About that Walk…

girl walking in the woods

I was supposed to walk, this past weekend. Every single day of my three-day weekend. It was supposed to be glorious. Delightful. Indulgent. Quelle luxe! And inevitable.

That’s what I do on long weekends, when everybody’s off work on a Monday, and things are quiet around town. Families head north to the lakes and mountains for the federal holiday. Those who stay behind either head out to Lowes and Home Depot to pick up supplies for their gardening and home improvement projects, or they throw the kayaks on the roof racks of their SUVs and head to the nearest rivers. They run. Cycle. Hop on their Harleys and roar down the open roads. People scatter on those weekends, and that keeps me close to home.

I have my walking routine down, based on years of experience. Preparation is simple, straightforward. Practical. I change into my favorite walking clothes: a pair of baggy, ripped-up cargo shorts with enough pockets to comfortably hold keys and phone and tissues and earbuds and bug netting and a few pieces of candy… with a soft blue-green t-shirt worn over an even softer white undershirt… all of this over a comfortable sports bra and underwear that won’t chafe or bind. I hang a medical alert tag around my neck to make sure folks know whom to call if they find me collapsed by the side of the road, and there’s my trusty baseball cap pulled snugly on my head. And — at last — my sandals. It’s now warm enough to trade socks and lace-up walking shoes for those sturdy vibram soles strapped to my bare feet with velcro, leather, and some sort of finely netted fabric. I always know that summer is here when I can pull on my sandals. And I rejoice. I grab an apple from the fruit bowl, wash and wipe it dry, grab my small set of keys and maybe a piece of candy or gum for later, and head for the back roads.

I had my routes all mapped out, for the three days. Nothing fancy. Just the usual. With extra time to do the full circuit. I’d head down the road for a mile, past the “McMansions” built on the high hill facing a breathtaking view to the west… careful round the bend at the convergence of three roads where people always take the turn too quickly… walk another two miles under thickening forest… turn left again and walk a quarter mile past the mix of old and new houses, farms and single-family dwellings with their neatly trimmed lawns… up a slight incline, across the secondary road that’s full of motorcycles and bicyclists when the weather is nice… trudge past the town line sign… and disappear down the horse-farm-lined road, where people are too busy working on their gardens or cars or property to notice me passing by. At the stop sign where the road “T”ed into another, I’d about-face and head home. Or I’d get adventurous, take a right and keep going, till so much time had passed that I had to turn around to get home before dark.

At last, after weeks of overwork hunched over a laptop for 10 hours at a stretch, I had enough time of my own to extend my route into an extended adventure — to find out what’s around the corner that’s normally my turnaround point. Enough time to keep going. Keep walking. Sunglasses would block the sun. A baseball cap would shade my eyes and keep the bugs off. And if the bugs got to be too much, I’d have my netting to pull on over my cap and at least keep them off my face and out of my nose and ears. I had three days off work. Time to rest. Time to relax. Time to walk.

Disappearing that way on weekends is one of the things that makes my weeks tolerable. It dissolves the work-week like nothing else. Walking. Just walking. Doing nothing “productive”. Not talking to anyone on my phone, not listening to music, not planning or executing or planning to execute. Not even dictating ideas that came to me along the way for use later on. Barely interacting with people as I passed. Socially isolated from passers-by in my apparent mission to Get Somewhere Soon.

My own little 21st Century heresy. Delicious.

I had it all planned.

And I almost made it.

Except, I didn’t.

Saturday morning found me gardening. The weather was perfect: cool and clear, with a breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Originally, I thought I’d just stop by my community garden for a solitary, contemplative hour. I’d make sure the peas and beans were up, weed a little around the peppers and tomatoes, water the celery, then head home for a shower and a walk. I could do my errands later, after I got back from the road.

As it turned out, other gardeners were tending their plots at the shared space. So, of course we had to talk. Or rather, they had to talk, and I decided to oblige them. That was fine. They all seemed nice enough, and they needed to get to know me. It always surprises me when other people want that. Isn’t it obvious, I’m a wonderful, conscientious person who’s comfortable letting other people be who they are? Is it so hard to tell that I’m generous of spirit and non-judgmental, and people can relax around me, even if they’re not on their best behavior?

Apparently not. And it exhausts me, all these prerequisites for social interaction, as though any of us has the right to condemn another person for a quirk we don’t understand. To my Autistic mind, we should all simply let each other be, give each other space to be who and what we are, provided that we’re not harming anyone else. I don’t need other people’s approval, but others clearly need mine, and it’s so tiring, to convince them that either they already have it, or they really don’t need it from me, to begin with.

What is up with that? It makes no sense.

Figuring people out is an experience in extremes for me. Either I fail fantastically or get it right without even trying. The times when I fail, I am completely clueless about facial expressions, voice inflection, hints and mentions. I don’t pick up on conversational prompts, where I’m supposed to follow a statement with a question. If someone makes a statement, say, “It’s a beautiful day!”, then they make a statement. If it’s true, then no further discussion is needed. We’ve established it’s a beautiful day. And we can move on. To things like practical tips for keeping moths and slugs off my new plantings.

For that matter, I often don’t understand why people even bother stating the obvious. It’s confusing for me. Of course it’s a beautiful day! Water is wet. Wind blows. The earth spins. Big deal. Why in heaven’s name are they so excited about announcing the obvious? Then I have to remind myself that they’re probably socially insecure and they’re searching desperately for a topic of conversation that’s neutral, safe, non-controversial. So they can talk. So their voice vibrates their vocal chords, which stimulates their vagus nerve and soothes their fight-flight response. Some people have to talk, or they quiver with fear. I understand what it’s like to be constantly shaken, so I accommodate their need. And I convince myself to respond “Oh, yes! Just lovely! We’re so fortunate!” so we can have a few minutes of neutral sharing of something positive… and get on with our gardening.

