Who’s Teaching Girls to be Angry?

by Emily Smith

Now, you might have read the above in one of two ways.

The first of these ways is “come on, the internet’s full of angry feminists! Check Instagram and check Tumblr! They’re all crazy! I can’t stand it! WHO is teaching these stupid women that they need to be angry?”

This is probably not how most of you, our audience, would have read that. But certainly, it’s a view often proliferated, even encouraged, both in the dark recesses of Internet anonymity and the broad daylight of our quotidian lives.

You may even have read that tone into it without wanting to – that’s how loud this viewpoint can scream. It’s an exercise in privilege, and in irony, that boys and men in their usual environments can sometimes express so much anger… about someone else’s anger. The point, of course, is that they have the right to this anger. And women don’t.

So I’d care to illuminate the other half of this question, the genuine half, with honest concern and bafflement. Who IS teaching girls to be angry? Their parents, their teachers? In many cases, nobody. In most cases, not enough people.

In fact, this general failure to teach productive anger gets so entangled with our gender that even the words we use for “not getting angry” are domestic, traditionally effeminate in nature. We do not restrain our emotions; we bottle them. We do not build up resentment; we stew it. We do not sort out our feelings; we prune them like roses, sift them like flour. We boil over in our overwhelm. We cook up stories. We throw babies out with bathwater. And so on.

I claim a new language for the anger of women. A strong language. A dark, wild language. I am not “steamed,” “strained” or “drained” because I am not pasta. A thick-funneled vortex churns away at my heart and threatens to swallow it up, because I am a storm. And if you believe storms are fickle (as oh, so many do), you fail to understand weather.

Storms follow iterative rules; each molecular movement of the cloud depends upon the movement before it. This is why meteorologists run their simulators so many times, why the predicted path of a hurricane grows increasingly narrow as it approaches the shore. The possibilities appear chaotic, yet are mathematically predictable.

The path of a storm is a fractal.

The path of my anger is a fractal. Each measurable state depends upon the measurable state before it. And so I think it must be with “angry feminists” in our current sociopolitical climate. No one has given us the right to be angry (or feminists anymore, for that matter). No one has predicted us; no one has stood watch for our storms. And because there are no plans in place, we devastate the land.

To paraphrase Alexander Pope, “to anger is human; to believe, divine.” As human beings, we deserve our storms. One deserves a natural pattern of behavior, a climate to call one’s own. Even the sunniest of dispositions will occasionally darken, and even the darkest are not on constant tornado watch. As we know in this environmentally conscious world (or at least, we ought to by now), prevailing climate offers a range of variance. It is not the same as daily weather.

Certainly we all wish for fair weather, relative warmth and sunlight. This is a mercy in our lives, hence the dead metaphor of precipitation as “inclement.” Yet we understand that the elements of nature do not offer us eternal clemency. We watch, wait, and prepare.

I therefore advise all women and men expressing the storms of their lives: brace for those of others as if they were inevitable, because they are. Look out your windows; check your local listings.

Plan for the weather you see.

Fail Faster: A Change of Plans

by Emily Smith

The creative process and formatting of this blog isn’t working for me. So I propose an altered schedule, to revitalize our writing. Specifically, my own writing. I’ve posted here without my mother’s review, and indeed, without much revision. Sorry, Mom. I guess “autism” really is Latin for selfishness. But I HAVE to get this out there. I HAVE to get this seen.

The collaborative nature of this blog means that the two of us spend a lot of time talking to each other as co-authors before anything gets posted. But that also tends to mean, if we can’t find time to actively collaborate, nothing gets posted. We stagnate, regardless of whose turn it is or who has what posts done. I’m having a lot of trouble with this paradigm. It’s not working.

So I’m posting something every day now. Here are my reasons.

1. I feel compelled to do so. As a creative type, I find that listening to such compulsions usually yields ideas worth sharing.

