My high school friend Linda had a Christmas tree decorated with blown egg ornaments and real lighted candles. Carrying on a family tradition from the Old Country, Linda and her mom made the ornaments from real eggshells (emptied of their contents) decorated with paint, glitter, ribbons, and rhinestones. Some of the eggs had the front part of the shell removed to make a diorama, revealing a cottage in the mountains, a starry night, Father Christmas on a puff of snow, Mary and a manger, etc. The tree was gorgeous, and it filled Linda’s front room with the smells of pine and wax, with a faint undertone of scrambled egg. 

Linda’s family added a couple of handmade ornaments to their collection every year. Stored properly, eggshell ornaments can last quite a while. Over the past twenty-five years, my family has acquired many ornaments, most from big box stores. We have a few handmade ornaments, all created by Sonny in elementary school art classes. Our main creative decorating tradition is figuring out locations for the baubles that don’t fit on our meter-high Christmas tree.  

Dave put two ornaments in the short hall that connects the back and front parts of the ground floor. One, a red and gold ball, dangles from the key rack. The other is hung on a painted nail that sticks out of the wall about eight feet above the floor. It’s a fancy ornament: a face mask of a lady with blue lipstick, blue eye-liner, and a blue velvet hat, along with swirly crescents in blue and gold on her forehead, with leaves or maybe tears falling down her cheeks. Her proportions are pretty and slightly UFO-ish, with a broad forehead and oversized eyeholes tapering to a tiny chin. 

I don’t remember where or when we’d acquired her. It was definitely pre pandemic. I did an image search on google to see if I could find out more, but couldn’t find an exact match. She seems to be generally in the tradition of Venetian Carnival masks. In the Venetian Republic, maybe as a carryover from the Roman Saturnalia winter celebrations of old, it was legal during some parts of the year for the populace to wear masks and mingle without regard to normal social boundaries. This custom was quite popular, since it let Venetians without power let off steam without actually upending the status quo. Although there were limits—people in masks were forbidden to throw scented eggs (ovi odoriferi, hollowed out eggs filled with perfume) at one another, for example. The festivities also led to a thriving mask-making industry, which flourished for around a thousand years, until 1797, when Napoleon conquered the Republic and outlawed public mask-wearing and Carnival. Amazingly, this prohibition lasted until 1979! 

Dave had chosen a location where the mask was hard to ignore. She was visible from the dining room, from the kitchen, and from the basement staircase. There was something about her. My eyes kept seeking her out as I walked past with the laundry or sorted the mail or stirred noodles on the stove. 

“It feels like she’s…watching us, doesn’t it?” Dave said one day. 

“Yes,” I said. 

I didn’t know how I felt about that. She was a pretty thing. I enjoyed looking at her. I’m fascinated and perplexed by the aesthetics of masks. I’ve never quite understood those stories where people in masks that cover a bit of their face are unrecognizable to their friends. Really, no one can tell that Robin is Dick Grayson or that the Dread Pirate Roberts is Wesley? 

It turns out that the Robin effect is not that much of an exaggeration. Research done during the pandemic, during which time many people complained that they couldn’t recognize others with masks on, found that masks seem to impair our facial recognition by about 15%. This has something to do with the way the human brain synthesizes individual features like the nose, mouth, dimples, freckles, eyes, etc., into a face. Obscure some of those features and the brain starts to focus on the ones it can see rather than amalgamating them.   

It’s a bit different for me. Masks don’t make it harder for me to recognize people. Or easier. My memory for faces is bad. I may have a mild case of prosopagnosia, the fancy term for facial blindness, or maybe my difficulties are autistic. It’s hard for me to stare at people’s faces long or intensely enough to fix their features in my memory. I’m much more likely to rely on other aspects to differentiate among the humans I know: height, hair, voice and speech, movement, and clothes. 

As the days passed I came to like the mask lady more and more, maybe because I could stare at her for as long as I liked. Her expression wouldn’t change. I nodded to her as I went to check for mail, as I pulled pans out of the cupboard, as I entered my studio in the morning. I gave her a new, secret name: Our Lady of the Mask.

“I think I want to leave her up past Christmas,” Dave said, as we pulled the fish out of the oven for dinner yesterday. 

There was no need to pack her away in a box. She was sturdier than an eggshell. 

“Yes,” I said. 


Epic Fail #257

Monday night I was adulting like a boss and feeling pretty proud of myself. “Easy pork chops supreme” was in the oven, the rice was simmering on the stovetop, and I was doing a bit of holiday decorating. So productive! The two tubs containing our Christmas paraphernalia had been sitting in the sun porch for several days, untouched, but now there were snowmen and Saint Nicks all over the place. Colorful and cheery, if not elegant. 

