October all year round

Today was Labor Day, the last holiday of American summer, and the weather was perfect in Seattle. I enjoyed a long walk along the waterfront of West Seattle, looking across Elliott Bay to downtown Seattle. Although there were a few masks in sight, you could almost imagine that there had never been a pandemic and that this was a normal holiday.

Many years ago, I worked at a gift shop in Pioneer Square. And on Labor Day, the crowds would be thick everywhere you went. Long lines for coffee and takeout food. Underground Tour participants taking up all the space at intersections. And lots of people milling about in our store. And then if the Mariners were playing, there was the baseball crowd on top of that. It was always utter mayhem!

Looking across to the Smith Tower, I could imagine that same mayhem today. Perhaps it really is different now. But I was glad to not have to be over there anyway. The place I worked at still exists, and it was hard enough in those days to get customers to cooperate with our request that food and drinks not be brought into the store. It is amazing how many people get quite emotionally unhinged when told they can not do something. I would hate to have to be policing masks. Although Seattle is operating under minimal restrictions, indoor mask mandates were reinstated a couple of weeks ago.

Labor Day ushers in my favorite time of year. I make no secret of the fact that I really do not care for summer. It is not just the heat that bothers me, but the late sunsets. We can still get a heatwave in September, but it is much less likely AND the sun sets well before 8pm, so hot days cool off more quickly. So I go from my least favorite part of the year (June/July/August) to my favorite part of the year (Sept/Oct/Nov/Dec) in the space of a few days.

Then in January begins my second least favorite part of the year (January/February). But this has nothing to do with the weather. It is just that in my job, I get bombarded with really annoying reporting tasks as we close out the old year. AND, I have to gear up for filing incoming taxes, something I dread even though my taxes are fairly simple. My impaired executive function fails me frequently at this time. Anyway, I always try to get my taxes filed by the end of February. And then I have March, April and May to enjoy (sort of) before the dreaded summer returns.

I really wish it could be October all year round.

Bifocal procrastination

My vision has seriously deteriorated in the last year without my really noticing.

In my youth, I had excellent vision, unlike my poor sister who when asked to read the letters on the chart said, “What chart?” But around the time I turned thirty, my husband noticed me making faces when I attempted to read certain things and suggested I needed reading glasses. I bought some mild reading glasses from the drugstore to wear while using my laptop. It definitely made my eyes work less hard — but when I looked away from the screen to consult paperwork on my desk, everything else was a blur. And I never got the hang of tilting my head and looking over the top of the glasses (the frames were very large), so I abandoned them.

Fast forward to age forty-two, and I am working a retail job. And I am seriously challenged by the Alaska drivers license, which back then, was printed in a very small and faint typeface that contrasted badly with the color of the background. I needed to read the license, because Alaska residents are exempt from paying sales tax in Washington, and this requires entering information from the license when ringing up the sale. One day, the customer kindly offered me the use of his glasses! Over the next few days, I noticed some other limitations of my vision. Retail work is challenging on the eyes, because you have close work with the POS system — but then you need to quickly switch to looking across the store, perhaps to direct a customer to something while you are chained to the counter. And my eyes were taking a long time to make that focal adjustment. So I realized it was time to wear glasses.

I had insurance at the time so I decided to get progressive lenses. My distance vision was still excellent, but the optometrist applied a very mild prescription to the top of the lens. Given the nature of my job, he suggested it would be helpful. I got lucky with these lenses and adjusted to them easily. For the first day, I felt like I was ten feet tall. And for about a week, printed lines were curved instead of straight and vertical surfaces appeared to lean over me. But my brain made the adjustments without causing nausea or headaches. The glasses flattered me very well and life was suddenly much easier.

Those progressive lenses served me very well for four years, but then they were not strong enough at the bottom for close work. I no longer had insurance, so replacing them with prescription lenses was something I could not afford. But I was inspired by the current Doctor Who (David Tennant) who carried a pair of readers in his pocket and put them on when needed. And I have followed that model for the last twelve years, keeping multiple pairs (2.50 strength) in different places. I have not noticed any deterioration of my close vision. However, I have been aware that distance of the “far-sightedness” has been increasing. There was a time that I could read anything if I held it arm’s length. My arms became too short many years ago! And while I could once easily read materials posted on walls, they now appear blurred. And on a recent bus ride into downtown Seattle, I was disturbed to find that the overhead signs on the highway now appear blurred. I have been happy to rely on the drugstore reading glasses on the assumption that my distance vision is fine. But I am beginning to realize that assumption may not longer be valid.

