A Different Sort of Solitude

People are strange when you're a stranger.

Breakfast and Being “High-Functioning”

A Guest Post by Patrick Balsillie

There is a restaurant I like to visit before work. My fiancee (Allie) and I share a car, so often when she has to work early, she drops me off so I can enjoy a breakfast and then I walk to work. I like the pace and sound there; there’s an unhurried, gentle hubbub about the place that lets me relax, reflect and generally puts in me in a positive mood.

It was a cool Friday morning she joined me for one such day and we had a conversation. We placed our orders, and the server came back with our drinks. I poured cream in my coffee as Allie told me about something that happened at work.

“So I was in a meeting the other day aaand one of my colleagues was talking about a client of hers and she was saying she had to tell the mother that she thought the kid was autistic. And I forgot? that not everyone thinks autism is awesome. And so when she said that, I was like yay! And everyone looked at me. It was really awkward.”

“Well I think some people tend to think of…(pause)…non-verbal autistic people, they often don’t realize the breadth of autistic experiences. They often don’t know that many on the spectrum are high functioning.”

“Oh, you’re not really supposed to use the term “high-functioning” anymore, because it kind of implies that others are low-functioning. I read an article about it.”

I paused. She was right.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s five years ago, just months before the DSM V replaced the DSM IV and folded Asperger’s into Autism Spectrum Disorder. I was told that the new term for my situation was “high-functioning autism” and haven’t really thought much on it since.

“So what term are you supposed to use?”

“They didn’t really make any recommendations. David has one, he likes the term ‘classic autism’, just like ‘classic’ cars.”

“Huh. Interesting.”

Our server arrived with our meals; I had eggs and toast with hash browns and breakfast sausages.

I don’t usually pay close attention to the latest news in the social justice world about what’s ok to say versus what’s not ok to say. I think society is undergoing massive social changes, and to me the hot topics in the social justice world seem to range from trivialities to important issues. I couldn’t care less whether someone refers to me as ‘an autistic person’ or a ‘person with autism’, but apparently some people have strong feelings about the issue. And yet, I do remember growing as a teenager when an ally called me in on using the phrase “that’s so gay.” That was a common phrase in the halls of my high school, but when pointed out to me how hurtful and perniciously homophobic it was, I stopped.

My guiding principles for the language I use are simple: be courteous and empathetic. No put-downs. It’s not a matter of “causing offense”, it’s a matter of are you punching down at someone with less privilege than you.

I munched on my hash browns and sipped my deliciously creamy coffee.

How would it feel from the perspective of someone who’s “classically” autistic? I have a hard time imagining other people’s perspectives, but I think I would feel frustrated, angry and ashamed. As long as I knew about “high-functioning” autism, “autism” would seem to be “low-functioning autism” with a thin veil of denial. I’ve always been sensitive about my intelligence, and being implicitly labelled “low-functioning” by someone more successful than me would be particularly soul-crushing. Some part of me would come to believe I was doomed to fail where others succeed.

In this case, yes, it seems to me the term “high-functioning” is a clumsy term that inadvertently punches down at classical autistics.

“I think you’re right I probably shouldn’t use the term ‘high-functioning,’ ” I said sipping my coffee. “I won’t use it any more.”

Allie can tell I’m perseverating; she’s often generous in letting me monologue when my special interests are piqued, even though this sort of dialogue-hogging is liable to get you reprimanded or ostracized in most social circles. This is one way she accommodates me on a regular basis and is one of the many things I love about her.

“So why do we have the term high-functioning in the first place? Sure, we may need some term to communicate the breadth of autistic experience, but in what way are we ‘functioning’? It’s not the functioning of our livers, it’s how we function within capitalism. Do you produce more wealth than you consume? Are you able to have a job? Do you blend in well enough to not require (or just not ask for) special accommodation?”

“More coffee?”

“Yes please.”

“We’ll have the bill ready shortly.”

My ideas aren’t wholly persuasive or settled, which is perhaps why I find the topic stimulating.We talk for a while longer about the value of persons outside of economic value. We talk about why each person is intrinsically valuable. Now we are on well-worn ground; as non-sociopaths we instinctively recognize people as intrinsically valuable, and we’ve discussed and debated as amateur moral philosophers together on countless occasions.

This is a good start to a morning. The meal was tasty and filling, and I feel not just refreshed, but slightly newer.

The bill arrives, we pay and leave.

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Exit, Pursued By a Bear

For the last two years I’ve been attending a monthly play reading event called Sing for Your Supper. It’s held in a tiny local theatre called The Storefront.

Basically what happens at Sing for Your Supper is that anyone can submit a play, the best five or six plays are chosen, and anyone who wants to perform shows up an hour before Sing for Your Supper begins. They’re assigned to act out a play they’ve never seen before, and given an hour to pull together a performance.

The atmosphere at Sing for Your Supper is electric. The audience is enthusiastic, warm and encouraging. Everyone who participates feels loved. Being an actor and being a writer are often incredibly miserable existences full of isolation and self-doubt. Sing for Your Supper is a safe harbour, a reprieve from all the nastiness we experience.

Anyway, there’s been a kerfuffle with the landlord and The Storefront Theatre is closing at the end of the month. Sing for Your Supper will continue to exist, shuffled from venue to venue until the Storefront finds a new, permanent home.

Everyone involved with the Storefront is devastated. Hell, the wider theatrical community in Toronto is devastated, because these guys stick together. They pride themselves on unity and comradery and unconditional support. The prevailing attitude at the moment seems to be unflagging optimism: sure, we’ll find a way out of this! So long as we have each other, we can do anything!

But it isn’t that easy, and I’m feeling apprehensive. Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, Hannah decided to sign up for an improv class. She’s a pretty shy person, and figured that improv might help her become more outgoing and take more chances. She signed up for a class at Bad Dog Theatre, a local indie theatre with a similar attitude to the Storefront: anyone can perform, and everyone’s welcome.

Hannah had a great time. Her class’ instructor was warm, encouraging and funny, and everyone felt safe and supported. Hannah started feeling more comfortable making an ass of herself in public, which is what you really need to do if you want to overcome shyness.

The class wrapped up, the instructor encouraged the students to sign up for more classes in the future, and Hannah was excited to do just that.

Then Bad Dog Theatre changed locations, moving from a ground-level location in Greektown to a second-story location in the west end.

Their new space was wheelchair inaccessible.

They were apologetic, but offered no solutions. Hannah tried finding new improv classes somewhere else, but couldn’t find anything offered in an accessible space.

I remember when she first told me this story. I was incredulous.

“Surely there must’ve been something out there,” I said.

“The only accessible stand-up comedy venue in Toronto is Second City,” she said.

And indie theatres, apparently, were just as bad. Most were in tiny spaces, often up or down a flight of stairs.

Of course there are reasons for this, money being the most obvious. It’s hard to find an affordable, accessible space. But when it comes to creating a community space- physical or otherwise- a series of decisions are made. Priorities are established.

Theatre prides itself on the ideas of community, belonging and togetherness. If certain bodies are prioritized over other bodies, and if money is prioritized over human beings, then the resulting community is an empty shell. It’s just a lie that’s told to make ourselves feel better for having done a shitty thing.

This is why The Storefront Theatre was important (and using the past tense here is painful for me). It was one of the only indie theatres that was truly a community space. It was- with the exception of the bathroom- fully accessible. The lobby, audience area, stage and backstage were all wheelchair accessible. Hannah was always made to feel welcome. Questions about accessibility were answered promptly and respectfully. The building’s floor plan was available online.

And they weren’t only welcoming toward users of mobility devices. I recently submitted a play to the Storefront, and part of the application was a checklist of different marginalized identities. They were actively seeking out plays by people of colour, women, the queer community, and Deaf and blind people. For whatever reason, users of mobility devices, cognitively disabled people, and mentally ill people did not make the checklist. But based on how Hannah and I have been treated at Sing for Your Supper, I’m willing to interpret that as an honest oversight.

When The Storefront Theatre relocates, what will it look like? Will it still be accessible? I’m not privy to whatever decisions are being made behind the scenes, so I have no idea what priorities are being made. Will disabled bodies be included in the Storefront’s future?

I’m cautiously optimistic. I believe- based on my previous experiences- that the people in charge are decent and principled. But I have some concerns, too. Bad Dog Theatre has graciously stepped forward and offered their assistance. They might end up hosting Sing for Your Supper for a month or two (or more). In that case, users of mobility devices will temporarily be segregated from that event.

In the end, a community is just a collection of people, and every individual has to make their own decision about what matters to them. Sing for Your Supper is incredibly important to me. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever felt included in a community. I believe that these are my people. And, putting aside emotional concerns, I’m a writer and Sing for Your Supper has staged my plays on twelve different occasions.

But I cannot participate in an event that is wheelchair inaccessible, and I can’t be part of a community which believes accessibility is optional. I believe that the people in charge of the Storefront’s future will do the right thing in the coming months. I hope they will, because this is one of the only safe places I’ve found, and I don’t want to lose it.

A List of Shit I’ve Been Permanently Exempted From Because I’m In a Relationship With a Wheelchair User

When I was single and trying to socialize with people, I constantly felt self-conscious about the fact that I was totally uninterested in most of the activities my peers liked. What’s worse, I didn’t feel I had a good excuse for dodging these activities. Most of the stuff they suggested were things that were awkward for me because of my disability. But my personality developed around my disability, so I grew up without any interest in most of the stuff I couldn’t do. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t do this shit; I believed it to be objectively boring and couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in it. Because everyone else was interested in these things, I also wondered whether there was something wrong with me, and whether I would ever have an uncomplicated, mutually satisfying interpersonal relationship.

Then I started dating someone in a wheelchair and all these problems were solved. I hadn’t anticipated this happening, and I cannot overstate how delighted I was when I discovered this was the case. Below is a partial list of the activities that I have been permanently exempted from.

-Roller skating

-Skateboarding

-Bicycle rides

-Bicycle tours of the Niagara wine country

-Worrying that I might be high maintenance

-Pub crawls

-Nightclubs

-Ziplining

-Spelunking

-White water rafting

-Jogging

-Worrying that my disability might be an inconvenience

-Sitting in the plebe section of the train

-Having to line up in public places

-Paying for most museums, art galleries, and theatres

-Going outside to get groceries

-Camping

-Roller coasters

-Worrying that our lives might go completely off the rails if one of us gets seriously sick or injured

-Hang gliding

-Yoga

-That frightening attraction at the C.N. Tower where they put you in a harness and dangle you over the edge

-Ballroom dancing lessons

-Bowling

-Scuba diving

-Rock climbing

-Batting cages

-Skiing

A List of Shit I Assumed I Was Exempted From Because I’m In a Relationship With a Wheelchair User Until I Discovered This Was Sadly Not the Case

-Laser tag

-Canoeing

-Road trips

-Sailing

I Watched All Fourteen Movies in The Land Before Time Series Over a Weekend

Back in May I discovered that The Land Before Time was on Netflix. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, so I immediately watched it with my partner.

After finishing, I said, “Did you know there are fourteen of these movies?”

She couldn’t believe it. Neither of us had watched more than three or four of them.