I grabbed a garland that I thought would look good on the back stairs and walked through the kitchen. The rice was on fire. I dropped the garland and got the smoking pot to the sink. The grains at the bottom were black and gelatinous, but the top looked normal in color and consistency. I forked up a couple of grains from the center; they tasted like the inside of an old sneaker. 

I own fourteen cookbooks. I have no idea whether this is an excessive number or the reverse.  As is the case with meditation, ballet, and French, about once a year I try to improve at cooking. Twenty-five years ago, as a wedding present, my grandmother gave me a year’s subscription to the cooking magazine Taste of Home, which collects recipes from home cooks. This was a waste of her money, since these recipes assumed way more knowledge and competence than I possessed, although they looked delicious. Over the years I’ve accumulated more suitable cookbooks, mostly ones with “easy” or “beginner” in their titles. I still find them daunting.

For most of fall, 2022, I’ve stuck to a cooking-improvement routine. Sunday night: choose a recipe. Monday morning: hit the grocery store. Monday night: make the recipe. Most of the attempts have been at least moderate successes. 

I mostly use the books in my collection that feature recipes for three to a maximum of six  ingredients. This is because everyone in my household is on the autistic spectrum. Each of us has sensory issues that affect what we can eat. Unfortunately, our limitations don’t always match. Sonny and I don’t like mayonnaise; Dave loves it. Dave and Sonny hate mushrooms and onions, both of which I enjoy. Cookbooks with limited ingredients make it easier to find recipes that avoid everyone’s no-nos.   

I put the lid back on the rice pot and checked the kitchen timer. I had eight minutes until the meat would be finished. What to do? What to do?

I hoped the pork chops would be good, but I was worried about the sauce. It had been gloopier than I’d expected. Ketchup, honey, and hot sauce, plus a slice of lemon on top of each chop. I’d never seen lemons on pork chops. I decided to trust in the cookbook’s title: 500 Five Ingredient Recipes, great taste guaranteed.”  

To replace the rice, I called on Sonny and Dave to make a couple of instant mac-and-cheese cups. My qualms about the sauce proved correct; none of us liked it. The pork itself was…okay. Also I would need to buy a new pot. So basically this week’s Monday meal was a disaster. 

But I’m still going to make a new recipe next Monday. I’m kind of surprised at this decision, because I very often react to a big failure by dropping a project entirely. Maybe the new routine has had long enough to set. Maybe I’m trying to save face. Or maybe I am, in fact, adulting like a boss. 

A Frosty Morning

I’ve started the next tome in the poetry-book pile: New Enlarged Pocket Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems, edited and with commentary by Louis Untermeyer. (Earlier this year I developed a habit of reading a little poetry aloud in the mornings; it’s been fun, mostly.) I read a lot of Frost when I was a kid, but outside of revisiting “The Road Not Taken”—because it’s everywhere—I hadn’t felt the impulse to reread him. The second I started the anthology, though, I remembered what I’d loved about his work. The language, exact but not abstruse. The New England landscapes, the farmers and wives and townspeople. The stories, and the way the poet stepped in and out of them. 

Today I read a poem called “The Code.” (It’s also called “The Code—heroics,” but in this anthology the heroics is omitted.) It’s an early work, published in Frost’s second collection, 1914’s North of Boston. It’s early, not youthful. In 1914 Frost was 40 years old. He would live until age 88, dying in 1963. By 1914 he’d dropped out of two colleges, Dartmouth and Harvard, lost both of his parents, married and fathered six children, worked at farming and teaching, and moved his family from New England to Merrie Olde England, where his first two books were published. 

“The Code” is set in rural New England. It begins with three men at work in a meadow: a “town-bred” farmer and two hired hands. Hand 1, James, suddenly leaves. Hand 2 explains to the farmer why. It turns out that the farmer had expressed the thought that with a rain shower coming, they’d need to take pains with the hay-cocking. James had spent a half hour ruminating about the statement, concluded that the farmer was intentionally insulting him by telling him how to do his job, and huffed away. Hand 2 informs the farmer that “The hand that knows his business won’t be told/To do work better or faster” and goes on to tell a story about an incident with a country-bred farmer named Sanders. Sanders is an unpleasant but hard-working man who violates the code when he orders Hand 2 to throw a rack of hay into a barn bay, something Hand 2 was already about to do. Hand 2 retaliates by trying to drown Sanders in the hay. Sanders survives the experience, and so does the hand. He even keeps his job, because Sanders recognizes that he overstepped. “Did he discharge you?” asks the (presumably) horrified town-bred farmer. “Discharge me?” replies the hand. “No! He knew I did just right.”  

