Tagged with " autism"
Sep 14, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    3 Comments

Music Calms the Savage Geek

Don’t call the people in the padded van, but I’m pretty sure I pick up radio signals with my fillings. Because I hear music. All. The. Time. The only other theory I can think of is that someone’s secretly making a movie of my life, in real time, but that would be deeply unfortunate, because some of the songs I hear really suck sometimes, and I would hope whomever’s in charge of this project has better taste than that.

Much as my kids were destined to be reading and gaming geeks, I was destined to be a music geek. My mom sang in choirs from when she was a little girl, and loved ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s pop music passionately; her mom could play piano by ear, and knew dozens of campfire and folk songs from her years as a Girl Scout leader. I was blessed with a good ear and a strong voice, and with the exception of one elementary music teacher who told me she’d like to hear everyone else too, I was never told to pipe down or use the maracas instead.

My earliest and best memories are all saturated with music. I remember my very first concert — I couldn’t have been more than 2 — where I sat on my father’s shoulders and looked out at the sea of shimmering lighter flames as Willie Nelson sang “Stardust.” I knew dozens of Beatles songs, and they were my favorite band as much as my mom’s. I cried and cried the day John Lennon was shot. And it took me years to realize that the 20th Century Fox intro wasn’t actually the beginning of the Star Wars score.

By high school, I was firmly entrenched as both a band and choir geek. Sorry, no show choir. This was pre-Glee, and these were the jazz hands, “Send in the Clowns” days. Every geek’s got their limits. My good fortune as a musician truly blossomed. I had the very best teachers, and my stepdad’s work as a music ed professor gave me opportunities to sing in national festival choirs that thrilled me to my toes. At college, it only got better. Though I had to choose choir over band for time constraints, I worked for several years with Simon Carrington, one of the founding members of the King’s Singers, as he began his foray into a second career as choir director. His repertoire and professional expertise was epic, and he simply didn’t know to expect any less from a college choir. So we delivered. Britten’s War Requiem, Biebl’s Ave Maria, Tallis’ 40-Part Motet … we even staged Mendelssohn’s Elijah as an opera. I was spoiled forever.

High school was also where my listening tastes began evolving, formed by influences from every direction. The Morrissey tape from my first kiss; Erik Satie and Francis Cabrel from my Belgian exchange student; and every concert I could scrounge up the allowance and babysitting money to attend: Bob Dylan, Heart, R.E.M., Modern English, Skinny Puppy, Love and Rockets, The Pixies, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, The Swans, The Cure, Primus, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Clegg, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Murphy, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, The Bobs … the list goes on, and memory fails. We had the perfect arrangement: Thursdays at Bailey’s and Sundays at Club Marilyn in Milwaukee for dancing, and The Exclusive Company and B-Side on State Street in Madison for cassettes.

 

Music has power over me. Sometimes, that’s not such a great thing. When I was 15, I dated a kid who was a musical prodigy. He played trumpet and piano. He arranged Bach’s Air on a G string for brass quintet from the organ score one weekend when he was bored. He would sit at the piano in my living room and improvise the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs. I basked in the reflected glow of his genius. I pretended that made up for the abuse. I made excuses for him until after the second rape, and some of my other music geek friends circled the wagons to protect me. When I would’ve crawled into myself and died, they made me eat Spaghetti-Os out of the same big mixing bowl with them and sing Little Shop of Horrors songs with my mouth full. That music saved me as surely as the other music endangered me.

And I was 35 (!) when another piece of the music puzzle fell into place for me. Part of my music geekiness is based on the fact that I have hyper-sensitive hearing, and perfect relative pitch. Put another way, I can’t ever stop listening, which is why I have to have white noise without any pattern to it in order to fall asleep; if it’s silent, I’ll lie awake waiting for a sound. And the sensitivity to sound is so bad that my one and only migraine trigger is loud, sudden noises: everything from fireworks or a car backfiring, to a balloon popping nearby. If you can feel the percussion of it “slap” your eardrum, it’s enough to trigger a migraine for me. It’s been this way since I was a baby, they think. But I’m good with prolonged loud noises, like you’d find at the kind of concerts I most enjoy, and there’s almost nowhere in the world I’d rather be than standing in front of a powerful Bass II section or a good bass woofer. If my sternum’s rattling, if I can feel a mild heart arrhythmia caused by the secondary beat in my chest, I am one hundred percent happy.