Then again, I can sometimes pick up on other people’s natures right off, with that Autistic “sixth sense” that some of us have. I notice so much, at times, I don’t need to talk myself through the rationale of responding to inane observations. I don’t need to be psychic. Body language, pacing of words, shifting of weight, loudness of voice, personal space, facial expressions, eye contact, topics of conversation… it tells me more about them, than they probably want me to know. It comes in handy — and it sure would have helped, 40-some years ago when I was still learning.

They say Autistic people can’t “read” others. We have communication issues which are the most defining feature of Autism, they claim. Plain and simple.

I say, social interaction is never plain and simple. It’s an overwhelming embarrassment of riches for people like me — there’s so much personal / impersonal data to parse, and there are so many disconnects between what I observe and what people say it means about them, who can make sense of it all? If people simply acted and didn’t provide a running commentary about how they want to be perceived, it would be so much simpler.

So much simpler.

But nah – that wasn’t happening last Saturday morning. And four hours after I arrived, I was exhausted. I’d gotten to know seven of my co-gardeners, heard all about a dispute with the head gardener that one gentleman still resented, and I’d gotten a thorough introduction to the insecure overcompensation of the wife of the family who had the plot beside mine. All while, I did my best neurotypical impression — pro-active, friendly, outgoing, secure, experienced, invested in the community. Gung ho. I know how to do that. I was raised with community and gardening. I do an excellent impression of a seasoned, connected, all-organic caretaker of the earth.

And no one can hear me scream.

Sigh.

So much for my morning.

I walked out of the garden in a kind of stagger. It caught me as soon as I was past the garden gate and was able to drop the making act. The sun was hot. The mosquitoes were swarming. My head was swimming with all the interaction, along with a nagging sense that I’d said a few things wrong to people. Their intermittent sidelong looks told me I was veering off course, but damned if I could tell what I’d said or done that warranted the stink-eye. My mouth just kept going. Whatever you do, I tell myself often. Just stay in character. Carry on as though it’s all completely normal, and they’ll follow your lead. Just keep on keeping on. And I did. Like I usually do. Until I can’t.

Fortunately, I cleared the garden gate before I imploded. Lucky. Practiced. Shaking.

I drove home slowly, my head spinning, hands shaking, taking the long way back to avoid having to turn across dangerous lanes of oncoming traffic. No way could I go for my long road trek in this condition. Not on the back roads that are full of cyclists and power-walkers and drivers taking their classic convertibles for a spin while the weather is perfect. I’d have to have my wits about me, to get far enough down the road to disappear. And that wasn’t happening.

Not yet.

Run the errands. Eat lunch. Nap. I’ll walk later. That’s what I promised myself. And that’s what I did. Mostly. Mailed the package at the post office. Took the trash to the dump. Picked up some food at the farm stand down the road. Put stuff away around the house. Ate my lunch. Took my shower, then my nap.

But when I woke up, I was still shaky, and I just didn’t feel like going out on the roads. Not so late in the afternoon, when all the bugs were starting to come out en force. Bicyclists. Walkers. Joggers — sorry, runners. Drivers. And bugs.

No thank you. Tomorrow. I’d do it tomorrow, I promised myself.

And that’s what I’ve promised myself for weeks and months, now. I’ll take my walk after I get everything else done that needs doing. I’ll get out on the roads for a leisurely roam, once things are put in order at home. I want to. I really, really want to. With all my heart.

But it never seems to happen. At least, not the way I want, or even plan. The rest of my life demands my attention. Things have to get done, and if I don’t do them, no one else will. I don’t have the energy to explain to people how to do them properly — shopping and cooking and cleaning and gardening and making repairs around the house — and cleaning up after them is more tiring than doing those things myself. I’m tired, so tired, from the week’s work that’s so social, so “engaging”. I’m tired from keeping up, from working at not lagging, from all the role-playing and forced positivity that others reward so well. It’s the price I pay for inclusion. I pay the price directly, while it costs others indirectly, with my reduced ability to pretty much deal with anything. Anything at all.

Walking far enough to disappear… well, that’s become a luxury that my stingy, obligatory life doesn’t want to make room for, these days. Every now and then, I manage it… just a quick 20-minute walk in the morning, or a 10-minute stroll around the parking lot at work. But those long, meandering saunters… who knows when I’ll be able to do them next?

Something else will have to give, and that something shouldn’t necessarily be me. I’ll figure something out, of course. I always do.

If I can pass as neurotypical, I can do just about anything.

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How I got my #Autistic start in the working world

three people sitting at table looking at blueprintsBack in 1987, I was stuck. I had just come back to the United States after studying in Germany for a couple years, and I had to find a job. Not just any job, either. I had to find a real job.

I had four years of college – two in the U.S. and two in Germany – but I didn’t have a degree. I also didn’t have much real-world 9-to-5 working experience. Running a paper route, tutoring students, typing manuscripts for an automotive industry translator, and doing manual labor in greenhouses, restaurants, and styrofoam cup factories, on and off, since I was 12 years old had all been great work experiences and instilled a great work ethic in me, but they hadn’t prepared me for the adult-world realities of finding — and keeping — steady 9-to-5 work.

I had to find a job, though. I was an adult, and at last I could legally get away from my parents. We’d had a difficult relationship for years, and I was sick and tired of the constant pressure to conform to their religious, heteronormative, homogenized way of life. I could never do anything right, in their eyes, even though I knew my own way of doing things was the perfect way for me. I was queer (though I was a bit fuzzy on the details at age 22). I wanted to be a writer, an artist, an explorer. I didn’t want the drab, boring, predictable life they were constantly pushing me towards. All I’d ever wanted, since I was 12, was to be independent… to get up and go to sleep whenever I chose, to write books, make art, find out what the world had to offer. I needed to carve out a place that was all my own. And since I was (finally) of majority age, I was in a position to do just that.

