Thursday, August 9, 2012

Back from Kenya


Hello, everyone! I'm back from Michura, Kenya and decided to post a summary of my time there on my blog. I hope it does justice to this experience.

When we first arrived in Michura, we were stunned by the warm welcome we received. As we walked up the long, rocky slope to their village, the people came down to greet us with songs and flowers, dancing us to where our welcome service was to take place. After sitting us all in a circle, the community leaders came up and let us know how blessed they were to have us here – which we found a little ironic, considering how much they had already blessed us with their joy! I didn’t think then, and I’m still not sure now, that we could do enough to bless them as much as they would bless us throughout the week.

The villagers
Among the beautiful landscapes, scattered houses and abundant life, the people of Michura were the most wonderful part of it all. Though a surface glance would say they live in poverty, the truth is that they are only poor in material – but very rich in spirit. I was amazed by how they began every speech with “Praise God! (Amen!) Praise God again! (Amen!)” Despite living conditions we would perceive as poor, and despite nearly constant tragedy, they take the time to praise God in everything that they do. One day Esau, one of the pastors there, revealed to us that his brother had died that very morning. In the midst of sorrow, he had taken time to entertain us and make sure we felt welcome. I will say again that I do not believe we could ever bless them as they strived to bless us.

Community leaders in front of the water tank
We did our best, though. We spent three mornings working on their water filtration system, which in a month and a half they had already come near to completing. Our main goal for that week was to fill a pit with rocks. This pit will be the final storage tank for their clean water, after the previous tanks had filtered and chemically treated it. The key is to line this pit with concrete, protecting it from harmful materials leaching in through the dirt. The floor of the pit will be a mixture of rocks and cement – and that’s where we came in. We introduced the idea of the assembly line to them, which seemed to speed up production greatly – before they had carried rocks on their heads from their source to the pit, but now we all formed a line and passed the rocks along it. All we managed to do by the end of our three days was fill the bottom of the pit with rocks, which didn’t feel like much – but judging by what they had already accomplished on their own, it’s clear that this trip wasn’t about how much work we could get done. They could do just fine on their own.

Kids playing "Stop tag"
So what were we doing there? It didn’t seem that they needed our spiritual insights. It didn’t seem that they needed our labor. Our real purpose came in the second halves of our three workdays. The first day the team split up into smaller groups, and spent the afternoon visiting homes. The house my group visited was the home of a woman named Elsa, who was widowed with (I think) five children. She showed us around her home, pictures of her family, and how to cook a delicious fish soup. The next two days our group did a bunch of activities with the kids, including worship songs, a kind of VBS, arts & crafts and numerous games. Through all of these events we grew closer to the community, and their perspective on it became clear in a soccer game on the second day, when a community leader announced: “Crosspointe Cary versus Crosspointe Michura!” I think the best thing we did there was to form relationships – not to set an example – not to compare communities, but to join them.

One of our teammates, Ralph, told the people of Michura this: “For every person standing here, there is a whole group of supporters behind them. We are simply the crest of a wave of support for your community.” Thank you for being the wave behind me and my team on our journey to Michura, Kenya. It was a perspective-changing experience and I hope to return one day.
Great Rift Valley


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Chapter 11: Be Still (Part 2 of A,R&F)

Disclaimer: I discuss some neurology halfway through this post. I actually have no idea what I'm talking about, so take it with a grain of salt.

In fact... most of this is distorted childhood memories. Take it all with a grain of salt.

As we were putting up the Christmas tree last year (2011, that is), I walked through the office room, where our piano stands up against the wall. On the bench were a bunch of piano books I hadn't seen before. I ruffled through them, and then almost dropped them in shock. One of the books was a collection of songs from Steven Curtis Chapman's Speechless album. Had I known we had the sheet music for these songs, I would have learned them long ago. I set all the other books down and opened up Speechless to the one song I immediately knew I wanted to learn first.

***

"Don't go!" I pleaded from my bed. Tears ran down my cheeks as I felt the terrifying and imminent darkness closing in on me again. This being the umpteenth time I pleaded to him, my dad was not going to prolong the conversation. "Just sleep in here. Please?" I had to convince him to stay, or I might die.

This was the world I descended into every night in my preteen years. I had gone through phases like this back in England as well - to the point where my parents had to often find new sleeping pills to get me to rest. I soon became convinced that the pills were poisoned and often refused to take them. It spread into my daily life as well, most vividly when I read Chronicles 21:19 and I became convinced my intestines would fall out if I went to the bathroom. Then it stopped for a little while when we moved back to America, only to return a year later, halfway through middle school. I have no doubt that these anxiety attacks were brought on by stress - whether it was the stress of living in a strange place, or having to deal with the strangeness of middle school. Part of me worries that they might return in college if I don't find a way to balance my activities.

And so every night I lay there, fearing whatever next would crawl out of my mind and into my dark room. It wasn't always as if I thought there would be monsters - though I occasionally did - but I feared most my dreams, for anything can happen there. I wanted to fall asleep because I was tired, and the dark of the night offered me no comfort - but I could not fall asleep, for there would be no rest there either.

In the day, I often saw my therapist Dr. S, to whom I am most indebted. She talked me through my fears in the light, when I had no reason to worry about them, and helped to build a structure in my mind of reality versus imagination, and probability versus possibility. I think she knew that my issues spread beyond the nighttime, and would talk me through the stresses of daily life. Most importantly to me, she encouraged my imagination, to the point where she had me play with her vast collection of toys and action figures in the sandbox, telling the stories that I was always forming in my head. When I play episodes with my brother, I've tried as best as I can to emulate this environment, though unlike her, I often get in silly arguments with him over plot elements.

