A Few Warm Embers: On Passions and Politics, Past and Present



Spring comes early to Washington, DC.  Earlier than in my neck of the woods, anyway.  Earlier this month, I found myself walking down the National Mall in the spring sunshine, contemplating the magnificent Capitol in front of me and bursting with excitement over the fact that I had an actual meeting inside of it.

                It was a long walk from where I was, so I put on a podcast to listen to.  One of my favorites lately is ‘The West Wing Weekly’.

                I pressed play, I started to walk, and then I stopped.  Because oh my goodness gracious gosh.  The West Wing!  How could I have never realized it before? What I have been saying aloud but not really believing all these years……..it has come true.

                Obsessions really do lead to vocations. 

                Because fifteen years ago, I was a teenager absolutely over the moon obsessed with the West Wing, politics, and George Stephanopolous.  And this month, I had a meeting on Capitol Hill.

                Holy guacamole people.

                My obsessions have truly come full circle.


                Of course……….not all of my obsessions are quite as relevant today.  Take dogs.  In the past few years, I, like most people, have had a few birthdays.  I don’t exchange birthday cards with many people, but of the six that I got during my most recent celebrations, three featured dogs.

                This was not a coincidence.

                And if by chance you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll give you some other clues.

                I’ll be walking with my mother or a friend and suddenly say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful Tibetian mastiff!’ or ‘what a cute King Charles Cavalier spaniel’.

                I have sitting in my room a darn-near-life-size Bernese mountain dog (unfortunately, it is a stuffed animal.)

                I have on my tiny Christmas tree a beautiful painted dog ornament.

                Sitting on a shelf above my head right now is a box.  With a carved dog on it.

                It might be noted here that I haven’t owned a dog in fifteen years.

                Oh, you say, I get it now.  You like dogs.  And you’re autistic, so you’re obsessed with dogs, right?  Isn’t that how it works?

                Well, yes, and no.  Sometimes, but not really.

                I was obsessed with dogs.  I was obsessed with dogs for a very long time – at least ten and probably as long as fifteen years.  I read books about dogs, went to dog shows, hung out at dog parks just to be around dogs.

                However, a year or so ago I was reorganizing my bookshelves and I realized that I had not looked at any of my dog books in a long, long time.  And I actually had no desire whatsoever to look at dog books anymore.  I put all of my dog books into a bag for the library book sale, and I realized: my obsession is over.  It went, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a long, slow letting out of air, like a balloon with a tiny hole in it, foooooooooooooooflop.

                I was obsessed with dogs.  Now, I simply like them.

                This is how it works.  I find something.  I find that I love something.  I love it.  I love it hard.  I spend hours joyfully immersed in that fandom/subject.  For a few weeks, it takes over my life.  For a few months, it dominates a large part of my free time.  For a few years, I gleefully wallow in a warm puddle of obsession and passion.  And then, ever so slowly, it……..fades.  I find new interests.  I move on.  Whatever it is has gone from being an all-consuming passion, to merely an interest.  Without anything so messy as a divorce or a breakup, from a spouse to a friend.  I no longer get a thrill from reading or researching about it.  I still enjoy it and find it comforting, but the spark is gone.  It’s not a flaming chalice or a bright bonfire, but a few warm embers inside of my soul.

                And the thing is – the thing is – the thing is that I miss that bright burning flame.  I miss the heat and the excitement and the sparks.  I miss feeling so very, very, very eager to learn absolutely everything about that topic, to read every word written about it, to watch a tv series over and over until I can quote it by heart.  When that spark fades, it almost necessitates a period of mourning, because nothing is as energizing or uplifting or just plain happy-making as a brilliant new passion or obsession, as a fantastic new topic my brain has latched onto and decided, for whatever reason,  that it adores.

                However, I will also say that as I have gotten older, letting go of passions has become easier and easier, for the simple reason that my life is more full now.  I have more things going on.  Except on rare occasions, I cannot spend hours upon hours, let alone days upon days, immersed in a subject because I have to get up, go to work, make dinner.  I have friends to meet, phone calls to return, writing to do, interests to keep up with.  My world is so much wider than it has ever been.  I read the news and discuss it; I listen to NPR and watch Samantha Bee (and if you aren’t watching Samantha Bee, she is hilarious and I adore her) and go to church and go hiking and then the day is done and I simply do not have the energy left to devote to my obsessions the way I used to.

                Which is kind of sad, because much as my life is fuller now, I do not think I could ever be happier than I was for those hours I spent poring over dogs, or The Babysitters Club, or tea parties, or Amish people.

                Of course, when I was young, it was also a heck of lot harder to obsess over things like The Babysitters Club.  I had the books.  I had the spin-off books and the super-special books and the mystery books and………books.  Yep, that was it.  No internet.  No merchandise.  No trading cards. No accessible fan base.  Just me, and my library card, and the enormous wooden card catalog that I learned to use in elementary school, the last generation to ever do so.  I honestly do not know if this was to my advantage or disadvantage, but it does make my experience of growing up autistic remarkably different than that of people born ten or fifteen years later. 