2. Time I spend writing, especially for this blog, is time I always get back. It fuels a more productive day than I’d have had otherwise. That feels like I can do MAGIC with my time. I put an hour into the spell, and I get two more hours out of it. It’s a fountain, an unwinding clock, a wormhole of constantly regenerating time. It could make me immortal if I did enough of it.

3. Whenever I’m awaiting an editing session, I sprout this gnawing fear of failure. It makes me so twitchy inside that I can’t write anything good. At least, I can’t write what I think will be good enough. Robin Williams tribute? Not topical enough. Description of my day? Nobody wants to hear that. Generic post about a particular autism difficulty? But I could post that anytime! Where’s the perfection?!

But NO creative idea is perfect. Explained on their face, a lot of creative ideas are really bad! Check THESE out!

A video game about a plumber on drugs!

A play about two guys on a bench whose friend never shows up!

A novel about a bumbling old Irishman that’s full of nonsense words! Like the Odyssey, but NOT!

A picture of six hookers, but in the shape of REALLY ugly cubes! And the one in the corner is like, ten times uglier than the other five!

Yeah, let’s go there. Let’s make all that.

And we’ve got Super Mario Brothers, Waiting for Godot, Ulysses, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, respectively. They’re works of media we love. They were gamechangers. They became classics in their genres. They made Nintendo, Nintendo. Made Picasso, Picasso. And they’re all totally weird ideas that probably met a lot of failures on their way to the final iteration.

Which is why I need to FAIL FASTER.

Failures transport us between Points A and B. FAIL FASTER.

Failures give birth to human interaction about those same failures. They spawn conversation, spawn revision. FAIL FASTER.

Failures on job interviews might get me down, but they’ll point me toward the authorial success I strive for, and deserve. FAIL. FASTER.

Mom, you can post as frequently or infrequently as you want. I am here to help. I’ll also be asking you for your opinions on these posts as much as ever. I hope you’ll be here to help me as well.

But I need. To fail. Faster.

And if you’ll pardon me, gentle readers, I’m off to my part-time gig, where maybe I’ll fail some more. Just as long as I’m failing faster.

Happily Ever After Starts Here

By Jill Wilbur Smith

Last Labor Day weekend, we attended my niece’s wedding in Michigan. It was a beautiful affair, held in a barn on property that’s been in my brother-in-law’s family for generations.

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About three hours into the evening, my sister came up to me looking concerned. “Emily just got upset and said she was leaving,” she said. In the old days, I might have gotten upset myself and frantically looked for Emily to try to calm her down. But on this night I didn’t.

“She’ll be OK,” I told my sister. “I’ll check on her in a while. Don’t worry. Go enjoy your party.”

Then I got another drink and continued to mingle with family. About 30 minutes later, Emily emerged from the house. She had found a quiet corner in which to sit and recharge. She came back to the party happy and calm. I was glad that I hadn’t run after her.

I’m trying to put an appropriate amount of distance between my daughter and me. I don’t mean that I’m abandoning her. I’m simply working to let her find her way. Because I’ve learned that the way she navigates out of painful situations is rarely the way I would guide her.

That’s difficult for me. I always want to help. To soothe. To be the one to listen and make all of the bad feelings go away.  But that’s asking too much of myself. And expecting too much of her.

So, I’m trying to give Emily the space she needs. To understand that she doesn’t always enjoy being in a throng of people, even if those people are family. That the way she connects with others isn’t the way I connect with them. Her happy looks different than mine.

Earlier this summer we attended the wedding of one of my other nieces. It, too, was a joyful affair attended by almost every member of my extended family. I could have danced all night, raising my red solo cup in song and toasting the happy couple.

As much as Emily loves her cousin, the evening was too much for her. But unlike the year before, Emily didn’t get upset and disappear. Instead, she calmly said to me “I’ve had enough for tonight. I’m going to go wait in the car.” I gave her a hug and told her we weren’t ready to leave, but that we’d join her when we were.

