One of Sam’s first speech therapists missed many scheduled home sessions. Early childhood programs usually begin in the home for toddlers who need services like Sam did. By the time I thought I should complain about her absences, however, Sam was “aging out” of the program. Once a child reaches 3 years old, education officials offer preschool along with speech and other services. Preschool offers a far richer environment to learn much more and much faster — as long as your child is ready to learn that way. Sam went to preschool where another speech therapist was assigned to work with him. She kept her schedule.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our family’s first autism experiences as Shahla and I put the finishing touches on our book. Given what could have been for our family 30 years ago, I feel really lucky.
It’s odd to call it lucky that Sam missed so many of his first speech therapy sessions. I didn’t consider it lucky back then. Sam had just been diagnosed. There was a lot of work to do. The therapist wasn’t doing her part of the work.
Yet, when she did keep her appointments, they were powerful. She took time to explain to me what she was doing as she worked with Sam. She wanted me to understand and keep things going when she wasn’t around. Since she missed so many of her appointments, I pivoted toward that goal pretty fast. (Honestly, I think she was battling depression.) I wasn’t a trained speech therapist. But I was soon thinking about Sam’s speech development all the time and responding to him in those thousand little moments you have every day with your child.
It took a while to see how lucky that was.
Sam was in primary school when I met Shahla. Shahla also helped with his progress, but that, too, took a while for me to see. There was still a lot of work to do and I was always trying to line up help. Shahla and I would chat occasionally about how things were going. I would share a story of some happening, often whatever was vexing us at the time and she would explain what was going on behind the curtain. Those little conversations were actually a deep dive for me. I understood better what was happening with Sam and where to go next — just as his wayward speech therapist was trying to show us.
We were learning to work smarter, not just harder, of course. But there was something else.
Sam couldn’t be forced or coerced — not that we wanted to work that way. Like many children with autism, in my opinion, the ways that he protected himself from the outside world were effective and strong. Still, we made progress. His best outcomes came after we approached things in a straightforward way with his full participation. The better we got at being deliberate, respectful, and intentional, the more momentum we created.
Even though Sam is a grown-ass man, we still seize the small moments to make a difference. I’ve been working at home for a while now, and that’s come with more opportunities for those small moments. With Mark gone and both Sam and I working full-time for the past decade, we didn’t have many. These days, we can chat over breakfast or lunch (or both) before Sam heads to work. Like every young adult, Sam sometimes turns his adult mind back to childhood experiences and tries to make sense of them. I’m glad to be here as he puzzles through all that. I’d like to think he’s puzzling through more because of these opportunities.
These days, he’s also been thinking a lot about why alarm bells bothered him so much when he was in elementary school. I told him he wasn’t alone, that no one likes that sound. That was a revelation to him, since apparently the rest of us hide that aversion so well. But he’s really wrestling with this, breaking things down into the science of sound, analyzing sound waves, and figuring how to manipulate them. He wants to make his own science to help others who hate alarm bells as much as he did. Who knows? Maybe he’s got something like Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine going in his sound lab back there, ready to banish those anxiety-making monsters once and for all.
Happy progress, indeed.
I finally moved my personal things out of my old office space, thanks to the help of a co-worker who also had to listen to me prattle on about things like how many piano makers there were before and after the Great Depression and why that might mean something to journalism now.
I have a century-old, upright grand piano. My parents got it for me when I was first learning to play. It has a big sound, especially after I had it rebuilt about ten years ago. The man who rebuilt it told me that before the Great Depression there were more than 400 piano makers in the United States. After the Great Depression, there were just two.
That seemed a stunning loss to me. Many people love music and enjoy playing, even if just for themselves. Pianos are among a handful of instruments that play both melody and harmony. However, our attention is never guaranteed, and our money usually follows wherever our attention goes.
That same drifting attention is happening to the news business now. Businesses needed your attention, so they got it by putting their advertisements next to news. Newspapers were among the original public-private partnerships. The better quality the news — a real public service at that point — the more valuable that space got. That is, until our attention started to drift.
One of the Denton newspaper’s most popular reports was the police blotter, at least before the pandemic began. It had long been a guilty pleasure for readers. Of course, now they can find even more guilty reading pleasures on Facebook, a company only too happy to hoover up the advertising revenue as people’s attention drifts over there. Probably in another year or two, there will be only a handful of news outlets left because the business model that extracted value out of our attention has changed so much.
