Saturday, January 29, 2011

Perpendicular Work: Growing Middle-Aged with Unvented Weenieaphobia

(For a PDF version of this essay, go to The Worldview Annex.)

“…a friendship which probably is not the least of the riddles in Kafka’s life.”
Walter Benjamin on Franz Kafka’s friendship with his biographer, Max Brod

Sooner or later, any halfway dedicated aficionado of the great and long-deceased Canadian piano-player-cum-musicologist-cum-comedian-cum-documentarian Glenn Gould is bound to hear of Tim Page, and to get to know him after a fashion.  To satisfy his curiosity about Gould’s writings, for example, such a fan must seek out The Glenn Gould Reader, a collection edited by Page, and from its editor’s introduction he will learn not only—and most saliently—that Page and Gould were personal friends, but also that Page is (or used to be), like Gould, something of a night-owl; for otherwise he could not have endured very many of the midnight phone calls Gould made to him “as he [Gould not Page] sipped on an omnipresent cup of tea and prepared to begin his nocturnal workday” (GGR xv).  If his Gouldian researches lead him to You Tube and an excellent 1998 Canadian television documentary called The Life and Times of Glenn Gould, he will learn that unlike Gould but like (according to him) most people, Page “accepted” (or used to accept) “give and take relations” with others “as a matter of course.”      
But even if he never ventures outside the Gouldian musical discography proper, the Gould fan will have a hard time avoiding Page’s 1982 audio interview with Gould, as it is appended to both currently in-print releases of Gould’s 1982 rendition of his signature, career-framing piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  Here, one really hits Pagean pay dirt, in the form of either 6 or 37 minutes (half the length of, respectively, the abridged 12-minute version included in the one release, and the full 52-minute one included in the other), of Page in the vocal flesh.  The prevailing impression left by this interview is that Page was, and presumably still is, something of what Calvin “Bud” Trillin has called in the parlance of his 1950s college peer group, a weenie, an argoteme that I employ in preference to its latter-day quasi-analogues “nerd” or “dork” by way of avoiding the ineluctably parochial connotations of these two terms, of avoiding their inevitable conjuration of specific latter-day subcultures, notably computer programming and science-fiction fandom.  It is perfectly possible to imagine a weenie, for example, having absolutely no interest in computers or science fiction but instead having an overweeni(e)ng passion for, say, student government or grassroots political activism, and manifesting his weeniehood by constantly pitching up with a petition for one’s signature to some proposal for or against the widening or narrowing of this or that thingamajuggernaut, and presenting it to one with a contumacious flourish suggestive of “you should be out there doing this too.”  To summarize this impression via another route: back in ’05 a six-foot friend of mine was both visiting me and looking for a job.  As he was a fellow Gould fan and had not heard the Page-Gould entretien, I played it for him; later the same day, he asked if he could borrow a jacket to wear to his job interviews, and not having anything more serviceable in my wardrobe[1], I let him try on a navy blue two brass-button blazer, some mid-80s hand-me-down that I myself had (I swear by this hand) never worn, and that would have fitted even my 5’8” self rather snugly.  In answer to the obvious question posed as he stood before me spot-welded into the thinglet and with a good square half-foot of shirt-cuff showing on each side, I replied, “You look exactly as I imagine Tim Page would want to look,” whereupon he doffed it as quickly as though I had said its previous borrower had perished of ebola.  So what was it about Page’s presentation of himself in this interview that exuded such a gamily Viennese, too big for his preppie blazer-esque, stench?  It’s hard to say.  Part of it is certainly owing to something he could have had but little control over, namely his native speaking tessitura, a reedy countertenor at times verging on the nasal and vulnerable to being thrown into the ridiculous and feeble background by Gould’s consistently plummy if occasionally rhoticism-engloutinized baritone.  But a good deal of it comes from the substance of his utterances; for example, his “I did take the pulse of this recording, if you don’t mind a metaphor.” 

