Rainbow

April is autism awareness month.  I tend to have mixed feelings about participating, but this year Sonny’s all in.  He’s making a series of videos about his perspectives a young adult on the spectrum, so we’re having more conversations about autism than usual.   

“Hey Mom,” he said, a couple of days ago.  “Are you Team Puzzle or Team Infinity?”   

“Ummm…I’m not sure what that question means,”  I replied.  

“Which autism symbol, the puzzle piece or infinity sign?”  He showed me some artwork a friend had posted on Facebook, a big rainbow-colored infinity symbol beside a little blue puzzle piece with a slash through it.  

I felt a twinge of guilt about my ignorance.  Admittedly I have a rather poor visual memory and often have trouble with pictographs and icons.  This morning, as is not unusual, I opened Safari twice while attempting to check my email.  One’s a circle, one’s a leaning rectangle, but they’re both mostly blue.    If I ever manage to distinguish between Camera and Photos on my first try, it will be a day of rejoicing.    

 If I had been still active on autism parenting sites I’d have been more up to date.  I discovered online support groups when Sonny was about 11.  Life with a young child on the spectrum had been isolating, as many of the moms in my suburb who had neurotypical kids acted as if autism were contagious and shut us out of routine social activities.   It was a relief to find a place where people empathized and gave advice without a sneer at my parenting skills.  Many of us parents eventually realized that we were on the spectrum ourselves, and that also led to a new level of self-understanding and acceptance.    

    When I was active on those sites, the puzzle piece was the dominant autism symbol.   It had originated in the UK in 1963 with the National Autism Society (NAS).  The NAS no longer uses this symbol, and given that its puzzle piece featured a drawing of a crying child, that’s a good thing.   In 1999 the Autism Society started to use a logo with colorful puzzle pieces formed into a rainbow ribbon, rainbow being chosen as a reference to the autism spectrum.   Autism Speaks (AS), an organization founded in 2005, uses a puzzle piece colored blue as its logo.  The blue was intended to suggest calmness and acceptance.  It’s perhaps emblematic of AS that its cofounder, Suzanne Wright, took credit for the puzzle piece becoming a worldwide symbol of autism, despite the fact that it had already been in use for 42 years.    

Autism Speaks is, to put it mildly, a problematic organization.   People correctly accuse it of pathologizing all autism as a disease to be cured or eliminated.   Many in the autism community see AS as more supportive towards distressed neurotypical parents who want their children to behave “normally” than towards the children themselves.    That’s a valid criticism.   

I don’t think the world would be better off with no autistic people.   Many scientists, musicians, and artists have been on the spectrum.  I imagine that some things would have been easier for me if I’d been born neurotypical, but I don’t know that I’d be happier or a more productive member of society.       

Many on the spectrum despise the AS logo for reasons unrelated to the organization.  The blue suggests depression.  The shape implies that autism is a problem that needs to be solved and that autistic people don’t fit in.    I had taken a different message from the puzzle piece, which was that every piece of a puzzle is as important as the others.  I may be a minority of one in that view.  In the course of writing this blog I discovered that there are some jigsaw puzzles on the market that purposefully throw in a few extra pieces that won’t fit, which was disquieting.   In any case, Autism Speaks is so strongly associated with the puzzle logo at this point that I was delighted when Sonny educated me about an alternative.     

The infinity symbol has no missing pieces.  It’s mysterious, like the universe, like a brain, and understanding rather than solution.  but not necessarily a thing that needs to be solved.   Better understood, sure.   It can be any color; though I like the rainbow versions the best.  The symbol also suggests motion, which I hope could remind neurotypical people that people with autism have active brains.   I’ve been in far too many conversations where Sonny was treated like a piece of furniture—something to talk about, not to.   

“Definitely Team Infinity,” I said.  

“Me, too,” said Sonny.   

Bears, bunnies, buds…

Spring’s little green buds are out.  Nary a one on March 31, they were adorning every branch of our garden cherry tree on April 1!   Happy, and restless, I contrived an errand—paper towels—and headed for CVS.   Paper goods and other cleaning products are stashed in a dull aisle at the end of the store.  On the way I detoured to the “seasonal” aisle.  CVS’s definition of seasonal is always colorful and multifaceted.  This week seed packets, bug spray, garden stakes, novelty umbrellas, and the occasional gnome jostled for shelf space with Easter baskets, stuffed toys, egg-coloring kits, and oh the c-c-candy.     

