty, I wish her the best, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can now look back and see about a million reasons why things never would have worked out between us. As painful as it was for me, she probably did the right thing by breaking it off sooner rather than later.

So now I’m spilling my guts here, mainly just to get it off my chest and hopefully gain some catharsis, but also to shed some insight into an aspect of my life that, until now, I’ve kept pretty private. No doubt some parts of this blog entry dove pretty far into TMI territory for some, but I’m hoping the benefits outweigh any negative blowback. A few of my closest friends already know about this side of me, and seem generally accepting of it, even if it’s impossible for them to fully understand it. One friend quipped, “Most of the women I date are missing a brain, so I’d have to envy you if your girlfriend was only missing an arm or a leg.”

One of my resolutions for 2012

was to try and let go of some emotional baggage that I’ve been carrying around my neck like an albatross, and this is part of that process. With people all over the country being denied equal rights and bullied to the point of suicide because of who they love, it seems hypocritical for me to champion their rights while keeping my own sexual proclivities safely tucked away in the closet, out of danger. Maybe some good will come of this blog post, and there may be some negative consequences as well. But I think I’ve reached the point where I’m finally willing to stop living in fear of the what-if scenarios, and to let the chips fall where they may. Fuck that ravine.

I Never Talk to Strangers

"There is no ocean, John. There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head."

The 1998 film Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Rufus Sewell, is one of my all-time favorite films, right up there with Blade Runner, 2001, and Pulp Fiction.

In the movie, John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a seedy hotel room in a strange city where it is always night. He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he got there, but he knows that something isn’t right. He finds himself with an overwhelming desire to get to a place called Shell Beach, a sunny seaside hamlet that is presumably his hometown. It’s a place where he believes he can discover his true identity and find the answers to all the questions that bedevil him.

John spends a good portion of the movie trying to get to Shell Beach, while piecing together the clues about his identity and the nature of the city he’s in. Shell Beach appears in postcards and on billboards throughout the city, and it’s even shown on the subway map. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to remember how to actually get there, and the subway line to Shell Beach turns out to be an express train that blows through the station without stopping. Every supposed path to Shell Beach ends up going in circles or turns out to be a dead end.

Through a series of events, John ends up in contact with Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), the one person who seems to know what’s going on. John forces Schreber at gunpoint to take him to Shell Beach, and is led through a desolate quarter of the city down a canal and then through a maze-like series of dark alleys and corridors. They come to a doorway and open it.

What first appears to be a bright blue sky and ocean beyond the door turns out to be just another Shell Beach billboard. It is at this moment when John faces the reality that there is no ocean, no daylight, no blue sky. Shell Beach is nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

“There is no ocean, John,” Dr Schreber explains. “There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head.”

I had an epiphany like that last Wednesday when, after a lot of research and soul-searching, I came to the realization that I most likely have Asperger’s Syndrome. While online quizzes and Wikipedia articles are no substitute for a professional diagnosis, my findings were consistent and conclusive, and I have no reason to doubt them. All the traits and symptoms fit me to a T, and the stories of other people on various support sites could have easily been my own life story. After years of trying, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally fit together, and the picture it formed is both a relief and a curse. Looking back, I’m shocked that it has taken me this long to make all the connections. This isn’t a disease that needs to be cured or a defect that needs to be corrected, but it’s something that needs to be accepted and dealt with as I move on with my life.

So, what is Asperger’s? GRASP.org is a good starting point, and here’s what they say about it:

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is generally considered to be a form of autism. Unlike the more severe forms of autism, people with AS exhibit little or no impairments in their speech (at most a mild delay in early childhood). But like many people with autism, they have a level of intelligence at least in the average range and often in the above-average or even superior ranges. And as with all other forms of autism it is characterized by varying degrees of deficits in social interactions and non-verbal communications. More specifically, people with AS have difficulties, sometimes severe, in perceiving the world from the perspective of another person and in “picking up” on the social cues (facial expressions, bodily gestures, tone of voice, etc.) that constitute such a significant part of many human interactions. As a result, having AS can mean having great abilities or talents in certain areas, but can also mean never living independently, never holding down a job for any extended period of time, and perhaps never even enjoying an intimate relationship. At the very least, it often means being an outcast and even subject to victimization in school, in the workplace, and in personal life.