Two of her suggestions still stick very clearly with me after all these years - one came from one of my favorite book series of all time, Harry Potter. You can probably guess where I'm going. Whenever a scary thought enters your head, imagine (with all your might!) the funniest situation that scary thought could find itself in. Then, with all your voice, whisper (cause people are sleeping) "Riddikulus!" And the scary thought magically disappears! Okay, it wasn't foolproof, but certainly it was a repeatable process that could ward off scary thoughts efficiently.

The other technique she taught me was that of the Baku. The Baku is your guardian - it can be anything. My Baku was my stuffed dinosaur Frankie (who I can name seeing as he's not a real person). Since I couldn't very well carry Frankie into Dr. S's office without looking silly, we used her plastic T-Rex as a replacement. When I closed my eyes and scary images filled my head, Frankie entered and chased them away, squashing them with his sheer size.

Despite all of our best efforts, however, I could not find a way to set my anxiety aside when it came in the night. My parents set me up with a psychiatrist, Dr. M, who explained the issue behind the issue - a symptom of Asperger's is a low serotonin level. Serotonin, in a nutshell, makes your neurons work more easily and keeps them from getting stuck in certain paths - in other words, it prevents severe obsession. With my low serotonin levels, I was stuck in a rut every night as my fears played themselves over and over again. It was not uncontrollable - but it was certainly darn hard for a kid my age to overcome his obsessions without medical help.

I was hesitant to take serotonin supplements, partly due to my past history with medicine (thinking it was poison and all) and partly due to a longstanding dislike I'd had of medication anyways. Perhaps it was still part of a larger paranoia, but I just don't like the idea of someone controlling the way my mind works through drugs. Would you? I agreed though, and it was a good decision. The time in which I took it provided me with the window of opportunity I needed to overcome my obsessions and set better habits in place. I think I can attribute my slow change in social behavior to this time frame; I slowly began to become a little more outgoing than I was before.

The anxiety attacks didn't end immediately, though. I still had (and still have) scary thoughts and worried about what would happen in my dreams when I fell asleep, even when my reality was freed from my imagination. This made it very difficult for me to fall asleep, though I knew now that waking up my parents wouldn't help much.

And so it came as a great relief to me when I decided one night to put Stephen Curtis Chapman'sSpeechless on my CD player, and the song Be Still came on.

Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know that He is holy
Be still, O restless soul of mine
Bow before the Prince of peace
Let the noise and clamor cease
Be still

This song became my mantra that I repeated slowly throughout my mind as I drifted off to sleep. It was a lullaby, for someone who will never be too old for them. The words and melody brought me peace.

***

I can't speak for all Aspies, but I can speak for myself when I say that for all my rationality, I'm also a highly irrational person. I go through many paranoid and borderline crazy fears every day, though now I have the state of mind to dismiss them as they come. I find that the more I entertain a thought the more I believe it, and I have to be careful when examining my fears. It also doesn't do much credit to my supposed rationality that I finally defeated my irrational fears with a song about God, and knowing his being and existence. Back then I could easily just believe. These days, it's much harder. I can't tell you why I believe in God - I don't know myself, you see - and I could only really give you the vague idea through telling the long and highly personal story of my spiritual development so far, and that's not a story I'm ready to tell.

I will, though, give you three points that I often walk myself through when experiencing a crisis of faith:

  1. My parents believe in God, as well as many other people whose wisdom I know and respect. While this does not in itself prove anything, it provides some comfort - I'm not a fool for believing if so many wise people believe.
  2. I imagine trying to live a life devoid of God. What purpose would I have to do good? And I don't mean I'm motivated by trying to get into Heaven, or those sorts of things. What I'm mostly trying to get at is that I do believe in Hell, after a fashion - it's the absence of God. To believe I live in a universe where we just live and get blown about by chance and randomness without a purpose or a meaning - to live and burn out like a candle in the wind - that'd be accepting Hell. Again, this doesn't prove anything - it's more a comfort thing.
  3. This. Again, doesn't prove anything - plenty of scientists familiar with that image don't believe in God - but I feel like this is the sort of thing Paul meant when he said that nature cries out God's existence. You just have to listen. Famed scientist Roger Penrose once used an argument against God that essentially ran like this: God could have created a human-inhabited universe that was much smaller and easier than ours with relative ease, but instead he apparently made a huge universe full of intricate complexity. It goes against all sensibility. But I think that Penrose hits on a good point, in the other direction: God didn't create the universe for efficiency. Perhaps he didn't even create it just for us, but for many other species. He made the universe because he wanted to make something beautiful. "And he saw that it was good." By far the weakest argument, but one of the strongest emotional reasons for me.

These are pretty weak logical arguments, but for me they keep me going in times of extreme doubt. Maybe that's a bad thing. Maybe I'm just separating myself from the inevitable truth - that there is no God, and we are just here randomly. But I'm sure I could make you understand why I still believe if I told you the whole story - though it may be a long time before I do that.

***

I closed the music book, having played through Be Still a few times on the piano. My parents had gone to bed. My rendition of the song would obviously require much more practice, but hopefully I could master it one day. Maybe, if I ever have kids, I could sing them to sleep with it. I stood up and went over to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth and put in my retainer. I turned off all the lights downstairs and quickly moved up the stairs and into my room. My fear of the dark had not completely disappeared yet - nor has it now - but I hope it will in time.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chapter 10: Asperger's and Rationality and Faith (Part 1)

Holy Cow. Chapter 10 already?