The paper towels slipped from my mind.  A basket, some fake grass, jelly beans, neon-pastel plastic eggs, a big chocolate rabbit and a little stuffed rabbit…I could assemble it into an Easter gift for Sonny.   I did something like that most years when he was a kid.  … Push away the thought that Sonny is 23 years old and doesn’t even like jelly beans … That we already had a package of Peeps and a couple of Cadbury eggs in the pantry …  A woman with a little girl in tow expelled an impatient breath.    She had an eye on a cellophane-wrapped extravaganza on the shelf above my head.  

I socially distanced to the appropriate six feet, which took me outside the aisle.  That broke the spell.   

As I loaded the paper towels into the car, I admitted that the person who wants the pretty basket with candy and a stuffed bunny sitting in plastic grass is me.     

Mostly I want the toy.  I had a bit of a stuffed animal habit as a kid.    A pair of teddy bears, three dogs, a monkey, a red horse, and, yes, an Easter bunny lived on my bunk bed.  My favorite, placed at the center of the bunch, was a lion with a huge, scratchy mane.   Whenever we went to a toy store, I scanned the dollhouse stuff and then lingered at the plush display until it was time to leave.  I longed for an enormous panda bear with a big, soft belly and enveloping limbs, bigger than me, the kind you could barely fit in a car.  Obviously this toy, with its rent-payment price tag, was out of the question.  I knew that.  I could even predict what my mother would say:  “Where on earth would you put that thing?”  

“On my bed with the others,” I would have replied.   I wanted to have enough to cover the bed’s surface completely.   During the day I could look at them, and at night I could crowd them around me, making things nice and cozy and tight and safe.   

 Sonny’s birth was an excuse to troll the toy departments again.   We gave him teddy bears and easter bunnies and took him to places like FAO Schwarz (the plush animals displays, OMG).  He preferred exotic animals, such as the ones for sale at kids’ museum or aquarium gift shops.  Stuffed snakes, frogs, fishes, beetles.  Also he went for TV toys: the Abominable Snowman from the Rudolph shows,  Elmo from Sesame Street, various Teletubbies,  Gary from Sponge Bob.   None of them lived on his bed.   They got played with for a while and then were passed down to various cousins.  

The household member whose soft toy enthusiasms were closest to mine was definitely our golden retriever.  He adored a series of stuffed ducks from the pet store.  When presented with a duck, he’d shake all over, taking time to sniff the toy.  Then, very gently, he’d take the thing into his mouth and carry it around the house.   He’d use it as a pillow as well as something to catch and fetch.  And then at some point he’d rip a seam and pull out half the stuffing.          

For a while I switched to a grown-up version of plush toys, the throw pillow.  This was HGTV-approved (pillows add color and texture to a space, as well as comfort).  HGTV convinced me that one couldn’t have too many throw pillows, which turned out to be far from true.   Having to shift six pillows in order to sit on the couch turned out to be annoying.  Having no room for Dave to fold his laundry on the bed proved even worse.   He started dumping them on the floor and leaving them there.  I put many pillows in a closet and forced myself to stop buying new ones.    

 I’m still searching for comfort in all the wrong places.   Without being forced away from the display, I might very well have bought a toy.   That would have been bad.   I already have two stuffed animals in my bedroom, both on the headboard.  One is a little orange cat, very floppy, with big glass eyes.  Sonny gave it to me for Christmas one year so that I could have a cat that was always there for me.  (I love our evil orange tabby Capone madly, a passion that’s only intermittently requited.)   “My” cat fits nicely on top of a pile of TBR books.  The other animal is a purple hippo.  I was able to rationalize the purchase neatly: 1) I bought it in a store for grownups, and 2) it’s practically a medical device, since it’s infused with lavender and is microwavable so that you can get to sleep more easily.  And two is plenty; two is the last safe number in the one-two-many of my autism.  A third toy could trigger the deluge.  In two months the bed would be covered.    Forget space for laundry: neither Dave nor I would have room to sleep!   Probably better to look to the little green buds for comfort, instead.     

The kindest cut of all

I got my hair cut this weekend.  Even in normal times I tend to put off this chore, but my locks had extended to more than halfway down my back, the longest since I was 15.  As my current hair is fluffier than my teenage hair, whenever it hit my bare back it tickled like sixteen strolling spiders.  Time for Supercuts.  

