Mixing and mingling

Shahla and I had a book signing a week ago. Donna Fielder, a wildly successful Denton author, encouraged me to talk to the owners of the newest book store in town, Patchouli Joe’s, to see whether they were interested in hosting an event for us like they did for her. It took a while for me to screw up the courage, but once I did, they were as gracious as Donna described.

Shahla and I didn’t know quite what to expect, but we prepared for the gamut, from doing a formal reading before a crowd of strangers to sitting quietly in the hopes that at least one or two book buyers stopped by. Turned out, many friends and family came and we had a different kind of crowd. Suddenly, a formal reading didn’t seem right, so I asked if anyone had questions. We were off and running. After about an hour, we were getting tired, so Shahla deftly ended the Q&A. A few people lined up to get books signed, but most lingered, browsing the shelves and chatting with each other.

Shahla and I answer questions about our new book at Patchouli Joe’s in Denton. Photo by Annette Fuller.

Up until then, Sam had been sitting behind us in a comfy wing chair. When he recognized that it was mix-and-mingle time, he popped up from the chair and started walking around the store, introducing himself and chatting with people. I couldn’t help but smile. That afternoon, Sam was doing much better than I was in being a social butterfly.

Here’s why. Years ago, he joined a local dance club. He learned Eastern swing dance steps, met lots of new friends, and waited patiently for women to ask him to dance. He was out in the community in this highly social way at least once, usually twice, a month. As the pandemic has waned, the dance club is slowly rebooting and he’s been out dancing again. He’s enjoying the return of social sparkles.

When Sam was little and learning to imitate and to talk, I thought we were going to have to break down all kinds of skills into incremental steps in order for him to learn. But once he learned to talk and to imitate, that elevated his ability to “learn to learn.” Suddenly, we didn’t have to break things down anymore. I never fully understood that phenomenon until Shahla explained behavioral cusps: once a person masters a skill or environment, that often leads to picking up other kinds of skills and expanding opportunities. Sam absorbed a variety of social skills while learning to dance.

Not everyone is the same. For example, I’m not sure that joining a dance club would boost my introverted ways. But, finding and achieving a cusp is something powerful to think about when you feel stuck. We touch on this concept several times in the book. Working toward a behavioral cusp can help us achieve progress and sustainability in our parenting. We all learn this way our whole lives–it’s one of humanity’s super powers.

P.S. Where to buy our new book, Responsible and Responsive Parenting in Autism: Between Now and Dreams

Look for the Paul Hollywood handshake

For the first time in three years (thanks, pandemic), equestrians gathered for the statewide Special Olympics in Bryan last weekend. Sometimes, it felt like we hadn’t missed a beat (showmanship classes rolled like clockwork Sunday morning even though we were tired from the dance the night before) and other times, the grief over the lost time hit hard (hello, friend I haven’t hugged in five years).

I have to tip my hat at the organizers that recognized the athletes would benefit from an icebreaker after all these years. They outfitted each athlete with four of the same pins for their region. They had to meet riders from all the other regions in order to exchange pins and collect a full set: North, South, East, West.

Pins from four regions represented at Texas State Special Olympics 2022

It was fun to watch Sam and all the other athletes not only reach out to one another, but help one another complete their sets. God bless those who came all the way from out west to Bryan, which is in south central Texas.

Sam competed in five events in all. Many athletes in his classes are like Sam and have been riding for years. They are skilled and consistent riders. Some have their own horses. Some compete in able-bodied shows. Every once in while, though, it’s just Zen and the Art of Horsemanship and as it unfolds in front of you, it’s pure joy. I’ve posted video from all five of his events, but it was Working Trail where I wondered whether the roof would open and sun rays would shine down on Sam and Madrid, like in the movies. It was magical.

There are two moments you’ll want to savor. First, when Sam and Madrid are at the gate and you can see he knows how tell Madrid to sidle in closer so that he can easily remove and re-attach the rope. Then, the judge stands up, says “wow” and comes over to shake Sam’s hand.

 

 

 

A photo from the awards ceremony, courtesy of Yolanda Taylor, parent of one of the other athletes in this event:

A state trooper and volunteer with Law Enforcement Torch Run shakes Sam’s hand after he wins gold in working trail.

Like the old days

Last week, Sam competed in the Chisholm Challenge, which has been part of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo for 18 years, (and Sam has competed every year.) The entire event was canceled last year, so simply returning to the arena felt like a victory. Plus, Sam got bucked off in practice last week, so getting back on the horse was a victory, too. Although, to be honest, I don’t think he would have considered any other option. Here are three short videos from speed events.

Ranch Riding. Sam came in first place.

Barrel Racing. Sam’s time came in second place.

Pole Bending. Sam’s time came in fourth place.

 

Never been to Spain, finally made it to Maine

Sam and I were supposed to go to Spain last year. We booked a cycling tour with the same outfitter that took us to Italy and Germany, and Paige and me to Ireland, over the past several years. We booked before the pandemic, but even as the lockdown began, we were thinking, naively, that with a little luck, the virus would be under control by summer, when the cycling tour would take us through the countryside around Cordoba, and into Seville and the Alhambra. Ha. Spain was being ravaged by the virus by then, and our country was on the verge of its own, first big wave. About six weeks out, the outfitter canceled the trip and refunded our money.