(Full article here.)

Some common traits of Asperger’s:

Difficulty reading the social and emotional messages in the eyes: Those with AS don’t look at eyes often, and when they do, they can’t read them.

Check. I remember meeting a woman in a bar last year, and within the first five minutes of our conversation, she asked me why I wasn’t making eye contact with her. That thought had never even occurred to me, but I realized she was right. Unfortunately, sometimes I end up overcompensating for this, and my eye contact gets interpreted as a stalker-like glare. For whatever reasons, I find it almost impossible to maintain a happy middle ground between these extremes.

Making literal interpretation: AS individuals have trouble interpreting colloquialisms, sarcasm, and metaphors.

Check. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve misinterpreted somebody’s joke or smart-ass remark. Oh, you really don’t have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell me? My bad. (Oddly enough, though, I’m sarcastic as hell when it comes to my own sense of humor.)

Being considered disrespectful and rude: Prone to egocentric behavior, individuals with Asperger’s miss cues and warning signs that this behavior is inappropriate.

Check. Although I can usually handle myself in social situations nowadays, or at least manage not to look like a complete ass, I find myself having to make a very deliberate effort at things that seem to come naturally to most other people. I was born without a social filter, so I have a tendency to either say what’s on my mind or (more likely) not say anything at all. Read on:

Honesty and deception: Children with Asperger’s are often considered “too honest,” and may even proclaim themselves to be “honest” or “frank” as a way of explaining their behavior. They have difficulty being deceptive, even at the expense of hurting someone’s feelings.

Check. I’m incapable of lying or deception, no matter how much there might be a need for it. Not that I’ve never tried, but I suck at it. By the same token, I generally assume that other people are always being honest and truthful with me, and it’s always a big shock to my system when that turns out not to be the case.

Inadequate nonverbal communication: their facial expressions, hand gestures, and other forms of body language, are usually limited.

Check. My intentions have been misinterpreted so many times that I seem to have developed a perpetual poker face in response, an Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™, and it can only be deactivated by a select few who have earned the proper security clearance. If somebody tries to breach it without authorization, my internal defenses instantly go into red alert, and my IAIFF™ automatically activates an additional layer of armor plating. (I used to be much less picky about who I gave security clearance to, but after a few people with less-than-noble intentions got past the IAIFF™ and did lots of damage, I had to tighten up my security protocols a bit.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’ll note that I have a much easier time communicating via the written word, and it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of my social interaction takes place in chat rooms, instant message windows, and on various online discussion forums. Whenever I’ve developed romantic feelings for somebody online, things always seem to go fine until we actually meet face-to-face.

Becoming aware of making social errors: As children with Asperger’s mature, and become aware of their inability to connect, their fear of making a social mistake, and their self-criticism when they do so, can lead to social phobia.

Check. If you really want to torture me, just throw me into the middle of a party full of strangers and tell me to “mingle” for a while. Sometimes I get lucky and engage in some decent conversation if I meet the right person, but more likely I end up going home even more lonely and depressed than I was when I showed up.

Better yet, find a way to put me on the spot and watch me squirm. A couple years ago I was at a bar with some people I barely knew from my health club, and it turned out to be Karaoke Night at that particular bar. Oh, joy.

A couple people from our group took turns at the microphone and generally made jackasses of themselves before somebody had the brilliant idea that I should go up and do a song. They may as well have asked me to shove a sharp pencil through my left eyeball, which incidentally, I would have gladly done rather than sing karaoke.

I resisted, but of course that only fueled their desire to see me up there. When it became apparent to me that these assholes weren’t going to drop the idea, I finally got up from the table and walked toward the microphone, with my group wildly cheering me on behind me. I kept on walking, past the microphone and out the front door, got on a bus, and went home. I never spoke to any of those people again.

Differences in speech: They display less speech intonation than neurotypical persons. Their speech may be perceived as “flat.” However, those with AS also possess superficial fluency in day-to-day conversation.