In 2002, twenty years after Gould’s death, a so-called team of neurologists resident in his native Toronto announced their “discovery” that Gould had served as a lifelong abject catamite to an overmastering pederast[2] of a brain condition called Asperger’s syndrome.  Licensed for general release to select neurological auto-diagnostic retail outlets in 1994, since the turn of the millennium, Asperger’s syndrome has sold like an infinitely cloneable hotcake among non-celibate weenies looking simultaneously to carve out some extra cave time[3] and to imbibe a dram or two of spiritual succor for not having patented that “software platform I invented that was just like Facebook only a million times more synergistic,” or been on that (so-called) team of geneticists who invented the mouse that grew bull’s testicles instead of ears.  You see, old-school autism—a.k.a. autism tout court, a.k.a. your grandfather’s autism of ca. 1960—failed to make much of a splash in the neurological auto-diagnostic scene, even among weenies, because of the mandation of round-the-clock surveillance that came with the diagnosis.  Sure, it might have been cool (from a weenie’s eye point of view) to be able to memorize your local telephone book and thereby equip yourself to greet total strangers by reciting their telephone numbers, but not at the cost of having a minder with you when you shopped for underpants.  For the kinds of people (i.e., weenies) who regard Deep Blue-esque feats like memorizing telephone books as proofs of unsurpassable intellectual prowess, Asperger’s has been a godsend.  It lets them off the (non-telephonic) hook of actually having to attempt such feats while at the same time presenting them with a neurological pedigree proving their inalienable affiliation with the tribe of phone-book memorizers, and exacts nothing more constraining in return than a foreplay-session or two of lip-service to the Winfreyean- feminine pseudo-virtues of “emotional intelligence” and fashion sense (i.e., practical knowledge of the formula F = B * O / A[4]).  The inappositeness of attributing such a weenie-friendly condition to Gould can perhaps be most succinctly expressed in the statement that Glenn Gould had not a whiff of weeniehood about him, that indeed if any person ever had a just title to the sobriquet of Antiweenie it was he.  But in the interest of both upping the anti (sic) and accentuating the positive for a change, I prefer to refer to Gould by way of another handle, the Archurbanite, which is to say, the person who most nearly perfectly embodies and exemplifies that by-now almost universally unintelligible quality known—or, rather, mostly unknown—as urbanity.  Where the weenie is incessantly importunate, the urbane man is a paragon of tact who takes the most exacting pains to avoid either mentioning or seeming to elicit mention of any state of affairs that his interlocutor would prefer to be passed over in silence.  (For proof of Gould’s mastery of the virtue of tact, one need only refer to his corpus of interviews of fellow-musicians and others associated with music; to those with, for example, Arnold Schoenberg’s widow Gertrud, a dourly shy woman obviously unused to holding forth at length on demand; and with the flamboyant octogenarian conductor Leopold Stokowski, brimming over with affected foreignisms and fatuous speculations about the solar system at which Gould manfully forbears to smile.)  Where the weenie is pedantic, the urbanite is judicious, making and citing distinctions only when they are needed for the purposes of the discussion, and gently, tactfully dismissing gratuitous distinctions made or referenced by others.  In short/at last: if weenies, the antitheses of urbanites, are at best dubiously autistic, then the very notion of autistic urbanity is positively oxymoronic, and one might as well talk of emasculating Don Juan by rechristening him Don Piccolocazzo, or cutting the ISM Meter Rod in Paris down to size by calling it “the Inch Rod,” as of “humanizing” the archurbanite Glenn Gould by bestowing on him a posthumous diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.

In 2005, in a Washington Post article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Gould’s first U. S. gig, Tim Page found occasion to allude to the Gouldian-Aspergerian diagnosis. “It has been suggested,” he wrote, “that Gould may have had a touch of autism—he was profoundly uncomfortable with most physical contact and demanded, throughout his life, the psychological safety of unbroken routines whenever possible.  But we live in an era that has placed too much emphasis on diagnosis. Perhaps Gould's first biographer, Geoffrey Paysant, came closer to the truth when he called Gould an ‘exceedingly
superior person, friendly and considerate. He is not really an eccentric, nor is he egocentric. Glenn Gould is a person who has found out how he wants to live his life and is doing precisely that.’  And it is that person—with his “exceedingly superior” artistry—that we celebrate today.”  In spirit and gist this passage is roundly dismissive of the notion of Gould as Aspie.  But the careful eye will detect a fair amount of hedging.  Page writes that “our era places too much emphasis on diagnosis,” thereby leaving open the possibility that while this particular diagnosis does not deserve as much attention as it has received, it is nonetheless accurate.  He writes that “perhaps Geoffrey Paysant came closer to the truth,” thereby leaving open the possibility, however remote, that the diagnostic suggesters have come closer to the truth than Mr. Paysant; not to mention the more proximate possibility that, although Mr. Paysant has come closer to the truth, the suggesters are still within measurable distance of it.  Lastly, Page repeats Paysant’s attributive “‘exceedingly superior’” in front of a new noun, “musician” in place of “human being,” thereby leaving open the possibility that while Gould undoubtedly excelled as a certain sub-type of human being, he was merely average or inferior as a human being overall.

