Autistic Genius

Being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. People made fun of my stilted manner, my pedantic speech, and my detachment from other people.

I walked through the scenes of my life like an outside observer, stepping carefully over the rubble and staying out of trouble. There was very little happiness in my world. Luckily, I had a natural gift for understanding machines and making things work. But people were a complete mystery to me.

– Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Smoking Guitar John E. Robison Designed for KISS. Pinterest.

You may have brought John Elder Robison into your home in the 70s if you watched TV or played with an electronic toy. His was the brilliant mind behind the guitars that breathed fire and launched rockets and drove the KISS fans wild from the stage. The sound equipment he built for Pink Floyd’s sound company played before millions across North America. But he left the world of rock and roll thinking himself a fraud and failure, unable to see his value in the social fabric because he couldn’t read social cues. John didn’t know he was successful because he didn’t feel successful. So he moved into the corporate world, engineering electronic toys and games for Milton Bradley until he climbed the ladder where at the peak he found himself managing engineers, and social skills became more important than technical expertise. Although he remained troubled by people’s response to the differences that were evident in him, John didn’t know he was autistic for 40 years until he picked up Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood. Nor does he consider himself a genius, but Malcolm Gladwell will disagree because by the time John was 20 years old, he had spent well over 10,000 hours studying music and taking apart electronics, beginning with repair and eventually creating circuits of his own design. John made full use of the laser focus and prodigious capacity for knowledge that was characteristic of Aspergians alongside his commitment to hard work to carve for himself a fulfilling life. His first book, New York Times bestseller Look Me in the Eye, opens the door into the mind of autistic children and those who seem disconnected from the world. I was deeply touched by the testimony that takes us past the struggles of the autistic to the hopes of connection and belonging that embody the human spirit. Our celebrated guest, who has appeared on the Today Show and given countless interviews and talks throughout the country, has graciously taken the time to share some of his discoveries and triumphs with us.

Can you take us through the various points of your journey where you successfully applied your gifts in the face of obstacles?

With a drunk, violent father and a mother who was often manic and sometimes out-and-out crazy, my home life was chaotic and unpleasant. Teachers sometimes saw flashes of exceptionality in me, but that was overshadowed by the many deficiencies kids and adults loved to point out. With no support at school, I dropped out at 15 by which point my parents were in states of collapse, both of them having been committed to the state hospital numerous times.

There were no disability supports for kids back then, at least ones like me. I still managed to have a lot of fun as an emergent adult, playing music, riding my motorcycle, and tinkering with cars and machines. Musicians and car enthusiasts welcomed me because I could do things they valued. Knowing my social limitations, I realized I would never be the guy on stage playing the guitar or the driver racing a rally car to victory. But I could be the guy behind the scenes with the technical skills to help make those things happen. I also became good at fixing cars and between those things, I made enough money to get my own apartment.

I am really lucky to have the ability to fix and create things that others value. Repairing a car or a broken electronic device is a skill that is useful everywhere. Creating stories also has universal value. At first, I wrote reports and proposals for clients. Then I wrote articles in car magazines. After learning about my autism, I decided to write a book and then wrote three more. Now I am back to writing car articles and stories on neurodiversity while running a business that restores, sells, and services high-end cars.

My parents had their share of problems, but despite alcoholism and mental illness they were both successful teachers. I think they would be proud to see that I’ve followed in their footsteps. I enjoy learning and sharing my ideas as the neurodiversity scholar at William and Mary and the neurodiversity advisor for Landmark College. I get to speak on autism and neurodiversity at other colleges every year. As my father did as a professor of philosophy, I grapple with difficult ethical issues in various settings like government autism committees.

Creating pictures, also something I enjoy, too has helped me find success. I earned the down payment on the garage complex of my car company from concert and carnival photo royalties. Today I am proud to see hundreds of musicians and circus performers using my images, which have been widely published, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to billboards along the highway.