Check, sort of. If I’m talking to people that I’m comfortable with (usually the same people who have gained security clearance to bypass my Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™) about subjects that interest me, I seem to do just fine. Many other times, though, I generally sound about as emotional as Stephen Hawking giving a lecture about particle physics.

A sense of paranoia: Because of their inability to connect, persons with Asperger’s have trouble distinguishing the difference between the deliberate or accidental actions of others, which can in turn lead to a feeling of paranoia.

Check. Many times I feel like I was born with a third eye in the middle of my forehead, but for some reason everybody else can see it except for me. Although people are usually too polite to mention anything about it directly to me, they always talk about it amongst themselves whenever my back is turned, and it’s always on their mind whenever they’re forced to interact with me. See that group of attractive women at that table over there? The ones laughing and giggling? They’re talking about me and my third eye. And that friend of mine who declined my Facebook friend request or never responded to my message? She actually hates people with third eyes, but doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by saying so. I just know it.

Managing conflict: Being unable to understand other points of view can lead to inflexibility and an inability to negotiate conflict resolution. Once the conflict is resolved, remorse may not be evident.

Bullshit. That paragraph is wrong, and I’m right! End of discussion.

Sense of humor: Although jokes can be grasped at an intellectual level, the emotional worth of humor is not appreciated. Smiles and laughter may appear unnatural with some people with AS.

I actually have a pretty healthy sense of humor, but I find humor in unusual places and situations. The more absurd the better, which is probably why I love shows like South Park, Seinfeld, and Monty Python. That stupid pun you made? I’m not impressed. But a goose and a toddler fighting each other in a boxing ring, with spectators placing bets on the outcome? That would be fucking hilarious.

Awareness of hurting the feelings of others: A lack of empathy often leads to unintentionally offensive or insensitive behaviors.

Check. Although it’s rarely deliberate (and if it is, there will be no question about it), I’ve no doubt left a long trail of bruised egos and hurt feelings in my wake. Most of my lessons in interpersonal relationships have been learned the hard way, and I’m sure I still have many more lessons to learn. It’s not that I don’t have empathy; it’s just that I have a very hard time showing it.

Repairing someone’s feelings: Lacking intuition about the feelings of others, people with AS have little understanding of how to console someone or how to make them feel better.

Check. My close friends know that I’m a good listener and that I’m always willing to hear what’s bothering them, and sometimes I can even offer practical advice on whatever problems they’re having, but I’ve never really been good with the whole consolation thing. I’m trying, though.

Recognizing signs of boredom: Inability to understand other people’s interests can lead AS persons to be inattentive to others. Conversely, people with AS often fail to notice when others are uninterested.

Check, although I’m getting better about this one. I used to talk people’s ear off about things only I found interesting, but I think I’m getting better about cutting myself off when the other person obviously isn’t interested. That’s not to say I still don’t occasionally slip into old habits, though.

Reciprocal love and grief: Since people with AS have difficulty emotionally, their expressions of affection and grief are often short and weak.

Check. Affection and physical touch are difficult issues for me. If I’m being touched by somebody I have feelings of affection for, I generally can’t get enough of it, but I’m very clumsy and awkward when it comes to initiating physical contact. For people I don’t have feelings of affection for (and this includes the vast majority of people out there), I prefer not to be touched at all. I don’t mind a handshake or maybe even a quick hug, but anything else will probably rub me the wrong way.

In romantic relationships, I live in mortal fear of making an advance and being rejected, so I usually end up playing it safe by simply never making any advances. On the very rare occasion when I’ve made the first move, it’s usually ended up being very forced and awkward.

The good news is, each time a relationship successfully advances to the next level of physical intimacy, I can usually maintain that same level of intimacy without too much trouble. For example, early in my relationship with my first girlfriend, the simple act of holding her hand represented a huge step for me, and I had a very hard time trying to get to that point. Once we got to that point, though, I never had a problem holding her hand afterwards.

Sex, though, is something I struggle with a great deal. Later in that same relationship, we had a date in which I came over to her place for dinner, and then we cuddled together on her sofa to watch a movie. After the movie, we began making out. So far so good, as we had done this a few times before and I always enjoyed it.