I was setting up house in suburban New Jersey, and the rent needed to be paid. Of course, with an unfinished double major in German and anthropology, I’d been told that I’d never find good-paying work. To do well for myself, I’d have to have an advanced degree in a specialized profession. But I was out of money for school, and I needed to get on with my life, degree or no degree. I needed a car, I needed new clothes, I needed to put food on my table and pay my bills. But after searching the newspapers for days and weeks, I wasn’t finding any work that appealed to me, and I was having no luck at all with sending out my rèsumé.

I was at my wits’ end.

Then I remembered a guy I’d known when I was in high school. He’d been a few years older than me, and he’d been living on his own for a while. He didn’t have a “regular” job, but he always provided for himself in perfectly legal ways. How? He’d signed up with a temporary employment agency, and when he felt like working, he’d pick up the phone and give his agency a call. Sometimes they’d have a couple of days of work for him. Sometimes they’d have a couple of weeks’ worth. He wasn’t the kind of guy who really liked to work (he was pretty lazy, actually, and he admitted it), but he sure did like to make money. His employment agency kept him working pretty much whenever he wanted to.

So, I thought I’d try that, too. Not knowing what to expect, I went down to a branch office of the same national temp agency he’d used, and inquired about getting work. I could type, I could file, I could do just about any office task you put in front of me.

It worked! Within days I was working and earning a regular paycheck. And the jobs just kept coming. I worked at various and sundry offices around the area — hospitals, industrial distributors, and general offices. I don’t remember many of the details about my first assignments. They were pretty boring, as I recall. And that doesn’t matter. The most important thing was what happened as a result of those assignments.

You see, my temp agency offered free computer training if I worked for them for two solid weeks. What a great opportunity! Now, remember, this was in 1987, before computers had taken over the world (how times have changed!), but I had a feeling I should get as much training and develop as many skills as possible to make myself as marketable as possible. So, I put in my hours (I can do just about anything for two weeks) and signed up to learn a popular word processing program through a self-paced tutorial at the agency’s office. As a result of my increased skills, I got assigned to progressively more challenging assignments, and each experience offered me a little more opportunity to learn than the last.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the course of the past 30 years of working in the 9-to-5 world, the longest I’ve ever been out of work against my will was two weeks. I’ve taken time off, like the month I took off in 1992 to move across the country, the month I took off in 1995 to move back, and the first six weeks in 2006, when I started my own publishing company. I’ve changed jobs a bunch of times (as one does in this economy), and I’ve chosen to work part-time when my health was poor or I was perpetually burned out. But I’ve never had trouble connecting with great opportunities.

This is all because I got my start doing “temp work”. As maligned as it is, temping provides a huge number of benefits and advantages, especially for folks like me who have chronic health issues, problems with Autistic Burnout, and who get just plain sick and tired of dealing with neurotypical people, day in and day out. Time and again, I’ve parlayed my experience at short-term assignments at big and little companies into long-term positions, including lucrative full-time employment. With the right combination of social observation, practical skill, and an eye for opportunity, I went from being a jobless college dropout without much of a future, to earning six figures at a multinational financial services firm. And I did it in just over ten years, as my three-month temporary assignment turned into nine years of building technology with a leading financial services firm.

Temping made it all possible. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that if I hadn’t been temping most of the time between 1987 and 1999, it might never have happened. In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss why that was, and how I did it. I’ll lay out the kinds of steps I took to “trade up” from temp jobs to a steady work in a field that’s got plenty of opportunity. And I’ll lay it all out in common-sense terms that I hope you can apply in your own life. If I managed to do this, maybe you can, too. With the right attitude, approach, and techniques, I’m convinced other people can do it, too.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t be where I am today, without temping.

Countering #suicide and #Autism with #Autistic Career Hacks

woman walking down a long road It’s so important to talk about Autism and suicide, and it’s important to talk about things that can substantially make our lives better. Things that can keep us fed and housed and connected to the rest of the world in constructive, mutually beneficial ways.

Having a job and/or finding meaningful work is a big part of what keeps me going. As much as I complain about my job, and as much as it exhausts me, it provides me with the following necessary elements of my life:

  1. Structure. I know where I’m going to be, each weekday (pretty much). And I know what’s expected of me. The corporate world is very much an institutional environment, and that suits me. Behaviors are regulated. Interactions are prescribed. There are guidelines for everything. And expectations are made clear.
  2. Predictability and Routine. My days and weeks have a predictable rhythm. And even if it’s exhausting and depleting, at least I know what to expect. I not only know what to expect from myself, I also know what to expect from others — when they’ll be around, what they’ll be doing, etc. That’s so important and helpful for me.
  3. Social interaction. Even though I absolutely dread dealing with other people, and I avoid it whenever I can, at work, I can’t NOT interact with others. I’m forced to. But the interactions are all structured and defined by our roles at work, and I can very easily leave a conversation under a completely believable pretext: I have work to do. I can interact with other people — both Autistic and non-autistic (I work in high tech) — on a regular basis, but I can always get away. And they understand. Because they’re supposed to be working, too.
  4. Community. This is more than just social interaction. It’s a sense of belonging, of knowing others and being known, and finding commonality and shared purpose. It’s about being part of something bigger than myself. Even though I would never personally choose to hang out with 98.72% of the people I work with, I’m still part of their “tribe”, and they seem to like me. I like them, too, within the work context. No, it’s more accurate to say we all actually love each other. That sounds strange, considering the work environment, but there’s a loving-kindness and comaraderie we share that I haven’t found anywhere else. Someone out there cares about me. And that helps immensely.
  5. Money. Obviously this is a big deal. For me, more than many others. Being Autistic puts me in an extremely vulnerable position, with all my social and communication difficulties that can literally get me killed (either slowly or quickly) in the outside world. But “money talks”. And when I am in a financial transaction with others, giving them money, they have to be nice to me. Or they don’t get my money. Money is very much a “crutch” for me. It opens doors that would otherwise be shut tight — and crush me like a bug under a steamroller.
  6. Status and Social “Lubrication”. I’ve made a point of working for Big Name Companies for years. I learned back in the late 1980s that, for some reason, people are impressed by certain “brands” and they cut everyone slack, when they are associated with them. Score! And it works. I’ve literally been in social situations that were going terribly, until I mentioned where I worked — and people were so impressed (huh? whatever…) that they started treating me like a human being. So, I’ve actively sought out a series of jobs with big, recognizable names. Like money, that paves the way through social situations that I’d otherwise not fare well in.