I used to go to higher end salons, back when my efforts to pass for normal were at their height.     The kind of joints where customers used the same stylist every time, with appointments set weeks in advance.  Where they bring you a coffee or tea, sometimes even a little glass of wine.  Where there’s a pitcher of lemon-water and a tray of nibbles in the waiting area, with artisan jewelry, tiny jars of face cream, and fancy hair products for sale as well as stacks of fashion magazines to browse.  Where there are dedicated shampooers, and sometimes even a darkened shampoo room with stars in the ceiling and music-of-the-spheres tunes on the soundtrack.   

These salons do, generally, give somewhat superior haircuts to Supercuts.  I left with hair that was smooth and shiny, wafting the scent of an umbrella drink sipped on a Caribbean beach.  I wonder if the aesthetic experience at the expensive places is worse now that everybody has to wear masks and socially distance.  It wasn’t the pandemic (or finances) that sent me to Supercuts, though.  A couple of issues arising from my autism, specifically involving shampoos and conversation, had soured me on snooty beauty.    

For me, a salon shampoo became an ordeal, especially if it culminated in a “relaxing” scalp massage.  My entire body would cramp.  It’s been sad to realize that some of the autistic sensory issues that I’d thought I’d conquered over the years (e.g., tolerance for someone kneading my scalp) have resurrected.  I can pretend not to be bothered by stuff like this, which might build character but also wears me out for more important stuff, or I can avoid it.   Supercuts stylists don’t push you to get a shampoo.   They just wet the hair with a spray bottle and carry on.  

In the pricey parlors you see the same stylist every time.  Some of them keep notes and will ask how your kid or cat is doing.   Yikes!  I can handle small talk or casual conversations okay, I hope, sometimes.  Other times I perseverate about what I’m doing wrong.  I hate the idea of boring or annoying someone whose pay depends at least in part on my satisfaction.  Conversation is an area where I’m always learning and experimenting, but do I have the right takeaways from my experiments?  Am I a valued or dreaded customer (albeit one who tips at least 30%)?  Supercuts stylists can vary in chattiness, but since I never have the same one twice there’s less pressure to be perfect.  In cases where I feel that I really goofed…there Supercuts in other towns.  Sometimes the gods smile on me, and the stylists are so busy talking to each other that no one is talking much to me except to check whether the length is okay.  

My stylist made sure I knew how much hair four inches was, sprayed me down, and started pruning.  We talked for a bit about how today was sunny and warm and tomorrow would be rainy, and then we shut up and listened to the radio.  She started to even out my bangs, which between haircuts I solo-trim very badly.     The comb’s teeth dragged over my forehead again and again as she snipped.  I thought I would go mad.  Scrape.  Snip.  Scrape.  Snip snip.  Scrape.  I was glad to be wearing a mask so that I only had to manage the third of my face that was uncovered.   

Finally she was done.  My hair bounced around my shoulders.  The sun was shining, and it would be months before the spiders strolled again.   A fragile triumph, but a victory nonetheless.    

Spring in some direction or other

Last night I dreamt of music theory again.  There was a boy and a birthday party and a dominant seven chord gone wrong.  I tried to explain to the boy that he needed Bb, not B natural, while fumbling with the ribbon on the present I’d brought. The bow kept coming untied.  

My eyes jolted open in that definitive way that makes it clear there’s no settling back into a doze.  The clock read 5:40, in the general neighborhood of when I usually get up.   

Dave, who rises earlier than I do, pulled a pair of socks from the dresser.  I asked if there was any chance he could bring my coffee upstairs.  “Sure.  Oh, and I’ll remind you that it’s Spring Forward today,” said Dave.  “It’s almost seven.” 

Just like that, I was running an hour late.  

I hate the change to Daylight Saving Time (DST).  Even on this Sunday, when when my morning tasks are simply to make the bed, shower, write the blog, and grocery shop.  I understood why the anxiety dream.  

Every year around this time the weather people start wagging their fingers at those of us dolts who can’t remember that it’s Daylight Saving, not Savings, Time.  I change the channel before the diatribe works up steam and then forget to reset the clocks.  Grammar is one of my most shameful failings, along music theory.    

I love the results of DST.  The sun will set tonight at 6:49 p.m.!  That makes me almost happy enough to forgive New Zealand entomologist George Hudson, who proposed the idea of DST in 1895.   It proved a slow-moving notion, with the first governments to adopt DST nationwide being Germany and the Austrian empire in 1916.  Nowadays some form of DST is more common than not.   