This post is an introduction to a 2 part series about the things mentioned in the title. This post's purpose is for me to air out some ideas and thoughts I had a few weeks ago, preparing your for my more focused ideas in the next post.

I often play with LEGOs with my younger brother; we come up with stories we call "episodes" with all the little minifigures and vehicles he builds. I can't remember exactly when we started - but I think it stretches all the way back to when we lived in England, somewhere between 2002-2005. As brothers do, we often clash on the plot, which in retrospect is silly - and we usually work through it.

So today we're making Camp Half-Blood - full of demigods, knights, wizards and Jedi - team up with all the non-Star Wars villains (the Romans, Death Eaters, and orcs) to besiege the Separatists. Mega Mordred accidentally created a black hole, and only the Green Mountain can be used to draw it into space and safely away from Earth. The Separatists, however, want to take the Green Mountain with them to a galaxy far, far away and use it to defeat the Republic, so all the other characters must unite against them to save the world.

We have very active imaginations. Of course, this intricate plot did not create itself. This is the brainchild of much innovation and heated argument.

The two Sith and General Grievous have just slain Ben Kenobi (that is, the Episode IV version - we couldn't kill the Clone Wars version because that would create a time paradox) and are planning to retreat with their droid army to the Green Mountain. Assajj Ventress calls for her troops to follow her -

"Wait," I say. This has to be the fifth time the episode has been interrupted today. "The Separatist base is surrounded. How can they flee?" My brother furrows his eyebrows.

"But you said the whole army would retreat," he says.

"No," I reply, "I said these three -" I point to the Sith and General Grievous - "could escape. It doesn't make sense for the droid army to escape if they're surrounded; these three could easily sneak out, though."

"But we agreed that they would all fall back," he says.

It usually goes back and forth like this, with us disagreeing on who said what, until I realize that I'm arguing about LEGOs and it's silly for me to worry too much about the plot making sense.

"Okay," I say, "the Separatists can fall back. But -" and here I revert to rationality - "they somehow have to create a hole in the good guy army." I don't mean this to shoot him down; now even I'm trying to figure out a way to make it happen. Then my brother grabs a minifigure -

Assajj Ventress suddenly has an idea and force pushes a Republic Cruiser away, creating an exit point for her droid troops -

"Wait," I say. "They can't do that." After all, if they could just force push Cruisers around, why didn't they do that before?

"Sam," my brother says quickly, "why do you always poke holes in my ideas?"

There's a pause.

"I..." I have no idea what to say. "I don't try to poke holes in your ideas," I say lamely.

"You always make holes," he says.

"I don't make holes," I respond quickly.

"But you always find them. Why do you have to mention them?"

"I find holes. That's the way I think." This is true. "I don't mean anything by it -"

"But why do you always mention them?" he asks, making me think. This throws me. Sometimes it's good to mention holes - but during our episodes, where we're breaking the laws of physics to create black holes and use magical mountains to pull them into space?

I reach down for a minifigure -

Assajj Ventress suddenly has an idea and force pushes a Republic Cruiser away, creating an exit point for her droid troops. She turns to General Greivous. "Why didn't we do that before?" she asks.

And so the episode continues, and the Separatists escape to fight another day, extending the Black Hole story arc for at least a few more episodes. And I'm left to wonder about this strange tendency of mine I never considered before - why do I seek to poke holes in things?

***

I don't know when I started my tendency of trying to find holes. I think at some point I developed a sense of skepticism, questioning most things I learned. This is especially true in math and physics, which I've mostly taught myself over the years. When I encounter a new idea that is not intuitive to me, I brush it aside and try to derive my own method or idea, usually only ending up back where I started, having learned why the nonintuitive is really the only way about it. I don't regret this tendency; I think I have a better understanding of math and physics than most other students my level, because I don't accept the what until I know the why and how.

There's almost certainly a dash of Asperger's hidden in this tendency - whether it's due to the nature of Aspies to be "logical" or due to our obsessiveness over small discrepancies, it plays a large role in the way I think. Anything that might be wrong becomes wrong in my mind until I can find a way to prove it - because I can't justify knowing something without understanding it.

Notice the wordplay - not mine, but from whoever put the word "understand" into our language. To stand beneath. To get under the surface and find out how it ticks. This is also why, when I find a classical song I particularly like, I try to play it on the piano, even if it's beyond my skill level - because when when I play the piece, become the sub-stance (Latin wordplay), I understand it better.

Keep that theme in mind; it may become important later.

Now, there's a few exceptions to this rule of proof- much to my discomfort. Firstly, there's the areas that I don't have enough obsessive interest in to worry about proving. I love history, but not that much. And literature is more like music, in that there isn't much to prove, but much to understand.

Then there's God. You may have seen this coming due to the title, but I'll have to ask you to wait till the next post before I deal with it.

And finally, there's imagination. Because at times you just have to make an assumption or two to get anywhere, in writing and reading and playing/listening to music and even in math and physics. Albert Einstein's favorite words, with which he began many groundbreaking thought experiments, were, "Now let us imagine..." I try to harness my creative power as much as possible in coming up with explanations for things, or in figuring out ways to accomplish a goal.

All of this comes back, though, to my brother's question - when I find something foolish or full of holes, why do I feel the need to point out the holes? I didn't even know I had this tendency until my brother mentioned it. In fact, I think I mostly have this tendency around family, because I usually try to be very sensitive to others' ideas. For some reason my family gets the short end of the stick in that respect. Perhaps that's only natural; perhaps someone has to get the short end. But I think I can find a way to balance it out, if I try.