Those are six big things that I get from having steady work. There are more, but I have to get to work, so I’m running out of time. I’ve sacrificed a tremendous amount, over the years, to get where I am now, and it has not been easy. It’s driven me to the edge, more times than I can count. But I’ve always come back from the edge. And one year after another, for over 30 years now, I’ve made progress.

When I hear about how only 16% of Autistic people are fully employed, I have the same reaction as “the ratio of Autistic men to Autistic women is 4:1”. Bad data. Incomplete data. I’ve worked around tons of Autistic folks in the past three decades, and all of them have been more than fully employed. There are lots of tips and techniques that we all just used to find out organically — because different generations actually talked to each other, and we passed survival information from one to the other. I can’t even count the number of conversations I’ve had with folks much older than me who I now would ID as Autistic. They gave me lots of info about how to deal with the working world, they propped me up and helped me sort things out. And they let me know, I was not alone in my suffering. They were suffering, too, but they’d figured out how to deal with it.

Of course, today, it’s much more en vogue to sequester yourself in your own generational peer group, so tons of info doesn’t get passed along. Maybe that has something to do with it? Or maybe it’s about expectation. Back in my early adulthood, it was simply expected that I’d find work — whatever position I could find — and work my way up in the world, just like everyone else.

The world has changed, needless to say, but some things don’t change.

It’s just that nobody’s telling others what they need to know nearly as freely and completely as they used to.

Oh, but I’m digressing. Time to go to work. More to come.

Short-Form, Long-Shot – When the usual path to literary greatness is… cut off

Minoan bull leaping - three humans jumping over a charging bullI’m dictating this as I drive in my car, on my way to buy supper that I have to cook at 7:03 PM.

I stayed in bed too long after my afternoon nap between 4:15 and 6 o’clock, because frankly lying in bed under heavy warm covers, reading through Twitter, finding what’s there, discovering which voices are saying what about their lives, is about the most pleasurable thing in my life, these days.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty – and I say plenty – of enjoyable experiences in my day. My life is never without them. But lying in bed, idling away, my mind afire with ideas from people who think on purpose, in a warm, weighted space is about the closest thing to bliss I can imagine, these days.

And reading the words of others, I think about my own voice. I think about my people. I think about all the Autistics I know and have known, and I think about what we bring to the world. Everybody knows what we bring, but very few people know that we’re the ones who bring it. And they certainly don’t know how we do it or why we do it. There’s no point in trying to explain. They think they have this Autism business all figured out. Some assholes with influence and power have decided it for society at large, and who are any of us to question that?

And I think about this writing. “Blogging” they call it. Makes it sound so simple. Makes it sounds so trite. An exercising in ego. Just a few words barfed out on the screen, in the hope that anybody’s listening… regardless of whether anybody cares.   Ego-casting. Vanity. That’s how it’s often been seen, and sometimes we earn that reputation.

But still… it seems unfair.

The blogging medium has been mine for almost as long as it’s existed. I knew, right away, how powerful it could be. I’ve turned friends on to the practice, and some of them have become extremely successful at it, gaining followers and fans, professional connections and book contracts and staff positions as writers with publishers like Conde Nast. Pretty sweet. It’s way more than I’ve ever been able to accomplish, but I like to think my input made a difference.

Most of the time, that’s about the best I can ask for, anyway.

As for me, I just don’t have the energy to do much more than I already do. I don’t have a working partner to support me as I pursue my dreams. I don’t have a life that lets me spend hours and hours on refining my craft. And I certainly don’t have hours and hours to spend reading the words of others, as much as I’d like to. People put down the short-form reading and writing that abounds these days, but it seems to me that some of us can’t afford anything other than short-form.

We don’t have the time, we don’t have the money that makes that sort of leisure possible. You know — the stuff the people used to just take for granted – cozying up with a long book on grey, rainy day, sinking into it for hours at a time, becoming one with the material, being one with the story, feeling as though the author has crept into your cells and reconfigured them from the inside out. Who has the luxury of that, these days?

If you’re not chronically ill and trying to hold down a full-time job while you support your disabled, dependent spouse and keep your house in order, yeah, I suppose you would. If you don’t end up exhausting yourself jumping the horns of the 9-to-5 bulls in the Minoan circus ring of modern day society, yeah I suppose you might. If you don’t completely destroy any semblance of functionality in the course of just getting by on neurotypical terms, day in and day out, yeah I can see how that would be possible.

But me? Nope. That’s not the world I live in. And that’s not what’s possible.

So, I blog. I read blogs. I follow links on Twitter and I see what’s there, preferably something that’s a little bit longer than a 20 minute read, but not too much longer, because I have stuff to do. And I have to get it done, because nobody else is going to do it for me. I really don’t feel like dying.

It’s really easy to die when you’re Autistic. It’s really easy to just lose it. I lose it regularly. I usually can get it back, but it comes at a cost. It takes hours, days, weeks, sometimes months to get it back.  Yeah, I can totally right myself again. But not like other people think I can. And that like I wish I could.

