These Too Shall Pass

Over at Welcome to Normal, in a comments guideline that is a gem of brevity Caitlin Wray asks that commenters “Tackle issues, not people.”  What I’d like to do here is remind that time has a way of tackling all people, and that those who are impatient for social change do well to recognize that time does have certain highly reliable, even inevitable effects.  Our own efforts by comparison can all too often be second-rate and redundant.

This is something that was first brought home to me as a young person, while attending a summer jazz workshop run by one Jamey Aebersold.  Years before anyone thought to market anything so deliciously self-conscious as a “fantasy rock and roll camp,” Aebersold was hosting real jazz camps, a week at a time, for small group or big band, for ages 14 to adults.  By real jazz camps, I mean very few of us in attendance needed to be marketed to in order to get us there, nor did we have many illusions or starry-eyed dreams about what we were there for.

Aebersold was also, in one of the great non-musical jazz traditions, a sly and impish put-on artist.  While he came by his Kentucky drawl honestly, he used to love to stand up in front of an auditorium with that drawl in overdrive, talking about the necessity of mastering the relationships between “skiles and cards” (scales and chords).  The takeaway was that even a (supposedly) backwards hick and unlikely but consummate jazz geek like him could become competent as a player, or more to the point, that any of us as well could earn the respect of our peers and our betters.  The effect was to even the playing field; while there were inevitably a few attendees who seemed “cooler” than the rest of us, their coolness paled in relevance to the actual work at hand, and it might well be lost altogether if they couldn’t actually play.

Jamey Aebersold’s instrument was alto saxophone, but he typically didn’t take part in the evening faculty concerts.  The one year I remember that he did, he announced that he would cover the Jimmy Van Heusen standard It Could Happen to You, drawing scattered laughter with the afterthought, “That’s what prisoners say.”  And then he launched into what slowly built to an intense, blistering tour-de-force of technique and passion that turned up the electricity in that hall to an almost uncomfortable level, raising hairs on end and taking most of us by complete surprise.  It ended with a standing ovation, not just because of the performance itself, but because of the incongruity of performer and performance.  The mouse had roared, and we had gotten the message loud and clear:  if that socially awkward, beak-nosed 40 year-old nerd up there could do that, why, so could the rest of us.  That night especially, we respected the hell out of Jamey Aebersold.

A few months ago I wrote about an autistic ethos as exemplified in Information Technology (IT) circles, and I’m going on at some length here about the Aebersold workshops because they too exemplified this ethos. The coin of the realm in “real” jazz circles, as in IT, is respect, respect awarded on the basis of sheer competence—not the ability to maintain a stage presence, work a crowd, put on a good show, or even to sell records (need I point out the similarities to the social demands heedlessly placed on autistics?).  I’m not naming any of the faculty because I don’t expect their names would have any meaning here (though Tom Harrell would be an instructive example), but they always seemed to be the pick of the crop; always a few notable, world-class names but without fail they were musician’s musicians, the sorts who were regularly hired by notable names.  Whether they were working and recording or had retired to the security of a university position, they were above all players who had the respect of their peers.

So.  The first year I went, sometime in the late 1970’s, there was a question-and-answer session.  Someone stood up and began speaking earnestly about the consistently poor choices that were nominated and voted on in the Playboy Jazz Poll, and what could be done about it?  Maybe half of us there were underage males, so there was immediately a certain tension in the air at the mere mention of Playboy—not to mention at the naivety of anyone who would take the Playboy Poll seriously in the first place.

While it may have been somewhat relevant in the 1950’s or early 1960’s, by the late 1970’s it was clear that the sort of people who took Playboy seriously had by and large been left behind by the musicians themselves. By then what the poll measured was which jazz artists were being marketed effectively, and there was a wide gap between them and the ones who had that bond of mutual respect, that shared autistic ethos.

Whoever it was who replied knew just how to break the tension—and how to answer the question fully and completely in just a very few words.  Before the Playboy situation would get better, he offered with a dismissive shrug, and I quote, “… a lot of people will have to die.”  The room exploded in laughter, and we moved on to the next question—but what remained was a feeling of collegial well-being, that we were all in the right place, with the right people, with the right priorities.

I’m happy to report that here in 2010, Google can not seem to even identify for me the year in which the Playboy Jazz Poll finally went away.  And my wife’s old flame Kurt, a sometime jazz promoter in NYC, has assured me that the scene remains alive and well, regardless.