Patch.com

What compelled you to reach for success over against your difficult upbringing and social disability?

Looking back at what I’ve achieved, I guess one thing is how important it was to me that I produce good work. The absence of security in my childhood also gave me a very strong drive to make it. I made myself successful as I learned how to minimize my disabilities to the point of acceptability and how to build up my gifts and find people like those musicians who could appreciate what I could do and whose minds were flexible enough to excuse what I couldn’t do.

I believe knowledge of autism at an earlier age would have changed the course of my life. Without the understanding of what made me different, I grew up thinking I was a second-rate human being. Today, with a large number of extremely successful clients in the auto restoration field, I look at myself and them and see how much social disability had held me back. At the same time, I see how far logic, reasoning power, and technical skill have brought me. These things gave me a strong desire to prove I was good and drove me to my various accomplishments.

You’ve cited studies that measured the internal physiological response of autistic people in the face of emotional prompts like watching someone get poked or hurt. Turns out autistic people sustain a stronger response of empathy than nonautistic folks for longer, at that. Could you talk about autistic people’s capacity to love?

Autistic people have the same capacity for love or any other emotion as anyone else. We just don’t always show our emotions in the expected ways, or to the expected degrees. And our emotional responses may not be the same as those of a person who is not autistic for a given triggering event.

How did you manage discouragement?

I just kept working. I failed at things, lost jobs, made and lost friends, but through it all I just kept going because I had no other choice. The weight of that mantle of sadness was very heavy for a long, long time. It’s much less so today. I have always wrestled with anxiety and depression.

Who inspired you in your journey?

In whatever field I worked there were always older engineers and technicians who seemed to be better at everything I could do. They challenged me to improve my skills. Looking back, I am not so sure they could actually do everything better than me, but being older they certainly possessed more wisdom and experience, and many had families and lives outside work, which I hoped to have one day (and eventually did).

For the longest time I internalized my failure in school and saw myself as just a high school dropout, an uneducated failure. I wish I had models who succeeded outside the mainstream but self-educated people are rare today, although they were quite common before the rise of “big education” in the 20th century.

I may look and act pretty strange at times, but deep down I just want to be loved and understood for who and what I am. I want to be accepted as part of society, not an outcast or outsider. I don’t want to be a genius or a freak or something on display. I wish for empathy and compassion from those around me, and I appreciate sincerity, clarity, and logicality in other people.

– Look Me in the Eye

It’s All in the Suffering

photy.org

I was going to say no, I didn’t fall off a cliff, but actually, I did. And though I lay on the rocks, wishing nothing more than to be wiped off the planet, I somehow made it back up, half-carried by angels, broken bones and all. The bruises linger, but the bones, to my wonder, have healed and the bleeding stopped. I wasn’t done for. As long as I had breath, as long as I could form my words, the world had a place for me. Like the page in this year’s California’s Best Emerging Poets anthology. And the classroom in the private university where I taught composition this past semester. I had walked past that door many times early this year, wondering why a job at a homeschool center across the street wasn’t working out, when God had my name on that door, His writing on the wall. We launched Drummer Boy this Fall. (After 12 years of indentured servitude coupled with preteen warfare, I was done. I practically threw him over the school fence.) It was time for me to launch, too. I enjoyed the teaching immensely, and although the steep learning curve on school protocols, the grading platform, and the amount of writing to grade made for a ride under a dam that had burst, I didn’t feel mentally challenged. And the impossible hunger pangs for the writing – to do it, not just teach it – didn’t help. I’d been away from the page too long.

In thinking through what the upcoming years might look like for me unchained to my son, I discovered the other night a generous, astonishing opportunity a prestigious institution had extended me on LinkedIn months ago. Two, in fact, when I failed to respond. I glossed over the solicitation before tearing up the golden ticket and tossing it not only because the timing was implausible for me as a mother, but because it was such an amazing invitation I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Then there was my age: my son’s long-awaited self-sufficiency would put me over 50. Yes, I want to build a career with the teaching and writing, but I’m supposed to start tiring after 50, not go pursuing the academic equivalent of a rhino chase on an African safari. But Awesome Friend #1 started taping up the ticket: It seems doable, she wrote. And Awesome Friend #2 pressed it in my hand : Why limit yourself? Who cares how old you will be?