Opponents of time changes, many of whom argue that we should be on DST permanently, say that the back and forth is hard on people, especially little kids.  (Truth!  And on pets, too!) Some studies show statistically significant side effects.  Traffic accidents and some health problems tend to increase, while electricity costs and prime time TV ratings tend to decrease.   

In England and parts of Europe DST is called “summer time.”  That feels a bit confusing, but I could get used to it.  It’s a lovely phrase, appropriate, and not nearly as complicated as the difference between Saving and Savings.  The image I’d associated with DST back when I thought it was savings was a jar filled with bits of sunshine.   Nonsensical, but pretty.  A foray into the internet grammarverse turns up site after site purporting to explain.  I squint at the computer screen.  Countable and uncountable nouns, verbs, adjectives, hyphenation, capitalization.  A tiny hammer in my head starts to pound.  Savings accounts, a saving grace, saving the whales.  I close the browser, giving my blood pressure a chance to come back down.  Perhaps someday I will understand.  

I taught myself to read words at age four and music notes at age five, fitting them into structures that made sense in my head.  When teachers tried to teach me the theory behind the words or notes, with new bits of information mixed in with old bits, the structures didn’t synch.  My autism undoubtedly played a role as well.  I would ask questions that seemed weird or premature (“We’ll be getting to that in Chapter 6”), not pertinent to the rest of the class.  Various humiliations ensued, so I stopped asking and listening.   

I scraped by with little grammar until grammar school.  We freshman comp teachers were given a quick-and-dirty grammar guide, which helped me become temporarily competent.  After I stopped teaching the knowledge flitted out of my brain.  

I avoided music theory for even longer.  A jazz piano teacher helped me feel comfortable with chord progressions, and then I started online courses. Sometimes theory was easier than I’d expected, but much of the time it was frickin’ hard.  Also: worth it.  Adding even the first few new concepts expanded my understanding and created idea after idea.  

There’ve been lots of ideas for dealing with waxing and waning daylight.  Some civilizations changed the shape of the hours, deciding that daylight would have twelve equal segments whose lengths would vary throughout the year.  A slender winter solstice hour lasted 44 minutes, while a summer solstice hour rounded out to 75.   I love that.

However…if I decide to spend an hour or two reviewing grammar, maybe I should wait until December.    

December crash

I love museums. First choice is art, but I enjoy just about any space devoted to collections: local history, natural history, science, whaling, robber barons, dollhouses… The museum environment hits the sweet spot for my autism, pleasing the senses without overwhelming them. Color and light. Amazing objects hung on walls, suspended from the ceiling, piled on shelves. Grand, sound-diffusing spaces. Stone, wood, feathers, water, velvet, chrome. Mazy corridors peppered with mysterious Staff-Only doors. Other people sharing the experience, without weird social obligations needing to be navigated. Cafeterias with grapes, cheese plates and little bottles of wine. A magic space I can step into where my mundane life recedes. And when I’m pleasantly fatigued, done, I take a little calm with me into the real world.

I’m sure that a lot of people feel about the winter holiday season the way I do about museums. Enjoying the exertion of putting up decorations, cooking, and wrapping gifts. Happy to hear their holiday playlist every day, eager for the office party, the neighborhood cookie swap. Loving the colors and lights and traditions. By year’s end, pleasantly fatigued, they are ready for the mundanities of January.

Certainly such people exist. Why I don’t know any of them? Besides children, who don’t have to pay the rent, cook the feast, or climb icy ladders to string lights, who truly enjoys the holidays? Even my husband Dave, chill about many things, considers December his least favorite month and filters out as much as he can after Thanksgiving weekend.

My friends, especially the online ones (because online is the only safe space to admit some of these emotions), feel actively stressed and overwhelmed every December. Some of my friends are depressed as well as stressed. 2020 has made everything worse, of course. I don’t remember asking Santa for a civil war for Christmas (it’s going to be a bitch to regift). Maybe it’s the fear that there’s something wrong with us if we don’t feel holiday cheer. (Dave: “I’m not nine anymore. Why should I feel guilty about that?” Me: envious sigh) The media and stores and culture perform comfort and joy 24/7 and pressure us all not to ruin the magic.

