Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

writing for parents of the bravest hearts

Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

green writing for parents

decision-making

Cycling close to the sun

Sam said he liked the country roads best on our family bicycling trip to southern Italy. There are 60 million olive trees in Italy and I do believe we pedaled past a hefty percentage of them.

In this photo, you can see he stopped next to an olive tree that was a thousand years old. Some of them look great. Others are succumbing to a bacteria that came over with an insect stowed away on South American-made pallets. Many of the olive groves are small, family-owned plots that produce enough to supply the family with a little more to share. (You can buy olive oil in Italy the way we buy craft beer here in the U.S.)

Sam stops for a quick drink during a backroads bicycling trip across southern Italy.

On the backroads, you can trade that ten-European-cities-in-seven-days experience for a different kind of intensity. What’s not to like when you share miles of road lined by stone walls with just the occasional tractor or Italian nonno driving his 1967 Renault Quattro to the village? The roads weren’t perfect, but Sam didn’t mind dodging the potholes. Once, along a highway, I watched him drift, ever so slightly, into the main lane so that he could cycle over the rumble strips.

On the backroads, you can catch the fragrance as you pedal by chamomile, star jasmine, ginesta (broom) or the pine trees.

Chamomile and other wildflowers along the backroads of southern Italy.

You can see a farmer having a sandwich in the shade of an olive tree. Another farmer stops picking to pass a handful of fresh figs over the wall to a fellow cyclist. Old men sit on benches in the center of the village and wish you “buongiorno!” The village center doesn’t look like it’s changed much at all in several hundred years.

Sam was ready for the routine, having gone on a similar tour last fall in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We pedaled a good pace and still found time to relax in the swimming pool after covering 20-30 miles each day. Nobody lost anything along the way. The only real drama came the last day.  A driver honked and then turned right in front of Paige, thinking that Paige would stop (uh, NOT) and then nearly hitting her on her bike. One of the tour leaders detoured to yell at the driver. The moment was so quintessentially Italian that I couldn’t help but live vicariously through the movie she was making for me right then and there.

Sam downloaded two dictionaries before we left the U.S. and explored the language often. He always tried to order in Italian. Periodically, he also thought of things that would increase our comfort and success in living out of a suitcase for days at a time. He inspired me to start a new checklist for our next trip — when or wherever that might be. At one point, he told me he thought he could take the next tour by himself.

He probably could, but that was never a goal of these trips. Traveling brings new perspectives. We bring some of the romance home by letting the experience change the shape of our daily lives. Sam grows through travel just like the rest of us, only a little bit more. He has always cycled a little closer to the sun.

Otranto by night. Photo by Sam Wolfe.

 

Cake for breakfast

Early on during our bicycle trip in southern Italy, Sam announced a goal: he was going to try all the seafood he could. That was daring.

The first day, our trip leaders asked whether anyone in the group had food allergies or preferences that they needed to know. Sam’s preferences are idiosyncratic, but they aren’t hard to work around. It was easy enough to tell them that for welcome cocktails, “no alcohol, no bubbles” works for Sam. The bartenders seemed to enjoy the challenge putting together fun juice combinations for Sam. He also doesn’t like fresh tomatoes, although tomatoes cooked into sauces are ok. Even so, when something came out of the kitchen with a tomato or two – the Puglia region is famous for its cherry tomatoes – he was a sport about it.

But the seafood goal was something else altogether. The first time I can recall him being deliberately additive, not restrictive, about food. He studied entire menus in his quest. He picked classic Italian dishes: a plate of mussels as a starter, pasta with clam sauce for a first course, a swordfish steak for second. He picked unexpected ones, too, like seafood pizza. He was triumphant when he found octopus and potatoes for dinner at a seaside restaurant in Savalletri.

Octopus and potato, a traditional second course in southern Italy’s Puglia region

That’s his photo, by the way.

It’s hard not to be sentimental about how far he’s come. Sam was so food challenged growing up. As a preschooler, he would eat only breakfast cereal morning, noon and night. He hit his big growth spurt at age 15 and even though he was hungry, he limited his food choices and still refused meat. We came close to taking a second mortgage out on the house in order to pay for an intensive intervention program at Ohio State, but he turned a corner just in time. Given enough ketchup and Parmesan cheese, he started broadening his choices. Instead of eating the edge of the bun all around the hamburger, he ate the whole burger.

