What I learned from Spock as a lonely kid with autism/Asperger’s

The world is all the poorer as today Leonard Nimoy died here in Los Angeles. I am going to try to write a sensible thing, but it is very hard because Nimoy was so important to me, and I am emotional right now.

You see, back in the late 1970s and 1980s, nobody had heard of Asperger’s, and very few had heard of autism. My parents had no idea, and I’m not sure they would have been really capable of dealing with it even if the idea was on anybody’s radar. I went to a small school; special education classes were unknown. There were the ‘slow’ kids and the ‘normal’ kids, and they were all the same classes. I was the former, for quite some time.

And I was absolutely reviled among the other kids and, frankly, among the adults as well, because I simply didn’t have normal reactions to anything. I cried over weird shit. I failed to cry over normal shit. Things that I thought were funny weren’t funny to anybody else. The other kids–all but one or two others–hated my guts and teased me mercilessly. Teachers did little to intervene. After all, peer learning is good for kids; I’d learn, of course, to fit in when I got tired of being a punching bag and treated so badly. If I retaliated, as I often did out of hurt and frustration, THEN a teacher would be worried. My place was at the bottom of the social hierarchy, period. Temper in a girl? How unseemly. “All you have to do” I remember one genius instructor telling me, “Is to be more like the other kids.”

Well, gee, wish I’d thought of that.

Only I couldn’t. When confronted with other kids and their boring games, I tried to pretend to be interested, and I wasn’t, and I wasn’t a good enough actor to pretend otherwise. I tried conversing with them. Jesus what a mess that turned out to be. I missed their subtle clues about how they felt about me, or misinterpreted them, so they went to more vicious lengths to tell me they wanted rid of me. “Why can’t you fit in?”my poor, confused, Homecoming-Queen-nominee mother would ask.

Staying in from recess was *awesome.*

I was clumsy, uncoordinated, and unworldly, a terrible disappointment to my father as well, who valued athleticism and what he considered real-world smarts, not the sort of dreamy, preoccupied mind I seem to have.

Nor was I a pretty girl, in addition to the rest of this mess. That’s always a problem, isn’t it?

I sincerely tried to be other people. I tried on personas like pairs of pants. I acted, and failed. I lied to people, made up stories, to create a person I thought they might like. After all, people hated the real version. My imagination was good; and what I have found is that people aren’t really all that interested in reality.

And I sincerely couldn’t help it. I needed to wear the same clothes day after day. When Zuckerberg does it, it’s now considered genius. When I did it 30 years ago and in 3rd grade, it was deviant. I couldn’t control the repetitive hand flapping and finger twisting that plagued my elementary school years. I didn’t understand why people wanted to talk to me only to get angry when I talked, or why, when I stopped communicating in order to avoid making people angry, they got angry, then, too.

So when Star Trek went into reruns on network television, I encountered the only character I had ever seen who was a lot like me. Here was Spock, constantly reviled for his reasoning and his inability to feel things the proper way, in a way that reassured people around him that he was emoting in a manner that other people approved of. There he simply was: he knew what his brain was for and what it could do if you used it for analyzing and for solving problems instead of constantly worrying about “being appropriate.”

Not only did I see in Spock somebody, like me, who couldn’t help not fitting in, but he was a profoundly good soul despite his inability to fit in. It was possible, entirely possible, that my decency and compassion, which I felt so acutely but that others never seemed to see, was misunderstood, like Spock’s, because I expressed it so differently. People didn’t get it. And they often rejected Spock’s decency and goodness, like mine, because they could not see what he saw. But that didn’t make his desire to be a friend and to live a good life any less sincere or valuable. In Spock, I had a model, both intellectual and moral, that allowed me to envision myself as something other than a colossal failure as a human being.

As Nimoy and Spock aged, they never disappointed me. Spock became, of course, part of Trek’s pantheon of superheroes, always wise, always thinking, always loyal.

Nimoy, sentenced to typecasting, inspired me in a different way: by continuing to live a creative life in various pursuits despite the fact that the rest of the world only wanted to see him in one character. He continued to write and express himself artistically regardless of how every single one of those endeavors would be received only as a footnote to a character played early in his career.

Farewell, Mr. Nimoy.

The flawed, award-winning paper, and cups of coffee

I’ve had a lovely bit of news that my paper in JAPA was selected the best of Volume 80. That’s been a dream of mine for some time, and it’s wonderful to have had it happen.

But I’m still struggling with the paper. The paper is:

Schweitzer, L. 2014. “Planning and Social Media: A Case Study of Public Transit and Stigma on Twitter.” Journal of the American Planning Association. 80(3).