This was probably the heaviest we had ever made out to that point, and I was horny as hell. Problem was, I had no idea if she wanted to go “all the way” that evening or not, and I really had no clue how to find out. I soon found myself having a full-blown panic attack there on her sofa, as my heart began pounding and all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. I’m not sure what I was more afraid of: That she wanted to have sex and I was going to disappoint her by not performing well enough (or at all), or that she didn’t want sex and I was going to ruin the relationship by attempting to go for it against her wishes. Nothing happened, and I ended up going home and taking a cold shower that evening. To this day I have no idea what my girlfriend was thinking, and by the time it occurred to me that I should have just asked her, the moment was long gone. I do fine when the boundaries are clearly explained and understood, but I’m terrible when the rules are unclear.

Grief is a bit more difficult. It’s not that I don’t ever feel grief, it’s just that I’ve usually done a pretty good job of keeping it bottled up inside me. When I let it out, it’s usually in private. I always attributed that to my classically British stiff-upper-lip family background, but maybe there’s more to the story. When my paternal grandfather died in 1993, I didn’t shed a tear until a year or two later, and then only when it was triggered by something completely unrelated. At that point, I sobbed for hours.

Lack of participation in chitchat: They are not generally interested in, and do not participate in idle chat and gossip.

Check. Sorry, hair stylist, but I’m just not interested in discussing the weather with you. Sorry, taxi driver, but I’d much prefer to look out the window and not engage you in inane banter. Sorry, roommate, but I really don’t give a flying fuck about the Giants game. Sorry, date, I’ve tried my best, but we can only fill so much time talking about what was on TV last night.

Preference of routine: They prefer routine work, and are not able to cope well to changes, even small ones. Such disruptions from routine can cause stress and anxiety.

Check. I have a daily and a weekly routine, and although it has a certain amount of built-in flexibility and isn’t carved in stone, I find myself getting upset if that routine somehow gets disrupted. My morning cup of coffee while reading the New York Times, stopping to grab another cup of coffee on the way to work, taking a short walk outside during my lunch break, sleeping in on Saturdays, my Sunday brunch at Le Monde, my glass of sherry on Sunday evenings: These are all little things that, as long as I can keep them up, somehow assure me that things are right with my world. If I move to a new city or these routines somehow get altered, I always feel a bit off-kilter until they’re re-established or until I develop new ones.

Coping with criticism: People with AS are compelled to correct mistakes, even when they are made by someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher. For this reason, they can be unwittingly offensive.

Check. This used to get me in trouble all the time at my last job, where my bosses took any correction as a direct threat to their authority. Luckily I’m now at a job where my input is welcomed and encouraged, and I’ve developed a reputation for being sort of a quality control guru. I can’t turn in any work unless I’m confident that it’s flawless, and in written communications, I generally regard sloppy grammar and spelling as crimes against humanity.

Speed and quality of social processing: Because they respond through reasoning and not intuition, AS individuals tend to process social information more slowly than the norm, leading to uncomfortable pauses or delays in response.

Check. I can’t always get my mouth to say what my brain is telling it to say. I can rehearse entire, drawn-out conversations in my head in which I perfectly articulate all the things that are on my mind, but when it comes time for me to have such a conversation in real life, I usually end up freezing and stammering.

In addition to the traits listed above, many Aspies have a very low tolerance for intense light sources or sudden, loud noises. I know I certainly do: I prefer low light levels at home and generally prefer overcast days to bright sunlight.

When it comes to sound, I love steady sounds such as rainfall, the ocean, subway train motors, or air conditioners (in fact, I find it almost impossible to sleep without some sort of background white noise such as a box fan), but I have a hard time dealing with very sudden or abrupt noises such as banging pots and pans. I also find it impossible to follow a conversation if there’s a lot of background noise, such as at a loud bar or party.

The other night I was riding the subway home, and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was subconsciously tapping his fingers on the metal grab bar… It just about drove me up the wall, and I probably would have moved to the next car if my stop hadn’t been coming up shortly.

