Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

writing for parents of the bravest hearts

Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

green writing for parents

Writing

Fare thee well, feline

It’s been ten days since we’ve seen our cat, Tiger, although I knew the first morning when I opened the back door and he didn’t show that he was gone for good.

Tiger came to live with us as an outdoor cat. He was one of several kittens that a co-worker’s wife found in a box on the side of the road fifteen years ago. We were living on the farm at the time and had been having trouble keeping cats, as often happens out in the countryside. But Paige was 10 years old and pining for a cat, so we picked the male orange tabby kitten for good luck.

Tiger’s cat-shaming portrait.

Tiger proved to be a survivor. Even as coyotes, owls and other predators exacted their toll on our farm, Tiger knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. When it was time to move into town, I was apprehensive. He’d lived on the farm for more than a decade. I got advice from other cat owners and the veterinarian. On moving day, I was ready with drugs and a crate, but as soon as the moving vans showed up in the driveway, Tiger, ever the survivor, hid out. Two days later, he got hungry enough for the new owner to catch him in the house and call me.

During the transition, he fought against the drugs so it was like having a drunk college student lumbering around the house as we unpacked boxes and filled cupboards and closets and bookshelves. After a week of supervised outdoor time, he started fighting the whole cat-on-a-leash thing. I opened the door and said, “good luck little buddy.” I don’t know what I was worried about. He was a survivor and he knew where he lived. That’s where his food dish is!

Now that he’s gone, I feel the loss, as I knew I would, even though I’ve also known I won’t get any more cats. I’m a dog person. I have been since I was a girl, obsessed with learning all the breeds of dogs and reading stories about dogs and pining for a dog myself.

While our dogs have reminded me of the rewards of loving unconditionally, I have to give props to Tiger, whose utter cat-ness provided insight into life’s more complicated doings and feelings.

He brilliantly established his personal space. Pet him just a stroke or two when he wasn’t feeling it and he bit your hand or arm or leg or foot to let you know. Even when he was willing to sit for a little cuddle time, you still got bit at the end.

He ate ritualistically: every half hour or so, he returned to the bowl to eat several bites. Ergo, we learned to always pause for a moment when we opened the door to let him in (or out) and forever keep kibble in the bowl.

He often joined the dog and I on the first block of a walk. Then he decided either we weren’t worth the effort or going into the wrong territory and he went off on his own.

When Paige went off to college, the cat expressed how distressing the empty nest was by peeing all over the pricey feather bed I bought to deal with a too-hard mattress. I didn’t even try to recover anything. The feather bed got tossed in the trash. I still sleep on that too-hard bed.

Farewell, old friend. We’re glad you came to stay.

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.

Random thoughts running Frenchtown Road

Michael woke me today and insisted I run with him. “It’ll be the last time,” he said.

It’s a funny way to celebrate a launching, but that’s what it was. Last year was tough for him. He had started his adult life after graduating TCU in 2013 and then had to move back home last January. I got a front row seat watching what our economy is doing to the 20-somethings. At the end of one of his worst days, I found myself offering a most grown-up salve to his wounds, pointing to the barstool in the kitchen and pouring him a generous shot of Old No. 7.

In the past year that he’s lived here with Sam and me, we often ran together. His normal pace is crazy faster than mine, but he said slowing down to run with me strengthened other muscles. True or not, it was still a nice thing to say and do — slowing a 7:00 mile to run your mom’s 10:00+

Eventually, he righted himself. Today he packed up the car and drove to his new life in Austin.  Michael'sNewCar

I resisted temptation to grab the camera and document the day (this photo is from one of his good days earlier this year), remembering back to Paige’s first day of kindergarten. She was the youngest, but she was feisty and she couldn’t wait to prove she was big like her brothers. When it was her turn to hop out of the car and head to her classroom for the first day of school, she did it with confidence and determination. Who was I to turn into a blubbering idiot about all my babies gone to school and ruin her first day being big for real?

So I just watched her from behind the wheel of the old Dodge Caravan and marveled at the moment.

It was icy cold today, but it was a little like that hot August day 30 years ago I drove my un-air conditioned car across the Nevada desert to Sacramento to start my grown-up life: Michael, being big for real.

 

One book every ten years

I’ve been told more than once that the purpose of your first book is to help get your contract for the second one. (Also, I’m told to not quit your day job until after the third book is published, but I keep doing the math and I think that advice is for fiction writers.)