“You know what would be really funny?” I said. “If I watched every single Land Before Time movie over the course of a weekend.”

The trick was, of course, finding all these movies. I didn’t want to rent them, because that would be a huge waste of money. I’ve always been paranoid about pirating sites, because I don’t want to lose the contents of my computer as the result of a Land Before Time marathon. YouTube doesn’t help either; they have some of the movies, but not all of them. And in any case, did I really want to spend a weekend watching shitty animated dinosaurs?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I went to Costco and discovered a box set of all fourteen Land Before Time movies packaged together for the reasonable price of $28. The cover promised over seventeen hours of fun.

I knew it was time.

This is the first weekend since then that I’ve been able to block off both days for the marathon. I live with my partner in a bachelor apartment, so this is a sacrifice for us both.

Why the hell am I doing this? For the same reason that Edmund Hillary climbed Everest: nobody else had ever done it before.

Except you know that some Tibetan person had probably climbed Everest at some point, right? And some unsupervised child with poor judgment has probably binge watched all these movies.

But we don’t know the names of these brave souls, so we claim their pioneering achievements as our own. This is how the world works.

landbeforetime

The Land Before Time

The Film:

I grew up with this movie and saw it at least a dozen times as a kid. For people in my generation, it has a certain iconic quality.

Unfortunately, watching it now, I see it has some problems. Namely, its characterization, plotting, and animation are weak. These are serious issues.

The characters are one-dimensional, possessing perhaps one or two personality traits each. Littlefoot, the protagonist, is thoughtful. Cera is aggressive. Petrie is neurotic. Ducky is loud. Spike is brain damaged. All are insufferable except Spike, who is silent and plays a smaller part than the others.

The film’s plot relies heavily on coincidences (characters are always in the right place at the right time), and important events seem to be placed too closely together. I feel as though the film should’ve been at least fifteen minutes longer, to give the characters more time to develop, and to provide some breathing space. As it is, the film feels airless and rushed.

The animation is not up to the standards of other films from the same period. It is significantly weaker than its Disney-made contemporaries (The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, and The Little Mermaid). Characters’ facial expressions are often strange and unappealing, and the colours are flat. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare The Land Before Time to Disney, because Disney had more resources available. But the animation is also worse than director Don Bluth’s first film The Secret of NIMH, made six years prior.

So does The Land Before Time have any redeeming factors? Yes: the score, by James Horner, is perhaps the best score I’ve ever heard in an animated film. Whatever emotional resonance the film has- and there are moments when it almost made me cry- is because of Horner’s music. The main theme in particular is devastating and iconic, manipulative in just the right way, where you notice you’re being jerked around and don’t even care. In contrast, the rest of the film- with lots of badly animated shots of characters looking mopey- is manipulative in a crass and empty way, and I felt resentful for being asked to feel something. But then the music cued up, I lost my fucking mind, and I was five-years-old again.

In the end, Horner manages to single-handedly save the film and make it worth watching- but only just.

My Mental State:

Bright-eyed and bushy tailed. It’s only 10:30 in the morning, and I still feel fresh. I do feel apprehensive, because The Land Before Time is probably going to be the highlight, and it wasn’t all that good.

The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure

The Film:

The biggest surprise here was the quality of the animation. It was a big step up from the original movie. The colours are bright, the character designs are more appealing, and everything seems to have more visual depth.

The plot is around what you’d expect from a typical Saturday morning cartoon. It’s simplistic and relatively painless, though I found it meandered too much. The Great Valley Adventure has the opposite problem from the original film: overlong and too flabby, and it takes too long to really get going. The film should’ve been about ten or fifteen minutes shorter, and the climax in particular was an interminable mash of clunky fight and chase scenes.

The rest was fine. The Great Valley Adventure has no ambition whatsoever; like the rest of the sequels, it was released as a direct-to-video cash grab. Judged by those low expectations, it can be considered a rousing success. Watching it reminded me of being a kid and sitting in front of the T.V. on a lazy summer morning. That’s not a bad experience.

Another thing that should be noted is that this film, unlike the original, is a musical. The songs sound like they were composed by someone accustomed to writing jingles for T.V. commercials, that they can’t believe they’ve been reduced to this, and have had a few belts of scotch to make the process endurable.

My Mental State:

I feel fine, though I wish I had a big bowl of Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs or some Corn Pops to complete the illusion of being a kid again.

The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving

The Film:

The animation is a big step backwards here; it might actually be worse than the original. The characters’ movements are often jerky and their facial expressions frequently grotesque.

The storyline and themes are painfully simple, with all the nuance and complexity of a Berenstain Bears book, and there’s a great deal of preachiness about issues that everyone agrees on. Sharing is good. Child abuse is bad. Emergency preparedness is good. Bullying is bad.

I do appreciate the gentleness at the heart of this movie. It is fundamentally humanist, and ultimately even the characters who seemed villainous to begin with are shown to have reasons for their behaviour.

More than the other two- more than just about any film I’ve seen- this reminds me of a picture book, which is why I previously mentioned the Berenstain Bears.

It is ingratiatingly sweet, and features a harshly obvious Moral of the Story. But in a world in which so much entertainment- even children’s entertainment- is dark and brutal, there’s something to be said for something as innocent as The Time of the Great Giving. Though its execution is so clumsy that it’s sometimes painful to watch.

I’d also like to note that the songs here are a great deal better than The Great Valley Adventure. One of them- an early, doo-wop-style song about bullying- is genuinely enjoyable.

My Mental State:

I was feeling a bit logey and dyspeptic about halfway through, but then I had some lunch and I’m feeling better. I’m cautiously optimistic about this endeavour, though I’m keeping an eye on the time. It’s 3 PM now, and we have a guest coming at 6. Will I be able to watch seven films today?

The Land Before Time IV: Journey through the Mists

The Film:

Well, this one was kind of all over the place. The animation has thankfully bottomed out- for now. It’s about as rough as it was in the third film, though the backgrounds here tend to be better animated than The Time of the Great Giving, and the character animations tend to be worse.

There are fewer plot problems here than in any of the other films. The plot is reasonably straightforward and propulsive, without any weird, unnecessary diversions- with the exception of a lengthy fight scene in a cave near the middle of the film, and a flashback sequence near the end. Neither of these scenes cause any lasting damage to the movie though, and it recovers quickly.

The villains in this film are more obnoxious than the villains in the other films, but also- with the exception of the Sharptooth in the first movie- more dangerous. Instead of stealing eggs or just generally being assholes, they actually want to eat the main characters. So the stakes have never been higher, etc. etc.

Like the third film, Journey through the Mists also takes some time- not too much, thank God- to preach about the values of friendship and tolerance. The film could almost have spent more time on this, because the racially motivated tension between two characters is abruptly and irreversibly resolved halfway through the plot, and never revisited.

My Mental State:

Just like the film, I’m kind of all over the place. I was feeling pissed off at the movie and the world for the first forty minutes or so, and then I had to take an hour-long break while my partner had a video conference. This allowed me a fresh perspective on the film, though it also led me to wonder just why the hell I’m doing this to myself. Such ruminations are not wise.

The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island

The Film:

I was not expecting this. It is a huge step forward from the previous sequels, and possibly even better than the original. The animation is surprisingly good; easily the best out of any of the movies so far, smoother and prettier. The plot is neither too convoluted nor too stunted, and the conflict it sets up- the main characters stranded on a strange island- is actually interesting. Best of all, there are no real villains here. Just one predator who’s more a force of nature than anything else. Most kids’ movies aren’t sophisticated or nuanced enough to portray a world where everyone has inner lives and reasonable motivations. This one in particular manages to further the previous films’ theme of anti-racism in a way that is entertaining and rarely preachy.

The songs were a big improvement too- all three of them were enjoyable.

My Mental State:

After finishing the film I suggested to my partner that I create a film series called The Land Before Tim about a guy named Tim and all the stuff that happens before he’s born.

The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock

The Film:

What the fuck is this shit? There’s some old bastard dinosaur who looks like Clint Eastwood, a tornado, the two most obnoxious dinosaur children in the world, and the threadbare plot revolves around the question of whether bad luck exists.

The main characters hear some stupid fucking bedtime story about The Lone Dinosaur and some rock that symbolizes something and if anything happens to the rock bad things will happen and then something bad happens to the rock, and did I mention those obnoxious fucking dinosaur children? They’re apparently the nieces (or possibly sisters?) of Cera, and are absolutely the worst fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been watching these fucking movies all day. I’m not emotionally equipped to handle this shit. I dozed off at one point for a couple of minutes, and the only reason I didn’t fall asleep again was because I was more pissed off than tired. While watching the climax of the movie, in which Littlefoot’s grandfather once again gets the shit beaten out of him because Littlefoot did something stupid, and in which Littlefoot’s grandfather teams up with Flint Eastwood and beats the shit out of two predator dinosaurs, I realized something important: the screenwriters of this film were high on cocaine. Just absolutely coked out of their gourds. This is unfair. I had to watch this movie completely sober.

My Mental State:

Oh, I’m doing just fine, thanks.

Day Two

david-shoot

The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire

The Film:

I just don’t know anymore. I’m starting to seriously worry about my mental state. This might be Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but I thought this was a dazzling piece of work, complex and nuanced. The animation in The Stone of Cold Fire is another series best- every movie in the series, with the exception of the sixth, seems to improve in this regard. And, for the first time in the series, The Stone of Cold Fire asks interesting moral questions with difficult answers: What makes someone a villain? Are there any behaviours that are truly unforgivable? What qualities make a person a leader?

This movie also furthers the series’ gentle, humanist approach, arguing that- at the end of the day- there are no villains or heroes, and that everyone is complicated.

This is the sort of thing that happens when you have talented, intelligent people working behind the scenes of a film series that nobody is paying attention to. After a certain point they realize they can do pretty much anything they want, and start creating genuinely interesting things.

Also, there are motherfucking dinosaur aliens in this film. It was so ruthlessly awesome I almost cried. If The Secret of Saurus Rock was cocaine, then The Stone of Cold Fire is psilocybin mushrooms. And, let me tell you, it’s a much better experience.

My Mental State:

I don’t know if I should be enjoying these movies so much. I may have lost my mind.

The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze

The Film:

So for the first half an hour the characters basically just hang out and don’t do anything. And my mind is fucking glazed at this point- it’s like a goddamn Krispy Kreme donut- and I like these characters, so I don’t fucking care what they do. I just like watching them, because at this point it feels like I’ve been watching them my whole life. I have never not been watching The Land Before Time.

So Littlefoot has some conflict with a teacher, and Ducky gets mad at Spike, and other spiketails come to the valley and try to adopt him, and there’s a big snowfall, and none of this really amounts to anything except characters talking to each other. Fine, whatever.

Then Spike leaves the valley and it gets even colder out and Ducky goes after Spike and the other characters go after Ducky. Which is pretty standard; just about all these movies involves the main characters leaving the Valley for some stupid fucking reason that endangers all their lives.

Except this time they decide to take their elderly teacher with them, and that just kills the momentum dead because he is a boring, useless character who talks slowly and moves slowly and doesn’t do much.

