Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Struggle

 The funk I was in that I described last week has continued and today it intensified. At the same time I have to mention that the annual "Autism Awareness Month" commences in just a few weeks and I can make a point in what is lacking in that title by the way I feel now.


When I talk to teachers I give many examples of Aspergish-like behavior and by the end of my presentation I'm accustomed to seeing tears as teachers put together the pieces and now understand a current or former student. There is one major thing working against a person like myself with Asperger's and this is there is no visible sign. Look at my pictures, look at my videos, and look at the videos of myself at a racetrack and does anything jump out and say, "autism spectrum"? Unless you were finely trained or knew I was beforehand I'd say most certainly not and therein lies the struggle.

What does autism awareness actually mean? There can be billboards, 30 PSA ads, and radio ads mentioning that autism exists. In my six years as an Autism Ambassador for Easter Seals Midwest I can clearly avow that over 95% of people are aware that autism does, in fact, exist. Okay, that's fine, but to simply know it exists gives no depth to the meaning, the struggles, and what one can do to ease the feelings of a person that's on the spectrum in the midst of a major struggle. This is the dilemma we face; we can shout "awareness awareness awareness" but if we don't achieve understanding it will be all for naught.

You see, and I go back to how I look in pictures and the like, the problem here is the invisible struggle a person may go through. Take a sensory issue. A person that has no sensory issues, if told that a person may have sensory issues, will be about as lost as being in a foreign country with no GPS and no understanding of the language. The road signs are there but there mean nothing and if they mean nothing how can one have compassion, empathy, and be willing to help? Same thing goes with a person that may have issues with crowds. If a normal (remember, I don't really believe there is a normal) person has no issues in crowds how can they understand that the person with them, that looks normal, is going to have an issue? 

I don't believe there is one path to achieving understanding but it is imperative that we shift... no... it is imperative that we blitz the point home. I've spent many nights recently alone at home and it feels very much like the life I led in the 2000's. My ability to write and express myself was born within the way I feel now, but one of my reasons for writing was so that, "maybe the world won't hate me as much." Are those extreme words? Yes they are but that's the way I saw it. I tried and tried in life and things always went askew and I didn't know why. Well, not only did I not know why but those around me didn't either because of the cloak of invisibility Asperger's can hide behind.

I won't lie; the past month has been the hardest I've had in a decade but experiencing this has brought about a focus on the goal line and the purpose to it all. I think of all the police presentations and presentations to teachers and I can't think of an audience more important than those two because they will be dealing with the invisible and unless the canvas is described in a way that is understandable the beautiful artwork that is a person on the autism spectrum is going to appear to be just random lines and incoherent shapes. Of course, this isn't the case but without understanding awareness doesn't allow the canvas to be seen or understood and when this happens the struggle continues onward and no amount of simple awareness will progress us anywhere.






Monday, March 20, 2023

Book Preview: If Kansas Fails

 

I heard, what was to me, a tragedy a couple months ago. This person was describing their stepson who loved basketball and the only thing he wanted to do was to play it. Sadly, he has what I have and, unlike me, has no eye-to-hand coordination. This person was frustrated and said he was constantly telling the kid to give it up and there was no chance he could ever play with anyone because it would be too shameful for him.

Let’s use another example. Every four years, the world turns its eyes on the Olympics (yes, I know it is summer/winter two years apart, but we will just be using the summer games). While the sports of swimming or badminton only get the spotlight every four years, for the athletes competing, it is the culmination of their life’s work. Think about it. For them, they have tried for years, and for most of them they only get one shot at it. If you don’t know, the Olympic team is determined by the trials. What that means is that for the foot races, the top three go to the Olympics and everyone else is going to be watching from home.

If you were one of those athletes competing for a shot on your country’s team, imagine the pressure. Your entire life has come down to that one run. If you run like the wind, you go to the biggest sporting event in the world; should you have any type of bobble, you have wasted years in training and also any chance you had at being on a Wheaties box.

It is sad when people come so close to their dreams, but fall an inch short. I can’t imagine what it is like to be that last person not to make the team. All the training, all the hours, all the sweat was for naught.

For those athletes that fall short, it must be devastating. They put their entire life into something, only to have it fall short. I’m sure you’re thinking I’m trying to get a job as one of those writer’s that do the human interest side of the Olympics, and maybe I should, but I do have a point I must cover before I go on that venture.

Anything I put my mind to is the only thing that matters, as the chapter with that title said. Even though something might last a month, or a year, it is as important as life itself. How then, as that kid that wants to play basketball, can one deny them of it? The step-dad mentioned that the kid knew everything about the history and all the great players and anything about the sport. If something means everything to a person, how can one deny them?

I will say I got lucky that I discovered this oddity that is my writing ability. It probably saved me, as racing was the only thing that mattered. Unlike that kid, I did have talent on what I wanted to do, but nevertheless I was not racing at a professional level. Thankfully no one ever denied me of what I wanted to do on the basis of talent.

I’m sure there are thousands of kids out there like the one whose story I heard. Whatever their Kansas may be, someone is telling them that it is hopeless, stupid, or unattainable. This is nothing short of a tragedy. Even if that kid was horrible at the sport, let him try. Don’t destroy the love of the game. I think the kid was 12, so don’t destroy the sport for him. Perhaps, he will become a ref or a coach of it. Whatever the case, I’m sure, for that one athlete who was one position short of making the Olympic team, they would much rather try and fail than to never have gotten the chance. Kansas may fail, but don’t be the one who’s to blame.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Preview of chapter from my 2nd book

 

 

            I never took high school chemistry, but I have always seen, in television, the art of chemistry performed. I guess the simplest chemical reaction is soda and vinegar. From what I understand when the two are mixed fizzy stuff happens. This is fine and all, but what would happen if, in a normal environment, nothing happened. Let's say you mix the two together and nothing occurs. Let's say you've seen it done 1,000 times, but when you try nothing happens. What was supposed to be a reaction, turned into a big letdown: a chemical inaction. Welcome to my world.

            The key thing here is that let's say you've seen the reaction done over and over, but when you try nothing happens. Imagine how frustrating it must be. All you want to do is get that reaction so you can be like everyone else, but the only thing you get is a lot of wasted vinegar.

            The metaphor here is relationships. I see friendships start and friendships maintained with members of the kart team I travel with. They all joke with each other and it is almost like they are speaking another language with each other. Some slang, some joking words, and it's a language I can't mimic. I'm very precise with my words and can't just, “be free” so this is the start of the inaction and I remain, off in the corner, trying to start the reaction.

            “How is it done?” I often wonder as people make it look so easy. “What do I have to do?” often rings throughout my thoughts. “It looks simple, why can't I get it?” is the way the train of thought always ends.

            I try in the best way that I can to try and get a reaction. There's a block though. It's much like those logic puzzles that are given sometimes, or rather number sequences. Let's use this “4,8,12,16,X” In that sequence 20 would be the logical number to follow, and then 24, but for me the 20 is never there so therefore the rest of the sequence can never materialize.

            I believe the inaction is a two way street. I know I behave differently in public as I look nervous and uncomfortable most the time. This, I'm sure, would create a bit of tension for those around me as they don't fully understand what I'm going through. On the other hand when people do make the effort to try and get to know me all that is allowed is up to number 16, meaning going back to the number problem that I am only programmed to let it go so far. I don't know much about chemicals, as I've said, but it would be like putting very stale and flat soda with really bad vinegar (can vinegar go bad? I don't know much about vinegar either so just work with me on this metaphor and don't get all literal. Thanks!)

            This whole process is very tiring for me because I do try. But with between the coma, the privacy, the fourth wall, and other terms not yet defined how is any reaction supposed to occur? How is any reaction out of either party possible? Going back to the number sequence, using numbers divisible by four; I said mine cut off at 20. To translate that into meeting any given person, that would be about as deep as allowing 4 questions to be asked. If it were a scoring system, friendship would start at 80.

It's rough trying something over and over and always failing. What hurts, what truly hurts to the soul is how easily others can make it seem. How can a person go from bowling team to bowling team year after year and make a new set of friends every year? How can someone just walk up to a person, ask them how their day was and end up getting a new best friend? What's the secret to getting a reaction?

