My Path to the Ukulele

What I’m playing on the Ukulele right now:

Bidin’ My Time by George and Ira Gershwin 

I finally got my tenor ukulele back! The fine folks at RedZone Guitar Works in Pasadena, CA—love that place, by the way—exchanged my buzzy instrument with a nice new one. At the present time I have my old soprano uke and my new tenor, and I may be getting a nice, old baritone that’s been in our family for quite some time. I’m hoping to complete the collection by picking up a nice concert size uke when Linda and I finally go on our Hawaiian honeymoon in a few months. At some point in the near future, I’ll do a geek post about my instruments.


So what was my path to the ukulele?


Among the many challenges of being an Aspie, the chief is an extreme difficulty in reading social situations. If your brain is functioning normally—neurotypical, or NT for those of you playing the at-home game—you learn from a very early age to pick up on social cues—body language, facial expressions, verbal inflections, sarcasm and the like. In the case of someone with Asperger’s, this is missing or at least underdeveloped. Making things worse is an impaired ability to view oneself in relation to a social setting. I’ve learned to negotiate cocktail and dinner parties, and occasionally I can do a pretty damn good impression of someone who’s NT, but I come home absolutely exhausted.


Regardless of an Aspie’s age or place in life, finding and keeping friends is always a major challenge. Being unable to see how you relate to the everyone around them often causes Aspies to blurt out inappropriate remarks and say just plain odd things, usually at exactly the wrong time. Remember that weird kid in the back of the classroom who couldn’t stop talking about astronomy, bringing in the discovery of Pluto into discussions about the American Civil War?


That was me.


As a kid, it came as a shock to me that being weird on the playground or in the classroom was not the best way to be accepted by your peers. And of course the more normal I tried to act the weirder I became. Adult advice always centered around “being yourself.” Great. What no one seemed to realize was that the “real me” was far stranger than I was letting on. So what does a hopelessly odd kid to do?


Take it on stage!


I was always in the school plays, but the roles I played were far too, well, normal.  No—I had to find something truly unique. Something I could do that no one else would dare do. I became a magician, and I was GREAT! (Well, according to my mother I was more cute than competent, but that’s beside the point). I was the only magician at Baldwin-Stocker Elementary School and that suited me just fine. It even halted a bully in his tracks.


Scott had been tormenting me mercilessly since Kindergarten. I did all I could to stop Scott and his cronies from pummeling me, but nothing ever worked. After performing my magic act at one of the yearly talent shows Scott came up to me—sheet-white and trembling—and proclaimed, “My mom says magic is of the devil!” He didn’t bother me for a long time after that.


What performing magic taught me was that given the right set of controlled circumstances, it is possible for me to communicate what words cannot. On a stage the rules of engagement are clearly defined. Audiences willingly come to you to hear what you have to say, and the communications performers receive back from their audiences is equally powerful; an audience feeds off the performers’ energy and the performer feeds off the audience’ energy.


Ever since that time, performing has been a place where I can be as weird as I want to be. Even after over 40 years, I still approach each performance with the excitement of a 6 year-old magician. The communication between the audience and myself is palpable. So is this, then the straight line to the ukulele? No—you’ll have to wait for another post to get the rest of the story.