I gave her the space she needed, but I didn’t sacrifice my own needs in the process. And it was OK. No drama. No stress. No guilt. Just two women defining happiness in their own terms and accepting their differences.

That might seem like a small thing, but for me it’s significant. It’s taken me a long time to accept that the things that make me happy aren’t always the same as the things that bring Emily joy. That reality used to make me sad. I felt that Emily was missing out on an important part of life. But I now recognize the fallacy of my belief. I’m beginning to accept that her happily ever after, although different than mine, will be happy. I confess that I still have my moments of longing, but it’s a start.

 

 

“Get a Clue”: An Aspie’s Need for Specificity

By Emily Smith

The following is a compilation of several phrases that Aspies hate, in no particular order:

  • Be nice.
  • Try and “wow” me.
  • Do something.
  • Just make an effort.
  • Get a clue.

Here’s why we hate them. At least, here’s why I hate them. I’m guessing that a lot of Aspies agree with this designation of hatred, but for now I’ll speak for myself.

Consider the following. How many different things can each of these phrases actually imply? One person’s nice is another person’s nosy, so what kind of “nice” am I supposed to be? Even the most concerted effort can be useless if the approach is wrong— so how should the approach look? The “wow” factor is going to be unexpected and indescribable by nature, so how is telling someone to embody “wow” anything but useless? And finally, my personal least favorite. Get a clue.

A clue about what? How am I supposed to know? I hear that phrase as “hey! Learn what I’m thinking about, right now! Just go ahead! Learn that particular thing, with zero prior knowledge of it!”

Is that really supposed to be easy for me? How is that easy for anyone? Are there big blue pawprints on said “clues” that I just don’t see?

In a lot of cases, it turns out that there are. Social cues provide context that NTs have a lot less difficulty decoding and translating into corresponding actions. Aspies don’t have that, even if we learn the rudiments of it. If you’re frustrated with me, for example, I’ve learned to pick up on that. I pick up on that very much. It distresses me. I do not want you to feel frustrated about my behavior. But unless I’m told what the problem is, I probably don’t know what to do about it.

In the Harry Potter universe, there’s a device called a Remembrall. It’s a little glass ball that fills up with red smoke when its holder has forgotten something. The fatal flaw of the Remembrall is that forgetful people, who need its reminders most, don’t always get what they need out of it. As the absentminded young Neville told his classmates, “I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten.”  That’s more or less how I feel whenever I’m told something action-oriented, but vague. I’m glad to know I’ve failed to do something, but I have no idea what the something was.

Take this for example. I’ve been living at home for a long time now, which isn’t exactly a picnic for any of us, but for now it’s working. I always did chores and errands around the house when asked, so for the longest time I didn’t understand that my parents felt unappreciated. My demeanor still appeared ungrateful. After a year of miscommunications, in the messy aftermath of all our bottled feelings exploding, we finally landed on the idea that adults do chores without being asked.

That’s pretty dumb, right? Rock-stupid obvious. Most people my age would understand that after a year of living at home, or living anywhere with other people. I feel bad about not having known that, but I really just needed to be told that this was an ongoing social expectation. So I finally learned that, and I fixed it. I even found a part-time job and I’m actually moving out soon. I’m doing what others tacitly expect of me. I remember.

If you’re an NT who gets bummed out by Aspie behavior, try and take this with you. The way a lot of us tell people’s feelings is kind of like a Remembrall. Are we cool? Okay, Remembrall’s clear. Are you mad? Frustrated? Did we forget to do something? Red smoke. What’s it for? I don’t know. Panic, panic, panic.

Help us not panic. Remind us what we forgot.

