The power of nothing

Electric power outages are rather common in Seattle at this time of the year. The city has a lot of trees to bring down power lines in windstorms and a lot of steep terrain vulnerable to landslides after heavy rain. But most of the time the outage is confined to a small geographic area — so it is possible to go many years without experiencing a power outage at your house. But last night it was my turn. There was not a storm though. The cause was an equipment failure and it was identified and fixed in a timely manner. I was without electricity for a mere ninety minutes.

My iPad was fully charged, and even though the internet was obviously down, I could have busied myself with some writing and played some downloaded podcasts for company. And my phone was also almost fully charged. But I decided to just experience the outage the way I would have twenty years ago.

I had recently bought a brand new flashlight which came with a battery installed, but I did not have a spare battery and did not want to run it down in case this ended up being an extended outage. (The longest I have experienced here was almost three days.) So I found my hand-cracked flashlight and just kept winding that every ten minutes. And I got out my battery-operated transistor radio and found a station that did not annoy me too much. It was a FM news station — but one that just recycles the same news every twenty minutes or so. I do not think residents of the UK fully appreciate how amazing BBC Radio is. I wish there was something like Radio 4 that I could tune into with a regular old-fashioned radio. But there is nothing remotely like it around here. (And the BBC World Service no longer goes out on Short Wave in North America 😕)

My apartment quickly got cold and I remembered what is the biggest inconvenience to me of a power outage: not being able to boil the kettle for tea. Dinner was a marmalade sandwich. But I thought of the thousands of people in Scotland and the north of England who have been without power for a week — many of them stranded in remote areas. Had I been really desperate for a hot meal, I could have walked or taken a bus to another neighborhood where the power was still on. And that is what many people do here. The prospect of sitting in the dark for a while is just too much to handle!

I spent most of the time just pacing in the gloom of my apartment and thinking — and enjoying the relative silence. I remembered the multi-day outage of 2006 during a spell of really cold weather. And then I thought again of the folks in northern Britain; and people in other places that have endured months without electricity following hurricanes and other natural disasters. I largely ignored the radio. I just wanted some of the outside world coming into my apartment for company — and it was good enough. When I lived in London, a million years ago, I played the LBC station all the time when I was at home. But I hardly ever listened to it. It was just for background company while I read my library book and drank wine. (I was too young for Radio 4 back then.)

When the power came back on, I was rather stunned. Usually, when the power comes back on, I am very relieved and quick to get back to my business. But this time I was rather sorrowful — and very surprised at my reaction. I must have been rather happy. My modem took a while going through its blinking-light routine as it came back online. So I left the radio on for a bit longer — not being in too much of a hurry to watch the videos I had planned for the evening.

For ninety minutes, I gave myself permission to do absolutely nothing. And I think it made me happy. I am going to try to remember the way I felt when the power came back on — and my surprise at realizing that I had been enjoying this change of pace.

However, if the power were still out tonight, I suspect the happiness would have worn out by now. And I really feel for people who are still waiting for their lights to come back on. But it gave me something to think about.

Just falling asleep

Yesterday I had a dental appointment first thing in the morning. And it was time to take x-rays. When the lead apron was draped over me, I felt this sudden calm wash over me. I sleep with a weighted blanket, but it is quite a bit lighter. I wished I could have had the lead apron on for the entire appointment. Next time, I might actually ask!

My bedtime routine is undergoing some adjustment. For the last six years, I have been watching M*A*S*H. I have all eleven seasons on DVD, although many of the discs are very temperamental from wear and tear. Well, now my portable DVD player is acting up. I only bought it three years ago, but it was a rather cheap model (I was amazed it was still possible to buy a DVD player at all) — and it has seen a LOT of use. I could look into getting a USB-connected DVD player to plug into my Chromebook, but that would hardly be convenient in my bedroom. So I decided to bit the bullet and try bedtime without M*A*S*H.

I always take my iPod Touch to bed with me because it serves as my alarm clock. So now I am collecting podcasts to listen to. I used to be a huge podcast junkie. But now that I work from home, I do not need to load up on podcasts to for my bus commute (that can be ridiculously long for the distance when Seattle traffic is gridlocked.) So, I am not sure what I want to listen to these days (apart from the various Ted Lasso podcasts.)