            I wonder if everyone faces this challenge, a little bit. Is it like riding a bike? If so, can I get the one with training wheels because I need help? But maybe my balance won't even be good enough for that. When does attempting the impossible become futile?

I pour away always waiting for that chemical reaction. And you know, sometimes while in Kansas I feel as if I'm close. That further adds to the relevancy of Kansas. The deeper the Kansas, the more I feel as if I'm about to create some fizz and live out every aspiring high schoolers chemists' dream. Perhaps I try too hard, thus making me over think everything and then I look even more uncomfortable. I think anyone would if they saw everyone else easily getting a chemical reaction out of life.

            I think it's a simple wish really; to feel that sense of friendship once out of life. I know I am capable of it, but so far only my pets have given me that feeling. Okay, so maybe I don't know if I can share that feeling with another person. It's sad really, to believe that I will always be in the corner of the room, silent, uncomfortable, and just wondering how everyone else can mix soda and vinegar with such ease and here I am on my 10,000th case of soda still expecting a reaction, one that never comes.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

My second book release?

I'm working on a book that'll look at my professional life in the workplace and as I went back to look at a chapter from my second book about my first SKUSA Supernats, I noticed that I didn't recognize the author from then. I've advanced as an author writing in the narrative form so this led me to wonder if a full release of that book would fit who I am now? With that said, I'm contemplating releasing the book, chapter at a time, on this blog. If you think this is a good idea, let me know in the comments or on my facebook page!

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Large Impact of a Small Pencil

 As I've said many times, I don't remember people in my memories. Because of this I need to remember people through other means and the #1 way I do that is through physical items. In 1993 my family moved from Indianapolis to Saint Louis. A lot of people were lost in my memories, but I had a couple pencils that I remembered them by. The pencils were from the school I went to and had the name on the side of the pencils. Through this item I still felt a connection with where I came from.


On my second day of school in this new place my classmates wanted to "test" me. I had been warned that this group always played some sort of small prank on a new kid, and I thought I was prepared, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.

For one reason or another I had to leave the room, and when I came back all my pens and pencils were gone. Normally I could have cared less as the best way to prank a prankster is to not give them the benefit or acknowledgement of the prank ever taking place. However, my pencils from what was still home to me were gone.

At that point in time, I was not diagnosed, and I probably couldn't have explained to anyone what was going on or why, but what everyone saw could only be classified under one word, "meltdown."

I became so frantic and irate that no one wanted to claim responsibility. I tore that classroom apart until I found my pencils which someone had placed under the teacher's podium. They say a person can't make a good second impression as everything is based of the first impression and this was true. From that point one I was a social outcast in my class because no one was able to understand why I reacted the way I did. I mean, what if my classmates had been able to understand that I didn't just "flip out" over an irrelevant pencil, but rather my means of remembering a place I no longer lived at as well as the friends that were there.

See, spectrum and not, we aren't that different. Everyone has those items that remind them of someone, someplace, sometime, but for me it can be a seemingly irrelevant item. Those items, whatever they may be, become highly valued and to simply lose an item, like the day I described in 5th grade, creates a sadness that can only be described by explaining it would be like someone deleting your memories. On that day I felt as if that had happened and that's why I had my seemingly overreaction.

As with most things like this it was a misunderstanding on many levels, and this states my purpose and passion. If there's just a little bit more of understanding in the world perhaps an incident like what I went through can be avoided, or at least better understood. I wasn't given a 2nd chance by my peers, but I'm okay with that now because it motivates me because it doesn't have to be that way. By you writing this today maybe I've come a little closer to creating a better understanding and for that I thank you.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Words in Solitude

Writing is an odd thing. At times, the words can flow with the simple ease as one can turn a faucet on, and then other times, no matter the effort, there's simply nothing. When wanting to produce words, this can be extremely aggravating.

I recognized that the environment had to be perfect for me to write. Finding Kansas was written primarily between the hours of midnight and 5AM. During those hours I was alone with my thoughts, and it was as if the only two items in the universe were my brain and the computer. 

As the years progressed, and I started to blog, it became odd that my best material was written when I was traveling. I'm trying to deduce as to what causes this. I write better when alone and when on a plane I'm alone in a group, but it still works, and I'm not sure how although I do have my suspicions. 

When I began writing, I absolutely could not have someone read it as I was writing. Well, for that matter I couldn't even see a person because, with the I think therefore you should know concept, if I saw them, they knew what I was writing and all the thoughts that came along with it. So how does traveling with a group of strangers change things? I'd have to think that everyone else is registered as a single entity so there isn't that personable interaction such as exists with seeing a person I know. 

This is such an unfair thing to have; both for me and anyone else that's been around me when trying to write. I can remember the blogs I'd try to write while at USAC races and my hotel roommate would make a noise, or come back from dinner, and the ability to write was strongly hindered.

Maybe this will get better over time, and then again, perhaps, this is the key to writing things that go that extra bit that will make someone want to read and share. I'll be thinking about this over the next few weeks, and I hope to have some more insight on this because it has more to do than just writer's block. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Cause of Burnout

A follow up to Monday’s post in which I talked about autism burnout. First, I was exhausted when I wrote that and I don’t think I did all that good of a job explaining that the burnout is from autism which creates the burnout of external things. Secondly, and more importantly for today, one of the things that could’ve caused my mindset of that last week is that I was coming down with Covid. The exhaustion and extreme fatigue I experienced was obviously influenced by the start of that. With that said, I’m trying to take it easy today so I can get back healthy as soon as possible. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

Autism, Burnout, and Exhaustion

Last year, I wrote this post about autism and burnout. This past week, I have a newfound understanding of how pervasive and destructive burnout is, and it happens quicker than you think.

Burnout, when I think about it, is something that takes a long while to achieve. As a child, it was explained as a new hit song; sure, everyone at first loves it, but if gets overplayed and eventually people get tired of it and the next new song takes its place and the cycle repeats. I didn’t fully understand this because, when it comes to things I enjoy, they never do get old and I’ll play the same game or same song on repeat until those around me are on the brink of tears. 

So yes, I may not have understood the direct meaning of the way it was explained, I did learn that there are some things that are manageable at first, but as time goes on my ability to fend off doubt, anxiety, and the sensory bombardment of the world decreases. When I wrote the post from last year I was thinking of a long term event such as a school year (at least I think I was. I don’t read what I write so I may be remembering wrong). From this past week I now know that burnout can happen in an instant and I attributed it directly to exhaustion. 

Why burnout? Why can it come on suddenly? One thing that is difficult for me to grasp in any given moment is that yes, I am on the autism spectrum. Living in a “normal” world doesn’t often give time to stop, breathe, and assess that the reason why a place, activity, or task is difficult is because of the challenges that come with life on the autism spectrum. What this means is that there can be no “self-break” from the onslaught of a typical day.

Everyone, autism spectrum or not, may get snippy when they get tired. This is where understanding could be tricky for those not on the autism spectrum to understand, because they’ll say that it’s, “part of being human.” Yes, I understand this, but I must counter with the fact that those not on the autism spectrum cannot possibly imagine the strength it takes to forge onward each day. It’s impossible for me to describe how much mental strength it takes to fend off doubt, fend off the symphony of dissonance that is the daily barrage of sound, and to not become overwhelmed with every bit of random eye contact. 

The moment burnout creeps in, everything becomes even more difficult than it already was. Then, with each subsequent day that burnout mode is reached, it becomes easier and easier to traverse into that realm of languish and then there’s little respite from the crushing weight of the daunting, seemingly impossible tasks that come along with daily life. 

Looking back on my life, and the more traditional longer term events of life such as school, burnout was the antagonist of my story. My inability to cope through the exhaustion was far worse than any potential snide comment my classmates could ever give me. 

It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? This burnout can hit in an instant and last much longer than the time that preceded it. Other’s understanding of this is difficult because I don’t believe it’s possible to understand something unless one truly experiences it, and the anxiety, and for myself, the overly sensitive senses, lends itself to something I feel is impossible for others to empathize with. 

