Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Memory in Smell

It was cloudy. The calendar said we were supposed to be in the season of spring, but the weather still required heavy jackets. I was running up and down a hill by the "ravine" in the back of where I lived. I was seven and at the bottom of this ravine was a neighbors firepit. The smoke was drifting up the hill and the distinct smell of brush being burned was so distinct that is froze that moment in time as I wore my blue coat that was way too big for me, but my mom insisted. As I ran with boundless energy I looked towards the treehouse where my friend was and smiled... then I blinked, and it was 2022.

Yesterday I smelled that same smell. There are different types of brush that one can burn but what I was smelling was the same and it made sense as I was just two miles from where I grew up. It was uncanny. I've read articles like this one that describe the link between memories and smell and all throughout my life I can say that only music is more directed tied to memories than smell. 

As I watched the smoke, and some ash from the brush came down, I was moved thinking who I was way back when. My memory, I've learned, is most certainly better than average, but when I have an aroma that triggers the memory it's simply immersive in just how present the past is.

When I present to teachers and law enforcement the topic of smell comes up occasionally. One of the main concepts I teach is the system of, "whatever happens first always has to happen" and aromas can play into this. If, for example, I would've had a bad day when I smelled the type of brush being burned I may have gone back to that time and instead of smiling, I may have had a reaction and have been scared or worried that situation may have occurred again. It's this that I talk to teachers and law enforcement that, and this can be extremely difficult to ascertain if this is what is occurring, but if a teacher or a law enforcement officer is wearing a cologne or a perfume that was worn when something bad occurred, well, the memory of the past may create fear in the present.

I've toured the country several times and certain offices or schools may have similar smells and it's unique to walk into a room and be flooded with ten different memories of ten different places due to one smell. It can be a bit confusing trying to piece when one smell has sprung so many memories as I will try to pin down exactly when and where something occurred.

I'm sure I'm not alone this at all. Maybe this why there's such a whole industry, or multiple industries in the world of smell. Candles named "Grandma' Kitchen" within itself show that, autism spectrum or not, the shared experiences we have with memories and scent are strong. Next time you have a moment that a smell brings you back, though, try to imagine if all that you do has that same reaction and a single memory triggers a spider web cascading effect that then you relive a year in a flash. That, in a way, is a way I can attempt to describe what the power of scent has.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

17 Years Since March 30, 2005

Today is the day. I've been through many ordeals in my life, and I've written about a lot of them, but one incident above all others, well, I'll probably be writing about it for the rest of my life.

First off, if you've ever been in a life-threatening situation due to other people then you might want to skip this post. I do try and keep my blog positive and always try to look at the positive twist, and in a way the fact I can talk about the contents of this post are a positive within itself, but the feeling of pure helplessness may be a bit distressing.

Lastly, before I get to the story, every time on this day I try to find something in depth regarding PTSD and Asperger's/ASD and each year I'm left with a bit of bewilderment as to the lack of literature out there. I mean, if a person has a better than average memory to the point of having the memory be very much like a DVR, then moving past things can be a challenge. Anyway, to the story...

I will start the story by telling you that I was traveling with my dad to Kenya, and we were in Kisumu, Kenya on this fateful day. My dad was doing some video work for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod regarding the immense need when it comes to the high prevalence of AIDS orphans and homelessness. I went along to do some still photography and help my dad when possible. My experience up to that point had been one of self-discovery and this ordeal that occurred on this day surely had a hand in making me the writer I am today.

Yes, my trip was full of self revelations and this was aided by the fact that I spent five days alone in the room 312 at the Imperial Hotel. I had some sort of virus that made me sleep for hours on end and when I was up all I wanted to do was sleep. Exhaustion was given a new meaning for me because of this, but when I was up I wrote and it was in that hotel room I was in that I first thought that, perhaps, someone someday might actually read, and care, what I have to say.

My dad came back and the next morning we were out for my dad to take some town shots. The video on this page shows what we were doing, but what seems to be a quiet town quickly changes as the video will only give you a hint as to what was to come.
The video ends suddenly because my dad did not want the camera stolen. What you can't see in the front of the vehicle is the fact that the first two kids to get in front slammed their knees under the front bumper. They [the kids] knew that our driver was a pastor and that he would not run over the them. If our driver knew what was to come he may very well have.

Out of nowhere descended 10, 20, 40, 50, and then 75 kids. The mob surrounded us from all angles and we eventually had several kids with their knees under our front bumper. The car we were in was a 1982 Toyota something rather and had seen many a kilometer, perhaps a million. Because of this the power in this car was not enough to break us free. And as fate would have it, these kids were the exact reason we were there as these kids had all lost their parents to AIDS and had no one to turn to.

Now I know I have said homeless kids, but some of these kids were near 18 years of age and in very strong physical shape. They have to be to survive, and to survive they do things, like hold people like me captive for money. With a mob of this size no amount of money would satisfy all.

The kids demanded that our windows be kept down and they kept trying to get us out of the car, but our driver stayed calm and nonchalant about the whole mess. He may have been calm, but I was a shaky mess.

There are no words I can use that will let you know the terror I felt. I either wanted God to free us from this or have the mob kill us because the suspense was too much to bear. I fought back the tears, and really think this was because I was too scared to cry. The kid outside my window, who was holding a large glass shard and nice sized rock said to me, "What, are you afraid of? Us?" And then he laughed and my despair grew. It grew worse when he pulled a machete out and slowly moved it to my throat.

At some point in time our driver got one of the kids, and only one, into our car. I was seated in the rear left of the car, my dad the front right (remember, Kenya was a British country so drivers are on the right) and this kid was now seated to my left. He appeared to be weaponless, and the machete was still pointed at me, but I now had no safe haven.

Words made no sense as our driver slipped in and out of English with the kid that seemed to be in control, if control was possible in a mob of 75 homeless kids. At times an auctioneer would have been envious at the rate of conversation, but nothing was changing. We had kids on all sides, kids on the trunk, the roof, and the hood.

Then I saw it! Two police officers were walking toward us and I felt like I was going to be safe. Hope had arrived and not a moment too soon. When one is facing death there is no feeling like the feeling of freedom and life. However, this feeling of hope was fleeting as the police looked at the mob, looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and walked away. Once again we were just one step away from a vehicle from death.

The minutes, seconds, and tenths-of-a-second were being counted. I thought of everything I wanted to do and see that would not happen. I thought of the girlfriend I had but lost after my diagnosis. I realized I was alone, and then I thought of the fact that I really wanted to know if I'd develop as a writer.

This mob that was all around seemed to be more interested in blood rather than money. Money was the talk at the start, but negotiations with the mob leader revolved around my dad and I getting out of the car. Getting out was a one-way ticket to being stoned.

We once again caught a break and I noticed it through my hyperventilating. Slowly, say, about every five minutes, one of the kids at the front bumper was wandering off. Eventually there was just one. This kid was the kid holding the cap that you can see in the video nearing us near the end of the video.

The look in this lone kid's eyes scared me. It was of hate, rage, and sadness that screamed that he wanted our blood and/or money in no particular order. His knees were firmly under the bumper, but when the leader of the mob was off talking to one of his minions, our driver took out a 100 Kenyan Shilling banknote (about $1.50) and waived for the kid to take it. The kid took the bait and we had a clear path and our driver gunned it and that Toyota something or other leaped forward, well, lurched forward with all the might it could muster.