When I was a kid, reading poems like this, I thought that Frost was a native New Englander who’d grown up on a farm. Nope: he was very much instead a “town-bred” person. Frost had relatives in New England, but the poet himself was born in California and raised in San Francisco until age 11, when his father died. At that point his family moved to the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his grandfather was an overseer at a mill. That tendency to comment on his stories might originate in his outsider status. 

I reflected, on reading “The Code,” that it’s a wonder anything gets done in this world. The prickliness (and deadliness) of the farm hands may be exaggerated for comic effect, but the perils of violating a code are real. This is a serious challenge for those of us on the autistic spectrum. Sonny, Dave, and I have experienced a lot of misery through misunderstandings. We try to trouble-shoot for one another when we’re having some of those interpersonal issues, but it’s kind of a blind-leading-the-blind thing. I wish we had a Hand 2—borderline psychopath though he may be—to explain how to avoid offense. 


“And she never played harp again!” Janet exclaimed. 

I love a story-inside-story frame. Travelers recounting ghost encounters in front of a crackling fireplace at an inn. Grandfather reading Billy The Princess Bride. P.G. Wodehouse’s Oldest Member button-holing unwary club dudes with yet another golf tale. 

There was a harp player sitting just a few feet away on the bandstand. I glanced nervously in her direction, but she didn’t seem to have noticed the clarinet-section chatter. To be fair, even though I was inches away from Janet, I didn’t get every word of the story. Janet’s voice was soft and she spoke quickly. We were a few minutes before soundcheck, and the distractions were many. 

Even ordinary conversations can perplex me. I’ve spent a lot of time as an autistic person trying to figure out how to be reciprocal and appropriate, finding the space between oversharing and a rude silence. This was an extra-weird conversation in a summer that had been stuffed with them. The common musician chitchat tends to involve clarifications and warnings about repeats and da capos and tempo changes, complaints about parking and the heat, and as the summer wanes, fall plans. But I kept getting into unexpected topics where the conversation conventions were foggy. Interesting, but a bit perilous. Somehow I’ve ended up discussing, among other subjects, backyard chicken farming. Is a rooster worth it? How does one set up a coop that shelters the chickens from coyotes? 

It was hard to follow Janet’s story. The orchestra members were arpeggiating and bowing and blatting, waiting for the concertmaster to signal the tuning A. The bandstand was set up in a beautiful outdoor space with statues, trees, flowers, fountains, and a Revolutionary War cemetery, all drawing my eye. It was election season, the primaries, and a steady stream of people processed past the stage to vote at City Hall behind us. There were long lines for barbecue at the food truck and for beverages at the wine truck. The sky was a deep blue broken by a few wispy clouds. The pair of bicycle cops parked near the sound tent looked a little sunburnt.  

At the two prep rehearsals for this concert, Janet had murmured tales in my direction whenever the conductor put down his baton. Stories about old college friends, airport mishaps, failed restaurants, difficulties with Japanese cucumber salad, and more. In response I would lean towards her and interject a couple of words or nod to reassure her that I was listening. Not that I could make out every word. She always telegraphed the punchlines clearly with  a “Surprise!” expression, at which point I’d smile and say “Wow!” or “Think of that!”    

Janet thumped into the chair beside me and opened her clarinet case. She’d forgotten her wind clips. As she put her horn together, she told me about her sister.  

My sister played the harp. She was great. She toured with Barry Manilow and Bette Midler. She also got harassed and stalked. This was back in the day; nobody would do anything to help her. Everyone she asked for help said her stalker would have to do something more than telephone incessantly. She tried pretending that there was a policeman listening in on his calls. That worked for a little while, but then he came back. Finally he told her he’d leave her alone if he could have a personal memento. He asked for her harp. She quoted him a huge price, enough to buy two harps and more. He agreed, and they set a place and time. A couple of her friends came with her on the night. 

“This was New York, so they couldn’t bring guns,” Janet said, rolling her eyes. “So they brought boards with nails in them in case he tried anything rough.” 

One of them counted the cash; it was all there. She gave him the harp. The stalker kept his word and stayed away. 

“My sister used the money to buy a grand piano and finance law school, and she never played harp again!” 

How to respond? I have my own stalker story, which is fairly dramatic, although less so than Janet’s sister’s. Mine happened in Chicago, so there was a gun involved. However, this wasn’t the right frame. I wasn’t a fellow traveler at the inn or someone with a book in hand; I was the captive audience. Even so, something more than “think of that” seemed to be required.   

I decided on a question: “What made you think of that story?” 

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Janet, her eyes sliding past the harpist. A truck rumbled by on Hancock Street. She started to tell me about her mother the piano teacher and a vase, but then it was time for the A and I never heard the ending. 


