The Random Griffith

They used to call me spazz

Posted in Uncategorized by Jackson Griffith on 27/03/2010

When I was a kid, I used to be able to tell you the address, and phone number, and the names of everyone who lived there, and what year, make and model of car or cars they drove, and some other random stuff, too, for every house in my neighborhood, and I’m talking about well over a hundred houses. I’d extracted the information from reading the telephone book, and from asking questions, and from general observation. I would hold court at the Village Oaks swimming pool in north Stockton on summer nights, entertaining my mother and the future billionaire’s wife and whoever else was there with my strange gift for knowledge.

I also grew really fast, and I was uncoordinated as hell. People called me a spazz. I’d bump into walls, knock tables and chairs over, break stuff, conk my head on things, and oftentimes I had little control over my limbs. I also caused a little trouble with my mouth, so often I would shout out whatever popped into my head before I’d had a chance to mull over whether that was a particularly good idea. This got me into lots of hassles in class. I thought I was the class clown, but oftentimes my humor was so far outside of what my contemporaries thought was funny that I might have well been doing standup comedy to squirrels in the park.

Over time, I developed the identity of a misfit. I started hanging out with the other neer-do-wells in my neighborhood of postwar flattop houses, which in retrospect was pretty working class; Average man: flannel shirt, lubed hair, work dungarees and boots, drove a pickup truck with a camper shell and radio permanently tuned to KRAK Radio 1140, which played nonstop Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. And those guys didn’t like me too much. And if they did, well, one was advised to steer clear of those types.

So even though I was considered “gifted” and I always tested in the top one percentile in school, I couldn’t get my work done in any kind of timely manner, and my desk usually was a laughable, appalling mess. My report card typically had the box checked that said “Does not play well with others.” I had trouble relating to my peers, and those interactions became painful, especially once nascent adolescence fired up my hormones and, thus, my emotional reactions. I began telling my mom I didn’t want to go to school, and I would stay home and listen to records and watch daytime television, not the soap operas but the talk shows, like Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. I developed a peculiar affinity for lounge singers, bad comedians and other random show-business personalities.

Around that time, I’d switched my obsession with addresses to record labels and catalog numbers. I had this thing where my mom — who in retrospect shared similar misfit qualities to mine — would bring me home 45-r.p.m. singles from the shop around the corner from the insurance agency where she worked. I would look at the charts for KFRC, KSTN or KJOY, the three big pop stations where I lived, or KSOL and KDIA, two R&B stations in the Bay, and when I would spot a title on a label whose design was unfamiliar to me, I would call my mom and promise to perform some chore in exchange for her bringing home the vinyl. As I was familiar with most of the mainstream center-label designs, she often would be bringing home singles on obscure R&B labels; three I remember vividly, because the music on these three records changed my life, were “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding (Volt), “She’s Looking Good” by Rodger Collins (Galaxy) and “Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville (Parlo).

I won’t go into the years of self-medicating here, because I’ve covered it elsewhere. Suffice it to say that one of the things I became painfully aware about myself in relation to others was that often there was a big disconnect between us. On rare occasion I would feel in sync with people; on others, it was like I’d landed from another planet and had nothing in common with anybody. Most of the time, that uncomfortable lack of connectivity was somewhere in between — just a bit off, but far removed enough that I’d feel like the odd man out in a roomful of people. I still feel that way quite often, but to a much lesser degree. And I’m much more comfortable in my own skin these days, which I attribute to being clean and sober for 17 and a half years, and being prompted by the resulting emotional pain to do real work on myself, to try to figure out what makes me tick. Oh, and over that time, I’ve discovered certain spiritual tools — prayer, meditation, forgiveness — that seem to help me get in touch with myself, and bring me into better relation with others.

Still, I’m just not quite there. Some days, I’m really out of it.

And lately, as I become more aware of just what it is that makes me different, my soul becomes washed over and drenched with the passing storms of deep sadness. I turned 55 last weekend, and I’m looking back at a lot: Not being able to keep it together long enough to finish school, and as a result, not living up to anywhere near my potential. Then, my broken relationships — a complete wreck of a marriage to someone who was damaged in different ways than I was, and then losing the love of someone I really felt a deep connection with. And my broken friendships — yes, I’ve got friends, but I’m generally just not capable of making a long-term connection with people, and I’m usually on the periphery of circles of friends rather than in the center, and oftentimes my friends just end up drifting off, like they shake their heads and walk away in dismay. And, in the last couple years, trying to keep rolling in a wrecked economy, where I can’t just go off and find some nondescript job and show up every day and hide out until I pull everything back together again, has made things tougher than I’d like them to be.