Instantly our car was pelted with the rocks the kids were holding for the stoning they were hoping would occur. One rock came through the rear window and just missed my head. I took this as a cue to duck, as did the homeless kid that was still in our car.

We made it one block and now the homeless kid, who I must say had been very confident until we made our break, had the same look of fear I had moments prior. The fear, once again, was reversed when we made a turn at the end of the street and a pickup truck was backing out.

The eager mob had been throwing everything they could towards our vehicle and was chasing us. This blockage of the road was bad, VERY bad because what was a friendly blood thirsty mob was now an angry blood frenzy mob. If they got to us it was over.

It's good to know that drivers the world over only care about their car in parking situations, but bad when you learn this when you MUST get by. The pickup backed out, pulled in, backed out and re-angled all the while ignoring the constant tone of our horn (the horn had seen better days too).

We were a quarter block from the turn we made and the mob was rounding the corner. There wasn't much time left, then, all of a sudden, a private security guard from this shopping strip saw the mob nearing our car and he took three quick steps and flashed his long sword. All at once the front of the mob slid to a stop. It looked like an orchestrated slide, but the kids behind the front didn't know they were stopping and many kids took a tumble.

When it comes to blood thirsty mobs a small tumble won't stop them. Our driver had had enough with the pickup that couldn't decide if it was coming or going and as it was backed out our driver shot between the pickup and the curb and made the sidewalk our road. The pickup driver showed his disapproval by honking his horn at us. If he only was aware of what was behind.

The road was clear and five blocks later we threw out the kid that was still in our car. I say throw out but he was more than willing to leave as he certainly knew there are strength in numbers, and this time he was out numbered.

Afterwards I was in a shaky state. I say shaky because I literally was shaking, sometimes violently. I could not believe I was alive and uninjured. I kept processing and reliving the ordeal and I could see it, truly see it. I still can because of this video-graphic memory. I didn't have to put the video on here because I can still see it in my mind.

An hour passed and I was making no headway with my emotions. I was slipping away, drifting into my mind where no one could hurt me. I wanted nothing more than to never be around anyone again, but as we got back to our hotel my dad suggested I write, so write I did. It wasn't much, but I wrote about the event on the forum of the Saint Louis Karting Association and it was then that I realized the power of writing and when we returned home my rate of chapters being written grew and grew. I was blessed to have survived, and I was going to make the most of it.

That's the story and there will be a moment about, say, once a month that will take me back there in that state of helplessness. Later in 2005 when I saw The War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, I had an absolute flashback when there was a mob wanting the van. Then, earlier this month when I was catching up on episodes of The Blacklist, there was an episode with a character with the name of "The Chairman" which was the name of the so-called leader of this group of homeless kids. Hearing the line in the episode "I want to speak to the chairman" brought back memories of hearing the driver and my dad say that. I forgot that it was said, until I heard it in that episode, and I had to pause the episode and regroup my emotions.  

I've written about this event many times, and in the unabridged, original version of my book Finding Kansas, I went into great detail about the whole trip. I've had questions at presentations that have brought this story up. In the telling of this story the room always goes quiet, and I tell it with great detail because, usually, a question that brought it up had to do with a traumatic event of some sort that is not just haunting but is so vivid it's like it's in the present and for me the events of March 30th, 2005, were just that for many years.

In a way I have felt as if I've been on borrowed time since then. I do think about the place of Kisumu frequently and I hope someday, in some way, to be able to help somehow. Being from the United States of America I never knew desperation like this. I hope to be able to do something because I am who I am today because of what transpired on that day. I said I try to always find the positive angle from something and here it is... I know for a fact that I would've given up on writing if this even had not happened. The book that was being written then has sold over more than 12,000 copies. From that I became a speaker and have given over 1,050 presentations to almost 100,000 people. I had a YouTube series that had almost 500,000 views. I've had two national speaking tours to students which the impact of shaping the future is immeasurable. I've always called March 30th, 2005 the day I was "lucky to survive" but what if it's more than that? What if it truly was the day that I grew into a person that realized I was capable of something because there had to be a reason I survived that wasn't just "lucky". Yes, what if that day was the day that made me fearless to tell my story? It might just be and while I'm sure there will be things that bring me back to being in that Toyota, and feeling helpless, but for once I'm understanding that it might not have been possible without March 30th, 2005.


Monday, March 28, 2022

Saying Goodbye 2.0



It was hard in 2011, and it's difficult now. It actually felt as if I were going somewhere to have it put down. Each mile was a mile closer to a terminality that I knew was coming, yet never could prepare for.

As long as I've been alive saying goodbye has been difficult. I can remember one example early in life when my dad left something in a lot. I sat inside for about and hour and an employee there tried to talk me out but how could I leave when I knew this was the end. The end? Wait, you think I'm talking about a person or a pet? Oh no, not at all. I'm talking about a car.

Every presentation I give I touch on what some call an inappropriate attachment to objects. In this case I don't find it inappropriate at all as a car is with us essentially everywhere we go. All of our memories in travel are tied to that vehicle and when a person's memories are tied to objects it feels like a partial deletion of all the memories tied to it.

The car I was saying goodbye to was my 2006 Infiniti G35X. I got it in 2011 and that was such an amazing time in my life. I never thought I was going to be in a place in my life that I was going to have a "cool" car. When I got it I had been presenting for a year and couldn't believe I was getting more and more presentations. Driving that car off the lot was one of the happiest moments I've ever had. It was painful leaving the 95 Maxima behind, but I looked forward to the memories to be made in the new car, and goodness there were memories!

Right off the bat in April of 2011 I did a tour of Missouri speaking tour and crisscrossing the state in my new car was a joy. I also had several USAC .25 races in the region that saw me driving all over the midwest, and each drive slowly erased the memory of the old car, but was replaced with new memories.

There were good times in the vehicle such as the time, headed to Vegas late at night, that my friend Rob got the honor of driving through Kansas while I slept. There were frustrating times such as a six-hour long traffic delay due to a spill, and there were sad times such as getting a phone call while driving and learning of the passing of a former coworker. 

A car truly is with us through it all and while some people may say that there should be no attachment whatsoever to a thing that's made with so many parts, but I argue it isn't just mechanical parts but rather it truly become a part of our lives. With that said I'm at a loss to how anyone can simply discard a car they've had for so long with no emotions whatsoever.

My car was with me through the truly bad times after 2017 and the darkness came at the end of 2019 through the pandemic. It was also with me when I picked up INDYCAR and just thinking back to June 2020 and the time I drove under the tunnel at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an employee will forever be tied to that car. However, I got the car at 50,000 miles and it was over 252,000 miles. I drove the car over 200,000 in 11 years with the bulk coming between 2011 and 2017. 

The car was old and needed more work than it was worth to remain road worthy according to the inspection process. As much as I was attached to the car it made no sense so on Friday it was time for the car's final drive as I went to a dealer for a new car. That final drive was difficult and each mile my emotions grew and grew. I couldn't do this alone, so I called my mom and talked about all the grand adventures I had in that car, such as the time I drove through an extremely small tornado. Or the time I drove out to Rapid City in it to see her and I drove 17 hours straight.

Try as I might to try and stop time to forever delay saying goodbye, it was futile. I had taken photos, and a video, of what my car looked like before I cleaned it out that morning so the process would be quick when I got to the dealer, but that didn't work. When I pulled up to the door, I just sat there staring out the windshield remembering that same view I had in 2011 when I got the car. How could I ever have imagined the grand adventures I was blessed to have and all the people I've met and presented to along the way? I remembered all the potential energy I had at the lot in 2011 and wanted to somehow feel that again. My speaking engagements will return, I know it, but it was hard to experience that same sense of awe I had in 2011 and as I watched people move back and forth in the dealership I had to get out of the car because, in a way, saying goodbye to this car was, in a way, saying goodbye to an era.

