Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Hip To Be Weird

Asperger's, as they say, is having a moment. I thought this the other night while catching an episode of "Parenthood," in which one offspring of the titular parents is diagnosed with the condition. In the original movie on which the series is based, the kid simply suffered from anxiety, but anxiety is so 1990s. As syndromes go, Asberger's is as trendy as they come.

"Grey's Anatomy" featured a cardiac surgeon with Asperger's, "The Amazing Race" cast a contestant with the condition, and Hugh Dancy played a young man with Asperger's in the 2009 feature film, "Adam." What is it about this syndrome that we find so intriguing?

For starters, Asperger's isn't quite as scary as the bogey man of 21st Century parenting: autism. We're happy to give the former center stage if it means we can stop fretting, at least temporarily, about the latter. Moderately strange we can deal with, the more severe disability leaves us troubled.

But there's more at play here. My personal theory: So many of us have had our public personalities flattened and filtered by the need to do and say the right thing that we have a vicarious admiration for people who go their own way--who say and do what they want, without regard for social norms. Not because they're acting rebellious in a 1960's hippie counter-culture kind of way, but because they can't help themselves, which makes their behavior perfectly permissable. They're like quirky characters from indie films, only they're real.

Baseball player Curt Schilling and his wife happen to have a son with Asperger's. They were on the "Today" show, pitching their book about what it's like to parent such a child. Schilling's wife (sorry, I didn't catch her name, which I'm sure she's used to) noted: "If he wants to play with sharks [I'm assuming of the toy variety], he gets to play with sharks." On "Parenthood," the equivalent is allowing the kid to dress like a pirate. Note, in Asperger world, it's totally acceptable to follow your bliss--again, because you have no choice. And aren't we all a bit envious of that.

My husband works as a special educator. He's come across a number of kids with Asperger's, whom he invariably describes as "fun." Compared with the average teenager, that's undoubtedly true. Which would you rather have--the teen who dresses like a pirate or the teen who texts naked pictures of herself to her boyfriend? No contest. But whenever I ask whether the Asperger's kids have friends, the answer invariably is "no." Adults might admire the independent spirit--it's so rare and refreshing--but the last thing kids, teens in particular, want is to be different, to stand out from the crowd.

Most of us carry that notion into adulthood--we want to fit in. Why do I fill out NCAA brackets every year when I don't give two hoots about the sport? Because everyone else is doing it and I want to be part of the collective experience.

We might look at people with Asberger's as fulfilling some sort of fantasy or wish--our true selves unleashed. But if we were given the option--Asperger's or not--which would we choose?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

What, exactly, does “vintage” mean? Bless Patricia Marx, the New Yorker’s resident essayist on conspicuous consumption, for coming up with a definition: “anything that was made more than a minute ago, needs a good scrub, and, if you squint, looks older than it is.”

To that I might add “crap from your childhood.”

There was much vintage on display at the Randolph Street Market this past weekend, held indoors during the winter months (and March still counts as winter) on Washington Street. Vendors hawked everything from purses to cowboy boots to cigarette lighters to door hinges. Lots of sparkly jewelry. And, almost inexplicably, school lockers, which, if we had a garage, would make excellent storage compartments for our purses, cowboy boots, cigarette lighters and door hinges.

I am not a huge fan of vintage, especially clothing. It just kind of creeps me out to have something touch my skin that spent most of it its life touching someone else’s. But the market offered something to do on a Sunday that wasn’t particularly conducive to outdoor pursuits, so I dragged my husband away from the NCAA basketball tournament, bribing him with the promise of the market’s advertised fancy food purveyors (more on that later).

I have nothing to back up this statistic, but I’d say that 90 percent of the people at the market had no intention of purchasing anything, perhaps because they’d already plunked down $10 per person for the entrance fee. We collectively meandered aimlessly, picking up random objects and setting them down hastily whenever a salesperson (ie, person operating the booth) approached, lest they think us a serious buyer. My modus operandi at these affairs is to make as little eye contact as possible and to completely disown my husband if he gets locked into a conversation about, say, a salvaged trestle table.

I was prepared to temporarily lift my embargo on used clothing, accessories division, to hunt for a suitable purse. Just the other day on the morning news, a fashion expert had recommended vintage handbags as an excellent way to update one’s wardrobe for spring without spending a fortune. The trouble with vintage bags, though, is that they all look worn out, like Lindsay Lohan after a night on the town. And they’re priced higher than $5, which is what I personally believe any and everything labeled vintage should cost.

I don’t mean to sound like we weren’t having fun. We totally were. Once we got past the purses and the lockers and, truly inexplicably, an assemblage of rowing oars, the market felt more like an amusement park: Blast From the Past-land. We saw the fondue pots and ashtrays our parents had used for entertaining. The Currier & Ives-patterned plates I had eaten off of as a kid. His grandparents’ barware. The frosted glasses, curiously embossed with prancing ponies, that my dad used to serve hi-balls. I don’t want to own any of this stuff—I’m quite content outfitting my home circa Crate & Barrel—but it was fun to visit.

That, at least for me, is the true appeal of vintage. It’s not so much the way these objects take me back to my youth—because some things, like my hideously-permed hair, are best forgotten—but the way that they take me back to the people of my youth. One look at those hi-ball glasses, and my great aunt Frances immediately sprung to mind—and she’s been dead since I was in junior high. I don’t really miss plastic pineapple-shaped drinking cups, but I do miss sitting around the dinner table with my brothers and sister, none of whom live closer to me than a five-hour drive. I suppose that’s why so many folks collect what frankly amounts to junk—they cling to objects because they can’t cling to people.

Like I said, a fun place to visit, but I don’t think it’s particularly healthy being constantly reminded of days gone by. Because you’re likely to forget about the present and important things such as the fancy food market.

I used to work in marketing, so you’d think I’d be immune to the totally bogus siren call of phrases like “fancy food.” But I’m not. Turns out, this “market” amounted to a handful on booths, one of them, a complete non sequitur, selling soaps. Dave’s Coffee Cakes was the only one with the brains to sample his goods—and good they were. We tasted chocolate and raspberry and caramel and by then we had nearly eaten an entire cake and felt obliged to buy. They were, after all, only $5.