"Normal" Is A Dryer Setting

Parenting A Child On The Autism Spectrum


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The Explorers

A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things. ~ Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

Lake Superior, Minnesota side

Lake Superior, Grand Marais, Minnesota

Last week I spent my lunch hour and beyond discussing my career path with the sweetest fourteen-year-old I have ever met. She will be starting high school this fall and is interested in a career in biomedical engineering. One of my coworkers had her tour our company for a day, meeting with people from different functions, to help her see what The Real World is like and hopefully glean some advice and guidance.

One question curious minds frequently ask me is how I got to where I am today in my career. The general assumption always seems to be that I made some kind of conscious effort or decision to move in a certain direction. I have moved, but not in a deliberate, well-planned-out-kind-of-way. Rather, during my time working in industry, I have gravitated toward where I am most comfortable. Here is a biology analogy to help explain:

No energy expenditure for me so far.

The sciencey explanation of my career path.

The cells of your body have different transport mechanisms to move molecules in and out. Active transport requires energy, which is ATP (thus the lightening bolt). Passive transport does not require energy, and molecules tend to move from higher to lower areas of concentration. If you think of a crowded party, active transport could be the host or hostess packing everyone into one corner like sardines. The diffusion form of passive transport is where people disperse themselves more evenly depending on where the food or music is. Facilitated diffusion would be where the host takes one or two people and moves them to another part of the room.

Diffusion allows molecules to go where they are most comfortable, where they would naturally be found in an environment. They stop moving when they reach an equilibrium, which is a state of balance. While all forms of transport in and out of a cell require movement, some expend more energy than others. There is also only so much energy to go around.

My energy for the past almost sixteen years has been used up exclusively in raising my son. While I enjoy my job and do my best every day, I have not performed extraordinary feats of energy expenditure to move up in the company. If I did, I would be exhausted, burned out, and not a good parent or role model. I do not tell people this, especially fourteen-year-old children who are just starting their careers, when I first meet them and they ask about my career path. I actually don’t mention this to my best friends. The only way people notice is by paying close attention to where my own attentions lie.

So if I don’t tell people that actively pushing myself forward in my career would have resulted in my becoming a perpetual Medusa day in and day out, what do I tell them?

Here it is.

I went to graduate school for cancer biology. When I had permission from my thesis committee to begin writing my thesis and look for jobs, here were my options:

1) Stay in academia. No way Jose. At the time, the NIH funding rate for grants was at a low of approximately 10%. That means that for every 1000 grants submitted, only 10 were being funded. As a single parent, there was no way I was going to take a chance on an academic career. Tenure at an academic institution is based largely on how many grants you have funded and how many publications you have in scientific journals, and the first five years can be rough. I knew if I went into academia I would have no time left over for my home life.

2) Teach at a liberal arts institution. This was a definite possibility, except that jobs are highly competitive and few and hard to find due to the fact that they are really good jobs. A liberal arts college or university usually has smaller class sizes, and as an instructor you have the opportunity to become closely involved with your students and in campus life. My last year of graduate school I taught Advanced Microbiology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and loved it. Several years later, I am still in touch with several of the students who were in my class. Since we were close in age when I taught them, they are now my friends.

3) Do a post-doctoral fellowship for the government. I interviewed for several NIH positions in several parts of the United States. If you want a post-doctoral fellowship that offers you a lot of career options upon finishing, I would highly recommend looking at the NIH. The military also has post-doctoral fellowships, and one of the perks about working on a base is that, as an employee, you may enjoy the same benefits the soldiers do. I almost went to work for the NIH, but then this happened….

4) Go into industry, which is what I did. My graduate school advisor told me repeatedly that this was a definite yes based on my personality and the way I worked in lab, but being who I am I didn’t listen to him. The way I got my industry position is also kind of a fluke, which has started to make me feel a bit guilty when trying to give other scientists advice on how to get into industry. One afternoon while filling out NIH applications, an email popped up in my inbox from my advisor. He had forwarded me a note from the chair of the department with a job opening in a local industrial corporation. On a whim I submitted my resume, and thank goodness the hiring manager couldn’t open it the first time because when I showed it to my advisor he freaked out and made me revise and resend it. When the hiring manager opened it the second time, he called me the next day to come interview for the position. I was one of four applicants, and I ended up being the person who got the job.