And of course the film has Lessons To Impart, which are that Everyone Matters and You Shouldn’t Lie and that Everyone Deserves Dignity. Okay, these are valuable lessons, and I admire the gentle, big-heartedness of this series. Once again it serves up a valuable lesson and the execution is fucking dreadful; the moral is delivered in a saccharne, bossily-obvious way.

I’d like to once again note that the animation continues to improve for some reason. The quality of the character animation has been pretty stagnant for the last few films, but the background animation is fucking gorgeous. The snow in this film is especially beautiful, and I can imagine watching this film as a kid during winter break while the snow outside falls and falls and I’m cozy and warm and happy.

Also, the film cast Robert Guillaume as the elderly teacher, and may God strike them dead for wasting him in this manner. He’s a national treasure. And I recognize that national treasures have to eat, but Christ. Just send him a cheque in the mail if you have nothing valuable for him to do.

My Mental State:

A little crotchety, if you haven’t guessed. It’s almost 2:30 and I have six more of this fucking movies to watch, so I’m a little concerned about the time. I’m also feeling a little loopy. I suggested to my partner that I create a film series called The Band Before Time, about a bunch of punk rockers who get stranded in the dinosaur age and have to figure out how to survive by utilizing their skills as musicians. She said it was a terrible idea, though not as bad as The Land Before Tim.

The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water

The Film:

There’s next to nothing here to talk about or analyze. The main characters decide to help a camp dolphin find his way home, so they walk along a riverbank for an hour and change while the dolphin swims alongside them making irritating fucking noises and obnoxious jokes. Every now and then they encounter an obstacle which they easily overcome within a minute or two. Nothing seems to have any weight. The visuals are pretty. The songs are mediocre. I want to die.

My Mental State:

The narrator concluded the film by promising there were “many more adventures to come”. I burst into joyless, hysterical laughter.

The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration

The Film:

An interesting case here. It starts off with the most blatant “what the hell” plot point I’ve seen in the series so far, with Littlefoot and his grandparents leaving the Great Valley for no reason at all. They had a couple of weird dreams, they’re feeling restless, so off they go.

This bothered me at first, but then I realized the movie was doing something strange and creepy- unintentionally so perhaps- but it had a definite impact just the same. It turns out that all the longnecks are participating in some kind of religious pilgrimage to a longneck holy site.

Yeah, sure, we’re ten movies into the series, let’s make a film about longneck religion.

So there’s that.

And then Littlefoot’s dad shows up. I have been waiting several movies for this inevitable plot development. While staggering through idiotic storylines like The Lone Dinosaur and The Importance of Water Conservation, I dreamt about this moment.

And so yeah, his dad shows up, and they get along great, and then go their separate ways at the end of the film. Oh, well.

But the emphasis on longneck religion is fascinating, and there are some interesting (albeit one-dimensional) new characters and character dynamics. So the movie ends up being an enjoyable romp.

The animation takes a turn for the worse here, though not in the direction I was expecting. For the last few movies they’ve used C.G.I. flourishes within the 2-D animation, and these have been mostly attractive and effective, allowing the movies to use more elaborate backgrounds, textures, and “camera movements”. But in this film, they attempt a more full-scale grafting of 2-D characters with 3-D objects and surfaces, and the result is odd and distracting. A clear step backwards, but still nowhere near the straight-to-video cheapness you’d expect for a children’s animated film series in its 10th installment.

One more thing: Kiefer Sutherland and Bernadette Peters are both in this. I was shocked to discover that, and I have no idea why they participated. I can only assume they killed someone with a car, and that there is incriminating video footage.

My Mental State:

Surprisingly upbeat.

The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses

The Film:

Not much happens here, but the few things that do happen aren’t handled particularly well. A bunch of tiny dinosaurs steal the valley’s dessert supply, and Cera’s dad decides to perpetrate genocide against them. This strikes me as a disproportionate response. Littlefoot lies about his peripheral involvement in the dessert stealing and befriends the tiny dinosaurs, and the movie’s moral position seems to be that lying is a far graver offense than attempted genocide. Which is an interesting position to take.

Anyway, there are some fun new characters, and an enjoyable doo wop song, and even though the movie minimizes the severity of genocide, it’s pretty good. “Pretty good” being an extremely relative term at this point; it didn’t make me want to hang myself. Also, the magnificently talented Michael Clarke Duncan voiced one of the characters in this film. He died at the age of fifty-four, and spent some of his limited time on earth participating in one of the lesser Land Before Time movies. This saddens me.

My Mental State:

I no longer know why I thought this was a good idea and it feels like I’ve been watching these movies for my entire life. That being said, I’m closer to the end than the beginning, and feeling pretty good about that at least.

The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers

The Film:

Well, they pretty much gave up at this point. They might as well have replaced the DVD with a plain white piece of paper that said:

  1. Be yourself.
  2. Family is important.

Because that’s all that’s going on here. Cera’s threatened by the fact her dad and stepmom are having a baby. Petrie doesn’t feel like he fits in with his family, and discovers a Woody Allen bird dinosaur who doesn’t fit in with anyone.

So Cera and Petrie deal with their problems- Cera resolves hers halfway through the movie, and it’s barely mentioned again- and the Woody Allen dinosaur is unexpectedly not annoying.

At one point the screenwriter realized that nothing much had happened yet, and wrote a twenty minute sequence in which the main characters prevented the Woody Allen dinosaur from accidentally harming himself while sleepwalking. So that is also a thing that happened.

The animation is fine- the C.G.I. elements are still a little distracting- and I honestly have already forgotten everything about the songs.

My Mental State:

Halfway through watching this film, my partner came across a meme on her Facebook feed. It was a picture of Littlefoot as a baby, and the caption said, “Who remembers Littlefoot?” She showed it to me and I laughed manically. After finishing the movie I remembered the meme and laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. Halfway through writing my review of the film my partner surveyed the weekend’s worth of detritus cluttering our kitchen table and said, “What have we done with our lives?” I burst out laughing hysterically and- after a minute- managed to say, “That’s the wrong question to ask me while I’m writing about the twelfth Land Before Time movie.”

The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends

The Film:

Fuck this shit. Fuck it up, down and sideways. Fuck it straight to Hell.

Here’s the story: Littlefoot decides he’s Jesus fucking Christ or something and that it’s his moral obligation to impart a series of didactic Wisdoms to every goddamn person within earshot, most of which have to do with obeying authority. Littlefoot and his friends encounter three new dinosaurs who are too stupid to live, and Littlefoot decides to go all Jesus and rescue them with these Wisdoms he’s suddenly devoted his life to following. Then they discover even more dinosaurs who are too stupid to live and what could charitably be called hijinks ensue. But it turns out, in a wildly improbable twist, that these dinosaurs have Wisdoms of their own, most of which involve doing whatever the fuck you want and trusting that things will just work out. Littlefoot eventually concludes that a combination of doing a bunch of random shit as well as unquestioningly obeying authority is the correct way to live, which strikes me as a deeply flawed conclusion in a number of ways.

The new breed of dinosaur is fucking obnoxious, the plot is thin, the message is preachy, and the songs are forgettable. Academy Award Winner Cuba Gooding Jr. plays one of the brain dead dinosaurs, because I guess somebody has photos of him fucking a horse.

My Mental State:

I just want to get this shit over with.

The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave

The Film

I feel we need some context here. Between 1994 and 2007, a Land Before Time sequel was released just about every year. That led to a lot of continuity behind the screen; watching the sequels, I saw a lot of names pop up again and again, most notably director/producer Charles Grosvenor and screenwriter John Foy. After 2007, there was a short-lived T.V. series about which I know nothing, and then that was that. Until this year when, for some reason, the series was revived.

Some of the vocal talents had died in the interim, and I wasn’t sure whether Grosvenor, Foy, or songwriters (for films five through thirteen) Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom would return. Additionally, animation has advanced in the last decade thanks to computers and shit, but direct-to-video animated films are somewhat less common.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect.

To start with, the animation is among the best in the series. It has the polish of the later films without the clunky C.G.I. The characters are mostly similar, though they seem somewhat stupider than they used to be (especially Spike), and Littlefoot is more aggressive.

The plot is sleek and streamlined, as if the screenwriters sat down and- as their primary goal- wrote what they thought people would expect from an adventure movie featuring anthropomorphic dinosaur children. Which is probably the best approach for this material.

Littlefoot’s father is in trouble somewhere in the Mysterious Beyond. Littlefoot and his friends launch a rescue mission. That’s it. Simple and elegant, without any preaching or weird diversions. There aren’t even any villains.

There are a few new characters, but only one of them (the neurotic Wild Arms) is obnoxious. The songs, which were often a highlight of the previous sequels, are even better here. The songwriters returned, but the screenwriter and director didn’t, which might account for the occasional out-of-character moments and lack of preachiness. It’s a solid, entertaining film, not particularly inspired but lacking any major flaws.

If they never make another Land Before Time film, this is a good note to go out on. Unlike so many of the other sequels, and unlike the vast majority of direct-to-video products, it has dignity and grace.

My Mental State:

I anticipated being a broken man at the end of this, bereft of light, hoping fervently to never think about dinosaurs, friendship, animation, or film ever again.

Surprisingly, this is not the case. I’m glad I’m done, but also glad I undertook this marathon. Right now, in this moment, I believe it was fun and worthwhile.

This is probably just a symptom of insanity.

littlefoot

A note about the final ranking:

Roger Ebert taught me to only compare films to comparable films. You could, for instance, compare Citizen Kane with Casablanca because they’re both American dramas from the 1940s. But comparing Citizen Kane to The Lego Movie would be useless. You’d think then that comparing a film to its sequels would be fair game. Except the original Land Before Time has very different goals than its sequels. The Land Before Time was conceived as a serious artistic statement, meant to rival Disney films in terms of quality. It failed abysmally in this regard, and is worse than any Disney animated film of the 1980s (with the exception of Oliver and Company). It is also worse than The Secret of NIMH, which is the only other Don Bluth film I’ve seen.

The sequels were designed as products. They are mercenary cash-grabs with no artistic ambition. That being said, for the most part they were much better than they had to be. The animation quality, voice talent, and music are- for the most part- decent, and there are some genuinely interesting ideas and storylines in the sequels.

Of course The Land Before Time is better than most of its sequels, but that’s only because it’s playing major league baseball while the sequels are playing kick the can.

So how do I compare the two, especially when The Land Before Time fails according to its own terms and the sequels mostly succeed according to theirs?

I decided eventually not to rank the original film alongside the sequels. It would be nonsensical. But if you were to get completist about the ranking, I would slot The Land Before Time in second place.

Final Ranking:

  1. The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Valley
  1. The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire
  1. The Land Before Time X: The Great Longneck Migration
  1. The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
  1. The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure
  1. The Land Before Time IV: Journey through the Mists
  1. The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze
  1. The Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving
  1. The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers
  1. The Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses
  1. The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water
  1. The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends
  1. The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock

The Ballad of Jon and Richard

I’ve been drawing cartoons since before I started writing. The first stories I told were comic strips I invented when I was seven-years-old.