It’s taken me, what — 35 years? — to figure it out. I’ll say 35 because it sounds nice and it digits out to eight, which is the signifier of eternity for me, which is what pretty much everything feels like to be, half the time. Eternity. Infinity. Endless possibilities, with no end in sight… fortunately… unfortunately.

And as I pull into the supermarket parking lot, I’m happy. Because it only took me 13 minutes to get here, there was no traffic, the light rain is keeping people off the roads but not making my life that much more difficult to navigate, and I know exactly when I’m getting when I walk in the grocery store. I wish to God I had the time and the energy to write more.

But I don’t.

So I won’t.

My very #Autistic “career path”

30 years earnings historyI’m putting “career path” in quotes, because I can’t say that I’ve ever really had a career path. More like, looked for opportunities and followed them where I found them.

In setting myself up for success, I’ve used temping / contract positions regularly to get a foothold in certain industries. I also used it to get free training, as well as support myself during times when I could not — NOT — handle working 40 hours a week, for 50 weeks out of the year. Whenever I’ve needed to take a break from the political nightmares of full-time employment (and for this Autist, they are nightmares), I’ve just bailed out of the full-time scene and switched over to contract / temp work.

Irononically, it tends to pay better — see the spike in 2014 when I was making significantly more than in the years before and after? That’s when I was on a contract with a company just 10 minutes from my home. So, why did I leave? Because I couldn’t stand those people. They treated me like an idiot, even though I was more experienced than they. The whole environment was deeply infantilizing, and they acted like they were doing me a favor, tolerating my presence. Oh, please. More like the other way around. The money wasn’t worth it. Plus, I was approached by someone with a really great position — less money, but more influence, and the chance to really feel like my work was making a difference in the world.

This is how it’s always been with me. I haven’t deliberately set out to get certain kinds of jobs — they’ve just come to me, actually. It might sound weird, but here’s the thing:

If you set yourself up with all the right external props to cue employers about your intrinsic value, you can “engineer” your work life to sync up with good opportunities. And they will actually come to you.

In other words, if you make sure you have all the right pieces in place, the industry of your choice will make room for you. It’s not magic. It’s science. And art. And doing a handful of things in a considered, deliberate way.

Sound unlikely? That’s been my experience for 20+ years, and it keeps happening. And this, while I’ve been without a college/university degree, I’ve been chronically ill, absolutely wiped out by the demands of the neurotypical world on my Autistic self, and supporting a disabled spouse.

I haven’t had the time or energy to map out a “career path”. So, I’ve arranged to have it mapped out for me.

My system is basically a “career hack”, if you will. And it saves me considerable time and hassle — because I just don’t have the time or energy or even the confidence to come up with a career plan and expect it to work out. It just never has for me, so I’ve had to do things differently.

Oh, I’d intended to post the first part of my “insider’s guide to using temp / contract jobs to get ahead as an Autistic individual” here, but I’ve gone down a tangent…

Well, I’ll start posting that in a little bit. It needs some cleaning up, since I wrote it 12 years ago, and some things have changed, since then. Not a lot, but some.

More to come…

 

My very #Autistic earnings trajectory

30 years earnings history

Talk about an uneven developmental trajectory… Here’s my earnings history over the course of the past 32 years. Here are the jobs I’ve had:

Year Job
1987 Office temp
1988 Direct mail coordinator
1989 Legal Secretary
1990 Legal Temp
1991 Legal Temp
1992 Tech Writer
1993 Tech Writer
1994 Temp
1995 Staff Supervisor
1996 Staff Supervisor
1997 Web developer
1998 Web developer
1999 Web developer
2000 Web developer
2001 Web dev / project mgr
2002 Web dev / team lead
2003 Web dev / team lead
2004 Web dev / team lead
2005 Web dev / team lead
2006 Web developer
2007 Web developer
2008 Web developer
2009 Web developer
2010 Web dev / project mgr
2011 Web dev / project mgr
2012 Web dev / project mgr
2013 Web dev / project mgr
2014 Project manager
2015 Project manager
2016 Program manager
2017 Program manager
2018 Program manager

And my earnings have changed significantly, over time – particularly when my health took a turn for the worse, or I picked up new skills that matched the market demand.

I’ve never had a “career path” in the sense that others do. I’ve basically just gone where the opportunity is, where the need is, where the money is… and what I know for sure I can do. People say that I’m too hesitant about taking on work I’m not 100% sure I can do, but frankly, the stress of not being 100% proficient at something actually erodes my capabilities, so it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, working as a woman in STEM, there’s a lot more pressure on me, as it is, so that also factors in.

I do want to write more about this later, but given how flat-out busy my life has been, of late, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to it. I do feel, though, like I’m approaching another point where I need to take a lower-paying job to take some of the pressure off and give myself a chance to catch up. I’ve been saving money really aggressively, and I have over 6 months worth of living expenses saved up. So, if I do change jobs and make less, I can offset the “hit” I take. For a while, anyway.

That, and keeping expenses down…

Well, gotta run. Work awaits.

I dunno – I just don’t think there’s enough positive stuff out there about #Autism

human silhouette on beach with sunsestNot to mention success stories.

Okay, okay, I get it. We need to build support for folks who really need it. But I think at times that our Autistically rigid thinking keeps us aligned with some pretty rigid support possibilities, many of which simply aren’t available to all of us.

The needs of an Autistic kid in a city may be very different from the needs of a middle-aged Autistic woman living in the suburbs, and they may be very different from the needs of a 30-something Autistic man living in a rural area. And then we have our aging population… men and women… who have been through so much, and now face the double-whammy of becoming elderly (a challenge in society, in general) and having those sensory/social challenges which may become even more pronounced in old age.

I’m worried. Anxious. For myself and all my Autistic tribe. And I’m not alone.