Elton John is Sonny’s favorite artist. About a year ago, on the first day tickets went on sale for John’s farewell tour dates at Gillette Stadium, Sonny ordered four. He spent months collecting the elements of his costume. Glitter platforms, heart-shaped, furry glasses, a rainbow vest, piano knee socks, gold lamé shorts and gloves. My husband Dave had volunteered to be the chauffeur for the evening as well as to book rooms for the night at a nearby hotel. It’s impossible to overstate how amped up Sonny was about this event.  

Now it was the day before the concert, and two of Sonny’s four tickets hadn’t been delivered. That is, their electronic versions with bar codes hadn’t found their way to his phone. He’d bought two from Ticketmaster (which had arrived) and two from another vendor. The second vendor had scheduled the tickets to show up by this day, but Sonny still couldn’t access them. I recommended to Sonny to call customer support, with Dave listening in on the call in case Sonny didn’t understand something. At about 1:00 Wednesday afternoon Dave and Sonny sat down with their phones and Sonny’s computer, expecting to straighten out the situation within a few minutes.

A lengthy and perplexing conversation ensued. In hindsight red flags abounded. The customer service rep informed Dave that a $200 Ticketmaster gift card was required to release Sonny’s tickets. He promised that as soon as the matter was resolved the card would be refunded and “helpfully” mentioned that our local CVS had these gift cards available for purchase. Dave, wanting to save time, rejected that idea. The rep then suggested a Zelle transfer of $500, which Sonny set up. Then Sonny’s bank put a hold on the transfer. I’d been checking in on their progress. Worried. Sonny was keeping it together—but just barely. He was breathing faster and heavier and shifting in his seat. I was nervous that he’d go into an outright meltdown and wind up hurting himself or breaking something. 

Therefore I felt relieved when, a bit over an hour into the ordeal, Dave and Sonny drove to CVS for what was supposed to be the final step. You may have guessed it already—they were going to buy the gift card. The rep was still on the phone with them. The CVS cashier told Dave: “Don’t do it, it’s a scam” and declined to make the sale. Dave and Sonny retreated to the parking lot. The rep then suggested that they go for a Target gift card instead. At that point, Dave disconnected the call. 

When Dave and Sonny got back from CVS and told me about the fiasco, I had to agree with the cashier. We’d been scammed.   

People on the autistic spectrum can be more vulnerable than average to some types of cyber fraud, especially those that involve friendships and romantic relationships. However, it turns out that generally, autistic people are as able as neurotypical people to recognize a spoofed website or email along with other kinds of phishing. The flip side of that is that autistic people are just as likely as neurotypical people to be bamboozled by a spoof. I found this a bit reassuring, because this is what had happened to Sonny. When searching for the customer service number, he’d had clicked onto a spoof site rather than the legitimate site.  

The root of the problem—besides the fact that it’s easy for criminals to make spoof sites—was that none of us had been thinking straight. The stakes felt too high for calm, measured judgment. Each of us knew that a gift card quest is not a standard response to “Here’s my order number and receipt: where are my tickets?” Dave should have hung up in the first five minutes. Yet all three of us just kept going along with each step into the ridiculous. 

We may never know what happened to the original tickets—or even if that sale was legitimate in the first place. 

The next step was to contact Sonny’s bank. Dave yelled “fraud” as a keyword into the automated phone system, and who’d’a thunk it? “Zelle transaction” was button number four! Eventually he got to a human being. With luck, after a review, Sonny will get his $500 back. 

While Dave was doing battle with the bank’s AI, we experienced a minor miracle. Sonny was able to buy two tickets, albeit in a different row. They transferred immediately, along with bar codes, etc. The $300 cost by that point felt like a bargain. Our afternoon was gone—it was almost 5:00—but nobody would miss the show. 

It’s amazing and strange how good we felt, despite all of the time, money, and stress. Sure, we’d been reminded that we’re mackerel to the sharks of the world, but our fridge had wine and  Dave’s favorite Pepperidge Farm cake, and Sir Elton John in person was just 24 hours away.  

How was the concert? I texted Sonny this morning. He was still at the hotel. 

MAGICAL, he replied. 

The meltdown

Since I can remember one of my favorite activities has been walking in circles, especially while reading a book. I do this nearly every day. It’s a form of stimming (self-soothing repetitive actions) that, depending on the circumstances, can entertain me, calm me down, or help me think. Do you stim? Most assuredly: everybody does. People on the autistic spectrum may stim in different or more noticeable ways than others; this sometimes gets us into trouble. That’s why I perform this particular stim in the privacy of my bedroom. I start at the headboard, pass the bookcase, dresser #1, the fireplace, the writing chair, and dresser #2, on the way to my closet door, then loop back. Doubtless I look ridiculous to other humans as I walk these laps (about 37 steps each).  

