Saturday, September 1, 2007

Tim Page describes me in The New Yorker

In the August 20 issue of The New Yorker (yeah, them), music critic Tim Page has an article about Asperger's syndrome, a form of mild autism, and he includes this description:

"The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand.

"The Asperger’s spectrum ranges from people barely more abstracted than a stereotypical “absent-minded professor” to the full-blown, albeit highly functioning, autistic. Symptoms of Asperger’s have been attributed ex post facto to successful figures, but these are the fortunate ones—persons able to invent outlets for their ever-welling monomanias. Many are not so lucky, and some end up institutionalized or homeless. (In the late nineteen-seventies, I saw a ragged, haunted man who spent urgent hours dodging the New York transit police to trace the dates and lineage of the Hapsburg nobility on the walls of subway stations.) For some—record collectors with every catalogue number at hand, theatre buffs with first-night casts memorized, children who draw precise architectural blueprints of nineteenth-century silk mills—a cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric, something around which to construct a life."

As it happens, I may or may not mix well with other children in age-appropriate ways (can I give you my card? can I form yours into a paper plane and hurl it across the street?) and I certainly get down and dirty with the minutiae of pointless tasks (let me show you my mandala art work sometime), but I have never been homeless or institutionalized (not even close) (unless you count college as an institution) (or the Democratic Party and that joke was old in Will Rogers' day) but that was definitely ME back in the late 70s scrawling the genealogy of the Habsburgs, the Capets, the Hohenzollerns and the Comneni on the blanker spaces of the New York subway walls.

Hey, man, this was the age of Keith Haring.

I was not oblivious to the world at such times. In fact, I welcomed commentary. (I only got ticketed once, a mere four generations into the royal house of Aragon.) Every now and then someone would say, baffled, "Is all this TRUE?" and I'd reply, "Yes, but if I were making it all up, you'd never know." Ah, but this is New York -- someone would, you know. One guy used to annotate my Habsburgs with the names of the artists each one patronized -- quite a list. Back and forth we went. At last we met, spent a charming afternoon together -- and never met again. The magic was gone. (Hey, it beats airport rest rooms.) Once, as I drew the royal Capetians while waiting for the no. 4 after a very late Next Wave concert at BAM, a guy said, "What's dat?" I told him: the kings of France from 987 to 1328. "And who's that?" "That's John Ist -- his father died before he was born, in 1316, and he was born already king and died five days later." (An event that led to the Hundred Years' War, indirectly.) "Well then, he don't count, man. He cancels out." "No he doesn't. He's still John the First," I fought back, peeved. (I feel a kinship with kings named John, a misunderstood lot by and large.) "No man. You can't include him. He cancels out."

Well the point of all this is that I can relate to people (unlike Aspies) and much as I would like to blame certain unsuccesses in my life on a mental affliction, those friends of mine (usually teachers and parents) who have studied the thing say I just don't make the grade: I am alive to signals from those with whom I attempt to relate. Sometimes I'm even good at it, though it took a while to emerge from adolescent isolation. I once related the complete history of the Byzantine Empire to a girlfriend in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Took six hours. She put up with it. Women are terrific that way. Why did I ever switch to men? (Digression; ignore.)

Another event that comes up in the Tim Page article is the world premier of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" at Town Hall in 1976. As it happens, I was there, too. Everyone tranced out, stoned or unstoned. I was impressed, but preferred (and still prefer) his "Music for Mallet Instruments." (Always liked Reich better than Glass anyway.)

What I recall more fondly is a later performance of "Music for 18 Musicians" at the former New York Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian). On the ground floor of this beaux arts confection is (or used to be) a huge rectangular room with a huge oval in the center of it, walled off by a low balustrade-railing. The musicians set up there and played, and the fans lined the walls, trancing out. Except for one, who spent the time dancing around and around the central space, happily oblivious of looks (but most people had their eyes closed), just doing what seemed to him the right thing for that music and that space and that time.

Yes: It was I. The self-conscious, can't perform on a stage or improvise a ritual to save his life, quasi-Aspie me.

I've always remembered it as one of the great moments in my life, a time when I just didn't give a hoot what anyone else thought or did: I did it my way, and all was right with the world. Don't know where that guy went, or why I cannot access him at will, or why he so rarely appears, but -- there you have it. He's part of me, too. He can still reel off the Habsburgs if you are interested. (No one is interested.)

I've always wished the Philharmonic or Carnegie or the Met would install a mosh pit but so far they have ignored my suggestions. I'd enjoy the experience so much more.


Chas S. Clifton said...

Asperger's -- it's the new black.

Violet said...

OOOOH, and to think we saw "Sissi" together!

manprano said...

How did I miss this? How did I miss your birthday? So many things gone wrong. I miss you and hope you're well!

Gracious thanks to la Cieca for directing me here.

Jemaleddin said...

Just to be clear, most modern research says that Aspies and autistics can both relate to people just fine. My autistic son understands other people just fine - he just doesn't care to interact with them very often.

And as someone who interacts with people all the time, I can see his point.

Babs said...

Heavens! I've known John for years and I'd say that I know several people who are more socially inept than he, myself included. He was always nice enough to run through the Valois dynasty with me. Very thoughtful.

Anonymous said...

Hi John This is Sally's Mike - we met after Rodalinda at the Met last year. The man who wanted to cancel John I is wrong. Not John's fault he only managed 5 days. It's the same as Lady Jane Gray; she's NEVER referred to as Queen, which is adding insult to injury

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

A google search for something else led me to your delightful post from 1 September. I wanted to respond to your wish for a classical mosh pit. It exists, in London, in the summertime, as a sort of mosh orbit. I'm referring to possibly the most eclectic classical music festival in the world, the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

Pardon me if you know all about this already. For a mere 5 English pounds you can "prom" - promenade: stand, walk, dance - to concerts by the world's most esteemed classical musicians. When you buy tickets to prom at the Proms, you specify one of two places to be in the hall. You can choose to be in what I'm calling the mosh pit - the floor area front and center directly facing the orchestra - which is only for people who want to stand quietly and respectfully throughout the concert. But to make your dream come true, choose the highest orbit instead - get a ticket up in the balcony: excellent acoustics, room to move unimpeded, and no audience behind to intimidate you.

Their website is:

All the best,