By now, you’ve probably seen the movie or heard the story of Temple Grandin. Inspiring. Unbelievable. Poignant. The true story of a highly intelligent and autistic woman who craves the feeling of a hug, but can’t endure the human touch. She forges a special bond with cattle and then carves out a career designing systems for them to travel to their death without getting so much as one hive.
Apparently, completely calm, centered and happy cows make happy T-bone steaks. Rile them up, deprive them of the perfect coziness and pressure of Grandin’s specially designed chutes and you’re left with cortisol-riddled beefsteak that both tastes nasty and disrespects the beast. Like Grandin said, “We raise them to eat them so how’s about showing them a little res-PECT!!” Grandin even perfected a “squeeze machine”, as she calls it, which mimics the comforting feeling of a hug, without the unnerving (for her) sensation of two arms wrapped around her.
Somehow, she figured out that all she and the cows need is a little TLC.
I am inclined to agree with Temple, not because I totally understand her reasoning, but because I trust her. I saw the movie. I heard her interviewed on NPR. I’m also a fan because of another, more personal link.
See, there’s another Temple Grandin, one who lives in my world. I trust him, too. My version is a 43-year old math teacher and varsity softball coach who, each morning at precisely 7:20, takes his coffee and Sudoku into his “squeeze machine”: the toilet closet. This, immediately after eating one bowl of cereal with sliced bananas both below the pile of cereal and placed on top, which he first slices lengthwise and then across, so each slice is a little half-circle. I guess this reminds him of geometry.
My Temple comes home every day at lunch, eats whatever I have fixed for him and then goes back to school with his afternoon treat in a bag: a yogurt and a banana. He sits at his desk, dipping the banana into the yogurt one bite at a time. His students pretend to be doing calculus problems, while secretly texting each other the following: BYGIAIA! (Banana Yogurt Guy Is At It Again!)
Those mornings when he peers into the fruit basket and sees that we’re out of bananas are dark, dark days. His face immediately droops. His brow furrows. He looks at me.
“You’ll survive, chief,” I say while pouring my coffee and shuffling toward the stove.
Trust me when I say, there is a teensy-weensy kernel in his brain, called the Temple Lobe, that tells him not to believe me. Unless he reads it in the sports page or on weather.com, no piece of data is trustworthy.
There are other things that give him the warmth and security he needs.
“I need my squeeze machine!” my husband yelled the other day when I told him I would not get off the laptop to let him check weather.com before he returned to school after lunch.
“You’ve checked it forty-two times today already. You checked it 10 minutes ago when you got home. What is the point?”
“The point is that if it doesn’t rain I need a plan B for practice. If it rains we’ll discuss situations in my classroom,” he said referring to what he might do if water fell out of the sky after school.
“So, write down an outside practice plan. You already know rain is likely. Why keep checking the weather? You could have had ten practice plans written for the next two weeks with all the time you’ve spent checking the weather!”
“Why can’t I just know?”
“Because you already DO KNOW. It said 80% chance of rain before mid-afternoon. Even if it said ‘150% chance of rain’ you know damn well you’d keep checking because that’s what you do.”
I knew what was coming next. Imagine the little black and white sketches that zoom through Temple’s mind when something does not compute.
“There’s no such thing as 150% chance of rain!! You know that!!” He hates it when I disrespect numbers as much as Temple hates it when cowboys disrespect cows.
“Whatever, Temple,” I said, referring the movie we’d just watched a few nights before, just to see if he was paying attention.
Suddenly, he was smiling. It was time for a scenario. We love scenarios.
“What if you found out that I was a highly functioning autistic?” my husband asked.
“What do you mean, IF?” I snapped, unable to keep the smirk off my face.
“Whaddya mean by that?” he said with that fake sad face he adopts just to get me to laugh.
“You check weather.com in the middle of FRIGGIN’ JULY, that’s what! We live in California! It’s going to be hot! You’ve even got the kids doing it!” At this point, I can’t even keep a straight face, even though I passionately believe in what I’m saying.
“What if a summer thunderstorm comes along?”
I turned and pointed to the living room window. “There’s my weather.com, all year long,” I said, adding, “Want to know what my ‘Plan B’ is? The sweatshirt in the closet!!”
There’s more. There are the clocks that he is umbilically tied to whether he’s at home, in a hotel or camping under the stars, where he ties his watch to the little pocket hanging on the inside of the tent. This because he is compelled to look at the clock just so that he knows what to feel: relieved (before 2 a.m.) or nervous (after 2 a.m.).
I once presented an alternate plan: my way. My way and my husband’s way are a little different. While he scopes the horizon, I tend to look straight down, careening through life, adjusting on the fly to whatever mishap I’ve recently created and fairly content to be in the moment. Other than important things, like appointments, kids’ practices and happy hour, I tend to take life as it comes. I’m not saying my way is better; like Temple’s mother always told her, and anyone else who was tempted to judge, “Not more, just different.”
I once suggested he cover up the clock at night, as I do, to ensure he won’t catch a glimpse. Of all the times to get bad news, the middle of the night is my least favorite.
“Why put yourself through the anxiety of seeing it’s 5:15 a.m. and that you only have 45 minutes left to sleep, which basically guarantees you won’t be getting back to sleep at all?”
“I just like to know,” he clipped.
“Well, I hope you are satisfied. You have most of our kids doing it. Way to go, Temple.”
“I need my squeeze machine!”
“Come here, honey. I’m you’re squeeze machine. I’m your Plan B.”