It’s available for free download if you’d like to look it over.

I did a fair bit of media work trying to get this paper out there, largely because JAPA could use the eyeballs, and if there were ever a study that could work as click bait, it’s this one. I pretty much did nothing for two weeks besides prepare the press release and work with media. Even with the work, most of the attention went to the listicle aspect of it. But some journalists really did a great job, and I’m grateful to them for their time, energy and insights.

All of it reminds me of a quote from Helen Mirren after she won an Oscar: “I’m honestly at my happiest in a cold rehearsal room with my polystyrene cup of tea.” Only in my case, it’s coffee. Because coffee–yum.

The ego, the ego. One wants attention until one gets it, and then one gets tired of talking about the study and wants to talk about, or get back to, work one is actually doing, and why will everybody keep talking about this thing that was done ages ago?

Promoting work is work, and I did just about everything I wanted to do here, except I am still haunted by questions concerning regional effects. At one point, I thought I should have some test of regional effects. I thought, for example, about matching transit agency regions with their police departments, so we might be able to tell of Bostonians are just exceptionally grumpy, or if Chicagoans are mad in general at city management and that spills over to the way they talk about their local transit provider.

My problem with that is, simply, that there are no close public management analogues for most these transit agencies. Transit agencies are one of the few exemplars of service-providing regional quangos with street-level bureaucrats. So matching the Chicago PD with the CTA has some geography and service area in common, but the CTA serves way more. The LA Metro spans countless police departments; ditto with New York. I could have gone with smaller regions where the service areas overlap more, but I needed to focus on larger systems to get Tweets. (At the beginning of the study, I only used a year of data, but holdups with getting the thing reviewed delayed for four years. Turns out to have been a good thing because I worked on it and keep gathering more data over time.)

I probably should have matched the police department controls by geography just to see, and if it showed nothing, well, that’s information, and overlaps in sentiment would then need to be interpreted. Ah well. The next paper.

I’m pretty sure anything you get from Twitter about police departments will be spicy now.

Back to working on the next thing. 🙂

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris helpful OpEd on HSR development in California

Friend and mentor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris penned an Op-Ed on HSR station development for California High Speed Rail development near stations in the LA Times:

In the U.S., the introduction of new rail systems has not necessarily been an upgrade for surrounding areas. This is clearly demonstrated in Southern California, where often-subpar Metrolink station locations and a lack of foresight in planning have confounded efforts to activate development around them. Commuters passing through Metrolink’s Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs or Commerce stations have little reason to linger in the car-centric wastelands surrounding these transit hubs.

Go read.

A look at my to-do list

Scott Walker has succeeded among all those who hate universities and professors with his shots at the UW system, which is unfortunate. If he really succeeds, he’ll damage one of the few reasons anybody with an education might move to Wisconsin. Milwaukee isn’t exactly setting any records, and if you would like your state to become a haven for impoverished whites who do not have the economic productivity to move elsewhere, well, in about 50 years or so wages for low-skill manufacturing work will even out at the global scale and the state will probably once again be competitive in the global market.

The villains in all this are, of course, the tenure track faculty. They don’t work enough. They should teach more classes. They are also living a life of gravy and pie while adjuncts do all the teaching, according to the media which likes to set up the “poor, sad adjunct” against the “high-living, do nothing tenured” prof. Only professors’ salaries haven’t moved up either; if faculty were the all-powerful people we are portrayed to be, we’d be able to affect our salaries. We’re not. We can’t affect our own salaries. Why not? Because there is an army of cheap teachers out there known as adjuncts, and the premium faculty become premium faculty branding themselves based on ideas, not teaching.

My teaching evals, even for classes that everybody hates, are really, really high. My administrators do not care. I teach a full load. They do not care. They care about what I am publishing. I am truly sorry about this, but again…this is the incentive system I am in.

So here is my list of things to do today. While adjuncts have more of the class-related stuff to do, they don’t have some of the other crap that I do that also supports the institution. The institution is very selective about what it rewards me for:

1. Grading PPD 628. No I do not have a graduate student slave to do it for me. (nice, but not a high priority for my administrators; won’t make or break promotion or merit increase)
2. Get class ready for 628 (nice, but not a high priority for my administrators; won’t make or break promotion or merit increase)
3. Edit manuscript for special issue of journal coming up–other authors (can’t get promoted without broader visibility)
4. Code interview transcripts for manuscript (Can’t get promoted without more papers)
5. Take notes for chapter 5 of the book manuscript (can’t get promoted without this book)
6. Teleconference with NYU about new research project (Can’t get promoted without more papers)
7. Presentation for MRED students on Thursday (do it because I care about the real estate students; extra work for me, not one thin dime in my wallet or any progress towards promotion.)
8. Letter of recommendation for student (do it because I care; the institution seems to not care one bit)
9. Help graduate student revise a fellowship application so that she can support herself in her last year of research (do it because I care; the institution seems to not care one bit.)
10. And yeah, write blog posts and engage in public relations to remain salient. (the institution loves this.)

