I love it that the nights are drawing in. I’ve always loved returning home as after dark, especially when my neighbors are already home and I’m greeted by the comforting glow of living room light through the window blinds. Many people have their blinds open and I can see what they are watching on TV. The person in #9 is watching hockey, the couple in #4 are watching Gilmore Girls, and the woman next door is watching CNN. I just love that little window on someone else’s world.

Before COVID-19, I went to work on the very first bus of the morning, at around 6am. During the dark months of winter I enjoyed the glow of morning TV emanating from condos and apartments along the route. And I would enjoy wondering what the people were doing. Getting ready for work? Taking care of an elderly parent? Or pulling on coat and shoes to take the dog outside, after which they go back to snuggle in bed for another hour.

And I hope that life is treating them OK.

Fear of the unknown

Starting in the fall of 2017, I began waking up full of dread. I literally felt as though nothing good was ever going to happen in the world again — that we were all collectively doomed. That is when my morning routine, which has always been important to me anyway, became critical. I will spare you the “ball-by-ball” details of my routine. What matters about it is that each step of the routine did seem to have the effect of diminishing that dread just a little — so that by the time I was up and out and waiting for the bus, I was feeling relatively OK. And even if I was not, the sight of the bus coming around the corner comforted me some; and then I would take my seat and cue up a podcast — and by then I was generally feeling ready to face the day. I supplemented the comforting effect of the morning routine with a “Reminder” on my iPhone that sent me a “Please stop worrying!” notification at 6am, just as I was heading out to the bus stop. On the weekends I had a different version of this routine that started later. For some reason, the Sunday angst was the worst, but I cannot figure out why.

In the summer of 2019, I was prescribed some oral medication for atopic dermatitis. In addition to relieving itching, the medication also has a mild anti-anxiety effect — and I was rather amazed at how I felt the first morning after taking it. I got to know what it feels like to not be actively worrying about anything. I mentioned it to my doctor, and she suggested I might benefit from taking anti-depressants. But I did not want to go down that road without first exploring alternatives, so I agreed to a course of talk therapy. And that was a good move, because it ultimately led to my autism diagnosis in March of 2020. The week after my diagnosis, the governor of Washington State issued the stay-at-home order — and then the whole world started to unravel.

Oddly enough, I have been feeling a lot better since then. The atopic dermatitis has subsided to a level that can be managed without medication. And although I still wake up feeling fearful, it makes sense now. The world is in crisis. The pandemic has upended the world for just about everyone and there is no end in sight. The United States appears to be on the brink of a civil war and large parts of western states are on fire. And in many parts of the world, things are even more desperate.

I have never considered myself to be psychic, with the ability to see into the future. But I can not help wondering if I was having some subconscious premonition of what was to come to pass in the year 2020 — something that manifest as I was sleeping and lingered into my waking state. And now that the waiting is over, the fear is of something real that affects all of us, as opposed to a fear of the unknown, which I was carrying alone.

Maybe next time…

I miss the time I used to spend in coffee shops and taprooms — those third places that are neither at home or at work. Even though I am always a stranger (as I wrote about recently), most of the time I am able to pretend that I am part of things. Part of the delusion involves finding the right seat.

Because I am always alone, I am reluctant to occupy a table that can seat more than two people. If possible I try to find a perch that makes it less obvious I am alone. My favorite taproom (by which I mean either a microbrewery or a pub that serves craft microbrews and ciders) has shelves and stools along the interior walls. The shelves are decently deep — there’s room for a small laptop like my old 11” MacBook Air — and there are hooks underneath to hang a coat or purse. And there are a few stools that allow you to sit out of the way of traffic and not be crowded by neighboring tables — yet still command a good view of the bar, the room, the street outside, and at least one of the large TV screens. So if I feel uncomfortable, I can pretend to be watching the game or a couple of people outside arguing over a parking spot. I can feel part of things.

But most of the time, I am happy to be in my own little bubble — yet still able to allow in some of the energy from outside of it. I often read. Frequently I write in one of my beloved notebooks. Sometimes I have no idea of what I’m going to write until I am seated with my pint of cider in front of me and pen in hand. That’s when I might allow myself to just enjoy the scene around me until an idea pops into my head. Then I can kid myself I’m a creative type — a writer.