And I think that both of these come from the fact that, in all likelihood, I have Asperger’s Syndrome to some extent too. The wrong kinds and frequencies of sound make me extremely uncomfortable, but music — especially lyrical bass (not that stupid bass-bumping crap) — fills me up. It forms a glowing, golden spiral from the center of my belly, up through my whole body, like a mighty architecture that leaves me so much stronger that the light and joy just spills out my voice and my smile and my fingertips.

This is one of those rare instances where I am not a nerd at something I’m a geek about. I’ve never had a single day of music theory, or any other formal course of music study, and I stopped piano lessons when they asked me to do two things with one hand at the same time. But there’s no question I’m a music geek. When people look at our CD collection, the first question is usually, “How many people did you say live here?” And the second question is usually, “Can I borrow this?”

Default Setting: Love

This is my first blog post, and it’s by way of explaining why I felt strongly enough about the Speak Out with your Geek Out movement — all next week, anywhere and everywhere you want to talk about whatever floats your geeky little boat — that I stepped up to be an admin. I’m doing it because I’m a big geek, of course, but more importantly, I’m doing it for my kids. They’re going to be a frequent subject on my blog, and yes, I’m going to use their names.

* * *

The first thing most people notice about Connor is how *big* everything is for him. His volume is permanently set to 11; every gesture and expression is oversized and repeated two or three times in case you missed it the first (you couldn’t possibly). Then the other extremes about him begin to emerge: the speed of his speech only hints at the speed of his thoughts, and words pop up in the rapid stream that you don’t expect in a fourth-grade vocabulary. All these things might give the impression of excitement by themselves, but there’s real enthusiasm for so many subjects, and genuine delight at the prospect of sharing the coolness with someone new.

This is my kid. He’s a geek. His default setting is love.

He was doomed to geekhood well before his conception, what with two parents of impressive geek credentials. And he showed his own talent for geekhood as well. He started calling his make-believe play “movies” between ages 2 and 3, around the same time he announced he wanted a Jon Stewart 3rd birthday party. His passion for superheroes exploded onto the scene, until we started telling people who asked about potential gifts for him, “Look, if it’s ‘super,’ it’s great.”

What we didn’t know until he turned six was that Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. The school where he attended kindergarten failed him in every respect. Teachers missed the expanding intellect and hunger for social interaction, and labeled him a discipline problem, a threat to “normal” kids. His classmates saw a child who wanted friends a little too desperately, and probably left them behind when he tried to include them in his elaborate stories. And, at that critical age, when different is dangerous, those children made his life hell. They rejected his friendship. They rejected his enthusiasm. They hurt him on the playground, to the point of stitches one cold winter morning. They threatened his life on the bus after school. Kindergartners told my son they wanted to have a party at his house; he was overjoyed. They said they would have a party at his house, and he would be the pinata, and they would beat him until he broke open and died. He had nightmares. My six-year-old said he wanted to kill himself. He knew what he was saying.

Things got better. We switched schools for first grade, and within a month, they’d identified the Asperger’s. Instead of simply conceding to the previous reigning theory on his behavior issues (i.e., “we’re crap parents”), we built strategies for home and school to address the most serious problems and deal with them constructively and consistently. Connor’s teacher gave him challenging work that kept him from making trouble when he was bored. He made friends who valued his vast cache of knowledge about Star Wars and superheroes.

Connor’s experiences made him a better person too. His fixation on superheroes had taught him the philosophical concept of justice, but now he understood what prejudice and oppression felt like, and why it was important to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. His skill as a storyteller was growing apace, but now he was sensitive to allowing his friends agency in their own stories, and supplied them with information so they could “make cool movies” too.

It’s not for nothing that jaded adults are advised to view the world through the perspective of a child, if they can. Everything is new and amazing to children, and they’re predisposed to love it, to find it literally wonder-full. I heard a parent of an autistic child in a radio interview say that people with autism are “more human than human;” natural human tendencies are amplified to extremes. Geekhood is, I believe, a natural human tendency. We get enthusiastic about things we enjoy; we want to know more, and we want to share them with others. We start with it when we’re children, when we’re geeks about the whole wide world–our default setting is love. And for some lucky people, like Connor, that setting never changes.

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