I’m going to have to think of this more on how to combat this. As of now, I’ve got nothing, but I just identified this two days ago so the thoughts are new and fresh. In the least, I was able to put thought on screen and could relate to you the challenges of it. Hopefully soon I’ll have something, but for now I hope I got you to maybe be able to understand the challenges some of us may have living life on the autism spectrum. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

The season begins



The INDYCAR season is about to begin! Coverage begins today on Peacock, with the race on Sunday on NBC. I can’t believe I begin my fourth season this weekend. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Myth of Everyone Else

I was on a plane landing in New York City yesterday as I looked down all the hustle and bustle of the frantic pace that NYC runs at. I smiled as I thought about the life everyone was living, and how they had it all so perfect. "Perfect?" I questioned my internal talk and wondered why I jumped to that conclusion. It's amazing how a simple question of one's thoughts can lead to a deep, multifaceted understanding.

As the plane softly touched down, I wondered about how I view others and how I always jump to the conclusion that they have it all figured out. In my mind, everyone out there in the world knows exactly who they are, what they want, and never doubt the path they're on. It's one thing to question one's self on their potential lack of normality, but it's a completely different animal on seeing everyone else having it all outside of simply talking about a social aspect such as making friends.

What could lead to such a belief? How could I have this belief and never have realized it? Naturally, if one has this belief, they are always going to feel as if they are playing the game of life on the backfoot. If one is living in a world where everyone else has this magical life GPS that always keeps them on a heading, and a person doesn't have it, they are always going to feel as if they are lost amongst the throngs of those that move in direction with purpose.

As I continued to question my beliefs, I thought back in time to school and that this myth of everyone else knowing the directions on the roadmap of life was intact back then. I could describe it as everyone knowing the steps to a dance, or perhaps everyone was in on the inside joke in a language I could never understand. Would that environment lend itself to this belief? No one told me or described to me that each person is on their own journey. Each person is radically unique to his or herself. Of course, why would someone describe this to a second grader when this knowledge should come naturally to those who qualify for the myth of a diagnosis called normal, but for someone like myself on the autism spectrum, it didn't come naturally. 

In Finding Kansas, I wrote a chapter called "I vs. It" in which I described my perception that everyone else is this one entity. My thoughts yesterday made this clearer, my clarity on understanding this, and how I've always felt as if I'm playing the race of life starting the race two laps down. Even now, writing this and identifying this, I can't simply make individuals of everyone else. My brain defaults to the myth that everyone else has clear directions, knows what they want to be when they grow up, and has nary a problem because they are part of a collective that I am not a part of. 

I'm not sure if this was beat into my brain by making social error after social error, or perhaps this is a learned trait by being a different type of operating system to everyone else if the brain were a computer. Whatever the case may be, the obvious downside to this is a sensation that I'm lost even when I have direction. Those around me, right now as I write, may have direction, or may not. They may be wandering to their next thing, or wandering willfully wherever they may land. I'll forget this in mere minutes, but I understand that no one truly knows who they are and where they are going at all moments of life. I'm not unique in this feeling. We are all trying our best and deciphering the mysteries of our lives, and perhaps we will be trying to figure out why we are really here until our final breath. Yes, this is what being human is, there is no magical GPS, there is no cheat sheet or roadmap, and this myth I've lived with for so long as made me live life on the backfoot, but at least for the next few moments I'll understand that this isn't the way. 

Monday, February 27, 2023

1,000,000 Reasons to Smile

After my post last week, I went full hyper-Kansas on reaching the million-point total of Xbox Gamerscore. It became difficult to focus on anything else but the goal. I can't recall the last time I experienced a hyper-Kansas, but it felt exhilarating!

A state of hyper-Kansas is rare, but when it is experienced it may last for a day, a week, or sometimes a month or longer. During this event, it is almost impossible to achieve anything that doesn't relate directly to the goal at hand. Think of this way; the light at the end of the tunnel is the only thing that matters. Food may be forgotten, daily tasks may be skipped, and sleep schedules will most certainly be disrupted. At the same time this is goal achieving at its finest but also a major block of achieving anything else.

From my discussions with people at my presentations, those not on the spectrum can't fully experience the sheer bliss of this. Yes, obsessions can happen, or an interest that evoke strong emotions for a short time, but the event of something encompassing their entire being and the sensation of bliss that comes with it is something that I haven't heard those not on the spectrum explain like those on the spectrum can.

My fiancé yesterday asked me, "What are you going to do with all your free time now?" which the question isn't that far off as, since about the start of the pandemic, the quest for Gamerscore has been a real thing. There have been so many amazing games released in the past four years that deserve to be played, but I've been playing other titles such as "Horatio Goes Snowboarding" and "Butterfly". So, not only will I have time for the quality titles that aren't shovelware, but I'm also going to be saving tens of dollars by not getting all these $1.99 titles for the sole purpose of Gamerscore.

There is a strong sense of freedom today. My 400+ day streak of getting at least one achievement may or may not get extended, and I'm okay with that. I can start a quality title. I can experience games, once more, of not having to look at what side quests I should or shouldn't do as one may offer an achievement, and the other one may not. My life will no longer be dictated by upping a point total that no one else cares about. The race to a million took since December 2005, but now freedom from the most destructive thing to hinder the way games are played are past me. It's time to be free. It's time to move on, and I can't fully explain how happy I am that the next hyper Kansas won't be related to increasing the Gamerscore total.


Friday, February 24, 2023

The notes of angst

I’m always looking for a new way to attempt to relate to you how the autism spectrum feels. While I doubt there will ever be a clear 100% “this is the way” example, I do hope they get close and today’s example, for me, is extremely close. 

A couple nights ago I heard a song being played. The musician was playing slow and the song was unfamiliar which created this apprehension in my brain. What note was next? What tempo was this? As the mystery of the next note raged, my body had an all too familiar feeling; that of the feeling of being in a difficult social situation. 

This feeling is felt in all the limbs and is akin to falling. It creates a large sense of discomfort and the feeling within the music created the same sensation. Does this mean the feeling is all tied to processing? Frustration? I wish I knew. I’ve looked up some connections between music and anxiety and there are some, but not in the way I’m describing. If you have any info, please share it on my Facebook page. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Final Achievement

I'm almost there. It's been a journey since December 2005, but sometime this year the journey will be over. What journey? The long road to one million Gamerscore.

Gamerscore are points awarded for achieving various things within each game that the developer of the game put forth. When Gamerscore began, it was difficult to get a full 1000 points from a game. On Call of Duty 2, this required beating the game on the hardest difficulty and there were so many levels with tanks that seemed to know where you were at all times. 

Gamerscore has evolved though. Some games have gotten tougher and require an almost monk-like dedication to the task. And then, there's the opposite. The opposite is what sucked me in.

I'm a Gamerscore addict. The website, trueachievements.com, tracks a gamer's Gamerscore. I know these points mean nothing, and they're more irrelevant than ever with games that you can amass 4 or 5 thousand Gamerscore in this 10 minutes. And some of the games that'll be a quick 1,000? I'm ashamed to have played them because they are so bad. 

I always liked the sound of Microsoft's "beep-boop" of an achievement being unlocked, but since the start of the pandemic I've been dedicated to increasing the point total no matter what. Bad game? Don't care. New game that's got a complex story and everyone is talking? Nope, don't care. Give me the achievos. This became too much so I'm changing this.

1,000,000 is a big number and I still want it. After I get there, though, I'm retiring from anything related to Gamerscore. Completions, ratios, achievement percentages... I won't care. There are so many worlds that developers have made that deserve to be explored, and so many bad games that don't deserve to be seen by anyone. At the rate of devolving, and Gamerscore inflation, I'm awaiting a game that simply awards a 1,000 point, full completion, for simply pressing start. 

The past week I've been on a marathon of clearing out the easy achievements in my gaming library and also searching out quick completions. I may have complained about it, but this is something that must happen to get to a million. It's been working, I've gained almost 60,000 points which, I looked it up, it took me five years to get that from when Microsoft made Gamerscore. It's a sprint now, there's still about 75,000 to go, but I'm driving of the moment, that the game makes the achievement unlocked noise, and I'm free of this irrelevant system and I can move on.

Monday, February 20, 2023

To tell a joke

 


At a school presentation recently I was asked a question I could not answer. This is odd because I’ve wiggled myself out of some tough spots when questions have been a little off base, but this one? This one had me stumped.