After all the papers were signed, I got the keys to my new car. I got the same brand and a 2019 model. Before I left the parking lot, I stared out the windshield like I did in 2011. While I didn't have the same sense of awe I had in 2011, the sense of awe was replaced with a sense of determination. The determination to help others has never been stronger in my heart. I await the day I can say that I've got a national school tour, or a new book coming out. When this happens, on that day, I knew I'd more than likely being looking out that windshield at some point in time. My heart began to beat with a sense of happiness as I pulled out of the lot. When I got to the interstate and truly felt where the car could do, and the youthful step and agility this car had, I smiled. Slowly, memories will be pushed out of where my old car went, but times move on, so do we, and I look forward to reminiscing in, say, 11 years of all the grand adventures I have in my new car.  

Friday, March 25, 2022

A Decade Since The Crash In Nashville

I saw sky and was confused. Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" was playing in the background and I had a momentary sense of peace. I still didn't know what was going on and I saw Debi Supan running at Mach 2 at me. It was at this point I tried to breathe and realized just how much pain I was in.

When it comes to memories, my memory system is highly interlinked like a spider web, and nothing spurs memories as much as an anniversary and even more so when it's been a decade since something happened. Today marks a decade since the first of what would become way too many incidents involving a quarter midget and a flag stand I was standing in. 

The pain was beyond what I could've imagined. My ankle felt like it was on fire, and I kept looking down at my rib area because I was sure I had a foot long knife stabbed into me. A group of people were hovering over me now talking about the best way to get to a hospital. A car pulled up and they considered loading me on as it would be faster than an ambulance. People were giving me words of encouragement and one stuck out above all others. A parent, first name Paul, said, "Aaron, this is just you building your legacy. When you make it to the Indianapolis 500, you'll have this story to tell!"



I look back on that day and I now actually smile. It can be a bit traumatic remembering the crash frame by frame as time went by at that speed as I saw two cars try to avoid a spinning car and as they got into the wall the wall started to coil into the stand and I knew as those two cars got to the stand the brunt force and recoil of the wall was going to hurt. I wasn't wrong.

The person that went with me to the hospital was amazing. I was hurting, but I also was rather sad about missing the rest of the event that day. She assured me the event was going to be just fine without me and she kept me informed with how the races were going. I was actually out of X-rays before the race that had struck me finished. I then, for some illogical reason, worried I wouldn't be invited back to flag as if I had some control over the incident that occurred. 

It was such an amazing time for me back in 2012. I was just a week from a nationwide book/speaking tour and was concerned as to if this would hinder it. My friend Rob, from Vancouver, was coming down to be my copilot so the tour really wasn't in jeopardy, but it was a strong fear due to all the resources that were going into it.

The doctor came in and said I was lucky. Just one fractured rib, a bruised hip, sprained ankle, and a hematoma on my shin. I didn't feel lucky but being able to hobble out of the hospital was a plus. The replay of the crash played through my mind, and I remembered looking down into a car which I thought was odd, but that night when my dad sent me the multiple YouTube links to the capture, he got it made sense and I realized that yes, I was lucky.

Heading back to the track was awkward. I didn't want any bit of a social scene and just wanted to disappear. That was probably half of Asperger's talking and the other half the pain meds. Thankfully I did an awesome job staying incognito getting into the series director's car. 

I stared off to the track where the victory photos were going on. Lost in thought I wondered where some of those drivers would end up in racing. The winners were given the customary guitar that the track gave to winners and then there was a knock on the window I wasn't looking out. The door swung opened and it was a guitar signed by the winners of the day and I was told this guitar was now mine.

In racing there are lots of mementos one can collect be it tickets, hard cards, autographs, or in this case an autographed guitar. Of everything I've collected in my life this guitar is my second most prized possession only behind the checkered flag Duane Sweeney gave me. In an attempt to properly research the names for this blogpost I tried to find a list online of some of these autographs, I couldn't find results from the day. This, in a way, saddens me. I struggle with the passage of time, and this is just a reminder that this event was so long ago. Several of the drivers, well, they made it! Carson Hocevar is in the NASCAR Truck Series and Harrison Burton is in his rookie season of the NASCAR Cup Series. 

I was dropped off at my car and since I was on pain meds I couldn't drive. Debi volunteered to drive me in my car from Nashville to Saint Louis and on the ride the conversation was deep. We talked about racing, naturally, and the dedication it takes to succeed. I mentioned what Paul had said and she agreed. There was a spot, somewhere in Kentucky, that we hit a bump and the pain took my breath away which made me wonder if I wanted to continue in this racing business. As fast as the pain subsided a mile later, I was ready for the next event.

That car ride made me reflective not just on if I wanted to continue, but it showed me the family that is the racing family. My injuries weren't serious, but the amount of texts and emails I received from concerned parents, and in the following week I received about a dozen cards from some of the kids, it was special and kept me in the game of racing. My national tour the following week went off without a hitch and when my speaking tour got to Phoenix I flagged the SKUSA SpringNats which saw a kart end up with its nose in my flag stand. I wasn't fazed physically, but it did test my resolve. The week after I returned to the quarter midget series at the Orange Show track in San Bernadino and it was a much needed "back on the horse" experience. 

As I finish this blog post I'm brought to tears thinking about all the coworkers, drivers, parents, and places I knew back then. I'm beyond thankful to have made it to the NTT INDYCAR Series, but I'm a bit sad that, back in 2012, I questioned if all of the miles and hours would be worth it if I never made it to Indy. The dedication I had to excel and move up partially blinded me to just how awesome of a time it was back then. Maybe the kids that raced in Nashville have that same type of memory. I know I'd give just about anything to go back and work with those people one more time. Of course, without cars flying in my direction. 

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Price of the Top


This blog is going to be interesting. The first half is going to be what I wrote in February of 2011 regarding a game for the Xbox entitled Bejeweled Blitz Live and after that will be a look at what life was really like during it...

Blitzing a Bejeweled Blitz Weekend

February 28, 2011

After this past weekend, if I wrote a letter to Pop Cap Games, it would start out something like this:

Dear Pop Cap Games,
I would like to thank you for making a game that has made EVERY game obsolete...

On Wednesday the game Bejeweled Blitz, made by Pop Cap Games, hit the Xbox 360 and since the first time I played it online competitively Friday night it has been the only game I have thought about.

What Bejewled Blitz is, and I assure this post is not an ad for the game, is a lightning fast 1 minute version of Bejeweled. What makes this game unique, and addicting, is that when one plays it online the player can play head-to-head with another player with the highest score winning.

Since I started playing it I have said that, "This is the first game that goes as fast as my mind" which may be why I am so enthralled with it.

When I went to sleep Friday night I was #1 in the world at it and I knew that if I never played the game again I would always be #1 thanks to Microsoft's True Skill system (I could go on a thousand word rant about True Skill and lay out why the ELO ranking system is better, but this is lifeontheothersideofthewall.blogspot.com and not Aaronsratingsystemsoftheworldrantpage.blogspot.com) but what fun would that be? As much as I love being the top player, what I really love are the games that come down to the wire in a flurry of color and reflexes.