The necessity—or, at least, utility—of all this prevarication became more intelligible in hindsight with the appearance in 2009 of Page’s Parallel Play: Growing up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s.  Here, Page revealed that he himself had been diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2000—in other words, five years before the date of the above-quoted article.  Between 2000 and 2009, he had refrained from discussing his own Aspie-ism in deference to the wishes of his son, a fellow Aspie who released the elder Page from the gag order only on turning eighteen.  Naturally this gag order had precluded his saying certain obvious things by way of repudiating the Gouldian diagnosis, for example, something to the effect of “for proof that our era has placed too much emphasis on diagnosis, you need look no further than yours truly, an Aspergerian diagnosee who is both a successful journalist and a minor media personality.”  Be that as it may, Parallel Play hardly constitutes a continuation in spirit or letter of those brief remarks on Gould; to the contrary, it is very much a traditional neurological auto-hagiography, with Page himself as its subject and Asperger’s the key to his life history, a key made to bear generically mandated unlimited emphasis as an insatiable soul-devouring daemon that has left him at the age of fifty-three “with the sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play, alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity” (PP 3).   As for Gould, he receives only a few passing mentions, none of them incorporating a sub-mention of the diagnosis.  The closest Page comes to spilling the Aspiean beans on Gould is on Page 67, where he reports that “[a]ccepting the inevitable and looking for guidance” in his early teens, “I fixated on the lives of accomplished loners—Bobby Fischer, Glenn Gould, Howard Hughes, J. D. Salinger—and I read everything that I could find about them.  They were all greatly gifted men who seemed to share some of my paralysis but had also managed to make the world accept and acclaim them on their terms.”  This is perhaps metonymically charged enough to prompt an occasional Gould-curious reader ignorant of the diagnosis to Google “Gould Asperger’s”; but the Gould-incurious reader will not likely derive from it the faintest suspicion that Gould had Asperger’s.  Why has Page suddenly become so voluble about his own Asperger’s and so close-mouthed about Gould’s?  The most charitable explanation is that in true Gouldian fashion he is being tactful—that while he is comfortable enough airing his own dirty neurological laundry he is not about to presume that his friend would have been equally comfortable having his set of knickers in that pattern so aired.  But this begs the question, for if Page can be tactful enough to Gould not to besmirch Gould’s posthumous reputation, why cannot he be tactful enough not to besmirch his own living one?  More cynically, one might conjecture that in this one-time sidelining of Gould Page is trying to have it both ways, by jealously safeguarding the capital he has accrued courtesy of his association with an Aspie-proof urbanite and yet keeping it well to the background for the nonce lest it give rise to scruples over the legitimacy of his own weenie-ishly-certified claim to the title of genius.  In any case, whatever the efficient and final causes of this Gould-shaped lacuna may be, for a Gould admirer-cum-Aspien skeptic such as the present writer it clearly constitutes both a substantial debt to be discharged and a windfall to be exploited.  The present writer owes it to Glenn to preempt or counteract any such metonymic damage to Gould’s reputation as may be (or have been) done by Page’s self-outing as an Aspie, yet insofar as he can demonstrate—as I hope to do, using Parallel Play alone as my casebook—that an Aspergerian diagnosis is by no means apposite even to a full-blown weenie such as Page, he will have proved the a fortiori inapplicability of such a diagnosis to Gould, and to urbanites in general, in richer detail than has yet been attempted, let alone achieved, in the scant dozen or so pages so far publicly devoted to the Gouldian neurological habitus.

So legion and manifold are the registers of incoherence in Parallel Play that its exegete is hard-pressed to know which way to have it, to get a purchase on only one of its shortcomings at a time in the interest of speedy and intelligible demolition.  The first and last chapters present in scattershot fashion the symptomatology of the condition, interspersed with exempla drawn from Page’s biography.  In between, one mostly gets a straightforward chronologically-governed memoir of childhood and early adulthood almost completely devoid of references to Asperger’s or indeed to any other etiological bogeyman.  The symptoms themselves—whether described by Page or by some cited authority—are difficult enough to reconcile with any existing or hypothetical state of human affairs; and the pertinence of the biographemes as manifestations of these symptoms is often debatable, even when the connection between symptom and Page-ism is explicitly drawn; to say nothing of the relevance of the biographemes in the middle chapters, which must be inferred by analogy or induction.  The only remotely practicable way of approaching this gallimaufry of a morass, it seems to me, is to itemize it by symptom-cum-conjectural manifestation(s), and hope against hope that one of the feeble gleamlets comprising the internal incoherence of the symptoms will occasionally illumine some corresponding gleamlet in one of the manifestations (and vice versa, natch).

The first Aspien symptom I shall thus itemize is “ignorance of or indifference to social norms” (PP 6). For Page this symptom is best exemplified—not in his own person, to be sure—by the case of the little girl who says “Nine times nine is equal to 81” instead of “Hi, you want to play!” (ibid.).  The two nearest approaches to an actual manifestation of such anomalous and off-putting salutational behavior chez Tim occur, respectively, during his early teens, when his fellow youngsters are “discovering each other’s bodies” and he “could merely stand there anxious and untouched, looking at the ground and hoping somebody would approach that I could tell all about the actress Lillian Gish (‘The World Almanac says that she was born in 1896, but now it turns out that she might have been born in 1893 –isn’t that fascinating?’)” (PP 66), and during his mid-forties, when occupying “a senior administrative position at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra …I laughed out loud when one trustee suggested that we’d sell more tickets if we put Ravel’s Bolero on every program.”  As for the miracle that his indurate antisociality has not manifested itself in any tic more reprehensible than an occasional untimely titter (remember: he only wished he could talk to somebody about Lillian Gish’s birth year), he attributes it to his all-too timely perusal, as an adolescent, of Emily Post’s Etiquette, a book that, he says, “helped pull me into the human race” by “suggest[ing] ways to inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture, remind[ing] me of the importance of listening as well as speaking, and convinc[ing] me that manners, properly understood, existed to make other people feel comfortable, rather than (as I had suspected) to demonstrate the practitioner’s social superiority” (PP 74). 

