Eavesdropping and emotional noise

Lots of Teams and Zoom meetings this week. I do enjoy seeing other faces because I am rather isolated working at home. From my desk in the downtown office I was able to overhear activities and conversations and get a general feel for what is going on. And I never realized how valuable a source of information that is until I started working from home. My boss is pretty easy to work for and I have no major complaints — but he does not share much with me so I only know what is going on with our department from conversations overhead over the cubicle wall. Working from home, I am in the dark about a lot of things.

Outside of work, I also seem to rely on overhearing conversations. Whenever I chat with other people who live in my apartment building, I am stunned at how much they know about planned building maintenance and policy changes, long before I get an official announcement in the mail. Where do they get this stuff from? And they always seem to be on first-name terms with people who I have hardly ever met. Amazing! So when I notice two or more people having a lengthy discussion outside, I am often tempted to eavesdrop in case it is something I might need to know about.

When I read our local community blog, which actually serves as the local newspaper (it is operated by two professional journalists with decades of experience covering Seattle news in print, radio and TV media and is excellent as a news source), I do actually read the comment threads. I know some people consider that a waste of time. Just read the article and ignore the comments which are just full of idiotic remarks from people with nothing better to do. Well, I find it useful to get a barometer of the overall reaction to a piece of news. For example, whenever a new Covid-19 measure is implemented, I obviously need to know what is expected of me. But it is equally important for me to be able to assess the level of potential anger out there — so that I can perhaps avoid public places where confrontations might be expected.

Perhaps eavesdropping allows me to anticipate the level and nature of emotional noise that I will have to contend with. Emotional noise has been a big challenge during the pandemic. Even though things appear to have returned to normal operations in Seattle, albeit with an indoor-mask mandate, they do not feel normal. I was enjoying visiting coffee shops and bars for a few months — when people were able to sit outside and I had plenty of space inside. But now that the summer weather is gone, more people are sitting inside — and bars and restaurants are now required to check for proof of vaccination. So I am not going out to pubs anymore. Witnessing a confrontation between staff and customer would spoil the experience.

However, yesterday I found myself in a Starbucks where the emotional noise was surprisingly comfortable. I had ordered my latte and pastry via the mobile app and was prepared to take it somewhere else. But there were plenty of empty tables so I decided to stay. In one corner was a young woman working on a laptop (it looked like she was studying rather than casual browsing.) At the next table was another young woman with a little girl. The little girl was enjoying looking through a picture book. And closer to me was an elderly man who had brought a chunky hard-back book but spent about twenty minutes scrolling on his smartphone before putting it away and just looking out the window — which is what I was doing. There was a steady stream of customers coming in and going out. It reminded me of the energy I reliably encountered in coffee shops twenty years ago. It is nice to know that pockets of such energy can still emerge and survive for an hour or so — so I guess I will just enjoy it when I can find it!

The folly of it

Veterans’ Day is observed at my workplace so I am home today. Actually, I am home every day. But I am not working. Well, I did log in and work for about an hour this morning because I had a task that is best done outside of business hours. After that, I went for a walk to beat the incoming rain (which I can now hear outside) — and I am resolved not to think about work for the rest of the day.

None of my immediate family ever served in the military. My mother encouraged me to think about the military as an alternative to university. I was the first person in my family to attend university. And if I had joined the military, I would have been the first to do that also!

I wonder how autistic people fare in the armed services. I am sure the structured life and work would be helpful. And I find discipline easier to bear when I can see that it applies to everyone. Wearing the same clothes every day is one less thing to have to think about. On the other hand, I am not always quick to realize when I should just shut up and be quiet. I can see myself mouthing off at a 4-star general and ending up with a dishonorable discharge!

Military life is something I do not think a civilian such as myself (from a non-military family) can every truly understand. But I find it fascinating. I am currently watching a documentary series on PBS called American Veteran. The first episode was about basic training (boot camp). The very thought of it is intimidating and I am pretty sure I would have washed out after a couple of days. But if I did manage to make it through, I am sure I would have been better equipped for civilian life also. (Perhaps we need a civilian version of boot camp.) Someone once told me that in was in boot camp that he learned how to pack a bag with all his stuff in a just a couple of minutes — a skill that was a godsend when he traveled as a businessman and had to change plans at a moment’s notice.