Comics have always fascinated me. Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and For Better or For Worse were among my earliest and most influential writing instructors.

I have limited depth perception, so I can’t draw three dimensional objects. I can’t draw much of anything, in fact, except for cartoonish facial expressions. That’s never stopped me. Over the last twenty-two years, I’ve created three comic strips that I’ve drawn on a regular basis.

I want to talk about the most recent of these. It’s called Sticks, and I created it in my last semester of high school.

More specifically, I created it in my philosophy class. I’d been looking forward to philosophy for years. I mean, can you imagine? A class devoted to sitting around and thinking about life? That’s awesome.

Unfortunately my teacher was completely burned out- he retired before the end of the semester- and did nothing but make us read and discuss Plato’s The Republic. For three months.

I’d always drawn in class- doodles and weird faces filling the margins- but faced with months of Greek philosophy, my cartooning got increasingly elaborate. I started writing actual comic strips in the margins, complete with two regular characters. One of the characters resembled a generic stick figure face. His name was Jon Johnson. The other character looked the same as Jon, but had glasses. His name was Richard Glasses. I called the comic strip Sticks, because Jon and Richard were stick figures.

Jon and Richard didn’t really have discernable personalities. They bantered with each other and got into various mishaps. I don’t remember many of these early strips, but they kept me sane and entertained.

Then I started university. I went from a suburban high school of two thousand students to the University of Toronto, which consisted of countless imposing buildings sprawling across dozens of city blocks.

I attended a two-week-long orientation seminar for disabled students just before class started. It was held in a dingy, windowless classroom in a brutalist concrete slab on the edge of campus. Early in the first morning of the first day I drew a comic strip featuring Jon and Richard. Their presence reassured me. Maybe things would be all right.

I drew approximately twenty more Sticks comics that day.

The seminar was a bust. It seemed to be designed for students with reading disabilities, which isn’t something I’ve ever had a problem with. I spent my days drawing Sticks, and only occasionally tuned in to the instructors.

When my real classes started, my stress level only increased. I’ve always had difficulty listening to people talk for sustained periods of time, and when I’m under stress, it gets worse.

The first months of university were a perfect storm of circumstances that disrupted my functionality.

Now, here’s a funny thing about my writing ability: when I’m too happy or too comfortable, I feel unmotivated to write. Let’s call that a 1 out of 10 on a scale of emotional distress. When I’m totally freaking out, I lose the ability to write. That would be a 10 out of 10.

But just before the point of total mental dysfunction, there’s a sweet spot. This would be anywhere between 7 and 9. When I’m in that sweet spot I become manically productive, and the stuff I create is generally high quality.

I was in university for four years. During that period of time, my stress level rarely dipped below a 7 out of 10. I constantly felt sad, anxious, angry, trapped, or hopeless, or just flat-out bored. For the first three years of university, I also didn’t have any friends, so I was isolated as well. I also had undiagnosed and untreated P.T.S.D.

Sticks was my main conduit for all the difficult things I felt, as well as all the thoughts I thought which I couldn’t express, either because I was alone or because the thoughts were too bizarre or anti-social to share.

There’s a subgenre of comic strips called the diary comic. The best example of this is American Elf by James Kochalka. A diary comic follows the day-to-day activities of its author, however unimportant or dull. Over a long period of time, the mundane details in a diary comic accumulate and become profound and transcendant.

Sticks was like an emotional diary comic; instead of my activities, it focused abstractly on my shifting mental state.

I see this in retrospect. At the time I deliberately avoided analyzing Sticks. I’ve always had a tendency to overthink things, and I didn’t want to overthink my comics. They were just something I did that I consistently enjoyed.

But looking back on it, I see that the best Sticks strips I did were the ones I drew when I was in the worst shape.

Sticks was one of the only things I ever wrote that didn’t have a lot of clear external influences. For the most part, Sticks was just me goofing around. But there was one comic strip that influenced its tone and trajectory.

That was the underground comic Life in Hell by Matt Groening, which he drew before creating The Simpsons. Like Sticks, it was a poorly drawn, sharply written chronicle of Groening’s turbulent mental state when he was an angry, hungry young man.

For most of the ‘80s, Life in Hell was consistently excellent: unyieldingly dark, despairing, and funny. In the early ‘90s, its tone changed. It became repetitive, stale and soft.

I studied these strips, hoping to understand what had gone wrong, hoping to save Sticks from the same fate.

What happened- I think- is that Groening found happiness and success. In the late ‘80s he launched The Simpsons, and around the same time he got married and had kids.

Life in Hell thrived on Groening’s insecurities and misery- just look at the title of the strip. Without that foundation of suffering, the strip simply didn’t work.

So I made a deal with myself. When I became financially successful, or found myself in a happy, long-term relationship, I would end Sticks.

I knew I would inevitably go soft like Groening did, and I didn’t want to drag Sticks down (or up?) with me.

When I met Hannah, I knew it was only a matter of time. The last batch of excellent Sticks cartoons were drawn on a chilly morning in early June 2013. I’d asked her to be in a relationship with me the day before, and she said she needed time to think.

I had to go to Trent University to see my sister graduate. For some godforsaken reason the ceremony was held outdoors, under an enormous grey sky. It was boring, and I was worried about what Hannah was going to say, so I drew about fifteen strips that day. They were weird and dark and savage.

The next day Hannah messaged me and said that while she felt it was too early to make things official, she was definitely interested in me and wanted to keep dating.

While I drew a few Sticks strips in the weeks afterward, that was basically the end of the strip. It couldn’t survive a happy ending.

I kept the strips of course; over three thousand cartoons filling almost a dozen notebooks, jostling for space alongside notes taken in classes and homework assignments.

While I was creating Sticks, I’d wanted to post them online as a webcomic, but never got around to it. After I stopped writing it, the idea fell by the wayside.

A few months ago, Hannah and I were talking about my writing. The novel I wrote had just been rejected by the 24th agent, and none of my other projects were coming along either.

“Maybe you should start a webcomic,” said Hannah.

I pulled out all my old notebooks and decided to mark the publishable Sticks comics with a sticky note.

Some of the comics, after all, weren’t that good in hindsight. They were sloppy or nonsensical, or simply didn’t land. Some I thought were funny, but were also horrifyingly offensive.

Still, I thought most of the comics were pretty good. I went through many pads of sticky notes.

Putting the strips online is a more complicated process. I’m inept with technology and Hannah has had to teach me how to scan and crop images. I’ll be starting a new WordPress blog to host the strip- easy enough- but I’m supplementing that with Twitter and Instagram, which I’ve never used before.

I’ve muddled my way through most of the challenges, and should be able to start posting comics some time before the end of the month.

I have about six hundred comics that are good enough to go online. Maybe I’ll even create some new ones. I haven’t decided whether stress is necessary for the creation of this particular strip. Maybe I won’t necessarily get soft as I get older and better adjusted. The strips would be different, but they might not be worse.

That’s another thing I’ll have to figure out.

Sticks1_Farmer_May9_2016

The Lives of Girls and Women

In December 2014 I found myself thinking about the books I’d been reading recently. I wasn’t satisfied with how much I’d read that year, and it felt like I’d only encountered one or two books that were worth a damn.

I realized that the vast majority of books I read were written by men, and that almost all of the books I’d loved in the previous two years had been written by women.

I had no idea why that was the case, but it gave me an idea:

I would spend 2015 exclusively reading books written by women.

Also, for the first time, I decided to keep track of the books I read, as well as some brief thoughts about them. I did this in order to better understand my reactions, as well as ensure I was reading a decent variety of books.

Here are the books I ended up reading in 2015:

Boy Snow Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

Could very well end up being one of my favourite books. No-one should be this talented.

The Accidental (Ali Smith)

Smith is apparently one of Oyeyemi’s favourite authors. Alienating, bizarrely formatted, yet ultimately satisfying.

Yes Please (Amy Poehler)

I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did. Disorganized- maybe idiosyncratic is a better word?- but perceptive, thoughtful, and humanistic.

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

Deeply moving, absorbing, beautifully written, and soulful. I read it in three days.

Postscript: It has literally haunted my dreams; I’ve had two related dreams in the month since I finished reading it.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted (Jennifer Keishin Armstrong)

Satisfying and informative. I appreciated the necessary feminist angle. My only complaint is the sometimes muddled chronology.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett)

Wise, profound, enjoyable. Because it was a collection of essays, I frequently lost momentum while reading it, even though I liked it so much. There’s a lot of good advice here.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling)

Still has a lot of impact. It’s interesting: in terms of storytelling, characterization and narrative, Rowling has an unparalleled gift. But in terms of actual writing ability she has several noticeable, wearying gaps. Her flagrant use of adverbs is particularly obnoxious. But God, it’s readable. The pages fly by.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling)

I read this in about a week. I read 250 pages in one day. Compulsively unputdownable, even though I’d read it at least three times before.

Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro)

Took a long time to read, but I was reading it off and on. Started December 2013. The stories were all excellent- except the last one, which I didn’t finish- but there was no momentum to keep going, which is why it took so long.

What Was Lost (Catherine O’Flynn)

I read it in three days. Melancholy and thoughtful. It should’ve ended sooner than it did; O’Flynn felt the unnecessary need to spell everything out.

The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker)

Beautiful, dreamy, sad but not depressing. Surprisingly enjoyable for an apocalyptic novel. I loved the focus on feelings and characters.

Vincent (Barbara Stok)

Lyrical, brief graphic novel. A pleasure to read. I finished it in only an hour or so.

The Impostor’s Daughter (Laurie Sandell)

Compulsively readable, entertaining. The sketchy, childlike drawings took some getting used to, but I understand why she did that.

The Icarus Girl (Helen Oyeyemi)

The ending is confusing, but most of the book is very good- entertaining, strange, and a page-turner. There are definitely some moments that are incoherent though, and these moments increase toward the end. I’m not quite sure what Oyeyemi was going for, but most of the time it didn’t matter, and I understood enough to enjoy it.

Tomboy (Liz Prince)

A satisfying, easy read. It started off pretty simplistic, but evolved into something much more interesting and nuanced.

Lucky (Gabrielle Bell)

Usually it would only take me two or three days to finish a graphic novel, but this took me almost a week. I always enjoyed it while I read it, but there was no flow. There wasn’t supposed to be; it’s a series of vignettes. It reminded me of Kochalka’s work, actually, but in his work all the little details and insignificant things gain cumulative power and become profound. That’s a hard thing to do, and Bell doesn’t manage.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

Loopy as hell, imaginative, not quite like anything else I’ve read. Really delightful, surprisingly progressive, and so weird. I read most of it on the train from Ottawa to Toronto.

I was pleased with the amount and quality of books I read in 2015. Usually in a given year I might find one or two books that really blow me away, but last year I discovered four: Boy Snow Bird, Station Eleven, The Age of Miracles, and A Wrinkle in Time.

I hypothesized at the beginning of 2015 that reading books exclusively written by women would provide me with some kind of epiphany.

About halfway through the year I realized that I had not yet come across a poorly written female character. That was something I’d gotten used to, because a lot of male writers use female characters as tools to move the plot forward, or to get a male character where he needs to be. These women don’t seem to be characters in their own right.