To begin with, in the very formulation of this symptom, one is confronted—as one so often is in the world of pop-neurologiana—with a jaw drop-inducing ignorance of the established meaning of common English words.  By its very nature, a norm is not innate; hence one logically cannot but be born ignorant of a norm and remain ignorant of it until one has been taught it.  “Hi, you want to play” may very well be the normative—which is to say the most customarily prescribed—child-to-child icebreaking formula, but it is certainly not the most empirically common one among actual American children, the majority of whom in their presumptively non-neurologically inflected social-normative ignorance will tend to advert to much less propitious material than “Nine times nine is equal to 81,” for example, “Hey Chinese” and “You’re ugly” to name just two of the many dozens of kiddie-phatemes I have collected over the years on the hyper-average pavements of Tim Page’s (and my) Baltimore.  The majority of this majority do of course eventually attain greater social fluency, but only courtesy of the very rote inculcation of mechanically applicable rules that Page received from Miss Post; and certainly the proportion of them who learn how to “inaugurate conversations without launching into a lecture” cannot be very large, to judge by the earfuls of unsolicited advice I receive day in and day out from Average Joeish total strangers—taxi drivers, fellow bus-passengers, barbers, and the like.  Perhaps all of these people were Aspies after all; if so, it is a decidedly tiny non-Aspien minority who are the authentic parallel players.
Now let us move on to Aspien Symptom No. 2, “a great ability to maintain masses of information.”  This is the most patently autisticekesque of the Aspien symptoms in its unmistakable evocation of the phone-book memorization trick.  But to judge by Page’s performance in this department, the threshold of requisite massiveness would appear to be much lower for Aspies than for Autisties.  Page’s presumptive pièce de resistance herein—after all, he excerpts it as the opening passage of the book—is a second-grade composition exercise on a school field trip to Boston, in which, rather than writing about the historical sites of the city, he concentrated on the roads (Route 44A, Hunting Lodge Road, Separatist Road) and modes of transportation (Gray Line 43, “made by the Superior Bus Company Like School Bus 6” (PP 2) that had taken him there.  This is admittedly both quite impressive for a second-grader and fairly weird for anyone not in the employ of a regional transportation planning quango.  Still, it must be remembered that just as ordinary kids out of not knowing any better will say the darndest things (don’t forget “Hey Chinese” and “You’re ugly”) they will also for the same reason take an interest in the darndest things, transportation networks by no means being the most darndest of them, and young Tim Page’s transportation-network obsession being far from the most darndest example of that obsession that the world has yet witnessed.  Did you know, for instance, that we are blessed to be contemporaries of an English lad not a day older than six who can tell you how to travel between any two points in Greater London (England not Canada) using the local bus service?  Throughout the half-dozen minutes of a radio phone interview I heard with him, he seemed a perfectly well-adjusted and amiable little tot with typically tottishly heterogeneous interests: the only thing he liked more than riding London buses, he said, was “maybe eating salami.”  Isn’t that cute in an incredibly unautistic sort of way?  And equally to the point, isn’t this kid’s achievement more impressive than any mass-storage exercise that Tim Page has publicly proved himself capable of?  The field-trip essay is the only concrete, detailed, and even marginally impressive testimonial of his hoarding prowess furnished in Parallel Play; the remainder are either general, equivocal, unexceptional, or all three.  At the age of eight or nine, he brags, he would “read random passages from [college] students’ textbooks aloud” (36).  For the love of fudge, these were textbooks pitched at semi-literate American teenagers, not Ciceronian orations or Cartesian meditations; and naturally from the mere fact that he was able to read them we are hardly entitled to assume that he understood so much as a word of them.  Underwhelming in exactly the same way is his boast that at about the same age he would amuse himself by “basically”—i.e., certainly not perfectly—memorizing articles from the World Book Encyclopedia, a children’s reference work with entries clocking in at a few hundred words apiece.  A truly snoozeworthy proportion of Parallel Play consists of a self-regarding account of Page’s so-called career as a so-called boy filmmaker, which is to say a “director” of silent Super-Eight home-movies “starring” his family and schoolmates.  Granted, these home movies were apparently more ambitious in scope than the average reel of 1960s Disneyland vacation footage, in featuring characters and plots and spliced-in pre-talkie Hollywood–style intertitles.  But isn’t this the least one should expect from even a modestly inventive and mildly curious child living in a house with filming and editing equipment on its premises?  And is there any reason for supposing that any of Tim Page’s cinematic pseudo-opera was any less prosaically unremarkable than the average spiral-bound handwritten “novel” produced during the same period by Page’s less technologically well-endowed contemporaries?  Page makes not so much as a hummingbird’s rib-bone about the fact that his films were thoroughgoing imitations of pre-extant films.  At no point does he hint, let alone state, that he actually discovered any new cinematic technique, some new application of the medium after the manner of, say, Chaplin’s use of montage to establish point of view or Murnau’s omni-ambulant camera on wheels.  I am sorry if I seem unduly party-pooping in bringing this up; but after all, Page is the dude trying to prove that he is a neurologically organic genius here, and discovering rather than imitating is the sort of thing that bona fide geniuses actually do (or did).  In Page’s idolatry of his boyish self’s purported filmmaking prowess, I am dismayed to descry proleptic shades of today’s You-Tube rugrat-auteurs, frenetically shopping the ninth sequel to their feature-length “masterpiece” The Shit I Took This Morning, “filmed” on a state-of-the-art digital camera with storage space amounting to a century or two of recording time; shades, in other words, of a state of affairs in which the universal aesthetic consensus reflexively translates—at a one-to-one horsepower-to-brainwave ratio—the engineering infrastructure of a given technology into “creative energy” chez every odd dimwit who happens to have this technology at his service.                 