The thing is, I suspect that anxiety takes the edge off my creativity. It locks me into rigid thinking. And it erodes my ability to come up with some really inventive solutions.

Personally, I think we Autistic folks are some of the most inventive people on the planet. For sure. I mean, look around — so much of what we have is the product (I believe) of an Autistic person with an intense interest in One Single Subject. That focus has produced some truly amazing things. And that same focus can help us fix our future.

So, the future… yeah. What does that hinge on?

Well, the past, for one. And also… patterns! Patterns, yes. We plot our course forward by referencing patterns — this leads to that, this causes that, if you do this, you can logically expect that. And we gain a sense of where we are in the world by watching other people and seeing how their lives have shaken out over time.

We are constantly learning from other people, “ingesting” their experiences, learning from their mistakes, and taking cues from their stories. Humans are story-loving creatures, and each of us has thousands of stories of our own that we collect over the course of our lives. They can be based on our own experiences, or they can be from our observations of others. Or we can make them up as we go along. But we have them. We use them. We rely on them to no end.

Yes… stories.

Earlier this week, I was chatting with an older Autistic man who spent time with younger Autistic people. He said he was really alarmed at how traumatized those young people were, how harrassed they were, how on-guard and roughed-up by life they were. These were young people who all had the advantage of knowing they’re Autistic, but it was such a burden for them.

😦

Major 😦

I personally don’t think we do a good enough job as a community, sharing our strengths and accomplishments… our joys and ecstasy. Autism for me is every bit as much about bliss, as it is about struggle — equal parts, I’d say. But the discussion so often centers around the struggle, perhaps because I think I’m going to get commiseration and support from others who know how I feel. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case. If anything, it works against me. And I end up getting sucked down into the Pit of Despair, as I perseverate on the idea that somehow, somewhere, sometime, I might get some help.

I won’t… 93.72% of the time. Now and then, I will, but I spend far too much time working towards that 6.28% that’s occasional and intermittent at best.

So, where does that leave me? Sorta kinda where a lot of queer folks were left, back in the 1990s, when so many of us were coming out, but most of the media about being queer (especially movies) were so full of angst and pain and suffering. Suicide, too. Ugh. How many gay and lesbian movies (long before the concept of being queer took hold) showed us being miserable and downtrodden and better off ending our lives? To be honest, it wasn’t altogether unlike what Autism$peak$ has done. And while I’m not 100% on board with comparing Autistic folks to queer folks, all across the board, there are some pretty pronounced similarities.

  • Being different embarrasses our families.
  • They try to make us different — more like them.
  • If we’re lucky, they fail. If they succeed, we’re twisted into a version of ourselves we don’t understand.
  • Ostracism, misunderstanding, violence. Etc.

Anyway, this is a really long-winded way of saying I think the Autistic community could learn a thing or two from the LGBTQ+ community (and yes, we do overlap), especially insofar as the Pride movement is concerned. Celebrating our differences, developing our own culture and community, taking our place in the world just as we are, and having a lot of fun while doing it… There’s real power in that, I believe. And it’s where I hope we go with our Autistic community building.

I’m not gonna tell anybody what to do or how to do it, but I can do something in my little corner of the world. I can talk about my life in positive terms. I can share my triumphs and joys. I can really celebrate the successes of other Autistic folks. I can focus on the good, the strength, the fortitude, the brilliance. None of this takes away from the challenges we have — it’s merely ballast for my proverbial vessel as I sail the high seas of life.

There are so many wonderful, positive things about Autism that get lost in the crisis, anxiety, difficulty, drama, and shame of growing up Autistic. They get lost to parents, they get lost to us. They get lost to society, in general, obscured behind the ignorance and judgment. We go into hiding. Because it’s safe there.

And then, when we grow up, we can be so alienated, so accustomed to hiding, that our actual development isn’t recognized. Or people are so used to looking at us as they remember us, once upon a time, that they don’t give us the chance to shine.

I think that needs to change.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I plan to change it on my side… do my best to unleash a torrent of writing about how absolutely excellent it can be to be Autistic. It might piss a lot of people off, because it may undermine their message about how we need help and support. But I’m not going to lose the good parts of my life, while I wait around for the government or some organization to meet my needs.

Certainly, it would help… but I think we can do more than that.

Well, I can, anyway.

Rebuilding my life with #AutismAwareness

school building in snow

It’s #AutismAwarenessMonth, and I’m already tired. Ha! Of course I am. Sheesh, the ongoing … onslaught… of misinformation, disinformation, and all these otherwise unaffected-by-Autism people weighing in with their observations… it all gets to be too much.

And yet, I can’t seem to look away. It’s like a train wreck. All month long. And it’s only the 4th of April. Good grief.

One of the really depleting things about this month, is that I become all the more aware of how much more difficult my life has been, because I had no idea about how being Autistic was affecting me, or what to do about it. I spent so, so many years struggling, not knowing what the deal was with me, not understanding that there was literally something distinctly different about me that put me at a disadvantage in some ways (and at an advantage in others). It wasn’t luck or happenstance. It was a structural difference in my makeup that set me apart and introduced specific challenges to me.

I had no idea. I had no awareness. So, I couldn’t manage my situation. I couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t find any patterns, because my mind was so turned around by everything that I didn’t know what patterns to look for. I couldn’t tease out the differences from one day to the next, and did that ever have an impact.

Well, that being said, now I know better. And now I can do better. True, I did not manage to finish college (despite earning 90 credits). Too much going on. Too much to overcome. Too little information on one and, and too much on the other. It’s rarely actually been a huge problem. With a few exceptions, where my advancement opportunities were limited because I didn’t have a degree, I’ve always managed to find good-paying work that let me make the most of my abilities. I have a “nose” for opportunity, and I’m really proactive and a dedicated team player, so I’ve always had that to fall back on.