Hoping that the winter holiday season can be scaled back culturally is probably as counterproductive as storing black sweaters in a basketful of kittens. Holidays expand. Thousands of years ago, humans lit bonfires for a night or two around the winter solstice to remind the gods to bring back longer days. Bonfires turned into annual celebrations like the Greek Brumalia and the Roman Saturnalia: days upon days of banquets, drinking, dancing, and (in Saturnalia’s case) temporary reversals of the social order such as slaves dressing in their masters’ clothes and vice versa, bosses paying their servants’ rent for a month, etc. Saturnalia was turned into Christmas in the mid fourth century AD and slowly grew to encompass all of December and a bit of January, and now Christmas starts sometime in October.

Maybe the Roman patrons and matrons got stressed out about Saturnalia. There weren’t any museums, per se, in ancient Rome. Art and artifacts were on display in private homes, in public, and in temples. I picture a Roman matron, worried about her holiday outfit, having run out of olives, wondering what to get her maid for Saturnalia. She’s heading for the temple to walk among the statues, looking for a little peace on earth. I hope at least they gave her a nice cheese plate and some wine.

Mirror

The turkey crosses the road with the dignity of a king. His long neck is stretched toward the far curb, and his snood wobbles with every step. His wings are folded neatly to his body, his tail-feathers down. His eye stares down my headlights, unblinking. His flock of courtiers–there are just five or six–defer to my Hyundai. I pat my coat pocket to be sure I brought the list.

I hate taking a list to buy groceries, but the alternative during the pandemic has turned out to be daily shopping trips to pick up another needed item. In the before times I used to enjoy wandering the store in a kind of haze, while still returning with all we needed. Now I take a list. Not so much to save face–with all of the supply-chain disruption stuff I have a believable excuse for coming home without bread–but to save time.

Last week, Sonny stuck a grocery list on the side of the fridge. Although I expect that this was mostly a reaction to the fact that I keep forgetting the waffles and yogurt, and maybe even some skepticism about my supply-chain excuses, I appreciated the gesture. Yesterday I reminded Sonny that grocery day was approaching. A list would be great, I added.

This morning he shuffled past my door at around 6:30. Did you make the list?

He frowned. “It’s the same as last week.” No surprise there. Those of us on the spectrum often have strong, fixed food preferences.

I don’t have last week’s list.

“What happened to it?”

It went into my pocket and to the grocery store, and then it went into the recycling.

The frown morphed into Debate Face. I took a gulp of coffee to energize my rebuttals.

“I’ll make the list again, but then we leave it on the fridge”…I need to take it to the store…”couldn’t you just take a picture on your phone?”…not with my crappy eyes…“just put it back on the fridge when you get home”…the list will be crumpled and also will have your father’s stuff on it and whatever else I think of …”I don’t understand the problem”…Just spend two minutes writing a list!! Okay, okay…and then I’ll make some copies…”

Both of us retired to our corners, a bit drained. We’d both scored some points: I’d reinforced the idea of the list being a weekly task. Sonny had expressed his skepticism of the concept and devised a workaround. Sometimes spectrum versus spectrum is helpful: Sonny’s working through the idea as well as trying to understand the reasons for changing his routine. I’m jumping (maybe too fast) onto the “once, twice, we always do this” train.

Before I leave the car I reread the list and put on my mask. In the parking lot the air feels great: we’re having the first really cool morning in almost a week. No turkeys in Stop and Shop’s parking lot (this being seagull territory), and no line to get in. Soon I’m dodging customers prancing widdershins down the aisles and employees restocking lunchmeat and peanut butter. All the while I keep an eye out for Marty (picture a Segway-shaped robot with googly eyes and a belt that glows electric blue). Marty glides majestically through the store at a slow swan speed, and like a swan, it’s best to admire him from afar.

At checkout, I realize that there are no waffles in my cart. I check the list: no waffles on it. Rashly, I didn’t check the freezer for the waffles box this morning. As I sling bags full of food into the car trunk I marshal possible defenses. In the rearview mirror, mask pulled beneath my chin, jiggling like a turkey’s snood, I see my face. It’s the worst, or maybe the best, thing, the way a child is a funhouse mirror of the parent. By the time I get back to the house, the turkeys have disappeared, and so has my Debate Face.

Store-bought

Today Sonny turns 23 years old. A few days ago I asked him the most important question about this day: what kind of cake he wanted. I asked rather than assumed because it’s always possible that his tastes have changed. His last four birthdays have been celebrated away from home, on campus. Nothing had changed:

“Blue,” he said, starting as usual with the aesthetics of the icing.

Flavor?

“Vanilla.”

White cake or golden?

“Golden.”