I love presenting to student bodies as it is the most dynamic and intimidating audience to present to. To be an effective presenter at this level one has to have absolutely no shame in self-deprecating humor and to have a confidence which doesn’t appear to be confidence. It’s hard to explain, but this, whatever it is, allows for a dialogue to happen in the questions and the final question of this presentation was the one that had me stumped.

It had been going great as of the nearly 500 students I had more than several dozen hands up wanting to ask a question. The principal gave me the notice that it was final question time and this 8th grader asked, “Yeah Aaron, you seem to be a hilarious guy and I was wondering if you could tell us a joke?” I froze, I stumbled, and I stared at him expressionless because I had no idea what to say and my brain was scrambling trying to tie a question a teacher had asked earlier.

Earlier in the presentation a question was asked about humor and if it’s possible that either A. a person on the autism can be funny or/and B. a person on the autism spectrum can understand or can give sarcasm? I gave a long answer to this essentially saying that, “if you’ve met one person with autism you’ve only met one person with autism” but I also mentioned that more and more actors are stating they are on the autism spectrum. I finished by saying humor often is a one-way street meaning I can state something and know that I meant it in a joking way but if someone I don’t know that well were to try the same thing it may not have the same effect. Bottom line is that expressive can be more than not better than receptive.

Okay, thinking about that wasn’t helping me answer this 8th grader’s question. The question at hand was to tell a joke. How hard could it be? I mean, I do tell plenty of jokes during my presentation but here’s another thing about being a good presenter; if one is scripted one must make seem as if it isn’t scripted. I think I do a great job at this (a script is going to form naturally when one has presented as many times as I have) but all my witty lines are in response to a story. I can have the proper voice inflection to stress a funny moment, or to make something go from funny to hilarious, but to just tell a joke? Where does one begin?

It was the final question which usually means I need to give an answer quickly but I remained there, silent, staring at the crowd. Dead air isn’t a good thing but I had nothing and then I realized that nothing was the answer. I finally had my answer and I thanked him for thinking that I was hilarious, but I then pointed out that all my witty comments had been story based because those things actually happened. Now, when it comes to a traditional joke, it’s abstract to me. I can tell a story that has a potentially funny outcome depending on how one looks at it but when it comes to chickens crossing a road or any other joke setup line I don’t know any nor do I think I could learn that skill set. And besides that, as I finished that answer, I don’t find traditional jokes to be funny at all but then I once again mentioned that the next person on the autism spectrum may be an excellent joke teller but as for me, well, my humor will remain in the realm of dry wit and reality.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

“Have a Good Life”

I received several hundred letters from the students of a school I presented at last month. One kid finished his letter with words that stopped me in my tracks and took me back several years. At this moment, I’m not sure if there’s anything more haunting than, “have a good life” so here’s the first time I blogged about that phrase…


There are moments in life that stand out over others. I know that's an obvious statement, but it seems, for me, that these moments are not the same as what others would have. 

Yesterday was a long day for me. I got home at 1AM Monday morning and just five hours later my dad and I were headed to the Washington D.C. Metro area to go to my aunt's for Thanksgiving. The weather of the drive was not good and once we hit central Kentucky it was rain all the way (I followed the system that gave the Supernats so much rain.)

All along I had it in my mind to stop at the Roy Rogers in Cumberland, MD. I ate there with the USAC staff on the way back from the race in Hagerstown and wanted to do so again. My dad had mentioned his first roast beef sandwich had actually been from a Roy Rogers. Anyway, we get there and before we ordered my dad struck up a conversation with someone that was eating. This person, I guess, was from the area (I came into the conversation a bit late) and was talking about the excess of accidents that were happening due to the poor weather. 

We ordered and sat down and the conversation continued on. The fact that there was this conversation was odd for me because I don't talk to people I don't know in a setting like this. And yet, watching it, created a flood of emotions. Who was this person? What was his story? I don't know if empathy is the right word, but I had so much wonder that it was overwhelming.

As we were almost done eating this man and his wife got up and started to leave. They talked about grabbing food for their "girls" at home and he started to say goodbye to my dad when my dad replied, "have a good life" and with that one singular line I lost it.

When the man and his wife left my dad turned back towards me and said, "Aaron, is something wrong? You look as if you're about to cry." and he was right; I was. There was so much stuff going through my mind that I couldn't control my emotions. This was such a difficult time because with that line the realization that this moment was lost to time and that this man who shared road conditions and showed a true caring on our well-being was gone. Will I see this person again? I knew the answer, statistically, was a resounding "no." 

I tried to refocus my mind but it wasn't possible. There were other moments in my life like this and the biggest one that comes to mind was when I was perhaps eight years old and so and we were driving back from my grandma's in Nebraska to home in Indianapolis and my dad was talking to this trucker on the CB radio. This conversation lasted for many, many miles and eventually one of us took a exit and goodbyes were said and I knew the finality of this moment and I didn't take it well.

Is this empathy? I truly wondered who this man was that was wishing us the best. Why couldn't I breathe? Was it too much emotions, or feelings? I had to do everything I could not to just break down and this was odd because 15 minutes prior I didn't even knew this man existed and now he was gone. Is this another reason I try to keep my world small? Because, if it is, then moments like this won't happen and moments like that are to the brink of being overwhelming. 

As for now, and today, the Thanksgiving traditions of the past 13 years will take place but my mind is still back in Cumberland at that Roy Rogers in the pouring rain with a bone piercing chilly wind. Who was that person? What type of life had he lived? So many questions but the answers will never be told.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

To the person that said “Aaron, you can’t have a bad day”

A long time ago, someone told me, that as a presenter and blogger, that I could not have a bad day. I, unfortunately, took this to heart. 

Here’s the thing, going back to the 40 things I wish I knew, it’s okay to have a bad day. To have anything less would be to not be human. Everyone has a bad day, everyone goes through slumps, and everyone will get scared at some point in time. When you add the autism spectrum on top of that, it makes it even more of a reality. 

The news of the past week leads a lot to the imagination without being able to make sense of what, exactly, is going on. Balloons, ufos… it’s all so… Hollywood. 

The past couple days I’ve struggled with this notion that I’m not allowed to be worried. It’s not a pleasant feeling both ways; to be worried AND think I’m not allowed to be. 

So, to the person that told me that, I hope you haven’t told anyone else this. I hope you haven’t disregarded another person’s emotions and made them question whether or not what they feel is valid or not. Those on the spectrum may already feel as if their emotions are invalid, but when someone blatantly says they should not feel that way.

Whatever the case may be now, with the mysterious things above, or whatever the worry in the future may be, no one should be told that they shouldn’t feel as that anxiety can be worse than the anxiety itself. 

Thursday, February 9, 2023

40 Things I wish I knew...

 

Last week I turned 40 and on that day I thought, “wouldn’t it be great if I could tell my 10-year old self all the info I know now?” That led to thinking it would make a great blog so here we go, here are the 40 things I’d tell my younger self…

 

40. Don’t bite off more than you can chew: It’s easy to think that you can be Superman but committing to large things before thinking it through can lead to difficult projects. For example, coming up with 40 things right now.

39. It’s okay to be good at something: It can be difficult to be good, or exceptional, at something. It can truly be discouraging to feel isolated because something comes easily. However, you must understand that it’s okay to be good, and whatever topic, subject, or activity is something that you enjoy, and are good at, should be something to investigate if it could lead to a career.

38. It’s okay to be bad at something: If can be difficult to be painfully bad at something. You mustn’t allow this to become your identity though. As much as you’ll want, you won’t make a good hockey goalie and you won’t be the next gold medalist at the alpine downhill. Sports dreams aside, it can be bewildering that some things may come easily, and yet other things that come naturally to others will be a challenge.

37. Those normal people? They don’t have it all: You’re going to chase normal in the future. You’re even going to understand it, but you’re still going to do it. You’re going to chase what you perceive others have, but no one has it all. When you chase the myth of normal, you’re going to forget who you are and what makes you special, but as painful as these moments are, you will make it out the other side.

36. It’s okay to ask for help: Maybe I should tell my current self this as this is a challenge. However, wouldn’t it be better to ask for help now, than to make a mistake and have to fix it later?

35. Others may not know you need help: Why is it hard to ask for help? You don’t understand this now, but others don’t know what you need by pure chance. This leads us to #34.