Right now my roommate is closely following college basketball games on TV, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I loathe basketball with a passion that passes all human understanding. I’m now pretty sure it has something to do with the squeaking of the players’ shoes against the polished wood floor of the court, the crowd cheering and yelling, the referee’s whistle, and the loud buzzer that sounds periodically throughout the game. All those sounds are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, and they make me want to throw a brick through the television whenever my roomie has a game on.

One of the most significant Aspie traits is that we tend to have obsessive interests in various subjects; anything from trains, fire engines, Latin, church liturgy, books, deep fat fryers, you name it. I’ve had a number of such interests that have come and gone over the years, but there are a few particularly strong ones that I’ve had forever, and they never seem to go away.

When I was a kid, I was designing stuff left and right: Buildings, trains, sailboats, space ships and space stations. Other kids would play with Transformers or G.I. Joe action figures; I’d be designing my 27th dream house. Now I’m in the architecture business and I design buildings for a living, so I guess I can’t really call it a hobby anymore. Architecture has lost a bit of its novelty since I started doing it for a living, but I still enjoy it most of the time, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Ask me to solve a difficult design problem, or put me out on a construction site, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

In a somewhat related vein, I’m fascinated by how cities develop and grow, urban infrastructure, and comparisons between cities. Give me a chance, and I’ll bore you to death about the symbiotic relationship between New York and Chicago.

I also love trains, especially electric passenger trains such as subways. I love learning about the trains themselves, as well as the infrastructure that supports them. I can identify every class of subway car on the NYC subway system, and I can tell you all about the differences between the former IRT, BMT, and IND systems. Always the life of the party.

Like our friend John back in Dark City, I’ve been spending my entire time in this world looking for clues, trying to find out why I’m different, and getting frustrated when none of the paths I take to find my own Shell Beach ever seem to work.

I never gave up hope that I would eventually get things sorted out. I just needed to find the right job, finish my degree, marry the right woman, move to the right city, wear the right clothes, put on the right cologne, and somehow everything would fall into place and I could live the normal, well-adjusted life that most other people make look so easy.

Now I’m standing there in front of the wall, finally aware that there is no Shell Beach, no special place that feels like home, no magic solution that will make everything right. Like it or not, this is a permanent part of me and it isn’t going to go away. I can’t go home because I’m already there, and always have been.

So, how do I feel about all this?

On one hand, I’m feeling a great deal of anger, resentment, and sadness that I’ve pissed away 32 years of my life trying in vain to “fit in” and “be normal”, and feeling that my social awkwardness and lack of empathy were the result of some sort of moral failure on my part… Only to now discover that this is who I really am, and it isn’t going to change. My issues were plainly visible to my parents and all my teachers, but nobody lifted a finger to find out what the deal was. For 32 years I’ve been told by well-meaning but clueless people that, “You’re just shy,” or “Just be yourself,” or “Things will work themselves out when you’re ready.” I’ve been constantly whipped, beaten, bullied, and shunned for being different, and I’ve been made to feel like I have some sort of horrible character flaw for being socially awkward, not showing the proper amount of empathy, or neglecting my schoolwork in favor of exploring my interests. More than one potential girlfriend has told me that I give off the vibe of a stalker or serial killer. Hearing that on a first date certainly does wonders for the self-confidence, especially when you’ve heard it so many times before.

On the other hand, it’s a huge relief to feel like I’ve finally put enough of the jigsaw puzzle together to have some clue about what makes me tick, and I’ve already found some great support sites online that seem to be full of interesting people I can actually relate to. It gives me hope that I can find some like-minded people to build a community with, and maybe find somebody to share the rest of my life with. Imagine being a foreigner in a strange country your entire life, having different customs, speaking a different language, and never fitting in despite your best efforts. Then, out of the blue, you stumble into a neighborhood in some forgotten corner of the city where everybody speaks your language and shares your culture. It may not be home, but at least it’s a safe place.

Looking back, many of my closest friends over the years have been people who also show at least a few Aspie traits, and who went through similar nightmares while growing up. It shouldn’t have been that way. Nobody should have to grow up feeling like they’re alone in this world.

The good news is that Dark City has a happy ending, and John discovers that he has the ability to create Shell Beach on his own terms. I guess I’ll have to do likewise.

