I had a life prior to being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 55, and then there’s been “this life.” I’m doing things I never dreamed of doing when I was a kid, or even when I finally found out about Asperger Syndrome.
We don’t just start “being persons” when we get the right label. Jerry Newport says that, you know. And I believe this.
When people ask me my age I tell them I’m nearly eight. I also feel like a kid in a candy store. There’s nothing within reason I have tried since I discovered my AS that I haven’t succeeded in pulling off. I’m not ashamed of my “pre-AS” accomplishments either. As a matter of fact, I attribute my present good fortune to that foundation. It’s not my former life.
All of this has been my life. However, for the sake of brevity, and to preserve your sanity as a reader, I’ll only lay out the easy, first part. The second part must wait until I stop moving so fast that I can catch my breath and find time tell you the rest of the story. If you have patience, you can surf through my articles to find out more about me, but it will be a piecemeal discovery process for you.
OK. The basics.
For the moment, we’ll start with the kind of stuff you read at the back of most newspapers. Later, when I have more contents of this web site under control, I will let you, dear reader, into some of the stuff that doesn’t make its way into newspaper obit columns.
I was born and raised in the U.S. Midwest. Minnesota and South Dakota, then back to Minnesota. I spent some time on East Coast while in the service, and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, mainly Berkeley and San Francisco proper. I moved to Portland, Oregon in 1989 and have put down lasting roots here.
I have a twin sister — and no she doesn’t look like me! — and a sister six years younger. As kids we fought like cats and dogs vying for the attention of our parents, who were both professionals. Eventually, my folks figured that it would be better to separate my twin and myself into different classes, then different schools. It worked! We both became individuals. Actually, all three of us became individuals. We would have anyway, but this way was a lot easier on everyone.
My twin married early, put her first husband through graduate school, lived a difficult life, had two children, divorced, remarried, became a widow, and since then has done well as a middle school computer science teacher in an El Paso public school. She is not AS, but my younger sister is, a bit. My younger sister has been married “forever” to an equally inward-oriented man from a great, welcoming family, and is preparing for her retirement from her consulting business as a professional land use consultant.
My AS father was an insurance salesman; my loving mom was a radio and television personality at a time, in the beginning, when if you wanted to do something in either medium, you just did it. In the mid-fifties, she left commercial radio and television to work as an educator and trainer to business and government agencies, and continued her performance and project management work with public radio and television.
I have only a Bachelor of Arts. I’ve wanted more, but that hasn’t happened. I made lots of false starts with graduate school, but as Bugs Bunny used to say in those cartoons, That’s all folks. I went straight from a small, wonderful semi-private high school into college, just by inertia, with no planning straight to the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. I was excited by the stimulation of classes, but as you’d expect, had a rocky social life, and at some points, none at all while I was in college. I stayed at home except for the one year I transferred to the University of Chicago (my first crash-and-burn), returning after that fiasco to ineffectual therapy and completion of my degree in political science. All of the therapy I paid for prior to my AS diagnosis in 1997 — and there was a lot — was largely a waste of time.
As I finished my honors thesis, my faculty advisor warned me that the legal profession involved more than just writing and researching arcane areas of constitutional law. I heard what he said, but like the good, headstrong Aspie that I am — though of course not knowing this at the time, in 1964 — I ignored him.
He was right. I spent one exciting, disconcerting quarter at the University of Chicago Kent School of Law, bombed out, and had nothing to do, nowhere to go. I had no interest in the world of business; I didn’t understand it at all, and I certainly wasn’t going to be like my father, who had retired from the world of personal insurance sales and moved to Florida with my Mom and my baby sister to take care of her aging grandparents. Their move was sudden, almost like the kind of action you see following someone heaving a huge sigh of relief with a burden lifted, and then going about the rest of their long-planned life. They moved virtually the second I graduated. I had no home to return to. I was alone, on the windy and ice-slicked streets of Chicago, hung out to dry out. (I had developed a drinking problem in law school. Just enough, I thought, every night to literally stop my head from spinning, to knock me out.) I stopped drinking the moment I knew I wouldn’t be back for the second semester of law school.
Luckily, the US Army took me in. I had to convince them by getting, “He’s not a danger to himself and to others” stamp-of-approval letters from the psychiatrist I saw for two years in Minnesota, and another shrink I was seeing in Chicago. It was during the days of the draft, and I could have 4-F’d out. But I didn’t dare. I had no idea what to do, so I saw the military as a socially acceptable way of putting myself in purdah, hoping I’d come out of mourning my dashed dreams at the end of my voluntary enlistment.
I spent three great years living as much on my own as the military service allows. Following honorable discharge, I worked briefly as a civil servant for the Army’s Office of Personnel Operations, then traipsed all the way across the country to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley where, after less than a semester, I crashed and burned again.