Turns out, I was the only one who cared. I was the one who intended on losing steam after 50. And as the playback on my life revealed, I was the one who’d chosen the classrooms with the low ceiling all these years, afraid to prove I really wasn’t smart or capable. But we won’t find our greatest self where it’s safe or comfortable. Retired Navy SEAL and seemingly superhuman athlete David Goggins says we have to suffer. He named every fear he could before running straight into each one because it was only when he had to decide if he would go on with the broken leg and bloody hands that he met with his highest self, not when he was downing a dozen doughnuts on the couch at 300 pounds. He discovered “that the answers are all in the suffering.” Accustomed to them, I am very good at anguish and affliction. I am less skilled at mapping the endurance into lasting victory beyond survival. Hope is not a plan. And no matter how we might dress it with color on a vision board, hope glorified, called a dream, will remain nothing more than a pretty picture without concrete day-in, day-out goals we move toward both physically and mentally.

I am coming out of a brutal year, one in which I faced the hardest truths about myself. And yet grace has met me in the dungeon, thrown open the doors, and held up a breathtaking life that is mine for the taking if I will shed the self-doubt and get to work. At just a few words from friends who wouldn’t let me shortchange myself, my life took on sudden definition. So I’ve drawn up a game plan that will reorder and fuel my life, the things time and stress had gotten in the way of, but that now tangibly serve a larger purpose, from organizing my house to working out again, studying, and writing. No longer am I sitting and hoping that my writing will be good enough and that the future will favor me. I’m gettin’ up to go git it. I will make my work good enough, silencing the imp on my shoulder that’s whispered all my life: but there are so many writers better than you. I shoved Goggins’ book in her face and refuse to hear her out anymore. I couldn’t care less who’s over me or in front. I will continue to write as though my life depends on it because it does. God has shown me that the works I have published and the classes I have taught are only a prelude to what He has in store if I will reach for the life that is bigger, so much bigger, than my failings and my fears.

Don’t Wait For Your Life

It saddens me greatly that I have only one life in which to read and write. All those books I will not have opened, the ignorance I will take with me to my final bed. And of course, the books I will have left unwritten. And yet, I’ve been given, this year, pages to add to the annals of community, and to culture and art at large.

You know how writers start a blog in the dubious hope of being discovered out here (by a publisher)? Well, one found me. I responded to the encouragement to submit, and the narrative The Measure of a Woman made its way into the 2018 New York’s Emerging Writers anthology. I put in under New York for the relevance to my mother’s early immigrant years there. The editors will offer a solo book deal to the author who draws the best reader feedback, so imagine how much I will appreciate anyone who takes a moment to put up a good word for me on that Amazon page. You can take to the bank this public assurance that I will remember you when I’m rich and famous, ’til I wake from that dream. Here are examples of comments that their readers have dropped on a previous series.

In the summer, I then reached out to WestCoast Magazines, a publication that serves the affluent families and businesses in this part of Southern California. After reading my work, the CEO gave me the run of her upcoming feature, each hard print issue drawing 100,000 views. Don’t bother tapping in if you’re not within distance, but I will say the article explains the distinctives of public, private, charter, and home schools to help families navigate choices and to build bridges across the school sectors. Unwittingly, I made some important contacts in the research, and now am on board with a large reputable school district to teach its students poetry and its teachers how to write. For starters, I was asked to share some poems at the district poetry showcase last week, where my husband and son also got to do a steel drum duet. (Yes, that is really my husband out of costume.) A few things have evolved for me simultaneously in all this.