I’ve noticed that some writers are better than I am about coming up with topics for books. A children’s writer down the road from me, Lynn Sheffield Simmons, gets her inspiration from animals and her little books are now in accelerated reader programs in elementary schools. My good friend, Donna Fielder, follows the headlines with her terrific true crime books. She also works with really funny material from her column writing — it seems like she always has a project in some stage of development.

imgres

It has been almost a decade since I developed my last manuscript and managed to have “See Sam Run” published. The next one is coming along, thanks to an extraordinary collaborator, Shahla Ala’i-Rosales.

Shahla has worked with parents and children with autism for years, has helped educate a generation of certified behavior analysts, and produces informed research on the topic. It has taken us several years to put together what we hope will be a timeless guide for parents, young and old, who love and care for a child (or adult) with autism.

It’s basically this idea:

Art by Susan Sullivan, SUMY Designs

Art by Susan Sullivan, SUMY Designs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is no easy task, y’all.

But Shahla and I have come to recognize that behavior analysis and mindfulness intersect in a way that can be powerful and life-altering for parents, their personal and professional allies, and the children in their care. 

Here’s a sneak peek from our proposal:

Our book starts in territory that others have explored – the emotional landscape above which all the hard work of raising a child takes place – and moves into the extraordinary territory parents of children with disabilities must work in. As no one has written about mindful parenting and parenting children with disabilities for general audience, our book will break new ground.

Parents make decisions for their children every day. Parents of children with disabilities often make more decisions, and sometimes continue to do so for the duration of their child’s entire life. Many of those parents also recognize that their children may lack the resilience to bounce back as quickly, if at all, if a decision turns out to be a mistake. Those decisions can often feel high-stakes to parents.

Through its conversational tone, accessible to busy and overwhelmed parents, this book will both offer parents stories that are insightful and steer them towards tenets unified by time-tested, wisdom-based principles. The work is also grounded in the ethical guidelines used by professionals. In this way, the book echoes not only emerging market in mindfulness and parenting but also emerging research on mindfulness …

Link-and-Twist: ethical reporting on health impacts and breast cancer

Mark had this rule we lived by, and we did our best to pass on to the kids. If something makes you mad, don’t do anything about it for at least 24 hours. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! when you don’t go to your angry place. Usually, we found that we woke up the next day and couldn’t remember why we were bothered. Or, if something was still wrong, we could think it through and get it fixed.

Editors have a rule that, when someone asks to reprint a story, they have to print the whole thing. That’s smart. It keeps people from misappropriating your work, recasting it in a shape that fits them, or just flat-out stealing it.

For a while now, when it comes to my long-ago story on local breast cancer rates, I think I’ve been applying too much of Mark’s rule, and not nearly enough of the editors rule. Here’s the rub: if a blog post is misappropriating a story, a link to the whole doesn’t fix that. In the case of the breast cancer story, there are too many of these supposed “stories-behind-the-story” and “stories-around-the-story” that link-and-twist.

Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram passed on a tweet by George P. Bush today that shows a certain level of determination by a handful in Wild West Cyber Space to keep twisting that story.

BudsReTweet

So, I will do my duty and offer my annual defense (here is last year’s) of what was a damn good story in summer 2011.

I think it started when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. made a short reference to it in an essay on Huffington Post that summer. He didn’t boil it down quite right. It grated on me, but his heart seemed to be in the right place and I thought, who am I to call up Mr. Kennedy and say, “Dude, linking is not enough, that summary wasn’t right, fix it.” After Josh Fox referenced  the story in 2012 in “The Sky is Pink,” an Associated Press reporter in Pennsylvania got a Texas-sized hitch in his git-along over it.

How huge? I endured a week of emails as this reporter tried, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t), find the original report with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the concern over breast cancer rates in North Texas and flat-out ignored the report on the uptick in breast cancers in Flower Mound. Then, he tried to cook up numbers of his own through the Texas Cancer Registry and fell flat.

That clunky AP story should not derail this important conversation about breast cancer and the North Texas environment, because it offers no numbers, just odd quotes of alternate experts a full year after the original story ran.

Meanwhile, Florence Williams masterful book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, has stepped in to keep the conversation going in the right direction. Or so I hope. She reminds us that as little as 10 percent of breast cancers are straight-up inherited. Most are triggered by something in the environment, either lifestyle, surroundings or both. If you haven’t read her book, shut up about what you think about breast cancer in the environment because, to those of us who have read the book, you will just sound like an idiot until you do.