Capone the cat, however, loves to be in the room while I read-walk. He stretches himself out luxuriously somewhere along the track, seemingly indifferent to my travels. It’s amazing how much real estate an orange tabby can take up when he stretches his limbs and tail to their fullest. That he’s lying in a spot where Mom’s stockinged feet will be in claw’s reach about once every 30 seconds is, surely, coincidental. 

At some point—always once I’ve passed him, so that my back is to his paw—Capone will strike. He has a stuffed carrot toy that he loves beyond reason, but I’m his second favorite plaything. The claw will catch my sock, or my skirt or jeans, whatever clothing hangs a couple of inches over the floor. I know it’s coming, but Capone seems to sense when I’ve become absorbed in the story and time his attacks accordingly. Sometimes I’ll stumble. Sometimes I’ll stutter step and keep going. Sometimes I’ll play along. “You want a piece of me?” I’ll say, and wiggle my toes next to his paws. Capone will stare up at me with his golden eyes: ’Sup? 

The other day the game went astray. I’d gone deep into the selection for this month’s book club, We Keep the Dead Close, a true crime book about a murder of a Harvard University Ph.D. student in 1969 and was oblivious. Capone’s claw took both of us by surprise, as he managed to get it thoroughly stuck. He’d snagged both my pants leg and my sock.  I stood still while he worked at it, knowing that attempts to help would probably make it worse. The claw didn’t want to come free. By the time he’d freed himself Capone was so mad that he began biting at my ankle.  

I moved to the bedroom door, opening it wide and saying “Bye now,” hoping to walk in peace. Capone didn’t want to leave. It looked to me as if he was having the cat version of a meltdown. I’d seen and experienced plenty of the human kind.  Stimming and other calming mechanisms help, but sometimes the stressors overwhelm and the storm takes over. Responses to the storm vary. I curl into a ball, every limb tucked tight. Sonny flaps and stomps. Capone the cat pads along my walking track, his tail lashing, looking for a fight.

He stopped near where I was standing—the center of the room—and looked up at my hand. I wished for the billionth time that I’d invested in some of those buttons that Billi the cat uses so well (Billispeaks, YouTube), so Capone could express Mad or Hurt or Sorry or Cuddle. 

A couple of weeks ago I had a Very Bad Day. One during which I curled myself into a ball for a bit. Capone had hopped up on the bed, purred at me, and butted his head into my elbow, then settled by my left hip for the next twenty minutes. This had helped me immensely. 

I reminded myself that I had plenty of bandaids in the medicine cabinet and inched my hand towards my cat’s head. He didn’t snap or claw. I scratched between his ears, did the kind of pets that he likes, along his spine through the tail tip. I scratched behind his whiskers, and he leaned his head into my fingers. The storm passes through cats more quickly, it seems. 

He left the room, tail held high. I closed the door. Breathed in, breathed out. Walked, read. 


It was my favorite kind of line. Outdoors in fine weather, no one crowding too close, and a mere 20 people between me and the entrance with just a couple of minutes to go until the museum opened. I was having my first Museum of Fine Arts day in three years. A couple of treads above me on the MFA’s front stairs was a man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He wore khakis and a button-down shirt and balanced a bulky leather satchel on his hip. The sight of him made me happy to be traveling light, with all of the day’s necessities stuffed in my pockets.   

The trolleys and cars passed on Huntington Avenue. Tour groups gathered in chattering bunches on the lawn. Everyone on the steps seemed happy and excited. A college kid, maybe about to graduate, chatted with some relatives in a language I couldn’t identify. The little old lady to my left could have stepped out of Degas painting, if Degas had painted Paris in the 2010s. She wore a black top over a skirt with layers of translucent gray netting and shiny silver sneakers with round toecaps that looked like spoons. 

I was hoping to pick up some spoons for myself, since my supply was running low. I’d just read “The Spoon Theory,” an essay by Christine Miserandino (the-spoon-theory), in which spoons stand for units for energy. The piece explains what it’s like to live with a chronic condition that is largely invisible to other people. Autoimmune diseases, mental issues such as depression, neurodiverse challenges, etc. 

Miserandino, who has lupus, describes breakfast in a diner with a friend. The friend asks what lupus is really like. She gathers up spoons from nearby tables and hands a dozen to the friend. To get out of bed in the morning: lay down one spoon. Get dressed: a second spoon. Take the morning meds: a third spoon. When all the spoons are one the table, nothing can be done until the spoons are replenished (generally by rest). People with chronic conditions have significantly fewer spoons than a healthy person, requiring them to “make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to.” This depiction resonated with me, as it has with many others. Today there are a number of colonies of “Spoonies” with various conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, autism, supporting one another.  