I went to Shaw’s, though not for flour and eggs and whatever else goes into a scratch-baked cake. I walked past the cake mix aisle and headed for the bakery, my eyes scanning the cakes in the refrigerated section for blue. The problem with blue is that most often, cakes with blue frosting are chocolate cakes. I got lucky, though, spying a golden cake with sparkly ombre blue buttercream on the sides, white on top, with a big blue flower in the center.

Possibly my buying a store-made cake generates a frisson of disdain from readers who are foodies/good at baking. I truly admire Martha Stewart-like adepts who make their cakes from scratch, wrap presents so neatly they should be on a magazine cover, and organize champagne garden parties for 25 people at the drop of a hat. Homemade cake can be delicious. I’ve even made cakes from mixes a couple of times (never had the courage to try from scratch) to modest noises of approval from Dave and Sonny. However, we aren’t confident cooks, and we just…like the store-bought cakes better.

Like a lot of the ASD population, we have sensory issues related to food. There are some commonly accepted tastes and textures that we haven’t been able to learn to tolerate, much less enjoy. Over the years, with a great deal of deliberate practice, I can take a lot more bitterness and spice and textural variety than I once could. I willingly eat veggies, even though I don’t like most of them, and I often order salads at restaurants. But if someone puts dressing on that salad (or sour cream on my enchilada), I cannot eat it. I smile and say thank you and thrash the food around with my fork to conceal that I haven’t touched it.

Basically, our tastes tend to be a bit child-like and to favor predictability and consistency. Maybe if elderberries would be an interesting addition to this year’s cake, but we’ll never know. We do know that Sonny will like the store-bought cake.

Next month, November, comes Dave’s birthday. I’m already looking for a Pepperidge Farm Frozen Confetti Vanilla Layer Cake every time I pass a freezer case. Once easy to find, this staple has largely disappeared from the stores around here. A year or two ago I had to go to nine grocery stores, searching. It’s a hazard to be expected when your tastes are formed in childhood while brands change to reflect contemporary tastes. (Plenty of red velvet and coconut, no vanilla…why?)

My birthday preference is a cherry-topped Sara Lee cheesecake. Cheesecake became my favorite dessert when I was about 17, and over the years I’ve had a ton of terrible as well as wonderful cheesecake. Too dry, too big, toppings that look nice but taste weird, flavors that sound good but turn out yucky. With Sara Lee, I know what to expect.

It strikes me that with our red, white, and blue birthday cake preferences, my little family has also achieved American flag colors. I’m not feeling hopeful about America or American democracy at the moment, but I did spend a bit of time googling down the rabbit hole to learn that at least 28 countries have red, white, and blue flags. The countries are a varied bunch geographically and politically, as they include North Korea, the UK, Australia, Iceland, France, New Zealand, and Russia. The symbolism of the flag colors varies by country. Back near the original birthday of the USA, Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, defined the colors of the US seal and flag as signifying purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red), and vigilance, perseverance, and justice (blue). Like a lot of people’s birthday wishes and hopes, these were high targets, maybe unreachable.

My own wishes are modest. I hope I’ll find the Pepperidge Farm cake sometime in the next six weeks. With my own birthday coming up soon, I hope that Dave will find my Sara Lee. Good luck to him! But today I’m focused on Sonny, who is celebrating his first birthday as a full-fledged member of the adult world. His shift today at Target started at 6 a.m. My wishes are for him to enjoy his workday, his presents, and his slice of sparkle-frosted birthday cake.

Toddler at the helm

In 2004, when Sonny was about six, several reality shows focused on families made their US TV debuts. Nanny 911, Wife Swap, and Trading Spouses became regular viewing in our house. Sonny loved them; so did I. Even my husband Dave, not much of a reality TV fan, would watch once in a while.

Wife Swap and Trading Spouses episodes involved swapping spouses (mothers, mostly) between families with opposing “extreme” parenting styles, such as athletic versus academic, controlling versus laissez faire, clean freak versus dust-abiding, etc. The ideal, as constructed by the story-line wizards behind the scenes, was to find some kind of happier medium for each family. The shows focused on child behavior, spousal relationships, household routines, and parenting philosophies. Nanny 911 dealt with parents overwhelmed by turbulent children, so rather than swapping out a parent, a nanny was sent in to save the day. The nannies wore uniforms and spoke in accents reminiscent of Mary Poppins. I loved Mary Poppins the movie from my childhood and also the shows that popped up in its wake, such as Nanny and the Professor. A mysterious, semi-magical outsider who could fix the family: how I wished one would descend, via umbrella or black taxicab, and help my own house.