Now it’s on to Symptom No. 3: “difficulty with transitions.”  This is probably the most contestable of the Aspien symptoms qua symptom, and it is certainly the one most sparsely documented in Parallel Play.  “Learning to make connections with people—much as I desperately wanted to—was a bewildering process, for they kept changing, and I felt like an alien, always about to be exposed” (PP 7).  Only in an age such as ours, the first age in which change plain and simple (not to be confused with progress, or change qualified by improvement) has figured as a positive good, could resistance to change plain and simple have acquired a suspicion of pathological significance, or an indiscriminate spreadeagled-buttocked acquiescence to changes in one’s fellow humans be construed as a de facto virtue.  In a more rational age, it would go without saying that one was within one’s rights to be bewildered and indeed injured by such changes when they were violent, for the worse, and deleterious to qualities that one had come to count on the other person to supply.  In such an age, one would have to show that one had been repeatedly at minimum bewildered by changes chez les autres that were subtle, trivial, for the better, or harmless to one’s interests.  But as this is not such an age, examples of such changes in the Pagean Lebenswelt are not adduced within the covers of PP, and the sole human metamorphoses recounted therein—the descent of both his parents into senile dementia and his wife’s out-of-the-blue abandonment of him—are such that only a god or a monster in Page’s position could have failed to be severely discomfited by them.  I do not think it likely that Page wanted us to regard his misery in face of these events as preeminently Aspergerian in provenance.  But in the absence of more freakish instances of metamorphaphobia in Parallel Play, what choice do we have?  Page does, to be sure, dwell more than long enough on instances of his enamorment with non-human stasis as manifested in “music that was nearly changeless, unfolding slowly and inevitably, with few surprises—Ravel’s Bolero, the ‘Carol of the Bells,’ and the ‘Sunrise’ movement from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite” (PP 11), and he seems to regard his thirty-year-old assumption of the style of (in Glenn Gould’s words) “Most Dedicated Champion and Ardent Propagandist” of that most monotonous of all musical schools, minimalism, as a kind of vindication of his montomaniacal neurological essence.  But here, as in the case of “Nine times nine is equal to 81,” demographics tell against Page.  Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Adams, the leading minimalists, are by far the most commercially successful composers of allegedly serious music since 1950; their record sales and concert commissions handily outsrip those of their more rhythmically and harmonically dynamic contemporaries; and the Bolero—as Page’s philistine St. Louisian trustee well knew—is possibly the most popular piece of classical music of all time.  Indeed, “the more monotonous, inevitably-unfolding, and unsurprising the better,” would appear to be the watchword of the vast record-buying and concert-going public, all three billion of whom I hereupon urge to run not walk to their respective general practitioners to claim their Asperger’s diagnosis before this condition goes the way of neurasthenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Tell him or her that Tim sent you.

Symptom No. 4: a lack of interest in other people’s clothes.  This symptom I cannot manage to regard in any other light than that of a sop to the female sex-partners of the Asperger’s male target demographic, specifically to their anorakish version of fashion sense, which I have already touched on in Paragraph Two above.  Page obviously regards it as especially worthy of pathos, because he mentions it at the very beginning of a Parallel Play-plugging interview (with NPR’s Terry Gross) as the con half of a one-sentence pro/con précis of the condition: “I can remember all sorts of trivia, but I don't notice what somebody has on.”  In PP proper, it is graced by a more specific phenomenal setting: “I can have lunch with somebody and come away with no memory of what she was wearing” (PP 179).  Here, the gender of that second personal pronoun, in tandem with the word “memory,” conjures up an entire sitcom scene centered on a fattish woman on the verge of menopause—one who quasi-literally lives for compliments on her personal appearance—catechizing her poor henpecked husband on “whether he noticed anything different about me on the Tuesday before last—you know: that day we had lunch at Soandso’s.”  Call me old-fashioned (or worse), but it seems to me that the most momentous particular one should “come away with” after having lunch with anybody is what one ordered, so that next time one may either enjoy it again or avoid it; followed at a distant second by what (if anything) the other person said; with what this person was wearing lying at about No. 145 of the Post-Prandial Momentousness Chart, just above the brand name of the ketchup offered at one’s table.  Seriously, guys and gals, can we not all pull together as one gender-neutral mass and provisionally agree that the wardrobes of our past lunch-partners constitute a certifiable sort of trivia, towards the noble end of granting poor Timmy a passport through at least this one risible checkpoint en route to Normalia?            

Last and certainly not least, we have Symptom No. 5: an “ability to think outside the box,” or “actually, a struggle…to perceive just what these boxes [are]—why they [are] there, where their borderlines might be, how to live safely within and without them”, manifesting itself in an “imperious contempt show[n] to people who [are] in a position to do [one] harm” (PP 3).  With a bit of paraphrastic license that I daresay Page himself would not resent, we may rechristen this symptom “an obliviousness or impatience of authority and hierarchy.”  There is no denying that little Tim Page was an obstreperous tyke, or that he matured into a far from docile adolescent.  At the age of two he “already found naps impossible” and reveled in “ruining phonograph records,” as his “mother had tacitly agreed to let him do,” “by playing them over and over, lifting and dropping the big brown tonearm with my tiny, clumsy hands” (PP 10).  By his late single-digits he was snacking on “a steady diet of horehound drops” and insisting on “thread[ing] a rabbit’s foot through each buttonhole of my shirt”; “nobody could have persuaded me to abandon these quirks, and any attempt to do so would have been taken as a physical threat and reduced me to hysteria” (PP 52).  As an early teen, he fell foul of the administration of his school on account of a “fuck”-including graffito directed at the principal, and not even a plangent four thousand-word letter from his father touting the youngster’s “extreme verbal ability” and “pure creative talent” (PP 87) could save him from expulsion.  And one day at high school he took enough LSD to send him on a picaresque rampage that culminated and concluded with his screaming “Please let me in!  The sun is melting my eyes!” on the front doorstep of the house of one his mother’s friends, whence Mrs. Page dutifully conveyed him to the nearest hospital emergency room.  Taken together these events add up to a respectable, if hardly spectacular, pre-adult up-cutter’s curriculum vitae.  But they are far more impressive as a case-history in soft-touch parenting.  Why, they prompt the product of sterner child-rearing styles to ask, did Page’s mother allow him, even “tacitly,” to ruin all those phonograph records, each of which in those vinyl-only days must have been worth on average as much as a mid-priced dress or piece of table china from the Sears-Roebuck catalog?  Or why was this hypothetical fit of hysteria never suffered to become an actual one, as a regrettable but inevitable preliminary to weaning little Timmy off his godawful horehound-drop diet?; why, toward this same end, was his face never gently yet firmly shoved into a plate of meatloaf or tuna casserole at dinnertime?  Why instead of addressing to Tim’s principal that novella-length screed in his son’s defense did Page Sr. not dash off to him a telegram reading simply “EXPULSION TOO GOOD FOR LIL BASTARD”?  Why, as far as we know, upon fetching Tim from the emergency room did Mrs. Page not tell him that “the next time this happens I’ll leave you there for the men from the loony bin to pick you up”? Regardless of their age, children in their native state are like housecats: they assume that every adult human in their vicinity exists for the sole purpose of serving them.  And for all their diminutive proportions, they will indeed consistently, dependably evince “imperious contempt to people who are in a position to do them harm,” until this position is filled by someone who can cause them to believe that he actually intends to do them harm, regardless of whether any harm is actually intended.  Unless Page is holding back something, we may conclude that such a position was never filled by any adult in young Tim Page’s life.   