The funniest thing is - to both close this post and begin the next one - as pious as I try to be about my rationality, even to the little extent I apply it to imagination, God, and other less interesting subjects, I'm horribly irrational in other ways. This is a trademark of Asperger's that we aren't always aware of: we tend to pride ourselves on our logic (to compensate for our lacking in social skills, likely), but we forget those times that we are very illogical in our obsessions. And I'll tell you more about those next.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chapter 9: Giving Forward

Just a cool moment that I decided to share. I can't think of any connection to Asperger's, but hey, a blog is a blog is a blog.

Today

"Oooh!"

T recoiled from the blow of the soccer ball to his nose, covering his face with his hands. It's never fun to watch a seven-year old get nailed in the head, and I immediately rushed up to him, along with my fellow babysitters and a number of the kids we were babysitting. Perhaps soccer wasn't the best idea, I thought.

"You okay?" I asked T, kneeling down to his level. I saw him shake his head, but his hands remained firmly clenched on his face. "Do you want to go sit down?" I couldn't interpret his response.

"T," his brother said, walking up and holding his shoulders. "You need to let us see your face, so we can see if you're bleeding." I hadn't thought of that. T moved his hands just enough so his brother could see him. "OK, you're fine," he said, patting T on the shoulder. I repeated my question.

"Do you want to go sit down?"

"I think he should go sit by the church," my fellow babysitter J (not J from Chapter 4) said, which seemed reasonable to me.

"Do you want to go sit by the church?" I asked. T shook his head.

"I wanna sit on the curb," he said. His hands were slowly spreading apart.

"Okay," I said. I started to lead him to the curb, which was a challenge as he couldn't see through his hands. I set him down on the curb, and then decided to just stay there and keep him company. There was about half a minute of awkward silence in which I wondered if he just wanted some space. Then he started to speak, lowering his hands and mumbling something about how he's gotten hit in other games before, but never in the face.

"And people say, it's just hitting you on the nose, but it hits you in the whole face," he said. I nodded and told him of some times I've been hit in the face in games before. I thought by relating I could cheer him up, but he didn't seem to be any happier for it.

J walked over and joined us and asked T how he was. T recapped what he told me and began to talk about a lot of insecurities he has when it comes to sports, particularly soccer. I related very well to this, but decided not to share all of those stories. As the tears clear up, he looked up at the sky.

"I saw the first star tonight," he said, pointing. "That one."

Digression: All throughout my childhood I met kids who said "Hey! I just saw the first star tonight!" What in tarnation do they mean by that? Sure, it's the first star you saw. Doesn't mean that there's not another star over there, or over there. Maybe you just have bad eyes. Goodness.

But this was not the time to digress, so I went along with it.

"That one?" I asked.

"No, that one."

"That one?"

"The one in between," said J.

"Oh, that one."

"Yes."

Well, that went nowhere. If anything, he was only more frustrated now. T then turned and looked at the moon, which was very bright.

"Did you know that the moon is bright because the sun is behind it?" he asked. "That's what my friend told me." I looked at J, and we decided to tell him the truth about Santa Claus - I mean, the moon.

"Actually, it's backwards," J said. "The sun is behind the Earth, and its light shines on the moon." T looks confused.

"Like, right now, the sun is up in China," I said, "and its light comes all the way around the earth to the moon, to light it up." Sorta. Comprehension began to dawn on his face.

"It's like..." J stood up and stepped in between T and I. "I'm the Earth, and you're the Moon, and Sam's the sun." I struck a glorious pose as T giggled. "His light comes around me and shines on you."

"Oh, I get it now," T said, whether in truth or just to get these two strange people to stop trying to explain science. We all laughed and T decided to join in the soccer game again. I look up at the star T pointed out and see it flickering.

***

Childhood

"And you can see a planet because it doesn't flicker," my Dad said. This happened so long ago, all I can remember are his words. I want to say we were inside or in a car, because I wanted to apply this new knowledge soon, but couldn't at that time. Later, though, I would point out different stars that seemed to flicker less than others and ask if they were planets.

"That one?" I'd ask.

"No, it's flickering a little bit," my Dad would say.

"See? Watch it," said one of my grandfathers, who I think was there.

I remember being a little awestruck at having the ability to tell a star from a planet. After all, there were some pretty bright stars out there, and some dim planets, so brightness alone doesn't account for "planetness." I can't remember if I'd ever seen a planet with my own eyes before - I think my Dad had pointed it out to me once or twice. I wondered if I'd ever see a planet close-up with my own eyes.

There's not much that I remember about that entire incident, except what was said and the effect it had on me, one of many that planted seeds in me which would later grow into a love of astronomy and science. It's always been a treasured moment to me, and almost every time I look up at the stars I check to see if they're flickering.

***

Today

About ten minutes afterward, I noticed T sitting on the curb, outside of the game. He looked a little down, so I went to go sit next to him.

"What's up?" I asked, and he sighed.

"I keep trying to be the guy who throws the ball back in when it goes out of bounds," he said, "but they never call it out of bounds." Well, of course not. They're just trying to have fun.

"Well, it's all a part of having fun to them," I said. "They're not worried so much about it, though they do want to win."

"But I can't ever get the ball," he said.

"I'm never able to get the ball either," I said. True story.

"You got the ball, like, three times today!" he said.