In other words, for a breast book, it’s seminal. (You’re welcome, Ms. Williams.)

The good people of the Barnett Shale know what those breast cancer numbers meant in the original story — a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, a loved one who is suffering. One fellow in Double Oak so took to heart that spun-up criticism by the AP that he devoted a chapter in his book about it. Tom Hayden is a retired math professor, not an epidemiologist, but, Hey Martha! (that’s a dog-whistle to you budding epidemiologists out there) if he didn’t find something interesting: He compared breast cancer rates for two Texas cities about the same size, Fort Worth (shale) and Austin (no shale), and did the math. He appears to have found statistically significant differences in the rates, especially when examined by race.

I want to share one last thought for the really smart readers out there, and for those journalists who remember graduate school lessons about things like hegemony and logical fallacies.

Ask yourself this when you are reading a news story about the health impacts of the shale boom: does the underlying theme in this story assume that not just higher cancer rates, but statistically significant higher cancer rates, are necessary in order to change the course of this policy or practice?

There are scores of other health impacts, too, and they can be costly. To bring such a level of skepticism about health impacts and cancer risks to writing a story? I won’t do it. That’s just messed up.

Moreover, good journalists are not stenographers. We aren’t supposed to sit down and re-write the executive summary proffered by the bureaucrat and call it a day. We’re supposed to be in the community, listening, watching. We’re supposed work hard to be the light on the dark corner, the first draft of history, the dot-connector, the bellwether.

That’s what I did with the breast cancer story. All kinds of people read the news to understand what’s happening in their community and to better inform their work, and that includes scientists. The really smart ones are looking for clues to the next paradigm shift.

So, after the original story ran in 2011, maybe that’s why UT-Southwestern called me and asked for reprints of it. They told me they wanted copies for their team.

Doesn’t sound at all to me like my sources thought I got the story wrong.

There is a still a lot of work to be done in Texas. Tens of thousands of wells have been dug and those of us who drive the back roads and talk to people and know the patterns of history have got a pretty good idea what’s coming next.

The rest of this breast cancer conversation has to be taken up by you smart and discerning readers out there. You need to keep it going in the right direction.

I just got back from The Mayborn Nonfiction Conference and I need to get back to work. But if I have to, I’ll be back next summer for my annual defense of the breast cancer story.

summer

 

As told to the Mayborn Nonfiction Conference

I went. I heard. I tweeted what resonated most with me.

  • We’re in it – Skip Hollandsworth, all about “Bernie”
  • This is a story you don’t get in the way of – Skip Hollandsworth
  • Only when readers feel will they begin to think it through – Jeff Guinn
  • Unconventional warfare is a cancer we pour in and once we do that, it’s hard to control – Tony Schwalm, The Guerrilla Factory
  • There are no shortcuts in the process of owning your material – Jim Hornfischer
  • OH at #Mayborn: “Because the person who comes back is not the person who left” – what migration/immigration and military memoir share
  • Truth and courage – Alfredo Corchado, Reyna Grande
  • I look for the voice, the voice that will carry it – agent Bonnie Nadell, on book proposals
  • In democracy no decision is more profound than war and peace – Rick Atkinson
  • In good narrative history, there is no foreseeable future – Rick Atkinson
  • Public figures deserve their complexity – Kevin Merida
  • I was always trying to write about this cosmic wrong – Donna Britt
  • I said everything except this is a story about the healing power of love – Kelly Benham
  • Storytelling can be a healing process, a wounding process – Tom Huang
  • I probably should’ve run – Hugh Aynesworth, JFK eyewitness
  • JFK 50 years later. Here’s a story from a Dallas reporter who was there http://t.co/05iCF8ynwy
  • Love favors the prepared heart. – John Valliant
  • I spent a year writing a pitch letter. Front-loading works well – John Valliant
  • In memoir writing, there are ways to take a powerful memory and nail down the corners – Amanda Bennett
  • It was, in the end, a love story – Amanda Bennett
  • A photo can be simultaneously clear in its storytelling ability and confusing – Paul Hendrickson
  • Westword’s Alan Prendergast tells the #Mayborn tribe that the original new journalists used archival research more than they let on.
  • In those silences that follow your questions, you must use your imagination as well as your research to understand – Helen Benedict
  • Editors see the holes in the logic that you can’t – Susan Orlean
  • It’s just not the #Mayborn until Bill Marvel asks a question
  • Archives have the good stuff; and can be more intimate than the interview – Susan Orlean
  • There is a radiant quality to a story that has that longer timeline – Susan Orlean
  • @LowellMBrown Yes. Chickens are very popular in the twitterverse
  • To start on twitter, tweet about your chickens  – Susan Orlean

You can follow me at @phwolfeDRC. Or find more searching #Mayborn. Or read Michael Merschel’s story (paywall) which underscores that, if you went, you could not continue to think that journalists are “heartless, self-centered or careless.” We showed, amply, that we have heart.