My spoons start running out when I have to do a lot of self-policing to make sure my conversation etiquette and facial expressions are on point, suppress stimming impulses, deal with difficult news, etc. That’s been my life lately. A good museum visit, with the art and the interesting humans and the big, muffled spaces, gets the dropped spoons back into my brain’s silverware drawer, so to speak. 

Just before the line started to move an elegant woman behind me, dressed in creams and taupes, asked one of the attendants if there would be someplace to check her luggage, as she’d just come from the airport. There was someone with spoons to spare! 

I wandered the galleries for hours, starting with the antique instruments and the Egyptians. I kept coming across my line-mates. The man with the satchel in the hall of the Impressionists, transfixed by a Monet. The college kid and his family among the Greek and Roman sculptures.  I lingered for a while in the Netherlands collection—college kid again, also the little old lady–fascinated by the  sullen brides, boats, and cavorting peasants. In the hall with the cracked porcelain birds I passed the woman from the plane. She’d checked her bag. I found her again in Folk Art, contemplating the carousel animals. 

By the time I got to the John Singer Sargent gallery, near the end of the visit, my brain was feeling pleasantly sated. I almost walked past the painting of Mrs. Edward Darley Bolt (Mary Louisa Cushing, nickname Isa), which is the photo at the top of this essay, but stopped to enjoy it. The purple polka dotted dress, the ridiculous hat, the face full of confidence and mischief. I wanted to remember her forever.  

In the story, Miserandino’s friend runs out of spoons at around six in the evening. She has no way to get through the rest of her day—until Miserandino gives her the spoon she’s kept in her pocket. You never know when you’ll need a little boost.  

I’d found my pocket spoon. Thanks, Isa. 

Breathy blather

“Breathe in. breathe out.” I’d’ve done just that without being prompted, of course, but I followed the order on this morning’s guided meditation. Then the guru du jour spiced it up. “Breathe in positivity. Breathe out negativity.” Followed by other pairs: Love/hate, kindness/cruelty, courage/fear, etc. 

Over the next two minutes I bridled at the implication that within seconds my body had turned the very air inside it into something toxic and hateful. Who could feel good about expelling negativity, hate, and fear into the universe? 

In search of reassurance I looked up the science, where to the limits of my understanding I found the following: The air that we inhale is about 21% oxygen, and the air that we exhale is about 16% oxygen. Our cells use some of the oxygen for energy, which produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Carbon dioxide is about 0.4% of the inhaled gas and about 4.4% of the exhaled gas. The plants use the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. Therefore: inhale and exhale are both—well, originally I wrote “good” here, but that’s exactly the value judgment I want to avoid. “Complementary” is more accurate. 

The word-pairs are simply meant to remind and reset, but they aren’t working for me. (Fortunately not all the gurus use this technique.) My artistic mind loves images and word play; it especially enjoys guessing what the second word of each pair will be before the guru intones it. My autistic mind, though, is bored and therefore making trouble, taking every phrase literally and then fussing about it. It would be amusing to watch the brain battle itself, if it weren’t so triggering some days.  One consequence of my brain’s growing up in a household that was simultaneously intensely religious and abusive was unquestioning acceptance of the message that I am a particularly vile excrescence on the face of creation. It’s infuriatingly easy to fall back into that mindset.  

It’s so much easier to orient outside of my head, staying absorbed in nature or a good book or a symphony. With no music or words or flowers to delight me, like Keats’s Endymion (yes, even though it’s May I’m still doing poetry),  I can feel upset at being lured “into the bosom of a hated thing.” Revising the relationship with that hated thing is one of the points of meditation. At least that’s what I’ve read. Progress is slow and I think it’ll take a while to find the right meditation mix and avoid  the breathe in X/breathe out Y people. Plenty of gurus who count instead or just tell one to breathe. We’ll see how it goes over the next month and a half or so. Stay tuned!  

There was a further, albeit shallow, reason that my hackles—which, truthfully, never hang very low—had risen. I play wind instruments and was getting fed up with all the exhale disses. 

This week I’m on a bit of a break between learning new scores. I’m indulging in a years-long project of reading through various orchestra pieces in my collection in a grand, roughly chronological, tour. I’m up to1816-1817, so today I played a couple of Rossini overtures along with Schubert’s fourth symphony. 

Schubert titled this symphony “Tragic.” Nobody knows why. He wrote it at age 19, which is a rather dramatic age, and it wasn’t performed in his short lifetime, but the work doesn’t feel particularly fraught or despairing. Fortunately one of my very favorite orchestras, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, had made a fine performance available on YouTube. Beyond being a great ensemble, FRS has smart editing with plenty of closeups of conductor and soloists, plus a fabulous woodwind section.  I assembled my clarinet, put on headphones, and got ready to play along with for the opening C minor chord. Then: 35 minutes and 12 seconds of pure heaven. Inhale, fast or slow depending on how much time the score allows. Then the exhale…the exhale is where we make the music.  