I still do not have insurance that covers vision, but my employer contributes to a Health Saving Account which I can tap to pay for an exam and progressive lenses. But I have known so many people who have had trouble with progressive lenses, having to go back for multiple tweaks and adjustments before getting an acceptable result — and experiencing headaches and/or nausea along the way. I am genuinely worried that I just got incredibly lucky with mine! Making and keeping appointments is something I dread in the best of times. And the thought of going through that under Covid-19 restrictions is really off-putting.

Bifocals are an alternative, of course. I actually have a pair of bifocal sunglasses that I bought at a gift shop. (I wish regular bifocal reading glasses were available in shops where you can test them first.) I never feel self-conscious wearing bifocal sunglasses. Because they are sunglasses and rather stylish, they look really cool. But I suspect I would feel different wearing prescription bifocals. Nothing screams OLD like bifocal glasses. There are line-free bifocals, but the transition area can present the same problems as progressive lenses. My inner rebel (there is one buried deep down) wants to just go with bifocals and wear them with pride. Now that I know I am autistic, perhaps I can give myself permission to do that.

As long as I am working from home and not going out much, my trusty reading glasses are continuing to serve me well. So it is hard getting motivated to take that first step of making an appointment for an eye exam.

But I cannot keep doing the David-Tennant-Doctor-reading-glasses thing for much longer!

Self-checkout impairment

For five years I worked in retail stores and I spent a lot of time at the checkout. So you would think that when a grocery store offers self-checkout, I would avail myself of that convenience — but I do not. I patiently wait in line to have a real person do it for me. This is somewhat embarrassing because I also work in IT and am hardly a technophobe.

Now that I know I am autistic, I am sure this is the major part of it. Self-checkout user interfaces are very wordy and interactive because they are trying to make the process user-friendly by guiding the customer step by step. But my processing is very slow — and I take forever to ring up just a few items. My impaired executive function also makes it a challenge to synchronize all the tasks involved: scanning the items; looking up items; bagging items; reading info on the screen and pressing buttons; bagging items; selecting payment method; finding the place to insert card/cash or tap phone; finding the place where the receipt spits out; and — having to wait for a real person to come and check my ID if one of the items happens to be a can of wine. And all the while, I am aware that in the time it takes me to ring up my basket, five people have already gone through the station next to me.

So, how did I manage to check out customers for five years?

Well, a POS system designed for paid employees is a bit different. There is less guided assistance in the user interface because there is the expectation that paid employees will be trained how to use it. And after a week on the job, you have figured out a sequence of steps you follow whenever a customer walks up and it just becomes automatic. Also, although you do not have much control over your space, there are little adjustments you can make when you start your shift; for example, if you are left-handed you might want to put the stack of paper sacks in a different spot. But I think it is mainly about being familiar with the system and knowing what to expect.

Perhaps if I went through a self-checkout every time I went to the store, I would get familiar with the process and it would become second nature. But only one grocery store on my itinerary has self-checkout. It is a Whole Foods store and the self-checkouts are often busy with staff fulfilling online orders!

I will just wait for a real person, thanks!

Christmas canceled?

My family is best described as loving but not close-knit. With the exception of weddings and milestone birthdays (e.g., my grandfather’s 80th) there has never been much of a call for get-togethers. And the relationship with Christmas has always been that it is a big occasion when children are involved but optional otherwise. In addition, many relatives on my father’s side are Jehovah Witnesses and do not observe Christmas. So, there has not been any Christmas obligation in my life. This year, just as in any normal year, my mother and her husband will enjoy a takeout Indian meal at home together. My first sister will be at her own house, either sewing, playing video games or watching TV. The other sister will be at home with her husband and their dog. And I am planning to take a duck walk, weather permitting, and then make myself the mother of all grilled cheese sandwiches. We might write each other some short emails — but it is not expected.

I am not a bah humbug type. I enjoy seeing Holiday lights and decorations of all persuasions. In a normal year, I treat myself to seasonal latte drinks at coffee shops. Last night I watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special for the umpteenth time. And I really enjoy the happy anticipation of Christmas Eve — watching people take their journeys home.

But, I worked nine retail holiday seasons in a row — three in a toy store, two in a pet-supply store and four at the warehouse of chain of gift shops. The pet-supply store does steady business year round and only gets a modest life from holiday sales. But the two other businesses are heavily dependent on holiday shopping, doing as much as fifty percent of their annual business in just six weeks of the year — WHICH IS INSANE!