From the above catalogue, it should be clear to the reader that I am skeptical not so much of the empirical reality of Asperger’s syndrome as of its practical determinant-ness, its tenability as an efficient cause trumping all other efficient causes.  In other and more specific words, I am perfectly willing to grant that whatever so-called battery of so-called tests that was administered to Tim Page on that glorious day in 2000 registered some neurologically-extant state of affairs, but I am strongly averse to conceding that a biography that was in its essential points identical to that presented in Parallel Play could not have been written by someone of a neurological constitution radically different from that of Tim Page.  In its essential points, Page’s story is that of a clever but by no means brilliant child who, because his parents were not interested in teaching it to him, was compelled to learn on his own the lesson that his intelligence did not exempt him from pleasing other people, including, perhaps especially, people less clever than himself.  It is a story that has been lived by and told of countless clubbable, unautistic individuals long before Bob Asperger was ever born, and it will doubtless continue to be lived by and told of legions more long after all flavors and magnitudes of autism have been banished by international legal fiat from the human genetic code.  If Tim Page had seen fit to make Parallel Play follow the lineaments of this classic plot (which was, after all, good enough for the likes of Sophocles and Shakespeare), it might have made for an absorbing and instructive read.  Instead, strapped as he is throughout into the driver’s seat of the brand new Big Wheel that is his Asperger’s diagnosis, he is obliged to divide his time unequally, exclusively, and offensively between serving as his own full-throated and enthusiastic (albeit nominally apologetic) Stentor and fulsomely (albeit less convincingly) mopping, mowing, and scraping to the community of the stupid.  In my capacity as someone other than Tim Page, I am merely entitled to yawn without comment on the first of these performances; but in my capacity as a fellow clever person I am not only entitled but positively obliged to demur at length to the second of them, as I am whenever someone shits (please forgive me, reader, for shifting to a coarser metaphor) ad libitum on the intellect. I am obliged, for example, to rush to the defense of the intellect of Page’s father, when Tim disparagingly writes that his old man “found it easier to convey deep feeling in carefully crafted words than in any sort of spontaneous verbal expression” (PP 25), knowing full well as I do that every human being I have ever met or heard tell of has been troubled by an equally perceptible inferiority of his powers of expression in the so-called heat of the moment to those he subsequently enjoys in the so-called coolness of deliberation.  If—and this is a highly debatable “if” anyhow—stupid people seem be more spontaneously eloquent than clever ones, this is only because the gap between what they are capable of saying off the cuff and what they are capable of saying when they are afforded the leisure to compose their thoughts is much smaller.  Pressed to defend his son at a PTA meeting, the actual intelligent Ellis Page, like his counterfactual stupid counterpart, might have screamed nothing more articulate than “You done done my child a heap o’ wrong, Mr. Principal!,” but in a four-thousand word letter the stupid elder Page would have been unable to do anything but iterate this sentiment 444 times.  Similarly wrongheaded is (young) Page’s hand-wringing confession that “to this day, if you put me behind a busy sales counter, a meltdown would be imminent, for I can’t easily read new faces and shifting attention from one unfamiliar person to another overwhelms me,” (PP 176) implying as it does, as a kind of sop to the stupid, that customer service requires a specific kind of genius different from but equal in merit to that needed for literary production.   The aforesaid “meltdown” is not only an “imminent” but an actual experience for every supermarket cashier or call-center or fast food drive-through attendant, however garrulous and people-loving he she may be, during his or her first hours at the job; but with time, as a greater and greater portion of the job becomes habitual, even the surliest and most unclubbable people in such positions manage to recover from this purportedly cataclysmic event.  It is not the quasi or even fully autistic who have the most trouble holding down customer service jobs, but the lazy, the unpunctual, and undependable—those most signally lacking in the Aspergerian virtues, such as they are.  Thus, the typical customer service worker is someone of no specific neurological complexion who either lacks the aptitude, experience, and patience to engage in some higher-brow occupation; or who, in spite of such qualities has not managed to produce anything that people are willing to remunerate him for—at least not for more than, say, 1.4 times the minimum wage.  If Tim Page elected to become the music critic of the Washington Post rather than Cashier No. 478 at the Storrs, Connecticut Wal Mart, it was presumably because the job at the newspaper paid at least a bit better than the one at the discount retailer and bade fair to eventuate in something a bit more gratifying than a crate of Cashier of the Month certificates and a case of terminal lumbago; and I daresay if the newspaper job hadn’t panned out—as I suspect it would not have done had he not had the good fortune to meet both Glenn Gould and Philip Glass—he would have had no trouble either filling that crate or coming down with that case.