I didn’t get my industry job based on my scientific skill set. I was offered the job for two reasons:

  • First, I interviewed very well. Social skills, as I told my fourteen-year-old lunch companion, are critical to having a successful scientific career. You can be the most brilliant scientific mind in your field, but if you are unable to communicate both verbally and through writing and / or get along with your coworkers and / or represent your company in a professional manner and /or resolve conflict when it arises, and I promise you it will, forget the job offer.
  • Second, I was my advisor’s first graduate student. As the first graduate student, I had my choice of projects, which was wonderful. I also spent an inordinate amount of time helping get the lab set up and running. I trained most of the undergraduates, ran our facilities and ordered supplies when we were between technicians, and actually had a large say in the research direction the lab took based on how my thesis project shook out.

Now we are at the point where I am a cancer biologist working at an adhesives company. I have been at this company for almost a decade, and I have never once been in danger of losing my job, or if I have, no one told me about it. I always have more than enough projects to work on, and three of those have turned into actual products that our company sells. If I do happen to have a few slow weeks, the curious cat part of me starts noodling around with my coworkers to come up with new ideas. Sometimes I have a specific project to work on, but usually it’s more of a concept, a vision that someone has in his or her head. My job is to make it happen and dictate size, shape, color, smell, and so on. The best part of my job is that I learn something new every day.

I spent the first four years of my industrial career in lab, all the time, every day. I love working in lab. Cell culture is meditative to me, with all of the repetition and routine. Trying new procedures and tweaking old ones, such as ELISAs, are always fun. If you need things to work the first time, every time, lab may not be the right place for you to be. For me, however, a failed experiment meant one option crossed off the list and new avenues to explore. The best part is when you get a result and think to yourself, “Hmmm…this is…interesting.” And then the next experiment blossoms up in your mind.

The way I left lab was very circuitous and not something I planned. It was passive, not active. I was assigned as the technical lead on a major program for our group, and in addition to the lab work, I started organizing our weekly meetings. I also became the person who wrote the technical updates, made update slides in Powerpoint when our manager needed them, and putting together our project reviews. I made sure the team stayed on task, kept to our timeline, and maintained good communication with the product development part of our company. If this is sounding less and less like a techie position and more like Project Management, you are spot on. The best part was that I was unwittingly evolving into a Project Manager. A part of myself that I never knew existed had emerged.

After our team finished that project, I started looking around for something new to do and went back into lab. That lasted all of three months until my technical manager asked me to initiate a new platform. A platform consists of several inter-related products, so by saying yes to the request, I knew that I would be unofficially stepping out of my technical role and into a full time Project Management position. The caveat, however, is that the part of the company I was in rated the employees on technical accomplishments. There was no Project Management career path, only technical or supervisory. I believe in bringing my genuine, true, and honest self to every situation, however, so I began managing our platform. The best part was helping advance the careers of the scientists on my team and watching the project progress.

It all paid off because I was offered the job I have now for two reasons:

  • First, I have an excellent track record as a Project Manager, previously unrecognized as it may have been. My teams function well together. We communicate at all levels, from our summer interns up to our most important stakeholders. I figure out what my assigned scientists excel at and help them succeed in their own careers. The projects I manage stay organized, on schedule, and we deliver sound technologies that are able to be commercialized. I also do not fear conflict and try to use it to strengthen our team instead of letting it tear us apart.
  • Second, I am a risk taker. I do not always do what everyone else does, and often I go on my own way, about my own business, and keep time to my own music. This is not hostile, rebellious, or disrespectful on my part. It is simply part of who I am. I started performing a Project Management function because that is where I was able to offer the most support to my team. I have gone against the grain like this multiple times in my career, often in small ways. Sometimes it is noticed, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it does not. When taking a risk works in your favor, however, the results can be significantly life changing.

Now after over half a decade of Project Management under my belt, I am considering yet another transition into Technical Management. After being at my company for only two years, my supervisor at the time strongly encouraging me to go into Technical Management. I did not actively pursue that career path at the time because it felt like a forced fit. I wanted more time to be in the laboratory running experiments and figuring out where I fit in and what I wanted to do with my career. Now, years later, the opportunity for Technical Management has been offered to me again, and this time I am strongly considering taking it. The position is not something I sought out. It came to me because I have a strong network of coworkers throughout the company. Networking is a critical component of career success in any organization, and it isn’t always the quantity of people you know. Sometimes a few excellent connections is all it takes.

My fourteen-year-old left with a big smile on her face and shining eyes after we walked up from my building’s cafeteria through some of the labs on my floor. She saw her future unfolding before her, knowing that she had a lot of work and dedication to do to reach her goals. This is where all of the best parts of all of the bits and pieces of my career add up to one Big Beautiful Best Of Everything – watching a fledgling scientist dip her toes in the water and wonder what lies on the other side of the shore.