I found a really interesting podcast called The Rise And Fall Of Mars Hill, about the megachurch that was once a phenomenon in Seattle. But I have kept falling asleep about twenty minutes in, even though I find it really interesting. I am finding myself nodding off very quickly to other podcasts as well.

Perhaps I have rediscovered this crazy idea of just going to bed and falling asleep 😴 How wild is that?

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!

Time well spent

There was a time I headed out each day with only what would fit in the pockets of my coat (in winter) or a small bag (in summer). That amounted to not much more than wallet, keys, cellphone, lip balm and a piece of facial tissue. If I went to a coffee shop, I had no book to read or notebook to write in. This was when laptops weighed as much as eight pounds and before coffee shops had WiFi — and before cellphones were smart. So I would sit and drink coffee and do nothing for the most part. If someone had discarded a newspaper I might pick it up and read.

If I was at a seat in the window, I watched the world outside. If I was near the counter, I watched the staff work and enjoyed the sounds of grinding beans and steaming milk. I eavesdropped on conversations and occasionally took part in one myself. And I did the same thing in pubs when I went for a pint if there was not the distraction of sports on TV. And not once did I ever feel I was wasting time.

Sometime in the last fifteen years I got the idea that time in coffee shops and pubs should be put to some productive use: read a novel; write a short story; write a blog; do some artwork; learn a new skill; write some code; build an application; or at least scroll through Twitter or explore some place with Google Earth. So I started carrying more items with me: books, notebooks, art supplies, e-reader, laptop, iPad — and I had a smartphone to fall back on. So, I always had something to do in a coffee shop or pub — something to make it appear less obvious that I was really just there for a social experience, even it amounted to nothing more than people-watching and eavesdropping. And I also needed to carry a larger bag.

But the Covid-19 restrictions ended my coffee shop/pub habit. I still go out for coffee, but seating is limited inside and weather is not always cooperative for doing anything outside other than simply drinking the coffee. Only recently have my favorite pubs resumed serving customers on premises and most of the seating is on wobbly folding chairs and tables outside.

When the first lockdown started a year ago, I quickly realized I could downsize to a smaller bag. Coffee shops were not filling reusable cups, so that was one less thing to carry with me. Supermarkets were not bagging groceries in reusable bags. Ditto. I was doing all my work at home so there was no need to carry a laptop. It was really nice to carry a smaller bag again.

Now that things are starting to open up, I have decided to revisit my old habit of doing nothing over coffee or a pint. This week I found one of my favorite pubs quiet as I was walking by — so I took the opportunity to enjoy a pint at a table in the window that was fully wide open. I had my phone with me, so I could have amused myself with it, but I let it stay in my bag. I was obviously alone and at a loose end. But I decided not to care about being judged in any way. I was enjoying a rather delicious cider while watching the world outside and inside. I did not produce anything. I did not learn anything. I did not improve myself in any way. I just enjoyed some time out out in the world amongst people.

Sometimes you just need to give yourself permission.

Anniversaries

Here in the USA, March 11 was marked as the official anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, I am also marking the first anniversary of my autism diagnosis.

March 2020 was a very strange month to be taken up with a diagnosis! I had a series of three appointments, one week apart. And I had quite a lengthy bus ride to get to them, involving my usual bus commute into downtown Seattle followed by a longer bus ride to Bellevue on the East Side; and then a thirty-minute walk to an office park that is not served by transit. But it was a very enjoyable walk.

The day of the first appointment, things were still almost normal. I got to my appointment far too early, because I had allowed myself plenty of time to miss a bus, a bus to be cancelled, or me to get completely lost — or all three! But there was a coffee shop where I was able to kill time with a latte and a donut while enjoying watching ducks on a pond. And when I got back into Seattle later on, I was able to go the library and check out a book that the psychologist had suggested.

The following week, there were far fewer people on each bus I rode. And the coffee shop was still open, but much quieter, and it had been rearranged a bit to encourage social distancing. The third week, I was one of only three people on the bus into Seattle, and the bus to Bellevue was equally quiet. At the office park, the coffee shop was closed, so I had to kill time taking a walk in the lovely spring weather. The office park was largely deserted and I was very gratified that my appointment had not been cancelled — as this was the day I was to get my diagnosis.