But now I’m getting older, employers are relying on web-based resume intake systems, and without a degree, I can’t even get pasts the “electronic gatekeepers” to make my case for getting the job. Plus, if I want to change careers, which I’m thinking about doing, after 25+ years in high tech, I need a degree. Because taking credit for building out key features of a leading financial services website and optimizing technology just doesn’t have the same cachet outside this gilded cage of high tech.

I need something else to fall back on.

I’ve been looking for degree completion programs for years, but none of them were accessible for me. Either they were too expensive, or they were too time-consuming and the pace was dictated by the institution. I was expected to carry a consistent courseload for two years straight, which — if you’re me — is a clear warning shot across the proverbial bow. There’s no way I can commit to that workload with absolute certainty.

Can we say meltdown? ‘Cause that’s where I’d be — probably frequently — while scrambling to keep up / catch up. Call it Executive Function issues. Call it inconsistency. Call it what you will. It’d wreck me, for sure, what with my full-time job, caring for my dependent partner, serving on town boards, keeping my own interests alive, and keeping myself healthy and fit… on top of a degree completion program.

But I believe I’ve found a solution. I found a program that’s self-paced, that gives me credit for what I’ve done, and it lets me earn a degree in what I’ve been doing for the past 25 years. And it costs a fraction of what a traditional degree completion program would cost.

I’m a grown-up, with adult responsibilities and a full life. And I’m Autistic. So, I need to choose and act accordingly. I need to be constantly aware of my strengths and my limitations, to accommodate myself and not take things for granted. I took so much for granted, when I was younger, thinking that if I just kept pressing on in the same ways, I’d be able to eventually succeed. But I was doing things the way I saw all the neurotypical people in the world doing it. I tried to mimic what they did, and how they did it, assuming that I could just power through.

Untrue. I burned myself out, over and over. I overloaded myself, pushed myself to one meltdown after another, drank too much, got pulled into the wrong crowds, took the wrong jobs, stuck with the wrong schedule, and I got hurt. I crushed myself. And that was no good.

Now, I actually have a chance to turn this around, and that’s what I’m doing. I started the exploration process a couple of weeks ago, and I started the application process last week. I’ll work on my application some more today, since I have some time. And I’ll gear up for this process, the start of this new journey, with my limits clearly in mind.

It’s not that I’m going to let my limitations define me. Far from it. I’m just going to factor them in and manage them accordingly. If I know about my limits, and I know how they block me, it’s up to me to figure out how to either adapt or avoid them. If I’m in a position to actually do something about my situation (and I am), it’s up to me to handle things properly.

If my energy levels are dropping, I need to step away and recharge — and then bring myself back on point in the future.

If I’m getting overwhelmed, I need to step away and take steps to get myself un-maxed-out again… then resume what I was doing before.

If I’m able to work faster than the “norm”, then I need to kick it into high gear, because at some point, I may need to slow down. So, I have to plan and act accordingly, so I can keep ahead of things and make the most of my up-times to offset my down-times.

And so, I shall. With Autism in mind. Awareness. Acceptance. And action.

This next step (going back to school) has been a long time coming. I’m gonna make the most of it.

Working, earning, deciding how I want my #Autistic life to be structured

path across field and through village to Alps
Eyes on the prize… Eyes on the prize.

Ever since I was a kid, I knew I didn’t want to live like my parents lived. I didn’t like their friends, I didn’t like their values, I didn’t like how they behaved, I didn’t like their life choices. Everything — from food to clothing to how we worked (we did a lot of that) to what we did in our free time — was at odds with what I wanted for myself.

I didn’t want to eat their greasy, fatty, carb-filled meals at 7:15, Noon, and 5:30, that left me feeling worn out… and tied my gut up in anguished knots of pain every single day. I wanted to eat a leisurely continental breakfast, followed by a mid-morning snack (second breakfast!), a light lunch, a mind-afternoon munch, and then a solid dinner, preferably late in the evening (Spanish style).

I didn’t want to “rough it” camping in campgrounds with bathhouses that reeked of disinfectant and bug spray… going on long hikes with loud gangs of people, in the process getting all sweaty and covered in bug bites and various scratch organic matter… sleeping on the ground in a tent that didn’t keep out the noise or the mosquitoes. I wanted to spend my days on a university campus, preferably in the library, reading… studying… writing… and taking solitary walks through the silent woods or along an isolated beach.

I wanted to be free. Free of their small-minded limits. Free of their food choices. Free of their priorities. Free of their roughness. Free of their fear.

And my ticket to freedom was work. Getting jobs that would pay me enough that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, as much (or as little) as I wanted. Getting out in the world and finding out how other people lived their lives. Coming up with my own ways of doing things, based on what I learned from others.

I left home at 18, going off to college in a state that bordered Canada, which had heavy Canadian influence. Most of the television, radio, and news were Canadian. This was in the early 1980, before there was cable and internet and DVDs and whatnot. The world was much bigger then, and it was easier to get away.

So, I got away. I took off and got the hell out of there. I was going to school out-of-state, and because I’d gone directly against my parents’ wishes, my parents cut me off financially. They wanted me to go to the Christian college they’d both graduated from, because then I could get a scholarship – a kind of family discount – but there was no way I was doing that. You had to sign a “morality agreement” saying you wouldn’t do certain things. But everything I actually wanted to do in college was on that agreement — drinking, smoking, dancing, loud rock music (a-la big-hair 80s guitar bands — rock on!) So, yeah, ix-nay on that college choice.

Because I went out-of-state (I couldn’t get away fast enough), I paid higher tuition. Now, mind you, that means I paid $8,500 a semester, versus $25,000 — times have changed — but when you have limited funds, and your family has cut you off, that’s a lot of money for an 18-year-old to come up with.