34. You will understand the difficulty of “I think therefore you should know”: Later in life, you’ll say this is one of the five most important topics the world has to understand about autism, but for you it won’t come naturally. Just because you think something or know something doesn’t mean everyone else does. If something is bothering you and you don’t say something, the other person won’t know it even if you think they do.

33. It isn’t if you win or lose the game, it’s that you’re playing the game: Games are amazing, and at the age of 10, you’ll think winning is everything. You’re going to love the cutthroat ways of Monopoly and Risk, and there will be an extreme frustration when victory isn’t achieved, but eventually you’ll realize that the joy wasn’t in the victory, it was sharing a game and thought with other people.

32. It’s okay to be late: You’re going to struggle with this. You’re going to show up 30 minutes early to everything, but this may not be how others live, and that’s okay. You’re going to have two choices; worry about the timing of others and check the clock every 30 seconds, or accept that the world doesn’t have the fear of being late as you do and live with it. When smartphones are made, this will become easier.

31. Even when you’re right, you can be wrong: This is as involuntary of a reflex as breathing, but people will get annoyed when you correct them or facts they mess up. You may not be able to stop, but they too may not be able to stop with getting mad.

30. Real friends are blessing so stay in touch: If someone, “gets you” it’ll be good to stay in touch. It sucks to think, “whatever happened to…” 10 years after talking to them last.

29: Yes, people will get you: You’re going to spend many years wondering this, and at the darkest bits of night when you think this you’re going to think that it’s impossible. This is when #37 will come into play, and you’ll dream and chase normal, but as you get on the other side of this you’ll learn the importance of the next point.

28: Whatever is now is forever: This is joy, and it is pain. When things are good, they will feel as if they’ve always been, but when they are bad it will be inconceivable that they can ever be good again. Pro tip: things can always get better.

27: Whatever happens first always has to happen: You don’t fully understand it, but you’re going to live for routines. This statement, which will be a top 5 statement you’ll say everyone will need to know, is important for you to understand because if something that bothers you happens, and happens again, you may become mired to an unwanted routine. Know this, understand it, and when need be fight it.

26: You can’t please everyone: Others will think you’ll want to please everyone for the sake of it, but your true motive is that, if everyone is happy, you can avoid unwanted social situations. Those situations will arise, but you’ll survive.

25: People will know when you take shortcuts: In the future, when you make a list of 40 things, if you come up with, say, filler, people will notice, as they’re noticing right now.

24: Hide the phone on Christmas: Your intentions will be in the right place, but you’re going to be the only one who understands why you broke up with your girlfriend on Christmas via text message. Look, if they liked you before the text, they’re not after such a stunt is pulled.

23: A broken heart sucks: There’s no sugar coating this one, it hurts. You’re going to feel as if you’re the only one who has felt such pain, but you’re experiencing the same thing all “normal” people go through. It may feel like a dark tunnel that you’ll never escape, but I promise you there’s light at the end, and it may just be more glorious than you can imagine.

22: Others in the workplace may not have your best intention in their hearts: You’re going to be overly trusting, but the workplace can be akin to CBS’s Survivor game show. You won’t be able to comprehend why right isn’t right, and why others may do all they can to seemingly destroy what you have. One of the things that so many others life yourself have is a natural, naïve sense about them, and when others tear you down, you may never understand why they did it.

21: Forgive: It will be difficult, if not seemingly impossible to forgive others. With “whatever happens first” and “whatever is now is forever” will make any transgression against you feel like a world-shattering moment. Here’s the thing, after a couple years the other person may have totally forgotten what event it is that you’ve been carrying in your heart all this time.

20: Do what makes you happy: Job burnout will be a challenge. The thought of a 40-hour work week will be intimidating and will feel like it’s something you’ll never be able to endure, but when you end up working with the NTT INDYCAR Series, a 90-hour work week will be something you look forward to. Honest!

19: Embrace Kansas: You’ll someday write a book called Finding Kansas and you’ll describe Kansas as, “that one place where I feel normal.” That place will be a topic, or activity, that is what your brain thinks of at all hours of the day. Few people will ever experience the joy that you’ll experience when immersed in learning everything there is to know about a topic, or why you like something that may seem repetitive to them, but embrace it, love it, and cherish the times something kicks into a hyperKansas.

18: Cherish animals: You don’t fully understand it yet, but you and animals are going to have a special thing. You get them, they get you, and you will have a knack for “stealing” other people’s pets. Oh, and don’t let the time a German shepherd jumps over a fence and takes a few bites of your knees ruin that bond for too long.

17: You’re living life unfiltered, and it’s exhausting: You have no idea how others in school aren’t as exhausted as you at the end of the school day. They seem to have an infinite power source in their hearts whereas you are going to want to decompress at the end of the day. The reason this is, is that you’re processing everything around you and don’t know it. It takes more effort to pay attention to what you need to pay attention to.

16: There’s nothing more heart stopping than the words, “we need to talk…”: No matter how many times it’s proven that the end of the world doesn’t happen after this sentence, you will still fear it each and every time.

15: Don’t let the diagnosis define you, help define it: The worst day of your life will be when you’re diagnosed on the autism spectrum. It isn’t because of the stigma society may have, but rather you are going to read, “people on the autism spectrum will never have friends, will never have a job, and will never be happy.” So, some advice, don’t look up medical info on the internet in 2003. Oh, and you will have friends, some amazing friends, you will have jobs, perhaps one of the coolest jobs on the planet, and you most certainly capable of happiness and pure joy.

14: Beware the sensory episodes: Not everyone on the spectrum will have the reaction you do, but when the wrong sensory element is experienced by your brain, it will feel like hell. The first couple times you’re going to hide it from everyone, and this is just going to make it worse.

13: Learn how to live with operating under the system of being logical in an emotional world: Others may question if you even have emotions, but you do. Oh, how you do! But, amid events you may take a logical position and ask seemingly cold and callous questions. This system will lead to the Christmas cellphone incident, and try as you might, others just won’t understand.

12: Don’t be afraid of the world: There will be an incident at the bowling alley that will inspire you to write, “people are mean, people are awful, and they aren’t worth knowing.” Understand that others may be emotional in your logical world. As much as you try to be alone, some of your grandest moments will be because of the interactions with others.

11: Thank people: You’re going to come across others that open doors you never thought possible and see things in you that you never would’ve seen. Thank these people in the ways that you can because, after all, odds are you’re going to avoid the social interaction of saying it in persona and you may, right as you turn age 40, come up with a list and say you need to thank others and that “they know who they are.”

10: Learn from others: It will be in 2005 or 2006 that you’ll see Temple Grandin speak. This will change your life as you realize that you can be anything. Before that day, no matter who it was suggesting you read other people’s works and stories, you won’t because your heart is still dark from the belief that your life is predestined and not being happy is the only outcome. Try and learn from others and know that failure isn’t guaranteed even if you say it is.

9: Try and express yourself before your aged 22: One your blackest night, you will sit down at a computer and write. No one suggested it, no one asked for it, but you’re going to write your life story and explain yourself emotionally. Before that time, your family may have only thought that you experienced frustration, so try and show them the true scale of emotions before then, even if talking about emotions was, and still is, something you’ll try and avoid.

8: Learn how to cook: Eventually, there will be this amazing thing called DoorDash and you won’t have to do anything except click some buttons and food shows up at your door. However, it’s expensive and had I only learned how to cook and understand directions earlier, perhaps a whole lot of dollars could be saved.

7: Interact with people who have your same Kansas: You’re going to learn how to have a conversation in the oddest of places as in 2004, ToCA Race Drive 2 is going to be released for the Xbox, and you’re going to try and avoid talking, but you’ll learn that others playing a racing game enjoy racing as much as you. These skills will be gigantic later on.

6: You can’t change people: Other people have opinions, and you may think they are wrong, but it’s fruitless to go on a long, drawn out endeavor trying to change their minds.

5: Things won’t go how you’ve planned them: Right now, you have this idea of how life will work out, but it isn’t going to work out any way you thought it. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, so be prepared for that. We can end up where we need to be and be put on a pathway to get there without any knowledge that we were on that path all along.