Some people have finally figured that out, that the business model now is for people who recognize they need solid journalism to make sound business decisions and to make good public policy decisions.
Without that, we will soon have warlords squabbling for years while ticking time bombs sit in our harbors.
I’m ready to stop thinking about the business model and start thinking about the community of practice — journalists are a group of people concerned about the quality of information, how it’s gathered and vetted, and how to do it better, and the best way to do that is by debating all those values regularly among your peers — and then publishing or broadcasting.
This community of practice in journalism is also the same thing that people like to criticize as “the priesthood” or the “legacy elite” or “media bubble” or whatever other pejorative they want to hurl at the wall that might stick for the moment. But humans create communities of practice because they care about what they do and want to do it better, and scholars are beginning to recognize how much this phenomenon has helped all kinds of businesses do better and make progress in our modern world.
My first introduction to communities of practice came in the autism world, with parents sharing wisdom and such. Eventually, parents started seeing that the best therapists with the most powerful ideas kind of hung out together and fed off each other’s practice and research. No one was talking to you about a “community of practice,” but if you wanted the best for your child, you always wanted to be close to that, since chances were higher that your kid would benefit from all that supercharged brainpower and skill.
I encouraged Michael and Paige to find the equivalent as they ventured out into the working world, although I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time. At the University of Iowa, they organized the dorm into micro-communities that way and Paige fell right in. She’s still friends with many of her original writing community. Michael got a power introduction to the concept as a behavior tech in the autism world. He’s like a heat-seeking missile for that value where he works.
Journalists sometimes compete with each other, but we benefit from each other’s successes and critical takes on each other’s work. The successful business model(s) will depend on the rigor within our community of practice. As business models disappear and fail, that doesn’t mean the community of practice must also, but it makes it a lot harder. Until the emerging business models stabilize, our environment is ripe for propaganda disguised as news. But if our community of practice disappears, no business model will save it.
Just like the piano makers.
Peggy: So, how did the haircut work out yesterday? Do you need me to trim the sides a little more?
Sam: Nah. There was one spot, but I cut it and I think it’s ok now.
Peggy: You did? That’s great that you could do that. (pause) I’m not a professional.
Sam: Well, I’m ten times worse than you.
Peggy (laughing): That’s haircutting in a pandemic.
Early in my career, a fellow writer and sometimes mentor said that he didn’t always know what he thought until he started writing.
That was a freeing thing to hear. The fear of the blank screen vanished. I didn’t have to know exactly what I was writing before I started. I could discover what I was thinking along the way. I could re-write again and again to make it clearer, fixing any flabby thinking and respecting the reader, because what is writing if no one reads it?
We all read to better understand what others are thinking and to adjust our thinking accordingly, writers most especially included.
Which brings me to this morning’s topic, writing to better understand a hella lotta thinking that happened this week, because this week, I quit my job.
Until Tuesday night, I had a good job that has become increasingly rare — a full-time journalist for a family-owned newspaper. The job didn’t pay particularly well, but I enjoyed the work and I was fairly good at it, so it had its own reinforcement loop that didn’t have a lot to do with money (does it ever for a writer?). I felt I was serving the community I love. I’m sure some people thought it was unnecessarily tough love at times, but I hope we can just agree to disagree there. Sorry, Charlies, sometimes the truth is really tough.
So as I climbed the hill that my job was about to die on, I was surprised at my courage to keep going. Then I saw that my feet held because they kept finding the truth. I may not have uncovered everything there was to know, but what I did know to be the truth was this: who and what was important to me might die (not exaggerating) if I didn’t keep going to the logical finish.
It’s not the first time in my life that I leapt knowing in my heart that the net would appear.
To sum up the thought for the day, I grabbed a few of my favorite lines from my upcoming book with co-author Shahla Ala’i (which luxuriously now has my full attention, a good thing because we have to deliver to the publisher in about six weeks), Love and Science in the Treatment of Autism:
Love may be the only thing that is not fragile in our material world. Love makes a great bet. Love gives our lives meaning. With love, we forge through troubles and make progress. Love makes a family. We know we will fail sometimes and that love grows in learning from those failures. Love helps us through periods of being unlovable ourselves, or of not loving others.
We keep choosing love, above all.
I have to admit that Sam surprised me a little when he came home from work one night and said that social distancing was hard. He’s always kept a healthy distance from others.
But I could understand, too. People are buying a crazy amount of stuff in the grocery store. He and his co-workers are really hopping to keep up.