Last night, I watched the next two episodes which explored the experience of being deployed to war and then coming home afterwards. The oldest veteran described being part of the D-Day Invasion and it was emotional. There were several Vietnam veterans. But most of the veterans had seen their active service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Amongst the veterans featured, women were well represented, as were African Americans and Native Americans. Some made the transition back to civilian life very well, capitalizing on their acquired skills and experience with a confidence that is amazing. Others had sad stories of PTSD and other obstacles.

It seems like nothing prepares you for the experience of actually killing a person.

An interesting homecoming story concerned a Native American woman from Montana who had served in the US Army. A tribal gathering met her at the airport. An elder presented her with a war bonnet. At first she declined to put it on because women are not permitted to the wear the war bonnet. But he explained that she was a warrior and entitled to wear it — and she put it on. And two traditions briefly intersected.

I once watched the Festival of Remembrance on TV. It takes place in the Royal Albert Hall and concludes with the dropping of poppy petals from the roof while the audience stands in silence. The audience is requested not to brush petals off their clothing — just to let them pile up. Each petal represents a dead soldier. Around one million red petals are dropped — and just when you think it is over, another red cloudburst explodes — and you begin to feel that it is never going to be over — and you have to cry. As a visual commentary it is very powerful. Amongst those petals are tens of thousands of Indian and Irish soldiers who died for Britain on the understanding that they would be granted independence. But that promise was not kept. And men from German-controlled east Africa found themselves having to fight men from the British-controlled territory next door — in a conflict that they had nothing to do with. The colonial powers of Europe reached out to every nook and cranny of their empires to gain whatever leverage they could.

If nothing in military training prepares you for the experience of actually killing someone, I will bet nothing prepares you for the overall folly of certain wars either.

To World War None.

Saving the dream

My ideal place to live would be a small town on a sheltered inlet of a west coast at a latitude somewhere between 55 and 70 degrees, i.e. comparable to Scotland and Norway. (Or the bottom end of South America.) Winters: mild, cloudy, rainy with some snow. Summers: cool, cloudy, rainy, i.e. un-summery weather most of the time. I could wear the same clothes year round but with a warmer raincoat and boots in the winter. I use the word “sheltered” because these coastal areas at these latitudes can be incredibly windy and wind makes rain hard to enjoy.

The town would be physically small enough to not need a car and I would easily be able to walk to supermarket, pharmacy, library, post office, bank, etc. There would be a small assortment of pubs and coffee shops for me to spend time in. And there would a few things like bookstores, second-hand stores, etc. Ideally, there would be a rail station. Branch line OK. But if not right in the town, I would be OK with taking a taxi or having someone drive me to the station. I would rarely be going out of town anyway.

My job would be low-key and allow me to enjoy being part of the community without having to constantly interact with people. I have always enjoyed being one of the people who sets things up in the morning. For example, at a community center, I enjoy setting up the dining room for morning coffee: putting the furniture back where it belongs if it was rearranged for an evening event; putting out bowls with the packets of sugar and creamer and coffee stirrers; cleaning out the coffee urn and getting the brew going; arranging the coffee mugs on a tray and making sure they are all clean; and taking used coffee mugs to the kitchen to wash as people come and go. And then later in the morning, turning everything around for lunch. This is the kind of work my autism allows me to excel at — without much risk of annoying people. If I have to be out sick, the next day I generally hear about how much I was missed. However, I would not be adverse to managing the database either — and enjoy taking my morning coffee break in the dining room. But I would not be career-oriented — just enjoying going to work everyday and making myself useful.

In my spare time I would visit coffee shops and pubs to read or write. Books would be checked out of the library or bought second-hand. At home I would watch TV and listen to the radio while assembling jigsaw puzzles, doing crafts, or writing. Depending on my living circumstances, I might have a cat and/or dog for company. I find it hard to imagine living with another person.