And then there’s those times when I’m working on improving my tech skills. I’ll never forget my elation the first day I sat in a taproom with my trusty MacBook Air, connected to WiFI with VPN enabled, writing code in VSCode and pushing a new project to GitHub, stopping every now and then to have a drink of cider. I was happily in my own little zone within a larger happy zone, and I was able to kid myself I’m a developer.

Ditto for coffee shop with latte.

But with Covid-19 restrictions, there’s nowhere for me to do that. I’m writing alone in my apartment with BBCRadio (even though I live in the US) and podcasts for company. I’m being very productive (especially with coding because that is a big part of my job) — but I miss taking my bubble out every now and then.

I think the biggest delusion I like to indulge is the remote possibility that on on of these outings, I will actually meet someone who will become a friend. Every time I take a seat in a coffee shop or taproom, I always have that glimmer of hope — that someone will take the seat next to me and start a conversation that leads to a special friendship. An hour or so later, I have finished my drink and it’s time to go, and nothing of the kind has happened. But I can tell myself, “Maybe next time.”

One of the worst…

I am a database analyst/developer at a nonprofit. Most of the time, the work is well suited to a person with autism. I have been working from home full time since mid-March and managing just fine. The main challenges I face are around explaining technical things to people who are not technically inclined. At least now that I am home and not in the office, I can get on my feet in between emails and stomp around my apartment — and even have a crying fit if I need!!

But in a previous position, at the same company but before I skilled up, I was assigned a task that still ranks near the top my list of most upsetting things I have been asked to do at work. I was an admin assistant — you know — a general office worker who wears many hats. I had to coordinate the flow of data, information, paperwork and general requests amongst approximately twenty other people working at sites all over the county. Not the most suitable job for someone with autism and poor executive function. (Words I hate: communicate, collaborate, coordinate. Any verb that begins with “c” and ends with “ate”.)

My manager (and her manager) thought it would be nice to recognize team members on their birthdays. And we had a very long meeting to discuss it. How best to do this? Take the person out to lunch? Arrange a lunch or birthday cake party at the site? Offer the person a paid day off?

Before I go any further I must confess that I find workplace birthday celebrations deeply disturbing. At one job, I upset several people at management level when I asked them to not do the cake and candles and Happy Birthday singing in the staff kitchen on my upcoming birthday. I think I was the first employee who ever had the nerve to ask to be excused.

Anyway, the outcome of the meeting was that we should send a letter to each team member asking them what kind of birthday observance they would prefer — and this task was assigned to me. I immediately insisted someone else write the letter. At the time I had no idea I had autism — but I did know that I am absolutely useless at stuff like this!! So my manager’s manager composed the letter. It was filled with language that made me cringe, such as “on your special day” — and I knew several people would probably lose all respect for me ever after. But I followed through and sent out the email.

To my relief, only one person responded. And she very nicely and graciously stated that it was not necessary that we celebrate her birthday at work — and that she would rather see the money put to some better use (the program serves a lot of people in need). I did not bother to follow up with anyone. At the next program meeting, I shared the one response I had received and suggested that the lack of response otherwise indicated an overall lack of interest. They were disappointed — but to my immense relief, I was not asked to pursue this any further. I did take the opportunity to express my discomfort at having been asked to do this in the first place — and tried to explain that I am just not very good at this kind of thing. “Well, I guess that’s good to know,” was the response, and I sensed they were not happy to hear it.

I will never let myself get roped into something like that again!

Always the stranger

In the Before Times, i.e., before Covid-19, I would spent a lot of time in coffee shops. And I liked to spread myself around — patronizing a variety of independent coffee chops and Starbucks locales. I do not like crowded places and I prefer not having to stand in line — so my decision is usually made on the fly, depending on which coffee shop has the shortest line and the most open seats. I do not hog a table all day, or even for several hours. The duration of my stay is generally 1-2 hours, depending on size of beverage and how I am spending my time.

This might be why I am always a stranger. I never seem to get to be “one of the regulars” — the patrons who are greeted by name at the counter and who have a conversation with the staff while waiting for their order. No one ever asks my name. Usually, this does not bother me — but every now and then I am compelled to make an effort to be part of things. And it never works.

About five years ago, I ended up frequenting the same indie coffee shop at least three times a week between 5 and 6pm. It was one of the those small and friendly places where the same people come in after work and all seem to know each other. But after a couple of months, I was still a stranger — although one barista did at least know my order. In all good faith, I decided to buy a store-branded coffee mug and made sure to bring it with me every time. As this was an indie coffee shop, I thought it might register. Six months later, I was still a nameless stranger and the barista who remembered my order had moved on. In the meantime, new people had joined the cast of regulars. By “new” I mean people new to the neighborhood — the type that comes in and asks about good places to eat because they have just moved to this part of the city. By the third visit they are now a regular with a name. And I am still the stranger.