                When I was in high school, two things happened.  One, the internet became more widely used.  Two, the West Wing debuted.  For whatever reason, The West Wing (and I’m referring to the television show here, and if you do not know what I am talking about, I am truly sorry for your loss) sparked an interest in me and drove me to learn more and more about politics.  At the time, Bill Clinton was in the White House and a former staffer of his, George Stephanopolos, had written a book I thought was the best thing ever.  (It should be noted that at the time, I had yet to realize that I was gay.)  And the West Wing was a Camelot-like dream of a White House full of good Democrats and evil Republicans, where everyone worked hard and was idealistic and loved their country fiercely and proudly.

Something about it all just really appealed to me – maybe it is because the First Family is the closest this country will ever get to royalty, and I have always loved fairy tales so?  Maybe it is because the West Wing had such very, very good storytellers?  Maybe because the romantic plot lines, which I did not understand and still have trouble comprehending, stayed in the background?  Maybe it was the comedy, the superb acting, the hot female lead?  I don’t know, but for the next few years, the West Wing was my primary obsession. 

I taped the shows – it makes me feel so old to admit this, but this was before DVDs and DVR’s.  I watched and rewatched.  I bought the books that came out.  And then one day I innocently started playing around on this new toy called the internet, and I discovered fanfic.  And discussion forums.  And more fanfic.   And so I read and read and wrote and wrote and had long, heartfelt discussions with strangers about Josh and Donna and Leo McGarry and Abbey Bartlett. 

I primarily participated in a forum called TestyToad’s, but I also wandered in and out on what was then called MightyBigTV, later changed to TelevisionWithoutPity, or TWOP.  And it was there on the TWoP forum that one of my oddest incidents about any obsession happened, and since I happen to think it is an amusing story, I will tell it here.

Aaron Sorkin wrote the West Wing, and because nobody really understood the internet then, he decided to participate in the TWoP forum.  He thought he was hiding his identity, but fans figured it out pretty fast, and I was thrilled.  And it never occurred to me that maybe interacting with an actual celebrity online wasn’t a good thing to do – I was an innocent teenager autistic.  And it never occurred to my parents to monitor my internet usage.  And so – I ended up starting a thread called ‘Dear Mr. Benjamin’ (Benjamin being his screen name) and asking him questions, and getting answers back.  In my oh-so-direct Aspergian way, I outed him, made it clear to the internet that he was there, and opened a dialogue I have reason to believe that he later regretted.  I don’t recall many details, but I do remember that I pointed out to him how in one episode, ASL was used incorrectly, and he was appropriately chastened, and I felt that was beyond awesome.

I stopped spending much time on TWoP when the discussions became too heated and adult for me; TestyToad’s was a much safer, kinder place and to this day I wonder what happened to the dear online friends I made there.  From what I recall, however, Benjamin/Sorkin most definitely got himself into some hot water and both he and the fans made some unfortunate errors in judgement in their interactions. The really funny part, however, came a few years/seasons later, when a character on the West Wing, Josh Lyman, found a website about himself and had all of these horrific experiences with rabid fans.  Those of us in the West Wing fan culture, of course, knew exactly what the whole ‘Lemon Lyman’ plot referred to – the debacle at TWoP.  To this day, I can’t help but wonder what tiny role my innocent autistic posting played, and I hope that Sorkin understands now that I, and the vast majority of fans, truly never meant him any harm.

And also – hey, I kind of sort of met Aaron Sorkin!  So that is kind of cool.

Years passed – the West Wing, unfortunately, jumped the shark, as they say, or went bad.  The plotlines became ridiculous, and they had my favorite character, Toby Ziegler, commit treason.  I stopped watching, although I did return for the final season.  The obsession, as all obsessions eventually do, ended.

So, if I was no longer obsessed with the West Wing, then what exactly was I doing on Capitol Hill?

Well, in the past few years I have embraced my identity as a disabled person and also become determined to make the world a better place for disabled people.  I have joined some organizations and become involved in various movements.  One of these was the group I travelled to DC with.  I have a passion for advocacy and for autism, and I love explaining autism to people, love seeing them get it, love spending time with my autistic and disabled brethren.  And until that day in DC, it honestly never occurred to me that my passion for the West Wing was in any way related, but – you know what?  It was.  It is.  The West Wing taught me about politics, about back room deals and what an appropriations bill is.  It taught me to stand up when a president enters the room and that a small group of committed people can change the world because it is the only thing that ever has.  The West Wing taught me idealism and determination and so much more, and now, all of a sudden, my obsessions and my passions and my past all come together and I am standing in front of the Capitol.  I am going into the Capitol.  I have a meeting at the Capitol.

My obsessions have come full circle.  It took half a lifetime, but I have found my life’s work and I will make it so.

I take a deep breath.  My passions, and my future, await.



(image is a photo of the US Capitol.  It is from wikipedia, because the pictures I took are not good and also show the capitol covered in scaffolding, which for some reason it currently is, which I know, because, just in case you missed it, I was there.)




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