(Puglia restaurants are surely restocking their Parmesan supply now that we’re back home. But to be fair, he didn’t cover everything in Parmesan. We let him know which Italian foods didn’t lend themselves to that and he was happy to try without.)

Paige and I had our own dining wish lists, although we were never able to make good on eating tiramisu in Italy. The dessert at the end of the meal was usually the chef’s choice. Sweet semifreddi, gorgeous gelatins, mille-feuille — it was hard to get upset about that.

We didn’t expect that the choice of dessert sweets would be plentiful at breakfast, but there you have it. Italian masserias place many different cakes and crostada on their breakfast buffets.

We were cycling 20-30 miles a day. Heck, yeah, we had cake for breakfast.

 

 

A year to be more open and connected

Two years ago, after writing a news story about a few of our clever readers and what they learned achieving their New Year’s resolutions, I did mine differently. A year into my own experiment, I had learned so much that I shared it in a column.

That first goal to not buy anything (with reasonable exceptions for food and fixing things) reinforced a simpler, more sustainable life. My next resolution, “Yes, please,” was meant to be this year’s yang to last year’s yin of “no, thank you.”

The idea wasn’t that “yes, please” was permission to give into impulses or rationalized needs, but to push through whatever had been stopping me from trying something new. How else to see the world unless you push through to the other side? I made a list of about a dozen challenges that have been nagging for years; for example, learning to better maintain my bike, sew upholstery, broaden my computer skills, speak conversationally in another language, and make cheese. But if something new crossed my doorstep, like when my friend and brilliant textile artist Carla offered a day of indigo dyeing, I said “yes.” I said yes whenever I could.

Not only is life simpler and more sustainable, but it’s also richer and more fun.

That brought the social media expression of my life into sharp relief. For the coming year, I will co-opt Facebook’s stated mission, to be more open and connected, by quitting Facebook.

The main reason to shut down my account is one that has nagged me for a long time. Facebook’s real mission is nothing like its stated mission. For example, I’ve noticed there are people you cannot reach any other way than through Facebook. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In Texas, we might share a lemonade on the porch and we’re cordial, but we just don’t invite everyone inside. So I would argue that when you can’t reach someone except through Facebook, then you aren’t really connected at all. Facebook is managing your relationships for you through the veneer of being “open” and “connected.”

I set up the Family Room blog as a place to explore ideas related to living with autism. It’s interesting that most readers come here via a Facebook link and will return to Facebook to comment on the topic, rather than connecting below and creating our own community–which, by the way, is not open to exploitation by a third party because I filter and delete all that garbage.

That’s Facebook’s real mission. And, they “move fast and break things.” After I watched Frontline’s two-part special, The Facebook Dilemma, I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. American newspapers are struggling because Facebook (and similar businesses) got the rules changed: they can publish with impunity while newspapers must continue to publish responsibly. It’s expensive to be a responsible company. But it’s worth it because, for one, the truth is an absolute defense. And people don’t die in Myanmar because you got so big moving fast and breaking things that you can’t clean up after yourself anymore.

It took Sam a while to accept my decision. He was worried that my exit would affect his experience. I respect that very much. People with disabilities need help living lives that are more open and connected. He finds community activities through Facebook. Because he can scroll at his own pace, he can absorb and react to more news that people share. He’s not impervious to the third-party nonsense, but he’s not going to show up at a fake rally meant to destabilize the community.

I’ll still be on Twitter because I use the platform for my job and I can’t escape it. And I know my departure from Facebook may affect my coworkers, so I will work to ameliorate that. I hope that readers who want to continue to be part of Family Room will use the green button below to bookmark the blog and come back once a month or so. This blog isn’t going away even though the Facebook teasers will.

My first objective will be to use my words to be more open and connected. Family Room will be one place to make that happen, along with all of the other ways we’ve always had to connect with each other (insert mail-telephone-plus-ruby-slippers icons here!)

My second objective will be that when I have something to share, I will share it with the person I believe would appreciate it most.

My third objective will be actively listening to others in the coming days and weeks. Because the best way to connect is to respond.

Sam taught me that.