Like a lot of the TV audience, these shows gave me some reassurance that my situation, challenging as it was, 1) wasn’t so bad, by comparison, and 2) could change, if I worked at it. Being a parent during the elementary school years was tough. Sonny had his own ideas of how to do things. He needed justifications and explanations for every rule, and it took some years to convince him that following rules was more rewarding than not. On the continuum of strict to loose, our family fell onto the stricter side of the middle. We limited screen time, scheduled homework time and bedtime, required piano practice, and had charts and checklists throughout the house.

I wondered if Sonny would gravitate towards the anything-goes onscreen families, the ones who let their kids watch as much TV as they wanted, never checked homework, never set a bedtime. Or if he’d get ideas from the hellraisers on Nanny 911 who screamed no, threw fits in stores to get a snack or a toy, and punched other kids. It turned out that he almost always preferred the structured, relatively uptight families (though he was critical of the crazier ones) to the unstructured, chaotic ones. That shouldn’t be a surprise: people on the autistic spectrum benefit even more than neurotypical people from clear communication of expectations, a predictable environment, and the reassurance of structure and steps for accomplishing things.

The shows got cancelled after about three years. That was okay with us; we’d stopped watching them, too. Sonny’s preteen years had arrived. He was far past the stage of throwing a fit in a store or refusing to do his homework.

I was still a little wistful that a problem-solving nanny had never invaded the house, even though I suspected that she would insist that the solution to problems with children’s misbehavior rested with Dave and me. Parents should present a united front, provide their children with consistent and clear expectations and limits, react to misbehavior in nonviolent ways that a child can understand, etc. We’d eventually figured out that stuff and put it into practice.

I did sometimes miss the shows’ opening montages of bad behavior. The thought of the monstrous adults generated by poor parenting, six-foot-plus toddlers without the ability or desire to self-regulate, was troubling, but mostly in the entertaining way of a scary movie. That was before one of those monsters was elected president, of course.

It’s cute when a toddler hands you a pan and thinks that means he has singlehandedly made dinner. When the chief executive of the US thinks that banning some travel from China and Europe means that he solved the pandemic: not cute. It’s a teaching opportunity and sometimes a cute conversation when a first-grader says math is hard and homework is unfair. When a 70-plus-year-old man looks to his many-times-bankrupt gut and information gleaned from hours a day of TV watching rather than the abundant resources available to him to fight big, tough problems like systemic racism and climate change: not cute.

As on Nanny 911, the “adults in the room” are mostly to blame. The ones who complained behind the scenes to each other and then left, staying silent in real time. And the ones who stayed and bought the toddler-in-chief the damn toy so they could have a little peace and quiet. It’s just too bad, I guess, that we can’t send in a nanny.

Adulting

On Sunday, Sonny and his girlfriend Lisa held their weekly Facetime session.   I knew they were going to discuss apartments.  They always talk about apartments—their plan is to move in together, and they’ve been researching apartments since January.   This conversation, though, would be more substantial:  Sonny has finally accumulated two months’ worth of pay stubs from his job, as required on most apartment applications!  (Lisa already had hit the pay stubs requirement.)  That meant that an application for a move-in as early as September was now possible.

I had helped research some one-bedroom possibilities for September.  One-bedrooms here start around $1500/month and go up from there.  We had found several possibilities, and Sonny had sent the links to Lisa.

At the beginning of the summer, Sonny asked us how we felt about him moving out.  Did we want him to wait for a while, or was it okay if he left sooner?

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said my husband Dave, “but if you moved out tomorrow, we would be ecstatic.”

Sonny grinned.

“As long as you could afford it,” I said.

We went over the numbers with Sonny and determined he’d be able to manage an apartment, although things would be tight.   He has no student or car debt, he’s still on our health insurance, and right now he’s on our phone bill as well.   His bank account is pretty healthy, as he’s been saving for an apartment for close to a year.     

By the time we were Sonny’s age, both Dave and I were on our own.   Separately, of course—we wouldn’t meet for a few years, as Dave lived in Massachusetts and I lived in Illinois—but we were living in apartments, working, paying our rent and other bills, etc.  As the young-uns would say, we were “adulting.”    We had long had a dream that Sonny would be able to support himself and live independently.

Adulting as the Millennials use the term combines wistfulness and sarcasm.   Gen Xers and Boomers, carrying on the tradition of parents and grandparents the world over, paint succeeding generations as whiny, entitled, childish, demanding.   In defense, Millennials often note that despite the complaints, they’re adulting away: paying bills, doing chores, moving out of their parents’ place, etc.     