When I still had health insurance, I’d ask doctors if they could help me figure out what was wrong. A few years into being sober, I got diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, which made sense, and I read a bunch of stuff on that and it resonated, but it didn’t quite answer my questions. So I’m hyper. Plenty of people are, but they get stuff done, and they aren’t so woefully out of sync with the rest of the world. And toward the end of me being covered, I was discussing this stuff with one of the doctors at the big friendly McMedicine HMO I’d chosen for coverage, and this person, after I described all the stuff I listed above, and more, casually said:

“Maybe you have Asperger’s syndrome.”

I remember getting pissed off. “Yeah, right. I’m autistic. My [now-ex] wife calls me an autistic spazz all the time.”

I never pursued doing all the testing that would result in a formal diagnosis, but everything I’ve read since on Asperger’s fits me like a tailored suit. I’m guessing my mother had it to some degree, too. Over time, I’ve been able to mitigate some of the really uncomfortable manifestations of Asperger’s, via the self-awareness that developed, glacially, via a daily meditation practice. I can go to my breath now, and tune into the moment, and read people’s physical cues better, and connect with them more effectively. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take an improvement over what it was like before, any day.

But the tragedy, for me, is that I’m so far along in my life. I’m not working all that steadily right now, so the health insurance that would help me get some further testing, advice and treatment just isn’t available. Perhaps I should have gone to live in one of the civilized industrial nations, one with single-payer health insurance — or “socialized medicine,” for you Kool-Aid enthusiasts. But that’s neither here nor there.

I write this not out of self-pity, but in a spirit of understanding, and to say that I’m still pretty mystified why I don’t mesh all that well with the rest of the world, and to tell you that I really really really want to connect better with people. Fortunately, one of my gifts is the ability to communicate with you via writing, because I’m not getting constantly distracted by your eyes or face or what you’re saying and my brain isn’t rattling and vibrating all over the place and inserting rhythm tracks from old James Brown records in inappropriate spots. I can sit here and think about what I’m saying and type it and edit, and it seems to get a part of me across that doesn’t come through in other ways. So I guess I’m kind of a born writer.

Recently I saw this TED talk by a woman named Temple Grandin, and what she had to say just blew my mind. I’m part of a co-working community here in Sacramento called The Urban Hive, and one of the things they do is get together a couple of times a week to watch videos of talks from the TED website. Community is really important to me, because as disconnected as I sometimes feel, when I have those moments of connectivity, I really prize them. And what’s really cool about the TED events at the Hive are when we’ll watch something and then a discussion arises afterward; sometimes, what we talk about will be directly related; other times, what comes up will be tangentially related.

I’m glad the room was dark during the Temple Grandin talk, because I started crying. Now, I’m a guy who came up in the pre-touchy feely “rub some dirt on it” days of learning proper emotional responses, so I’m trained to shut down whenever the tears well up. Fortunately I was able to wrench myself back to Mr. Spock-style detachment, at least I don’t think I looked like somebody who was about to burst into tears in a horribly embarrassing manner.

What came up in our discussion afterward was the need for mentors. If I’d had someone who spotted what was going on with me when I was a kid, my life might have played out quite differently; instead of getting constantly slapped down by martinets who needed to make an example out of me to ensure the rest of the herd knew not to step out of line, I’d have found someone who recognized my innate gifts, and could have steered me in a positive direction, before I started messing around with altering my not-quite-formed consciousness with certain destabilizing substances. Once a kid reaches that point, he or she has a far more difficult time getting back on course, and is a lot harder to reach, in my opinion and from my experience. I might be a successful artist now, or a filmmaker, or a scientist. My writing might have gotten going much earlier, and I’d have a skein of books to my credit; I wouldn’t be still sketching out my first novel at age 55. Something. Anything. The creative young minds of this world need mentors, or at least the ones who have decks stacked against them do.