Gentlemen, start your engines

Sam has had a lot of car trouble lately. He has been driving a 2001 Toyota Corolla that he bought used 10 years ago.

This little car’s early life was in Corpus Christi, which probably means some hard miles in salt air. (We made sure it wasn’t ever flooded before we bought it.) The plastic parts have gotten so brittle, it’s just a matter of time.

Our first big tap on the shoulder was on the way to State Special Olympics a month ago. We blew a tire. Now, that’s no big deal, as long as you can keep your wits about you as you put that little donut of a wheel on your car along the highway in a strange city long after dark. But after we got two new front tires at the tire shop, the car wouldn’t start. For whatever reason, the bushing to the shifter cable broke while the car was up on the rack. We may have hobbled to the tire shop, but we had to be towed to the dealer for that repair.

Fun times.

On Friday, we got another big tap on the shoulder when Sam headed out to work. Turn the key and nothing, nada, zilch. He’d already changed the battery in January. From the problem in Bryan, I knew it wasn’t the shifter cable. And from my own truck’s problem last month, I knew it wasn’t the starter.

Since we would have had to pay for a tow, it was worth the gamble on replacing the ignition switch. Sam inherited his father’s talent for fixing things and, for whatever reason, I’m a fair troubleshooter. It took a few hours, but we knew we’d identified the problem when we compared the old and new switches. The old one had the telltale signs of an electrical short. And one of its three plastic brackets had broken off, likely setting off the slow chain reaction that jostled its way into oblivion.

I have been coaching Sam for months about planning to buy a new, or new-to-him, vehicle. Some of the plastic parts he’s had to replace on the car don’t have anything to do with its overall reliability, but many others do.

People without reliable transportation risk losing their jobs. Our local transit authority, DCTA, stunningly, has zero bus service to Denton’s industrial park where Sam and thousands of other Denton residents work.

I do not know why this is, but I’ll put that on my to-do list at work. (I’m a reporter for the Denton Record-Chronicle.)

Sam is reluctant to retire his car yet, and I can respect that. It still runs well overall. He hasn’t had a repair that’s cost as much as a new car payment.

After Sam finished replacing the ignition switch, the car cranked its Toyota self. He got a big grin on his face. For about $75 he bought himself more time.

For now.

 

Butterflies

Sam was spared the agony a lot of us get in the home stretch for a new job: the long wait between a successful interview and the offer. On Friday, one rolled right after the other for him. He had the best smile when he announced over dinner that WinCo hired him to work in the warehouse.

Sam sacked groceries at Albertsons for ten years. He didn’t want to become a checker. Sometimes customers are impatient. “I wouldn’t be fast enough for them,” he said. He didn’t want to stock shelves, either. I shopped late enough on the occasional Friday night to see those guys at work. Sam couldn’t be that raucous.

Nothing came his way after he graduated with an associate’s degree and certificate in computer science and technology five years ago. It was frustrating. Once I asked a manager at Albertsons if there was a way for a loyal employee with an education to move up. She shook her head no. There aren’t corporate offices here, she said.

Then Sam got a call. WinCo was opening a warehouse in Denton. They wanted to try to hire people like Sam. He would have to quit his job at Albertsons; participate in a special, six-week training class; and interview for the job at the end. There was no guarantee he’d have the job when he finished the training. In addition, he would only be paid when he was handling actual store product in the warehouse. Otherwise the rest of the training time would be unpaid. This was a Goodwill Industries program. The training included a lot of class time on “soft skills,” like getting along with co-workers, deciding when (and when not) to disclose your disability, interviewing techniques, and the like.

Sam had been in the work force for a decade. He’d been there and done that. It didn’t seem fair for him to quit a job and go without pay for four weeks. But I know I can be skeptical. It’s an occupational hazard. I kept my mouth shut. He had a chance at a job that would quadruple his take-home pay.

(Some nights he’d come home, relay what they learned that day and I’d muse over how it might be nice for the newsroom to get a “soft skills” refresher from time to time. We often seem barely house-trained–myself included.)