The Ones who Look Away

Mission Hill sits on a quiet side street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. The school buses drop students off in front of a royal blue concrete ramp whose walls bear the school’s name and a slogan, Be Kind and Work Hard, painted in gold. Mission Hill was established in 1997 as a “pilot” public school for students ranging from preK to grade 8. Its educational philosophy, based on a “Habits of Mind Approach” and emphasizing the arts, projects, and democratic decision-making, made the school famous nationwide. Students are—or more properly as of this morning, were—chosen by lottery for the approximately 220 slots. Small wonder that there were plenty of parents praying that their child would be selected to attend. 

Speak, Memory…It began with a bump just behind my knees. A bunch of us were walking home from school. It was music day, so I had my clarinet case with me. Everybody was bunched up at a corner, waiting for the crossing guard to signal us to cross. I figured the nudge was accidental until it happened again. I glanced back, trying to be subtle. There were two of them, girls from the sixth grade, swinging their violin cases. They saw me looking—were waiting for me to look—and laughed. “Weirdo! Freak!” I pretended not to hear. They swung their cases a little harder. Bump. Bump. Bump. The guard (oblivious? maybe) finally stopped traffic so we could cross the intersection. I walked a little faster, but not fast enough.

The ramp commemorated Mission Hill’s 20th anniversary, even though by that time its reputation was a bit tarnished. The school had helped a number of people line their pockets. The filmmakers who’d produced the 10-part documentary A Year at Mission Hill, which “chronicl[ed] the rhythms and relationships of a year in the life of one of America’s most successful public schools.” Founder Deborah Meier, who published four books about how Mission Hill’s educational approach was the best thing since sliced bread. Neither documentary nor books mentioned that Mission Hill was a bully’s paradise.

Memory has more to say: I was at Shaw’s putting bananas in my basket when I ran into Mrs. G, Sonny’s aide in fifth and sixth grades. Those were tough years; lots of visits to the principal and the guidance counselor, but we got through them somehow. Sonny was in high school at that point, doing much better. Mrs. G looked around, lowered her voice, and talked to me for ten minutes. About Sonny and how sweet and smart he was, how she’d felt terrible about the group of kids who bullied him. Then she told me about Mrs. Y, Sonny’s teacher, being the head bully in charge. She let the kids get torment him until he responded, giving her an excuse to punish him. Various staffers had sighed about it, had quietly complained amongst themselves. Everybody knew about it, but no one had said a word to me. 

2013 was a fateful year for Mission Hill. The documentary debuted! Also came the first allegation of student sexual misconduct. It’s not clear (to me) from the news coverage whether this was the first time a parent had complained or whether this was simply the first allegation that went public. Whatever steps the school may have taken, according to news reports, the rampant bullying at Mission Hill continued. 

Like many humans, especially humans on the spectrum, I’ve had plenty of experience being bullied. Often I didn’t even realize that bullying was happening. You can feel a shove, someone beating your back with drumsticks (which also happened to me a few times). It’s harder to figure out when you’re being excluded being set up to fail for someone’s amusement. And when you get called names, a lot of time this simply reinforces your own self-assessments. Especially when a teacher’s setting the example. Why, yes, I’m dressed in kind of an ugly outfit—the kind of clothes people put in donation bags, which is where Mom gets most of our clothes—and I like to read too much,  that’s not normal, and I walk with my toes turned in sometimes. They’re right, I’m a freak.    

 In 2017, several families sued Mission Hill for failing to address the sexual abuse that their children had suffered. This suit resulted in a settlement and also in the commission of a law firm to investigate the school’s culture. That investigation produced a 192-page report finding that despite repeated complaints, the school took a “hands off” approach towards bullying. Unsurprisingly this led to an environment where students so inclined could sexually abuse and bully other children and even on occasion physically attack the teachers, while, according to School Committee member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, “A lot of people looked away.” 

Grownups looking away seems to be common in bullying situations. The crossing guard, the cafeteria workers, the teachers on recess duty, the Sunday School teachers? They managed to overlook children being horrible to one another all the time, quite the skill I suppose. “Kids will be kids,” was that what they thought? Or were they worried for their jobs? 