Forbidden Fruits

by Emily Smith

I’d like to take a detour from our usual program and call attention to the insights of another young artist, Lily Myers. She wrote an amazing slam poem earlier this year, one that any female/feminine listener must hear and understand with such immediacy; in three and a half minutes, Ms. Myers describes virtually all the accumulated hurts of our gendered lives. Even the third-party title of this link lays bare that stricken nerve: “Watch A Student Totally Nail Something About Women That I’ve Been Trying to Articulate For 37 Years.”

I cannot do it justice alone. Here it is.

Lily Myers Slam Poem worth spending 3 1/2 minutes of your life watching.

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If you identify as masculine, as a boy or man, I won’t exclude you in addressing this piece. In fact, it seems even more important for women to share this with you, the men in our lives. We love you to bits, but it hurts us when you don’t notice our frailties. Sometimes we need to hear that it’s okay to try for bigness. That permission can make a world of difference.

We feel small in our skins because men fail to notice our suffering, but also because other women don’t corroborate our feelings. Shrinkage is a hard problem to articulate; by its nature, it makes itself unseen. Despite the commonness of the struggle, nobody shares it. I doubt most women could have unearthed the raw emotion that Lily Myers exposes here, let alone denounce it as she has so bravely done.

We all face demons when occupying physical space, and I am no exception. Emotional eating is my ceaseless plague; all told, I’ve yo-yo’ed through sixty full pounds between June of 2009 and today. I currently weigh 190 pounds, nowhere close to ideal for my 5’3″ frame. However taboo or artless that may sound, my honesty feels right.

More taboo and artless honesties still to come, in what I hope will evolve as a series on gender and the autism spectrum. Today it seemed more important to cover a neurotypical base, a sort of default or control group for later contrast. Despite that, Asperger’s remains relevant. Stay tuned.

I never forget that my non-Aspergian female friends and family members understand demons, too. I count the following, nameless yet identified, among them:

  • A gluten-free vegan who does daily battle with both Crohn’s Disease and anorexia nervosa, quite the courageous “true, young and pure girl-woman” as she once wrote
  • A strong, fit teen who still went from designer sample size to an 8 within the space of a year (since grown womanly dimensions have this tendency to occupy more space, now don’t they?)
  • A gender-fluid female who resents her tiny hourglass waist — she would feel far more at home with a svelte, boyish cut of the body
  • My über-feminine high school gal pal whose body mismatches her indelible sense of self as a woman, and who makes a classier lady than most who are born to it

These women have so much more to offer the world than only their insecurities. Yet over the years, I’ve found I can best understand other women by considering them as self/self-image paired units. I confess to feeling awful about this; the women I know and love are full and dynamic characters. They make brilliant discoveries, speak vivaciously in many languages, seize control of their creative projects and build their own lives. Surely such positive traits should serve to identify them.

But no.

The body parts a woman hates, the workouts she despises but does anyway, the foods she’s convinced she absolutely must not eat— these are the facets of her character that prove as form-fitting and impossible to dismiss as her shadow.

We tell ourselves that beauty only goes skin-deep, but that hasn’t been true for a long time. Not since the summons of a seraph with a flaming sword. Not since the paradise where nakedness knew no shame. Not since two lovers sharing an apple marked the end of the world.

Each Day Thereafter

by Emily Smith

It’s Tuesday, like lots of other Tuesdays, and my old-lady pillbox needs filling again. You know the kind. Garish translucent plastic you can’t misplace, white large-print letters you won’t misread. Days of the week, pills of the day. I feel like I’m far too young to have one. Still, I have one. And today is Tuesday, like lots of other Tuesdays, which means it needs filling.

Seems simple, really. Take the bottles out of their plastic bin, cart them five feet to the bathroom, and pour out twenty-one tablets and capsules— seven of the former, fourteen of the latter. But at twenty-two, I balk at the idea that foreign agents serve as my body’s stopgap measures. I’m no bedridden invalid. Not to put too fine a point on it, but taking pills sucks. It means you’re old.