Camera-shy (more like vehemently averse), I had always preferred to be read, not seen. And I honor the written poem because the way it looks on the page matters to me. Add to this the jarring thought that in performing a poem, I myself visually become part of the piece. Just as I had talked myself into going for it, I learned of a sudden passing of someone I had known in high school. Her lights went out after 45 brief years in a brain aneurysm. She was my age. In the face of the sure limit on my own time, I decided to forge ahead into the world of Spoken Word. Perhaps it’s as simple as middle-age bungee jumping. But I want to create in new ways, while I can. It turns out that some of my posts – prose and poetry – work well in speech. And so in an earnest defense against dementia and related demise of brain cells, I have been memorizing my work, and performed – not recited – it at the showcase last week in an electric evening with a great turnout. Entering my zone while connecting with the audience was an amazing experience that pushed me beyond the comfortable ride of rolling out words in print.

Connecting with readers virtually is a special privilege, but engaging an audience face to face – offering my physical and emotional self – is a challenge, thrill, and power all its own. Blogging has taught me to write not like I’m educated but like I’m human, to step closer to the reader. Similarly, performing literally brings me in front of people to ask them to let me in. Perhaps a student of color, along the way, will find her own voice from watching the way I modulate and present mine. Of course I questioned whether I was good enough, but was invited back for a literacy conference next month and a poetry festival in March. Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge, and I think this is so because knowledge brings us to just the knowing, but imagination allows us to keep discovering, as the arts enable us to do – not with the fastidiousness of a scientist or scholar, but in wonder. The turn in my journey isn’t only about fuller living and the evolution of an artist but also a modeling for my son. I want to help nurture his own proficiency in presentation and performance because if you can look a crowd in the eye and tell a story or share your conviction, you can influence a great many people in today’s world. DIY YouTubes and the variants of TED talks that are shaping our culture say it all. I applied and was accepted as a speaker at an annual state homeschool conference a few months ago. It both empowered and concerned me to see the homeschooling parents take to my workshop like water. They were so grateful to be led them through the precepts on writing I have shared in past posts, the response made me want to go to the public school teachers. Writers who teach are busy with aspiring writers at conferences and special programs. They are not in the schools. I am excited to be guiding teachers so they can build their own skill set along with their students’.

Pixabay/Qimono

I laugh some moments, marveling that I can make up stuff and convince people to buy my wares. But I embrace the deeper lesson that opportunity isn’t so much something that shows up, as something to create. Don’t wait for your life. The doors I tried this year have swung open, but I first had to imagine and believe people would make space for me, should make space for me, and then knock. Only one life, friends. To dream, think, pursue, make, and because we have not only hands and brain, but also spirit, to do it in community. You bet I had the little Naysayer on my shoulder to deal with. But you’re too old to be doing Spoken Word. Talk to me when Sarah Jones stops doing whatever strikes her fancy on that stage. Your material isn’t angry enough, hip enough. As long as I’m asked back, I will stake my place among the ten thousand voices of poetry. There are better writers. Always. But they didn’t call the district superintendent. It’s one thing for finances, health, or death to get the better of me, but I will not live beneath my ability out of self-scripted fear. Do my job where I am? I am letting life and joy follow where I go.

#MeToo, Sex, and the Arts

It was an introductory class in the marketing of websites under a company I was with in 2003. Relatively new to Southern California, I drove beyond the comfort zone of my city past the county line to train with the specialist. Tall and thin, the man looked to be in his 30s and welcomed his guests as we signed in at the foyer. About twenty of us filled his living room. His last name was Thompson.

