Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Cummington Fair

This is the season for hill town fairs. Little towns all over New England have their annual fairs, with ox pulls, tractor shows, vegetable contests, rides and of course funnel cakes and fair food.

Today I went to the Cummington Fair. Cummington is halfway between Northampton and Pittsfield on Route 9. The fairgrounds are about a mile off the main road, past a few old tractors and some rambling farm houses. It was raining steadily, so the turnout wasn't as good as the organizers wanted. You never know in the fair business. With a nice day you can be swamped with crowds, but on a rainy day you can sit there all day and watch the rain fall on an empty lot.

I parked and walked in the gates, passing this cold, wet teenage sentinel . . .

He looks pretty sorry in that shot, but he cheered up quick when I spoke to him.

The first thing I came upon was chainsaw sculpture. Wooden bears have become popular around here in recent years. This fellow is carving one as I watch.

He was sawing away right next to the antique tractor show. Cummington had one of the best collections of vintage tractors I've seen in a while.

Here's an old Farmall, just like the ones they used on the Barstow farm when I moved to Hadley, 43 years ago.

This is a Ford 8N, just like the one my grandfather had back in Georgia.

The champion squash sit on a cart. I always wonder what they do with these when the fair ends. Do they pack them with gunpowder and set them off? Do they roll them down hillsides into passing cars? Or do they eat them? It's hard to imagine eating a hundred-pound squash.

And inside the buildings, you can see the fruit and vegtable winners. I'm always tempted to taste a winner, but then I wonder if they spray them with something nasty just in case people like me come along . . . I left them where they lay . . .

You can tell the real country fairs because the farming is always front and center. There wasn't much of a crowd anywhere today, with the rain, but the busiest aisle was this one, between the animal sheds. There are cattle on the left and sheep and goats on the right

Here they are:

I was there early enough to pass the Pickles Da Clown, headed in to work. You can never tell about these circus clowns. She looks like a jolly female, but with that costume, how do you know? Maybe Pickles is really a grizzled old truck driver, fresh out of state prison, just waiting to catch someone like me in an alley between livestock trailers. I talked to Pickles, just to be sure, and she was legit. But you can never tell. When the carnies come to your town, watch the clowns close.

She passed the big animals, waiting in the rain for the ox and draft pulls later in the day.

One of the farmers brushed his beasts as the drizzle fell

Flowers are still blooming but fall is coming soon.

Most of the carnies were friendly, as you can see. I talked to a few as we watched the rain fall. These guys travel a circuit, going from one fair to another. They live in RVs and trailers that are lined up behind the customer parking.

This one wasn't. Some carnies don't like having their picture taken, because they're on the run from the law, on on the run from child support or something else. Some are just obnoxious.

The rides are always colorful. The equipment is a little run down at this show, but I like it just the same

As you can see, there wasn't a whole lot going on in the midway.

Despite that, and despite the weather, this female in the Polish food booth was amazingly cheery. She's from Lanesboro, a bit farther west in the hills.

This Direct TV guy makes you want to run right out and sign up, doesn't he?

Local kids man the 4H food booth. Every country fair has a 4H booth. I was in 4H myself, back in sixth grade.

Buster drooled goodbye as I headed out . . .

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Hill Climb at Mount Equinox

And there he goes . . . lining up at the starting gate.

Every August, aging ladies and gentlemen who are also sports car enthusiasts gather in Manchester, Vermont for the Mount Equinox Hill Climb. I’ve never put myself in that group, but now that I am aging, I am becoming indistinguishable from real gentlemen. With that in mind, and fortified with a stiff drink, I decided to attend.

Some successful guys will choose much younger sports cars later in life. I've read that it makes you feel younger, being fifty and driving a two-year-old Porsche. I've never fully subscribed to that view. I always feel good around cars my own age, which may be one reason I was comfortable at the Hill Climb.

I had actually hoped to drive to the top of Mount Equinox in my vintage Land Rover, but attending the race turned out to be almost as good, and considerably less risky. The last time I took an old Land Rover up that mountain I’d just come from a company driving school event, and my rear axle blew up halfway down the in a spatter of oil and metal chips.

This time, I parked my old Rover among the aged racers and climbed out with my camera. And that points out one of the great things about Vermont. You can leave an old truck like mine, full of tools and belongings and stuff, with no locks on the doors, and everything will be right where you left it, six hours later.

That would never have happened at any of the NASCAR races I attended. But you could see this event was different, right from the start. There were so many things missing . . . no carnies selling corn dogs and beer. No outlaw bikers or campers playing loud country music. And I did not see a single fistfight the whole time.

In fact, this race was so civilized that wives actually held umbrellas over their mate's heads as they sat in their cars waiting to start their runs. That's something you never see at a motocross or sprint race, for sure.

You can see my ex-NATO Land Rover Defender in back of the red sprint car in this shot. One fellow is adjusting the passenger side tomato can while my friend George Holman and another fellow look on. I asked George what the sleigh runners under the front axle were for, and he said, "They are supposed to keep you from rolling over when a wheel comes off." Why don't modern cars have features like that?