Riding back into Seattle, now officially confirmed as autistic, I realized how different the world was going to be from now on. If this appointment had been just a week earlier, I would have stopped at my favorite pub to mark the occasion with a pint of cider while reading my library book. But all such establishments had been shut down as of the previous Tuesday. The day after my diagnosis was a Friday. I went to work as usual — but I started WFH on Monday.

Today I went into the office. It was not the first time since last March. I went downtown back in August for a medical appointment and stopped by the office for a few hours. But it was the first time I revisited my old familiar routine. It was a lovely spring morning and the snow on the Olympic Mountains was tinged with pink in the morning sun. The bus ride to downtown seemed almost normal, other than the lack of a crowd. And although a lot of businesses downtown, especially restaurants, are closed down and some are even boarded up, the few blocks I walked from the bus to the office were not that different than I remembered. And when I got to my desk, I found it pretty much as I left it. When my boss came in, we had a long chat. There were not many people in, but it was really nice to chat in person after a year of Teams meetings and emails. I did not take any lunch with me, so in the early afternoon I ordered a latte and scone from a nearby Starbucks with the app and went out to pick it up. My commute home seemed almost normal too — other than the almost empty bus and the speed with which I got home with no traffic congestion to navigate. I think Metro drivers must be having to pay serious attention to avoid running too far ahead of schedule!

It all went far more easily than I expected — and part of me actually thinks I should resume going in, at least a couple of days a week. But I have come to rather love my WFH routine, with my cat and BBC Radio for company. I have just bought a portable monitor for a second screen, something I should have done months ago! And my boss said I could have a new laptop for home if I want.

But something has been niggling at me all day. And I have only just figured it out. My old routine, one I had been following for several years, ended abruptly with my autism diagnosis. My new WFH routine is part of my new life identifying as an autistic person. And I do not think I could just go back to my old routine. It no longer fits.

It is something for me to think about as things start to open up. Vaccinations have been going reasonably well in Seattle. The governor of Washington State has ordered schools to plan for reopening. And restrictions elsewhere are being relaxed. It would absolutely be possible for me to resume my old way of life later this summer.

But I do not think that is what I really want.

Protecting Friday

For the first time in over a month, I managed to end my work week on a positive note. Last weekend, I worked both mornings on a task that needed no interruptions and that set me up to finally wrap up a major project. On Wednesday and Thursday I started brainstorming a new project that involves a lot of coding — and I made good progress. Today, I was generally being helpful.

After signing out from work, I have been watching an excellent series of YouTube videos on JavaScript fundamentals (in preparation for an exam I hope to take some day.) Some of them are more than two hours in length and cover a lot of material. So, I have still been sitting at my laptop well after 6:30pm.

This Friday, I felt OK to sign out a little before 4pm and go to the store. And when I got home, I decided I needed a rest from JavaScript this evening.

I tend to be rather protective of Friday afternoon. Left to my own devices, I manage my work schedule so that Friday can be relatively gentle. And I can clock out at a reasonable time. And the work laptop, once closed, remains closed. I am not averse to the idea of working on the weekend — but there is something about working after 4pm on Friday that has never sat well with me.

There is no pressing need for me to work this weekend and so I probably will not. My work laptop can probably remain closed until Monday morning — unless I feel inspired to work on my new project or watch some more JavaScript videos. I wish I could say I would have a technology-free weekend. I do have a really hard jigsaw puzzle in progress, but I will probably listen to podcasts while working on it. And I will watch TV shows and videos on my iPad.

In times gone by, Friday evenings were about going to bars. More recently, they have been about stopping at a coffee shop or pub on the way home to read or write. But now, it is just about being at home — and being done with work. Nothing more than that.

But I still the need to be protective of it.

Bedtime routine

An episode of M*A*S*H has been my bedtime viewing for many years. Unfortunately, several of the discs in my complete eleven-season DVD collection are tuckered out one will no longer play at all. But that still leaves me plenty of episodes. I loop through Season 1 through Season 11 in order and then repeat. I know I am not the only person to do this because a while back, Alan Alda did a M*A*S*H reunion with some of the cast on his Clear And Vivid podcast and the twitter feed in the aftermath was full of tweets about watching an episode every night before going to bed. This is perhaps the only habit I have formed that at least some other people share!