I had some questions after the session. Almost everyone had left and his wife came downstairs. I remember being a little surprised at the sight of the Taiwanese woman, in part for her short, compact frame, in part for the accent, as they somehow didn’t add up to someone I’d pictured for the spouse. At some point the one or two other women who mingled had left and the three of us talked in the kitchen. While Thompson shared a bit about his life and their trip to Taiwan some years before, his wife reached for some duck eggs. He paused to grimace and wrinkle his nose, making fun of her fondness for them. I thought it rude of him to do that – in front of company – no less. One felt no love lost between the couple as she rolled her eyes and shuffled back upstairs with her meal. And she obviously couldn’t care less about leaving him alone with a woman. He wanted to show me some artwork of his. When I obliged, he sidled up to me on the island, leaning in close so that we touched as he turned the pages of a small album. He had talent, from the looks of the female breast sketched so meticulously. I made myself scarce.

Since he was the only website trainer within distance, I had to email him the technical questions I still had so I could do the work I paid to train for. He said he would have to show me on my computer, in my home, in the evening. Had I given the impression that I was stupid? Just what did he think I would do with him – or worse, what did he hope, without consent, to do to me? Distraught, I shared the email with a male friend. Since Thompson was a private contractor, not an employee at the company, he wasn’t under official supervision and therefore not accountable to authority in any strict, legal sense. While it remained within my rights to pursue this particular line of work, it fell to me to pass it over if I wished to preserve my sense of safety. As I searched my inbox for the hair-raising email to share with you, I slowly remembered wishing to rid myself of his greasy handprints and deleting it. Wanting every bit of him out from under my skin, I also tossed the closing thread in which I’d told him how uncomfortable he made me and in which he dissembled like a snake, claiming no unworthy intentions.

So of course I am gratified to watch the Harvey Weinsteins earn their due. It’s been said of Weinstein that it wasn’t about sex but power. I say, more pointedly, sexual harassment and abuse are about boundaries and how one feels entitled to help oneself to someone’s space. The predator remains deaf to all words (No) and feelings but his (or her) own. Does the Holocaust ring a bell? Of course the face of it, the expression of the narcissistic compulsion, looks different. But at root, any kind of blind, forceful imposition is like another. What we have is basic disregard for human dignity.

I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather. Stories like these have never been taken seriously. Women are shamed, told they are uptight, nasty, bitter, can’t take a joke, are too sensitive. And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President.

My hope is that Hollywood makes itself an example and decides to enact real change, change that would allow women of all ages and ethnicities the freedom to tell their stories—to write them and direct them and trust that people care. I hope that young women will one day no longer feel that they have to work twice as hard for less money and recognition, backward and in heels. ~ Molly Ringwald, The New Yorker

Unfortunately, Molly, in a business where your physical features are your résumé, you will always have the Weinsteins who can’t keep themselves from the cookie jar.

So why are women in particular prone to this dishonor? At a most basic level, we are obviously physically more vulnerable than the men. Please, I have met my share of UFC women with more brawn than the guys bench pressing but clearly they don’t outnumber the male race on any given day. The relative weakness of women is not a value judgment but a part of the attraction, no? I imagine if I had the mass of the Hulk, I wouldn’t have had to worry about Thompson. The feminist outrage against sexual harassment and abuse is in itself a confirmation of our vulnerability even as we claim our power. And so trailing the storm over women’s rights as it rounds the corner into the world of art where LGBT champions are staking their place, I find myself wondering if we are about to topple 5000 years of appreciation for the female form right alongside the Weinsteins. Rightly so, the feminist dam has burst in the world of the visual, performance, and written arts over the century. But what of poetry today that embraces homemaking or the woman’s body as a vessel for receiving a man? The plain logic of our physical design has become a regressive notion. Is the pleasure we afford men an archaic vice in public discourse? In a poem about myself as wife and mother, I’ve said:

I would become
food, grass, lake, playground

Are such pictures no longer politically correct? Yes, women have lain as doormats in their homes for thousands of years but many have done so willingly, offering themselves as gifts to their family. In the war cry for our rights, women may forget our license to give ourselves up for the taking. Where there is love, that is a power and beauty. Will we someday ban Pride and Prejudice in the schools? After all, it perpetuates skewed, patriarchal ideals of femininity. In all the sophistication of hard-won feminist ideals, I fear we will lose sight of the timeless discussion on the vulnerabilities and liabilities of womanhood and gender.