Anno Domini MMVIII

I hope everybody had a good Christmas. Mine involved taking a 9-hour train ride each way to Raleigh, North Carolina and back to visit my parents. I’ve made this trip before, and it always brings up a lot of weird feelings. On one hand, it’s certainly nice to see my family again, enjoy my mother’s cooking for a few days, and generally take a break from the stresses of my daily routine.

On the other hand, it seems like those trips serve to remind me why I left home in the first place, and nothing makes me appreciate New York City more than spending a few days in a place like Raleigh. While I love my parents dearly, being around them somehow has the effect of turning me into a surly 14-year-old again, and I feel my stress and anxiety levels going through the roof at a time when I’m supposed to be relaxing. I don’t know why, but it seems like all my internal defense mechanisms go into overdrive-mode while I’m down there. Add to that the stress of holiday travel and living out of a suitcase for a few days, and it was with a huge sigh of relief that I stepped off the train at Penn Station Wednesday evening and found myself back on my home turf.

With everything so hectic and frenzied lately, I haven’t had the time or the energy to update this blog as often as I’d like. But now that the final hours of 2007 are rapidly slipping into the past-tense, I thought I’d take a moment to ponder how things are going in my life to date, and take a look at what direction I’m hoping for things to go in 2008.

The Home Front

As mentioned earlier in this blog, I’ve been living in a loft share in Bushwick, Brooklyn since the beginning of September. Although it’s probably the best housing situation I’ve had in New York City to date (which doesn’t say much, considering some of my prior situations), I’m still itching to eventually get my own one-bedroom apartment in a half-decent neighborhood, and be done with the whole fucking roommate thing once and for all… At least until my roommate is somebody I’m having sex with on a regular basis.

Bushwick is predominantly a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood that is beginning to see an influx of hipster pioneers who have found themselves priced out of Williamsburg. Given that I’m neither Puerto Rican nor anything remotely resembling a Williamsburg hipster, there really isn’t much in this neighborhood for me except lots of loud stereos and car alarms. While I’ve never really felt unsafe here, the quality of life leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s not the type of neighborhood where I’d be comfortable going out for an evening constitutional. Luckily, the subway is only a block from my apartment building, so my daily exposure to the ‘hood is usually fairly limited.

Ever since the first time I lived in NYC, I’ve wanted to get an apartment up in the so-called Hudson Heights area of Washington Heights, a quiet residential enclave along Ft. Washington Avenue between 181st Street and Fort Tryon Park. Perched along a high ridge overlooking the Hudson River, this neighborhood has lots of trees and parkland, diverse demographics, and a quiet domestic feel that is hard to find in most other parts of the city. The predominant housing stock consists of large art deco apartment buildings, and many of the apartments are stunning. The A train has two stops in the neighborhood, offering a quick ride on the 8th Avenue express line into Midtown and beyond.

Up until recently this neighborhood was still relatively affordable (by New York standards, mind you), but lately it has been “discovered” and many of the apartment buildings have gone co-op. I’m still holding out some hope that I can eventually find a rental in my price range up there, but I’m not sure when that will happen. The monthly rent is actually less of an issue for me than the upfront costs of the security deposit, first month’s rent, and especially the broker’s fee that will likely be required. Barring any unforeseen events and if I’m able to stick to a budget (fat chance), I might be able to start seriously looking for an apartment sometime in the late spring or early summer. Until then, I’ll have to continue to grit my teeth while living as a guest in somebody else’s home.

My resolution for 2008: Get my own apartment, or at the very least, find a better roommate in a better neighborhood.

Work

My job has its good days and bad days, but overall it’s been working out pretty well. A while ago I posted a blog entry regarding some of the issues I have with my job, and while some of those issues are still concerns of mine, others have been more-or-less rectified. They finally moved me to a new location (out of the stuffy corridor mentioned in that blog entry), and I’ve been working on a few interesting projects. One of those projects includes our own office relocation, as we’re bursting at the seams in our current space and looking for new digs. I’m not sure what the time line is for moving to a new office, but it feels like there’s at least a light at the end of the tunnel.