Image from Nova: Journey of the Butterflies

This week was all butterflies. I missed the open house Sunday, but Michael and Paige went with him to see for themselves what he was shooting for. We were prepared to help Sam update his resume. No need, he said, the program folks already got his resume all wrapped up. Did he want to do some mock interviewing? Nope, he said, he’d already practiced and had notecards with sample questions and answers. He’d just look them over each night, thanks.

He was visibly nervous Thursday night. A lot had lead up to that day. He made sure he had all his interview clothes ready to go and packed up work clothes, too. After the interview, he expected to be back out on the floor, in his bay, and he needed to wear a sturdy shirt, jeans and his work boots. I kept checking my phone all day for news, but that’s not his style. He was epically impulsive as a child, but now, he almost delights in waiting to deliver good news.

I don’t know who was smiling bigger on Friday night when he told me. If it were Michael or Paige, there would be lots of hugs and backslapping and arm-squeezing. But that, too, isn’t Sam’s style. I told him I’d like to shake his hand to tell him congratulations and how proud I was of him.

He kept eye contact as he extended his hand and gripped mine. Not too hard, not too soft. Up and down, not too fast and not too slow.

I kid you not, dear Internet people.

It was the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced the perfect handshake.

 

 

Making of a recipe (Raspberry Scones)

When I stop to think how far Sam has come, not just since he was a child, but even his first few semesters of college, I am awed. During these past 10 years of adult life, he’s met tough challenges head on and showed that he can think on his feet. He does so well that I sometimes forget the creative problem-solving skills that flow so easily through the rest of the family aren’t really at his command.

Enter the raspberry scone challenge.

Sam really likes raspberries. Sam is also the family scone and kolache baker. We tried to adapt a peach scone recipe from one of our favorite baking cookbooks, The Pastry Queen. The raspberry scones were a mess. (But we still ate them.)

I had a flash. There was another recipe in the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking cookbook that had a cinnamon-stuffed scone. I told Sam we could mash the two recipes together to help our idea turn out.

It worked, but I made the mistake of not communicating out loud and in advance which steps would come from which recipe. Sam retreated to the laundry room several times during the creation of these beauties to talk himself out of being upset with me (which I appreciate).

I don’t have the explanatory gifts of Julia Child, nor the exacting thoroughness of Coach In the Kitchen.

But as you can see, they turned out great. And Sam is happy to share his recipe.

Raspberry scone

Raspberry scone

 

Raspberry scones

Equipment: a 9-inch springform pan

6 cups flour

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

2 cups buttermilk

3/4 cup raspberry jam

1 cup frozen raspberries

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease the pan. Stir flour, sugar, powder and salt together. Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. Fold in buttermilk and stir lightly until it forms a ball. Pat down and fold over once. Divide the ball in half and pat into two discs that fit the pan. Put one dough disc on the bottom, spread with jam and top with berries. Top with the other disc of dough. Cut into 16 wedges. Bake for 40 minutes until knife inserted in center comes out clean. You can brush with milk and sprinkle sugar, if you’d like. Let cool for ten minutes before releasing the side of the pan. Serve warm.

Building Arduinos

Tonight was Sam’s second time to go to North Branch Library and their meet-up group for Arduino. Sam says there’s a lot to explain about Arduino. “The possibilities are endless,” he says. “You can build drones. But today, it was mostly about building electronic musical instruments.”

For example, he built this little theremin today.

He calls it a light theremin because it changes its sound frequency based on different levels of light.

He also built this little keyboard. “It’s not exactly a keyboard,” Sam says. “It’s just buttons.”

I Really Want to Like The Kitchen

Trouble started the day we realized my best baking sheet wouldn’t fit into the oven.

An old shop on the Denton Square, Country Kitchen City Cooks, carried the Doughmakers brand. I don’t remember which baking pan I bought first, but it impressed me. I collected a pizza pan, a sheet cake pan, round cake pans, a muffin tin and the extra-large cookie sheet.

Do your cakes come out uneven, or do some of your cookies get too dark while others on the pan barely brown? I used to blame the ingredients, or the mixing or my oven. Then I learned most of the blame belonged to the pans. Doughmakers are to baking what cast iron is to the stove-top.

That big sheet pan was so versatile. I could make the cake for a jelly roll or bakery-sized recipes for pecan bars or brownies when the kids were little and had hollow legs. These days, it’s been Sam’s go-to pan for kolaches. We still make bakery quantities of sausage-filled kolaches.