4: Act like you already have the job you want: You wanted to win the Indianapolis 500, but you also want to flag the Indianapolis 500. From the first time you’re racing on a track, or flagging, be dedicated as if you’re already there. Don’t save your effort and await to give it your all at the Indy 500, instead give the effort as if you are already there. You may not think it, but passion and dedication are something other people pick up on quickly.

3: Don’t succumb to peer pressure: You may never figure out as to why others will try and change you, and there is something to be said about sound advice, but some will try and change you just for giggles. They may come off as your friends, but they may be anything but.

2: Joy to the world: When people have talked about me, I’m amazed at how much of a part I’ve played in other’s lives when I thought I was invisible. Just as you have a hard time expressing yourself, others too may not let you know just how much of a joy you are.

1: If you’ve met one person with autism… Your story is going to be unique. No one is going to have the same path or ride in life as you, but so too you won’t have others. Some are going to excel in art, and you are still carrying around the badge of shame of achieving an F in kindergarten art. Never think that another person on the spectrum should be you, or that you should be them. Drums will be the worst sensory thing you feel, and yet you’ll meet a mom that has three daughters and they are all drummers. It will be confusing, and after seeing Temple Grandin you won’t have heard of the sentence that, if you’ve met one person with autism you’ve only met one person with autism, but this will be the most important thing you’ll ever hear and it will help you carve out your own story, and your own destiny.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Names of the Past

Jet lag has hit, and it’s hit hard. Getting up at 2AM and being unable to go back to sleep is the cost of international travel, and as I’ve been unable to sleep I’ve been going through my friend’s list on the Xbox and that spurred me on to look up people that weren’t on my friend’s list but I remember. 

It’s a rabbit hole, isn’t it? The people of the past, for me, creates a sense of dizziness that is simply overwhelming. What happened to them? This is a question I ask about someone that I remember racing on ToCA Race Driver 3 but haven’t talked to since 2005. It’s… it’s unique. 

I laugh when I think of the misnomer, “people with Asperger’s don’t care about others.” I do care. The amount of emotions this trek down memory lane has conjured up tells me I do. Would I say something vocal to someone? Oh, most certainly not, but the almost mourning I’ve done for people I’ve never met and were just a screename to me is, well, it’s emotional. 

Perhaps this is just the jet lag talking. I’d like to say so, but I know otherwise. I wish I would’ve done better at keeping track of the people I used to race with. The people that could be anyone and anywhere now. Maybe I have met some and didn’t know it, but it’s the infinite questions that spawn more questions that leaves a tired person wondering. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Thoughts at 40

It’s 10:49 at night. I look out of the hotel window and reflect on the 12 hours of travel today. I’m in Paris for the night on my return trip home, and I turned 40 today. 

I have feared this day since I turned 30. It didn’t help that, a few days after turning 30, I presented at a school in Doniphan, Missouri and a sixth grader asked how old I was, and after I mentioned that I had just turned 30, she said, 30?! EWWWWW!” I wonder how she would’ve reacted to 40…

But yes, I have feared this number for ten years and its scope grew to something much larger than what it should’ve been. In my 20’s, my age was a reminder of everything I hadn’t done, and probably never would. That’s how I saw life. I didn’t see it as a life full of potential, but rather a constantly ticking time bomb to the next let down, the next tragedy, and the next opportunity unfulfilled. 

40 is a big year, but not in the way you think. This year will mark 20 years since I got diagnosed. This year will mark the passing of more years knowing that I’m on the spectrum than not. 

On the long flight today, I reflected on my life and just how fortunate I am. I’ve said this many times, but I wish you could go back and see me in 2005, right as I started my writing journey. I never thought I’d be capable of travel, and employment, and if you saw me then you might have thought the same. Somehow I made it through the pit of depression that happened at my diagnosis and somehow, others saw potential in me that I never thought possible. 

I no longer see 40 as a number to be feared. I’ve made it this far, I’ve been blessed with so many readers and attendees at presentations, and I have one of the coolest jobs on the planet as a starter for the NTT INDYCAR Series. The change from 30 to 40 has been immense and I’ve lived so many seemingly impossible dreams, so I can’t wait to see what I can achieve this next decade. I can’t wait to see what venues I present at, and what types of changes happen in society so that all on the spectrum can reach their full potential. And, most of all, that sixth grader from 10 years ago will be turning 30 in about eight years so I hope she thinks back to that February day in Missouri and, for a moment, says “EWWWWW!” as she thinks about her age. She too will realize, it ain’t so bad. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Relocation Theory: a Thought

It was back in 2006 while flying towards Paris as I looked down at the lights of cities in Ireland. Like a sudden wave, I was flooded with this idea and wonderment on if I could “make it” down there. If I was transported down there, would I be able to navigate, communicate, and survive in a foreign land? As time went on and I evolved this thought I came to believe that the only real way I could expand my skill set was in this relocation example because I would need to delete all the existing routines I had to allow new ones, and new skills to develop. Today, though, I wondered if this was too shallow. 

Today, while being hit with waves in the Indian Ocean as I was snorkeling, I wondered why I had the ability to develop new skills in new areas. Was it simply the deletion of previous routines? As I say in my book, Finding Kansas, “firsts” are of the utmost importance and “whatever happens first must always happen.” This makes it quite crowded for new things to develop so, to supersede this, there must be a new environment. As I saw a school of Moorish Idol fish fight over a hiding spot in coral, I began to wonder if it isn’t the deletion of routine, but rather the deletion of fear. 

Yes, when I’m talking about firsts I so often talk about routine of day, or foods to order, but there’s also a menu of firsts on daily dangers. Has a certain pair of clothing shocked you repeatedly? Have you been burned by water that was too hot coming out of the tap? Have you ever fallen on black ice? If you said yes to any of these you check twice for ice, you barely touch the water before you commit to putting your hands on it, and in terms of static, well, hopefully it isn’t too shocking, but in all of these examples you have this fear that’s attempting to protect you. So too, does my body do this with social situations. 

In a foreign land I am unaware of the social barometer. I’ve always been a barometer of the room and if tensions were going up, say in school, the upping pressure would drag me down and I’d be fearful for whatever outburst was coming up next. It’s odd, isn’t it? The fact that I’m poor at reading facial expressions but the ability to be a barometer for the tension in the room. It’s true though, the dragging down impacts all of my body’s ability to process. Here, in Réunion, this doesn’t exist. However, as the sun beat down on my back and already sunburned legs today as I pondered the dangers of a stonefish, I wondered if this could last. 

If I were in any place long enough, wouldn’t logic dictate I’d eventually have an ice experience (maybe not here in a literal sense) or too hot of water? Eventually, I would learn some French words if I stayed here forever, and I’d learn the difference between French spoken in a conversational manner and French spoken in an angry tone. If this is accurate, then eventually every place would have the same fears. However, and I don’t have the answer to this, would the personal gains made when traveling somewhere new outlast the new fears that take over? Is it truly the relocation that creates the growth I’ve experienced, or is it a naivety to the same social stressors that exist anywhere but simply can’t be processed or understood due to language and cultural differences? It’s an interesting notion, one I hope to dwell on and come up with more answers down the road. 

Monday, January 30, 2023

A Most Engaging Story on a Volcano


"Aaron!" my girlfriend Kristen yelled, "There's a cockroach in there!" Indeed, there was, a bigger one than what I've seen back home in the states, but I'm on the island of Reunion and they seem to be larger. This wasn't how I wanted this day to start. This was going to be THE DAY and starting it with a creepy crawler wasn't how I envisioned this day to begin.

It wasn't first light yet, and we had a two-hour drive ahead of us on our way to Piton de la Fournaise. This island isn't well known in most of the world, and if you have heard of it, it's either because you've heard of this most active volcano, or perhaps the most shark infested waters in the world, or this is also where the aileron from MH370 washed ashore. This island is remote, and as our drive down the N1 progressed I thought back to the third e-mail I exchanged with Kristen in which she asked me where I'd travel if I could go anywhere. I mentioned this island and she, like most, had never heard of it and I said that exact same description to her about volcanoes and sharks. Somehow though, she was seated right beside me as the sun was now up in the East.

The drive to the volcano seemed to encompass four different climates. One minute it's a tropical shore, then we were in a rainforest, and as we neared the volcano, you'd have sworn you woke up on Mars. Between the moments of awe, I knew what I wanted to do today... would she say yes?