It happens so often that I stopped noticing it until- all of a sudden- these mechanical women were gone, replaced by female characters who were fully-realized and complicated.

It might not be surprising that women write women well, but the authors I read were equally adept at writing fleshed-out male characters.

This led me to wonder whether women are better writers than men, or at least whether they have some kind of advantage.

I think it comes down to how women and men are socialized. Girls are taught from an early age to be sensitive, emotionally aware, empathetic, and to make other people happy. Boys are taught to just do whatever the hell they want, and don’t worry, they’ll be great at it.

All the garbage that girls are brainwashed into believing- everything they’re taught that’s meant to hold them down- has accidentally equipped them with all the tools they need to be gifted writers.

Boys are given the keys to the kingdom, and then hobbled.

A mixed blessing, I suppose, and unfair to everyone.

Unfortunately, while I’m accustomed to spending a lot of time thinking about gender, I tend to be much more oblivious about race. The authors I read were all white, with the exception of Oyeyemi. That wasn’t something I did deliberately, and in the last few months of the year I made an effort to seek out writers of colour.

But that was during a time in which I wasn’t reading as much- I was too busy, too tired- so the year ended up being disappointingly white.

I decided to correct that this year by expanding my project outward. Right now I’m reading books written by everyone except white men.

I still find myself reading mostly female writers; I think something shifted permanently in my brain last year. I tried to read a collection of stories by Haruki Murakami and quickly encountered that rusty dynamic of female characters designed explicitly for men to react to. I had better luck with a collection of short stories by Sherman Alexie. In one of his short stories he eloquently wrote about how white people treat indigenous people as stereotypes or archetypes rather than fully-formed individuals. Alexie seems to view gender through the same lens. I suspect his compassion toward women has been influenced or deepened by his experiences being racially marginalized. I’m curious to see whether this is a trend among racialized male writers.

I haven’t encountered anything as astonishingly good as the best of what I read last year, but I have a long list of books I’m interested in reading, and high hopes for the remaining seven months. I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads me.

The Rescuer

This is the first play I wrote for The Storefront Theatre’s monthly Sing For Your Supper event. I’d written it a few weeks beforehand as part of a writing portfolio. It was the first play I’d written since high school, and- while I liked it very much- I assumed it wouldn’t be accepted at The Storefront.

The Rescuer was inspired by a blisteringly negative review I read about the short-lived Rainn Wilson T.V. show Backstrom in which he plays an asshole who’s amazing at his job. The reviewer’s main critique was that variations of that premise had been done to death. I realized I’d never seen a T.V. show or novel or anything else about a genuinely nice person who is terrible at their job.

Scene 1

SETTING:       The waiting room of a therapist’s office. An inspirational poster hangs on the wall. Beside the desk is a door leading to the therapist’s office. Gregor Phillips sits behind the desk. He is on his laptop reading e-mails. Dory Southern enters with an enormous dog.

DORY

Hi, Gregor! Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t get in touch with you. My phone died.

GREGOR

Why do you have a dog?

DORY

I didn’t miss any appointments, did I?

GREGOR

No, Dory. But-

DORY

I found this dog wandering around the street by my house. He got lost, I think. Ran away from home. It’s a good thing he didn’t get hit by a car- would’ve done more damage than a deer. Look at him! What breed is he, do you figure? Some kind of mastiff?

GREGOR

I don’t know much about dogs.

DORY

We went looking for his home. That’s why I’m late. Must’ve covered the whole neighbourhood. Every house. Nobody knew who his owner was. I mean, it’s not like he’s a golden retriever, right? He’s pretty identifiable. I’m not sure how a dog like this could have gotten lost anyway. It’s not like he could hide behind a bush. How’d he even get out of the house? It’s not like he’d fit through a pet door.

GREGOR

Maybe he was a guard dog.

DORY

Him? No! He’s so sweet!

GREGOR

Why didn’t you phone animal control?

DORY

Well, who knows what they’d do? You hear stories. If he went to an animal shelter, he might get euthanized. That’s what they do. And I figured it would be easier, anyway, if I just tracked down his owner myself. Every house I went to, I thought that must be the one. Finally I realized I’d just have to bring him into work. I didn’t have any appointments scheduled this morning? What about Mark Pearson? Did he cancel?

GREGOR

Mark’s wife called about an hour ago. He passed away.

DORY

Oh my God, what happened?

GREGOR

Pills.

DORY

Was it an accident?

(Gregor shakes his head)

GREGOR

There was a note.

(Dory sits in the chair closest to Gregor)

DORY

But… we’d been making such good progress. He really seemed to be turning things around.

GREGOR

I’m sorry.

(He stands up, walks around the desk, and sits next to Dory. The dog lies at her feet)

DORY

You know that Mark’s the sixth client I’ve had in the last year who’s killed himself.

GREGOR

Yeah.

DORY

I should call his wife.

GREGOR

I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dory.

DORY

Why not? I’m a therapist. I’m probably the best person-

GREGOR

She’s pretty angry. At you. Don’t call her.

DORY

It wasn’t my fault. He had clinical depression. There wasn’t anything more I could have done.

GREGOR

Still. Maybe wait a little while.

DORY

Okay. Should I go to his funeral? I went to some of the others.

GREGOR

I remember that didn’t go so well.

DORY

They were mad at me, too.

GREGOR

You have an appointment in fifteen minutes. Amy Fleming. Maybe you should go into your office and do some prep work.

DORY

Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good idea.

GREGOR

She’s scared of dogs.

DORY

Oh. I guess we should keep him out here then.

GREGOR

We can’t keep him. I’ll phone the humane society.

DORY

Don’t do that, Gregor. I don’t want to see him get hurt. Just keep him behind your desk. If he’ll fit.

(Dory stands and walks into her office)

Scene 2

SETTING: Therapist’s office. Another motivational poster on the wall. A file cabinet, a desk, and two chairs. There are a bunch of papers on the desk, as well as a laptop and a phone. The chairs are set up across from each other. Dory sits in the chair next to the desk. Amy sits in the other chair. Dory has a large black binder in her lap. She is making notes.

AMY

-so then he bursts out of his office and starts screaming at me, and I was like, “I didn’t do it! How would I even get the keys to your car?” And he was like, “I know it was you! You’re the only one who knows I’m allergic to paprika!” But what he doesn’t know is that- What are you writing down?

DORY

Just notes.

AMY

About what? Are you judging me? Are you making judgments?

DORY

Amy, this is a judgment-free zone.

AMY

You think I’m crazy. Or do you think I’m lying? I swear, I didn’t break into my boss’ car. He’s the one who’s crazy.

DORY

I’m just making notes, I swear. I wrote down that you work in the accounting department and that your boss’ name is Lou. That’s new information.

AMY

Why is that relevant?

DORY

I don’t know. Anything might be relevant. I have a terrible memory, so I have to write everything down.

AMY

I’ve been seeing you for the past eight months.

DORY

Yes, but still, I have a lot of clients. Before we met today I couldn’t for the life of me remember if you were the one whose parents died in a car crash when you were a teenager.

AMY

My parents are alive.

DORY

Oh, I know that now.

(She flips through the binder)

Your mother’s an orthodontist and your father’s in prison. You’re the one whose aunt hung herself on Christmas when you were five.

AMY

Yes. I still have nightmares.

DORY

You do?

(She flips quickly through the binder)

I don’t think I have that down here. Could you describe the nightmares? In as much detail as possible, please.

AMY

I’m talking about something completely different.

DORY

Well, we can’t know that for sure, can we?

Scene 3

SETTING:       The waiting room. Gregor is on the phone with Dr. Ruth Macaulay.

GREGOR

Dr. Macaulay, I feel really bad lying to her, after all she’s done for me. She saved my life.

RUTH

You’re not lying. You’re just not giving Dory all the information. What did the client’s wife say to you specifically?

GREGOR

She was mostly just swearing. She blamed Dory for the suicide, which- I don’t know.

RUTH

This isn’t the first one. Far from it. There have been, what, five suicides so far this year?

GREGOR

Six. And there were others before that, of course. But this is the first time that a client has mentioned Dory in his suicide note! He quoted her! Now, granted, from what the wife said to me, it was taken out of context, but still! My God!

RUTH

I’m glad you called me.

GREGOR

I know she thinks of you as a mentor. She’s probably going to talk to you about this. I just wanted to make sure you had all the information.

RUTH

Are you still reviewing her notes?

GREGOR

Yes. If she ever found out, it would probably end our friendship. And I still feel like I’m breaking the law. I know you said that technically I wasn’t…

RUTH

When she gives her clients incorrect information, somebody has to set them straight. That’s where you come in.

GREGOR

I guess so. And if it means that the clients get taken care of, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it.

RUTH

Yes, it is. I imagine we’ll be talking again soon.

GREGOR

Thanks again, Dr. Macaulay.

(He hangs up, runs his hands through his hair, and puts his head in his hands. The dog lays his head on Gregor’s lap and stares dolefully at him)

GREGOR

What do you want?

(The dog thumps his tail. Amy exits the office)

GREGOR

Have a good day.

(Amy ignores him, crosses the waiting room quickly, and leaves, slamming the door behind her. Dory exits her office and sits down in the chair closest to Gregor)

DORY

That didn’t go well.

GREGOR

It didn’t look like it.

DORY

Were you on the phone?

GREGOR

Yeah, with Ruth. She was just checking to see if you were free for lunch some time this week.

DORY

Am I?

GREGOR

Thursday’s free.

DORY

What about today?

GREGOR

That’s awfully short notice, it’s already 1.

DORY

No, I meant you and me. The dynamic duo. We need to catch up.

GREGOR

You have Gary Moreno booked at 2.

DORY

He’s not going to come. He spent last week’s session crying, telling me how this wasn’t working, and how he should see another therapist. Then I started crying, because I felt so ineffectual and, well, I hated seeing him like that. In pain. You know?

(Gregor nods)

DORY

When I started crying, he really started crying, and that’s when things got out of hand.

GREGOR

I remember hearing that. It was pretty loud. I wondered what was going on in there. I thought it might be cathartic, you know, maybe a breakthrough.

DORY

More like a breakdown. Let’s get Chinese.

Scene 4

SETTING:       Interior of Dory’s car. Dory is in the driver’s seat. Gregor is seated next to her. They are both eating from cardboard take-out buckets with chopsticks.

DORY

God, I forgot to ask! How’s Josh?

GREGOR

No change. He can’t keep anything down. It’s making me crazy.

DORY

When do you get the test results?

GREGOR

We were supposed to get them last week. It’ll be any day now. We’ve been living in stasis for so long, just waiting to see what comes next. When we get those results, no matter what they say, all of a sudden we’ll have to move really quick. Make a lot of decisions.

DORY

You need to take time off work. I keep telling you-

GREGOR

No.

DORY

I’ll pay your full salary. Hell, I’ll take time off work too. I can afford it. You and Josh are like family to me. Just tell me what you need.

GREGOR

I need- we need to keep doing exactly what we’re doing. You need me to keep working for you, Dory.

DORY

If the results come back and it’s cancer, you’re taking a leave of absence.