I have not been this hyper-focused on a game since Toca Race Driver 3 came out five years ago this month. Bejeweled Blitz wasn't the only game I played on Saturday, but it was the only game I cared about. Rob, Travis, and I won the EASHL championship on NHL 11, but it was a hollow victory as I was still thinking about blue diamonds and red square rubys and making sets of three or more of them.

Saturday night at 11:30 I said I would play, "just a couple games" but those couple games went to 4:30! I could not stop playing and I felt as if heaven had descended to Earth in the form of Bejeweled. After experiencing this I may have to coin a new term and call this "Hyper-Kansas" because I have experienced many a Kansas, but truly I was playing this game to the exclusion of other events in life. Food? It can wait. Sleep? Who needs it?

By Sunday I was getting very aggravated at the True Skill system as I bounced about in the top 10. I could win 40 games in a row and not move up one spot, but then lose one game and drop three. Every time I told myself I was done with the game I would start up, "just one game". Of course one game leads to a multitude of games.

As I sit in my office on today, a Monday, I am still thinking about the game. I mean, how do I score just a little bit more? Can I beat get just that little bit faster to beat my nemesises, a girl, from England and a guy from Texas? Will I get back to a True Skill of 34?

It's been a long time since I experienced a interest like this. This certainly reminds me of the strength and weakness of my mind. When something gets to this level every other object or event becomes dull. Why do I want to eat since it takes time? Why do I want to go to bowling tonight when it is going to take away time to match jewels? Heck, why do I want to leave the house since Bejeweled Blitz can't be taken on the road with me?

Thankfully I am able to break away; although it was close. I just about did "one game" this morning, but I didn't want to take the time plugging every thing back into the power outlets (very bad storms last night. I think a tornado passed over our house because the pressure I felt in my ears were something I never have felt before). so I just left the house and came to the office.

How long will this Hyper-Kansas last? I'm not sure and I can assure you there was no conscious effort for this game to become such a powerhouse in my mind. Just as I make no effort for my mind to become transfixed by something; I also can't just say, "I don't like this anymore". Interests run their course and some last longer, or much longer, than others.

I think I am going to keep playing until I simply can't take the True Skill system any more. I try not to care, but I know I should be higher than my position. Don't get me wrong, and I don't want to sound like an elitist, but I should be higher than 8th (my position last night). And then again maybe the intensity of the matches are enough and if this is a case I, again, would like to thank Pop Cap Games for making every game before it and after obsolete because I have found the ultimate game. 

End 2011 blog.

I remember those late nights chasing the #1 spot in the world and from that post it sounds like it was nothing but bliss. However, it wasn't. It wasn't anything of the sort. 

I'm not as competitive as I used to be and that's a very good thing. Back then competition was an obsession and the need to rise to the top of whatever game's leaderboards I was playing at the time would rule my life. This is another gift/curse of being on the autism spectrum as that one track mind can provide wonderful focus and drive, but when that focus goes for a goal without abatement, well, the price can be heavy.

That top spot on the leaderboards meant everything to me and to get there I would have to go on winning streaks of 60 or more. One defeat to a lesser skilled player would negate 50 wins. Think about that, one bad game over an hour and 50 wins would have to be achieved in a row. While the game was heavily skilled based the "last hurrah" of any game could see a novice get as lucky as a lottery winner and no amount of skill would've mattered. When this would happen an anger I never had had in my life would consume me.

The fun of the game was completely lost by the second week, and I was either at the office, a presentation, or playing this game hours on end. I was fully alone in this quest, and it took me to a dark place. I love hyper-Kansas but this was different. In games previous that I strived for the number one spot there was a joy in the process, but not this. When I did reach the top spot there was no joy. This wasn't out of the ordinary for me on the other games I did achieve the top spot which is an odd thing for people to understand. It's quite a feat to be number one in the world at anything, I do realize this, but imagine getting it and feeling nothing. No sense of accomplishment, no sense of joy. Nothing but the emptiness of knowing you should be feeling something but instead feeling a vacuum. \

Experiencing a lack of emotion is something I've had on many of my achievements in life. At presentations when I've had conversations with others on the spectrum it is apparent that I'm not alone in this. Perhaps this leads to the autism burnout I talked about a couple months ago because it's like an economy that's all taxes and no income. Eventually there's nothing left to give.

I stayed playing the game even after getting #1, but after about two months and thousands of games I eventually left while #1. Almost a year later I returned to the game and played a lot of single player games until I felt I had the skill to defend #1 against other players. My first couple competitive games were against novice level players, but then I came across a player that was far above my skill level. He was in the top 30 on the leaderboards, but since so few of the high-ranking players remained, he had a hard time moving up even though he was averaging almost 1,000,000 points a game. To put in perspective, I considered a game of 100,000 to be a sure-fire victory in the past. 

For the first time in my life, I was happy to relinquish the top spot. This guy was amazing and after about twenty games he was the new #1. As I fell to about 10th a change in my life occurred and victory regardless of personal cost no longer mattered. 

Do I still want to win on whatever game I'm playing or whatever I'm racing on iRacing? Absolutely! Unlike last decade, though, there won't be blog posts entitled, "A loss on iRacing" or "The cost of losing iRating". Even those that I have played Xbox with for over a decade have noticed. Travis, the same one mentioned in the 2011 blog post, mentioned while we were playing Rocket League, "What happened, Aaron? You used to strive to win every game you played and now you're okay with just being average. What happened, man?" I smiled when I heard this because for the first time in my life, I was in a place that being "just average" is perfect and simply the enjoyment of the game itself, without a view of the world leaderboards, is good enough for me. It's a relief, it's a joy, and I wish I could tell you how I did it or what changed to get to a point that the cutthroat competitor in me turned off, but the love of the game, and not the win, is such an awesome feeling.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Anticipation Before the Storm

 I never understood the phrase, "The calm before the storm" because being calm before an event is something that I am 100% incapable of. I am going to use my past fear of storms to illustrate just how powerful this "fear before..." is. A decade ago, storms ruled my life. Thirty years ago, I was so paralyzed by the threat of severe weather that I would do everything in my power not to go to school. At school I would be unable to watch the Weather Channel. Each morning my day would start with the Weather Channel. I couldn't care less about all the maps, except this one:

I live in Saint Louis and, as showed by this map from 2010, this day would have been a good day. The orange area didn't scare me, but if I happened to be in the red zone then I was stressed to the core.

There is another map I would look at when it came on. Thankfully I was growing up when the internet wasn't a thing and I could not have instant access to this map:

That map is a map of all current weather watches and warnings. If there were any boxes of yellow (Severe Thunderstorm) or red (tornado) in my vicinity I would be a nervous wreck. I would have to stay home to watch the impending weather as it moved into the area.

If I were at school I would not know what was coming. I had to know because my ability to predict in my mind what could happen was always to the extreme so I had to watch each and every movement of the radar.

This article is not about weather, exactly, but rather the power of the anticipation of the event. I covered this somewhat in "Fright of the Bumblebee" and felt it needed further explanation because the anxiety that this used to provoke in me was downright overpowering.

The concept of this fear before the storm can apply to other events outside a spring time thunderstorm. During those times of fright, due to the storms, I would be preparing for the devastating mile-wide tornado and ways I could survive. I would prepare for loss of power, death of people I know, and where to look for my belongings should my house be blown away. That being so, it wasn't the storm that caused the most fear, but the anticpation of the storm and all the thoughts that came with it.

My thought process was to the extreme when it came to storms, but it is extreme in all aspects of what is to come. Before any event, be it nature or social, I play out as many situations I can to prepare. I MUST know what is going to happen beforehand so I can prepare my possible responses.