This is just the top 10. Which do I cut? Which do I do first, Governor Walker? Which one is unnecessary? Because if it’s the research, then you should probably get that memo to the people who decide my raises and promotions. Because if I don’t do that part, I suffer–a lot.

Go read Andrew Whittemore’s overview of his new article in Planetizen

Planetizen has highligted a nice piece from JPER from Andrew Whittemore on how practitioners use planning theory.

“Practitioners Theorize Too: Reaffirming Planning Theory in a Survey of Practitioners’ Theories” demonstrates the relevance of theory to practice by exploring what how practitioners have theorized through their own words in practitioner-authored texts that reveal parallels between academic theories and accessible real-world lessons. The article does this through a historical exercise: comparing academic theories of planning procedure developed between the late 1950s and early 1980s with those that contemporary practitioners articulated in five trade journals: ASPO Newsletter (Planning from 1969), Public Management, Social Policy, Urban Land, and Environmental Comment. ASPO (American Society of Planning Officials) merged with the American Institute of Planners in the 1970s, and now forms part of APA.

And then go read the whole article, so because the link to Andrew’s article in JPER means you can download the piece for free. I do have quibbles; I’m dubious of this conclusion:

“It seems unfortunate that today’s practitioners and social scientists are re-learning the perils of dismissing lay beliefs and knowledge, rather than using them as the frames for new policy in the intractable environmental disputes of today.”

I don’t actually see much evidence to support the conclusion in the article, nor am I necessarily willing to fetishize lay beliefs–which is where a great deal of theory is. Andrew doesn’t say this, to be clear, but much theory has me rather gritting my teeth. Okey dokey, lay beliefs are to be taken seriously. Fine, but that doesn’t mean we should defer to them.

I spent nearly 10 years as a practitioner, and lay beliefs just as often were assertions of democratic preference as they were knowledge claims, and of course people know their democratic preferences better, in general, than anybody else. I don’t think that’s been ‘re-learned’; I think that’s always in the process of being learned and discovered, even among people holding the preference: what do I want to have happen here?

Ok so here’s a rant: I’m getting rather tired, actually, of everybody urging me to respect lay beliefs. There are lot of smart people in the world; there are a lot of stupid people in the world; and there are a lot of selfish people in the world. Knowledge claims should be tested; they should be subjected to logic and reason, and to empirical testing; all these things (reason and empirical testing) should be subjected to yet more deliberation. We have statements about beliefs everywhere asserted as God’s own true knowledge/pure gold: about human nature, about the climate, about Black people, about what God wants, about what is ‘natural’, about how the world works.

According to lay belief, we have to have lots of business parking to prevent spillovers into my neighborhood. Come on.

Jenny McCarthy is an expert on vaccines, you know. Tom Cruise an expert on mental illness. And all of us have some aspects of Tom and Jenny in at least some of the things we hold about the world–I’m sure I probably believe dumb things about something, but I can’t list them because I just don’t know my own blind spots. The point of study and reflection and critique is to develop depth, and we don’t all develop that depth for everything we encounter. The point of having professionals and academic disciplines is to help focus our inquiry. It doesn’t mean any one group has the answers. It just means that somebody who has expertise has taken the time to work with problems, gain experience, etc etc etc in a topic.

Doing things the hard way, never being discovered–Philip Levine on writing

So my reflections this week have to do with a note I recently received telling me I would “make my mark.” Future tense. I already feel like I’ve done a great deal of work, and that marks have been made, and who only wants to make one mark anyway?

I remember at VT one of my beloved senior faculty (male) always referred to a male colleague as having “developed into a leading scholar” but all the junior female faculty were “developing.” Uh-huh. It’s a subtle, but very effective, way to deny accomplishment.

There comes a point in every young “developing” person’s life that they are no longer the promising young thing, and are, instead, the washed-up middle aged person who never delivered on their early promise.