GREGOR

His sister flew in from Halifax yesterday. She’s keeping an eye on him while I’m at the office.

DORY

What about Brenda? Did she go back west?

GREGOR

Yesterday, yeah.

DORY

How’s her kid doing? The one with Crohn’s.

GREGOR

Better, now that he’s seeing a new doctor.

DORY

Sometimes that’s all it takes. A new doctor.

(Pause)

DORY

Your husband’s seriously sick, Gregor. You’re the most John and Yoko couple I’ve ever met. What’s the real reason you don’t want to take time off work?

GREGOR

You need me.

DORY

More than he does?

GREGOR

I can take care of both of you.

DORY

Why do I need taking care of?

(Gregor shrugs)

DORY

No, I want you to say it. I want you to tell me the truth.

GREGOR

It’s been six clients, Dory.

DORY

They weren’t just clients, they were people. Mark Pearson. Paul Norton. Tammy Walters. Tim Wade. Amanda Keller. Karen Guzman. Do you want me to name the others, too?

GREGOR

Mark quoted you in his suicide note.

DORY

Did he.

(Gregor nods)

DORY

Was it anything good?

GREGOR

It was out of context, if that’s what you mean.

DORY

Jesus Christ.

GREGOR

You’re not a bad person. I don’t want you thinking you are. You’re not a failure. Other than Josh, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and you’re one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

DORY

Kind, ha! Sweet. Nurturing. Well-meaning. Anything else? I want to be seen as capable, Gregor. I want people to think I’m competent. Goddammit, I’m a professional. But people just think I’m kind. And open-hearted, that’s another one. I’ve been a therapist for ten years. It was so hard to get into this field. Undergrad. Postgrad. Nobody took me seriously. Do you remember my second year of Masters? Everybody thought I was blowing the department head. “Why else would she be in the program?” “How else could she have gotten in?” Gregor, do you have any idea how long these whispers been following me around? How long people have looked at me and just seen kindness? I’m a seasoned professional. Why can’t they see that?

GREGOR

I’ve dealt with the same shit. You know I have. People keep asking me to speak on behalf of my people. Every time one of the states legalizes same-sex marriage, someone in my church or at the gym or at my book club asks for my opinion. And do you know how many times I’ve heard “oh, you’re not like the others” or “but you don’t sound gay”? And I get shit from my gay friends for sounding too straight. They think I’m trying to pass. Forgive me for not hiring a, uh, mariachi band to follow me around.

DORY

Do your people really like mariachi bands?

GREGOR

See, I don’t even know what the stereotypes are.

DORY

You’re the worst gay person I know. And I must be the worst therapist you know.

GREGOR

You’re not. Trust me, you’re not.

DORY

Because I’m kind?

(Beat)

DORY (continued)

C’mon, let’s get back to the office.

Scene 5

SETTING:       The hallway outside Dory’s office. Linda Pearson is standing outside the door, arms crossed. Gregor and Dory exit the elevator and stop when they see Linda.

DORY

Can I help you?

LINDA

Like you helped my husband?

DORY

Mark Pearson’s wife. Am I right? I don’t remember your name.

LINDA

Linda. Can we talk?

DORY

Come in.

(Dory holds the door open for Linda and then Gregor. Dory closes the door, and walks past Linda toward the office. The dog is lying in the middle of the floor)

LINDA

No, we don’t have to go into your office. This isn’t going to take long.

DORY

What exactly can I do for you?

LINDA

How about your bring Mark back?

DORY

I can’t.

LINDA

No, because you fucking killed him.

(Dory bows her head)

LINDA

It’s your fault. He said so himself.

GREGOR

Look, I think that-

LINDA

I think this isn’t any of your business. You didn’t want me to talk to her this morning. I know she was in the office.

DORY

Actually, I wasn’t. I was trying to return a lost dog.

LINDA

What kind of bullshit excuse-

DORY

He’s lying right there!

LINDA

Mark was getting better before he met you. He was improving. I told him he didn’t need therapy. He said he wanted to make sure he didn’t backslide. That’s what he said. I can- I can remember everything he ever said to me. I keep hearing his voice. Things he said over the years. I see things we did together. Things we won’t do again, things we won’t get a chance to do. And it’s all because of you.

DORY

I think you should leave. When you’re in a better frame of mind, you can call me and I’ll get you a referral to a grief therapist.

LINDA

You won’t be around long enough to see me reach a better frame of mind. I’m going to fucking sue you for negligence. I won’t stop coming after you until I know for sure your career is over.

(Linda leaves)

GREGOR

My friend Tony’s a lawyer.

DORY

Hey, maybe you should call him. Sounds like I might need one.

(She walks into her office)

Scene 6

SETTING:       Dory enters her office, sits in her chair, stares into space. After a moment, she reaches over to her phone, and dials a number.

RUTH

Dr. Macaulay speaking.

DORY

Hi, it’s me.

RUTH

Hello, Dory. How are you?

DORY

Not too good. I’ve been having one of those days, you know?

RUTH

I know.

DORY

Gregor mentioned you phoned. Said you wanted to do lunch. How’s Thursday?

RUTH

I’m booked pretty solid this week. How about Saturday? We could do brunch.

DORY

That’ll work.

RUTH

Good.

DORY

One of my clients died.

RUTH

I’m sorry to hear that.

DORY

It was a suicide.

RUTH

I know. Gregor told me.

DORY

What else did he tell you?

RUTH

Plenty. He and I talk.

DORY

You talk?

RUTH

We do.

DORY

I have no idea what you mean by that. I guess I’ll add it to the list of things to worry about.

RUTH

It’s not malicious, Dory. He cares about you.

DORY

And you care about me, too. You’re my mentor. I get it, I guess.

RUTH

I wish you’d stop calling me your mentor. You never take my advice.

DORY

What? Of course I do.

RUTH

I told you when you were in grad school that pursuing this career was a mistake.

DORY

Then I bet you remember what I said to you. This is my calling. I have this need to rescue people. To save them. It’s what I was meant to do. It’s what I did with my sister and most of my boyfriends. And Gregor, of course. That’s how I know it’s real. It’s not just a career thing, it’s who I am.

RUTH

It’s wonderful you feel that way. A lot of therapists don’t. But you don’t have the knack, and you’ve never had it.

DORY

The knack. Is that a professional term?

RUTH

I’m a doctor. Everything I say is professional.

DORY

I can’t give up.

RUTH

I’m gravely concerned that your clients aren’t receiving adequate care.

DORY

What are you going to do about it? I’m already being sued.

RUTH

You’re being sued?

DORY

Yeah, the widow of my latest client is threatening to sue me.

RUTH

That’s serious, Dory.

DORY

I doubt it’ll come to anything. I tried my best, I kept adequate records. And Gregor’s getting me a lawyer.

RUTH

What about the other clients? If this woman hires someone competent, they’ll quickly discover that half a dozen of your other clients also killed themselves. In the past year. Gregor won’t be able to protect you for much longer, and I’m reaching a point where I don’t want to. My credibility as a psychologist is at stake if I continue to associate myself with you.

DORY

Remember in The Sound of Music, when Maria talks to the head nun and the nun gives her advice?

RUTH

Dory, what the hell are you talking about?

DORY

She said that Maria needed a dream that will need all the love she can give. Every day of her life for as long as she lives.

RUTH

This isn’t a musical! This is real life!

DORY

But it’s true, isn’t it? We all need a dream like that. Well, this is mine. You do what you feel you have to do. And I’ll follow my dreams.

RUTH

Dory, please-

(Dory hangs up)

Scene 7

SETTING:       The waiting room. Gregor enters from outside with the dog- he has fashioned a makeshift leash with his own tie. Dory enters from the office.

DORY

Now you’ve got him wearing business casual. You’re a consummate professional, Gregor. That’s why I love you.

GREGOR

He had to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t want him to run away again.

DORY

I want you to be honest with me. Tell me everything you’ve been doing to protect me.

GREGOR

I talk to Ruth.

DORY

I know. I was just talking to her.

GREGOR

I guess she told you that I call your clients, too.

DORY

She did not.

GREGOR

Oh.

DORY

Gregor!

GREGOR

I look through your notes. There are mistakes, Dory. Sometimes they’re small, sometimes they’re big. Last month you misdiagnosed someone with O.C.D.

DORY

How do you know that?

GREGOR

Looking at his symptoms, I had a hunch that it might be P.T.S.D. instead. So I Googled it, and then I talked to Ruth. I called him up and referred him to a specialist. I did it all behind your back. I’m sorry.

DORY

I don’t even remember what client you’re talking about.

GREGOR

I’ve done it with almost all your clients. I check your notes just about every day.

DORY

What else?

GREGOR

I screen clients.

DORY

What do you mean?

GREGOR

When they phone the office and want to book their first appointment, I ask them a bunch of preliminary questions. The ones who seem too challenging get put on a wait list. And then I just never call them back.

DORY

Jesus. Do you keep their information?

GREGOR

I keep notes about all the phone calls in my logbook. For liability purposes. I kind of figured- I’m sorry, Dory- I figured that eventually you’d be sued.

DORY

So we could call some of these people back.

GREGOR

Hypothetically.

DORY

Who’s the most challenging person you’ve put on your wait list?

GREGOR

There have been so many of them… Well, just recently there was this guy who didn’t even have a fixed address to give me. He’s living in a shelter downtown. He’s floridly psychotic. While he was trying to talk to me, he was also talking to Jesus, Mickey Rooney, and Saddam Hussein.

DORY

That would be a fascinating dinner party. What’s his name?

GREGOR

You can’t call him. I won’t let you.

DORY

Don’t you dare try and stop me from doing my job! It’s so important to me, and you know that. Don’t make me choose between you and my career, because I honestly don’t know what would happen.

GREGOR

You know, this could get bad. It’s already bad, but I think it’s going to get a lot worse.

DORY

It’s my choice. And you can choose to stick around. If you want to leave, I won’t blame you. It won’t affect our friendship. I’ll write you a reference that’ll get you hired anywhere, I promise.

(Pause. Gregor crosses the office, walks behind his desk, and opens a drawer. He takes out a slim leather notebook and tosses it to Dory)

GREGOR

There are a few others in there who might interest you, too.

DORY

Thank you. Also, I was thinking about Josh.

GREGOR

Yeah?

DORY

I’m sure the test results will come back negative. I’ve got a feeling. When that happens, you and I are going out for karaoke.

GREGOR

And if everything’s not okay?

DORY

Whatever happens, I’ll be with you guys.

GREGOR

Thank you.

DORY

Hey, don’t worry about it. I know you’d do the same for me.

The Aspie Guide to Online Dating Sites, Part Four

The perfect dating site message is more a reaction to imperfect messages than anything else.

First of all, a lot of people write deeply inappropriate messages to people on dating sites. These inappropriate messages are often sexual in nature. Please don’t do that. Additionally, a lot of messages that are sent are too brief (one or two words), or have terrible spelling or grammar mistakes.

The result of this is that dating sites are dark, depressing place for heterosexual women. But if you’re a straight man, then this actually benefits you because the bar for success is so incredibly low.