Remember, an open mic allows for all voices.

Writing: A Hermit’s Journey

If my life in books counted off the page, I could boast quite a social life. My diverse bibliodiet of fiction and fact includes Pulitzers I study, tracing the contours of the words for clues to their savoir-faire. Best thing is when I fall in, pestled upon a page of genius. I feel ridiculous. Don’t try to fool me into thinking it’s doable. High art is not five feet three. Art at its best shows me the by-ways behind the crags. It cuts and bruises. In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr shares some questions she asks to “help students diagnose their own blind spots” ~

1. What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages.
2. How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are?

[Her answers]
1. My friends usually like me because I’m tenderhearted, blunt, salty, and curious. I’m super loyal, and I laugh loud.
2. People don’t like me because I’m emotionally intense and often cross boundaries….Small talk at parties bores me senseless…I’m a little bit of a misanthrope. I cancel lunch dates because I’m working.

She believes we are to bring to the page the best and worst of ourself, that is, our full and authentic self. Yes, I think you see me in clear color and dimensions, in fact more than the people in my life, at least those outside my family, do. One tempers into social roles and expectations, especially by middle age. These socks have to match. I also feel muted in the rituals we call socializing, not able to talk books or art in the circles that motherhood have circumscribed for me. I’m happier in company with the immortal dead and fellow hermits in the cave of their mind. When the tea party is over, I invite a wordsmith over for some wine – and days I need it, the scotch. Ah, the way good prose jolts, even in its beautiful ache. I want to drive under the influence – and once I’ve stepped out into fresh air, start climbing.

 

Poets Are Strange

Poets are strange –
Why can’t they just call the spade
a spade? And what’s a rock but
rock: sandstone, shale from the tiredness
of weather? Coal and limestone, plant
and animal dross

— but nature wastes nothing.

Why do poets look for metaphors under
every rock, the walls that hold the creek, earth
that crumbled, forged resolute, and grew above
my grandmother’s rib, beat hard when she was
widowed with six children on the road

fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists

and soldiers who ran out to drag their own
men screaming without their arm
back to the trenches in
too many battles and

and bald children in hospital beds who still
know how to laugh.

Why can’t poets be simple? They see
a crushing burial in heat and time:
marble, quartz, gneiss

— living, burnished beauty.

Poets. They think they can say it
better than
rock.

 

Thirty Years Later

I don’t know why people seek out fortune tellers. Why would you want to know the heartaches that lie ahead, the assurance that life will take your spouse and body and dreams?

He will be with his family tonight, Doctor, when he goes home, the deathless man says. Why should I tell him that tomorrow he is going to die? So that, on his last night with his family, he will mourn himself?…Suddenness. His life, as he is living it – well, and with love, with friends – and then suddenness. Believe me, Doctor, if your life ends in suddenness you will be glad it did, and if it does not you will wish it had.

Not me, I say. I do not do things, as you say, suddenly. I prepare, I think, I explain.
~ The one quotable text from Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife I can’t recommend

We hope, with foreknowledge, to hedge our bets, if only mentally. We like to imagine that we can avert, if not preempt, the undesirable – in the least, prepare ourselves and explain it. But the suffering is bad enough. Do we really need to expect it, too? And the glad blessings? Will their surety really help us live differently? Halfway up the California mountain thirty years later, I look down at the girl I left behind on the other side of the country. I wish I could promise her the thousand joys she dare not believe, the love in unexpected places, friends and a mess of food around her table. I wish I could teach her to nurture herself, admonish her from her follies. But far and past, she is out of my hands. And she is so frustratingly, so helplessly her. She won’t do it any other way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Life hangs by a prayer but you take so much for granted in your unhappiness. You have community and, for all their sins, parents who cherish you.

