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‘The Lover and Dreamer in Me’ (excerpt from ‘Beyond Me’)

The Lover and Dreamer in Me I rode across the Saxon bridge one day out of any. The summer monsoon of late afternoon Central Floridian life had subsided. This one might have even come on a fall afternoon. The drip of drops didn’t die come September in the Sunshine State.  Out it came. The sweet […]

The Lover and Dreamer in Me

I rode across the Saxon bridge one day out of any. The summer monsoon of late afternoon Central Floridian life had subsided. This one might have even come on a fall afternoon. The drip of drops didn’t die come September in the Sunshine State. 

Out it came.

The sweet and shimmering staircase in the sky, wondrous as it may be. 

Hall & Oates seemed an unfitting soundtrack as the glow softly sauntered to a yonder I’d never know. I’d much rather hear strummings of the bayou on my way to the other side. 

The brick-from-the-80s-or-maybe-90s strip mall on the left. The shuttered Hollywood Video on the right. There shouldn’t have been cars or lights or concrete rectangular prisms for miles if such a sight was truly upon us. Whenever I see a glowing arch rise above the evaporating fluff, there’s something special in them, something you either know or you don’t. 

All the reflections of light popped. My eyes keyed in. Like most car rides, my head was likely tilted to the right. I almost always sat in the back-right passenger seat; Em always sat in the left. Then they closed, hoping a merry tune remembered was the fare for entering places of splendor, places without girls and girls who don’t like me and not liking myself and annoying parents and an even more annoying sister and stupid memory verses and worksheets due by the end of class and 10pm Sunday-Thursday and 6am Monday-Friday and the desire for death amidst it all. 

A lingering twinge having left me helpless, I made way into the once cutting-edge multiplex. But the Seminole Towne Center 10 wasn’t so anymore. Before the new multiplex where the cows grazed on the outskirts opened down the road from us, my family and I alternated between Amstar 12 and Seminole Towne Center 10. This time, the film of choice was showing at the latter. I had lots of memories there: a lost teddy bear in ’99, four-day-old popcorn, sand-paper seats. But one film would soon take first place, the one I’d remember most. Throughout the 21st century, my dad had taken my sister and I to many a middling children’s film there, ones he wished he could fall asleep during (successfully during the Pokemon films and Super Baby Geniuses). But this one on Thanksgiving night was different. 

I don’t know what hooked me in the year of Harry Potter’s last hurrah, mostly Spanx-free superheroes, ape-led rebellion and reptilian gunslingers. Earlier in the year, I thought I’d gotten my nostalgia fix by returning to the Hundred Acre Wood for 53 minutes. Perhaps it had just been 90 minutes or so too short. But what did I care only a few months later? I hadn’t cared about this felt family in years. Sure, I remembered bears, frogs, pigs, dogs, monsters, grouches, dingers and honkers (yip-yip-yip-yip!). They left their audiences (themselves, too) in stitches. But like a lot from childhood, the rabid fondness detached itself during My Moody Era (2010-2013).

I was too big. 

Too big to openly admit my enjoyment for the pleasures of youth.

Everything got a piercing look: my parents, my sister, the unsuspecting mailman. No one evaded my wrath. Embracing sweetly whispered falsehoods, I spent three years going against type. Because I wasn’t a brooder or a fiend or the burnout or the emo. I certainly couldn’t claim to be a hipster. Wallowing in borderline nihilism didn’t match my rosy complexion or my blue eyes (perhaps my pasty-white, easily burnt skin, though). My type had been that of the silly, starry-eyed. happy-go-lucky, perpetually naïve, overthinking, hopeful romantic, if such a plethora of qualifiers can precede an archetype. 

I’d thought and dreamt about stories and adventures before.

Now all I ever thought about were my woes, about the woes no one understood or no one cared about or would care about if I bothered to tell them or would know what to say if I did tell them the all-consuming cynicism rendering all as vapid in my adolescent purview. 

What caused me to stop being a lover and dreamer? 

The kind Kermit had almost always been – aside from reaching the wit’s end en route to Broadway or an existential musing on his merry way to sing and dance and make people happy in Hollywood. 

I pictured the visionary amphibian serenely strumming his banjo from afar, singing about believing and persevering. As his black clover pupils swayed as he plucked away at the strings musing through rhetoric leading to self-affirmation, I could see why he wanted to sing and dance and make people happy. When you’re young, it doesn’t seem like an absurd aspiration, either. At four (or was it five?) years old, the rainbow connection resonated. As he moved right alongside good friends you’d never want to lose and made his way to the Magic Store along the Pacific, I maintained my own dream factory, acting out stories wih Em, telling stories to myself as wheels on the bus rumbled down roads in need of repair. 

I traveled everywhere without going anywhere. Once my penmanship improved from ‘Picasso-influenced cave drawings’ to ‘Pollock-inspired chicken-scratch,’ I put my dynamic journeys to paper. Inspired by my rambunctious imagination, I planned to do something big (TIBEUS – to indeterminately be elaborated upon someday).  