It is amusing to hear people complain about retailers putting holiday merchandise in the stores as early as September. This is nothing. At the warehouse job, I would be processing shipments of Christmas ornaments in February. And in October, our buyer would be submitting purchase orders for merchandise that would the the Christmas stock for the FOLLOWING year! If you have never worked for a gift retailer, you probably have no idea of the immense effort required to deliver Christmas to the shoppers. You live Christmas pretty much all year round. And I guess that after nine years I was beginning to resent the whole idea of Christmas shopping and presents. It seemed like an almighty waste of materials, energy and human endeavor. I often fantasized about mankind being hit by an event so disruptive that Christmas would be cancelled and people would have to spend December 25 some other way.

Many people are facing the reality of a canceled Christmas these year — either due to strict lockdown measures or because there is literally no money for it. THIS IS NOT WHAT I HAD IN MIND! I was hoping for something more existential that made the secular Christmas seem trivial and irrelevant by comparison.

The Doctor Who Christmas Special of 2009 (The End Of Time), which was David Tennant’s last appearance in the role, opens with the people of Britain going about their Christmas preparations, subconsciously aware of a lurking evil — but somehow able to ignore it and have a normal Christmas regardless — “because they must.”

There do some to be a lot of “musts” and “have tos” with Christmas — and I just cannot understand it. Missing out on Christmas festivities for one year while we attempt to contain a pandemic does not strike me as a major loss or hardship. I can fully understand the anguish of a parent, who has not worked since March and is facing eviction, at not being able to give their children a happy Christmas with presents under the tree. But I do not understand families who are otherwise OK insisting on the usual get-together. Surely there are worse things than spending Christmas Day alone — and perhaps some families will discover a gentler way to observe the holiday.

But perhaps after this horrible year, it is only natural to want a little piece of normalcy — if only for one day. So I will reserve my judgment.

My Autistic Experience: Retail Work

I swear, if I had known I was autistic I would never have gone into retail work. But I badly needed a job and retail work is easy to get in a hurry; you can sometimes walk out of the interview hired.

I must admit that I enjoyed it much of the time. On a good day, retail work can be a lot of fun; and I just had too many good days. But the bad moments are horrible. After five years I was a nervous wreck and had not one drop of emotional energy left to deal with customers. And then there were a few scathing reviews on Yelp that my boss attributed to me. I was asked to leave…but happily, I had just been offered a job in a warehouse, and I was able to put the nightmare behind me. Well, not quite.

In the year that followed, whenever I was shopping at a store and saw clerks delivering exemplary customer service and being friendly and polite to demanding customers, I felt bad that I was not able to do such a good job. And I began to feel that I must be as awful a person as the Yelp reviewers suggested. I really should have gone for counseling, because I think I actually had some trauma I needed to recover from. But I did well in my warehouse job and got promoted to a job at a computer at a desk in my own office. And I managed to move on.

The problem is that I could not see things from the customer perspective. Take closing time, for example. If a store closes at 7pm, my interpretation is that at 7pm, the door is locked and customers are outside and the staff are inside turning off lights or closing the registers. So if someone comes in at 6:55pm, by my reckoning, they have 5 minutes to find what they want and pay for it. But a lot of people feel that as long as they are in the door before 7:00, they can take their time. And my autistic self found that very upsetting. It made working the closing shift very stressful. With each customer that came in after 6:45, my panic escalated.

I dreaded having to handle exchanges or returns. I am a very cautious shopper and especially with big ticket items, I research products thoroughly before I buy. And, I will even spend few weeks trying to talk myself out of the purchase — just to be sure I really want it. Then when I actually buy the thing, I have no need to return it unless it is defective. And I always keep receipts in the event the item does turn out to be defective after a few days of use. I could not imagine attempting to exchange or return an item without a receipt. But people do it all the time. My bosses always wanted us to stick by the return policy for the most part— but gave us latitude to cave in to customers if necessary. But I could never figure out at what point I should cave.

And then there is my bad habit of being honest. A customer asked me about a rather costly item that just plain did not do the job it was supposed to do. She wanted to know how well it worked. I told her that of the ten I had sold, seven had been returned because the customer said it did not work as intended. I thought she might find that information helpful, that seven out of ten customers were not happy with the product. Instead I got a lecture about my negative attitude. I got a lot of sermons working in retail.

Finally, I obviously am not good at concealing what I am thinking. A customer once told me I was looking at her like she was stupid. I will admit I did think she was stupid, but I was hopelessly unaware how much it was registering on my face. I am no good at lying and I am equally hopeless at acting.

But that is all happily behind me now. I suspect my difficulties in retail work were not all because of autism — it is challenging work even for neurotypical people — but I am sure it made it harder for me to deal with the more challenging customers. I would love to hear how other people on the spectrum have fared in retail work.