All of which is not to suggest that we be ugly with our wishes, or even that we should make a point of keeping a bottle of whiskey on hand so that we may run it through our kidneys before dribbling it over the grave of this or that recently departed nemesis.  It is to remind that advancing the values of neurodiversity is a long-term, multi-generational project, and that as such, it’s more about winning the hearts and minds of those who aren’t even paying attention yet than it is about keeping up the battle against detractors.

I had a quick pang of panic and regret here as I realized I haven’t left much room for suggesting what I do think ought to be done, but the fact is I’ve already described it.  As a well-run IT department does, or as the jazz camps I attended did, what needs to be done is to demonstrate mutual respect based on those things which matter to us. We need to exemplify an autistic ethos by busying ourselves with what we deem important, be it switching all the servers over to Linux with a minimum of fuss, interference, and downtime; ignoring our smug, guitar-playing pals with their cultish reliance on playing by ear alone, and instead—yes, obsessively—learning our skiles and cards upside down and inside out; or be it building out and realizing an autistic culture that knows its own worth, with or without outside validation.

As necessary as it can be to engage in conflict with others—when non-consenting autistics are subjected to dangerous or nonsensical treatments, or when the legitimacy of autistics generally is actively and actually being undermined—it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that much of what’s out there in the way of opinion and viewpoint amounts to little more than autism’s version of the Playboy Jazz Poll:  it’s nothing with which we need occupy ourselves.  Caitlin Wray’s essay from yesterday is a good example of this approach; she’s simply moving forward, neither waiting for nor demanding consent from those who would prefer her life and her son be invisible.

Whatever space we’re going to occupy with our minds, it ought to be space that is attractive to younger minds and to minds yet unborn, and more immediately, to those who are newcomers to autism blogs.  Making it attractive, as Caitlin does, should be our business.  Add time, and patience, to such a space, and I think there’s reason to believe it’s going to prevail as the place to be.  The inexorable fact is that people who will never change their minds will nonetheless die. In the long game they are irrelevant; their best hope is to bait us into playing the short game, into making them seem relevant by throwing our energy at them, wasting it in worry and agitation.  Even a many-headed Hydra though, if neglected long enough, will grow old and die.

Time is an ally here, if we allow it to step in and do what time does.

on 08/13/10 in featured, Society | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Beautiful piece, Mark. It’s amazing to read it this morning, because last night, I wrote about the necessity of interrupting anti-autistic bigotry when I encounter it-at the same time that I’ve decided to consciously take myself out of a situation in which it was becoming a drain on my energies.

    So I’m currently struggling with the question of how to balance creating an autistic life and community while speaking to the anti-autistic prejudice that I see around me. Perhaps because of my other minority status, I feel that speaking up to prejudice when one encounters it is a crucial part of creating a vibrant culture, but one can’t define a culture by that alone. After all, being Jewish is about 4000 years of philosophy, practice, history, and tradition, not just standing up to anti-semitism; that being said, standing up to our detractors plays a crucial role in developing self-respect, empowerment, and moral strength for the individual and the community.

    In autistic community as in Jewish community, there is room for everyone. Some people are great at fighting our detractors, and others are better at doing the quieter work. We need our rabble rousers as well as our community builders, and I say that because I’m a little of both, and because the two roles intersect (at least in my life) on a regular basis.

  2. Caitlin Wray says:

    “The inexorable fact is that people who will never change their minds will nonetheless die. In the long game they are irrelevant; their best hope is to bait us into playing the short game, into making them seem relevant by throwing our energy at them, wasting it in worry and agitation. Even a many-headed Hydra though, if neglected long enough, will grow old and die.”

    This is a really stunning piece of poetic wisdom Mark. Really, deeply, insightful. Like all truly profound insights, it applies broadly not narrowly, so while it’s clearly true of our quest for a culture of acceptance in neurodiversity, it is equally applicable to nearly every type of social change you could imagine, many of which I split my time between. I’m keeping this quote close at hand for those moments where I feel my strength is waning.

  3. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Aw, shucks. :-) Thanks to you both.

    “… standing up to our detractors plays a crucial role in developing self-respect, empowerment, and moral strength for the individual and the community.”

    Exactly, Rachel. This is how we make them work for and benefit us, not the other way around.

    Caitlin, a rose by any other name and all that, but maybe we should both be relieved I did not stick with my working title, “Let Go and Let Chronos,” eh?

  4. “Let go and let Chronos…” Ha! And more synchronicity: my latest blog begins with a fictional 12-step meeting.

    Building community, one metaphor at a time. :-)

  5. Gwen McKay says:

    “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    I once knew an autistic parent who used the nickname Ozymandias on a forum to remind himself of how irrelevant the arguments were in the long term.

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