I do make an effort to interact with people. If I am reading a book or working on laptop, I do look up frequently and smile at people. If someone has a question that no one else an answer but I can, such as how often the bus leaves for downtown, I will offer my assistance. But nothing ever gains any traction.

After a year, I stopped going there. I got the distinct impression that the owner did not like me and wished I would take my business elsewhere. I have no idea why. I was a good customer. I like to think I treated the staff respectfully (I have done customer service myself and know how hard it is.) And I always tipped well.

I have had the same experience with pubs and bars. At first I assumed this to be ageism (I am in my late 50s), but I see other people my age being welcomed as regulars. And, I have been experiencing this all my life. So I have to wonder if my autism is behind it — people know there is something different about me, but they just can not put their finger on it and it makes them uncomfortable.

In a way, the social-distancing measures associated with Covid-19 have been something of a blessing. I do not go out for coffee or beer anymore, although I will occasionally order a latte via the Starbucks app. The beauty of placing a mobile order is that the staff actually do know my name before I even walk in. When I give my name to pick up the order, there is a smile of recognition. And one slow morning when the place was empty, I was actually greeted by name as I walked in the door:

“Hi! Are you Suzanne?”

It felt nice.

Slow solo

In addition to the ubiquitous ADHD, my autism diagnosis also revealed some relative impairment in executive function and processing speed. This was very useful to know, because I have always wondered why I am so slow. I am considered smart — as confirmed by IQ scores and college grades — but I often struggle to learn new things. And I seem to do better when I work alone and at my own pace.

Over the last few years, I have been getting into writing computer code. I am hardly new at this, in fact I have been writing code since the 1980s — but I never really got very competent at it. My current job involves working on the Salesforce platform, and I have managed to learn a lot from the Trailhead training environment. Last summer, I earned the Platform Developer I certification and considered it a major accomplishment considering how much I struggled when I first started.

Along the way, I got a lot of well-meant advice about online courses to learn coding and online study groups to prepare for exams. But I plugged along by myself anyway. I do not learn well in a group setting. I get easily discouraged when I see myself quickly falling behind everyone else in the group — and I have to do a lot of catch up outside of class. In a way, this has been good for me in the long run, because I learned at an early age how to be an independent student and so I did well in graduate school, ending up with a PhD.

I am now gearing up for my next study challenge. And this time I am going to give myself permission to go it alone and immerse myself for as long as it takes.

A 5-year-old at a cocktail party

I’m 58 going on 5. I’ve felt five years old since, well, since I was five years old. Admittedly, I don’t have children, so I’ve never had that ongoing reminder of myself growing older as I watch the kids grow up and pass the major milestones in life.

I often feel like the 5-year-old child who has wandered downstairs while the parents are giving a cocktail party…quietly appearing dressed in pajamas with a teddybear under my arm. Someone notices me and cries with delight, “And where did you come from?” And for a few moments I am the subject of a certain kind of attention that makes me feel very small indeed…until I am escorted upstairs and back to bed.

Or, I am in the company of adults and try to take part in the conversation…only to get the subtle message that I need to be quiet, because “the grownups are talking now.”

I have done a lot of living. But I have never felt like one of the grownups.

Sandals with socks?

Another thing I do not understand…why wearing socks with sandals is unacceptable.

I might consider it inadvisable under certain circumstances, in that socks might get very dirty; but wearing sandals with socks does not strike me as peculiar.

There have been many times of my life, especially in childhood, when finances were very tight, and all I had for footwear were a pair of boots and a pair of sandals. On a chilly, but dry, day in the the spring or fall, the boots would be too warm while the sandals would be too cold. Wearing socks with the sandals solves the problem.

Another reason I might wear socks with sandals is that sandals can have straps with sharp or rough edges that rub painfully against the skin of my feet. If I am going to walk any distance in sandals, I like to wear socks to have a protective layer between the sandals and my feet – else I end up with painful blisters. I will add that I avoid white socks whenever possible, not because if how it looks, but because those socks will pick up enough dirt to never be white again. Thankfully, wherever Birkenstocks are sold, you can buy those nice thick oatmeal-colored socks.