As we pulled into the park that has the volcano, I smiled back to our fourth e-mail on Match.com when she asked, "Are you doing anything fun this weekend?" I was, perhaps, a bit smug when I said, "I think so, you can watch what I'm doing this weekend on NBC." What else could I say? It was June 2021, and I was in Detroit for the NTT INDYCAR Series race there. It was going to come up at some point in time, that and she also was wondering why I had a selfie with Milo Ventimiglia on my profile so I answered both when she asked, "NBC"? 

Surprisingly, she watched both races that weekend and that certainly caught my attention. She had said she hadn't watched motorsports in the past, but now here was someone that was returning my emails,
loved to travel, and watched two INDYCAR races in one weekend... as intrigued as she was with my selfie with Milo, I was doubly intrigued by her.

I attempted this hike seven years ago and it was ill-fated. It was foggy, rainy, and had I continued onward when I abandoned it, I'd probably have ended up dead. So, could there be a better way to ask the ultimate question than here? Maybe, but I've never done anything traditional.

The start of the hike is hell. It's 560 steps down and none of the steps are the same height. It's 700ft downward of switchbacks, loose handrails, and uneven surfaces. I couldn't erase the thought that the cockroach was somehow a harbinger of the disaster that could come later and that the cockroach could, quite possibly, be the highlight of the day with everything else going downhill.

We survived the stairs and in front of us was the Formica Leo. This was a smaller volcano that has been dormant since the 18th century. There were dozens of people climbing on it and it was here that we made the mistake and went right instead of left. We didn't know it at the time, but this wrong turn added 1.61 miles to our day and about an extra kilometer of elevation we didn't need to do. 

As we rejoined the path and discovered our error, I quickly thought that this was such a perfect metaphor for our lives. I didn't know if I'd have the nerve to pop the question at the summit, but this was churning my thoughts on how to ask and utilizing the fact that, in life, we may end up on roads that we didn't intend to be on, but eventually we will end up exactly where we need to be. 

I couldn't believe, when we were emailing back and forth back in June of 2021, that she was going to wait to meet me. After Detroit, there was a race at Road America, then I had a USAC .25 race in Toledo

(almost got hit in the flag stand... imagine that) followed up by another INDYCAR race at Mid-Ohio. It would have to be a month, but she waited and all we had were emails followed up by texts and one phone call. I don't like talking on the phone, she respected that, and I couldn't wait to get home to meet this Kristen I had been chatting with for a month.

The weather turned. It became foggy, rainy, and the term "Middle-Earth" would've applied quite easily. Walking on the side of a volcano, if you haven't, is surreal. It doesn't seem real and as the rain came pelting down, the volcanic rock maintained a high level of grip. Had there been any slick spots, I'd probably have fallen, but then, behind me, I heard some loose gravel, and I looked back and saw Kristen slide, but she made a great catch to prevent from falling. Oh cockroach, don't be the best part of the day.


It was about then I had my first bit of doubt on this grand idea. Who proposes on top of a volcano? Who attempts such a hike when neither of us truly were prepared for just how daunting of a hike this was with these awful conditions? From the first time I mentioned it on Match, to meeting in person, Kristen has fully accepted me as me and has never once questioned any quirky behavior the autism spectrum plays out in myself. Never. Not once. I thought that maybe proposing on a volcano would add to the uniqueness and besides, we had just been in Paris and that's just way to cliche for me. A volcano would make a much cooler story. However, this hike was getting dangerous and all of a sudden it got real.

Kristen's foot got hung up as she tried to make a step down. Even ground simply doesn't exist on the latter half of the hike, or rather the whole hike, but this hang up caused her to fall. She did great preventing a faceplant into rocks, but instead she got her hands and shin. Her palms were scraped, and her shin started to bleed. At about the same moment the rain picked up and visibility dropped, and it felt like my ill-fated 2016 expedition which, I was sure I was going to die because it was at least two-hours back to the stairs we had descended and if it is hell going down, what would you call the same except going up after such a strenuous hike? The level of concern grew. 

When people fall in my presence, I don't usually know what to do. The other person can be hurt and yet they're the one comforting me... awful, I know, but in this instance, I asked for tissue to apply pressure to stop the bleeding. It wasn't bad, and after a minute the bleeding stopped, and now it was decision time. 

"Should we head back?" I asked. Just then another group passed us headed back and Kristen asked, "Are we close?" and the wife turned to the husband, speaking French, and the husband looked at us with a bit of disgust (maybe he thought we were ill-prepared? If he had, he would be correct) and he said, "for you two? At least an hour!" It was now 1PM, and we had been hiking since 7:55AM. We had already heard other people give us wrong times so if this hour turned into three hours, we might not make it back to the car in daylight. This was serious, it was dangerous, and again I asked, "should we go back?"

In one of our earlier emails, I talked about my regret on not seeing the summit. I felt as if I had come up short on a goal I had and I don't set many goals. She knew this, and despite bloody wrists, and an awful looking shin, she said we would continue onward. She didn't respond in question form. It was factual, with confidence, and with unwavering resolve. It was a no-brainer now. This day was exactly a metaphor for our lives. Her confidence in life, and in me, has been about as foreign of an experience as being 10,000 miles away from home.  

There was a signpost up ahead, it said summit in 20 minutes. It lied. The whole hike seemed to be false hope after false hope. "That's gotta be it!" was mentioned by both of us at least a dozen times. The times on the posts lied as well. However, we kept getting baited by thinking the next crest would be the destination, but we'd be met with another valley and more white dots.


On the ground every meter or so are painted white dots. They mark the path, or suggested path, as the fog and rain can get so bad that a meter is all you can see. For us, the visibility got down to maybe 50 feet, but we kept going, and we finally saw a new sign, this one mentioning that there's burning and unstable cracks below the path so we'd be best advised to stay on the path. Surely that meant we were close, right?

The clouds started to part as we made another climb and then, up ahead there was a new sign and then... nothing! The summit. I stopped as Kristen was 20 feet behind. I didn't want to see the glory of the crater by myself. This journey since the first emails we exchanged had been us, together, and I was going to make sure we made the final push together.

It was unbelievable! The silence at the top is unexplainable unless
you've been somewhere so vast and marked by nature's savage fury and heard the silence. It was still. The clouds were above, behind, left, and right of us but the view of the crater, which caved in in 2007, was unobstructed, and it was hard to process what was being seen. Also, the ring box in my pocket felt like a five-ton anvil. It needed to see the light of day, and I had been thinking about what I was going to do, so as Kristen ventured to the left to look, I told her I wanted to do a video blog and she should stand in front of me looking off to the horizon. The rest, I think, is best to let my real voice and her expression do the talking, and thank goodness that cockroach wasn't an omen and we somehow made it back with no water left and just an ounce of daylight left.



Friday, January 27, 2023

The Normal Pain in a Foreign Land

An hour prior I had been staring at the Indian Ocean, and
 I had a sensation that I find rare and that’s a feeling of serenity. Typically, I’m over analyzing every aspect of life and a sheer moment of peace is hard to find. The usual processing of “what I’ll be doing in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, two hours… 10 minutes…” is repetitive and exhausting. My brain is always thinking, always analyzing, always exerting more effort in absorbing my surroundings than is anywhere near necessary, except here on Réunion. However, that sense of tranquility was smashed, burned, and obliterated by the all too common pointing out of an autistic trait I have. 

We had come in from the beach, and I had spent about 45 minutes out in the lagoon. Life was good. I told my girlfriend that, “I could cry I feel so relaxed.” Anyone that knows me knows “relaxed” is a word I don’t use to describe myself. Ever. Anyway, we got back into our AirBNB rental and the owner of the place stopped in for some papers to be signed. 

My girlfriend had been chatting with him for maybe five minutes while I was finishing up getting cleaned up. I eventually joined the conversation and he was as nice as could be. For saying he didn’t speak English well, he spoke English rather well and the words he did know he spoke without any issues at all. Communication was a two way street, and he showed up places we should visit and tips on driving. It was a flurry of information and as my girlfriend asked questions I did my normal, “stand there and listen” technique. 