What I have just described precludes the prevailing technology of the time. In a less advanced time and place, I would have a landline phone at home and perhaps some kind of antenna for the TV/radio. Writing would be done by hand into a composition book. And any banking would involve visiting the bank in person. In the current context, I would probably be streaming TV and radio over the internet and writing into a laptop or iPad (as I am doing now.); and I would be banking online. But the kind of town I have just described might possibly, even today, not be built out with broadband internet access and might have spotty cellular reception — and I might have to live with the landline phone, TV antenna, and going to the bank in person. And I think I would be willing to make that adjustment.

But there is something I have not mentioned that makes my dream life probably out of reach for me — and which is why I do not attempt to pursue it. Housing. Or lack of housing. The little bungalow or cottage I might have rented in previous decades (even if it meant sharing with others) is now either a second home or an AirBNB rental. And if broadband internet IS available, home prices have probably soared as high-paid tech workers have abandoned cities to work remotely where they choose.

The sad thing is that my desired life is hardly ambitious. I just dream of living in a small coastal town, renting a modest home and getting around on foot. It is not as though I aspire to buy a large house + two cars + a vacation home + travel several times a year + pay for private education for children. My dream is very, very modest — but I might as well dream about being an astronaut, because that is only slightly less achievable!! Something must be very wrong with the world when such a modest ask cannot be accommodated.

Finally, the culture wars that have been playing out in the USA, UK and other parts of the world have made the city-rural divide much uglier than it has been in the past. I have made the big-city-to-small-town move many times in my life. Each time, I have definitely felt like an outsider, but being autistic, I am familiar with this and never let it concern me. But I never encountered hostility. I am not sure how it would go today.

So. I am saving this dream for another life on another world. Hopefully.

Yard sales and supply chains

People-watching is one of my favorite pastimes. I do not consider myself to have autistic “super powers”— but perhaps my ability to draw joy and happiness from watching other people go about their lives is not to be dismissed. And it has probably saved me a lot of money over the course of my life.

Covid-19 restrictions rather got in the way at the beginning of the pandemic, but I have people-watched in all kinds of circumstances and I quickly adjusted my habits to accommodate it. And for the last few months, I have been able to sit in a pub once again and enjoy overhearing conversations and watching people from my favorite seat.

Now the darkness and rain of autumn has landed. It does not really bother me, but I do become more of a homebody once we get into October. When it is windy and pouring with rain, I tend to just go to the grocery store and come straight home without stopping for coffee or beer. But there is no people-watching to be done from my apartment, so I depend on doing it virtually. And I recently found a gem!

I have not watched Antiques Roadshow for around twenty years, but it once was on my list. I liked both British and American versions — but I must confess a preference for the American show. Americans just seem to have a more interesting relationship with their stuff. American homes and garages are typically much larger and many have full basements — so Americans are able to collect a lot more stuff. And once the home/garage/basement gets impossibly full, they have a yard sale and drag a lot of the stuff out onto the front lawn. And there are people who are yard-sale junkies, driving around town on weekends looking for yard sales to poke around in. And it is at yard sales that many Americans acquire the treasures that end up on the Antiques Roadshow.

Not surprisingly, the current season is a compilation of footage from pre-Covid events. But they have done something rather interesting. Each episode features items from events held around fifteen years ago (2006/7). And the valuation has been reassessed to see if the item gained or lost value in the meantime. Ugly vases, large pieces of porcelain and folk art have not fared well!

It is fun to hear people tell their stories — and see their reaction when they learn that the watercolor painting they bought at a yard sale for $10 could be worth $25,000 at auction. But I also love watching the people hovering in the background, most of who are waiting in line to have their items assessed. And every now and them, I glimpse one of the Keno brothers getting animated with a piece of furniture.

