How I Rebuilt My Soul in Washington, MO (May 2008)

This week marks 4 years since I started this blog. I considered briefly writing a piece on that anniversary, a state of the blog post. But the thing is, I think the state is fine and hasn’t changed much in the last 4 years. When I find a topic worth writing on, I write on it. I am debating a few new ideas but I’ll come to them.

What I’m doing instead is telling a happy story from my past and for a good reason. I’ve been battling severe depression and anxiety for the last couple of months. I’ve been in a dark place that I even wrote about. But I am on an upswing because I’m forcing myself on an upswing. I’m fixing myself. And to that end let me tell a story about a trip that got me out with yet another story that belonged in the book but didn’t make it in.

I want to start by using Google Street View to show the exact locations I’m talking about. To look at this location it might be impossible to imagine that I found anything to heal my soul here. It’s perfectly generic. A few fast food joints. A grocery store. A Super 8 motel. There is no reason that this should sit in my head for 10 years as an important place. But it is an important place for me. Because there’s a small part of me that knows I found my will to live walking around this area one night.

Let me begin by addressing that idea: the will to live. Mine was running low during this weekend. Not gone, I’ve never reached that low, but low all the same. I didn’t think I was capable of much in life. I mean to be blunt I only had my part time job due to who I knew. What good was I?

I was nearing a year since the West Memphis incident. Going to Missouri for a job interview was an act of desperation. Since I was desperate I convinced my father to go/drive with me up to Washington, MO. I had no idea where it was but if they’d interview me, fine.

The day before, we drove up. It’s bizarre the memories I have. I read Essential Rampaging Hulk on the way. I ate Mountain Dew flavored Doritos. I remember driving through Harrison, AR. Dinner at Golden Corral in Springfield. Then driving through the wilderness. We checked in at a Super 8, dad’s chain of choice. It was about 9 and I wasn’t quite tired so I opted to go out.

A word about towns. Towns that sit in the midst of a lot of things aren’t special. Nothing towns in the middle of nowhere are nothing. But sizable, real towns in the woods are like stumbling into civic oases. That’s Washington.

Look at that view. The details are fundamentally what I saw on my night stroll. A Jack in the Box, alluring to someone from a state without one. An Applebee’s. A Michael’s a Lowe’s. A Jewelry store. A Mobil. And a Schnucks.

I made a beeline for the grocery store. Why? Well for one thing it was the only place open. I also feel a deep draw to grocery stores. They’re places of order. They’re all alike. They’re designed as sensory free zones. And I needed that.

That feeling of being adrift hurt. We define ourselves by our station in the world. I had no full career. I had no love. I had nothing to make me a man of standing in this realm. My only status I had was that dark word I so despised. Autistic. I was low.

As I perused the soda section, I found some trace of myself. I was a fan of these generic places, grocery stores. I had a sweet tooth. I liked alcohol. I liked finding oddities. Those were my traits. They weren’t great traits but they were mine.

I didn’t buy anything though I lingered a while in the store. I walked out into a lovely June night on my way to the Mobil. Crossing that sizable lot was a zen act. No sound but traffic. The halogen bulbs casting false daylight around me. Just my thoughts. Which I try to ignore.

There is one sure way to ignore those thoughts. I find it at the Mobil in a 16 ounce plastic bottle: Mike’s Hard Lemonade. There’s an odd moment where the clerk is confused by my driver’s license but finally he lets me take my cold, delicious drink.

I walk back to the hotel. My dad watches sports while I drink my alcopop and read the magazine exploits of the Hulk. Comics have helped in this age. Brand New Day. Doctor Strange: The Oath. Secret Invasion. I feed on the distraction. The alcohol helps too.

Then it’s dark and I’m stuck with my thoughts. I’m scared now. I’m scared more than anything else. I don’t get to escape that fear either. I’m scared of everything changing. I’m scared of nothing changing. I’m scared of failure. I’m almost scared of success as much. I’m scared! I’m so weak. Here I am in a strange place and there is nothing I can do,

I cry. I don’t make a big deal of it but I do shed a few tears just from the sheer, crippling fatigue of being at my low. I’m tired of being in strange towns hoping for a crumb. I just want the approval denied to me in this year. I want to matter.

And then I sleep. At dawn, all is new. I awaken. I eat. I get dressed. I’m not ready for this. I can’t be. But I go anyway.

The downtown area is lovely. There’s no other word for it. I stop in at a ridiculously idyllic corner store and drink a Cheerwine. It’s almost absurd how pleasant all this is. I could do this.

Then I have my interview. I go in and I do ok. I fumble some questions and my nerves shot but I try. I give great answers about my background and make me a good candidate. I know I won’t get this job, and I don’t, but I go to the end trying. It’s all I can do.