Yet, as I waited for the previews, green obscured my vision amidst crisp images of the latest version of Law & Order because Dick Wolf wanted to produce and create and make himself and the Executive Producers and the stars and the studio and NBC quite a handsome sum. Just as Kermit found it wasn’t easy being himself, colored like a well-groomed lawn come June, I found it wasn’t easy being me. One aspect made it seem harder to be me than it was for others to be themselves. It wasn’t easy being autistic. This restrictive label had disconnected me from both identities, of loving and dreaming. 

My family had suspected so since Mrs. Sirianni or another elementary school teacher told my parents I might have Asperger’s. Em had been confirmed as Aspie, but mine had just been implied. But the implications were heavy. It may have been why girls just didn’t like me or why I found conversing with women to be equivalent with astro-physics. It may have been why no one wanted to be my friend until fourth grade. It may be why I still feel alone at conferences and weddings and parties, why my brain quite literally shuts down the longer I am around a group larger than 5 to 7 persons. It may be at the center of why I read the phone book at age two or why I knew how to read before everyone or why no one liked me or why I felt myself out of this world’s ways. 

It’s a tough hue to bear, the designation deemed a disorder, an assurance of social, emotional, romantic and vocational disarray for my personage, so they mused. They being neurotypical. They being those who just knew how to talk or make people feel comfortable or talk to girls or not get stuck in their head or laugh at a memory of a moment from SpongeBob when nobody’s talking. They being not like me. They being those who could afford to dream big, they who people enjoyed the presence of.

Not me. 

They weren’t autistic.

After a few boxes were checked on the ‘Dude, Are You Autistic?’ quiz (from someone representing all nations, but mostly America – BuzzFeed), I nearly ended up in the department deemed ‘special.’ Despite my recent designation as third-grade’s Multiplication King and binge-reading of the Great Illustrated Classics, none of this mattered. But looking like Kermit introducing Milton Berle or Ethel Merman after two Red Bulls sure did.      

No one looked past it. In first or second or third grade. Few even in fourth or fifth or the grades to come.

Flap. 

They snickered. 

Flap-flap, flap-flap

If they didn’t snicker aloud, they’d silently treat me like a Barnum exhibition. I sensed them silently musing about the peculiarity of my hands performing interpretive tap and jazz routines during our math lesson or reading time or spelling test. Their lips did a pantomime routine as they must have been practicing amongst themselves. Just as everyone wants to enjoy the bearded lady, so they might want to smirk at the sight of my wrists competing to see who could jump the highest, like someone had pierced me and stuck rods there, being effortlessly maneuvered by Jim or Frank. I figure it might have been how children grow into the overlooked innocuous ignorance, not by nasty words, but rather by comfort, the ease of a label relieving them of hard tasks. Like vulnerability. Like listening. Like noticing similarities and differences alike. 

It’s easier for them to think I and anyone like me is retarded. 

I’d only known good-natured jokes before.Like the zingers Statler and Waldorf aimed at Fozzie Bear’s standup or Oscar calling Big Bird a ‘turkey.’ Behind every rapid-fire one-liner there lied a faint tint of compassion. My peers aspired to be nasty. I knew their color choice was off. I never understood the animosity, the darkness in their chosen label.

Why did they consider me retarded? The teachers saying I needed to go into Special Ed. The kids who thought I was an idiot and hated my personage. My high school crowd of friendly fiends that thought I didn’t comprehend what it meant to hear ‘you’re retarded’ as a constant dull echo over my interactions.

Why must the minority accept me? Why not the majority? So I likely mused as I brooded many a 10th grade study hall.

I had an IQ well above 75 or 80, depending on the threshold you desire to use. 

I could talk just like all the other kids. 

I could read and think and dream like all the other kids. 

Later, I’d find I could empathize and sympathize  like anyone else, that I could run a 6 minute and 25 second mile, that I could make people laugh and smile on purpose.

I suppose it was the involuntary jazz hands. A little too much of the razzle-dazzle, of the forgotten flim-flam of yore.

Perhaps my authenticity made me a riot back when I rarely guarded my tongue.  However, it wasn’t like the shenanigans in the Muppet Theater. They questioned every silly thing about me like my obsessions with tycoon games, pocket monsters and movie box office. But especially the Muppets.

People didn’t like what I liked. And, though learned I didn’t want to be of these matters, when you’re trying to make friends when you’re young, you decide you want to be around people like you and who like what you do. Or if you like what you do, you keep it secret. You learn about the maximum threshold most people can handle of just you being yourself.

I didn’t know puppets were considered weird.

Worse yet, Muppets were (GASP) ‘babyish.’

How could an infant enjoy running gags all about ‘Hare Krishna’ or cheeky puns? How could a newborn appreciate loyalty to friends or tributes to vaudeville showmanship?

Regardless 30 first graders overruled me.

I learned this on picture day.

2002/2003.

While the other guys grabbed footballs and baseballs for their photos, I gravitated toward a gleeful showboat lying on the shelf.