Stupid girl. You don’t listen. You need to take better care of yourself. You eat too much ice cream. You can fool others and even yourself, but not your body. One day you will have to learn to eat, sleep, live all over again. These brick apartments suffocate you but one day you’ll mark your own path. You always do. You will drive through a painting of Montana mountain and sky, and survey the gleaming Pacific. There are many, many good people ready at the crossroads of your life to look out for you. I am sorry that life will become so unyielding you will stop singing for 10 years.

There’s a man waiting to find you. He wants to build you a new life and provide all you need. You don’t know the cost and gift of marriage. The walk down the aisle is just expensive trimming. Though he’ll disappoint you many times over, it’s that he chooses you everyday. You will squeeze and crush the heart he left in your hand. And in his eyes you will still be enough.

You will experience the power and genius of God. Feel fingers and toes in your womb, touching you from the inside. Those hands and feet will one day refresh your grave, mark the place of your memory. She was here. You will put your baby to your breast in the rocking chair, seat of the highest office in the world. You will sing again. Sacrifice is a privilege, because it means a purpose greater than yourself. But you will embitter your child too, as your parents did you. The love of parents, our broken inheritance.

One day the lights will go out in your home and you will read to your men by candlelight. They will love the inflections of your voice.

I didn’t think people could change but you are proof. I’m proud of you! You will grow less rigid, softer with others, having learned how foolish you can be. Wisdom works backward. Your life will be a desert’s bloom, well tolerant of drought. And before the sun has set on your dreams, right here on the edge of this switchback, you will learn it is safe to stop hurting. Learn that you are more than your fears, more than your boy, more than your most unworthy moments, more than your achievements.

The loyalty of friends, the forgiveness of family, You will be wanted and needed – your gifts of grace. And the words. You will claim your place in a virtual world, a very real world, and somehow in all your struggles and humanness, make many people laugh and think. You will matter. Will it take 30 years for you to know it is All Right to breathe, to smile, to trust that life is worth it?

You’ve done well, my dear. Closing the wrong doors to love, choosing the right one. You will bring a beautiful, thoughtful boy into this world. And though life has knocked you flat beyond counting, you keep climbing. We will look each other in the eyes and I will tell you everything when you reach me.

 

WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY SHE ISN’T

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany. His posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia were treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9 – and perhaps because of them – he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. His wife Eleanor, won over to his vision, prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any child who was sick would be refused at the threshold of Immigration and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. Since “Jews were not permitted to give the Nazi salute and any parents who so much as raised an arm could be arrested, their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red and strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and were reunited with their children. Several more succeeded in coming to America during and after the war, but others perished in the Holocaust.” Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.

50 Children by Pressman

50 Children by Pressman

About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans who wanted their lives to mean more than personal comfort and safety.

Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:

This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.

Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.

The exuberant response to the election results among some families I know brought with it a revelation. Though they have been plenty polite, some even kind, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life that seems unnatural to me in diverse Southern California. But then again, I thought, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. Multiculturalism doesn’t work that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color: NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. Among the many reasons, suffice it to say those who have to interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white people enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.

But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and news media.

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.

Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas, wasn’t it? After all, America had problems of her own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct. War, disease, emigration, loss of culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built herself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.

Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother, separately, were mugged at knifepoint, and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America tried to dust the racial degradations from her knees and rose to her feet, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters came out of the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Korea – although as long as he admits to no Native Indian ancestors, he hails from immigrants like the rest of us. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My Asian-American friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. The commitment to excellence, our I.Q, the drive with which we emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented disparate cultures in the fissures of mistrust as we did business together, advanced the economy together, with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we have helped make America great.

And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires first, or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you will learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance. It’s not always front and center but in this country, the holy grail of opportunity awaits the thirsty and the earnest. There is always room for resourcefulness, a corner you can turn. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can appeal with that beautiful, powerful voice you claimed at birth. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. At least they could, before.

I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice, which she now looks about to abdicate.

There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly, the many faces of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in this country. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.