 

 


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The Body Farm

Take me out tonight / Where there’s music and there’s people / And they’re young and alive. ~ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, The Smiths

“What is that? Is that cooked?” asked my manager in line across from me at our company clubhouse’s lunch buffet today.

“No…well, not really. It’s cured,” I replied, and as a result she promptly passed up the lox and moved on to choose a fire-roasted option.

I, on the other hand, joked to my coworker behind me (Mickey from the Monster Dash) that I was about to discard my 9-inch lunch plate and pick up the entire platter of salmon instead. Not only was the lox rolled up into delicious curls of pink fantabulousness, but the condiments included diced hard-boiled eggs, red onions, capers, and a dill sauce. It is at times like this when I realize I have lived in the northernmost reaches of the United States for a very, very long time. I ended up choosing three rolls of lox, sprinkling all the condiments on top, and accompanying it with fresh fruit, pickled vegetables, and a bit of pasta salad.

Some decisions, such as what we choose to put into our bodies, are entirely a matter of personal preference. We know what we consider to taste good and what doesn’t, whether it is a matter of flavor, texture, viscosity, or smell. This is why buffets are popular choices at dining establishments – there is something for everyone. I rarely eat out, and when I do I don’t do buffets because I am full after one plate. When my company is footing the bill, however, I can’t put up much of an argument. Our team had an offsite morning today, which included lunch at the end, so I loaded up on lox.

When my girlfriends and I went to eat a few weeks ago, at our usual monthly Girls’ Night Out, we ended up at the Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood. The Twisted Fork Grille uses locally sourced ingredients and serves everything from fish tacos to a roasted pear salad to bison burgers. The menu, much like a buffet, has something for everyone. The trick to the Twisted Fork’s menu, however, is in the details. The dishes start with a staple ingredient, such as roast chicken, but then the chefs add in a wild mushroom risotto made with a tomato-garlic broth and asparagus on the side. When something strikes you on the menu, you feel as if it has been designed just for you.

That night my girlfriends and I discussed several individual decisions, such as how to update resumes, move up in our respective career paths, whether or not to discipline a preschool daughter’s naughty friend during a playdate the mother was hosting, and how to handle an upcoming exploratory surgery for a health disorder. We had a lot to talk about, and instead of being hush-hush we were…out there. Loud and not embarrassed in the least. We only do this once a month, and there were several topics on the docket to discuss on this particular evening.

While we were in the middle of discussing Girlfriend #1’s whole dilemma of to-discipline-or-not-to-discipline-someone-else’s-naughty-hellion-while-hosting-a-playdate-in-your-beautiful-new-home-with-beautiful-new-carpet-and-beautiful-clean-walls-because-the-biological-parent-isn’t-stepping-in-because-well, after four years of this nonsense none of us can figure out why, I put my signature on a few sheets of paper and passed them to Girlfriend #2 on my left. She put her resume aside, signed her name, and handed it to our other girlfriend sitting next to her. Girlfriend #3 glanced down at it, pulled out a pen, and signed her name too. When she passed the signed and witnessed documents back to me, I said “Thank you”, they both nodded, and we moved on to the next topic of discussion which was Girlfriend #4’s recent trip to her homeland of Turkey for her youngest sister’s wedding who looks like a supermodel and now has a beloved husband and two bonus sons. As I was talking to Girlfriend #4 about the wedding, Girlfriend #3 said, “Oh, you two…let me take a picture. You look so happy.” And we were, and the papers went back into my handbag for the remainder of the evening.

So…what are the papers? Why did I need two witnesses? It’s not a patent application, but once signed and witnessed, these papers become a legal document which is actually one of the most important decisions I have made in my life so far. My Girlfriend Witnesses  already knew it was coming, and they fully support the individual decision I have made about a universal occurrence:

Death

It is an imminent arrival for all of us, and if we are fortunate, we don’t know when or why it’s coming. Life does tend to throw its curveballs though.

I am young, and healthy, and plan on living for a long time. Being alive is fun to say the least. I want to live to be 100 so I can tell people “I am 100 years old.” How many people have the opportunity to do that? The issue at hand is that I have a 14-year-old son with an autism spectrum disorder, and while I can plan my future to my heart’s content, there are some parts I can’t control. When my number comes up, it’s done. Ideally I will outlive my son Timothy because he needs me in his life to function. After not planning for fourteen years, it’s time to start putting my affairs in order Just In Case. I have yet to do a will, or an estate, or a trust. I started with the easiest step first, which is where I will physically end up.

I just made my body donation official! I am sitting with my lovely Turkish girlfriend.