The falsetto was strong with this one. 

I heard laughter, but not the Tickle-Me Elmo kind.

Before then, I didn’t mind associating with the Muppets’ fixations: Cookie Monster’s gruesome gobbling, The Count’s constant counting (slowly, slowly, slowly getting faster), Crazy Harry’s pyrotechnic prowess. I saw a lot of my fervent dedication and extensive knowledge of the things I loved. Yet my peers loathed my passions. No one cared about my favorite anything after the umpteenth time.

I finally got the message. I dropped any tics labeling my autistic self. I knew I’d have to hide. Soon, the ‘red,’  ‘orange,’ ‘yellow,’ ‘blue’ and ‘indigo/violet/when will purple just pick a name?’ disappeared. But never the green. This broad brush came over me, leaving coats of a stigma upon my shoulders. Like leaves on an oak in fall, my originality dwindled. But if I said nothing, no one would know. No one but me and Mom and Dad and Em.

Since people lingered on my flaws, I soon adopted their advice. Over time, I lost shades of vibrancy. I stopped being the social retard some thought I’d been, which seemed to stem from my botched voicing of opinions or ideas. 

By striving to avoid offense, I gradually lost my voice aside from failed comebacks. Like during Spirit Week my senior year. For a whole school day, I became a life-size Swedish Chef with plenty of ‘smorgus borgs’ (‘hoopter bleebens,’ too). Enough for top marks, the boost left shortly after taking off the mask. My own voice grew foreign, one I’d forgotten, one as strange as a silly Swede’s.

 I just had to be green, didn’t I? No wonders high above, no rustled reflections on the lagoon.  

Looking in the bathroom mirror, I glimpsed at me and spotted one like the one and only Great Gonzo. No, my nose wasn’t a sideways ‘J,’ but plenty of defects had made themselves apparent. First I saw my lazy left eye and the elevated right eye. Then the patches of acne sprouted. You start to shrug at yourself when the wrongs begin to reflect back.

Like the neurotic daredevil, by my sophomore year, I felt like a mere whatever, simply an afterthought in life’s busyness. Some nights, I said I’d return to the days free of my autism being a defining factor. I’d let the rainy lullaby accompany my restless slumber.

As I sipped some Dasani (this tangent better not have been for the halibut – those things require a real cut to the gut), I found myself shunning the loving and dreaming of yesteryear. What had they done?  They left me a vulnerable shell. I wondered about the futility of my wishes. Like Kermit in the desert en route to Hollywood, I had a decision to make. Would pursuing nihilism, pessimism, cynicism, all sorts of ‘isms’ meant to excuse misery, work?

No, it’d never fix the green.

 Besides, loving and dreaming guided me past overcast skies. There were stories to be told along the way. All the ‘nos,’ the quiet walks around the neighborhood, the summer days spent reading a good book, all things once thought bland.

No matter how hard I tried, to paint myself accurately, I weakly returned to my inherent positivity. Optimism served as my on-again, off-again muse; joy my calling card. Laughter my go-to pain reliever; hope opportunity for today and potential for tomorrow. Despite the offers an ‘ism’ might have, light guided me toward authenticity, requiring me to accept autism as another component, neither weak nor strong.

And now for something completely different (oops, wrong comedy troupe). It was time to play the music and light the lights, to put on makeup and dress up right, to meet the show’s stars themselves. The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational and (dare I get even more cutesy?) Muppetational film of 2011 had finally arrived. Well, 15 minutes of trailers first. Then onto the Muppets!

Some laughs and tears later, I left the auditorium, humming the classic “Mahna Mahna” (do-do-de-do-doo!). But the night’s brightest moment came from a pint-sized fanboy. Won over by their zany antics, the boy spotted my brown shirt emblazoned with Mr. Hi-Ho himself.

In his enthusiasm and my enthusiasm as well, I suppose I discovered my life could be a happy song again, no longer marred by the prolonged adolescent moping pulling me apart or the agony of romantic rejection (not the end of the world, merely one of the seven signs). Every one of my struggles seemed worthwhile if it meant a story filled with ups, downs and everything in between. There was beauty in an ending undetermined. Perhaps the bygone brilliance was gone. But I would strive to restore my palette.   

The scarlet (I’d say ‘crimson,’ but it triggers some) red by embracing my eccentricities. The tangy orange by discovering groups of misfits okay with awkward and offbeat.

The goldenrod yellow by appreciating little things like sunsets and bacon-wrapped hot dogs doused in ketchup (talk about your heart skipping a beat). The sky blue by just accepting my downright Muppety self. And the indigo/violet/brainteaser of colors by honing the intense focus, fierce loyalty and intricate thoughtfulness of my place on the spectrum.  

The Muppets ended their first film by saying life’s like a movie. The path had been there if I envisioned it. Once I believed in my potential again, each facet could steadily return. Better yet, I’d find a few years later that I didn’t need to imagine them back. They could be tangible.

Thanks to the lover and dreamer in me.

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