Lest the reader assume that I am one to talk, as they say—that I am blithely holding forth on the legerity of customer service grunt-work from the comfort of my “air-conditioned cell at Kennedy” where I am pulling in ninety thou a year by keeping some “bastard” of a dead poet “on the skids” of a biography or critical study—let me inform him that I, like Page, had my Jeffersonian turn at the bat of remunerative brainplay, during a period when I, too, flattered myself that I was organically not cut out to work in customer service; and for all that turn I have now been earning my tägliches Brot in the CS industry without a single interruption of employment (touch “would”) for over a decade, an interval that has left me with the melancholy certainty that my life is being spent in a perpetual state of perpendicular work, athwart, but distinctly amidst, the rest of humanity.  In my case, the turn took the form of a half-baked theory that the anus rather than the vagina was the natural kipping-out spot for the tensed yard or erect penis, and that accordingly every last man, woman, and child who had ever lived was the product of incompetent marksmanship.  I had matriculated at the preeminent institution for the inculcation and dissemination of this theory, and if I had been able to persuade myself that it was fully baked, I would not improbably at this date be the ninth-most eligible bachelor in Bismarck or Las Cruces or whichever sub-provincial trouette hosted the fourth-tier college or university at which I would be assistant (or perhaps even associate) professor of English.  To be sure, it would not have been half as romantic a position as that of music critic for the Washington Post; but on the other hand, I imagine traipsing through the inexhaustible entirety of the western literary canon armed with a pair of anus-spotting binoculars would become tiresome less quickly than alternately eulogizing one indistinguishable autotympanectomy-inducing Philip Glass opus after another and trotting out the same butcher’s half-dozen mothballed Glenn Gould anecdotes on every Gould anniversary year.  Not that I even suspect that this journalistic bichromaticism is the best that Page is capable of, but that the whole Aspergerian gambit constitutes a pretty piss-poor departure from it, although the same cannot quite be said of Parallel Play in toto.  What do I mean in those last two gnomic and irritatingly coyly potentially mutually contradictory clauses?  Why, merely that occasionally in PP, Page lets slip some fragment of prose that obviously bears no relation to his Aspergerian case history—that cannot, indeed, be assimilated, however willfully to a case history of any kind.  This is not to say of such fragments that they are always unassimilable to some other, equally scornworthy, genre of history; indeed perhaps the better part of them would have creditably served as voiceover tracks to The Wonder Years or any other audiovisual treatment of the by-now quadragenerean topos of growing up in the quietest, tranquillest town in America during the turbulent, troubled sixties.  But even these passages, for all their superbanality, at least bespeak a desire on Page’s part to find a more redeemable telos for his experience than self-affiliation with a neuronerdial subculture.  Better are the moments when, insouciantly heedless the of pop-psychiatric demand for matoority, Page evinces a kind of Rabelaisian earthiness of humor, e.g., “I can understand why you don’t take [LSD],” she said, with the tone of someone who had just been handed a warm turd” (PP 107); and a parody of the Brady Bunch theme song containing the tercet “All of them had hair of gold/like their mother/The youngest one had balls” (PP 119).  Equally meritorious are two occasions on which he is free-spirited enough to give a hearty two-finger salute to the medical anathematization of chemical dependency, first in praising “the liberating effects of alcohol” (PP 109) in his capacity as “an enthusiastic drinker” (PP 110), and then in including Valium in his list of acknowledgments.  But the best bit is unencumbered by any intrinsically Pagean baggage whatsoever, and reads as follows:  

Mine was the last generation to inhabit a time when old films, old photographs, and old recordings inescapably looked and sounded just as old as they were.  Setting aside any fashion considerations, pictures of my grandparents or even my parents in their youth seemed to originate in another world—the big, cardboard-like prints, the formal poses, the mezzotints.  Snapshots from the 1950s and the 1960s looked somewhat better but were mostly over- or underexposed, and home movies were brief, silent, fuzzy, and fragmented.  But I grew up as media grew up, and by the time video recording was easily accessible to consumers, in the 1980s, life could be preserved pretty much as it happened (PP 47).