Open-ended social situations, today, cause as much anxiety as the storms of my childhood. Much like an approaching storm on the horizon, I can see when someone has that look of wanting to talk to me in public. You could say at this point in time I issue a severe "conversation watch." As they get nearer the watch turns into a warning and I prepare for a nasty shock to my system.

What will they say? Are they angry? Did I somehow offend this person that is approaching me? I think of every possible possibility because I must know. I must know because, well, if I don't know then I can drown myself in wondering what it could be. It's silly, I know, because what the need to know causes is the most anxiety and further reinforces the fact that I must know what the storm will be ahead of time.

That last paragraph might not make sense unless you have experienced it. It's truly tiresome though. The silly thing is that there hasn't been a storm that has destroyed my place of residence and each social situation that I fear ahead of the fact has never ended in me being punched in the face. Regardless of this, with each new event I am thrown into, there is a fear before the event and while this fear is always bigger, and most of the time unrealistically large, I will never be calm before a storm, be it social or natural.

So, for anyone who can experience a "Calm" before the storm I am envious of you. I don't know how or what that is. All I know is that I am fearful of the event ahead of time. I know I have used the word fear a lot and I just checked on thesaurus.com for the word fear and they have some interesting synonyms. If you don't want to call it the fear before the storm it could be dismay, cowardice, trepidation, or the best one, chickenheartedness. Call it what you want, but I don't care what it is called because all I know is that I have a battle each and everyday to not give into the fear.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Problem with Everything


This title is broad, isn't it? I used the word "everything" so does this mean that everything is wrong? That's not the intent of this post. Instead, the problem with everything is in terms of seeing everything.

One of the reasons I love working the race series as I do are the conversations I get to have with so many intriguing people. This past weekend at the INDYCAR race at Texas I had a conversation with someone that didn't know I was on the autism spectrum but that then spurred a conversation about neurodiversity and the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges everyone has. As we talked more, and stories were shared, I talked about how people on the autism spectrum in the racing environment is a strength, but the exact same gift is an extreme challenge outside the track.

At the track the gift is being able to see almost everything and calculate what's going to happen. Truly, it's such a great advantage, but that same advantage turns into a challenge in many different aspects of life. Take writing a book, for example. I'm 30,000 words into writing a book about my career in racing. Think of it like Finding Kansas but more employment and story based. It's been an awesome thing to write, however, it's become a challenge more and more as I see where I need to go with it from where I am at now. To make a concept, think of it as setting out from New York City and you're headed west to, say, Kennewick, Washington. You've got several days of driving ahead of you on your 2,712-mile journey. If you were excited from the road trip alone you could leave NYC with an air of excitement. However, if you were trying to analyze each mile from the onset it would be overwhelming. Are you going to make it to mile 400 without a stop? Will you average 950 or 1050 miles per day? How many food stops and at what exit number will it be at? Did you adjust for time zones in your estimates? What about fuel calculations? Will the higher elevations be kind to that, or will it hinder your calculations? 

I'll spare you more and more potential things to think about on your hypothetical cross country trip, but if you were to look at every possible hiccup, stop, and variable that could knock off your predictions, well, it would be a trip that would be overwhelming even before you took the green flag. This is the challenge that myself, and so many on the autism spectrum face. Think about the employment roadmap; it can be an extremely difficult task to stay motivated at a job that isn't the most desirable yet is on the path to the desired spot. If one is seeing the entire journey from the onset and all the time, energy, and potential headaches that could arise, the goal of the journey will be lost. This is the problem with seeing everything.

As mentioned many times, it's estimated the unemployment rate for those with Asperger's is around 80%. This includes those that have graduated collage! I look at myself and the 25 years it took to get my dream job in racing and thankfully for myself the journey to where I wanted to end up was something I thoroughly enjoyed so there wasn't the fretting over seeing everything. This is one of the primary reasons trying to find a career in the field that one's Kansas is in (Kansas is a concept I created. It's the area of interest or knowledge that a person on the spectrum will want to talk about or take part in to the exclusion of everything else) is so vital. If one does find that combination, then there's a chance they won't be overwhelmed with the proverbial trip to Kennewick. There's a chance that, instead of looking at all the potential variables, they instead look at what all could be seen and enjoyed on the trip. And most of all, what was a problem with everything could turn into a strength of everything and they'll be allowed to show their talents and truly shine.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Race Recap

I'm still excited and exhausted from the incredible race yesterday. It was an early morning of travel today so before I get back to regular blog posts tomorrow, I wanted to share the race recap video. 



Friday, March 18, 2022

Pictures




 Hello from Texas Motor Speedway. I’ll be working the flags this Sunday for the NTT INDYCAR Series race here. Coverage beings on NBC at 12:30 Eastern on Sunday. 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Finding the Friend

If you are late to this, you'll want to read this post from yesterday.

It was 2019 and I had given over 1,000 presentations in which I had shared the story of the soda can. With each telling of the story I would wonder what happened to that friend. The last time I saw him was at the AMA Supercross race in 2000. His name is rather common so each time I tried a social media search I came up with nothing. 

For some reason, while being stuck in an airport on a layover in February 2019, I did a more extensive search and one search led to another which led to a LinkedIn search and I had a hit, or at least I thought I did. 

I sent a message asking if he were the person I knew that lived in South County and he responded by referencing a game we had played back in the 90's. Now that I knew it was him, I told him that, "at least 1,000 times I've told the story about the soda can." He responded a bit perplexed and said, "can? Soda can? I don't know anything about that. I drank a lot of soda as a kid."

His response proved the very point I had told for so long in that what is irrelevant to one, may have meant the world to another.

It was a surreal moment for me. I had tried for almost a decade to find him online and when I did the response wasn't what I had thought it would be. There wasn't even a question as to why that story had been told so much. 

Moving forward in presentations, when those become common again, I think I have to use this follow up story as what was worthy of a chapter in my book wasn't remembered at all by him. And he knew that can had stayed on my dresser, but as time passes things like this are easily forgotten by some. For others? Well, when I eclipse 2,000 presentations, I might drop him a line again and let him know, "Remember that time you didn't remember the soda can? Yeah, I've told that story now 1,000 times."

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Story of the Can


In Finding Kansas I told the story of the soda can. I'll retell it now as I've got a story that's only relevant if you know the story.

The year was 1995 and I had a friend over. I didn't have many friends and this kid stayed with his dad, who lived behind me, on the weekends. We both enjoyed the same type of videogames, and we must've done at least 100 World Series on the Ken Griffey Jr. baseball game. Over the course of one of the weekend visits he placed a finished Minute Maid orange soda drink on my dresser, and it stayed there for a bit.

It wasn't until I started presenting in 2010 that I realized this was a thing as the PowerPoint I used for my police presentations stated that, "those on the autism spectrum may have an inappropriate attachment to objects". I knew I had this, although I will argue that it isn't inappropriate at all but was unaware so many share in this trait.

So that soda can stayed there for a while. A few days turned into a few weeks turned into a few years. Well, five years later when I went to the Derek Daly Academy racing school in Las Vegas my mom thought she would do me a favor and she cleaned my room. The room? Yes, it was a mess and perhaps borderline disaster area if the EPA were involved, but what I couldn't verbalize back then was what everything represented.

I have a tremendous memory, except when it comes to people. It's like an undercover news show where faces are blurred out. Because of this I have to remember people through other means and the number one way I recall people is through items. This soda can was my connection to my friend. I could almost see him in my memories through this can.