While the office remains busy with a wide variety of projects, the national economy isn’t looking so rosy, and we may be facing lean times in the near future. Hopefully my job situation will remain stable until I’m ready to head to grad school.

My resolution for 2008: Not get fired or laid off, do the best work I can do on some cool projects, and become more involved in the life of the firm.

Church

I continue to remain active as a volunteer acolyte at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, despite my longstanding issues with organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. I’ve always struggled with matters of faith: while it seems to come naturally to some people, to me God has always seemed to be either incredibly distant, ignoring me, or just plain nonexistent. It’s been getting harder and harder for me to recite the Nicene Creed without wondering how much of it is just some human-invented myth that’s been handed down through the ages. I’ve tried my best to have a “personal relationship with Jesus”, but as with so many of my other personal relationships, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that the other party just isn’t interested.

Maybe the Calvinists are right, and each of us has already been predestined to eternal paradise or damnation since the beginning of time. Somehow I didn’t make the cut, and I just haven’t yet been formally notified. That’s a depressing thought, but if God actually exists, he certainly hasn’t been returning my calls lately.

Fortunately, I belong to a church where I can say all that without fear of being excommunicated or shunned. I tend to think of the cathedral as the spiritual counterpart to Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca: Sort of a safe haven in the midst of all the unholy wars raging outside, and a gathering place for a lot of refugees and misfits who wouldn’t otherwise have a spiritual home. If it weren’t for the Episcopal Church in general and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in particular, there’s a good chance I would have given up on organized religion altogether. While the cathedral isn’t without its flaws, for the most part the people there have been great, and it’s one of precious few places where I know I can show up at any time and be welcomed with open arms without being bludgeoned to death with a King James Bible. Regardless of wherever I stand on theological matters, that’s what keeps me coming back more than anything else.

2008 should be an exciting year for the cathedral, as we should finally be finishing up the huge multi-year cleaning and restoration project that’s the result of a severe fire the cathedral suffered in 2001. For the past several years the great pipe organ has been silent and various parts of the church have been buried behind huge walls of plywood and scaffolding, but everything is supposed to be fully open and operational by the end of November. I’ll be anxiously waiting, and then maybe we can get on with the business of finishing the building.

My resolution for 2008: To continue to support the cathedral in its ministry however I can.

School

If all goes according to plan, 2008 will be the year I finally finish up my long-sought undergraduate degree. I made some good progress at DePaul University in Chicago, and I accomplished everything I set out to accomplish this summer at Columbia (which DePaul will accept as transfer credit). The end is finally in sight. The few remaining outstanding items:

  • Math and Physics. In addition to counting towards my BA degree, these are also admission prerequisites for most graduate M.Arch. programs. I’ll be taking these classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) downtown, which is part of the CUNY system. DePaul will accept these as transfer credits, and I plan on starting them within the next couple weeks.
  • Externship, Advanced Project, and Summit Seminar. These courses are specific to DePaul’s adult education program at the School for New Learning, and will need to be taken before I graduate. The Externship is sort of a community service requirement, the Advanced Project is like a mini-thesis, and the Summit Seminar is simply a one-day meeting with my advisors to tie up any loose ends. Ideally I’ll do this stuff in the spring quarter so that I can attend commencement in Chicago this June, but it can wait until the summer or fall if needed. (These can be done on a distance-ed basis, which is how I can still be a DePaul student while living 800 miles away from campus.)
  • Independent Learning Pursuits (ILPs). Another thing specific to DePaul’s School for New Learning, this is the mechanism by which I can earn college credit for “real life” experience that’s relevant to my focus area. Given that I now have 11 years experience working in various architecture firms, it won’t be a challenge to earn some ILP credits; it’s just a matter of getting everything properly documented and submitted for review on time.

I’ve taken a hiatus from school during the fall while I got settled into my new life here in NYC, but now I need to get back at it. By this time next year I’ll hopefully be a college graduate, and I’ll be wrapping up the application process for my M.Arch. degree.

That will involve a lot of work in putting together a portfolio, lining up letters of recommendation, and wrapping up any remaining prerequisites. I went through the whole M.Arch. admissions process in 2006 (thinking that I could finish my BA degree much sooner), and it was almost a full-time job in itself. I didn’t get accepted to any of the schools I applied to — no surprise, in retrospect — but it gave me a good idea of what to expect the next time around.