I must digress to mention the Keno brothers, Leigh and Leslie, identical twins with rockstar blond-haired good looks. When I was a regular viewer, Leigh and Leslie appeared together, but by 2006, each seemed to have started in business for himself and appeared alone. Both are equally passionate about antique furniture and are not at all shy about exploring every nook and cranny, even if it means enlisting the help of production staff to turn over a large heavy desk so that they can look for tell-tale marks and fittings — or climbing inside an armoire to inspect the heads on the screws.

Fashions do not seemed to have changed much. The crowds of 2007 are indistinguishable from crowds of today. The only noticeable difference is that no one is looking at a phone. Many people undoubtedly have a mobile phone, but not a smartphone to be staring at.

Anyway, this has been a fun TV show to dip into again and binge-watch. And it has been interesting to consider as I read about global supply-chain problems. Many people are fretting about Christmas merchandise possibly not making it to stores in time for Christmas shopping. I worked several years in Christmas-dependent retail — and I have to confess I always get excited at the prospect of Christmas shopping being disrupted. Not Christmas. Just the shopping.

Our local antiques mall has been shuttered since March 2020. I can assure you that place is filled to the rafters (on all three floors) with stuff. Over the years that I was visiting, more stuff seemed to come in than go out. Each time I went in, it was harder to move around. Right now, I do not think you could get more than a few feet inside the front door (from what I see through the glass.) If local retailers run out of stuff to sell as Christmas presents, perhaps the owners of the antiques mall could open a temporary wholesale operation — or even get a permit from the city to close the street outside for a day to put up tents and have a giant sale for the public. This could be an unexpected bonanza for thrift stores, charity shops, flea markets and car-boot sales if people are forced to buy second-hand goods for Christmas because all the new stuff is stuck in containers on ships anchored at sea. And if the weather forecast is good for the weekend, people might want to hold an impromptu yard sale.

This is a golden opportunity to get rid of your stuff!

Clapping not enabled

Clapping along with music while sitting down. I do not know if this is a uniquely British habit (although I have seen audiences doing it on clips from German TV), but I have not noticed it so much in America.

Picture a live audience that is seated. And a musical guest starts their piece — and within a few seconds, the audience will be clapping along. I do not know if this is sometimes prompted, i.e. someone at the side of the stage holds up a large sign, “Clap”, or if the clapping is spontaneous. I seem to remember attending live events as a child in England, and the clapping starting with no obvious prompt, so I assume it is spontaneous. But even as a child I found it quite laughable. I understand the constraint of listening to upbeat music while seated — but many people go through their daily lives listening to music through earbuds, and they rock along by nodding heads, jigging in seat, tapping fingers on knees, rocking feet, and so on. It is only while seated as a group listening to the same music that people are compelled to clap along. There must be a clapping switch in the brain that just turns on — and that switch might not exist in some autistic brains (or it is locked in the “off” position.)

I am not a musical performer, but I am sure that I would be very distracted by the clapping — especially if the beat that the audience settled on did not exactly match what I intended. I suspect that in the TV shows where I have seen this, the performers were just miming to a backup track and so it was not an issue. And even if playing live, we are dealing with music designed to entertain the masses, so perhaps it just goes with the territory and entertainers are comfortable making an adjustment for slow-clapping or fast-clapping audiences.

It still drives me nuts though!

America has/had a game show called Wheel Of Fortune. While the wheel is spinning, everyone claps. The contestants clap. The audience clap. The host claps. Vanna claps. It strikes me as so pointless and makes me cringe to watch. I actually used to enjoy this show — except for the clapping while the wheel spins. I could never have been a contestant myself, because I would not have joined in with the clapping. And one of the production staff would have told me I have to clap. And I would have said that I will not clap. And then they would have told me I cannot be on the show if I will not clap.

I acknowledge that this is one of those “but it makes people happy and there’s surely no harm in it” things that most people never question — and get annoyed at me when I do. So I am guessing/hoping that my aversion to it is just part of my autistic wiring. But I would like to think that some neurotypical people find it baffling also.

Now I am wondering if a performer has ever requested that the audience NOT clap along — and walked off stage when the audience did not comply. Would make a good comedy sketch!