Basically, if you don’t sexually harass anyone, and you can spell and use proper grammar, then you’re automatically in at least the 90th percentile of straight male users. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge how sad that is before moving on.

So if you’re a straight man, you’re communicating with people who have alternately been horrified and bored by their online dating experiences.

That’s why you open with a cheerful greeting, such as hey, hi, or- more formally- hello.

The bulk of the message consists of various ways of explaining why you’re messaging them, while at the same time making yourself seem like a nice person.

What do you have in common? What made you want to message them? On OKCupid, most users have filled out a section called “You should message me if”, consisting of statements like- here’s an example I randomly pulled from the site- “You have a sense of humour, you think we will get along, and you have some dancing skills”. If you’re using OKCupid, make sure you mention something from this section. If you were to mention this particular person, you could mention that you enjoy dancing, or like attending comedy clubs.

Inserting a light, breezy sense of humour into your message is also key, but tone is so important here, and I recognize that a lot of Aspies struggle to master it. So beat yourself up if it doesn’t come organically, and don’t push yourself to banter. Be nice to yourself and remember that if you’re not a degenerate, you already have a leg up on half the guys here.

If we put all that together, the ideal initial message would look something like this:

 

Greeting. (ex. Hey)

Generic, complimentary comment (ex. I saw your profile and thought ____, fill in the blank with something from the “You should message me if” section)

Why you’re messaging them. What you have in common. Include light, breezy joke.

End with second light, breezy joke.

(If suitable) Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Now, here are the messages I sent to women on OKCupid that actually produced a response. You’ll notice some variation from the above template because no matter what you write, maintaining flexibility is important.

 

  1. Hey-

I saw your profile and noticed we seemed to have a lot in common. Intellect and ambition are also important to me, Superbad and In Bruges are two of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and people who don’t use proper grammar do get on my nerves a bit. They’re probably lovely people, but their lack of concern for the English language makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with their priorities.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.

 

I think this was one of the best messages I sent, if only because I managed to organically incorporate their/they’re/there in a single sentence. In her “message me if” section she wrote something about proper grammatic usage being a dealbreaker.

 

  1. Hey- I saw your profile and noticed one of your favourite books is by Rod Michalko. I took a few courses with him at the U of T and he had a huge impact on how I view society- he’s the reason disability studies is a major interest of mine.

I also love writing, reading, and wandering the city. Even though I’ve been hanging out here for six years, I’m still finding new stuff.

And I think everyone’s a contradiction, when you get right down to it. Folks are complicated.

 

This was one of the weakest messages I sent- most of it is focused on my interests and experiences, rather than hers- though I do like the last two sentences. She mentioned in her profile that she was contradictory, and that anyone who messaged her would have to accept that. Even though this message isn’t great, it got a response. She and I went on several dates together before we decided to just be friends. Then she introduced me to Hannah.

 

  1. Hey-

I also have a dark, sarcastic sense of humour, which has helped form my world view over the years. Art and writing are really important to me as well. A lot of the stuff I write has something to do with disability, because I have Asperger’s. In my writing I especially like focusing on and deconstructing social interactions.

I totally agree with you that disability doesn’t mean broken- I find it gives me a valuable perspective that most other people don’t have.

 

This was one of the last messages I sent, and by this point I was more comfortable with the format. It’s a good example of the template and, while not exemplary, did the trick and resulted in a positive response. We actually ended up meeting in person once.

 

Receiving messages is more straightforward, because it gives you leverage. You get to decide whether to respond or not. If the message makes you uncomfortable, don’t respond. If the message has unwanted sexual content, feel free to report it.

When responding to a message, answer any questions the person asked with approximately as much detail as they provided in their message to you. Then ask one or two more questions to keep the conversation moving forward.

Here’s an example, using messages that my friend Amy and I sent each other on OKCupid. I sent a message to her (the second example above), and she replied:

OMG…do you think we know each other? I am doing a phd at U of T Rod supervised my Masters. Like you he has had a profound impact on the way i think! He is the reason why Disability Studies is a major interest of mine.
did you go to rod’s retirement party?

 

While I didn’t ask any questions in my message to her, she picked up on the piece of information that interested her the most: the fact that we knew the same professor. She bracketed this information with two questions. The first question was to confirm whether we belonged to the same social network (which would increase the chances of romantic compatibility, and also increase the chances that I am a sane person who would not assault her). The second question was designed to further the conversation. I took the cue, and our exchange continued smoothly until- five messages later- I asked her out for coffee.

Which brings us to the issue of online safety. Every article about online dating has to eventually talk about what you can do to not get raped or assaulted when meeting people in real life, because it’s a scary world full of scary people.

Let’s look at this issue in a different way.

Don’t touch anyone without their permission. Be mindful of their personal space. If you’re going to engage in any kind of physical intimacy, you have to pay attention to body language and facial expressions. That can be difficult for people on the spectrum, so you’ll have to verbally establish whether they’re comfortable with whatever is currently happening, or whatever you’d like to happen. Before anything happens, be clear with them that you sometimes have difficulty understanding body language and facial expressions, and will need to substitute that for verbal confirmation.

Let’s bear in mind that there are people out there who don’t know this information, or don’t care about this information. You might meet one of these people while dating online. What can be done about that?

Before meeting anyone from online, I’d recommend finding out their full name, Googling them, and checking them out on social media. If you find anything that makes you uncomfortable, don’t meet them. I know there’s a lot of pressure to be nice, polite, or seem cool, but none of those factors are more important than your comfort and safety.

Make plans to meet in a crowded public place. Tell a friend when you’re going to meet up with the person, what the person’s full name is, and how long you plan to meet with them. Arrange to contact your friend after the date.

If you arrive at the designated meeting place, and the person doesn’t look like their online photo, or anything about them raises red flags, you should leave without approaching them. Again, don’t worry about being polite. Your safety and comfort are more important.

Don’t go back to your place or theirs unless you’re planning to hook up. If you’re planning to hook up, make sure you have condoms. It is especially important in these cases that someone knows your whereabouts, and that you plan to contact them at a designated time to establish your safety. Also- side note- make sure you get tested for S.T.I.s on a regular basis.

Keep in mind that people are more likely to be sexually assaulted by people they know. Continue listening to your gut even after the first date or couple of dates. If the person ever changes their behaviour in a way that feels threatening, or you start getting a nagging feeling in your gut that something is wrong, you need to listen to your instincts. Remember: your safety and comfort are more important than any other factor.

And I wouldn’t need to go into all these fucking details if people would simply not commit sexual assault. Enthusiastic consent: Google it. Live it. Love it. And be aware that some of the basic tenets of enthusiastic consent will have to be altered due to your autism. Consent always has both physical and verbal components, but because of your autism, dialogue will have to be emphasized.

Another thing you have to worry about on dating sites are your profile pictures. You should have at least one, because people will be reluctant to message you if they don’t know what you look like.

Try to select a picture that shows you lead an interesting life. Something fun, outdoorsy, maybe in a foreign country or participating in a sport. Make sure you’re the only person in each of the photographs you select. If you’re male, stay away from shirtless pictures or bathroom selfies; they’re considered declasse. Any picture where you’re with an animal will make you seem more attractive (so long as you have not killed the animal).

With women, the guidelines are more straightforward: you can do whatever the hell you want. Men will message you as long as you post a picture. Keep in mind that whatever picture you select will result in your being sexually harassed, and that when it happens it doesn’t mean you picked the wrong picture. It means you live in a rape culture.

The last thing you need is to know is how depressing it is out there in the wilderness of online dating. Even sites like OKCupid which are aesthetically appealing quickly become lonely places to be. The anxiety of never knowing and the need for companionship can feel overwhelming. And browsing through profile after profile of beautiful, interesting, horribly single people can be discouraging. If these fascinating, lovely people haven’t found their person, what chance do any of us have? Maybe the world really is a cruel, cold, unforgiving place, and maybe most people are doomed to die alone.

It’s easy to feel this way. It’s easy to spiral out. You’re in the middle of something emotionally taxing, which human evolution and perhaps even the basic principles of sociology have not prepared you for. This is all very new, not just for you, but for society in general. Nobody really knows what they’re doing on online dating sites.

It is important to be kind to yourself. Be aware that the process of finding your person takes time. There is not a correct period of time for this to take place.

I was only on OKCupid for a little over a month, and it felt like five years. I messaged perhaps fifteen people, and it felt like five hundred. I can’t imagine how I would’ve felt after six months, or fifty messages. But some people reach that point, and a lot of them still find their person online.

We have this bizarre notion that life is supposed to be easy or fair, but of course that isn’t true. So be patient, allow yourself to feel your feelings, and don’t let online dating become the main focus of your life while you’re engaged in it.

Set aside no more than an hour a day to look at dating sites. Set yourself a goal of messaging one person a day, or one person a week, or whatever feels manageable to you.

Give yourself the flexibility to adjust your goals. If you decide that messaging three people a week feels manageable at first, and then after awhile it doesn’t, don’t perceive that as a failure. Give yourself permission to just message one or two people, or take some time away from the site.

And be open to other possibilities as well. When you’re single and looking for people, it can be scary because anything could happen. But that’s also why it’s exciting. Maybe the person you’re meeting next week will be your best friend instead of your significant other. Maybe you’ll meet a romantic partner at work, or at a coffee shop. Maybe you’ll give up dating altogether, go backpacking to Tibet, and meet your soulmate in a hostel.

Really, anything is possible. You have to throw yourself into the world and see what happens.

The Aspie Guide to Online Dating Sites, Part Three

I have no experience with Spectrum Singles, nor do I know anyone who’s ever had an account.

I first heard about the site a year ago, from some news article. At the time I thought it sounded like an excellent idea, and that the people in charge seemed to know what they were doing.

Since then, I’ve completely forgotten every detail about the site except its name.

Like OKCupid, you can’t view people’s profiles without joining up. And aside from a blurb on the home page, there’s not much information about what it’s like to be a member. Like, how many members are there? Are they concentrated in one area (like the States, or Europe)? To what extent is it free?

In order to find all this out, you have to join.

Fortunately, the sign-up process is straightforward. You fill out some basic information:

-I am (your gender identity, with an impressive range of options)

-Looking for (your preferred gender identity, or identites- you can check off as many as you want- along with whether you’re looking for a friendship, relationship or both)

-Your age

-Country

-Whether you’re only looking for an online relationship

-Whether you only want to be matched up with people who have posted a photo of themselves

As soon as you fill that out, you’re directed to a page asking for your

-Username

-E-mail address

-Confirmation of e-mail address

-Password

After you fill that out, you’re directed to a page of questions. At the top of this page is the somewhat worrying assertion that “basic features are available for free members”- which was also stated on the site’s home page- without any indication of just what the hell that means.

