Monday, December 14, 2015


I am 14 years old. I watch Rocky on TV because I'm not allowed to see it in the theater. My guess is that it had too many adult themes for my mother's liking. There isn't any explicit pre-marital sex in the movie, but it's implied. Grease is off limits for the same reason.

TV is more loosey-goosey at my house. I watch it there. That's all I remember of the circumstances.

Here's what I do recall, as clear as day.

I'm sucked in immediately. Some of it is over my head. Here's what's not.

I come from an Italian American family. I live in a nice suburb. I recognize the kind of neighborhood Rocky lives in. It's the kind of place my people pulled themselves out of a generation or two ago. And by hell or high water, they aren't going back.

Rocky is good looking, in a smoldering, rough around the edges, yet sensitive way. No one in my family or social circle could possibly be called The Italian Stallion. Fat man. Man of mixed ancestry with beard. Sullen man. But not Italian Stallion.

I remember Adrian, brilliantly played by Talia Shire. Nothing about Adrian is above my head. I identify immediately.

Adrian is nerdy. She works in a pet store. I surmise that she gets along better with animals than people.

Adrian wears cat glasses. No one wears cat glasses anymore except for grandmothers. They are audaciously out of style. I'm pained looking at them.

I know about the glasses trick. I've seen it in countless movies and TV shows. I know what will happen. But that doesn't make it any less interesting.

The glasses thing can only work if the rest of you looks good. And so it is with Adrian.

Rocky likes Adrian even though no other guys are interested. I'm getting the idea that whom you fall in love with is subjective. There are people that anyone would love. Then there are the rest of us. Love can transcend poverty, bad clothes, extreme shyness and almost anything else.

Back to the glasses scenario. One thing leads to another. Rocky is persistent. Adrian is really shy. I've met shy people. I've been a shy person, on and off again. But what I am seeing is off the charts.

One thing leads to another. Rocky is getting ready to kiss Adrian. But first he asks her to take off her glasses and her rather ratty hat. A scene I've seen played out everywhere from the Brady Bunch forward unfolds.

Once Adrian takes off the glasses and hat, she is pretty. Her hair is shiny and, in a lucky twist, loosely resembles Dorothy Hamill's. Her skin is clear. She manages to look both gamine and exotic. Naturally, they make out.

The make out scene is unlike anything I've seen before. This isn't soft focus Rock Hudson and Debbie Reynolds. It's not even Alan Alda. There's realism here. The camera is right up in there with them. I've got a front row seat, which is the closest I'm going to get to any of this action for quite some time.

The more time Adrian spends with Rocky the better looking she gets. She's also less shy as time goes on. She gets some new clothes and bright colors that are still a nod to what she used to wear, but her nightgowns resemble mine.

I take a mental note of what she's wearing. She's skinny and so am I. But I doubt my mother would agree to a red coat with fake fur around the collar and a beret.

The movie gives me a lot of hope.

The underdog doesn't win, but is triumphant anyway.

Love is transformative.

Hard work pays off even when you have no resources.

I'm in 8th grade and I have Study Hall. I go to the library and sit down at one of the listening stations. I insert a cassette in the 8-track player of the theme from Rocky. I already know I like it because it's all over the radio. I put on the giant headphones and listen again and again.

Rocky and Adrian have long-range influence. In the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I take up jogging. At first it's a disaster, but I work my way up. By the time school starts I'm in shape.

It's the first gym class of 10th grade. We are doing relay races. Team captains are selected by the teacher. The captains then select three teammates. An obese, uncoordinated girl and myself are chosen last.

The classmates on my team and off my team get something they aren't expecting that day. Their mouths hang open. They are incredulous. An athletic girl who made fun of me in previous gym classes approaches me in the locker room. You should really try out for track, she said.

* * * * *

It's the weekend. I'm in my 30's and enormously pregnant with my third child. My due date is approaching. I feel some mild contractions. I lie down with a snack and a glass of water. The contractions calm down. Braxton Hicks.

Hannah is either napping or playing with Jeremy. I flip the channels. Rocky is on. I get sucked in.

I've had an arts-intensive college education, followed by full and part time jobs working for established photographers. I've been on my own as a freelance still life photographer for 14 years. I'm leading a highly aesthetic life.

I'm drawn in by the story. But I am equally amazed by the beauty and naturalism of the film. This is around the time when I realized that if I worked in film, I'd rather be the cinematographer than the director. That way people could say that the film sucks, but the cinematography is amazing.

The cinematography in Rocky is amazing.

I laugh a little at the Bicentennial references in Rocky. The 1970s have become funny.

I become distracted by the baby. Baby #3 has predictable patterns. When I am on my feet working, walking around or chasing his sister, he is calm, either resting or sleeping. When I lie down, he wakes up and becomes very active.