Mindful distraction

I wear an Apple Watch that was a birthday present last year. I would not have bought it myself — but I do find it useful. Last week I updated watchOS on it and found a new feature that might be helpful.

The Mindfulness app allows you to do a breathing exercise or a mindfulness exercise. The latter gives you a prompt to focus on for one minute during which you can meditate on a soothing animation.

The prompts are not very helpful. “Think of a time when…” brings on paralysis as I try to decide what time to focus on. But I have found a way to repurpose the app.

Lately I have been finding myself in a dark place all too often. And I struggle to get back into the light. So I have decided to ignore the prompt and just watch the animation, focusing attention on the light colors. If the part of the image I am focusing on turns darker, I switch focus to a lighter place on the image.

I am also using this app when I would normally be reaching for my phone when I just feel the urge for distraction. It is handy because the watch is obviously handy on my wrist.

If I am going to distract myself it might as well be a mindful distraction.

And then the bandages came off…

Last week I was in a training session on Zoom — more precisely, a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion healing session. It was a small group, so as we went around and introduced ourselves, we were asked to share something that had brought us joy in the last week.

When my turn came, I had to be honest and say that nothing had brought me joy in the last week; that the dark tunnel kept getting longer and the light farther away. I was able to mention something that had given me a little lift —a blog I found here called Mickey’s Journey. Mickey’s parent posts pictures of his latest accomplishments and they are very touching. I see joy in those pictures that I have lost.

I have been struggling to come up with a metaphor for how I have been processing the autism diagnosis I received eighteen months ago (at age 57). The first few months were a honeymoon period of relief — but since then, a new reality has been sinking in.,

I just remembered a scene from M*A*S*H that seems to sum it up. Colonel Potter is telling one of his many WW1 stories. After being wounded in an explosion, he spends a month in a French hospital with bandages over his eyes. He is tended by a nurse called Colette and is very comforted by the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand. (For context, Potter, BJ, Hawkeye, Frank and Radar are stranded overnight in a broken-down bus and are passing the time sharing tales of “When love conquered all.”) Then the day comes for the bandages to be removed. And there she is. Colette. And obviously nowhere near as attractive as Potter had expected, because he jokes, “I pretended I was still blind!” He then goes on to say that love did indeed conquer all, but he “couldn’t have done it without the bandages.”

Nurse Colette represents my life — and all the things I have done. All the things I have cared about. All the things that have given me comfort. But now that the bandages are off, it does not look so good. There was a time — not so long ago — I had no regrets. Now I regret almost everything — all the way back to my first choice on my university application at age 17. I have made poor choices for friends, hobbies, education and jobs. I have allowed myself to be influenced by people who did not have my best interests at heart. I have allowed myself to be comforted by watching TV and drinking wine. I have filled dozens of notebooks with writing that no one will ever read.

Life is pretty decent right now. I have a good job that I can do from home. And I live in a nice neighborhood. But I have had a lot of disappointments and sadness along the way. And I have embarrassed myself so frequently without realizing it at the time. I can not think of a single event that does not make me cringe to think about. And on top of all that, despite having been using the internet since the early 1990s, I have become very fearful of being online, something that is almost impossible to avoid now. At least three times a week I am terrorized by fears that one of my accounts/devices has been hacked. Every surprise behavior of my iPhone prompts several hours of research to reassure myself it is either expected behavior or an annoying iOS bug. Unfortunately, my job is in IT, so my newsfeeds are always full of reports of the latest zero-day vulnerabilities and zero-click malware attacks on one platform or another. I am in a permanent state of fear.

I am not one for video games because my hand-eye coordination is lousy and my reactions are too slow. But sometimes I have had puzzle apps on my phone or iPad where I just try to top my best score. Most apps allow you to abandon a game without seeing it through to the end. Once I realize a game has gone off the rails and that I am not going to beat my best score, I tend to abandon the game rather than waste any more time with it. If my life were one of these games, I would probably abandon it and start over.