The pink progestin tabs, dressed to kill in their slim teal pack, soothe my singed pride a little. After all, they’re as tiny and rosy and round as the babies I’d rather not have. Every twenty-something’s best friend. Young people’s medicine. The pack suits them just fine. My other pills, the ones I think of as old-people pills, are not like that. They remedy more serious ailments.

The grainy beige wafers are Singulair, seven of them. The label says take it at bedtime, but I prefer morning. They’re for asthma; they provide a small but consistent baseline of control. My inhaler’s effect is more dramatic than it is lasting, and in truly senescent fashion, I often forget to use it. Hence, beige pills.

The capsules are smooth, green glass with miniscule black lettering: E 88. They might as well read “fulfillment,” “optimism,” or even “discipline.” They’re fluoxetene, generic Prozac. The label instructs me to take one for the first seven days, and two each day thereafter. A week into the full dosage, I feel like myself again. For the first time since last February, the me in the bathroom mirror looks happy by default. Given the last three fiascoes, I’d started to wonder.

I still have some half-empty bottles, and whenever I refill my pillbox I end up looking at them. I should probably throw them out. They’re half-expired and it’s bad form to keep random drugs around. Regardless, there they sit in the bin by my dresser, bull’s-eyes gathering dust, still ringed with the childish green plastic that marks them as mine for eternity.

Citalopram resembles nothing so strongly as Tic-Tacs, and I give the bottle a shake out of habit. It really did flat-line my depression, for a while. Too bad it also flat-lined my other feelings. The first week I took it, I suspected it might do nothing. By week three, I couldn’t stand all the nothing it did.

Sertraline is next in the Target Pharmacy bin of shame. I stayed with this one long enough to refill the pillbox a handful of times; I even took it on vacation once. I loved the look of those smooth, blue bullets. Over the weeks, though, unlikely but plausible self-harm situations began parading through my head at all hours. What if I slipped on a steak knife? Walked into traffic? Pulped my whole arm in the garbage disposal, jammed my house key in an electrical socket, and then poisoned myself with an obscene amount of anti-cavity toothpaste?! The list grew increasingly frantic, deadly, and absurd. Soon every household object in sight wanted to kill me. Bullets, indeed.

Terrified of my morbid imagination and convinced that no drug would help, I feigned happiness. The bottle stayed in its bin; the same fourteen bullets kept rattling around. You can tell that I stopped from the early date on the label.

There’s no third bottle.

I lied about sertraline for a long time— for much longer than I actually took it, in fact— and that is by far my worst failure. During all those months, I could’ve been feeling the way I do now. Instead, I withdrew from my social circle, spurned my family, took my crappy job too much to heart, and acted pissed off 24/7. It seemed easier than telling loved ones about macabre side effects. Looking back now, it absolutely wasn’t.

Let me be clear. New meds haven’t made me more sociable, even-tempered, or resilient. They do, however, help me stop worrying so much about my pillbox. It’s useful; it’s not the mark of a pariah. It’s a goddamn pillbox. So what.

Today is Tuesday, like Wednesday, Thursday, and each day thereafter.

Social Energy: A Marathon, not a Sprint

by Jill Wilbur Smith

I’m in a book club with a group of women with whom I might not otherwise socialize. It makes for interesting conversation about the books we read, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to know them all so well over the past few years. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

But, because these women aren’t my close friends, and because I only see most of them once every 6 to 8 weeks, it takes extra energy to attend the meetings. We meet on Friday night, not always my most vibrant time of the week.

The morning of the last time we met, I was having coffee with Emily and bemoaning the fact that I had book club that evening. It had been a long, trying week at work and I was psyching myself up for the night. I didn’t want to go. It felt like an obligation, not something fun.

“I like these women a lot,” I told Emily, “but I have to prepare myself to meet with them. It takes extra social energy to go to these meetings.”

Emily’s expression changed and she nodded her head. It hit me.

“I’ve just described every one of your social interactions, haven’t I?”

“Pretty much,” she said.