Bullying doesn’t stop with childhood, it simply gets expressed differently. For an autism-friendly guide to understand being bullied, I found this WikiHow page,  Know-if-You’re-Being-Bullied, which has examples and recommendations. The recommendations mostly revolve around telling someone and enlisting their help. A trusted adult, a counselor, a relative. This may not stop the bullying. It obviously didn’t at Mission Hill, nor did it stop three years of workplace bullying for me in a recent experience. However, a listener who can reassure the bullied person that they didn’t deserve that treatment reduces the shame. Small comfort, perhaps, but we need to take our comforts where we can. 

Another small comfort: this morning’s news that the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain is going to be closed permanently as of June, 2022.   


“Get off my lawn!” 

What images come to mind? The grumpy old man, of course. Perhaps a walking stick to shake. Thoughtless youngsters, romping on a stretch of verdant grass, cut to a uniform height of 2.5 inches.  

In my case, there was definitely a grumpy old man. That was the only full match. Instead of a cane, there was a wheeled recycling bin. Instead of thoughtless youngsters, there was me, an over-thinker if anything and hardly a kid. Rather than a green lawn, the two of us stood on a paved road. 

There are so many rules. My ambition as a neurodivergent person is to understand and follow them all, explicit and implicit. Show up on time. Stop at the stop signs. When among humans respond to greetings with an echo: the nod, the wave, the good morning, the “fine, how are you?”  

Sometimes my rules collide, though. 

“Why are you walking on her property?” the man yelled from behind his bin (it was Trash Day). Several cognitive problems occurred simultaneously. I was on the street, at least two yards from the curb and front yard of the house in question; how could this be private property?  Second, there was no way to echo back this—greeting? Third, responding at all violated my rule not to engage with loud, angry people.

Still, this was a street in my immediate neighborhood. I’d walked on it hundreds of times. It’s just four houses long, split by a cross street in the middle. There’s a gorgeous willow in one yard, an unusual border with scalloped bricks and white gravel edging another, some cool lawn furniture in another. At the end is a path into a public park—my intended destination. At that spot the road widens out into a semicircle with a house on each side and the park entrance in the middle.  I walked in the right half of the circle, just a few steps away from the track to the boathouse and the pond. There’s a nice little swaying dock there where I can stand and watch the water, maybe catch sight of a swan or two. I stopped a cautious distance away from the grumpy old man, took off my headphones, and responded. “I don’t understand. I’m on the road.” 

This led to more yelling and statements about the Private Property sign which sat on a fence at the back of the circle. When I see a private property sign I assume that what’s private is behind the sign. That’s how those signs work, right? Not according to Grumpy. This sign worked forward and sideways, applying to the stretch of road on which I was standing, roughly the right quarter of the space. 

In order to get onto the public part of the road, I’d have to move to the center of the circle. This would bring me closer than comfortable to the Grumpy—more accurately, Mr. Furious—who evidently owned the house across the street and the left quarter of the circle.  I stayed where I was. He revved the recycling bin—getting ready to roll it in my direction?—and continued his monologue, which ended with “I could call the police and have you arrested.” 

“Feel free to do just that, Sir,” I said. Which is an extremely uncharacteristic response for me. I put my headphones back on, upped the volume, and turned down the cross street. I’d lost my appetite for swans, but there were plenty of sights to pull me into the world, at least temporarily. The cross street has a house at the end with an interesting zen garden and a little bridge. Front lawns without fences, a lot like the neighborhoods of my youth, where the local kids played all over the yards and the streets, except for the spots where there were fences or privacy hedges. No one had ever told me to get off of a lawn. 

 Unfortunately I also kept rerunning the confrontation in my head. Twenty-four years in this town and I had never crossed words with anyone on the street. I’d given directions to lost people, chatted about the weather, admired various dogs, said good morning. I thought up brave comebacks and examples and clever counterarguments. Not even a life-sized decapitated Santa Claus on a West Street fire escape was able to cheer me up. (Much.) 

I wondered if my understanding of Private Property signs was faulty. Considered whether I should stop outdoor walking altogether or stick to places where I was completely confident I understood the rules. I vented to Dave once I got home. His curiosity was piqued enough for a trip to Town Hall to study the property lines—and he got an earful from one of the staffers there. Grumpy was correct, although with an asterisk.  The public road is limited to the middle of the dead end, and the left and right quarters are private property. Because Grumpy complains and calls the cops so frequently, the town has offered, at its own expense, to mark the property lines with paint. Or, also at town expense, to break up the pavement and put down sod—giving each homeowner a free front yard extension. 

Both homeowners have rejected these ideas. The homeowner on the right never complains or reports people who walk on “her” part of the street. Grumpy seems not to want to lose an excuse to unload. 

Sheltering behind the recycling bin like a dog barking from a window. Well, plenty of pups have done that over the course of my walks and I lived through all of that noise. I lengthened Grumpy’s ears, gave him a snout, and shrunk him to the size of a chihuahua. Today I’ll visit the swans.