What's your passion?
Software is one of my passions, but I'd also like to talk about another of my passions... one that's far more important than software.
Films that inspire thought aren't very common in Hollywood. Films that inspire action are rarer still. Today I was fortunate enough to see one such powerfully moving film: Pay It Forward.
I started out thinking it hadn't been released yet... I'm not sure how but apparently I'd been seeing a lot of commercials or trailers for it recently and didn't realize that these commercials were about eight years old, since the film had been released to theaters in 2000. D'oh! So I went to look for it at the local video store and didn't find it in the "romantic comedy" section. It's a drama. D'oh!
The film starts moving very quickly. The plot is already in motion after only the first two scenes and very minimal, dare I say almost non-existent character development. It starts with a simple assignment given by Eugene Simonet to his 7th grade social studies class: think of a way that you can change the world - and put it into action. The students respond with "hard" and "bummer" to which he responds, "how about possible? Is it possible?" In the film, Simonet himself is even somewhat dismissive of the idea, saying that he's not expecting miracles, but occasionally a student cleans up some graffiti before coming to class. The film of course is about something much bigger.
I'm going out on a limb here. Although this is something I do often, it's never easy. Some of you are aware that I've been living with a mild form of autism. If you don't already know, autism makes it very difficult for a person like myself to relate to others, to know what to say as well as when and how to say it. Or more importantly, what NOT to say. That's always been a challenge for me. I sailed through math and science with straight A's in spite of refusing to do homework assignments... I was in the top 2% on both the ASVAB and the GED test (and would have been offered either a nuclear or intelligence rate if not for my GED) and yet... at 35 I'm just now starting to get the remedial "social studies" education I've always needed.
The kind of "social studies" education I need is something you never needed a class for. No one ever told you, but you learned these things when you were ten years old. Then you automaticized them so that you do them now without thinking, in much the same way you don't think about turning the steering wheel when you drive or in all likelihood the placement of your hands when you type. You don't have to think about what not to say or why, because you just know what not to say. It's obvious to you. But while I still remember the formula for the volume of a cone with little effort, knowing what not to say for me involves a lot of effort and I often stumble still. I have to think about these things every time I open my mouth, every time I type a word in this blog.
For many people struggling with my condition, it's simply easier not to interact with others. That's our natural inclination to begin with, to close off and be content with our own company. Most of us have very few friends and for most of my adult life I've had no social support network. It's caused problems for me that most people never have to face and luckily for me things are starting to change. I'm also fortunate that at a fairly young age I realized that I needed to force myself to be more outgoing. Although I'm still not very good at it even today, you can see that I continue to try, like maintaining this blog.
It's also fairly common for people with autism like myself to avoid talking publicly about things that are personal to them. Talking about things that are personal involves risk even for those without autism, so you can imagine that someone who has such a challenge knowing what not to say might simply opt to say nothing at all, particularly when there's personal risk involved.
I hope also to be an exception to that rule of thumb. I try very hard to be approachable. I hope to let others into my life so that you can know me not just as a colleague or an engineer, but as a person. So I'm going to let you in on a bit of my inner life here, in the hopes that this is something that's okay to share. :)
I grew up reading comic books. My best friend in 3rd grade got me hooked on them as well as roleplaying games. That's also how I started illustrating. Comic books are about epic struggles between characters with impossible abilities and similarly implausible goals. Rule the world? Destroy the Earth? Okay, maybe there are a few very rare individuals who actually have these as goals, but generally speaking we consider these people delusional. But in spite of the fact that comic books are about these very inhuman characters, that's not the big reason we read them. The fans of comic books generally continue to be fans and keep buying and reading them because the writers are able to transform a preposterous collection of random and rather flat or "two dimensional" abilities into a believably human character with that third dimension we call "depth".
What gives a character depth? For one thing they need real human emotions. They need to love something and they need to be afraid of something. They also need to be flawed. They need to do the wrong thing... more than once.