When I returned home from that most glorious week of driving race cars I was shattered when I walked into my nice, sparkling clean room. That can, in all of its 90's artwork glory, was gone. I tried to keep my emotions afloat, but I sank fast. I cried more over the loss of that soda can that I did over the loss of my two cats and dog, but they weren't a person and with the loss of that can it was as if my memories of having a friend vanished into the air like a fine mist dissipates.

It wasn't until 2010 and seeing the line about objects in the PowerPoint that I realized this struggle wasn't just my own. I did feel a bit ridiculous having such a reaction to an inanimate object, but as I spoke to more and more people, I learned this is a major thing people need to understand whether you're teacher, parent, or police officer; when entering the environment where a person on the autism spectrum lives or has items you must be aware of this. What may be an irrelevant trinket to you may mean the world to them. It may be a memory of their favorite day, or perhaps a sibling that is off to college, or perhaps to a parent that passed away and if they see the item moved, or thrown away, there may be a strong emotional reaction that may seem completely random. It isn't, though, and I'm thankful I went through this episode of the can so I could write about it and explain it. As I said, there's a second part to this story and that'll be the topic of tomorrow's blog.




Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Why I wrote Finding Kansas

Over the weekend I celebrated 10 years since I received my first copy of my book. I now live by the motto, "Understanding is the foundation for hope." It wasn't always that way though...


Being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 20 was confusing. I mean, I had this diagnosis but didn't know what it meant and sadly, neither did my doctor. I was left to find out what it meant by myself so I did an internet search and the first thing I read, the very first thing I read said, "People with Asperger Syndrome will NEVER have a job, NEVER have friends and NEVER be happy." 

After reading those lines it was as if my life ended. I instantly believed those words and tuned all other information about Asperger Syndrome out. I didn't believe there was hope and I slowly retreated from the world. I don't think anyone knew just how depressed I was because I never talked about my emotions.

I stayed this way for almost 15 months. I was bitter, hopeless, and angry at everything. Sometimes my dad would say, "I understand." but how could he? Then, 15 months after being diagnosed, I had had enough. I don't know what fuse blew in my mind, but I had to tell my dad who I was and why I was. Of course, I couldn't speak it, but I went to my computer and I started to write it. 

There's a line in my book that says, "All I want is for someone to understand and maybe, just maybe, I will be free." That was the motivation for me to write and I never intended on it being a book that got published. All I wanted was for one person to understand who I was. I also didn't intend on creating a new vocabulary to describe the ways of the autism spectrum as I just wanted to describe to my dad in the best way possible the reasons why I do what I do.

My book is a journey through my thoughts and is at times sad, at times funny, at times hopeful, and most times emotional. As I was writing, I heard a speaker say that, "People on the autism spectrum don't have emotions," and that too was a big motivator for me to continue to write because I knew that I had never heard a bigger lie in my life. We have emotions, maybe more emotions than someone that is "normal," but we have the hardest of times processing it and then expressing it. I was like that my entire life until I discovered writing.

As I said, when I was writing Finding Kansas I never thought it would be something that would bring hope and understanding. From where I am now, I believe that we can have the highest autism awareness level possible and that still won't be enough because without understanding how can society know what it is? Without understanding how can parents make the right choices? This was the sole reason why I wrote. Nobody understood me and I couldn't speak what I thought or what I needed so I wrote to be understood and words can't express what it means to be when I hear from parents that, "through your book I now understand my son."

Finding Kansas available at Amazon.com and other book sellers.

Friday, March 11, 2022

To Argue

 Of all the social rules there are the one that I hear most of that we break is our endless ability to argue. My parents often thought that I’d become a lawyer because my ability to argue any point, whether I was right or wrong, was superb. Okay, the word “superb” is my word, not theirs, but when it came to anything whether it was wanting a pack of gum at a gas station or wanting to stay up an extra 15 minutes I could always argue the point. However, it is one thing to argue with one’s parents which I think all children will do, Asperger’s or not, but we may carry this trait with us outside of the home.


            One of my favorite sayings I’ve said at my presentations have been, “I feel there is nothing more tenacious than a person on the autism spectrum that knows they’re right when they are being told that they are wrong.” This played out in 4th grade to an extreme that my 4th grade teacher, wherever she may be, surely remembers.

            My 4th grade teacher was amazing, she really was, but she had a habit of not using the test keys. And most of the time she didn’t need them. However, there was one test she gave us which was a common sense test regarding estimating weights, speeds, and temperatures that created a situation of hot water (sorry, I just couldn’t resist that joke.)

            It was a basic 20 question worksheet and near the end there was this question:

            How hot is the normal bath? Is it

A.      32 degrees

B.      72 degrees

C.      100 degrees

D.     212 degrees.

This was an easy one for me because I didn’t need to estimate as I went through a spree from 1st through the start of 4th grade of measuring the temperature of my bath water. I knew unequivocally that the answer was C. I may have been sure in my answer but so too were everyone else including my teacher who said it was B.

The next day, when I received the paper, I noticed that I got marked wrong on the bath water question I immediately went to the teacher’s desk to protest. I didn’t get far when she told me that everyone else said it was B but I became relentless in my protests. She kept saying that she was, “right” and I kept saying, “No, you’re not.” This lasted for a couple minutes and because I was always perfectly behaved I think she let me have this time and eventually I said, “I know I’m right because I spent a couple years measuring every bath I took.” This seemed so far-fetched in her eyes that she said, “No, you didn’t” and I responded with, “Yes, I did” and you can quickly see that this argument was getting nowhere. She eventually said, “Aaron, you’re going to have to drop this or I’m going to have to put your name on the board.” This was in the end of the world in my eyes so I went back to my desk but I already knew my next move.

When I know I am right there is no such thing as a wasted breath when it comes to proving I am right. I simply won’t accept the fact that a person is telling me that I am wrong and will go on and on and on in my debate. For my fourth grade teacher this meant that I’d have to talk to her outside the classroom where the jurisdiction of the chalkboard did not exist and it just so happened that I lived in the same neighborhood as my teacher and she was also a marathon runner and I just so happened to know her training route.

After school, when I got home, I waited an hour or so and then hopped on my bicycle. My teacher always ran the outer look of the neighborhood in a clockwise fashion which meant, if I rode counterclockwise I’d increase the chances I’d come across her. This strategy worked and as I passed her I did a U-turn and began riding next to her. I didn’t want to make it too obvious about my intentions so I waited a good, oh, five seconds and I said, “About that test?” She quickly responded with, “Aaron, we’re not going to talk about that test!” to which I became relentless in explaining my logic on why the average bath water could not be 72 degrees. I explained that the neighborhood pool closed if the water dropped below 75 therefore if everyone took baths at 72 then most of America would be freezing each and every time they took a bath.

For a marathon runner there is a certain mental zone they have to ascertain and when you’ve got a pesky 4th grader talking about a test and naming off facts and figures the way I was it made for that zone to not be obtainable. She eventually realized that I wasn’t going anywhere without her concession so she conceded and said, “Okay, Aaron, if I look at the test key tomorrow will you leave me alone?” I said “Yup” and rode off happily into the sunset.