My attention draws further inward to the baby. I don't finish the movie.

Later the same week, I have insomnia. It's hard to find a comfortable position. The baby is moving around as much as he possibly can in his tight quarters. I watch Yentl.  Young Mandy Patinkin is dreamy. He's more my type than Sylvester Stallone.

Barbara Streisand as a boy wouldn't fool anyone but I suspend disbelief.

Once the baby is born, I see the same patterns on the outside as I do on the inside. To this day, the child is soothed by movement. You can learn a lot about someone during gestation.

* * * * *

I'm watching Rocky with my husband and teenagers. We watch it in two installments because of people's schedules. The second viewing is done on Noah's laptop because the TVs are temporarily out of commission.

Once again I am sucked in. I am focused on Adrian.

It doesn't take me long to come to a pretty firm conclusion that Adrian is on the autism spectrum.

People with high functioning autism - also called Asperger's syndrome - have always lived among us. It isn't a new phenomenon.

Back in the day people who had autism but were less high functioning than Adrian were often misunderstood and institutionalized. People like Adrian did the best they could.

Watching Adrian feels familiar and relatable.

 I add Adrian to my Asperger’s list.

To make a long story short I am familiar with Asperger's syndrome and autism because of someone close to me. At around the same time, I developed ideas about other people in my life. I felt compelled to make a list of people.  Most of the people on the list are people I know. Some are Facebook friends. Some are famous. A few are fictional.

If I know you, you're on my Asperger’s list.

There are people with no autism whatsoever. I have these people on a definitely do not have autism list.

There are people who have some traits, but I believe do not fit the criteria for even the mildest form of autism. They're on a separate part of the list.

If I am still getting to know you but need more time to decide, then you are on my maybe list.

There are people who have not been evaluated formally but I believe have Asperger's syndrome. I have them on my probably list.

There are people who have been formally evaluated by someone more qualified than me. They self-identify as having autism. That's the list they are on.

There are the people whose autism is so obvious that there is nothing subtle about it. That's another sub-category.

This list is just for me. I've said this before when the going gets tough, the tough get reading. When the going gets tough, the tough also make lists.

If I know you, up you might want I ask me where you fall on my list. I'm not going to tell you. I'm not showing it to anyone. If you're concerned, have an evaluation.

Back to Adrian.

I noticed the traits of autism throughout the beginning of the movie. Researchers are studying the difference between how autism presents in males and females.  Adrian has what I've been unprofessionally calling Girl Asperger’s. Females can look and present differently than males.

The evidence mounts when a bad argument erupts between Adrian and her much older brother-slash-screwed-up-father-figure Paulie. Paulie loses his shit and starts spewing venom about how Adrian couldn't have lived on her own and has been a burden.

Once Adrian's relationship with Rocky starts, things soften. She seems more neurotypical as time goes on.

Some would conclude that entering a loving, sexual relationship with Rocky would not be enough to bring about this change in a person with true autism. But here's what they say. If you've met one person with Asperger's you've met one person with Asperger's. Also, it's a movie.

Adrian does not go into the arena for the big fight. Understandably, she does not want to watch Rocky get beat up. But I also think that the sounds, lights, crowds and chaotic atmosphere would have been too much for her sensory integration issues.

She must really must love Rocky because once he starts screaming Adrian she goes running through the mobs and noise to hug him even though he is all bloody and sweaty.

Back in the 1970s there would have been a lot of confusion about people like Adrian. There was no early intervention. She wouldn't have had an IEP. There were no books or understanding. Even if there were, poverty would have gotten in the way.

The words “dysfunctional family environment” were also not bandied about in 1976.

My third viewing of Rocky is a little more interesting than I anticipated. I keep my observations to myself. I also do a little Googling to see if anyone else is on the same page with the Adrian-autism connection. There are people on the same page. There are people having arguments about it, either yes or no. Some say definitely. Others are like, no, no, she's just really, really shy. Just like life offline.

One of my kids asks what's up with Rocky's eyes. He always looks like he just woke up. That's called bedroom eyes I say.

I wonder privately if my son is going to remark on the glasses.

Adrian allows the removal of the cat glasses. Then for the rest of the movie, she does not wear them. Perhaps she was fitted for contact lenses. Back in 1976, contact lenses were expensive. It doesn't quite fit with the socio-economic picture of this family.

Maybe Adrian was saving her money for a rainy day, and once she landed a boyfriend, decided to splurge on contacts and new clothes.

Or maybe it's one of those continuity glitches in the screenplay. Like I said before it's a movie.

My boy doesn't catch it, so I have nothing more to explain.

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