Along the way, someone decided that sandals with socks was peculiar and enough people agreed to make it one of those unwritten rules that everyone is expected to know about. No doubt, the people who support this rule always have a closet full of shoes for all seasons and have never had blisters on their feet.

Who makes up these rules? What is so wrong about wearing white after Labor Day? On dark fall or winter mornings, white clothing makes you more visible when walking.

What is wrong with wearing brown shoes with black pants? Black and brown hardly clash. As colors, they go well together on numerous breeds of dogs (think Bernese Mountain, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) and horses and many species of birds.

And what is the problem with the tag sticking out from your shirt at the back of your neck?

If I ever walked out of the ladies restroom with my skirt tucked into the back of my panties, I think I would appreciate someone tactfully drawing it to my attention to save me from further embarrassment. But a tag sticking out from the back of my t-shirt is doing no harm, and sometimes I wear it that way deliberately because the way it feels against my skin is annoying and at the next possible opportunity I will take cut it off with scissors.

Myself, I do wonder about other people’s clothing choices, but it is usually about my perception of comfort as opposed to it just looking lame or stupid, such as: flip-flops in cold weather; wool hats in summer; pants that are obviously too small. But I do allow for the possibility of limited wardrobe when money is short. For example, my mother dressed me in flip-flops one summer and would have had me wearing them into the winter (with socks even!) if the school had allowed it, just to postpone the purchase of new shoes a little longer. And I have known women who gained weight and had no money to buy larger pants, but good intentions to try to lose the weight.

The sands and socks thing strikes me as a very subtle form of “othering”. It is no so much about the idea of someone wearing socks with sandals as it is about someone not finding it peculiar in the first place. Their sensibilities are different and so they must be different.

Else it would not matter at all.

Random Strangers

I do not easily connect with people and have few friends. I do not even have many casual acquaintances. But every now and then, I have a completely random but deeply meaningful encounter with a total stranger. This usually happens in a bar — and not necessarily because I am drinking — but perhaps because the stranger is.

One evening last fall, I was inspired by the drizzly weather and early darkness to go for a pint of cider in a cosy taproom after I got off the bus after work. The place was comfortably busy with no large groups; just couples and a few individuals, most of whom were busy looking at their phones. As usual, I had a notebook with me for company, but I was not inspired to write. I had had a very busy day and just wanted to chill.

I was sharing a large table with a man who was seated kitty-corner across from me. He was absorbed in his phone for a while, but then he suddenly put it way, as though to get up and leave, even though he was only halfway through his pint. But he leaned down and reached for something on the floor. He lifted a black garbage bag onto the seat beside him and pulled out a large spiral notebook. It had been at least doubled in thickness from having been used as a scrapbook. I watched him examine it and shortly he looked up and met my gaze. I asked if it was his scrapbook, or one that belonged to someone else. He suddenly teared up and took off his glasses to wipe his eyes. I immediately apologized for intruding — but he was equally quick to apologize for being emotional. I said I would leave him alone to enjoy the scrapbook.

I redirected my attention to the one of the large TV screens, but only a few minutes later, he was pushing the scrapbook towards me to show a photograph of himself with his brother taken when they were young.

The scrapbook had been compiled by his brother, a musician who worked enough to make a living at it — but probably not so much as to lose the fundamental joy of it. The scrapbook was full of the usual photos of friends and family, but there were also artifacts from life of a musician on the road: Greyhound bus tickets; airline boarding passes; show bills; newspaper and magazine clippings, and so on. For almost an hour, we turned page after page, and my companion improvised a narrative of his brother’s life.

The brother had just passed away, and the last few days had been spent in the brother’s apartment, going through the contents and deciding the fate of it all. Some things needed a little more consideration and had been put in the garbage bag as that was all that was available. After leaving the brother’s apartment, he decided to stop for a beer on the way home. And this was literally the first time he had ever seen the scrapbook.

When we were done, he returned the scrapbook to the garbage bag and finished the last of his beer. He thanked me for allowing him to show and tell. And he apologized again for his initial emotional reaction. I thanked him for sharing it with me. It had been a wonderful glimpse of the life of a person I never knew and who recently departed this world. I have no interest whatsoever in music, but the life this man led as a musician was interesting, as was the lifelong relationship of the these two rather different brothers.

Lifelong connections are special. But in the absence of those, a collection of random chance encounters with strangers can add up to something equally special.