 

The sibling experience

I didn’t tackle the sibling experience in my book about the first few years of Sam’s life. I didn’t feel it was my story to tell.

Many siblings of people with autism are starting to tell their stories. Paige and, especially, Michael enjoyed one book I picked up for them several years ago, The Ride Together. Paige wrote an essay for her nonfiction class at the University of Iowa that she will workshop at the Mayborn conference.

This young man shared his heartwarming story on YouTube.

Paige’s favorite lines:

“They thought he reached his fullest potential. He proved them wrong.”

“I play the big brother in the way I look out for him, but I still look up to him.”

Words My Dog Knows

I have a Blue Lacy dog named Gus:
GusontherunHe will be 12 years old this year. Over the years, he has learned many words and phrases. He understands basic commands such as come, sit, stay, and down, of course. But let’s explore some of the more interesting words Gus knows.

Uh-oh. Gus knows when this is uttered in the kitchen to come a-running because something delicious just fell on the floor. Say it in another room and he ignores you.

Time for toothbrush. He follows you to the pantry for those chews that ostensibly clean his teeth.

Squirrel. Nothing more needs to be said.

Crow. Like squirrel, little more needs to be said, but he looks up in the sky.

Time for work. He barks at you until get your boots on. Same goes for, let’s get the paper, or walk, or outside, or take the trash up. 

Tractor. Sam never says a word, but Gus knows when he puts in the ear protectors, it’s time to bark because the 2N is heading out into the orchard.

Get ’em up. This was very useful when we had more livestock here, for example, when Michael’s cashmere goats would get out of their pen or the chickens needed to be hustled back in the coop. In 2005, I thought about dispatching him to the Texas Legislature when they made one of many messes they’ve made with school financing at the same time they declared his breed the official state dog.

Given what’s going on in Austin this week, I may yet send him down there.

Get ’em up, Gus.

Driving on the rims

When your kids are in college, you can learn vicariously through them, and I’m picking up all kinds of new things this summer from my daughter, Paige, who is majoring in English.

Sometimes it comes in longer talks (I had to work hard to remember why I didn’t like The Great Gatsby — sorry, Doni — and defend my opinion), but mostly we share observations, like one last night, seeing the unlikely outcome of a story and reminding each other that it was made possible through the omniscience of fiction.

Not something you get in real life, which probably explains my attraction to nonfiction. Paige took a nonfiction class and got some insight into that messy framework, (did it help that she was also taking a psychology class to meet a core requirement?) but in the end, I think she’ll be a fiction writer. That’s not fictional omniscience speaking, it’s just that her Shelfari is full of fiction and mine, not so much.

So, I shared with her a story about her dad and me that I thought would make a great scene for fiction. Maybe it could still be woven into some key moment of emotional truth in a piece of nonfiction, but the story sits in my memory as a random bit, like an old key in the junk drawer you are afraid to toss because, even though you haven’t figured out for the past 20 years what it goes to, you know as soon as you throw it away, you will.

When I packed up my things in Colorado and first moved to California, Mark came to help me drive across the desert. It was the end of summer. We had not yet figured out what we would learn a few years later, when the kids were little, that driving overnight, in shifts, is a far better way to get across the desert in the summer. But, we did drive as long into the night as we could before we stopped at a roadside park in Nevada to lay the seats back and get a few hours sleep. About 4 a.m., we were startled awake by such a noise I had never heard before, or since. The racket stopped by the time we were awake enough for our eyes to focus on a woman and two men as they slammed car doors and started stumbling around the car, yelling at each other. It could have been my stupor, but I believe it was more likely theirs, because what they were saying was completely, totally, utterly incoherent. The yelling went on for a few minutes, then, they got back in the car, slammed the doors and started up again. That’s when we saw the source of the racket. They were driving across the caliche on all four rims.

I didn’t think a car could do that. Mark was incredulous, too. But there they went, down a desert road on rims, a piece of fiction in real life.