"Well, today's a good day," I said, as someone else passing by interjected, "More like one!" Thanks for that. We talked a little bit more about soccer, occasionally interrupted by people asking if he's okay, and telling him to get back in the game. I looked up at the sky and saw a star that didn't flicker. I had an idea, but I wasn't sure how well it'd work. It could be either helpful or disappointing.

"Wanna see something cool?" I asked. He turned to me.

"What?"

"Look at that star right there," I said, pointing towards a random star. He found it quicker than I found his earlier. "Look at it. Can you see it flickering?"

"Yah," he said, sounding a little disappointed with this "cool thing." Well, I had more up my sleeve.

"Now look at that one," I said, pointing at the planet. "It isn't flickering, is it?" I decided to use the power of suggestion to my full advantage, as I didn't know how good his eyesight was.

"No," he said, his curiosity a little piqued. Maybe this would work.

"Why do you think that is?" I asked. He pondered.

"Is it because it's brighter?" he asked.

"No," I said. I could give him a few more guesses or go straight to the punchline. I decided not to waste what attention I currently had. "It's a planet." A moment of anticipating silence.

"Cool," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen a planet before." He looked at it for a few more seconds.

"And you can always tell," I said, "by whether or not it flickers."

"Cool." And he sounded like he meant it. That probably did more for me than my little factoid had done for him - that I had interested him, perhaps cheered him up a little bit, with something I myself hold dear. It was a splendid payoff.

"You wanna get back in the game?" I asked, as another barrage of kids arrived to pull us back into the game.

"Sure," T said, finally relenting.

***

Eighth Grade

"And now," the observatory director said, stepping out of the way of the telescope, "this is Neptune." He mentioned some tidbits of information about where the individual planets were at that point, then allowed us to start stepping up to look.

When it was my turn, I was not surprised by what I saw - more by how it affected me. A great blue orb, hovering in empty space. That blackness behind it - it's not just a convenient background; that's truly the emptiness of the cosmos. And this planet, like a shining blue ornament, hovers there, alone but not alone.

As we drove home, I learned something even more surprising.

"Neptune was my favorite part," my dad said. "I've always wanted to see it with my own eyes, but I never have."

That's another treasured memory.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 8: The Three Deadly P's

I feel like I owe an explanation for why I'm taking so long to write new blog posts. It really comes down to three simple factors, which I like to call the three deadly P's. Unfortunately, they're the reason I don't usually get a lot done. Let me list them out for you:
  1. Procrastination
  2. Preoccupation
  3. Perfectionism
I don't know how much of my weakness for these P's can be attributed to Asperger's; I'd say that Procrastination is more a teenage thing than anything else. Preoccupation (a.k.a. obsession, but that doesn't fit into the P scheme as well) is something that I think occurs much more commonly among the Aspergian population - basically, we get focused on one particular topic or idea and thus have difficulty focusing on anything else. It's also the reason we tend to talk a lot about certain subjects, but when it comes to anything else we're dead silent. Perfectionism is something that I can't attribute to either Asperger's or adolescence; I think that's just a personality trait.

Procrastination

This one trait is common to almost all teenagers, and we all handle it in different ways. I sometimes like to think of procrastination not as a fault, but as a different way of doing things. That way of thinking ends when it's midnight on deadline day.

A number of factors, for me, contribute to procrastination. First and foremost is the common "I can do it later" thinking, even though we know we're not going to do it later. I often wonder why we even bother to tell ourselves things we know are lies. I won't digress here, but I just personally think the ability humans have to lie to themselves is psychologically fascinating.

Another factor that may not be as common is the "dead eyes," so named because of what I imagine my eyes look like when I'm in that state. There are points in life where I just don't feel like I want to do anything. The things I do want to do I can't seem to do right (seePerfectionism) and nothing else seems to grab my attention. Usually, once I become aware I'm in that state, I jolt out of it, but sometimes I have an incredibly aggravating inability to put words on a page. It's worse than writer's block, because I know where I want to go, I just can't get the words out and it doesn't feel right in my mind. I wonder if "dead eyes" is something that's specific to me (as in, not teenage or Aspergian). Part of me theorizes that it has its roots in television. My generation grew up on tuning out a certain number of hours in the day. Maybe now we're suffering the consequences of that.

Procrastination, surprisingly, has sometimes led to my best work. I tend to freak out under pressure, but I also paradoxically work much better under pressure. Big projects completed on the last day tend to take a sudden turn in the opposite direction as I suddenly figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. It's a dangerous gamble though, like someone who speeds heavily and says it's okay because they've never crashed. Procrastination has its rare benefits, but if I'm going to accomplish anything I have to learn to overcome it.

Preoccupation

I'm working my way through a novel right now - it's the third time I've read it. My creative writing teacher has told us to find a book and list out all the key plot points in it - I chose to use this one because its plot is so full of events, without becoming convoluted. It's called My Name is Asher Lev, and I'm entirely convinced that the main character has Asperger's. It doesn't say it anywhere in the book, but... it's pretty obvious, in my opinion.

The main character - Asher Lev - is a Ladover Hasid living in Brooklyn. He's got a great gift for drawing and painting, which upsets his father, who is a highly orthodox Jew who thinks art is a waste of time. Asher Lev, however, just can't stop drawing. Every spare moment he's sketching or doodling. He doesn't pay attention when his parents speak - not because he's a rude child, but because he's trying to figure out how to improve the drawings he just made. He's entirely, totally obsessed and preoccupied with his work.

Here's a passage from the book that I resonated with completely (though I'm not an artist, the way of thinking is familiar):
I looked away from her at the painting. The square shapes of the boxes of matzos intrigued me.