It's somewhat ironic for someone like me to be describing comic book characters this way because autistic people are often viewed as lacking depth. There is for that matter a common myth that we actually don't feel emotions.
In a given week there were several occasions that Tiffany said to me "it's funny damn it", because she shared something with me and although I enjoyed it and actually also thought it was funny, I apparently hadn't outwardly responded. I didn't smile or laugh like she hoped. That's a little distressing to her because then she worries that maybe I think of her as naïve or "easily amused" or something. I don't, but it's still a challenge for her to deal with the fact that I don't always provide feedback the way other people do. I don't always chuckle when I find something humorous. Sometimes, but not always.
Someone else recently related a story to me about a guy who calls his friend and says "hey my girl and I split up because I found out she was cheating on me." The guy hopes his friend will say "hey man, sorry to hear it, I'll bring over a couple of beers and we can watch the game." And although he'll grieve more (later in private), at that moment the couple of beers and watching the game is all he really wants or needs. If he's unfortunate enough to call an autistic friend like myself, he's likely to get something all together different. He's more likely to get a fairly estranged phone conversation and maybe a few weeks later some kind of a web application with a database for tracking people who cheat. ;)
These kinds of stories about the peculiar way that we relate to the world contribute to the common misconception that our minds are mechanical like a computer and that we don't experience or understand emotions like fear and love. I can tell you that we do indeed feel emotions. We just don't express them the same way. In the past several years I've been unable to watch movies about superheroes without crying. It's not limited to the high-dollar events like Iron Man or the X-Men movies... I cry at the b-rate movies like Zoom. The Incredibles? I bawl my head off.
I'm not looking for sympathy here. :) I cried several times during Pay It Forward as well... I mention crying in these movies for a couple of very specific reasons, because I'm trying to let you into my world so you can better understand what I'm trying to say about paying it forward. This isn't just a movie. To quote another of my favorite heroes, "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea... and ideas are bulletproof." To this idea we must add action and resolve.
The main character of Pay It Forward is an 11-year-old kid named Trevor. The kid presents his idea for the social studies assignment: Pay It Forward. He's going to do something BIG for three other people. It has to be something that's difficult and it has to be something they can't do for themselves. Each of these three people must then repay the favor not to him (they're actually not allowed to pay it back), but to three other strangers in their own times of need. If you know anything at all about the theory behind network marketing, you know that the debt grows pretty rapidly. At only the 4th generation it should affect up to 81 people. Other kids in his class unsurprisingly criticize the idea because "it's the honor system and people blow off the honor system". The teacher, Mr. Simonet says his classmates find his idea "overly utopian", but feels differently himself and praises the idea for its originality and potential, calling it "admirable".
Trevor struggles with his choice of actions throughout the film. He often seems to have bitten off more than he can chew and not surprisingly feels that his efforts haven't worked, that he's failed. At one point he is rather depressed, having a conversation with his teacher Eugene Simonet, who says "I'm grading you for the effort, not for results". Trevor doesn't even smile: "I don't care about the grade. I just wanted to see the world change". Why? Trevor's world is pretty awful. His mother's an alcoholic who works two jobs and scarcely has time to spend with him. His father's also an alcoholic who abuses her and who's come and gone over the years. Trevor has every reason to want the world to change. Hopefully your world isn't so challenging. :) But like every other character in the movie or any well-written hero, Trevor is also flawed.
A few years ago I went through a very difficult time in my life... in 2006 to be exact. This was mentioned briefly during the recent CFConversations interview. During that time I gave up one of my passions. I wasn't programming for a while. The problems stemming from my autism had brought me to an ultimate crisis in my life. I'd been in crisis on and off for years for the same reasons and it had all finally come to a crescendo that might have ended me.