I agree with Millennials that it’s harder to adult in the 2020s than it was in the 1980s and ‘90s.  College produces way more debt, and rents and other expenses—health insurance, car insurance—continue to rise much faster than wages.    My first post-college apartment, a large studio in a decent neighborhood in Chicago, cost $250/month, heat included.    My college debt, at $75/month, was far from crippling.   

Way back at the beginning of the pandemic, before things were shut down,  Lisa and Sonny had toured their dream unit in an apartment complex a couple of miles away from our house.   Lisa’s frustration has grown visibly over the summer as the dream apartment was rented, then other units became available and were rented before she and Sonny were ready to apply.    I hoped she was happy with the possibilities Sonny and I had found.     

A couple of hours later I found Sonny in the living room, watching an old MST3K episode.  “How did it go?” I asked.  “Did Lisa like any of the apartments?”  

His face was set and sad.  “Lisa said she talked to her aunt, and they realized she can’t afford it.  Her car insurance and student loan payments are too high.”  Like Sonny, she is a college graduate; like Sonny, she has a degree in an industry, music, which has been killed by COVID.  Like Sonny, due to an economy that’s gone sideways, Lisa is stuck working at a near-minimum-wage job.

My heart sank.  This would be hard for them to process.  Sonny and Lisa are both on the spectrum, where expectations and routines can get set firmly, so managing disappointment can be tough.

“So for now you’re going to put the apartment on hold?”  I ask.

“For a while.  Not forever.”

We make plans to talk more about when an apartment can be possible on Sunday, during Facetime.    I’m glad that Sonny and Lisa aren’t going to give up on their dream.   They’ll just plan a little farther out.  There are lots of ways to adult.

 

puzzled by joy

Nearly five months since I’ve worked a jigsaw puzzle.  For me, this is a long time.   I finished a thousand-piece Americana illustration packed with old-fashioned houses, people, and animals during a slow week between shows at the very beginning of March.

My parents liked puzzles of international sites: View-Master-style images of chateaus nestled in the Swiss Alps, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, Capri…pictures with plenty of flora but no fauna or people.   After I became a parent I turned to jigsaw puzzles as a way to relieve stress after especially draining times.  Even though the meaning is different, the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism resonates with me because working jigsaws feels like a reset of my brain.   The sensory details stimulate and comfort:  unsealing the edges of the puzzle box,  combing through the bright jumbled colors of the puzzle pieces, snapping the pieces into their rows, even stirring the soft gray dust in the bottom of the box.   Even more satisfying is assembling a whole from fragments.

During March and April my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about jigsaw puzzles.  We had none in the house, and our finances were uncertain.  Also I was busy and had just discharged with a puzzle not long before, so puzzles weren’t a concern.  By May, though, things had stabilized a bit and I was starting to miss this comfort.   I kept on the lookout, but there weren’t puzzles in stores.  Online, Buffalo Games was closed.  Sellers of dubious provenance were offering some of my favorite lines at three to four times the standard retail price.  I was too cautious and cheap to buy.   

This week, the end of July—I happened upon a Charles Wysocki in a store.  Wysockies are my most guilty pleasure of all puzzle lines.  The puzzle was a thousand pieces, normal price, so I bought it.  At the end of the work week, after teaching my last lesson, I pried open the box and started fishing out edge pieces.  Then occurred pleasant surprise number one: my husband Dave brought me a glass of wine.  (It was a surprise because that morning there had been no wine in the house.)    Then surprise number two: I checked out Netflix for the first time in several weeks and found two new seasons of my favorite docu-series.

This tripling of treats produced pure joy that lasted for many minutes, dulling over an hour or so to a normal soothing feeling.  Joy is fleeting and can’t be scheduled.   It bursts from some activity that I already enjoy,  flushed by the unexpected:  rounding a corner on a morning walk to find a family of deer, being one voice in a rare, perfectly tuned, shimmering chord…    The hard part is enjoying the walk or rehearsal the next time when things go back to normal.

Joy’s opposite is also short, although despair rushes out of the undergrowth more readily.  The pandemic and the US president’s mishandling of it (and everything else that he’s touched) are constants, but every day brings fresh dread surprises.  In misery’s case I’m glad for the transience, but I try to remember the joys fondly.   I try to have confidence that over time, I can piece the puzzle together.