The race begins at the base lodge on Vermont Rt. 7, a few miles south of Manchester. From there, Skyline Drive winds 5.2 miles to the top of Mount Equinox. There are 41 turns on the course, 20 of which are hairpins. The elevation gain of 3,140 feet may be less than Pike’s Peak, but it’s still a strenuous course, especially considering that every vehicle in the race is at least fifty years old.

That’s only fitting, since the race is run by the Vintage Sports Car Club of America. Since there weren’t very many American sports cars in 1959, most of the entries in today’s event were from Europe. There were Allards and Aston Martins – the big bruisers of the British sports car world back then – next to dainty MGs and Morgan three-wheelers.

This is one of the big Aston Martins

In the picture above you can see the Morgan's driver securing the wheels. He does not have sleigh runners under his axle, so he has to take special care to make sure his wheels don't come off

A few minutes later, he was suited up and ready to go. When the flag dropped, the little Morgan went fishtailing up the road in a cloud of smoke.

I would have liked to see some old Corvettes or Thunderbirds on the mountain, but it was not to be. At least, not today. There was a 1912 Mercedes running, along with several depression-era sprint cars.

The fastest cars climb the mountain at an average speed approaching sixty miles an hour, while negotiating curves so sharp you’re going fast if you jog around them. To hold that average, drivers hit speeds near one hundred on the straights. This year, the excitement was increased with the addition of rain.

Sometimes the cars departed in dry weather only to hit rain halfway to the top. That was the case for George, in his Plymouth sprint car. This year's race was delayed, and there were already signs of fall in the trees halfway up. If they'd run a few weeks from now they might have had to contend with ice, too.

Conditions were variable for the two-day race, but I don't think the drivers cared. The people I talked to described an individual competition, where each person strived to beat his personal best time, after running this course many years. So perhaps the rain just made things different. Some of the cars, like this Porsche 356, departed in a steady drizzle that worsened as they gained altitude.

Here are a few images from the race:

There were not many Italian cars in evidence. Here's one - a Fiat Abarth. I remember driving the street version of this car long ago. I fixed them too, in my first job as a mechanic at Don Lorenz in Greenfield, MA.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Parallel Play, a new book on growing up Aspergian

Time Page, taken at a joint appearance at the University of Missouri last winter.

My friend Tim Page is known to many people as a music critic, having won a Pulitzer at the Washington Post. What's less well known is that Tim has Asperger's. That was revealed to the world a few years ago in a moving New Yorker essay called Parallel Play.

Here's a link to the essay on the New Yorker's website

This September 8, the book of the same name goes on sale. You can preorder it here

Here is what I wrote about his book for the Amazon website:

The first time I saw Tim Page, I felt a sense of familiarity. He was obviously smart but shy, socially awkward, with a different cadence to his voice. There was an undefined, instinctive “something” that told me Tim was a fellow Aspergian. I feel different and excluded from much human company, but people like Tim are an exception. They are my people. They are me.

Tim says he’s lived life as an outsider, and that’s exactly how I feel too. As a result, even though I’ve grown up to find commercial success, happiness often eludes me. Within minutes of meeting Tim, it was clear he shared my essential life experience, even though we have followed very different paths. Even today, neurotypical people try to welcome us into their world, but Asperger’s blinds us to the olive branches of friendship they proffer. They even shake the leaves in front of our faces, but we just gaze, impassive and oblivious. People assume we’ve rejected them, but in truth we want their friendship and acceptance with every fiber of our being. That’s the heartbreak of it.

Tim’s story illustrates that reality with clear and moving prose. Even when he’s been with people, much of his life has been spent alone. He was always smart, but like me, I wonder what’s it’s been for. Tim story shows that genius has its benefits but it’s not a formula for happiness, or even for general life success. You’ll wonder if his extraordinary abilities are a cause or a result of his isolation. Or are they just more facets of a unique mind?

Anyone with an interest in Asperger’s and the complexity of the human mind will be fascinated by Parallel Play. It will leave you with much to think about.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Which is easier, being a genius or being delayed?

What is it like to look at the world, knowing one is isolated by disability, wondering how it would feel to have a job, a girlfriend, or a family? What is it like to be less disabled, to have "attained" those things, only to lose them, and be crushed by depression and despair? Is one role better than the other?

Some of my recent stories have touched upon the question of autism, disability, and the relative impairment or position of people at different points on the spectrum.

When reading the comments to my earlier posts I get the feeling that certain people with greater autistic impairment than me feel that their "less impaired" brethren - me included - somehow have an easier life. I don't agree with that. Life is hard no matter where you fit on the curve.

Several commenter's compared levels of disability in the world of friendships. One person said, "I have never even had a girlfriend," and the tone of his remark was such that I was made to think, Imagine how much that hurts. Well, as it happens, I know how that hurts because I've been there.