I donated my body to the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as The Body Farm. This research facility studies human decomposition. The documents I signed and my girlfriends witnessed were my application forms. These forms are now on file at the University of Tennessee, and I received a letter stating that I have been accepted into the program as a research participant.

The unanswered question for me is: What would draw someone to choose a research career in human decomposition? I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it. I figure in the buffet of vocations, there is something for everyone. Forensic anthropology is formally defined as the examination of human skeletal or decomposing remains in a legal setting to determine the cause of death of establish the identity of unknown individuals. This type of research is necessary and highly useful for

  • Estimating time of death
  • Human growth and development
  • Genetics
  • Effects of lifestyle
  • Trauma injuries – includes blunt injuries, ballistics, and so on
  • Demographics – how our population changes over time
  • Forensics studies of all sorts

I have never wanted a funeral, never. Not since I was a child and learned what happens when you die. For me, personally, it’s a waste. I would rather gift my body to a useful purpose that will benefit society and have a memorial service if people need closure. It’s the ultimate in recycling and giving back to your planet. This choice isn’t for everyone, but it is the right one for me. The Kentucky-Tennesee area is gorgeous, I have a strong family history in that part of the country, and I would love nothing better than to spend the remainder of my remains lying outdoors in a peaceful place. I also am passionate about any kind of science, and I consider this collaborative research.

Interested in learning more about the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center? Here is the official link:

http://fac.utk.edu/

There are no photos on the website, so browse away without trepidation. There are YouTube videos on other websites, not UT’s, that I did not want to watch and will not list here. The only video link you’ll find in this particular entry is the one to The Smiths. The University of Tennessee’s website contains donation information, forms, faculty profiles, and lists of presentations and publications here. Some key points are

  • You become a permanent part of the facility upon your arrival. Bodies are not returned to families nor are they embalmed.
  • Your body will be used for research and teaching. The university pays for your transportation. There is no monetary reimbursement to you or your family for donating.
  • You can be an organ donor and still donate your body.
  • The facility does NOT give tours.
  • You may also donate your skeleton or cremated remains.
  • Monetary donations are welcome if you want to contribute without donating your body.
  • The facility is always accepting donations and always expects to.
  • Your family may choose against donating you when the time comes. The most you can do is express this as your wish.

Life is all about choice. That’s what makes us unique and keeps everything so extraordinarily interesting. With all of the unexpected twists and turns life takes, however, I feel an immense amount of comfort and safety in knowing where I will eventually end up. Tim wants to donate himself as well, and as his (responsible!) parent I told him that while I respect his decision, he needs to wait until he is sure of what he wants. When he is much older, he may find himself in the same position as I am, where I have felt a certain way since I was small. Then he will have the choice to choose the end of his path.


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What If

Have you ever wondered “What if…”? And now that I write the words “what” and “if”, they are actually quite strange looking and sounding words indeed. Try speaking them out loud, and the phrase is nothing more than a breath. Put them together, however, and they pose a question that one can ruminate on for hours.

Downtown North Saint Paul, Minnesota

If you haven’t been to Luther Auctions in North Saint Paul, you are definitely missing out. This is a must-see event, and even if you don’t intend to bid, the people-watching is worth showing up. Daniel discovered them by accident over a year ago when his parents, who visit for a month at a time twice a year, wanted to go antiquing. They ended up at an antique store in North Saint Paul, and across the street was Luther Auctions, which piqued Daniel’s interest. “Antiques Roadshow” is one of Daniel’s favorite television programs, and auctions definitely fit into that category of How Much Is All This Old Stuff Worth.

Daniel, ever the avid online shopper and always up for a good deal, usually browses Luther Auctions’ website every weekend. Luther Auctions posts all of their items with a description and a photograph a few days before the actual auction, and you can place absentee bids if you aren’t able to physically attend. Viewings are Sunday evenings from 5-8pm and Monday from 10am-6pm, with each week’s auction starting promptly at 6pm Monday night. Usually we don’t find anything worth bidding for, but every now and then something interesting pops up.

Luther Auctions

Last weekend Daniel and I were on our computers at the kitchen table, drinking our morning coffee, when he asked me if I was still looking for a spool cabinet. I said yes, of course, because as he knows my spools have been out of control and horribly unorganized for the past 15 years. Currently they are thrown together in one of my grandmother’s old cardboard shoeboxes, and there is no firm plan in the immediate future to sort them out. When I pull one spool out, it usually brings at least three of its spool friends along and I spend more time than I should untangling all the threads. And I am too cheap to simply cut the tangles out.