I asked him whether he remembered his perfect attendance in middle school. He got a special award for never missing a day from sixth through eighth grade. I told him that by middle school he’d gotten so good at keeping his distance from others that he never was close enough to get the germs. He had a good laugh about that.
Sam didn’t like to be held as an infant or toddler. At first, it was hard to figure out how to comfort a child who couldn’t stand to be hugged, or touched, or sung to. Eventually, we discovered things that worked and, as he grew and changed, discovered even more.
As an adult, Sam has a way of attending in a conversation – a sort of standing up straight, full soldier attention to your presence – that even if he never shakes your hand, or hugs you, or even really makes good eye contact, you somehow know that he is truly present. It’s such a gift to have learned that from him.
And when you are being present, you know when the other person is present and responsive to you, too. When I’m out running or walking with the dog, or making a brief trip to the grocery store, people are doing what Sam does (although maybe with a little more eye contact) as they reach out to chat these days and that doesn’t feel socially distant at all.
It’s in the moment, present, responsive.
I hope it never goes away.
Well, dear internet people, we’ve gone through the looking glass, haven’t we?
This week our newspaper offices closed and dispatched everyone to work from home. My son and his new wife are working from home in Austin and have been for two weeks. My daughter has been working from home for about 10 days, and now is in lockdown in Chicago. All this in the hopes that we don’t transmit COVID-19, the novel and deadly coronavirus, and make this horrible pandemic worse than it is.
Sam is not working from home. And his team is working harder than ever at the WinCo warehouse, because people keep buying groceries and home cleaning supplies at a crazy pace. Their warehouse supplies stores throughout the region. I can’t even imagine what some of those logistics folks are going through right now.
(Here’s just a little PSA to remind you, dear internet people, that there is a line between being prepared and hoarding. If you cross it, you are hurting other people more than you can know — other people you may need one day to help keep you alive. Stock what you use, and use what you stock.)
A tiny part of me wants to pull the disability card and protect Sam and keep him home, too. But that’s not right.
We have already lost one extended family member to the virus. It’s swift and deadly. It requires something new and different from all of us to survive: heroic levels of cooperation and consideration.
I ask him each day how he’s doing, how his team is doing and how the crews are doing keeping things clean at work. Sam is a straight-forward guy. He says everyone is stressed and working hard and also doing their best to stay clean and keep apart. They canceled their regular safety meeting because, well, that wouldn’t be safe.
He’s concerned, but he also wants to be a helper. As Mr. Rogers says, when things are going horribly wrong, look for the people who are helping. Warehouse workers in my town and everywhere in the world are hustling to move product and keep it all from collapsing. I can’t even.
Through the years, different people have said to me that Sam was their hero. Truly, he’s been mine, too. But that’s not quite the same as being _a_ hero.
He put on his jeans and work boots each day this week, walked out the door and came back nine hours later exhausted and hungry, but knowing he did his part.
Internet people, Sam is a hero. We can be, too.
Young parents recognize when the kids start to absorb information from the world around them and (we hope) act accordingly. Kids are watching and listening and thinking and so you’ve got to take a little more care with the grown-up stuff.
We’ve got to let the rope out eventually, since the kids need to fly on their own. But we might not want to be the scary one with all that grown up stuff, because life’s pretty scary on its own.
The ability to absorb from the environment didn’t work the same way for Sam as it did for his brother and sister. As a child with autism, his attention could be hyper-focused or super-zoned out. When he was a toddler, we were never quite sure how much he absorbed from what was going on around him. But over the years, we coached and cued. We became more confident he was seeing what he needed to as he grew up and responded.
(For example, we worried at first that he didn’t understand traffic and would never watch for cars. Eventually, he proved he could and would learn to drive.)
I’m not sure what helped him recognize that important things he needs to know come in small, even sneaky ways. Over the past year or so, I’ve watched him notice small things going on around him far more than he used to. He’ll pick up the newspaper from the table and read a bit because the headline grabbed his attention. He might make a comment about the story over breakfast.
He’s learned when to ignore email and when not, which really a miraculous thing when you think about it. He still doesn’t like opening his snail mail (to be truthful, I don’t either, so what is with that?) but when he sees the envelopes that matter, he doesn’t truly ignore them. He knows what’s inside and opens them when it’s time to pay the bill or renew the tags, etc.