I didn't say anything at the time but I thought about his words and my own life. The memory of my time at Amherst Junior High is still as clear as yesterday in my mind.

I remember exactly how it felt to look at couples holding hands in the hallways, while wishing I had a girlfriend. I'd see them walking past, smiling and talking, and I'd feel so terribly alone. I'd look down at my own empty hands and ask, what's wrong with me? The pain of those memories is still sharp, thirty-some years later.

It was a big step up from the loneliness of grade school, which until then was the worst pain I'd known. At age six, being called a retard had hurt a lot. But at age thirteen, being totally ignored by couples and by girls in particular hurt even more.

It's hard to be alone when you're surrounded by couples. My solution was to retreat into books, machinery, and places where couples did not intrude. There were no couples in the electronics lab, or the auto shop. Most of the places I hung out, there were not even any people at all.

That was my method of coping for many years. I did not know how to begin a romantic relationship, so I hid. When I did pop into view, I gave my autistic mannerisms free reign to drive away any potential suitors. It worked. Romance did not have much place in my high school experience, with the exception of Cheryl, who led me on just to toy with me. That experience also remains with me today.

That's the place some people on the spectrum remain at as adults, compounded by years of experience of the same romantic failure. Some distract themselves by immersion in other interests, while others dwell on why something never worked out.

I remember that place well, because it was my own life until age eighteen or so.

Then I fell in love, for the first of several times. When it was good, I was so happy. Proud, too, to have such a pretty, vivacious girl be interested in me! Words cannot express how good it felt to leave my lonely and solitary existence behind. Unfortunately, it didn't always last.

"I just can't do this anymore. I can't keep seeing you." Her words came out of the blue to shatter my world. I knew there were issues, to be sure, but like all Aspergians I am very tied to routine. I'm very slow to change, sometimes seeming to discuss things endlessly before making a change. So her sudden decision to dump me came as a total shock. One day I was happy and dreaming of a future. The next day, it all lay shattered in the dust. The pain was far, far worse than anything I'd ever known. I read those trite words, better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all, and I wondered what planet that writer lived on.

When I learned about Asperger's one of the things that struck me false was the talk about empathy and emotion, and how people like me supposedly lack those feelings. Anyone who could see into my mind in that moment of darkness and torment could not fail to realize how totally wrong those statements were.

Yet I didn't show it. I was dying inside, but to the rest of the world, I was the same person as always. Inside, my heart was pounding and my mind was racing in ever tightening circles on a descent into darkness. But I gave no sign of the torment within. Can't you talk about it, people would ask me today? I don't quite know how to answer. Even now, in middle age, the sting of childhood rejection still lingers. I could go through that experience now, at 51, and I might well react just the same as I did at 21.

As I get older I seem more polished and sociable, but given enough stress, the old autistic behaviors rise to the fore. People say I have a childlike innocence, which is nice at times. But at other times, I can revert to a wounded and hurt little boy, and that's not good at all. I close down and suffer in silence.

There is little to help that kind of pain. Today, life experience tells me that things will usually get better. But does that message always get through?

When I read about how lucky I am to have met a girlfriend, found a wife, had a kid . . . I realize those things came at a price. They weren't free. It's true that the greatest joys I have felt have been with the people closest to me, but at the same time they have caused me the sharpest and deepest pain I have ever known.

So what would I say to those who feel their disability has prevented them from experiencing such things? There's no free lunch. In the end, we all want what we don't have. But does getting it make us happier? There's no evidence that it does.

We all tend to look up the ladder of achievement and dismiss the worries of the guy a few rungs above us. We think, "he's got so much more than me, he must be on easy street," when in fact he feels pain and worry just as we do, maybe even more so. You might ask why I'd say "more" . . .

I'll offer one stark piece of evidence. There is virtually no incidence of suicide among developmentally delayed (I'll use the emerginent PC term) people. If you have an IQ of 70, you may do many things, but deliberately kill yourself is not one of them. At the other end of the spectrum, history is filled with examples of geniuses and gifted, highly creative people who took their own lives in moments of despair.

It's said that one in thirty medical doctors dies by their own hand. Yet no one says anything. Can you imagine the uproar if one in thirty autistic people in a group home killed themselves?

Greater functionality may bring bigger "ups." But it also brings bigger downs. There is always a price, and sometimes it can be very high.

Depression and pain affect people at all levels of society, with and without disability. The idea that some people with autism are less disabled and therefore suffer less is simply wrong. We all suffer to the same extent that we experience joy. Some of us may feel those things in more muted ways, but even if we do, it's our life and it's all we know.

My pain is my pain, just as yours belongs to you. The fact that you think mine "should be less" because I am higher functioning does not make it any less real to me. However "easy" something may look to me, I now know that it may be a huge big deal to you. I hope to get the same consideration from you, because there is no way to guess when your "easy" may be my "insurmountable." And when we ridicule each other, it leads to a place no one wants to go. . .

It's one more reason that we should show tolerance and compassion.