Anyway, last weekend there were several antique spool cabinets up for auction, so I decided to attend the preview on Sunday afternoon and take my son Tim with me. Tim, being 14 years old, loves odds and ends, so once we arrived at Luther Auctions, he was immediately drawn to a wooden crate full of old glass Coca-Cola bottles, a display case harboring half a dozen old cameras, and a plastic baggie full of Indian Head pennies. I located all of the spool cabinets and started pulling the drawers on each one, checking for stains, dovetailing, and overall condition.

There was also a sheet music cabinet up for auction, which I had seen on Luther Auctions’ website but hadn’t paid much attention to. When I was a child I took ten years of classical piano lessons, and a few years ago my parents actually shipped my piano from their house to mine since I was the only person who had ever played it. Due to all the piano lessons, I have several books of sheet music which, much like the spools, have been in a state of disarray for the past several years. Some books were in the piano bench, some on the piano, some in a bookcase which is in an entirely different part of the house, and some may still be in the attic.

When I saw the sheet music cabinet at the auction preview, something jumped inside me and I knew that I was coming back on Monday night to bid. The cabinet was clean, freshly polished, and in excellent condition. While I saw its practical value in organizing my sheet music and serving as an end table, I also saw it as symbolic of What I Chose Not To Do With My Life.  When I was growing up, I had two passions: science and music. I knew that one would be my calling and the other would be a hobby, and as I went through my education, the two sorted themselves out. I ended up choosing science over music, for the simple reason that I never enjoyed playing piano before an audience. If I had, then I would be a concert pianist today instead of a researcher.

The sheet music cabinet is safely home.

I won the sheet music cabinet, along with a couple of other odds and ends, and one of the gentleman working the auction helped me load the cabinet into my car. For now the cabinet is beside my bed, where it replaced an antique sewing machine table, and my sheet music is organized and safely tucked away inside. You may be wondering why the sheet music cabinet is not next to the piano, and the answer is a combination of Midwestern practicality (I need something to place my reading glasses on at night and store my stack of bedside books) and space (there is no room next to the piano, which is in my dining area). I also have the cabinet next to my bed so it is the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning. It is a physical manifestation of what could have been, and this is not a regretful-oh-I-made-the-wrong-life-decision could have been, but just a reminder that life has options. Always.


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The Worry Wart

Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow. ~ Swedish Proverb

And I had been worried about school starting soon.

Noon in Florida earlier this week.

Earlier this week my brother, who lives on the eastern side of Florida, posted a photo of his back yard. He and his wife, whom I tend to refer to as Bonus Sister, own a beautiful Spanish-style home in Port St. Lucie and live about five miles from the ocean. My brother was home the day he took this photo since his work had given him the day off. Hurricane Isaac was coming, and he documented the turmoil brewing over his backyard. You can tell by the body language of their new dog, Lady, that something is seriously amiss.

I hope that all is well along the Gulf Coast and southeastern seaboard of the United States, but the news reports that keep popping up on CNN state otherwise. I have noticed a lot of international readership on my blog lately, and, first, THANK YOU so much for your interest. I have hung out in general with internationals of all sorts for most of my life, starting when I was six and our school took in an immigrant family from Laos who escaped the Khmer Rouge. I remember playing on the swingsets of our school’s playground with one of their daughters who was in my class, and I watched her mother, who was probably no older than twenty years, out of the corner of my eye as she swung with us, with her eyes shut, and a small smile on her face, as if she was…decompressing from some traumatic event. As an adult, I now understand why this woman found northeastern Indiana so peaceful.

Back to the subject at hand, international readers. Second, thank you for reading because, if you are, you’re interested in events and experiences outside of your country, even if it’s only happenstance. Believe me that when you have wars, typhoons, government changes, brilliant successes, or really any major event occur in your home country, I am following everything eagerly. I love learning about new people, places, and things, and I love the feeling of community that modern media is able to provide. I love being connected.

When people ask me how I can STAND to live in Minnesota, how I can BEAR IT, why I don’t MOVE AWAY, my answer is usually weather-related. The worst weather we have in MInnesota are blizzards. What do you do during a blizzard? You sit inside your warm home, watch the snow fall while drinking a mug of tea, and then when the snow has fallen you go outside and play in it. Every time I venture outside while the snow is falling, I am amazed at the deafening silence of it all. My favorite time to do this is in the evening, when the windows in my neighbors’ homes are lit up a warm yellow and I am in the black night, surrounded by the gently falling flakes.

When people ask me, but don’t you get COLD? How can you stand the FREEZING temperatures? I respond that the one important investment in living in Minnesota is warm winter gear. We will cover this in another entry, especially since this season I need to purchase Tim new boots, but for now the take-home message is that spending money on a few good quality pieces of winter clothing is worth the price tag. When I am properly booted and bundled, I don’t get cold, not even standing still, and then the winter becomes that much more beautiful.