A few days ago, he saw a flier advertising a Social Security workshop in the pile of mail. He asked a lot of questions. He’s still healing from the stress of repaying a substantial amount of benefits last year. We knew when he got his full-time job at the warehouse that his benefits could finally end. We happily went down to the Social Security office and gave them notice, but it took months for them to stop sending checks. I cautioned Sam to sock that money away — they would eventually ask for it back. They did, and he was ready, but it was still really stressful for him.
He thought perhaps the flier came from Social Security and he needed to attend. I’m not sure if there’s a rule of thumb to help him wade through that type of information. I’ll think about it. But in the meantime, I told him, ‘nah, that flier was for me because I’m getting old.’
Peggy (driving by local art studio): Oh, look, you can see them preparing for the next class. Those classes can be fun. It will be like being in Mrs. Ruestmann’s class again for you.
Sam (absolutely deadpan): I’m bad at art.
This year marks my fourth year of pursuing New Year’s resolutions that are, at once, both big and little.
When I started out, I shared my first goal (not buying anything except food and to fix things, aka “No, Thank You”) with a few close friends and family members. Sharing your goals publicly usually increases your chance for success. For the second year, I straight up wrote a column in the newspaper. Honestly, that felt more like raising the stakes than getting a leg up, but it worked (“Yes, Please” to new experiences and long-held aspirations). This January, I quit Facebook in order to make 2019 the year of being more open and connected.
Over the past 12 months, I found myself being even more deliberate with treasured relationships, traveling a surprising amount in pursuit of that goal. Just like the years of “Yes, Please” and “No, Thank You,” a Facebook-free life can totally be “More Open and Connected” when it’s more deliberate.
This year’s goal is “Wear An Apron.” My son, Michael, and I talked it over on a recent Sunday together. He wanted to know what the big idea was behind the little idea.
I have two kitchen aprons. One I picked up at the farmer’s market in Sacramento because it says “California Grown” on it. The other my mother made for me out of fabric she picked up in Hawaii. They are both awesome and spark joy for me. But I nearly always forget to put them on until after I have already spilled something on myself.
My T-shirt drawer is full of shirts marked by my forgetfulness. I tell myself that they are just T-shirts, but the truth is, I am capable of better.
And that’s the thing about aprons. Some amazing person solved a common problem by inventing the apron. And other smart people figured out designs with pockets and loops and other features to help your apron serve you, whether you are in the wood shop or the kitchen or the printing press.
I told Michael when you think about the apron that way, it reminds you that most problems you experience have been solved by someone already. That wisdom, both small and large, is out there and ready to make life easier or better. It’s something your grandfather discovered long ago or is in a book or on YouTube or just one question away in a conversation with a friend.
Even when Sam was little and it seemed like no one knew anything, the wisdom was out there. I’ll forever be grateful to Kitty O. for showing me how to read articles in scientific journals. New wisdom. Right there.
All you need to do is put on that apron.
As important as dancing is to Sam’s social life, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t blogged much about it before.
Last weekend, Michael and Holly got married. Sam was the usher. He enjoyed dressing the part and hanging with the groomsmen, but I think he looked forward most to the dancing. During the reception, the DJ spun a wide variety for us. We two-stepped and did the mambo to a salsa tune, and more.
The television show, Dancing with the Stars, was Sam’s favorite for the longest time and he would try to do some of the moves when he thought I was out of the room.
I don’t know how I stumbled on the east coast swing dance club in town, but after I did, I planted the seed that he could join and learn more. It took a little while for Sam to warm up to the idea. After he’d gone once or twice, I asked Michael and Holly to go with him once and make sure everything was ok. (It was.) Over time, I’d hear from neighbors, friends and acquaintances about how well he was coming along. He goes at least twice a month, including asking off work for the Friday night dance that includes some extra lessons.
Michael and Holly had a dollar dance over several tunes during the reception last Saturday. Sam queued up twice with ten-spots to dance with Holly. I was ready with the video for the second dance, but as you can see, the kids got silly and they were upstaged a wee bit.
After the DJ’s “last dance” call, they had just one more: Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. It’s just about Sam’s favorite tune of all time. The kids all got in a circle and started their dance-off. Sam was second in the ring, and the crowd just lost it when he entered and danced his moves. There is video out there in the wild somewhere, y’all, but I don’t have it. (If it surfaces and I can publish it, it will be here. I’m not sure the official wedding videographer got there in time.)
Let there be dancing.