I’m still not sure which schools I’ll be applying to, but the top contenders include City College, Yale, Cornell, Pratt, maybe Columbia, and maybe Harvard. No doubt there will be some changes to this list when the time comes, so stay tuned.

My resolution for 2008: Finish my damn BA degree already, and apply to M.Arch. programs for fall 2009 admission.

Money

I had made some good progress in climbing out of debt while living in Chicago, but moving to NYC and enrolling in the Columbia summer program left me even further in the hole than I was two years ago. The good news is, I’m now making better money at my job and I no longer have the expense of owning a car, so I’ve already begun chipping away at this new mountain of debt and I’m hopeful that I’ll have the bulk of it paid off within the next few months.

My resolution for 2008: Right now I’m about $6000 in debt (not counting student loans) with about $500 in savings. I’m hoping to have at least reversed that ratio by this time next year.

Relationships

One day last week I took a nice walk through Central Park during my lunch break. I came back into my office building feeling refreshed and invigorated. An attractive young woman came into the building behind me, and we both waited for the elevator in the lobby. The doors opened, she went in first, and I managed to smile at her as I boarded. She politely smiled back. I got off on the third floor, while she continued further upstairs.

Not a bad little encounter, I thought. Maybe sometime soon I’ll see her again and strike up a conversation.

I returned to my desk in pretty high spirits, and then went to hang up my coat in the closet. It was then that I discovered, to my horror, a giant glob of white bird shit on the black leather sleeve of my coat, the same sleeve that had been inches away from the face of this woman in the elevator.

I went to the bathroom to clean off my coat, while entertaining serious thoughts about moving to a different country.

That little vignette pretty much sums up the vast majority of my experiences with romantic relationships: Meet somebody new and get excited that things are going well, only to later discover that I’ve inadvertently committed some unforgivable breach of human decency. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve had that giant glob of bird shit on my sleeve for the past twenty years, and I’ve only discovered it just now. That would certainly explain a lot.

This is the area of my life that has by far been the most problematic, and the aspect of my life that causes me more depression and anxiety than all the other issues above combined. I’m pretty much convinced that I was born without the dating gene, or that I was absent from class the day they taught mating skills to young boys. I hate to sound so desperate, but fuck it. If the shoe fits…

There’s much more to this issue than what I feel comfortable sharing here, but suffice it to say that it’s almost impossible for me to meet women who I think might be compatible with what I’m looking for. Of the women I do meet who seem like a good match, the vast majority seem to have the common trait of being completely unattainable. It’s very possible that my hopes and aspirations are totally unrealistic, but I still fear the notion of settling for a relationship that isn’t really what I ever wanted.

I think one of my problems — at least one that has the possibility of being rectified anytime soon — is that I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of casual dating, and that I’ve had sort of an all-or-nothing mentality about relationships. What’s the point of dating somebody if there isn’t the potential for a long-term relationship or marriage? Well, lately I’ve been working to overcome that particular hang-up by starting to attend more singles events and expanding my scope of potential dating partners, and I think it might be starting to pay off.

This past weekend I attended a huge year-end party at Webster Hall organized by a few groups on Meetup.com, and despite the obnoxious music and the usual assortment of hopeless cases who reek of desperation (some readers would no doubt include me in that category), I actually had a pretty good time and met some interesting people without doing or saying anything terribly awkward. Maybe the vodka tonics had something to do with it, but I didn’t feel like the uptight bundle of nerves I usually am at such events. I’ve been in contact with a couple of women I met that evening, and I may be meeting one of them for dinner later this week. Stay tuned.

My resolution for 2008: Attend more social events whenever I can, continue meeting new people, and not be so damn shy about talking to strangers. Also, some counseling probably wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Overall, 2007 has been a pretty good year for me with a lot of new beginnings, but with a lot of things still left to be done. Hopefully 2008 will bring continued progress on the new life I’ve begun here in New York, and maybe even bring a few new beginnings of its own.

I hope 2008 brings you all peace and joy… Best wishes for a happy new year.