And then I’m freed. As we drive away from Washington and to St. Louis because why not, I let go of everything I’ve carried. My pain, my angst, my fear? They were left here. Now I know I can at least try.

I’ve never gone back to Washington. There’s no reason for me to do so. I’ve gone to that section of Google Street View often but going back in person would destroy the magic. Washington can only exist in my head as a place where I confronted my issues and came out ok. Sure I would love to visit the used bookstores in town. But it must be the site of my dark night of the soul.

We all have these places. These strange, ethereal phantom zones. These places where we were only there once but it changed us. This is mine and I’m grateful for it.

The Comedy and Tragedy of Gender Norms

 

When I was in 10th grade, I was oddly fascinated by a book for sale at a local bookstore: a printed copy of the screenplay to the now forgotten 1999 teen comedy Drive Me Crazy. I swear every week for 6 months I considered buying the thing but could never get to the register with it. Every time a voice in my head stopped me from making the purchase, afraid I’d be ashamed of myself for owning it. Eventually the book was gone and I never purchased it though I scoured used bookstores for years.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Throughout my childhood I wrestled with having tastes that went against “masculine” norms. I didn’t wrestle with my sexuality, as I’ve covered before. Nor did I question my gender identity. But I struggled with being appropriately male, an issue I think many of my peers fought.

My taste in music tended towards lighter music such as the strong (in memory) run of pop in the late 90s with very little interest in the abrasive rock. I didn’t like war movies and still don’t. I hate sports. I preferred things like teen comedies and frankly still do. But I felt I had to keep that secret to fit in with others. (I do love a good action movie admittedly, so I’m not completely atypical. But who doesn’t?)

All of this seems so silly a full lifetime later. These were the most inconsequential things to define myself by yet we all use these barometers. No matter how progressive we are, we know what’s coded male/female and we care about the perception. I’m going to stand out if I blast Carly Rae Jepsen (who I love) instead of Tool (who I utterly despise.) It’s just how this ignorant society works.

What really makes me question the thinking behind these norms is my day to day life. After all, I violate one of our grandest gender norms as the daytime caregiver to my daughter. I change diapers, feed her, dress her, all of the things a man is only supposed to do as a “babysitter.” It’s not lost on me how few other dads I see out and about on a given day. Comically, while I may have doubted myself over the media I consumed, the actual actions I take in my daily life that truly violate these norms? I don’t care.

Why is that? I actually live a life in violation of serious norms yet I don’t care. I think it’s simple. I want to believe with time we mature and outgrow caring about these silly things. I’m not 17 now. I’m 34. I’ve become a man or at least as much of one as I’ll be. I’m old enough to see how silly all of this is. Besides, Lola is a status symbol. I’m a father. I might be a disaster in many ways but I’m a dad and that counts.

But even if I see how silly all of this is, that doesn’t stop it for being a problem for so many still trapped in it. I wish we weren’t so essentialist on gender. It starts at a young age with clothes coded for genders and never ends. How often have I heard the sex appeal of them men listed as the reason the MCU is popular across gender lines? How often have boys been forced into playing sports they hate?

None of this is healthy but it’s so coded into our society and it frustrates me. We cling to these ideas as if they actually matter and as a result they do. Think of how much great art is lost because a girl with killer action ideas was pushed away or a boy with romantic comedy ideas was mocked. The ones that cross those lines are the ones who were wise enough not to care.

I don’t have any easy answers to this issue. Trust me if I did I’d fix society. All I can do is bring this story full circle. A couple of months ago I finally did get to read the Drive Me Crazy screenplay via the internet library at archive.org. It was astoundingly awful just as a piece of writing. I missed nothing.

The Mistake in Springfield: A Story of Bad Autistic Behavior

I live with regret. Everybody does but I in particular live with regret. The things I regret are not the grand ones you’d expect. I regret the mistakes I’ve made that I regret the small things I did as a kid like ditching a friend at the movies. I regret not accepting my grandmother’s offer to pay for me to go to the movies, an offer that likely would’ve gone to the masterpiece Life is Beautiful no less. And I regret the story I’m about to tell.  

The saga begins in 2001 in the town of Branson, MO. It was in this legendary tourist mecca that my brother, my father, and I spent the night after taking a tour of the lights. I could tell you memories of the light but I don’t remember them. I remember Not Another Teen Movie playing at the theater. I remember the Cracker Barrel we ate at. I remember how vacant the town was. I remember the CDs my brother and I blasted. He went with a Radiohead live EP while I listened to Creed’s Weathered album. It was a quiet moment.

The plan for the day ahead was simple. We were headed to Springfield, MO We would go to a few bookstores in the morning by my request so I could track down screenplays then Bass Pro Shops that afternoon for my brother. After that we’d crash in a hotel in Northwest Arkansas. A simple day and one I could not screw up.