School is starting on Tuesday for Tim, and with the start of school comes dropping temperatures. I had been stressed, worried, losing sleep, unable to concentrate, because each school year for Tim is a new adventure. Some years school is great. Some years it is the opposite. This year Tim will again be attending Capitol View in District 916, and currently I have no real concerns. I had been starting to worry about whether I should be worrying more until I saw the photo my brother posted of the sky over his backyard, and then my worry about school vanished.

For everyone affected by Hurricane Isaac, I hope you are somewhere safe and dry. I hope your homes have not sustained too much damage, and I hope that you are with your loved ones. My worries pale in comparison to yours, and I wish every one of you well.

xoxo


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The Stoplights

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Peanut turned six years old last week, and for his birthday I promised Daniel that I would make him a Bionicle birthday cake. Bionicles, made by molded plastic brick conglomerate Lego, have been around for nearly a decade, and Peanut inherited Tim’s collection last Thanksgiving when I needed him to entertain himself while I cooked our Thanksgiving Day meal. For those of you with younger children, you may be more familiar with Lego’s Hero Factory collection, which is the next generation of Bionicle.

Gum paste & food coloring as starting materials.

After asking Daniel what type of Bionicle is Peanut’s favorite, he mentioned that Peanut has been watching a video containing Visoraks, which look like spiders. I headed out to Michael’s Arts and Crafts, armed with a 20% off coupon for my total purchase, and bought a package of gum paste and a set of food coloring gels. I also printed off several photos of Visoraks from the internet so I could see what I needed to build from all angles.

The completed Visorak...

I was nervous…I had never crafted a Bionicle before. I figured I knew what the end product was supposed to look like, and if all else failed, I could do something different. Peanut would never know. Making the Visorak was in reality much easier than I thought it would be. It took me about three hours total using an exacto knife, and as long as the gum paste stays wet, you can use water to glue the parts together. I did one part at a time, and sculpted the Visorak piece by piece. The evening of Peanut’s birthday, I propped the final version up on Peanut’s cake, and it looked just fine. Only after the fact did I mention to Daniel that I had been afraid the Visorak wouldn’t turn out looking the way I had envisioned it.

...on the cake!

I thought more about this over the weekend, how having an end goal in sight makes the journey that much easier. Having choices and options along the way also help. Saturday afternoon Daniel was invited to an event that he was uneasy about attending. When he asked me if I wanted to go with him, I told him I would go if he felt he needed my support. His response was that my attendance was my choice. I told him if it is my choice, then the answer is no, absolutely not. I asked him to pass on my regrets and simply say I had something else to do.

Summit Avenue in St. Paul makes for a lovely little run.

I chose to go running while Daniel was at his event and thanked my lucky stars he had given me an option. I ran about a 10K down Summit Avenue in St. Paul and back to his house, which timed well with when he returned. The weather was warm and sunny that afternoon, and as I ran I thought more about short versus long-range goals. The great part about running along Summit is that you come to a stoplight about every kilometer. If the light is red, you get to rest for a minute. If the light is green, you slow down anyway to make sure the road is clear. For me, even though I knew where I was going to ultimately end up, it was nice to have indications of progress along the way. I did intervals that afternoon, where I would run hard as long as I could and then walk until my heart rate went down. When I got to the point where I started to feel tired, I began setting small goals for myself, such as running until I reached the next light.

I had just cleaned all of the post-run grime off me when Daniel returned. We had intended to do some yard work that afternoon, but from the look on his face I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Instead of saying, “Let’s take care of that dead tree,” he said, “I’m feeling thirsty. Can we go to the bar?” Since the yard work would be waiting for us, we walked over to our regular watering hole and stayed there until it was time to start up the grill for supper.

What I realized that afternoon and have only begun to recently appreciate about Daniel is that he works on getting through life one step at a time. He is not a planner, and he does not have long term goals. He focuses on what needs to be done, NOW, and he takes life as it comes. He figures out the path, one stoplight at a time, and eventually reaches where he wants to be. I am the opposite, where I see a far-off goal and figure out the steps I need to take along the way. That type of thinking, though, can be incredibly stressful if I don’t know the initial direction I need to go to get to where I want to end up.