"Asher, look at me. What should I tell your father?"

"I'm trying, Mama."

"Your teacher says you're not trying. The mashpia says you're not trying. What should I tell your father?"

"I don't care."

"Asher."

What if I tilt some of those squares? I thought. Won't that make it more interesting?

"Asher, I have to tell your father something. What will I tell your father? I will have to tell him the truth. Asher, what do you do in school? Isn't there anything you'd like?"

"Yes," I said. Suppose I tilted one row of boxes one way and another row of boxes another way. What would happen?

"But you can't do that all day and all night, Asher. You can't go through school not learning."

"I'm learning, Mama."

"I don't know what to do with you," she said. She got up off the bed and went from the room.

I'll try it, I thought. And maybe I'll tilt Yudel Krinsky's body a little in different directions, too. That might make it really interesting.

I scraped off the paint and started again.
- My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
Notice how he's talking to his mother - giving her answers - but his mind is completely engulfed in the painting. And it's not exactly little things his mom is trying to talk to him about. His father is currently working in Vienna, working himself to death in order to get Jewish families out of antisemitic Europe, and wants to make sure his son is keeping up in school. Surely no child in his right mind would blow his father off like that!

Preoccupation is something that is characteristic of Asperger's, and I don't consider it a virtue or a vice. I think that it enables us to do very well with certain things, but it can also be a hindrance when other commitments stack up. It's something that has to be controlled, like everything else in our lives.

Perfectionism

In another part of My Name is Asher Lev, the mashpia (something like the principal of the school Asher goes to) asks Asher to draw some pictures for him. Asher does so, drawing a number of pictures of the first things that come to his mind.
I was filling the pages with beings and shapes and textures, trying to feel the rain on the windows and on the trees, trying to feel cold and snow, trying to feel darkness and night, and getting none of it on the pages, and finally I threw the pencil down on the desk and slammed the sketchbook shut.
-My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
Surprise, surprise, Asher Lev is a perfectionist when it comes to art! Of course, when we're preoccupied with something, it's easy to get perfectionist about it. I have perfectionism when it comes to anything I do of my own free will. Obviously, deadline assignments must be turned in on time (that's another kind of perfectionism) so I just do my best and cross my fingers. But I have not posted a single blog entry without regretting it afterwards, thinking about what else I could have done. That's partly the reason for the big break; though there was so much I wanted to write about - and a lot of it time-specific - I couldn't tell it the way I wanted for some reason, and so I just didn't tell it at all.

Perfectionism is also the reason why I don't think I will ever complete a NaNoWriMo, and why the teacher-sponsor of the high school literary magazine always has to press me for stories when I'm not in his class. But as he has said so many times: "Don't get it right the first time: get it written." I guess the same law applies to everything. You'll never get anything right the first time - so just go ahead and do it, and fix the mistakes later. When I do math, I don't wait until I've done it all in my head to write it down. My math doodles are harder to follow than the LOST finale, because I just do it. I'm going to have to start applying that same kind of thinking to writing if I'm going to keep up with this blog.

So I want to apologize for taking my sweet time with my blog. I plan to start doing this weekly, but it'll take a lot of discipline. Today I began an idea that will either take off or die within the first few days - I'm writing down things that I need to get done in a little notebook. It's a little more high maintenance than an agenda, because I also plan to use it when someone asks me to get something done by the end of the day, or by the end of the class period (as often happens in my Independent Study of Theatre first period). Theoretically I check things off as I go along and I make sure everything is checked by the end of the day. I doubt it'll work exactly as I plan it - but hopefully it'll help keep me from procrastinating, getting preoccupied, and being too perfectionist.

Remember: watch out for those three deadly P's!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

P.S. Coverage in West Virginia

Just to demonstrate how obsessive I can be, I'd like to draw attention to something from my previous post.

In my post about Organ Cave, I made the following statement:
"There's no reception in Organ Cave (much less in West Virginia)."
I worried and worried over this little jest, wondering if it might offend some people. So I decided that if I would jest, it would be well-founded. I looked up a reception map of the United States.


I don't know what I've convinced you of, other than the fact that I'm insane. But that doesn't bother me as long as I'm well-foundedly insane.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chapter 7: Virginia Double-Feature, Part II

Greetings from Organ Cave, West Virginia! I'm your host, Sam Loomis, greeting you in the Throne Room of this historic site.

OK, I'm not really in Organ Cave, West Virginia as I'm writing this. There's no reception in Organ Cave (much less in West Virginia). We stopped by Organ Cave last week on the way home from the Virginia Tech trip. I had been looking for a tour that would stretch my comfort zone a little, and would allow me to see some of the more beautiful parts of the caves with my own eyes. As it happened, I got everything I bargained for and more.

We're walking along this trail into the cave - having entered through an enormous mouth and walked suddenly into a much smaller tunnel. Now, when I say "much smaller" don't get the wrong idea; this tunnel wasn't that small in itself - just the entrance itself was so large it made this tunnel seem smaller. We've been behind a rail the entire time, as our guide points out formations along the opposing cave wall and interesting historical facts. We come to a point where the path veers off into a lantern-lit tunnel that apparently leads to the "Hopper Room," while the majority of the not-so-small tunnel we're in trundles on into darkness. I point in the direction of the darkness.

"Does the tunnel go much further in that direction?" I ask out of curiosity.

"Yup," our guide says. "That's where we're going."

