Curriculum Vitae

"Wellsperger's" Models: A First Look

At twenty past six, I set out for a walk, not having had one earlier. It was already getting dark; that was a surprise. Wasn't yesterday the somethingth of August? Well, no. The year is coming to an end. Thanksgiving is mere weeks away. Kathleen is delighted to heading back to the Buccaneer in St Croix for that holiday, and it's time to order Christmas cards.

As I walked down to Carl Schurz Park, I thought about what I usually think about these days: my new life. I don't mean the life in which my neck has been not only fixed but improved as well, so that I stand for the first time in over ten years with something like my formerly imposing height. The new neck may be a dandy symbol of my new life; if I was going to have an accident that required neck surgery, this was the time to have it. The new life, though, is the one that began a few weeks earlier, when I realized that I'd been living my old life unaware that my mind was afflicted with a malady that, out of a mixture of respect and ignorance, I've decided to call "Wellsperger's."

From what I understand, people with Asperger's Syndrome learn appropriate social behavior indirectly, from examples that they study from a detached distance. They can't learn from the group that they're in, because the mass of information is too chaotic and unmarked; they can't tell what's important from what's not. But take them out of the equation, and they can be pretty fast learners. From books, from movies, from any situation in which they're allowed the passivity of an audience. Now that the disorder - we'll acknowledge that it's a disorder simply because it's uncommon (although not that uncommon, affecting as it does one in one hundred sixty-seven Americans*) - is beginning to be understood by pediatric psychologists, I'm sure that all sorts of wonderful techniques are under development for placing kids in the right audience, but those of us who grew up in a world unaware of Herr Doktor Asperger's 1944 findings were on our own. It was up to us to decide what to learn, and from whom. We were the ones who chose the models on whom we would learn to pattern our own behavior, eventually passing ourselves off as "naturals."

On the whole, I think that I chose good models. Let me just say that I don't think that Kathleen would have married me if I hadn't, especially given the fact that, in one area, the models that I chose were not good. This was the area of drinking, and, now that I have resolved to live without hard liquor, I am combing my memory for the models on which my own drinking habits and permissions were based.

There will doubtless be readers for whom alcohol is alcohol is alcohol, and for whom beer and wine are as "bad" as gin. I have absolutely no time for such people, who may understand a lot about alcoholism, a disease that, whatever it really is, doesn't affect me, but who understand nothing of people like me. As it happens, I have three different sets of models for drinking. There is a beer model, a wine model - and a host of what I'll call booze models. Only the latter are of interest to me now, but I'll review the first two briefly.

My model for beer is that it is an appropriate drink with a sandwich at lunchtime. Every once in a while, a second beer is okay, but I desire it only rarely, on very hot days with certain salty foods. I cannot recall ever becoming drunk on beer alone. I'm sure that it made me pretty tipsy a few times in college and in law school, but at that time I was following social models that evaporated completely when I graduated. By the way, I was big enough to hold a lot of beer.

My model for wine was very rudimentary until I was well into my thirties. Jug wine was an agreeable way to take the buzz off the end of soul-sucking days in Houston, in the years between college and law school. After law school, I began to learn something about wine, and in no time at all my model was straightforwardly French. Wine became something to savor with a good meal, or to enjoy with a bit of cheese and relaxed conversation. There is no doubt that a glass or two of good wine can warm the heart with a deep contentment. But it is very disagreeable to drink so much wine that reading a moderately demanding book becomes difficult.

The models for booze, curiously, have little to do with the alcoholic effect of - my preference - gin. These models are all about glamour and Olympian ease. They involve leaving the plane of everyday life for another mode of existence, but they are not about getting drunk. I do (or did) get drunk, of course, because I never figured out how to stay in that dangerously magical upper world without keeping the martinis coming. What did I leave behind when I drank martinis? Nothing less than all the responsibilities of navigating my way through the world while saddled with a near-total lack of common social sense.

So far, I've identified three different models for drinking booze. Three different images, or classes of images. One involves my parents, who both had drinking problems that, miraculously, seemed at least to me to have no unfortunate consequences. Another model is a reasonably famous movie, in which the consequences of more or less constant tugging at a bottle of Bordeaux are apparently positive. The third model is a friend whose constitution is so unlike my own that it's amazing that we sustain a friendship at all. There are more models, I'm sure. But unlike the models that inspired me to read as much French as I could, and to listen hard to Beethoven's late quartets, and to start up a Web log with a rigorous commitment to daily entries; unlike the models that made a pretty good cook out of me, and a fairly genial host, and, eventually, a good listener - unlike all the models that prompted me to grow, my hard-liquor models never worked for me without terrible risks of fiasco. Let's say that I got away with drinking too much three-quarters of the time. Success? I think not. While I imagined that I was quaffing nectar with the gods, I might actually be a sour, whining drunk, complaining about the general unfairness of my life. Being drunk didn't make it any easier to figure out what was so unfair about a life blessed with so much health and privilege, but I was sure that I'd been dealt a very bad card. And I was right. But if I looked at this card only when I was drunk, I was never going to see it or understand while intoxicated.

As it happened, it was only a few short weeks after looking at the bad card stone cold sober for the very first time that my body gave out on me after a convivial afternoon of martinis. I fell down and broke my neck, in the privacy of my own bedroom. For almost a week, I struggled against the idea that I had broken my neck, just as I resisted the idea that I would have to stop drinking spirits. The moment the X-rays were explained to me, however, I came round. I was lucky to be alive - very lucky to be unimpaired by damage to the spinal cord - and I wanted to live as never before. I knew that I would never figure out how to "drink safely," not because I lacked self-discipline (as I had thought) but because my touch of Wellsperger's leaves me wide-open vulnerable to a deranging overstimulation that is certain, every now and then, to overwhelm my body. I might just as well take up Russian roulette as continue to drink martinis.

I have a reason for collecting and examining the models, as I call them, but it has nothing to do with explaining why it is that I drank "tee many martoonis" for so many years. My purpose is more urgent than that. In the spring of 1984, I read an essay in the Sunday Times Magazine in which Barbara Ehrenreich, writing about "The New Man" - rather mordantly, if I recall correctly - observed that "smoking has come to be perceived as a blue-collar habit," or words to that effect. I stopped smoking, cold, two days later. I made a hash of the next few months with a combination of Nicorette gum, Xanax, and plenty of liquor, but I never smoked again. My model for smoking had been shattered. I was thirty-six at the time, old enough to grasp that what had seemed cool and sophisticated twenty years earlier was actually pretty dumb, but what ruptured the habit was drastic mortification. Me, blue collar?

Kathleen has threatened over the years to make a tape of my late-night rants. I'm sure that I'd find it drastically mortifying to listen to, but I don't think that it would have the effect of Barbara Ehrenreich's passing comment. The tape would show me what I already know - that my booze-drinking models don't work for me at all. They don't always make me glamorous and carefree. Sometimes, they make me into a pig. But I need to find something wrong with the models besides that. Ms Ehrenreich flatly stated that the smoking model was no longer one that educated men chose to adopt. I want to find a similarly fatal flaw in the golden bowl of my own martini glass. I'm pretty sure that i have the discipline to stay away from martinis altogether. But I'll breathe much easier when discipline is replaced by much more powerful disgust. As Aristotle says, men do what is good if they know what is good. I want to know why drinking martinis is bad, and not just bad for me. I won't scold anyone who continues to enjoy them; I'll keep what I've discovered to myself. But I'll never be tempted to try one myself.

It was a good walk, and quite dark when I got home. (October 2007)

* According to James Elder Robison's memoir, Look Me In The Eye, which I'm listening to on disc and so can't cite.

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