Peanut has years ahead of him, decades, even, before he needs to begin thinking about goals. For my son, Tim, there is starting to be less time. He has an end goal for himself in mind: to be a veterinarian. There are multitudes of small steps along to the way to accomplishing that goal, some which he is aware of and some which he is not. All I can do is take him through those steps, one at a time, hoping that he will become more independent with each step until he is doing them on his own. I also have to remember that there is more than one route to the endpoint, and that Tim’s endpoint may change as he grows older and starts to fit himself into the adult world.


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Scot Free

Be prepared. ~ The Motto of the Boy Scouts of America

This entry is dedicated to

Martha

Alana

Tracey

Kris

Julie

Belma

Sian

Chunmei

This afternoon I received news that one of our company’s divisions laid off 75 workers…50 overseas and 25 at our world headquarters in Minnesota. What happens in a layoff is that is isn’t an actual layoff. It is called “being put on the unassigned list”, and it means that you have 45 days left in the company to either find another job internally or leave altogether. Different parts of our company are reorganized periodically. Sometimes there are layoffs and sometimes there are not.

The worst story I have heard was the reorg that happened three and a half years ago. Everyone was called into a room, and a Powerpoint slide was flashed on the projector screen for a millisecond. The slide contained several dozen names in a tiny font, and if your name was on the slide, your job was safe. My coworkers who were in that room that day told me that all you could do was frantically scan the slide to see if you could find your name. Even if you kept your job, you had no idea where you would end up once everything had been successfully reorganized by the powers that be.

I work in the basic sciences part of the company where we mostly do research and development. In my seven-plus years at this company, I have not been reorganized yet. Daniel was reorganized after being at our company for all of ten months, and he was one of the people in the room with the slide full of microscopic names. There are rumblings that his part of the company may be reorganized again, and while he isn’t nervous, he is keeping his ear low to the ground. He claims I am safe because my group is never touched. I tell him to never say never, and that my time will come eventually. For the life of me I do not know how I have survived for so long with a stable job at a tape company as a cellular and molecular biologist.

Life is something else to think about. There is a bigger part that I have been mulling over for several months, and I am finally in a safe place in my mind to talk about it.  A job is a job. It allows me to support Tim (who is laughing hysterically at something on TV as I type) and myself, and I can always find another job. With life, though, you only have one. As with work, I feel like with life I am somehow flying under the radar, and it is only a matter of time before I am found out.

My beautiful, kind, intelligent, compassionate friend Alana (1974-2007). She gave the best hugs.

I have had more than one person I shared lab space with die from cancer over the years. Alana died after a nine year battle with a brain tumor. I have a history of cancer in my family. My grandmother, who had fibroid tumors like I did, died from multiple myeloma. Three out of ten (30%!) of the women I started kindergarten with have had cancer. One of them died from ovarian cancer this past September.  I have female coworkers who are currently in remission and back to living normal lives.

I feel as if I am getting away with something by being healthy. Somehow I am untouchable. I am predisposed based on my family history and my environment, my entire environment, starting from when I was Peanut’s age, and continuing up until my most recent day. I don’t know what I am doing differently than these other women, and I find myself wondering how much time I have left. I don’t talk to Daniel about this because, as I wrote last time, we don’t make plans, and me trying to plan my time out when none of us knows how much time any of us has seems just plain silly.

So I have decided no plans – just live, and live well. Instead of feeling guilty for being healthy, or wondering how long it will last, I am in a mental place of peace, no matter what comes my way. But I tell myself to Be Prepared. Tim gives me a reason to be prepared, and for that I am thankful. I need to make sure he grows into a fine young man who is independent and able to find his way in the world. That is my primary goal, and everything else pales in comparison to making sure that my son is taken care of. Tim unwittingly keeps me organized, on a schedule, and filled with joy the way no one else can. I tell him every day that I love him, and I hope that I show it to him as well in my actions.

There are so many positives from all of this that I cannot count them all. First, I have started enjoying every minute I spend with Tim. In a few short years he will be 18 and starting his own life, and suddenly my time with him is flying away from me. Second, I am probably the healthiest and strongest I have ever been in my entire life. Regular exercise, a good night’s sleep, and a balanced diet are all important to me, and these are aspects of life that I tell Tim are important for him too. Third, I have been working on my relationships. I try to think before I speak, practice compassion for others, and nurture both of my old and new friendships. I have been working on being a supportive companion to Daniel, and that attitude alone is transforming our relationship into something deeper than what we had before. All of these are amazing blessings, and it is what my friends and family who have passed would have wanted me to glean from their experiences.


