Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Honest and Your Baby is Ugly

Lately on Facebook I have seen babies, babies, babies, and more babies. As far as I'm concerned-- and at the risk of, perhaps, alienating half my audience-- newborn babies generally look the same and look ugly (And no, I was not exempt from this rule as an infant). Inevitably, when somebody posts a million pictures of his/her newborn on Facebook, a flurry of "He's so cute," or "She's perfect!" dominates the comments sections of these pictures. I seriously wonder how many people genuinely are honest when they post these comments. Maybe a few, maybe even most, but not all. In fact, it's largely a social grace, a lie-- and presumably the new parents know that they're merely hearing a social grace rather than an honest opinion-- and perhaps a form of reciprocal altruism that is prevalent in social species.

Don't let the title of the blog entry fool you-- I'm not going to write, "Your baby is ugly" when I see pictures of babies posted on Facebook. But I'm not going to tell a boldfaced lie and say that s/he's "perfect" or "cute." If I want to be supportive, I'll say things that I really mean, such as, "I know you'll be a good mom/dad." 

Quite frankly, routine social graces feel phony to me, and I hate small talk. Dr. Jack Kevorkian once commented that he disliked small talk and also said that he hated how people routinely lie to each other in ways that I just described; these complaints are common among people with Asperger's syndrome which is one of many reasons why I think Dr. Kevorkian had AS. Call me cold, but when I go to work and bump into someone I barely know, I don't care how they are. No, that doesn't  mean I wish them ill, but I am really ambivalent to how they're doing, and I think if people were more honest with themselves they would agree. If somebody I barely know asks me how I am, I say, "Hey, what's going on?" That more casual greeting feels less phony to me than, "How are you?" At a job interview, I do say, "How are you?" because, unfortunately, successful job interviews are laced with phoniness. 

Is it cold for me to say that I am ambivalent that a casual acquaintance's mother is in the hospital? Here, I do conform to this social grace by saying, "Is she going to be okay?" because it is a profound situation, but I forget about it two seconds later. Does that sound insensitive?

It occurred to me recently that if I managed to do something to change the world for the better, ultimately my happiness about this would be in sheer pride more than, "I'm glad that other people are doing better," or "I'm glad that they are suffering less." Although I would be glad about these things, ultimately it would be a real boost for my ego. What about that? Does that sound selfish? I'm reminded of another Dr. Kevorkian moment. In 1998, when Dr. Kevorkian was on 60 Minutes after he injected one of his patients directly, he told the host, Mike Wallace, "I'm fighting for me, Mike. Me. This is a right I want. I'm 71... I'll be 71. You don't know what'll happen when you get older. I may end up terribly suffering. I want some colleague to be free to come help me [to die] when I say the time has come. That's why I'm fighting, for me. Now that sounds selfish. And if it helps everybody else, so be it." Mike Wallace, and many other interviewers, also said that when they talked to Kevorkian privately, they found him to be a very compassionate man. So why would he say something brazen like that if he didn't care about his patients? Obviously I can't get inside his mind, but I think in those four sentences he summed up what I'm saying here-- You may care about other people, but in the end you're the person you care about the most. He cared about his patients, but ultimately he wanted the right to die for himself. I think he was just more honest about his motives than most people in his situation would be.

Reciprocal altruism is, I think, why we pretend to be incredibly upset that the mother of somebody who we barely know is in the hospital or that we think somebody's ugly baby is cute. Yes, caring about the person, even to a minimal extent (depending on your relationship with them) may be part of it, but in the end it's about you. If you pretend to be more upset than you are about an acquaintance's mother being in the hospital, that person will like you better and be more likely to help you if you need it. Same thing if you pretend to think somebody's ugly baby is cute. 

And how many of you who cry at funerals really do it because you feel badly for the person rather than that you simply miss them? I think if people were more honest they would admit that they cry at funerals for themselves, not for the deceased. 

I think people with Asperger's are just more honest about their motives and how they really feel and are more aware of it because these social graces were not something that they acquired unconsciously but something that had to be taught to them.

There is no such thing as true altruism. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Returning to My Roots

Last week, I returned to Camp Negev (not its real name), the secular Jewish summer overnight camp that I went to from 1995-1998. It was their second annual Alumni Day, in which Negev campers from years past could return and reunite with friends for a few hours.

Nobody from my age group showed up. In fact, I think a total of two campers from the 1990s, besides me, who showed up, and I wasn't close with either of them (we were positive acquaintances, I'd say). But that's okay. It was still good to see them. It was just good to see familiar-- and not so familiar-- Negev faces. To understand why I was okay with showing up and not reuniting with anybody I had ever been close to, one has to understand my experience at Camp Negev and what a unique place it was.

Camp Negev changed my life. I was a few months shy of 15 when I started attending in the summer of '95. I had never been to overnight camp before, and all life had taught me (mostly in school) was that I could expect interaction with my peers to be one humiliation after another. I expected that to happen at Negev. I expected the girls to put on makeup and talk nonstop about Cute Boys and make fun of me. If I expected this, why did I go to Negev? Because my older brother had gone (from '91-'93) and loved it. I had outgrown my day camp and was too old to return as a camper. 

When I first came to Negev, I was paranoid. I was scared that the slightest infringement on my part would invite humiliation. I remember being terrified when I randomly announced one day that the year was exactly half over to everybody in my cabin; they responded by giggling. I see in retrospect that they giggled because it was such a random comment. They probably forgot about it five minutes later and it never came up again. At school, a comment like that generally invited months of humiliation and became something of which I would never hear the end. I cried nearly every day for the first couple weeks at camp out of stress of trying to navigate the social world. Finally, in the middle of the third week of camp, one of my counselors, Jonas (not his real name) reached out to me and became my friend and mentor. He helped me to relax and make friends. Within three days or so of beginning to get to know him, I begged my parents to let me stay second session-- and they did. And the other kids in my group were happy about this. This kind of reaction was new to me. 

I stayed all 7 weeks in the summer of '95 and, at the time, it was the best summer of my life. Jonas helped me through high school, emotionally (despite living hundreds of miles away). I haven't seen him in about 10 years and we don't talk much anymore, but I know I will always love and respect him for what he did. I don't know who I would be today if not for him. Needless to say, I did return in the summer of 1996 (which was the best summer of my life. Period.), went on the camp's Israel trip in 1997, and came back as a C.I.T. in 1998. What I found to be unique about Negev was how interesting the people were to talk to even if I barely knew them. Most of them were intelligent and had something interesting to say. Some of my fondest memories include the deep discussions-- that sometimes lasted until 3 AM-- with people, some with whom I was close, and some with whom I barely knew. It was just that kind of place. In fact, it's really the first time I can recall actually engaging in a true conversation with anyone outside of my family! Plus, its small environment (usually about 150 campers) made it more comfortable for me. Did I have social problems there? Sure, but so does every Aspie, no matter how comfortable the environment (and this was the first place I truly felt comfortable). I can tell you right now, however, that my social skills improved dramatically from going to Negev. 

So back to the reunion. Yes, last Sunday I went to the Alumni Day. I enjoyed just watching the kids experience the absolute freedom that camp offered, the acceptance of differences in place where there is a strong emphasis on social justice. I talked to some of the counselors, who seemed interesting. I even found out there are some kids with Asperger's syndrome, and education about AS was delivered to the counselors during orientation. 

So that was Negev. My roots. To which I returned for a few short hours.