For three years I fiddled around with low-level clerical work in private industry and then with the San Francisco Department of Social Services, took a flyer on attending an adult cabinetmaking course at a San Francisco public vocational high school, and ended up a union cabinetmaker. By that same time, my maternal grandparents in Florida both passed away, my younger sister finished George Washington University in Washington, DC, and went on to graduate school at Purdue, getting her MS in Urban Planning. My twin sister completed her undergraduate degree at “Fairly Ridiculous University,” Northern New Jersey’s modest excuse for small university (Farleigh Dickinson), and soon after her divorce, with one of her two children in tow, went to Ann Arbor, Michigan for her MBA.
I stayed in San Francisco for 21 years, between 1968 and 1989. And yes, I was somewhat of a Hippie when I started, and somewhat of an aging fuddy-duddy when I left.
I became a cabinetmaker, and remained one without much of a break for 26 years, attaining some degree of acceptance in my own local union as a minor officer and apprentice instructor. When I say “without much of a break” I really mean to say between jobs a lot drawing unemployment insurance. I worked in union and non-union shops in San Francisco between 1972 and 1989, and then in Portland between 1990 and 1998.
When I quit the trade I had no regrets. I was and still am immensely grateful for the good living it afforded me, the tolerance of my fellow union members and officers, and the opportunities the organized trade offered me to develop some of the rudimentary skills of leadership, meeting facilitation, mediation, representing my cause and that of my rank and file members, women and persons of color, and time to mix it up a bit in the small world of smaller politicking.
During all of my cabinetmaking, I had a second life outside the trade. First, I became active in the mental health de-institutionalization movement of the late 1960’s and early seventies. I became a third rank community activist flitting in and out of political campaigns — always at the periphery — of wonderful, wooly liberals who didn’t have a ghost’s chance of being elected. As I worked as a tradesperson with a decent income, my parents helped me buy my first shack of a house on Potrero Hill, which I sold some seven years later to buy my second place, a much more roomy house with a nice yard in a meat-and-potatoes blue-collar working class neighborhood in San Francisco.
From the moment I moved in and started to add an in-law apartment to eventually be able to house my aging parents — in the late 1970’s — I became intrigued by a San Francisco community mediation program, the first of two such programs then in existence in the country. Active with Community Boards of San Francisco as a mediator, trainer, trainer of trainers, and jack of all trades occupant of almost every volunteer position in the organization, I left my union job and my intense involvement with community conflict resolution behind in San Francisco to try my luck, once again, at graduate school, this time in social work at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon..
Just as with the other two graduate education moves, I wasn’t prepared; I didn’t do my homework; I was completely displaced in this new town, Portland, Oregon, with no natural support system except the encouragement of a wonderful business agent and his wife of a shipwright’s local I joined “just to keep in the company” of fellow tradespersons. My fantasies of being a social worker met up with the realities of being a graduate student, once again under all the stresses and changes that unhinge a lot of us, and again, I dropped away, returning to cabinetmaking.
I was devastated. I “had no other choice” but to return to the only thing I knew: my trade.
This time it wasn’t so easy. Our local was weak, the work was spotty, and just as in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time drawing unemployment and hustling any work — union or non-union — I could to pay for the mortgage on my third house, a charming, way over-improved doll-house of a place. The wages in Portland were 2/3 of what they were in San Francisco. Everything in Portland, professional services, food, everything, was more expensive than San Francisco. I really started to sweat about keeping afloat.
Shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco but left my house untouched, I sold the San Francisco house, which I had left in the hands of a secretive alcoholic prime tenant, and bought a falling-down, unfinanceable cottage — with potential — in a vibrant, liberal/radical neighborhood in Portland. I was one of those “Californicators” who contributed California cash to the gentrification of perfectly affordable neighborhoods, but most of my improvements on the house were on the inside. Just as in San Francisco, I fixed up the place to be joined by a room mate, with enough privacy between the two of us to make the arrangement, and my financial condition, comfortable.
Like my other room mate(s) in San Francisco, I found quirky, tolerant people about whom I eventually became quite fond. For them, my housing was affordable, and the place itself met my own exacting standards for cleanliness and good taste, something I inherited from my mother.
As a matter of fact, most of my life improvement has been on my inside, so what I did to my house, in two extensive remodels, was very much in tune with how I’ve changed as a person. The second remodel did add substantial architectural detail and function to the original structure; my change since diagnosis has happened very much in the same way.
When my union was busted after a short but bitter strike at my last union employer, I worked briefly in the trade doing anything I could to support myself (but not well, either in performance or in mental health). It was only a matter of time before my cabinetmaking career, this time as I was in my mid-fifties, would come to an end.
And it did. With my last lay off, I knew all the bridges I had burned behind me meant that finally, pushed by age and my recent Asperger Syndrome diagnosis, that now was the time to make the change to my life I had always thought about, but didn’t have the guts to make a solid start.
And the rest of my more recent story, dear reader, is history. Until I have a chance to write a decent update to my “second life, ” you can find out more than you’d ever want to know about what I’ve done and who I’ve become by visiting my Curriculum Vita, by clicking here.