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The Eye Of The Beholder

Normal is in the eye of the beholder. ~ Whoopi Goldberg

The last few weeks have been busy, with this past week being especially hectic. Tim is switching schools, but before I get to that, I need to pay tribute to the LÄRABAR. Tiny, yummy, and usually made with five or fewer ingredients, these puppies have helped me get through my workday. Eating one at breakfast fills me up until lunch, and between the energy bars and lots of coffee I have been able to push full steam ahead. Nine hour workdays have been turning into twelve hour workdays, and Tim has started to give me flak about coming home from work so late.  This from the child who normally pushes me out of the house so he has the entire domain to himself.

Tomorrow Tim is starting the Creative Alternatives Program (CAP) at Capitol View Center in Little Canada. This is part of the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, which provides Educational Services, Special Education Services, and Administrative Services. Tim falls under the Special Education Services umbrella. The reason for switching him from the public school in our district to a program a 30 minute drive from our home is due to him being in a special education crack. Tim is too high functioning to be qualify for special ed services in his home school district, but he is too low functioning compared to most of the other students his age to remain mainstreamed. When you have a student like Tim who is 99.9% more intelligent than his peers but has next to no social skills, you need to become, well, creative, at figuring out how to help him be successful in life.

Tim’s father and I didn’t know much about Capitol View until we toured the school last week. This program was formed two decades ago and is really different than anything I have ever seen. The school is for high functioning children like Tim in grades 6-12, and they have neurobiological problems such as Asperger’s Syndrome, Tourette’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), obsessive/compulsive disorders, and panic and anxiety disorders. The incoming student needs to be referred by his or her home school district, and everything, including busing the student to and from school, is at no cost to the parents. All I pay for is Tim’s lunch money, and he packs his lunch from home.

The entrance to Capitol View Center.

When you walk in the door to Capitol View Center, which is a former middle school, the first person you see is security. All visitors need to register at the office and wear a name badge. If I pick Tim up from school, I need to go through security to meet him. He cannot come outside to wait for me. As we started our tour, I noticed that all of the doors were locked. All of them. The classrooms, the art room, the bathrooms, the gymnasium. The only door I saw unlocked was the cafeteria, and that may have been an accident for all I know. The reason for the security and for locking the doors is to make sure that staff know where all the students are at all times. A student with a panic disorder, for example, could decide to run and hide, and if the doors are locked it makes it easier to find the escapee.

My next impression of the school was that is was VERY QUIET. Here is why: each grade has a maximum of eight students. That means that Tim  shares space with a maximum of 55 other students during his school day. In Tim’s grade, which is eighth, he is Student #4, so he will be spending a large part of his day with three other students. The students have the same teacher all year, in the same room, so there is no passing time between classes. Tim will be taking a traditional curriculum  of Math, Science, English, Art, Physical Education, History, and a few others, all with a twist. With Phys Ed, students do not change their clothes, which removes the chaos of the locker room. With subjects such as Math and English, Tim will be working at his own pace. This means, for example, that if as an eighth grader he is performing math at a tenth grade level, he will be given tenth grade math, not eighth. As Tim grows older, he can also start taking college courses at Century College as part of his high school curriculum to help him work ahead and ease his transition into independent living.

Tim's middle school for the past two years.

Any remnant of a disorganized environment has been removed at Capitol View. Contrast this to the middle school Tim has been attending for the past two years, where passing times create a sea of students clogging the hallways and stolen gym bags from the boy’s locker room remains a problem that school staff have yet to solve. At the middle school, the lighting is blindingly bright, the walls are decorated with the school’s name, mascot, and sporting events, and it screams social. Capitol View has dimmer lighting and a contains one rec room which some of the students have painted murals on over the years. Capitol View also has a large sensory room, which I have not seen in a school before. In addition to weighted blankets, which Tim enjoys, it has a small type of hugging machine, brushing tools, and visual stimulants such as lava lamps.

I left Capitol View Center hoping that it is a good fit for Tim. I am trusting other people to help make this decision for me because my perspective is skewing my opinion. As a teenager, I would have withered away in a place like Capitol View. I am a social person who likes to have a lot of friends and just hang out in general. Everyone new person I meet is, in my eyes, a potential friend. I would not have survived high school in a classroom with three other students. I loved lunchtime in the cafeteria, and the noisier and more people-packed it was, the better. I also never had to leave the classroom due to stress, and sitting surrounded by other students didn’t bother me.

I talked this over with a friend of mine who is an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome. He told me that he had also toured Capitol View Center, and his impression was that it was a warm and welcoming place. I told him it felt cold to me and unfriendly. He assured me that Tim will probably react the same way he did, and that is why the school is designed that way. We’ll see what happens. I have not told Tim what I think of his new school because I don’t want him to go in with any type of negative thought in his head. If this works for him, and if it gets him through high school and on to college, then let’s give it a try.