It’s best not to think too much about this when one is feeling washed up, taken for granted, and overlooked. For those of us who never get to be the fair-haired child, it’s probably better just to do the work that gets us off, and ignore all the nattering about how someday, oneday, you’ll be good enough. You won’t be. So screw it. Do what you want. Then if by chance somebody notices, you will have the good sense to know what it is–luck–based on a foundation of real work that meant something to you

Some very good advice from Philip Levine in his interview with The Paris Review (a sure sign one has made it…):

Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered. I think I did it the hard way. I didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; I waited a long time; I didn’t go to a school that would give me advantages. I didn’t publish a book that anyone read until I was forty. But to be utterly honest, I think if something hadn’t happened about then I might have become a very bitter man. It was getting to me. If I’d had to wait until I was fifty I don’t know what lousy things I might have done.

One caveat: kissing asses seems to have outsized rewards; I call it a job skill. If you can do it and preserve your sense of self, by all means. I can’t do it, and I am too old to learn it…so I guess that means I shall never “make it.”

Whatever “it” is.

But I still have the unstructured hours of creative work, and world enough, and time enough to explore. That’s lucky enough for me.

“Because I am not an asshole….” Belle Waring explains political correctness

See yeah I have to admit that when somebody huffs to me about ‘political correctness’, I get suspicious, and I have to take some time to figure out what they mean. Sometimes, what they mean is that they are being punished for taking a dissenting view, either in the discipline or in the larger society. Planners are, in general, not a group of scholars who deal with dissent very well, and their over-reaction to criticisms of the much-beloved urban model of the moment does not fool anybody in any other discipline or profession: it’s passion (good) combined with insecurity (not so good).

As somebody who is not necessarily on board with the New Urbanists, I often have to deal with ad hominem towards me because of my doubts. People can and do behave hurtfully. Nonetheless, it’s all pretty understandable; people get hurt when their assumptions about the world are challenged. I do it; most people seem to do it; and so I understand when people get upset with me. Most of that is all chaff. Life is unfortunately full of these sorts of problems.

What I don’t think you get to do is curl up and whine about the mean meanymeanpantses, even when you do have to deal with a bit of ad hominem here and there. If you believe in a point, you really do have to explore it and deal with the critiques. In the white noise of ad hominem, there may actually be a kernel of a useful critique. I think here of Donald Shoup who, when faced with relatively harsh criticism, always responded to it by thinking his way through it and bouncing back with more arguments as to why he’s right. It’s a wonderful skill to have. (Donald has a very healthy ego.)

That is, one shouldn’t get too thin-skinned if one wants to have influence, which has been one of Sarah Palin’s major problems. She has always taken criticism of her ideas as personal attacks on her. This is almost inevitable given how, as a values candidate, her values and assertions about the world are going to be very central to her identity, and it hurts when people poke around at that. I personally have no idea if she is a nice person or not, but my not sharing her values means that I am going to reject her leadership. It’s not really personal, but it is. My values are very dear to me, too, so listening to somebody rail on about ‘libtards’ hurts my feelings, too.

That is somewhere by way of muddily saying there’s one usage of ‘political correctness’ that appears mean dealing with blowback for dissenting from established paradigms.

Then there is the universe of simple whining, which covers Jonathan Chait’s incoherent “people don’t let me get away with sloppy thinking even though I am white man, and darn it, that’s a sign of bias against white guys” piece over at New York Magazine.

This is the use of ‘political correctness’ that always makes me give the side eye. It’s shorthand for frustrated entitlement, a longing for a prelapsarian moment when men were men and they could say what’s on their mind without all those mean black feminist meanies on the internet interrupting and all.

In short:

No, it’s not a sign of oppression that a white person can’t use the N-word and rappers can.

Belle Waring over at Crooked Timber has a nice take-down of Chait’s piece where she ends with this bit of wisdom:

98% of what people angrily claim is “Political Correctness” is just manners. Politeness. If something I were saying at a dinner party offended another guest and my host explained why, I would stop saying that thing, in all likelihood. I myself used to call things “retarded” all the time when I was a kid, and I carried it into adulthood, and then people on the internet made it clear that they found this hurtful and demeaning, so I stopped. I explained to my children, I have a left-over bad habit in that I will occasionally call something retarded and it’s not an appropriate thing to say; will you please correct me when I do it? Thinking about what I wanted my children to say helped me here. Likewise, although I don’t know that I said anything particularly unpleasant about it ever, I was comparatively ignorant about issues facing trans people until some years back. Does this make me angry because the word “cisgender” exists now? No, because I’m not an asshole.

At some point, all this branch of political correctness really is about toleration and not being an asshole. When people tell me what they prefer to be called, it’s really not that hard for me to call them that. I don’t have to give anything up to do that. I just have to think about other people and what they want. I have to assume that the ‘way I have always done/said things’ is probably not as important as what makes somebody else feel included and listened to.

Is that really so difficult?