The reason I cry at superhero movies is because no matter how bad the situation is in a comic book, the heroes always, always, ALWAYS HAVE FRIENDS who protect them, who pick them up when they're down and who save them in their hour of need. (And god-willing, so do you!) I don't. I never have, and like most people struggling with autism, that's part of what makes me different. That's the reason I cry when I watch these movies. (Although I'm very grateful that this is slowly starting to change in the past couple years, thanks to some wonderful people like Brian Meloche, Rob Parkhill, Ben Nadel, Mark Mandel, Josh Cyr and Kristen Schofield. Sorry if I left anyone out, just trying to throw in a brief thanks to some folks who've helped me out recently. :) )
But as I said, I was in crisis. When we're in crisis there are a couple of ways we can handle the situation. We can break down and cease to function. We can complain (and I certainly have done my share). Or there's a third option. Like the heroes in comic books, we can have a "radiation accident": a transformative event in which we discover our own powers and choose to make a difference and change the outcome in the future.
The characters in comic books are interesting because they're human, but they're also inspirational because like any good fiction they show humanity's potential. No we can't leap over buildings our outrun bullets. What we can do is evolve. One man in the movie, a heroin addict, happens across a woman who's about to throw herself from a bridge. In that moment he asks her to do something for him. He asks her to save his life and in the process he saves hers. As flawed as we are, we have that potential. We can save each other. People do it every day.
Like Trevor, my world has been pretty awful including abusive parents in addition to the autism problems I've already described. I want to change it. More importantly, I'm planning to change it and I'm putting my plans into action. Like Trevor I want things to change in my own life. I want to have more friends and I work at finding ways to make that happen. But also like Trevor, it's not just about me.
One of the things I'm working on right now is an illustration contract for a children's book. The author was looking specifically for an autistic illustrator. There will be a short bio of me in the back of the book and autism research will receive part of the profits. Hopefully as more people become aware of the problems faced by people with autism (both children and adults), things will be different for kids like me. I have difficulty talking on the phone because of the autism and tonight while talking on the phone with my oldest daughter Alex, I discovered that she has that same problem. My younger daughter Calli exhibits even more of the "tell tales" that indicate possible autism. She has plenty of vocabulary but unlike Alex, she doesn't really articulate the problem she has with talking to me on the phone. She wants to talk to me, but then mostly can only tell me that, "I'm sorry, I don't really have anything to talk about". It's the same thing that happens to me. Alex may struggle with it, but like me she forces herself to find something to talk about. I'll do anything I can to help not only my kids, but kids like them around the world.
I know that for my part this isn't just lip service. Everybody knows the old saying, "talk is cheap", because it's easy to pay lip service to an idea. It's easy to say, "I'm going to do something about this" and then never follow through. We have to put these ideas into action. In addition to working on the children's book, I'm also choosing to be very vocal about my condition in general, to make myself an example... maybe even a target. But it's okay, because it's worth it. It's scary and difficult for me to put myself in the spotlight like this and in part that's why I'm doing it: so they won't have to.
But those aren't the only things I'm doing even still. One of the other things that came out of my crisis in 2006 was that I started researching the reasons why "some guys have all the luck and some guys don't". Over the past couple years I've done a lot of research into the effect a person's attitude has on their life. I needed to know for myself that I could change and how I could change. I needed to know what I could do to make things better. I'm still doing the research -- for example, looking forward to reading a new cognitive science book called Mindset by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. But I'm also giving that research back in the form of a book called the Optimist's Wager. Why? Do I hope or expect to get rich selling self-help books? Hardly. I'm writing it because I want the world to change. It doesn't matter if it only changes for one person.
And I'm collecting a list of things that others have done for me to pay forward to the world, like the brief mention Kristen Schofield gave me on her blog. I thanked her personally although I didn't tell her about the gigantic traffic spike she created on woohooligan.com that day. ;) Anyway I expect my debt to grow pretty rapidly. :)
This is your homework assignment: think of a way for you to change the world, and put it into action.
And please come back and share your ideas with me on my blog here so I have some moral support. ;)