So, what does this do for me?

First, it eliminates decision-making at bedtime. For a couple of years, I took a break from M*A*S*H and listened to podcasts instead. But I often did not know exactly what I needed on any given night. I would start a podcast only to turn it off five minutes later and search for something else. An hour later, I could still be browsing my library.

Second, when the episode is done, the DVD player stops. So if I fall asleep right away (as I often do) I do not later have to rewind or reset anything. And I do not unnecessarily waste electricity or data.

Third, I know every episode almost by heart. So I can turn over and close my eyes without missing anything. And there is nothing lost if I do fall asleep.

Fourth, it is low-stimulus viewing and listening. There is not a lot of fast action — unless there is a fight at Rosie’s Bar. Most scenes are just people talking in one of a few settings: mess tent, OR, post-op, Swamp, Officers Club, etc. There is not a lot of loud noise, except for the few episodes that involve mortar shells. And with the exception of Klinger’s outfits, the color scheme throughout is army drab. There is not much in the typical M*A*S*H episode to keep you up at night.

Fifth, the idea of working in an army hospital only a few miles from the front, where you can be in surgery for eighteen hours straight only to be woken again after a couple of hours’ sleep to an announcement of more incoming wounded and all shifts report to OR, really makes you feel grateful for the comfort of your bed and night of sleep that you are about to enjoy. There is one episode that really drives this home. It opens on a brutally cold winter night with Radar going to Hawkeye’s tent to wake him to go on duty at midnight. Hawkeye says, “I’ll give you ten dollars for ten more minutes.” I can just imagine how that would feel.

At some point I will need to move on from this. One by one, the DVDs are dropping dead. I could possibly replace them. But I think I need to discover a successor for M*A*S*H — something I can be happy to watch or listen to over and over again for years. Something that will provide the same comfort.

Or perhaps I need to relearn what I did so many years ago — go to bed, turn out the light, and lie quietly in the dark. But I just can not make myself do that right now.

BUS STOP CLOSED

Long before I was diagnosed with autism I was diagnosed with anxiety. And last year, my doctor suggested I might benefit from taking anti-depressants. But for years I have known that routine and rituals are helpful coping mechanisms.

When I tell someone I suffer from anxiety, they invariably ask what I get anxious about. I think people who do not suffer from anxiety do not realize that anxiety does not have to be about anything specific — it is just there! What am I anxious about it? What have you got? I do have a few specific things that I am chronically anxious about — and they drive anxiety about other things. For example, my biggest fear is that I will end up homeless. So anything that might set up a chain events leading to that unfortunate circumstance of having no money when the rent is due can cause me anxiety. I am also afraid of being locked out, so that leads to anxiety about losing keys or forgetting PINs. I am afraid of making a mistake at work that could cause my employer to be sued or go out of business — so I am obsessed with checking my work over and over. And then there are the big things: the ongoing pandemic, climate change, the possible end of American democracy, the collapse of civilization as we know it, the end of the world. Is that enough?

(Oddly enough, the only thing right now that does NOT make me anxious is the prospect of actually getting sick from Covid-19. And it is because the only time I am NOT anxious is when I am seriously ill. I had something like Covid-19 two years ago. I was extremely ill for about a week — but I remember that week as a strangely happy time for me because I just did not have the energy to be anxious. All I could think about was getting through it.)

When I first wake up in the morning, I cannot honestly say I am happy about it. My first thought is usually how much I wish my life could just end. My second thought is usually about how ridiculous and ungrateful that first thought is considering how good my life actually is right now. And I have found that the best thing to do is get out of bed and start my routine. This was how my routine went before I started working from home in March 2020.

First, go to the bathroom.

Next, feed the cat. She gets really happy and excited and the sound of her eating soothes me. Sometimes, this cheers me up enough to dispel the anxiety.

Next, check in with my phone. Look through personal email to reassure myself nothing needs my attention. Check the weather forecast so that I can dress accordingly.

Choose clothes for the day. Shower and dress. I might be feeling better by now.

Put kettle on to make tea. While waiting, make sandwich to take to work for lunch and pack in my bag so I do not forget it.

Make tea and fix bowl of cereal. Drink tea and eat cereal. If the hot shower did not fix things, breakfast just might.