Here are the questions you’re asked:

-I am (your gender identity, with an impressive range of options)

-I am (verbal or non-verbal)

-Looking for (your preferred gender identity; you can pick as many as you want)

-Looking for (friendship, relationship, or both)

-Your e-mail

-Confirmation of e-mail

-Your birthday

-The age range of people you’d like to be matched with

-Confirmation that you’re at least 18

-Confirmation that you agree with the terms of use

-Relationship status (again, you can pick more than one, because- if you’ve had an eventful life- it’s possible to be widowed, divorced, and single, and if you’re married, you’re definitely also in a relationship)

-Country

-Upload photo (mandatory, which seems to contradict the option to only see profiles of people who have uploaded photos)

More than the other two sites, it seems like Spectrum Dating is open to the possibility of its users finding friends instead of a romantic or sexual relationship. So, unlike the other two, I actually provided accurate information as well as a picture of myself. I’m signing up for real.

After filling out those questions, you’re directed to another page of questions.

These include:

-Your first name

-Occupation

-Religion (drop-down menu, many options, “other” being one of them)

-A few quick words about yourself

Defying the advice I have given you in the previous two blog entries, I wrote the few quick words about myself off the cuff with little thought. Do as I say, not as I do.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is what I wrote about myself:

“I’m a writer who primarily writes about disability issues and social justice. I actually found out about this site while doing research for a blog post I wrote about Asperger’s and dating sites.

While I’m already in a relationship, I figure I could stand to get out of the house more often and make some new friends, so here I am.

My special interests include movies, Star Trek, and politics.”

Following that, you have to take something called a Spectrum Compatibility Test, which is apparently an official thing, because it’s trademarked. Trademarked by who, I have no idea. The purpose of this test is to match people who are similarly autistic because- as I’m sure you know- autism is a hundred different things, some of which almost definitely shouldn’t belong to the same diagnostic category.

For each of the questions, you have to answer whether they almost always, frequently, rarely, or almost never apply to you.

There are several pages of questions; they go on for fucking ever. These are the questions from the first page, just to give you an idea:

-I prefer to do things with others rather than on my own

-I enjoy social chit-chat

-I tend to have very strong interests, which I get upset about if I can’t pursue

-I find myself more drawn to people than to things

-I would rather go to a library than a party

-I notice patterns in things all the time

-I tend to notice details that others do not

-I find social situations easy

-In a social group, I can hear several different people’s conversations at once

-I am fascinated by numbers

-I trip or bump into things

-Other people frequently tell me that what I’ve said was impolite, even though I think it is polite

-I usually notice car number plates or similar strings of information

-When I am reading a story, I find it difficult to work out the characters’ intentions

-I often notice small sounds when others do not

-I frequently get so strongly absorbed in one thing that I lose sight of other things

-If I try to imagine something, I find it very easy to create a picture in my mind (i.e. image, pattern, word, number)

-I find it hard to make new friends

-I prefer to do things the same way over and over again

-When I talk, it isn’t always easy for others to get a word in edgewise

After about a hundred years I finally managed to finish the questionnaire. They sent me an e-mail which informed me I was a blue, and that I could view other blue profiles.

There was no information about what the hell that meant.

A different e-mail contained registration information, which allowed me to verify my account.

The profiles on Spectrum Dating consist of the information you provide (apart from the information in the questionnaire), as well as areas for photo albums, events, friends, a blog, forum posts, and comments (comments can only be made by users who pay; the forum is also only accessible to users who pay).

On a separate page is the blurb I wrote about myself.

There’s a side bar called My Profile, with which you can access:

-My profile

-and also edit your profile

-My photo (I assume that’s the main photo on your profile, as opposed to the other photos you’re permitted to post)

-My blog

-My spectrum

-My chats

In order to figure out just what the fuck makes me a blue, I clicked on My Spectrum.

The My Spectrum page reveals what I suspected: users are ranked by how autistic they are, ranging from Yellow to Green to Blue to Purple. I assume Purples are the highest functioning.

I looked for matches from Toronto, and nothing came up. However, a few minutes later I discovered a button called “Neighbours” and clicked on it.

Boom: a ton of Canadians, as well as at least one Torontonian.

At this point I was exhausted, confused, and frustrated, and abandoned the site for four days.

When I returned, I was able to figure out what features you’re able to access for free. Very little, as it turns out.

The most significant bit of information I uncovered was that you’re not able to send messages to other users unless you’re a paid subscriber. As a result of that, the site is useless unless you’re paying for it.

I’ve had encounters with dating sites like this before, when I was single. They looked wonderful on the surface, though they refused to explain much about themselves. It was only after I signed up that I realized they were pay sites eager to separate desperate people from their money.

Spectrum Dating is especially loathsome in this regard due to its utter lack of transparency, as well as its targeting of socially disabled people, who are especially vulnerable.

Because there are other options available- really good options, too- I do not recommend using dating sites that you have to pay for. Forking over money to find dates isn’t necessary, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the results you want.

The Aspie Guide to Online Dating Sites, Part Two

When I was single I briefly had an account on Plenty of Fish. It’s one of the most popular free dating sites, but I didn’t enjoy using it. I found the interface ugly, counter-intuitive, and confusing. I didn’t give it much of a chance, because I had OKCupid to fall back on.

However, the profiles on Plenty of Fish are much more straightforward than OKCupid’s profiles, and there are some cool people on there. Hannah, for instance, used Plenty of Fish when she was single.

Unlike OKCupid, you can browse people’s profiles on Plenty of Fish without signing up. This makes it easier to figure out if the site would be a good fit for you. Based on the profiles you see and are interested in, I recommend writing your own profile on a word processor before signing up. That’ll give you more time to fiddle around with it, because as soon as you sign up on P.O.F. you’re required to fill out your profile. That isn’t the kind of thing you should do off the cuff.

When you sign up on Plenty of Fish, the first thing you do is fill out a standard form. They ask you for:

-Username

-Password

-E-mail

-Birth date

-Gender (only two options, which is disappointing)

-Country

-Ethnicity

After you fill out that form, you’re given an enormous fucking questionnaire. Unlike OKCupid, you have to answer all the questions, although “prefer not to say” is an option for some of them.

These are the questions:

-Postal code/zip code

-City

-Gender (again, there are only two options)

-Seeking (male or female are the options; no bisexuality allowed)

-Height

-I am looking for (choose from hang out, friends, dating, long term. And no, I don’t know what the difference is between hang out and friends. Maybe hang out is a euphemism for casual sex?)

-Hair colour

-Body type (choose from thin, athletic, average, a few extra pounds, or big & tall/BBW. BBW stands for- I just looked this up- big beautiful woman).

-Do you own a car?

-Education

-Eye colour

-Second language

-State/province

-Do you want children?

-Marital status

-Do you have children?

-Do you smoke?

-Do you do drugs?

-Do you drink?

-Religion (“prefer not to say” is not an option here, which I find curious)

-Your profession

-Do you have pets?

-Describe your personality in one word (it’s a drop-down menu, and there are a lot of options. Try not to overthink this)

-How ambitious are you?

-When it comes to dating, what best describes your intent? (a few options, ranging from casual dating to seeking marriage)

-What is the longest relationship you have been in?

-First name, and whether you want that displayed on your profile.

-Income (yes, really. Apparently they use it “behind the scenes for matching”)

-Your parents’ marital status

-How many siblings you have

-Your birth order (they use this “behind the scenes for matching”, too)

-Would you date someone who has kids?

-Would you date someone who smokes?

-Would you date someone that has BBW or a few extra pounds selected as a body type?

After this exhaustive questionnaire, Plenty of Fish directs you to fill out your profile. This consists of a few different components.

The first is a headline. This will appear next to your username at the top of your profile. Some examples from other users on the site include:

-Laughter always

-Willing to lie about how we met…

-Funny how a melody sounds like a memory

-Demon to some, angel to others

-Miss_Understood

From these examples I gather that the headline is supposed to be self-descriptive and attention-grabbing. Most people seem to pick something mildly humourous. As with the other aspects of your profile, I recommend you run your headline past a Maintainer before submitting it.

After the headline comes what Plenty of Fish calls the description. This is the meat and potatoes of your profile. It’s the trailer version of your personality. Give just enough details to leave people wanting to know more. Look at other people’s profiles in search of ideas.

Plenty of Fish offers some prompts (for example, talk about hobbies, goals, aspirations, interests, what makes you unique). They also warn that any sexual language will lead to your account being deleted.

Beneath the description is a section for your interests. You’re supposed to list a bunch of them, separating them with commas. I’d recommend listing between three and six interests. You don’t want to overwhelm people, but at the same time you want to give some indication of what your passions are.

Below that is an optional section in which you can describe your ideal first date. I’ve been looking at other people’s profiles and it doesn’t seem like a lot of people fill this out. Feel free to skip it.

Again, I recommend that a Maintainer look over your profile before you post it online. I understand if that feels too embarrassing or personal. I didn’t show mine to anyone, but in hindsight it would have made my life easier.

After you set up your profile you’re directed to upload pictures. I’d recommend posting at least one photo, because people will feel uncomfortable messaging you or being messaged by you if they don’t know what you look like. I’ll give detailed advice about this in a future blog post.

After you upload a photo you’re directed toward something called the P.O.F. Relationship Chemistry Predictor, which seems like a rip-off of OKCupid’s compatability tests (for what it’s worth, both P.O.F. and OKCupid are owned by the same company).

The test is optional. It consists of a series of questions with which you can agree or disagree.

Some of the questions are:

-I get nervous easily

-I am a very productive person

-I can resist temptations easily

After completing this test, you get to see your results, as well as a slew of matches. However, as I said before, the test is totally optional and you don’t need to complete it in order to look at people’s profiles.

There are a couple of other personality tests you can take as well, each of which- I suppose- helps to determine who you get matched up with. These are the other tests:

-Needs Assessment

-Psychological Assessment

-Keeper Test

-Sex Test

If you don’t take the tests, you can still look at people’s profiles, but they won’t be organized by compatibility. I’ve looked at a bunch of people’s profiles, and most of them don’t seem to have taken the tests. So make of that what you will.

Please keep in mind that the results of your tests can be seen on your profile unless you remove them.

In addition to the tests, there is a feature called Meet Me which once again claims to help match you up with people.

Meet Me seems awfully similar to Tinder. They give you a picture of someone, along with their age, what kind of relationship they want, the city they live in, and a link to their profile.

You click one of three buttons: Yes you’re interested in meeting them, maybe, or no.

I assume that- just like Tinder- if the person also shows an interest in meeting you, then you both receive a message indicating this.

So there’s a lot of bells and whistles on Plenty of Fish, but you don’t have to use any of them if you don’t want to. If you like, you can just look for people in your geographic area who seem cool.

Just like OKCupid, people will be able to tell if you looked at their profile. So bear that in mind. Also, people can see if you’re online. Hannah reports that when she was online she’d get bombarded with messages, but when she was offline nobody would message her. That suggests that users who are online become more visible to other users. A good idea in principle, but it can lead to serious harassment.

Hannah recommends responding only to substantive messages. There are guys (and perhaps women do this, too) who will message something like, “What’s up?” or “Hey, beautiful.” The vast majority of these men are trolling for sex, either on or offline. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for; I don’t know your life. If it isn’t, don’t respond.

And if you’re male and attempting to get the attention of a female, be sure to send something more meaningful than a couple of words or a shallow compliment. Otherwise, your attentions could be misconstrued. I’ll delve more into the intricacies of sending messages in a future blog post.