Friday, August 17, 2007

The thing about things

The New Yorker magazine this week (August 20, 2007) features a personal history by Tim Page, a fifty-two year old Pulitzer Prize winning music critic for the Washington Post. In the six page article, he talks about a childhood spent memorizing the World Book Encyclopedia, spinning records on the phonograph and seeking out adults who would listen to his lectures. He discusses his teachers’ and parents’ frustrations at the young “genius” who failed classes and couldn’t consistently distinguish right from left. He tells about finding his calling in music and writing, and about falling in love. He talks about having been given credit for “thinking outside the box”, without having realized there was a box to begin with. If you are not already a New Yorker reader, this one is well worth picking up.

In one of my favorite passages, Page describes a powerful connection to certain things:

What anguished pity I used to feel for piñatas at birthday parties, those papier-mache donkeys with their amiable smiles about to be shattered by little brutes with bats. On at least one occasion, I begged for a stay of execution and eventually had to be taken home, weeping, convinced that I had just witnessed the braining of a new and sympathetic acquaintance.

This touches on an aspect of autistic life I don’t hear much about. Sometimes a “comfort object” is more than an object. To call such things “friends” is not a hyperbole or metaphor; I have known such friends. I remember a particular hematite crystal, purchased for less than five dollars, which I wore around my neck every day for maybe three years. Chosen for a variety of symbolic reasons, it acquired more and more meaning as I kept it with me through a troubled time in my life. After losing it, I was inconsolable. I still miss the Beany doll who was my childhood companion, still remember the exact spot on his cheek where the color had rubbed away. Like it was yesterday.

Yes, I realize even non autistic people feel this way at times about jewelry or stuffed toys. Like the piñatas (I also have a history with these), a broken rocking horse, discarded by a neighbor, rescued by me and not so much loved by the rest of the family was at least “understandable” as a friend. A friend with a face on it, like Thomas the Tank Engine, is within the acceptable bounds for affection, even for adults. It’s the other kinds of “friends” autistic people make that I really want to talk about. Tea kettles, for example. Hammers, potholders, that sort of thing.

As a young adult, I stocked shelves at a Kmart store; my section was cleaning supplies and pots and pans. The cheap enameled metal tea kettles, in almond, harvest gold and avocado, were often dented during shipping or through mishandling by customers. It was my sworn duty to discard these items and record their cost in a book to account for the loss. Instead, I hid them behind other items in the stockroom, promising myself I’d throw them out “later”. Of course, later never came and the collection grew larger, as the year’s end approached, when they were sure to be discovered during the annual inventory.

The kettles were on my mind a lot during the months before the inventory. I visited them less often, out of guilt, I suppose, but was comforted by their presence nevertheless. Returning after two days off, I peeked behind the boxes of cookware and saw the empty space between the cartons and the wall. The tea kettles had been “taken care of” by a co-worker who wanted to protect me from the manager’s anger, as I was about to be found out. It had to be done, I understood that, but I felt sick. I think I went home early that day.

I’m not sure it’s possible to translate what these objects mean into terms accessible to others who have not had these sorts of relationships with things. I started to make the effort here, but I’ve changed my mind. It should suffice to say there are things I love that some people do not understand. They are a part of who I am. That should be enough.


  1. I hate to nitpick such a wonderful post, but that's a tea kettle, not a tea pot. A kettle is used for boiling water, and a pot is used for brewing and serving tea.

    I've been criticized for being sentimental about objects, but certain objects in my life have meaning for me. Not because they remind me of anyone else (this appears to be why most people develop "relationships" with objects) but because they are familiar and they remind me of me and who I am.

  2. Yeah, I know you are right, fledchen. I used the terms interchangeably here, just as Kmart did in their stock list book in the early eighties. Kind of a way way inside joke no one could possibly be expected to get. Thanks for pointing that out; I've changed it.

  3. i have also had some (unwarranted) trouble from others because of being too attached to items. (*_*)

  4. Very interesting.

    I can relate to the 'fondness' but I have more difficulty with other things, or maybe I'm just unreasonably biased against toilet plungers - they're large, inconvenient and you have to ensure that they're really clean.

    Fortunately,in public, when I said he was pretending to be a plumber no-one batted an eyelid.

    Then there are other terrible inconveniences, when the talismen are really really tiny - maybe I should just clean the bifocals?

    Pity you didn't put in the bit that you left out of your post - I'd have liked to have read that too.


  5. Almond, harvest gold and avocado? That sounds so seventies!

    My baby slept with small appliances.

  6. I as NT as they come. And I am pretty attached to my old hat. We have been through alot together. It was there for me. It is always comfortable. It is an old friend.

  7. I am NT and there were many things that Mr. Page talked about that were very familiar to me. I just read the article in the New Yorker -- people, please go buy it, it's so worth the read.

    Karen in CA

  8. I do not like my staff discarding scratch and dent objects because they are often still of use.

    I round them all up, place them in a storage unit, and let the homeless people adopt them. This way those things still have a life ahead of them, the homeless/dispossessed get new things, and it takes a burden off our landfills.

    I have seen brand name footwear, hawaiian shirts, sofas, brand name toys such as Elmo and Barney, several aluminum ladders, and even a microwave make their way into unsaleable.

    Some of the things failed to sell at auction but do not meet my standard as trash since they do not present a health hazard or have all working parts.


  9. I kind of felt sorry for those kettles....I feel sorry for lots of things (just rarely people it seems) discarded toys especially tug at my heartstrings.

    I have that special kind of love for my rocks. And lately I've taken interest in one of those funny shaped light bulbs (the swirly tubes ones, I think it's fluorescent but since I don't really USE it for it's use per say...I stick my fingers in it and rub it).

  10. I can totally relate to the piñata story. I was the same. It seemed like a way to train children into acts of cruelty. And then be rewarded by it! lol

  11. Part of my feeling of sickness over throwing away of all those kettles is my sense of waste. We are such a wasteful society. Why not donate the kettles with a slight ding on them? We're such an expendable society.

    That's why I love thrift stores. It's like each item has a soul begging for a second chance at being appreciated. :-D

  12. I love the episode in Boston Legal where Gerry's girlfriend dumped him for an iPhone. hahaha xD


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