The next morning I walked into my classroom, a bit arrogantly I must say, and I looked at my test I was holding and I proudly placed it in front of her. Not to my surprise, the red pen came out and my score was adjusted and the grade book came out and all was right with the world. Or was it? She only changed my grade when there were twenty or so other students who got it wrong and yet she kept their credit. I said, “Are you going to change everyone else’s scores now?” She just leered at me and said nary a word so I took it upon myself to talk to each student that day and I implored them to go to Mrs. Colvin and demand that she take 5 points off their test. No one did and I quickly lost any bit of popularity I had but it didn’t make sense; why would anyone take credit for something that was wrong? It was a fun week of arguing, but I quickly wore out the ears of all my classmates.

I got lucky that Mrs. Colvin was such an amazing, and patient teacher because my level or arguing might not have been accepted in another classroom because I would have been seen as trying to undermine authority or trying to disturb the classroom but I didn’t see it that way; the only thing I saw was that a right was deemed a wrong therefore it had to be fixed. Everything else didn’t matter. This goes back to the “To Feel and Emotion” chapter as, when I feel I’m right and being told I’m wrong, I must fight it to the ends of the Earth to prove that I am right and many teachers will not put up with this at all simply because of the same misunderstanding that happened in the last chapter with the police officer.

If you aren’t prepared for it our arguing may appear as if we are either control freaks or that we are trying to argue for the sake of being annoying. While we might actually be a bit on the controlling side there’s a reason for this; if everything that is stated is truth and if all the rules are followed my world becomes much, much safer. I don’t have to process if any given person is telling the truth or not. If everyone follows the rules I don’t have to worry about contingency plans. If the schedule is followed I don’t have to worry about something starting three minutes late. What may seem like an irrelevant argument to you might be the most important of things to me because it’s more than just this one thing. If people accept one rule to be broken despite protests then what’s stopping the same situation from happening again, and again, and again? And if this is the case when does the madness end? My understanding of social rules is more vague than those who are normal but what I do understand I expect to be followed and I can assure you that I will argue when anything isn’t according to plan because, often times, the only thing I have going for me is knowing facts and schedules and if you say I’m wrong on something I hold dear then look out because the arguing will commence. And did I mention, I’m superb at it?

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Speeding and Tornadoes

There came a time in my life that I had a huge dilemma. Perhaps you would call this an ethical dilemma without common sense. Whatever it was, I can tell you I was a very confused five-year-old.


When I was five, I was a stickler on rules. If my dad floated a stop sign, I would let him know. If he changed lanes without using a turn signal, I would let him know (I still do!). As minor as those where I was very concrete on speed limits. I was almost obsessed with speed limits, why they were in use, and why the limit on I-465 in Indianapolis was 55 and the speed in our neighborhood was 15.

As I learned about the safety aspect, I began to believe 55 meant 55 no matter what. Then I had a thought that would plague me for months, "What would happen if a tornado was chasing us?"

With that question I combined my greatest fear with my greatest belief in rules. Severe weather used to terrorize me and if there was a "watch" of any sort, be it thunderstorm or tornado, I was sure to do everything I could not to leave the house so I could have quick access to the basement.

But there are times when I would be out and there would be a watch. What would happen if the watch turned into the warning and a tornado developed behind us? Our safety is important, but the speed limit is 55. What if the tornado was a fast mover? Let's say it was doing 70, 55 would not be enough to outrun it.

Provisions to rules are difficult to teach. Being a five-year-old deathly afraid of breaking any rules I thought that a person had to always follow the speed limit. If the tornado got you then so be it, but at least the rules weren't being broken.

As the weeks went on, I kept asking my dad about this scenario because I wanted to believe one could speed if their life was in danger. I wanted to believe, but if this rule, or rather law, could be broken then what about all the others? If one rule can be bent, then I had to know what all the provisions were.

This was not an easy process, but I had to know. Slowly I came to the conclusion that it was okay to speed if one were to outrun a tornado, but it was not okay to speed if there was just hail or a severe thunderstorm. Through my provisions I became confident that I had solved this conundrum. Doing this allowed me to understand that in all of life there are provisions to rules, and this was a milestone as, if I had not worked this out, I might have always been 100% concrete in that the rule is the rule and that is final.

In my police presentations I use this example: There was a teenager with autism lost in a large park. The police located the person and asked him what his name was. The person froze and did not comply with or answer any commands or questions. The officers knew this was the right person and had to bring the parents to the person because they were getting no help or compliance on anything they asked of him. When the parents go there, they asked, "Why didn't you help the officers? They were trying to help you. The teenager responded, quite flatly, "Why are you mad? You told me that I should 'not talk to strangers' and these people were strangers."

Concrete thinking is common for those on the spectrum and each person has a different degree of this. Some people can be flexible, others cannot (I am not flexible when playing games. We either play by the rules or we don't play at all. House rules or you need to go to someone else's house!). I am so thankful my dad continued the discussion about speeding that when being chased by a tornado is okay.

Through the years I always came up with other possible situations, such as if we were driving down the road, and my dad had a health crisis, would I be able to drive him to the hospital? If there were a fire in my house, could I break a window to get out? If other people are talking, if I feel very ill, can I say something and interrupt them?

I came up with nothing short of 15,000 possible reason to break the rules, but with each situation I worked through I developed a better sense of, well, common sense. I had to work through these to get to this point and had my "what if" situations had fallen on deaf ears I may be super concrete in all rules. I'm glad I'm not because my goal now is to talk to as many groups of people as possible about the autism spectrum and these groups are typically strangers to me and I was also told that I shouldn't "talk to strangers".

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Alias, a job, and measured growth

With the concept of Alias discussed in yesterday's blog I think this story will fit right in. It's difficult to notice growth in the moment but given a chance to do two things a couple years apart makes it a bit clearer.

I will start by telling you about my first game show audition. This was back in 2001 and The Weakest Link had just debuted in America. Within a couple months the NBC auditioning crew was in Saint Louis so Emily (the girlfriend I would eventually brake up with on Christmas via text message) and I went to audition.

The local NBC station was there outside filming the lines and somewhere in my house I have a VHS tape of the line and I can be seen clear as day and, well, I look as if I am staring death in the eyes. Truly I am motionless in the line and have virtually no life about me.

At this point in time, I had not been diagnosed with ASD yet and I had no clue as to the reason why I was so stiff, nor did I realize just how different I was in the line. Speaking of the line some 500 or so people showed up and it was noisy and all in all it was not that comfortable of a place for me.

Eventually we were ushered inside the audition room and the lead talent scout told us that, "In a moment we will go around the room. This is your chance to show us who you are so stand on a chair, sing, do whatever, but realize that this portion is as important as the written test you will be given after."

Stand on a chair? Sing? Was this an audition for a game show or American Idol? Again, the local NBC station had cameras inside and was filming and once again I looked as stiff as one could be and still have life. The person seated directly in front of me decided to listen to the scout's advice and he jumped up on the table and began to sing his life's story.

I had no idea how to react, so I didn't. Per the videographic evidence my body and face went blank and I did not make any movement whatsoever. At the time I was so overwhelmed because I didn't know if what the guy was going was smart, or idiotic. Also, I was panicking because I knew there was no way I could say anything except the facts about myself. I also knew that I wasn't singing because I don't sing in public. On top of all this why would one jump on a table? Isn't that against the rules? And why were people telling jokes making people laugh? This was a trivia game show audition, not an audition for Last Comic Standing!

When it came my turn, I was as factual as a courtroom r, and about as entertaining as one too. At the time I did not realize that personality accounted for something. That concept didn't even exist in my world. Needless to say, that as apparently scared as I was in line, and in the room, my written test abilities were irrelevant, and I did not make it to the 2nd stage of the audition which is playing a mock game (Emily didn't either).