"Oh." That's an interesting bit of news. I had expected to go off the path, but for some reason not here. A little bit of excitement started to brew within me. I'm briefly reminded a phrase I had come across in one of the many science books I'd read before - the author himself was interviewing a scientists who was recalling a comic he'd seen long before, where a man is repelling into a dark hole, and a reporter asks why. The man replies: "Because it isn't there!"

"Now," our guide says, interrupting my reverie. "Do any of you have any fears or anything, like heights or enclosed spaces?" My dad and I look at each other. We both know the answer to this, though answering completely honestly might raise some complications.

"Well," I begin, wanting to explain that heights and I aren't best friends but also wanting to do this trip without the guide having to worry about me and my fears.

"Nah," my dad says. Short and to the point. Our guide begins to walk around the fence as we follow, and as he leads us into the darkness our headlamps reveal a hidden world to us.

***

"Now this right here is the Big Straddle," the guide says, pointing to a narrow tunnel without a floor. He had explained the nature of the Big Straddle to us earlier - the best way to walk across it is to support ourselves with our hands, while our legs are spread out over the chasm, finding footholds. He explains that there's no real danger. "It's so narrow you won't fall too far," he says, "but we might have to carry you out on a stretcher." This guy is either too honest or has a nasty sense of humor.

He begins to cross the tunnel, leaning with his back against one wall and his feet against the other. He shimmies across the chasm in this fashion for a few meters; we follow, copying his method. I kind of like it; it's easier than I thought it would be. He then stops and adjusts his position - he now has a hand and a foot on each side of the tunnel, holding himself in position with his arms and swinging his legs forward to the next footholds - then adjusting his arms for balance and repeating.

I continue using his old method, which feels much more comfortable. I can feel the weight of gravity pulling me down and have the sensation that if I move from my current position at all, I will fall down and keep falling. I try to switch over to his position a first time; after attempting this and failing to find footholds I feel comfortable with, I revert to the old method.

"It's really much easier this way," my dad says behind me. I look and he's straddling the chasm like a pro.

I try again to get into the straddling position; the guide is up ahead giving me some advice, telling me to support myself with my hands and that if I can move a little higher up I'll find better footholds there. They both explain how I want to swing, not step, but I don't see how on earth I'm supposed to manage swinging across this thing. And in the middle of all this awkward walking and trying to trust their advice, the guide's hand reaches out.

I grab it and he helps me off the Big Straddle and on to the ground. I've crossed it. I turn around and see my dad straddling around the corner. The tunnel looks just as intimidating from this side as it did from the other, but there's something different about it now - I've crossed it, and now it is subdued. As soon as my dad finishes crossing the Straddle we continue on our way, climbing down the boulders to the cave-river below.

***

We're stopping for a break, sitting down on a huge slab of rock to get drinks and some food. As my dad pulls our water bot

tles out of our bag, the guide tells us to look back. We look over at the tunnel behind us - though I thought it small compared to the cave entrance before, I can't imagine thinking of it as small now. Our headlamps only shine so far, and the distance we walked before is now pitch black. It strikes me that all the light in these caves came from our headlamps. We are sitting in an bubble of light, surrounded by an ocean of shadow. As I look out into the dark cavern behind us, I also realize that there isn't much tunnel ahead of us.

After we've eaten our snacks and gotten up, our guide gestures to the pile of rocks that seems to be blocking our path.

"Now," he says, "if you were trapped in here, where would you find an exit?" My dad and I look over the pile of rocks. There seem to be a few holes in the tunnel that we could follow. I see one in the back of the pile.

"Over there?" I ask, pointing. The guide answers without indicating if I was right.

"Why don't you go and see?"

My dad and I walk over to the hole - we shine our headlamps into it, and see that it leads to a dead end. My dad sees another hole to the side.

"How about over there?" he asks. We don't need the guide's prompting to go and check it out as well. We see that it quickly narrows off to a very uncomfortable width.

"Nope," I say, hoping desperately that I'm right. Our guide's silence confirms.

We check a few more exits, all failing. An excitement builds up inside of me - a mystery. Which tunnel is the way out? And where do all the narrow tunnels we can't fit through lead? Part of me wants to give up the tour and just begin on an expedition, squeezing through these crevices to find the other side. "Because it isn't there."

Finally, we give up. Our guide points up along a steep pile of boulders, which leads up to a small hole near the ceiling.

"We'll have to go up," he says. He leads the way up the steep pile, and we follow carefully, leaving this cavernous tunnel and all its offshoots behind, in darkness.

***

After much more exploring, we enter into a large room. The floor consists of large, flat boulders and there appears to be only one other exit. We sit in the middle and decide to take another break. As my dad passes me an energy bar to eat, he and the guide decide to turn off their headlamps. Once I have opened my energy bar, I do the same. From that point till now (as I'm writing this), I have had an extremely different view of vision.

The room immediately goes black, and I have never known the color black till now. The phrase "can't see my hand in front of my face" comes to mind. I hold my hand as close to my eyes as I can, and nothing - nothing - changes. In most dark rooms, proximity aids vision, because the light has less distance to travel before fading. But there is no light here. The darkness becomes a very tangible thing, closing up over my eyes, suffocating me. But I don't turn the light on. I'll wait till the others decide it's time.

My dad makes a comment about color. After all, if the "natural" state of the caves is pitch black, what color are the rocks really? Are they the dark brown I've been seeing this whole time? And in the end, what is my vision but an interpretation my brain makes of my surroundings? I would find later that if I just adjusted my point of view, being able to see makes me feel enclosed - trapped in an illusion, a filtered box through which I see the true world.