Blowdry hair. Brush teeth. Put on makeup. Put on wristwatch.

Check transit app on my phone and see if my bus is on the way. Seeing the bus already showing on the tracker never fails to elevate my mood.

Put on shoes and get work bag ready. Cue up podcast to listen to on the bus. Check bus status again. If bus has not appeared on the tracker by 5:50am, then need to resort to Plan B (walk 15 minutes to a different bus route with more frequent service.) Having to switch to Plan B invariably unwinds any progress I have made since getting up.

When bus is due in 10 minutes, put on coat and hat and make sure to have bus pass at the ready. Walk out to the bus stop.

Ah, the bus stop. It is probably one of the most scenic bus stops in Seattle during the hours of daylight, with a view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Even on dark mornings or in dismal weather, the lights from vessels out on the sound are comforting. Any lingering anxiety is sometimes dispelled while waiting for the bus. The stop is just after a slight bend in the road so it is not possible to see the bus coming directly. However, a building across the street has a ground-level window angled such that it reflects the view around the corner — and the bus comes into view there before it comes around the corner. And the sight of it never fails to boost my mood and reassure me that the day will be OK.

Finally, I am on the bus, settled on my seat, and I turn on my podcast. If I was still feeling anxious as the bus came around the corner, I am almost always feeling better now.

A couple of weeks after we went into the initial lockdown, my bus route was suspended. This was no big deal to me, because I was working from home anyway. A month later, King County Metro suspended service on many more routes. Some of that service was restored in September — but not on my route.

Yesterday, I was taking a walk and I noticed that the masts at bus stops along the route were now sporting yellow hoods over the flags. BUS STOP CLOSED. I guess this means the route is going to be permanently deleted.

I am still working from home and will probably continue to do so even after the Covid-19 crisis is behind us. So the deletion of the bus route is not a major loss in that regard. And I have since established a new routine that I follow after getting out of bed. But I rode that bus route every morning, to one job or another, for more than ten years. And on so many mornings, it was the part of my routine that finally dispelled my morning anxiety so that I could be ready to face the day. So it is sad to see it go.

I am probably just one of millions and millions of people who have lost little routines that made it possible to get up and face the day. I hope everyone has been able to find an alternative.

Falling back

I normally welcome the return to Standard Time when the clocks fall back. I think it’s because I’m rather lazy — and the dark evenings give me permission to just chill at home without feeling like I should be outside “doing something”. And I like being able to go to bed early.

But it feels different this year. I got my autism diagnosis back in March at age 57 — and I have been looking at life slightly differently since. This was my first summer knowing what makes me unlike other people — and I think I allowed myself to enjoy summer in my own way. It was also my first summer in over twenty years working from home. I found a nice routine and enjoyed a long after-work walk every evening.

Starting next week, it will be getting dark as I finish my work day. I can still go for a walk, of course, and I’m fortunate in that my neighborhood is safe enough to do so. My route is along a waterfront with lovely views under moonlight. And when the fall storms move in, walking is positively exhilarating — as long as I’m wearing the right gear.

But I’m already starting to miss the golden evenings of the summer. This is certainly going to be a winter like none that has gone before.

Upended Schedule

My WFH soundtrack is BBC radio, starting at 6:30 am with the World Service. Sometime before 9 am, depending on the programming schedule, I switch to Radio 4 for the rest of the day. The Shipping Forecast, at around 4:48 pm is my cue to wrap things up for the day before Radio 4 goes off the air at 5 pm (1 am London time), after which it joins the World Service for a few hours, thus bringing me full circle.

I’m hardly homesick for England. I haven’t been back since 1998. I just find the mix of programming comforting right now. There’s nothing in America quite like it. And I’m not missing any US news either!

But last weekend they must have turned the clocks back, because the time difference is now 7 hours instead of 8. PM is at 10 am instead of 9. The Archers doesn’t come on until noon. And the Shipping Forecast airs while I’m out on my after-work walk. I didn’t realize how much BBC Radio sets the pace of my day — even when I’m so absorbed in my work that I don’t even hear a lot of it.

But this is only for a couple of weeks. Once I’m back on Pacific Standard Time, I’ll be back on my regular schedule…ending my workday with the Shipping Forecast.