I’ve lived with Emily for 22 years, and this was the first time I really sensed what it must feel like for her to have Asperger’s.

I’ve been in other situations that require extra social energy: going to a party where there are people I’ve never met, teaching a workshop for the first time, interviewing someone about a difficult life experience. But these circumstances don’t occur every day.

For Emily, every day requires the type of stamina most of us only need occasionally. Even interacting with people she knows well can zap her social energy.

I’ve always known that Emily needs extra time alone to “decompress” as we call it. But now I have a little better understanding of why. Now I understand how exhausting it must be for her to go to work, meet with friends, take part in conversation around the dinner table.

When I’m faced with a difficult social interaction, I can usually take a deep breath, fix my resolve and sprint through the encounter. Emily, on the other hand, is running a social marathon. It requires constant training and conditioning.  And the resolve to just keep running, even when the finish line is nowhere in sight.

Odd Ducks Anonymous

By Emily Smith

As a young woman on “the Spectrum,” as all autism-like disorders may be dubbed, I am sometimes frustrated by the degree to which people will prematurely, and incorrectly, judge me as inept in the arena of sociability. Now, before I progress any further on that subject, let me assure you: people who judge me this way are often more correct in such judgments than I would always care to believe. Not entirely correct, mind; they’ve got a point. And as my maternal grandfather might’ve once said, if they part their hair right, it won’t show. A kinder way of saying, you might be onto something, good buddy, but I just don’t give a damn.

I suppose the best way to begin this massive endeavor called the Fractal, might be to make a small personal confession. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem— or, in my case, a quality that occasionally causes problems. As my “gentle readers,” you’re officially part of my group now, so let’s jump right into the chaotic roil. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone.

My name is Emily…

“HI, EMILY!”

And I am an odd duck.

What do I mean, exactly, when I declare myself an odd duck? Well, for one thing, I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid to use an awkward and possibly outdated phrase like “odd duck” to get the proper point across. If anything, its awkwardness makes the phrase fitting, more opportune, almost charming in a rather dopey sort of way. I’m a painfully honest, right-up-in-your-face word blurter who cannot always restrain her internal dialogue to those safe little thought-bubble clouds that most of the populace carries around out of habit. This affords me a great deal of automatic stress relief, as well as a range of expressive freedoms; at least in the realm of interpersonal calm, I breathe rarefied air. Of course, the flip side of this is that I can hardly swing a dead cat in a circle without smashing into someone else’s delicate feelings. Heck, I might’ve just caught some grief for a dead cat joke there. Wouldn’t be the first time.

I’m also a self-professed geek, which doesn’t usually bolster my “image.” I’ve rolled an awful lot of funny-shaped dice in my time. I more often ponder “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” than “the real world, here and now.” It sometimes lands me in hot water, especially if someone is trying small talk. The world of imagining is big. Not more important; by no means haughty. Just big. Thinking big while talking small, you’ll find, lends a person the look of constant boredom with the world as it actually operates. As repercussions of geekdom go, this is about the only one that sometimes catches me wishing I were a little more “normal.”

Social awkwardness and/or geekness may deter people from learning my true personality, but I make an unswervingly loyal friend. A peer without peer, as it were. For loved ones who approach me with painful scars and burdensome personal secrets, I unconditionally drop my fog. I listen without judgment; I comfort without doubting motives or questioning sorrows. In my experience, neurotypicals rarely display this trait. They seek few social burdens. Perhaps they sleep better for it. How rare and valuable, then, must a seeker of social burdens prove.

My own seeking originally sprang from the fear that my friends were false and would leave me. At least in my youth, they were; and they did. I still fear losing those I love more than is healthy, but my fears more often give way to an appreciation for friendship that few could claim to match. That is what my autism means to me, and what I hope it may mean for others. My oddball exterior, when allowed its foibles, gives way to a gooey center. Call me a friend; it is yours.