My dad and the guide are talking about something. I don't pay much attention. Though it makes me feel worse every time, there's a thrill to lifting my hand up and not seeing it. Some side of my brain gets more and more excited while the other tries to shrink back from the dark, but has no place to go. Still I don't turn the light on - after all, I can stand this. I can survive it.

My dad decides to take a picture with his phone to see what the lighting's like without our helmets. He aims randomly,
inadvertently photographing the far wall. There's so little light in the room his picture comes out black. He turns to a nearer wall and tries there. In the camera flash, I can swear I see something animal-shaped. I tell myself, though, that it can't be anything. I take a few deep breaths and try to admire the picture my dad's taken.

Soon we turn our lights back on. After my eyes adjust to the light, I look back at the spot my dad took a picture of. There's a vaguely animal-shaped rock there. I'm struck again by the illusion of vision. We leave the room, returning it to its state of blackness.

***

We toss our backpacks up onto a ledge above our heads.

"I assume we're going up there?" I ask.

"That's why we tossed the bags up there," the guide says. Good point.

I look around this little room. We've entered it through a tunnel in the floor. There's a narrow rock formation along one wall leading up to the ledge, and a tunnel leading out of the room, sloping upward. On the ledge a second tunnel leads out of the room. I figure that we're walking through the first tunnel, and coming out the second onto the ledge to get our backpacks.

Not so.

"You just come up along here," the guide says, pointing along the wall at the narrow rock formation. A strange stone jutting from the wall makes a little hole we have to squeeze through. "You'll want to come through here feet first, then stay up against the wall, because that rock's gonna want to pitch you forward." He climbs up, shimmies his way into the hole, and slides through feet first to the other side. I begin to follow.

Immediately I feel apprehensive. His phrase "that rock's gonna want to pitch you forward" resonates with a familiar sensation - though I may be perfectly balanced on the ledge, the absence of a wall to one side makes me feel like I'm leaning over. This makes it hard for me to get into the proper position to go feet first into the hole. I try to get my feet in the right position - but every time I adjust I slip a little and quickly revert to my original stance. It isn't a far drop, but if I fall wrong... For the first moment in the trip I consider turning back. This thought is quickly rejected and replaced by a determination to succeed.


"Try backing in for now," the guide suggests. Relieved, but hoping he has a plan, I lift myself up and sit in the hole. "Now just try and turn around here," he says, and I begin to spin on my butt so that I am now curled up in the hole. Unfortunately, my kneepads cause my legs to get jammed along the rock and now I'm stuck.

"Now you're stuck," says my dad, laughing. I laugh too. The only other way to respond to such a situation is
to freak out, and that's not going to help at all. The guide starts telling me how to move - wiggle up, twist to the left, right, slide down - I end up feet first in the wrong direction again, but as
my hands reach back I find a tiny, tiny ledge behind where I'm sitting and lift myself up, placing my hands on that - this gives me enough room to finally twist around and get my feet in the right direction. Now I have to drop onto another narrow ledge to get to the big slab on which our packs are sitting. The guide sticks his foot out to act as a foothold. I use it graciously and stumble over to the backpacks. My dad soon follows behind me.

Once we all get settled, the next phase of this passage lies ahead. We must cross over what must be a ten-foot deep gap between our ledge and a long jut of rock. As always, the guide goes first, crawling, using his kneepads to get enough friction to stay on the jut. I follow nervously - I lean over, put my hands on the rock, and now must bring one leg forward to rest my knee on a corner of the ledge - and here I sit for a moment. The next step is to left my other leg, so that the only things keeping me from falling into the gap are my palms and one knee. I know, however, that the kneepads change the game enormously. Taking a step of faith, I lift my leg from the previous ledge and hold my breath - and I don't budge. The friction between the gloves and kneepad and the rock is enough to hold me completely still.

I crawl hastily along the jut, trying not to slip off the edge, and meet the guide up at a narrow path along the wall. We must travel along this path, staying close to the wall, for the rest of the room is an 80-foot or so pit. I shine my headlamp down there. I can barely see the floor. The guide makes a comment about wanting to drop a measuring tape down there to see how deep it is. I agree. "Because it isn't there."

***
We walk slowly along the path and into another tunnel. From here on out, we walk mostly through narrow passageways until one point where we have to take an 8-foot drop, but that's easy compared to what we've done before. Soon we cross through another straddle-esque tunnel and come out back in the tunnel with the river. We're on our way out.

As we cross through the tunnels again, in the opposite direction, I'm struck by the difference. I don't recognize it at all - some landmarks I notice are the same from before, but the room just seems different.

Along the way, our guide points out a small twig lying on a rock. Its roots have grown out over the stone, searching for water and nutrients. I don't know how long it's been here, but it certainly has put up a fight. I feel a great sense of mystery as I realize that life will find a way anywhere - even in the most desolate places. Look closely at the picture - it's hard to see. Just a few white roots among the fallen rocks.

We run into another tour group, and visit the hopper room which we had skipped before. Then we follow the group out of the grand entrance to the cave. There we get someone else to get a picture of us with our guide. Soon after we're changing into clean clothes and parting ways. Part of me hopes to meet our guide again sometime; he was a very pleasant man, and helped me get through some of the tougher points in there by continuing to give me clear instructions, patiently working me through my fears.


This was an experience I won't forget for a long time. It was entirely new and strange to me, and at many points I worried about if I could make it through the whole tour. A number of different fears threatened to rear their ugly heads and obstruct my path, but with the help of my dad and our guide I managed to defeat them and continue on into the unknown. And why would I want to do that?

Because it isn't there!