I tried to tell myself I was going to love the kitchen in the new house. It has a cook top! A double oven! A standing freezer! A wet bar!

The galley design would be more efficient, I told myself. Fewer steps around the workspace. Don’t worry that you don’t have a second pantry. You’re not that hot of a cook, I reminded myself. Don’t worry that the dining room furniture now hides a mountain of seasonal kitchen gear. No one will know that you filled the big hutch with cookie cutters and the little hutch with processing equipment.  Use the breakfast table when you need more workspace, I coached myself.

The afternoon Sam couldn’t get a batch of kolaches in the oven because it was too small for the cookie sheet, I had to admit it.

I had my dream kitchen. And I sold it.

Mark and I studied a lot of house plans before choosing the house we built nearly 20 years ago. Dog trot to help keep the house cool, big farm kitchen, wrap-around porch for Sam to pace when he was little, and an interior bathroom.

(People who live in tornado alley understand that last requirement.)

After I sold it, I made sure I could still check some of those boxes at the new house: interior bathroom, apartment for Sam (who paces a little differently now), a covered front porch, big trees on the west side of the house to help stay cool (I have yet to run the air conditioning this year.)

I’ve even figured out how to make up for the loss of a farmhouse garden, but it will take a few years of (enjoyable) work to terrace the back of the property and amend the soil.

But the kitchen. It’s a net loss. Even my son, Michael, notices its shortcomings on his brief visits.

I was in Argyle earlier this week. I didn’t go by the farm. But I couldn’t avoid its reach. I saw enough and felt enough and remembered enough and imagined enough that regret snuck in.

Stupid kitchen.

One of the Denton City Council members often tries to steer deliberations with an axiom he says he got from his father, “Let the reason be the reason.”

I listen even more carefully when he calls for it. It’s an elegant way to describe intellectual honesty, and to push for the more robust discussions that often come afterward. (Although, a person has to be careful. Oftentimes there is more than one reason. And you might need to be skeptical of your skepticism if you are thinking someone isn’t stating their reason.) When the regrets and the second-guessing come, I remind myself that I sold the farm for good reasons.

I need to let the reasons be the reasons.

I remind myself that we used to regret and second-guess our decision to leave California. And New York. And then we remembered what was important to us and we try to gather up those quality-of-life makers in order to keep moving forward. Very few of those things are truly tied to one place.

I don’t know what it will take with this stupid kitchen, but I really need to like it.

Sam and I are still building our new lives here in the central city. Yesterday, he bought a bicycle. It was fun watching him in the bike shop. He hadn’t been on a bicycle in more than 10 years.

He hopped on and pedaled away. Time hadn’t worn away anything at all.

Tale of two clocks

It’s been long enough in the new house that the second bill for internet service arrived in the mail this week. I count it a personal achievement that I have left work brain-drained and exhausted more than once these past four weeks and never pointed the truck the wrong way home.

That’s 20 years of driving habits undone, just like that.

Sam felt comfortable enough with the set-up of his apartment, completely separate yet conveniently located behind the house, to post a triumphant photo on Facebook this week. He had all his boxes and bags unpacked within a week. That included filling a wall of shelves with books and games. But, in true-t0-Sam fashion, he didn’t consider it all done until the wifi, Chromecast and a new clock got installed.

This Monday was the first time he was able to watch one of his favorite shows, Dancing with the Stars, in a long time.

Sunday his clock arrived. He had ordered it a few days before on Amazon. All his mobile devices display the current time, but he still wanted a big, traditional clock on the wall.

Well, almost traditional.

I bought a clock on Sunday, too. We were at the Denton Arts and Jazz Fest. An artist there built clocks in sturdy oak frames and printed out clock faces filled with inside jokes. Sam was still reading clock faces by the time I finished my purchase of a “writer’s clock,” with hours and hours of “write” or “revise” and the end of the “writer’s block” hour coming with the “adult beverage” hour.

I chuckled when I got it home and read the insert on how to power up and set the time on the clock. The artist may have set up shop for the weekend in Denton, but he lives just down the road from my family in Colorado.

Sam’s clock required no effort on his part to set. That was all taken care of by the satellite it signaled.

Of course.