This single half-paragraph could serve as the germ of a book five times the length of Parallel Play and worth every strike of the multiplication key, a book that I myself (moderately clever minds think alike!) have thought about writing, a book on the evanescence of technologically-induced historical decay.  Naturally enough, my own thoughts on this phenomenon have not corresponded letter-for-letter with Page’s: I am inclined, for instance, to quibble with him over the notion of anything’s looking or sounding “just as old as it [is]”—for surely the old-lookingness of a given representation increases or decreases with the historically variable transience or relative permanence of the representing medium; such that, for instance, whereas any silent movie would have looked hopelessly antediluvian to any five-year-old earthling of 1932, the figures in a well-preserved Byzantine mosaic of 1150 would probably not have seemed particularly old-fashioned to a Constantinopolitan of 1350.  (We can discuss this at length over Resurrections at the Brewer’s Art sometime if you’re still residing in the area, Tim.)  I would also move back the moment when life began to be “preservable pretty much as it happened” by at least a decade and-a-half, to the advent of purely digital home video recording; but this may be because, being eighteen years Page’s junior, I am not quite old enough to remember a time when Super 8 was the state-of-the-art recording medium and therefore to mistake VHS’s improvements on it for perfections of it (just as for all I know I am equally mistaken in attributing mimetic immaculateness to high-definition digital video [the question of the extent to and manner in which one’s perception of technical improvements is mediated by one’s historical position is not the least exigent one facing the would-be author of such a book]).   As the reader will have perceived, I could go on for hours on this subject, but unfortunately I can’t go on about it for a minute longer here because it happens not to coincide with the subject of Parallel Play, i. gratuitously e., Asperger’s.  But when all is said and done, in the final analysis, am Arsch, Asperger’s is simply not a very good fit, as they say, for Tim Page.  The very identity of his arch-pet obsession, the cinema, bespeaks an orientation to the world that is far too social to be more than quasi-autistic, inasmuch as more nearly inevitably than any other artistic medium, movies are about people.  On the other hand, of course, it should be evident from what I have said of it already that the book that I hope Page still has it in him to write—the book not so much outlined as hinted at, in 90%-conjectural Australopithecus-skeletal fashion, by the best parts of Parallel Play—could hardly ever turn out to be a retread of Hollywood Confidential, indeed that it could hardly ever turn out to be a classic of any version of cinema-buffery.  It would perforce be difficult to classify, and require Page to plumb the whole oilfield of his interests—from cinema to music to literature to history to you (i.e., Tim) name it—at the hazard of being called pretentious, dilettantish, chicken-thieving, or downright incompetent; require him, in other words, to be a bit more like a certain famous dead Canadian who was neither Raymond Massey nor John Candy.  It would also, in appealing to neither professional academics nor amateurs of any given cultural field, be most unlikely to sell well, or even to attract much in the way of a so-called cult readership.  What, then, would be the point of writing it?  Well, were I in Tim’s shoes, the answer to this question would be simple: It would have done Glenn proud.  But I suspect, alas, that the idea of Glenn held by the Tim who is actually in Tim’s shoes has precious little in common with my own.                        
[1] Of course, if he had asked to borrow a suit I would have offered him the usufruct of my weenie-pellent charcoal-and-black houndstooth late-90s three plastic-button two-piecer.
[2] “Served…pederast”: a necessary ironic intensification of the obvious but cavalierly overused “suffer,” which legitimately governs only objects of which the subject would unreservedly wish to be disburdened.
[3] Now is as good a place as any in which to mention (as if it needed mentioning) that weenies are all men.
[4] “F = B * O/A,” where F= findworthiness, B=brand name prestige quotient, O=original price, and A=actual price
[5] Now is as good a place as any in which to mention (as if it needed mentioning) that weenies are all men.


Tim Page said...

Thank you for the engaging and exhaustive rant, which is by far the longest and likely the most passionate commentary that has been written about "Parallel Play" (2009) so far.

In general, I have found that readers either love or loathe my book, with most of the hostile scrutiny coming from similarly fact-obsessed writers who -- shall we say? -- pretty much live in my neighborhood but on a slightly different block. And no, I am not talking about Baltimore.

A few points require correction. "Parallel Play" is all but exclusively concerned with my childhood, in which Glenn played little part, and so he is mentioned only in passing. Dawn Powell, Sigrid Undset, Virgil Thomson, William Kapell, Robert Ingersoll and the subjects of my other books are similarly slighted. (I've already addressed my friendship with Glenn in two different books, and had hoped I'd apologized sufficiently for my inept acting in his "Gouldbergs" docudrama.) The subtitle "Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger's" was imposed on me by my publishers and has been removed, at my insistence, from later editions, as it is far from the only subject of this book. And I was enormously fond of my father (named Ellis, not Rick) the man who developed the software that permits computers to grade classroom essays, and I am saddened to think that my description of one of his many human dichotomies could be read as anything other than affectionate remembrance.

But back to Glenn. The first in-depth study of Gould's autism was written by Timothy Mahoney as far back as 1999. I can't recall if I credited Mahoney in my 2005 article but certainly did in my 2002 book on the pianist (indeed, the late Peter Ostwald had suggested this hypothesis as early as 1992). I'm not a psychologist but I can assure you that none of the people who were closest to Gould have any quarrels with this diagnosis. On the contrary, it explains a great deal about our kindly and sometimes perplexing friend and, in my opinion, Glenn's place "on the autistic spectrum" shaped and informed his artistry, giving him at least as much as it took away.

In any event, I'm sorry you didn't like "Parallel Play." I, too, wish it had been better that it is, but we do what we can with what we have. Moreover, the searing heat that you brought to bear on my little memoir may convince some readers that there is something there for them. I hope so.


Tim Page
University of Southern California

Douglas Robertson said...

I have corrected "Rick" to "Ellis." (Rick, incidentally, is Tim's younger brother [and sub-incidentally, I know that Dr. Asperger's first name was Hans, not Bob]).