Friday, 16 August 2013

On coffee and breaks

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology you can read this blog while I am waiting in the
corridors of Schiphol to board a plane to London, likely reading a crumbled and dog-eared Economist, clutching my old crumpled bag, listening to some soft American crooner with noise-blocking in-ear phones and drinking an overpriced cup of coffee.

Growing up among the biggest coffee nuts in the world you may be surprised that I don't drink the stuff all of the time. While other people don't survive until they've had their first two cuppa's before breakfast, there are days or weeks in which I don't taste any at all. At my parents' place I don't take coffee unless it's offered or my parents ask me to make some; almost always and exclusively after dinner, and if we are all home, in the morning between 10 and 11. The reason I don't drink it in bucketloads has nothing to do with me not enjoying the taste or flavour; coffee beans are among the most delightful dark aromas you can spread in your house, and beat out any perfume you can think of, and the taste is earthy, nutty and warming (although cold coffee tastes like the armpits of Satan). It is because coffee for me is a ritual, it is the moment where I can ease down and have chats and be a bit pensive.

The thing I love most about people is that we have rituals, little endearing quirks or moments that we keep coming back to and that give us solace, or confidence, or that we don't even notice about ourselves unless someone else points it out. It is a highly quirky, maybe irrational, but so understandable thing to do. For me a ritual that gives me a quiet mind is especially fantastic, as I almost never understand rituals and my mind is definitely almost never quiet.

For a while now I have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.
 I wish I could tell you what that means, but I have visited an army of doctors, social workers and secretaries in between the two, and many of them can't even answer that question for me. It is most popularly described as a social disorder, but I guess that I have been lucky and have met a large group of amazing people that care to listen to me and speak with me, as I have never felt socially secluded or left out. I know it means that I don't always pick up social cues. For instance, I can't read faces very well, as some around me can attest as I constantly ask if people are angry or sad because I don't know if I don't ask. I've also been lucky that I visited a psychologist when I was young for unrelated reasons that helped me form social connections, which meant that even if I didn't carry the label, I already got many of the supports that meant I have been able to live independently up until now.

But while Asperger may be a social disorder, I think that mischaracterizes the way I think and behave. One social worker aptly described the condition as follows: every brain is a computer, and if you need relevant data you search for the right folder, open it, access and use the data, and close it again. People with autism skip the search part and just keep all their folders open all of the time. This may explain why I can easily have 30-minute fast-paced conversations on a wealth of topics about politics, news and art that seem to tire out many people and have in the past led to a relationship breaking up and many, many people telling me to be quiet or talk about something less taxing like the weather or gossip.
When I get into something, I try to obtain all the information I can find. I bought a football game when I was 15, partially because I wanted to talk with my classmates about something they found interesting. Within a week I knew almost the entire player's database in that game, the transfer history of many of the players and I could list all the world cup winners and several other notable historical events. If I wake up at 7AM in the morning my mind switches immediatedly to news events, theories I worked out yesterday, and these thoughts can keep spinning in my head until I go to bed 16 hours later, where I have trouble falling asleep because the files never shut down.

So mostly I have been very lucky; I have the label of Asperger, but many challenges I face in my life aren't unique to an Asperger condition, but shared by people all over the world. I had professional help from an early age and got into a wondrous activity that, on some level, is all about communicating what you want to say in a crisp and audible manner. But if I'm a computer that clocks overtime because all of my information keeps popping out, it is a little ritual such as drinking a cop of coffee after dinner that finally causes me to temporarily shut some programs down and give me some peace of mind.

Fortunately, while I enjoy the drink, I'm not a coffee snob. Naturally, I abhor the stale filter coffee that people used to serve in this country, 1 parts coffee with 1 part dishwater. And of course I love the new and luxurary coffee machine at my parents' place, even though it requires me to refresh the water, clean the tray and clean the pipes every time I want to make a quick cup of coffee. However, I also enjoy putting 30 cents into the coffee machine at my uni and sipping some brown coffee-smelling drink from a plastic cup. This means that a piece of mind can be easily found and cheaply obtained.

So the next time that I happen to wind you up, bore you to death or exhaust you, feel free to treat me to a cuppa. You can even ask me if I want to treat you to one. My mind will thank you.

NOTE: I will be in the UK for a week to attend and judge at the European University Debating Championships. I won't be posting anything next week, but if Wi-Fi permits I will try to send out some tweets about the championship.

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