Sam and I biked around town last summer. It was very quiet.

When the tour catalog came for summer 2021, it seemed unrealistic to make any kind of plan to go abroad. Even the handful of U.S. tours they had, though they looked to be as much fun, felt risky. But we had to have a little faith. Our world had gotten really small. I wondered if we didn’t try to make something special happen, our mental health would suffer even more than it was. The vaccine roll-out had begun. Maybe a fall tour to see the leaves in New England could be a safe bet. Surely, the virus would be subsiding by then. Ha ha.

The company’s tours to cycle in Vermont filled up fast, so we missed that. They offered a self-guided tour of Acadia that we’d heard was good. We booked for the first week of October.

Ever since the vaccine rollout, Sam has been pushing back on letting our lives get too busy again. He wants more “thinking time” for math and signal projects he’s working on. He likes the quiet pace we found, and I agree it’s a treasure to keep. While traveling to Maine was a little discombobulating (we were really rusty with the whole packing-parking-screening thing), once we got there, it was exhilarating–as you can see below, with the boys checking the view from the Bar Harbor shoreline our first night in town:

We cycled all through Acadia National Park, learned about lobstering (and ate a lot of it), watched the stars, and got out on boat rides several times. During one nature cruise, our guide, a retired park ranger, asked how many of us would have gone abroad this year but came to Maine instead. About half of the 50 people on that boat raised their hands. Even the guide was a little surprised. Later, we visited about that moment with one of the wait staff at a brew pub who also worked part-time at the local visitors bureau. She said that they, too, had noticed many more people requesting information this year. Good for Maine.

Sam’s favorite part of the trip was that nature cruise, which took us by some of the favorite hangouts for seals, porpoises, and sea birds, including two huge osprey nests. We also saw some stunning homes along the shore. My favorite part of the trip was cycling the carriage roads through the park. They were so quiet.

The Silver Linings Playbook

 

The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else. But guess what? Sunday’s my favorite day again. I think of what everyone did for me, and I feel like a very lucky guy. — The Silver Linings Playbook

Sam and I were invited to the wedding of some old friends last weekend. The couple had postponed their celebration because of the pandemic, but like most of us looking for a little bit of normal, they, too, saw the covid vaccine as a way through to their special day. We said yes to some beautiful normal that day, although we still weren’t quite feeling fully normal. We masked up for the ceremony and stayed out on the patio for the fun. It was the best day.

Sam hasn’t been able to go dancing–one of his favorite things–much at all for the past year and half. He joined an Eastern swing dance club several years ago, but they closed with the first covid lockdown last year and opened for a club dance only once, as far as Sam can tell, just before the surge of the delta variant put a damper on everything again. I think the only time he’s been out is when his aunties took him dancing on a mountain biking trip in June. (Remember June, when we thought we were finally free of it?)

On the way to the wedding, I told him there would be a DJ and music and a chance to dance. He said he wasn’t sure about staying at the party that long, let alone dancing. “It’s risky, Mom,” he said.

But, as you can see in the photo above, his eyes were soon on the dance floor. He waited for a bit, hoping a the DJ would spin a good swing dance number, but after a few tunes, he decided he would just make his move. He danced quite a bit, including at least one number with the bride. He’s a lucky guy that way.

 

 

Pandemic and the after times

Hopefully, this week tips the balance between the number of people Sam and I know who got sick with COVID-19 (a lot) and the number who’ve been immunized (only a handful). Texas has lagged the rest of the country in delivering vaccine, and our county has lagged even further, at least until they organized this week’s 10K-per-day, multi-day, drive-through shot clinic at the speedway.

Photo by Dallas Morning News

The pandemic forced Sam and me to reshape our lives quite a bit over the past year, and the routine that evolved likely helped our mental health. We took a few days at Christmas to visit Michael and Holly in Austin (combining our bubbles proved just fine) and found that, in coming back home, re-establishing the daily rhythm took a little effort. We thought our routine was a gentle one, but it was a routine nonetheless.

Now, we can see that the routine will change again as the pandemic recedes. Sam says he finds it hard to imagine that things will go back to the way they were, even though he would like to go dancing again and some horseback riding competitions could return. Those leisure activities mean taking time off work, something he’s done very little of in the past year.

In addition, we like much of what we’ve folded into our lives since the pandemic shut us in. We found time to learn calculus, which has become a small, joyful part of nearly every day now. We also look forward to bike riding on the weekend. (We signed up for a virtual challenge because, first, his sister suggested it, and second, because it seemed like a peak pandemic-y thing to do.) And Saturday night has become movie night for us in a way that Alamo Drafthouse couldn’t replicate, snacks and all: we set the schedule and we curate our own themes. Right now, we are watching films that explore civil rights and our country’s dark history of white supremacy.

Many new things we do may continue, including the favorite parts of our routine. Sam says he will continue wearing masks for allergy season or whenever he needs to protect himself from dust. I suspect we may don them in public other times, too. It’s kind of gobsmacking how, in the before times, we were expected to go to work with a cold, or otherwise be out and about and infecting each other. Egad.

In other words, I don’t think it’s just the family dog who’d rather we keep the current routine. Maybe that old routine from the before times wasn’t so free after all, subjecting us all to much more of a rigid and unhealthy grind than we remember.

 

The original in social distancing

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.

 

Let there be dancing

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.