Flash forward a year and a couple months and the auditions came back to Saint Louis. Granted, this audition was for the syndicated version starring George Gray instead of Anne Robinson, but nonetheless it was an audition for a game show.

At this point in time, I was in the midst of working at a video game store. Why is this important? It is because it was working there that I began to develop the ability to communicate at a different level. My jobs prior required no interactions with others, really, as I was a busboy at a bowling alley and a label applier for VHS tapes at a video duplicator. When I started working at Gamestop though I needed to communicate with the customers and the manager that hired me told me that I was his, "science experiment" (this was so because my job interview was much like my game show interview, and I said three different sets of words at the job interview; I said "no" "yes" and "I don't know". I have no idea why he hired me) and that he could fire me, with or without reason, for the first 90 days. Because of this I was in a sink or swim situation, so I had to talk.

And talk I did. I quickly became the store's and district's #1 salesman. I fell back on my knowledge of how to get people to trade when I play Monopoly and then it all clicked. If you want to use my "Alias" concept here you could, but this was the dawning of my realization that one has to be somewhat personable to get stuff done in a workplace. For me this, at most times in the video game store was an act, but it was a game and I knew my chances of a sale were greater if I wasn't so factual and bland.

With this knowledge I knew I was going to get to the mock game in this 2nd Weakest Link audition. It was an early audition and I showed up at 7AM. I was supposed to help open the video game store on this day but I was, ahem, "sick".

Using my illness as a tactic when it came time for us to introduce ourselves to the scouts and producers I said, "Hello, I am Aaron Likens and I am sick today, or at least that's what the store manager thinks". With that line I got the laughs I heard other people did the first audition I went to. (I do realize now though that making up fake sicknesses is not cool, I was young at the time :)

While my anxiety was just as high as the first audition, I was able to just play it like a sale. For me that one line was a stretch, and I still wasn't as fluid as I am today, but it worked! After the written test it was time to play the mock game.

This is where the story goes back to much like my first audition. In the mock game they film, and I had never been in front of a camera before. I was awestruck by it and my eyes became transfixed with the lens. When it came time to introduce myself, I stumbled around and forgot who I was (true story, sadly).

The round we played was 90 seconds and I was asked two questions. The first one was, "How many truths are there in Buddhism?" I had no clue and guessed 7. It was wrong and I don't remember the answer. The 2nd question was, "Sclerosis affects what body part?" At the time there were a ton of ads on television of a skin disorder that sort of sounds like sclerosis (I have no idea how to spell it, sorry) so I said skin and it was incorrect. The correct answer was liver.

While I was the only one to miss both questions I still wasn't voted out. There was this guy who was wearing a tie that had Einstein on it and he missed a physics question, so we all voted him out.

Only one round was played, and my camera debut was a big bust. I didn't hold my breath for a call from the producers telling me I had made it onto the show. This was good because it never came.

The lesson from this all is the difference I experienced after having experience in the video game store. Because I knew and loved (still do love) video games I was able to have conversations with customers about them. If I had worked at a different retail store, I am sure my end result would not have been as good or productive.

In the end it all worked out and that experience I got has certainly allowed me to become who I am today. If I had not been a "science experiment" I still probably would always have been 100% factual and rather lifeless in public. Granted, I am still somewhat stiff and uncomfortable, but given the right circumstances I am able to communicate and able to, well, be more like my 2nd audition and less like my 1st.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Fear and Game Night

One of the main concepts later on in my book Finding Kansas is the concept of "Alias". In my presentation I compare this concept to the movie/book of Catch Me if You Can in that I've noticed I can be comfortable in playing a role because it isn't directly socializing. At presentations I'm the author/presenter guy that seems to know what he's talking about and at racetracks I have the alias of an official. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I haven't had many excursions into a realm that I am out of my aliases, and I have to admit I sort of forgot what it felt like. That is, until Saturday.

My girlfriend invited me to a game night that took place in the day. I agreed to go but as the hours drew near, I began to panic. Meeting her friends was something I knew would take place at some point in time but as we got in the car and headed towards her friend's residence I began to panic.

Why the panic? It was twofold. The first was I hadn't met anyone new in an excessively long amount of time. Secondly, my girlfriend I think had yet to see me in a fully socially paralyzed state. What would she think? My fears about what she would think were without merit, but when you've lived your entire life and others become confused as to why one minute all is well and I can have the whole room's attention and then with just one change the ability to reply with one-word answers becomes confusing is, well, it's difficult to be aware of this even if I know those around me will understand.

We neared the place, and my pulse rate was up. My girlfriend tried to prepare me, and described who would be there, but I hadn't heard any of the words. My adrenaline was spiking, and each step I took to the front door felt like long, strenuous miles. I had the thought of, "Isn't this grand? Talking in front of 1,500 people is easy, meeting five other people is as daunting as climbing a 1,000-foot-high brick wall without ropes." Overdramatic? Maybe, and as we knocked on the front door and several seconds went by, I almost sarcastically said, "Well, looks like game night is cancelled so we best head home."  

The front door swung open, and the next few minutes are all a blur. Greetings, however, were said and then a flurry of drink and snack offerings were offered to which I declined all and then I stood in place. Oh, if you could've seen this scene! I was standing on the exact spot I had stopped as I ascended the stairs and I stood... and stood... and stood some more. I was over encumbered in anxiety which was amplified by the fact I realized that this shouldn't have been this drastic of an emotion. It's difficult when frustration over being frustrated adds fuel to the situation.

After an unknown number of seconds or perhaps minutes, my girlfriend suggested we go and sit on the couch. I looked to my left at the placement of it and knew this was her way of saying she understood. You see, this couch was on the end of the room which eliminates some of the processing that goes on. Another concept I speak of a lot is "positional warfare" which essentially states that I have a difficult time understanding what I should be doing in the space I'm in and standing out in the open leaves a lot of processing as to which way one should be facing and what posture to have and where the arms and hands should be. Being on a couch on the end of a rectangular room? This offered a positional advantage.

As soon as I sat down there was relief. I had already forgotten the names of the people that I had been introduced to when I was standing awkwardly in the open of the room as my brain had no ability to retain information at that point, but slowly the adrenaline ebbed and the constant self-talk of, "hands?! What to do with the hands? Um, left, no right, no cross the arms! Wait, crossing the arms is an aggressive stance! Wait, no, only if there's a forward slant."

Conversation began and I was able to partake in it now that the internal storm was over. It wasn't long before it was suggested we do what we came for; it was time for games! My heart instantly was at peace because within a game all is known even if the game is unknown such as Throw Throw Avocado. Nothing breaks the ice such as throwing a foam avocado at another person's face whom I had just met.

A couple more people arrived as we got to the end of the avocado game and all the internal drama I had was gone. It was as if the first stage of this day had not happened at all. Through the shared activity I felt right at home and was at ease in the space I was in.

Trying new things and meeting new people has always been a challenge for me and it probably always will, but it's amazing how much easier it can be if there's understanding of those around. My girlfriend was awesome and at the end of the games I didn't care that she saw me at my most awkward and ineffective state. Everyone has his or her own challenges and mine just happens to be overtly obvious when thrust into an open social environment. She knew this, and I survived it. Looking back on it I don't know why it was such a challenge to begin with. I say that, but odds are next time I'm in a new situation that I don't have an alias to go by there will be a blog post that goes along with it, and with the understanding of those around I'll get through it and then fully enjoy myself once the storm of adrenaline has passed.