Good god, I hope this makes a little sense to somebody. —Jackson Griffith

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11 Responses

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  1. elle wrathall said, on 27/03/2010 at 03:55

    beautiful. i’ve worked with kids on the autism spectrum. it’s a wonderful thing to make a connection with ANYbody, but o, the joy each time i made connections with those children…felt like i’d found a secret key to a treasure

    yes, things would definitely have been different if you’d had more information/intervention/you-name-it. but better? who’s to say? maybe earlier success or even fame would have landed you on a couch with heidi fleiss on one side & dr. drew on the other; washed up, with footage to prove it, game over.

    get good…get really really good with who you ARE, spaz. that is how you get comfortable in that skin. let go of the what-ifs. they aren’t reality & don’t carry its weight & meaning

    creative minds do benefit from mentors, but what they need most is to create. you’re doing that. yes, indeed-y you are a born writer. would you have been so sans syndrome?

    who knows, who cares. but you ARE one, that’s fo sho

  2. Ava Simpson said, on 27/03/2010 at 08:54

    Brian … oops, Jackson, sorry. I know you from too many years ago … mostly during your self-medicating days, I’m afraid. Even then your brilliance was apparent — even if I couldn’t begin to keep up.

    As a grandparent of a high functioning 9 year-old boy in the autism spectrum, this tugs at my heart. His ability to memorize and focus on details that allude others is similar to yours. He’s blessed with brothers and sisters who play and wrestle him into a certain degree of “normalcy” and has enough others who recognize his quirks as gifts to be cultivated.

    I’m hoping the video camera I got him for his last birthday sent the message that we recognize he is “special” in the best sense of the word. I look for him to end up in the motion picture profession someday. But thanks for the reminder that he will need make sure he has mentors in his life. It’s not enough to give him the tools.

    Perhaps you would consider becoming a mentor to someone like him in the Sacramento area. A young person with a gift for music, maybe.

    From what I can see you have found several outlets for sharing your gift for edgy writing. I think the immediacy and lack of censorship that comes from posting your own blog suits your style and sheer volume of writing. Now if we could just make that pay??

    So to show how much I enjoy your writing — as I would a good piece of artwork or musical performance — I am writing a check now to “subscribe” to the Random Griffith blog. I would challenge others who enjoy it to do the same.

    Hang in there my old friend. Meet you a Denny’s for a discounted meal.

  3. Ava Simpson said, on 27/03/2010 at 09:03

    Proofing before I sent this off might have been a good idea:

    Correction to one line in third paragraph that doesn’t make sense.

    “But thanks for the reminder that we will need to make sure he has mentors in his life.”

    Any other typos, grammatical errors we can just write off to bad typing and old age.

  4. jaxong said, on 27/03/2010 at 11:17

    Thanks elle and Ava. It’s good and heartening to read your responses. And, yeah, giving back. I’m definitely going to look for opportunities there. I think I was just struck with how much people like me need other people who understand them. As a kid, that would have really helped.

    I remember times like going to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July with my parents, and diving deep into the back seat floorboard of our old Buick, cowering and screaming, wanting the big horrible noise to stop (which doesn’t explain my later affinity for Black Sabbath and the Ramones, but I was pretty medicated at that point, go figure). For my parents, that must have utterly mystified them, and the rest of my family was pretty mystified by me, too.

    Nowadays, they have a name for that thing called autism. Which brings about the beauty of being to identify that spectrum of perceptual and behavioral symptoms in children. The sad point is that our education system now is so undervalued, at least by a certain political party, so the infrastructure of getting kids the help and attention they need early on, before they start messing with drugs and alcohol or blowing things up (did a bit of that, too).

    Oh, what the hey, I’m with Meg Whitman: Tear down the schools and hospitals, build more prisons, and just lock up the bad people and sell their stuff on eBay. Easy!

  5. Robert Schaefer said, on 27/03/2010 at 15:45

    ” Perhaps I should have gone to live in one of the civilized industrial nations, one with single-payer health insurance — or “socialized medicine,” for you Kool-Aid enthusiasts. But that’s neither here nor there.”

    You wonder why you always feel like an outsider. You wonder why people get confused with you and your behaviors. Yet you can’t resist putting a political spin on this pretty good essay. You can’t honestly blame your medical problems on George Bush, can you?
    I suspect your life would have gone much the same regardless of where you lived. My daughter has severe ADD; and it took her a long time to learn not to antagonize people simply because they have different values. It took her a long time to understand that diversity works both ways.

    I’ve been clean and sober for 12 years. It’s amazing how much my health, my creativity and my luck has changed for the better.