But I suppose I could put those bandages back on 🤕

Dancing Dreams

There is a little girl in my neighborhood I often see when I walk past her house. I would guess her to be eight years old, but tall for her age. She is very pretty with long blonde hair that falls in ringlets to her waist. She is very energetic and I usually witness her skipping and jumping around the front yard, waving and flapping her hands as she goes. She always looks to be happily immersed in her own universe.

I recognize this behavior. As a child, I did it myself. As I got older, I did get the message that it was strange behavior, so I sought out more private locations to dance my daydreams. In winter, I took advantage of the fact that all the houses we lived in lacked central heating, so there was always a cold room I could have to myself. My grandparents’ house had a covered veranda I could enjoy on rainy days while everyone else was in the living room on the other side of the house. At night, I would often keep the light off for additional privacy.

But I sometimes forgot myself. One evening I could not contain myself and skipped back and forth in the kitchen which had a large, wide window. Our neighbor saw me and shook his head and rolled his eyes. It was very embarrassing as I was fifteen years old at the time.

When I was little, my dancing dreams were often of riding horses. But as I got older they were about hanging out with imaginary friends, some of whom were loosely based on people I knew and worshipped from a distance. As an adult, my dancing dreams became more about trying to imagine myself accomplishing something — and I dialed down the energy, pacing instead of skipping.

I still pace on a daily basis. And I actually find it productive sometimes. Yesterday, I was struggling with a coding project and each time I got stuck I got up from my chair and paced around until my brain clicked into gear (working at home allows me do this whenever I want.) When I am depressed, I can sometimes “talk myself back to happiness” by pacing and having out-loud conversations with imaginary people.

Every now and then, I succumb to dancing dreams — usually after I have had several glasses of wine. I grab my iPod Touch, put in the earbuds, and find tunes on YouTube to take me someplace else. I turn out the lights so that I do not cast incriminating shadows onto the window blinds. And the next morning I feel silly.

I always say hello to the little girl. Sooner or later, someone will make fun of her and she will have to be more mindful of where she enjoys her dancing dreams. I suspect I will not be seeing her much longer.

Early grave

My workplace has seen several crises in the last few months, all of which directly affect me. One of them was particularly bad, but I am unable to discuss with anyone outside the organization until the lawyers are done drafting the official statement to go public with.

I went in to the office today, to better deal with one of the other less serious problems that I discovered yesterday. I vented with my boss a bit — and then felt bad, because his load is much worse than mine, and I am unable to help him much, because he does not share much with me. Although I know he appreciates me as an employee, I suspect he does not actually like me personally and tries to avoid dealing with me as much as possible. So our relationship is very tense right now.

My bus home from downtown Seattle was almost empty and I was able to enjoy a podcast. I got off near a waterfront pub for an impromptu pint of cider. The pub is nice and quiet inside but there is plenty to see outside. A nice overcast day over Puget Sound.

It has been one of those days when I really question the wisdom of living a healthy lifestyle. An early grave seems like a pretty good idea, if you ask me.

Hence the cider. Cheers!

A very different time

It is hard to remember life before smartphones and social media. But in 2001, my TV was my main connection with the outside world. I was unemployed after June and had no internet connection at home. On 9/11, I was just dallying at home all day with the TV off. I did not turn on the TV until 8pm PDT — and suddenly there was a lot to catch up with.

I am trying to imagine how the events would have unfolded with the technology of today. We are so much more reactive now because we get so much more information so much more quickly. Instead of an unlikely accident on an otherwise ordinary day, perhaps the situation would already have been escalated to a horrific extraordinary day on which anything might happen; and the South Tower would have been evacuated immediately after the first plane struck the North Tower; and people would have streamed out of Lower Manhattan by any means possible. Perhaps both towers might have been evacuated at the first suggestion of highjacked airliners headed for New York City. But the outcome might have been even worse, with terrorists leveraging social media to creat panic and chaos.

I watched the 9/11 movie recently released on Apple TV+. It documents how the events unfolded from the perspective of the Bush White House. Hard to believe now, but in 2001, Air Force One relied on terrestrial TV broadcast signals — so the president only got a viewable signal while Air Force One was over a city.

A very different time indeed.