I’m not good speaking in a group. I never have been. One-on-one I’m great, and speaking as a public speaker is far too easy for me, but put me in a setting where it’s one-on-one-plus-one and I will give one word, or shorter answers. It’s simply too much processing, and my attempted timing is akin to trying to square dance to a 1830’s waltz. 

A few more minutes in the conversation went by and the owner, perhaps jokingly, looked at me and said, “you don’t talk much, do you?” My paradise, was just crushed. 

If you’ve never had something pointed out that you wish you could do but you do poorly, I envy you and you might not be able to relate. I know I’m quiet, or as he put, “in French we say ‘you timid’”. I know I struggle, but I try. To have it noticed, and thrown into my face, even in a joking tone, makes me not want to try. Why should I try? This is the second time this month a person made such comments, previous one was back home in Saint Louis, so no matter where I go I’m in line for a crushing dose of reality. 

It’s hard to rebound from this. The event took place 26 hours ago and I’m just now to the point of going from the numbness of an event like that to feeling the emotions. It’s not a fun ride. 

Society has a long ways to go in understanding the invisible wall that Asperger’s creates. I wish I could be vocal, and engaging in a group, but that simply, most of the time, isn’t possible with my brain. I do have great talents, I know this, but the weaknesses too are great and when they’re blatantly mentioned and noticed, well, it makes me forget who I really am. 

I’ve never let a social snafu like this being me all the way down, and I’m trying to fend it off now. It does however show that whether at home, or 10,000 miles from home, there is no running away from who one is. I hope I can get back to that feeling of serenity, but I also know that my timidness will be noticed in any language on any land. Perhaps I was foolish to think otherwise.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Joy in Being

My time in Paris is drawing to a close, but I think we did as much as we could in 72 hours as we could. Jet lag has been awful so far, but between yesterday and today we saw many of the typical Paris sights. While the Louvre was downright mesmerizing, the true glee of travel for me comes from what many would call the mundane. 

Each morning on the way to the Metro, we made a stop at this grocery store on the corner. What's unique about this is that, at home, I loathe going into a store due to the chance of a random social interaction. It's different abroad though. Perhaps it goes to what I've discussed with the language barrier and not being able to respond. Because of this the amount of processing I have to use to get by decreases greatly.

At home, I have to worry about the verbal chess match. If a worker asks, "Can I help you?" I have to come up with a response while preparing for their counter move. There are so many possibilities and I'm trying to calculate them all. It's impossible, and it jams my ability to respond in a matter of time that makes me seem coherent. However, abroad, we are taking the processing element of language out of the equation because as soon as I speak perfect English, they know I don't speak the language of the land. After this, all I have to do is to focus on having a positive looking face with a smile.

It's difficult to truly describe to you how freeing of a sensation this is. Imagine, in your daily life, having to constantly worry about the next move, and the one after that, and the next two hundred thereafter. A great fear is natural with this because, and I'm trying to give you something to relate to, have you ever been tongue tied and the person you're talking to gives you a prompt to hurry up, or think faster? This is what every conversation feels like to me, so there should be little wonder as to why it is such a sense of freedom.

Tonight, we fly to the island of Reunion. English did get me places in Paris as many, well, almost all in a service environment do speak some, but from my experience on the island in 2016, English will get a person nowhere. Is it still that way? Will I experience the same sense of freeing disconnection I had in 2016? I don't know the answer, but I can't wait to find out. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Silence in the Words

Hello from Paris! 

It had been five years since I traveled abroad and jet lag hit extremely hard. So much so that, on the taxi ride from the airport to our hotel, I fell asleep in the seat. I’m not one to be able to sleep if there’s any stimuli whatsoever, so when I do sleep like this there’s this almost euphoric sense about it. Anyway, jet lag aside, there is a story from dinner last night that I think is highly relevant. 

I’m here in Paris with my girlfriend and we needed to find dinner. We were both exhausted, and as we walked almost aimlessly we stopped and ate at the first place we found. 

As we were seated, there was a group behind me of six people deep in conversation and also an older couples diagonal to them that were chatting. It was a chorus of words that had only brief bits of slowing down, and yet I was able to focus on my girlfriend’s words without problem. She also noticed that my sense of ease was higher than normal and remarked, “are you at peace because you can’t understand what they’re saying?” She couldn’t have been more right. 

I’ve loved to travel and this is one of the reasons. It is almost impossible for me to turn my ears off at home. I can’t simply not hear what is being said three tables over and once I hear it I process it. Even if I’m conversing with a person across from me, the level of stimuli I’m processing from all around makes it a tiring experience. However, when my brain knows I can’t understand the words, it becomes this silent noise that is simply there and not processed.

There is such a deep level of safety in this. If you don’t have this issue, it’ll be difficult for me to explain to you just how all encompassing of an experience it is to not be able to filter out the world at home, and yet when I’m in a foreign land with a language I don’t know, well, it’s one of the few times I’ll use the phrase, “at peace” when describing myself in a social setting. 

I wish I knew how to emulate this experience at home. Since the start of the pandemic I’ve dreamt about a return to a place like Tokyo where I don’t have to worry about words spoken and most of the locals will assume I don’t know the language. There’s such a peace in that environment. At presentations, when this area of life is brought up, others often recoil at the thought of both not understanding the words and not being able to communicate, but it’s been something I’ve grown fond of and yesterday, at dinner with my girlfriend, it was so obvious that she instantly knew I was at peace. 


Saturday, January 21, 2023

"What's your favorite memory?"

 

My blog is in travel mode as I head to Paris and try to avoid the fact that I’ll be turning 40 in a couple weeks. It was fitting that, at a presentation at a middle school earlier in the week, a student asked me, “What is your favorite memory?” I was momentarily stunned as I processed all the different things The students had a hint of all the things I’ve done, places I’ve seen, and people I’ve met, so there was a bit of pressure to produce a good answer. The answer, however, was one I didn’t know the answer to immediately after the question.

photo credit Walter Kuhn, IMS
My brain was racing. How could I come up with a favorite memory? The first image that flashed into my head was Helio Castroneves crossing the line under my twin checkered flags to win his fourth Indianapolis 500. That’s a moment that is indescribable as the roar of the fans was louder than the cars and I lived out an impossible life dream. I smiled and proceeded to answer the question by mentioning that this was the first thing that came to my mind, but in a way that moment is a moment just for me and it had nothing to do with the good of others so if it were my favorite, it would be with a hint of too much self.

Next up in my brain was flashes of all the awesome places I’ve been. I tried to explain the island of Reunion and how remote it is. That type of travel isn’t for everyone and witnessing a sunset on the horizon over the Indian Ocean isn’t a common occurrence for us North American inhabitants, but at the same time, as great of a memory as it is for me, it’s lacking on what should be the singular favorite memory.

I was speaking in circles and any seasoned politician would’ve been proud in my stalling tactics as I tried to formulate my answer. I spoke of presenting on the top floor of the J. Edgar Hoover building in DC, and as I mentioned that and scanned the audience and saw a teacher almost entranced with my words it hit me. I began my answer again.

“My favorite memory is actually a time I spoke at a school.” It was a fifth grade only presentation a little over a decade ago. I was a rookie when it came to school presentations, but the kids were entranced by my words, and it was the start of “magical” presentations. During these moments it’s as if the world has come to a halt and all previous moments were to be in that exact moment. The students, teachers, and anyone else watching is solely focused on my words, and the heartwarming questions the students ask. It was after that presentation, on that day over a decade ago, that I knew I was where I needed to be.

A teacher came to me afterwards with a solemn expression. He attempted to speak but words were failing him. He choked up, held his breath, and he said, “Mr. Likens, you’ve reignited my passion for teaching. Thank you.” That was it. Nothing more was said as his eyes began to water, and he then walked off. I’m not sure what was going on, and I don’t know what became of this teacher, but in that moment my pain of all the years prior were worth it. I continued my answer to the students earlier this week by saying, “In life you will never know the impact you’ll have on a person. Most of you probably don’t know for certain what you’d like to do as a career, and this applies more than just in your future work life, because every day you can have an impact like I had. Every day you have the chance to leave a lasting positive impact on a person by being a friend, a peer that lends a hand, or helping someone in need. I didn’t understand this until that teacher told me abut his passion for teaching and that’s why it’s my favorite memory.”