    You write very well; you recognized that “That’s neither here nor there.” But you left it in the essay. Any idea why you left it in? Just plain anger?
    Perhaps i’m nitpicking; but politics doesn’t have to be included in this piece. I think that Kool aid and “a certain political party” don’t add to the writing; but detracts.
    Just my opinion. : )

    • jaxong said, on 27/03/2010 at 17:11

      I’m not blaming my problems, or my Asperger’s, or my ADD, or anything else on either George Bush — Herbert Walker or Walker. That comment is an aside, basically saying that if I hadn’t lost my job, and the resulting health insurance that went along with it, I would have pursued diagnosis and treatment, or therapy, for whatever type of autism I’ve lived with all my life. I do think that the Republican Party has worked aggressively, on behalf of and as the political arm of the insurance companies, to keep reasonably priced health insurance out of the grasp of the American people. As a result of those actions, America is the only large industrialized democracy that doesn’t have national health. Is that George W. Bush’s fault? No; Bush was a stooge. If I’m going to blame someone (and if you knew me, you would understand that I’m not into blaming, and I’m far more sad and resigned than I am angry), it would be people like Sen. Mitch McConnell, or Rep. John Boehner, for leading the charge against health insurance. I would blame people like Sen. Joseph Lieberman. And there are plenty of Democrats who took insurance company money and carried their water, too.

      But that’s neither here nor there, is it?

      What’s also neither here nor there is a certain tendency, and I’ve seen it in the arguments of Republicans, generally, to negate an entire point someone is making because they made some kind of aside in their presentation. I wouldn’t say you did that here, because you had otherwise favorable things to say. But health insurance, or reasonable access to it, is part of the point I’m driving at here, as are educational opportunities. Both are under attack, and both are under attack generally from the right wing. Having access to health care or educational opportunities may be seen as something people with normal needs can take or leave, but if you have difficulty navigating your everyday world, like I have had and still do, you need access to help, and to be denied that so that billionaires can have tax cuts, or defense contractors can get paid more money, or some other constituency that really doesn’t need help can gain further advantage, well, that’s just a sad state of affairs, isn’t it?

      Contrary to what you might think, I don’t politicize everything. In this particular arena, however, politics enters the discussion. The point I made in the blog post, or essay, is that in a lot of ways, things are much better for people like me today: There’s a name for that mystery that has bedeviled us, and there is a body of research, and there are therapies. But if you don’t have access to health care, what good is it? I can go online or go to the library and read up on autism and the autism spectrum, and that will help me in a lot of ways. But having access to a body of medical professionals, who can offer knowledge, treatment options and sage advice, might help even more. As would having expanded educational opportunities rather than contracting ones.

      I think it’s wonderful that your life has gotten better as a result of your continuous sobriety. Mine has, too, over the past 17 and a half years, in so many ways. But what happens with some of us is that we notice that certain things aren’t getting better, and in contrast to the people who take away the drugs and alcohol and rapidly get so well and wonderful, those of us with outside issues continue to struggle, no matter how diligently or sincerely we work a program.

      So there’s my defense of why politics matter in this particular issue. Just my opinion, of course.

  6. Lori Dover O'Brien said, on 28/03/2010 at 07:07

    I also Knew you when you were called Brian..I am not a writer, But I do have rather fond memories of you and the Stockton Days and friends. I do enjoy reading your articles and feel you are extremely talented and gifted. I feel fortunate to have known you, if only for a short time, and a very nice sampling of talented artists and musicians..The internet is very wonderful for getting a glimpse into other peoples lives..Gosh the Village Oaks Pool..WOW..Thanks for writing.

    • jaxong said, on 28/03/2010 at 07:27

      Lori, I’d still be Brian, but there was another writer in L.A. named Brian Griffith who was doing rather fawning interviews of record label executives for a magazine that was essentially a front for an independent radio promotion outfit, and I started getting calls from people who’d say, “Hey, I saw your fellati- I mean, uh, interview of Tommy Mottola in Hits, and you really polished Clive Davis’ apple last month, too,” and so I elected to revert to my first name. But you can still call me Brian, because it is my middle name. And thank you for reading my rambles.

      • Lori Dover O'Brien said, on 28/03/2010 at 08:20

        That makes perfect sense.

  7. junk said, on 28/03/2010 at 10:22

    Jackson, Another thoughtful and deeply resonant piece, thank you for sharing it. My work in education has opened my eyes so much to the many many forms human suffering can take, and also to the unflappable drive of humanity to persevere, and to thrive even in the face of crippling despair and pain. Empathy from outside helps, but you are on the Way, the path, by dipping deep inside of yourself to take the good care of You. Bravo. You’ve come a long way, baby : ) And we’ve all — republicans, democrats, mentally labeled, the sorrowful and the miserable, the self medicated and the numb — still got miles and miles to go.

    • jaxong said, on 29/03/2010 at 10:10

      Hi, Junk. Dunno who you are, but I do like when you respond. Peace, Jackson.


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