Friday, September 12, 2008

Subversive BYU Gals and a stream-of-consciousness political memoir

We're Poindexter, Casey, Ollie, and Ron,
people are saying we've done something wrong.
All that we did was sell some guns
to the Ayatollah and some of his chums.

We came to power because of those guys:
they took Jimmy Carter and cut him to size!
So we'd like to thank them for all that they've done,
we're Poindexter, Casey, Ollie, and Ron...

That was the opening verse of a song one of my faithful Mormon BYU dorm-mates privately shared with me my freshman year. It was a song by a garage band from Portland, Oregon -- the sort of thing that would be on YouTube today, but back in those days would be smuggled in via "cassette tape" to be played on a "boom box."

What dredged up this random scrap out of my memory?

Well, I'm currently reading Reading Lolita In Teheran -- an absolutely fascinating book about bright young women surviving under the heavy veil of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like weeds that can't be kept from growing up in the cracks of a paved-over surface, they find a way to live and grow -- in this case nourished by the forbidden study and discussion of literature.

The author/protagonist Azar Nafisi is a professor who recounts a little of her past here and there, including memories of that crucial and turbulent time that took a largely secular/leftist revolution -- the overthrow of the Shah -- and turned it into The Islamic Revolution.

Marjane Satrapi recounts some of the same events in Persepolis (which I've lately decided is my favorite film), but since Satrapi was a kid at the time (around my age, by coincidence), she's a little vague on some of the details that Nafisi fills in.

These two books reminded me that the crisis in Iran was one of my earliest political memories:

It was around the end of 1980 and beginning of 1981. I was nine years old, and we had just moved to Minnesota, where I was baffled by the strange slang, fashions, and customs that seemed to be a requirement for fitting in. But as difficult as it was for me, it was clear it could be worse: one of the girls in my new class was from Iran.

Her name was Sanaz, the same name as one of the characters in Nafisi's book. Obviously, my new classmates in Mr. Berger's 4th/5th-grade class had dubbed her "Sa-nose." I imagine that the kids had been instructed not to blame her for the hostage situation that was constantly in the news (since she was just a kid so it was obviously not her fault), but let's just say it wasn't the best year to be "the kid from Iran."

Now, reading in these books about all the people who fled Iran at that time, I can't help but wonder what her situation was, and what became of her (since I have no memory of her past elementary school).

I'd like to turn this into one of those heart-warming tales of how I befriended the outcast -- since it's not too far from the truth. But the thing is that in order to give something, you have to have something. Upon my arrival in Minnesota, I immediately took my natural place on the lowest rung on the popularity ladder, teased and bullied just the same (earning the far more imaginative nickname "Medusa" -- still not sure precisely how), whereas Sanaz was already friends with the other despised foreign girl (who I think was from Mexico). I formed kind of a loose alliance with the two of them in the grand tradition of misfit loners who don't necessarily understand each other any better than they understand the popular kids. I had no other friends.

I think if it were today, I would have been diagnosed somewhere on the "autism spectrum." But in those days if you were the weird kid, it was your own problem to deal with: sink or swim...


Aerin said...

You have to admit, Medusa is pretty creative. I was simply "four eyes". I don't know why kids say mean things.

I am actually surprised to hear that things were rough for you, as I would have never guessed that growing up. When I mentioned this to my husband, he said that he wasn't surprised. Smart? Sensitive kids? Always have a rough time. I think he's right.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

Yep, that's the way it is for all of us, isn't it?

Hellmut said...

I am not a physician but I would be very much surprised if you had autism. Your empathy level is too high. So high, actually, that you are probably an empathy outlier.

I agree with Aerin's husband. Smart sensitive kids tend to have it a little harder.

In the United States, anti-intellectualism makes it harder for smart and thoughtful children as well. There are ways to validate thoughtfulness but not in a school system that dumbs down the curriculum by deemphasizing critical thinking skills.

As for myself, the Mormon thing created a tremendous barrier between my peers and myself. In some ways, that was good. I did not start smoking, for example. (I would almost certainly smoke cigars today).

Although I was never shy, Mormonism did create considerable fear of outsiders. In hindsight, I have to say that most of my German peers are living a more responsible and more balanced life than most of my Mormon peers.

Self-righteousness makes stupid and lonely.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Hellmut!!!

I'll take that as a compliment. ;^)

Frankly, I agree that it's unlikely that I could have actual autism (for precisely the reason you cite: too much empathy). However, there are a lot of mental/personality traits that today get called the "autism spectrum", which seem to run in my family and which match some of the difficulties I had interacting with other kids. One might suggest that my social problems in Minnesota came from the fact that I was new, but my situation back in Ohio had been no different, and when I was in Minnesota, I observed plenty of new kids who arrived after me and had no difficulty fitting in.

It's hard to describe, but the problem was always observing and contemplating people, but rarely ever being there in the moment, so to speak. Like an alien observer, I was sometimes able to pick up on my peers' perspective and motivations without being able to act on this knowledge in such a way to make friends, if that makes any sense...

You may be right about Mormonism -- in my deconversion, part I, I explained that that was one of the reasons I liked it... :^)

AnnM said...

Hey Chanson,
I think kids with Asperger's are not naturally empathic, but that doesn't mean they can't develop the skill. Early, intensive intervention with autistic children can help rewire their brains to be, well, maybe not "normal", at least more in the direction of normal.

Kids with Asperger's are often incredibly intelligent on a few dimensions, and when they turn that intelligence to master social signals they do fine socially -- not gifted but can certainly be capable in an adult social milieu. Their brains just don't seem to naturally lead them to understand others. They have to purposefully consider the experiences of other people to empathize.

Which you seem to do a lot.

beatdad said...

The song about Ollie and Ronnie etc. Reminded me what I did the summer that congress held the Iran-Contra scandal hearings. (ha I almost said herring)

During that summer I was at Theater summer camp at the University of Utah. During our lunch, a few of the politically conscious teens (I was the instigator) held mock trials.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

Exactly. As I said above, it looks pretty clear that there's Asperger's (and other "autism spectrum") in the family. I fell like my social interactions were far more consciously learned than natural all through childhood essentially all the way up to High School. I think there's a high probability that I would have been diagnosed with Asperger's (or something related) as a child if that diagnosis had existed back then.

Hey Beat Dad!!!

Sound like great fun!!! :D