I had my list: Vanilla Sky, A Beautiful Mind, The Royal Tenenbaums. I wanted to find one of those scripts. Barring those, no other purchase would do. That was what my Christmas money was for along with maybe a couple of other neat books if I found one. The hunt was on.

First bookstore: Barnes and Noble. No luck. I found the Jackie Brown screenplay but not one I cared about. Barnes and Nobles have bedeviled me my whole life as a hunter btw. Sometimes they’re completely generic, all the same. Sometimes one gets a wave of British imports. I had no way of knowing which this was.

Second bookstore: Waldenbooks. What was I doing even looking here? Waldenbooks didn’t sell screenplays or at least not ones that weren’t the mass sold ones like Twister or the oddly overprinted English Patient script. But I looked anyway. Didn’t find it but I grabbed the second Star Trek SCE book. I loved that series.

Third bookstore: The used bookstore. Yeah that entire quest for the scripts was over immediately. At the used bookstore I consider a couple of books before settling on a book on the Twilight Zone movie, not a happy read at all. It’s a neat store though. There’s that at least.

And all at once it’s over. I’ve got two books to show for my quest, less than $10 spent out of at least $100 in xmas money. No, I’m not happy. But I must trudge on to Bass Pro Shops.

I enter hell. Bass Pro Shops on December 26th is essentially a license to have a panic attack for an autistic person. It’s loud. It’s packed. There is nothing that interests me. I can’t move. It’s loud. I’m already moody. It’s GODDAMN LOUD!!!

35 minutes or so into the trip, I start to hyperventilate. This is the first sign of things to come. I struggle to eat and finally have to leave, breaking down crying because it’s too much. If I were 7 it would be fine. I’m 17 on the verge of 18. I’m humiliating to be near. I can’t keep it together. I stay in a less crowded part of the store for the rest of the visit. The damage is done.

Now for the drive. The long drive down to Northwest AR. My brain locks in harder as the music plays in my ear. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. Why? Because I had something that was supposed to happen and it did not. I was supposed to find those screenplays. Now I can’t spend the money I have unless I do. I have power and I can’t use it.

Let me stop now to explain what a logical reaction to this scenario would be. Give the money to my parents to pay for am Amazon order. That way I’d be assured of getting the books I wanted even if I had to wait. If I’d known I could end the grief and just enjoy the two admittedly first rate books I’d purchased, I could’ve prevented what came next.

Once we got to the hotel I essentially demanded we drive across the area to a Barnes and Noble. There it is. That’s what I did. I threw a fit and demanded out of frustration that we go make me happy. No it was not the right thing to do but it was what I needed. I was so stuck in this one place that it was eating me alive that I couldn’t fix it.

Fourth bookstore: Another Barnes and Noble. A more varied selection but no luck. I consider the Donnie Darko script and the Memento script. If I were to do it again, I’d put the Nolan script in my hand but hindsight hurts. I’m still unsuccessful.

We eat and go back. I sleep. The next day we go to a Civil War battlefield. It’s a great way to forget my darkness. It’s an amazing site to visit and the weather is perfect. Maybe I’m freed?

We get to Fort Smith. My dad has work there so we go with him to that. The blue of the day has curdled into that sickly yellow of evening. My skin crawls to be here. My demon is roaring.

Fifth bookstore: Shoppers’ Nook, a used bookstore. I buy a Batman prose anthology more or less out of desperation. A few years from now I’ll make some of the greatest finds I’ll ever make there. Maybe I could’ve on this day if I wasn’t in my head. I still wanted those 3 books.

Sixth and truly final bookstore: a Books-A-Million. I find nothing. Once and for all I find nothing. I’m not yet a comic reader so I pay no attention to their incredible comic selection which I’ll notice in three years. My tunnel vision game is strong. The light falls on the trip and I’m miserable. I’m miserable because I was stuck on an outcome I had no control over. I ride back home quiet, utterly blind to anything good that happened over the last 48 hours.

There are things that will happen. For my birthday I’ll make the call I know now I should’ve made and order the scripts online. In two years I’ll return to Springfield with friends and will have another meltdown due to being overwhelmed by college. A few moths later I’ll go back to exorcise my demons in Fort Smith. Then I’ll go back again a few weeks later and from there once a year.

But will I ever understand what happened? Maybe only half a life removed do I. Being autistic is being set in patterns. It’s seeing life as a flow chart with good and bad outcomes. It’s not being at peace with being powerless.

We hate the image of being burdens but it’s not untrue at times. We are hard to live with. Just how it is. We need to change but that’s far easier said than done. We are who we are. It takes work to be otherwise.

Had I just let go I would’ve made everyone happier on that trip. But I couldn’t. I was stuck in my pattern. And others paid the cost. They likely don’t remember any of this. Maybe the meltdown at most. But I do. I carry it with me in my ledger. It’ll never get crossed off.