Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mozart and the Whale

It's my day off and in keeping with that, I celebrated with watching a movie from Netflix that has been waiting patiently a week for me to watch it. My choice for today was "Mozart and the Whale" a romance based on a true story of a couple who both have Asperger's Syndrom. If you haven't read recent Newsweek or Time articles, Asperger's is a form of autism that some people have at various levels of ability and of functioning, sometimes without them or their families knowing it. Asperger's Syndrom can often be accompanied by bi-polar tendencies or by obsessive compulsive disorders. It is often referred to as the "Nerd Disease". I've been interested in Asperger's because I've often suspected that I have it. But I've pretty much let go of that idea in favor of being just the usual introvert with average (darn!) intelligence.

I once knew a guy with Asperger's --he came from my home town and we went to the same high school until his family moved during his senior year to Idaho. His name was Gregg. When we were college freshmen we recognized each other in the book store during the first week of classes. He identified me briefly as John Silva's sister; my brother played high school football with him. It was surprise to see him at this state run college--he was capable of winning scholarships to much more prestigious universities. Gregg responded with the fact that it was familiar to him and close to home but not too close.

I remembered Gregg as the guy I beat once in a debate in our junior year speech class, even though he had a better argument, apparently I could summon up the passion that got me the votes to just squeak by to victory. He was an intimidating adversary. We hung out together for awhile those first lonely college freshman weeks because we happened to know each other and it was nice to be with someone familiar and safe in a strange environment. After a football game or dinner at the dining hall, my new dorm mates often asked me who he was. He was just a friend.

Gregg and I eventually drifted away as we eased into feeling comfortable where we were and our schedules got busy. And we had vastly different interests--I liked music, for one and he could hardly justify taking time off from studying to attend concerts on campus. At the beginning of every school year, I'd call him to see how he was doing, a gesture he expressed appreciation for because I knew that he hated those transition times between leaving home and starting all over again in the fall with a new routine. As usual, we would launch into spiritual conversations. He loved to read the Bible and after my encouragement, he found a men's study that he enjoyed participating in.

I knew that Gregg had problems, most of the time they were all very subtle until I once served him and his mom at the A&W I worked at on weekends during high school. Gregg had lowered his head and stared at the table top the whole time. He also stared at his desk top during school with his face very level and close to the surface--lifting it up only to see what was on the chalk board. I never found it peculiar until he did the same thing in the context of the A&W. His mom just chatted away as though nothing was the matter. I then began to see that his quirk was not under his control.

He rarely smiled and usually had a flat tone in his voice, a point that used to my advantage during my high school debate against him as well as the fact that Gregg had a hard time with eye contact. There were also certain things that really bothered him immensely and would unexpectedly set him off. He warned me of them, and I really didn't pay attention to what they were because I didn't take it seriously. He sometimes would steer us away from a situation that threatened him. We often sat at the back of the room during lectures, football games and concerts. Gregg also said what he thought bluntly and took things literally. It was shocking at times, but all typical symptoms of Asperger's. I enjoyed his openness and honesty. He was refreshing and easy to get to know.

Towards the end of my senior year right before graduation, I ate dinner at the dining hall across campus and happened to sit next to the president of the electrical engineering student club. I asked her if she knew Gregg and she seemed really disgusted at the name. She tersely described years of trying to get him out of his dorm room and several times, how a multitude of the engineers would be knocking on his door and they knew he was in there but he wouldn't open the door. They did this all in the name of his own good because they worried about his hermit-like lifestyle. She predicted that all his academic achievement would be flushed down the toilet because he didn't know how to socially interact. Wow, I thought. How socially astute of her. Assembling a gang like villagers at Frankenstein's castle doors always works at reforming shy geniuses.

Nonetheless, I was shocked. Gregg was the Associated Student Body president in junior high school, ran for and won various positions in our student government in high school, gave an impassioned Civil Rights speech (after I beat him in that unforgettable debate) and never held back an opinion that he felt needed to be expressed, even if it meant harm to himself. I was convinced of his courage ever since seventh grade. Although he didn't have many friends in college, I sometimes saw him sitting next to the giant football players in the campus dining halls, obviously relaxed as he joked and talked about his favorite game with them. In high school, we all liked him immensely.

What happened?

I later called Gregg, congratulated him on his upcoming graduation (summa cum laude I found out later) and he told me about his job in Idaho that he had lined up. He was realistic with the fact although he understood his field to the best of his ability, he worried about his lack of creativity. I told him that he would do fine. He can hire creativity. He laughed. He supposed that could happen. I told him that I met a fellow student and shared her name. I wanted to know his side of the story that she told me.

What it added up to was a total lack of understanding on both parts. The melt downs he warned me about and that I never saw happen since our acquaintence in seventh grade started to manifest towards the end of his college senior year, but especially with the electrical engineer club's pressure to change him. He complained that people were always trying to change him. I asked if he felt that way with me. He said that if he did, he would never have talked with me. He thanked me for my friendship. And that was the last time we spoke. When I think back on it, it was a privilege to be his friend as well as a gift.

So "Mozart and The Whale" was mostly crap. I don't think it was directed very well. Rhada Mitchell was wonderful, especially during the dinner with the boss scene and the engagement proposal scene. Josh Hartnett was barely believable and the assorted characters in the support group needed to be explained why they were how they were, and that underneath the obvious lack of social skills were people who were capable of learning them. It was filmed in Spokane, WA--a place I am familiar with since I used to live in eastern Washington state.

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