But I did it. I shopped my typing skills around, making extra money re-typing bought papers for my peers, who didn’t feel like writing them, themselves. I tutored a local kid in German. I did work-study programs during the school year and over the summer. I worked it out so I could stay in-state for the summer between freshman and sophomore year to get my state residency and get lower tuition the following three years. It worked.

Unfortunately, I got myself in a bit of trouble over that summer. And the following year was pretty rough, with me dealing with police and the law and a stalker. But again, the thing that saved me was finding work. I went to Germany for a “semester abroad” and liked it so much, I got a job with an American translator and was able to pay my way to stay a full 2 years.

I did get extra help from friends, who paid for more dinners than I could count. I generally paid for my breakfast and lunch — which cost next to nothing for students, in those days. I could get a full lunch meal for less than $2.00, so long as I wasn’t picky about what went into the “Eintopf” — a stewed mix of whatever was leftover from the day before. I had to eat. I didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing. And the dinners I made for myself were vegetarian, because meat was expensive, and I could get all the nutrients I needed from veggies and rice.

When I reached the end of my 4 years of college, I was out of money and out of options. I didn’t have a degree, yet, because I had lost touch with my home university and didn’t pay close attention to the requirements. I didn’t care about academic requirements! I was an artist! A writer. I was going to write novels and poetry. What good would a math class do me?

Back in the 1980s, you could still get by without a college degree, so I went back to the United States and proceeded to figure stuff out. My life was a lot more complicated and messy than I can describe here, but the one thing that kept me going through it all was work. Having a job. Having a regular income. No matter how screwed up I was, or how messed up my choices were, or how much life seem stacked against me (in terms of crippling chronic pain and coming out as a lesbian in the days when even saying the word “lesbian” out loud could get you beaten up, fired, or cast out of your circle of once-cozy friends)… as long as I had a job, I had choices. I had freedom. I could move. I could grow. I could make art. I could write.

As long as I had a job and kept working with a steady income, I was good.

And I knew that as well as anyone. I’d worked since I was 12 and had a paper route. I’d worked tons of sh*tty jobs in back kitchens of restaurants, at nurseries transplanting hundreds of tomato seedlings (I got paid per piece), delivering meals and meds at a nursing home, and I’d supported myself a number of ways through various illicit activities (selling speed out of my locker and procuring booze for classmates in high school , for example, as well as retyping contraband papers in college). No matter how crappy the job was, every single one taught me something. And I learned as I went.

Work was my ticket to independence, to creating my own safe Autistic haven from the non-autistic world. The money I made allowed me to make choices with how I was going to live, where I was going to live, what I was going to do with my free time, and if I had free time at all.

So, I was super-motivated to always have a job. No matter what, I always had a job. Working full-time, whenever possible. More, if possible. And I’ve typically worked extra gigs on the side, even while working full-time. This has been going on for 30 years, and I’ve never, ever been under-employed. If anything, I’ve been over-employed, with barely any time left to just catch my breath. But that’s my choice. That’s by design. And it’s worked for me.

I mean, look at me — virtually, of course, since you can’t actually see into my life, right now. I live in a 2100 square foot garrison colonial house in one of the most affluent towns in my county, with woods surrounding me and an amazing view of the western mountains from the front of the house. I’ve got to cars in my garage (well, one’s in the shop right now, but it will be back this coming week). I sit on a town board and participate regularly in my town’s government. I used to volunteer at a local botanical garden (till my life got too busy). I have a 6 month financial safety net in the bank, and this month I get two bonuses from work that will allow me to renovate two of the bathrooms in this house.

I’m presently sitting on a nice burgundy colored sofa with a cushy, soft grey pillow behind my back, with my favorite Samurai-design mug of coffee on the t.v. table to my right. Beside it is a ripe banana that looks really tasty, and beneath it is a woven place mat with a folded paper napkin beside it. To my left is my mobile phone, which is playing my favorite tunes, a full box of tissues, a pile of comfy, cozy blankets I can wrap around me if I get cold. Across the room is the fireplace which is built from cobblestones retrieved from a historic district in Boston. You can see chips in the stone where horse-shoes probably struck them.

I’m surrounded by comfort — the two Amish-made rocking chairs in front of the fireplace with an engraved copper coffee table my aunt brought back from Africa between then. Lovely rugs on the floor, a basket filled with Christmas cards from friends and family, an entertainment center with t.v., DVD player, VCR, and cable box… and many, many knicknacks my partner and I have collected over the years. To my right is a bookshelf full of books and papers, and the desk and main computer & printer we use for all-purpose activities. And across the room, the bay window looks out on a woodlot where firs and hardwoods sway in the wind, as hawks circle and call to each other overhead. Upstairs, my partner of 27 years is fast asleep. Later, she’ll get up, and we’ll touch up her graying roots with a “touchup kit”. I’ll do a bit of work for my day job. And I’ll take care of some other stuff for another business we have together.

I’m not listing all my blessings to make anyone jealous. For every nice thing I have, there’s been a lot of pain I’ve endured. But I am listing all these great things to make a point.

Keeping working with a steady income made all this possible. If I hadn’t been able to keep working, very little of this would be possible.

By no means am I vastly wealthy. Far from it. But because I’ve had steady work — a steady income — all this is now possible.  It’s been a long and winding road, and to date (over the past 30 years), I’ve had something like 20 employers. Some of them (temporary employment agencies) were simultaneous. That was by design, because I couldn’t afford to be out of work. At all. If I had to sign up with three different agencies and play them off against each other, that’s what I did. And worked for me. Looking around at my life now, I can see just how well it worked.

Personally, I think people are really messed up about work, these days. Everybody seems to think you need to find a career and stick with that, from Day One.  Er, not exactly. I’ve had four distinct “careers” in the last 30 years, and they all just happened organically. I learned different things at each job, and then I applied what I’d learned to the next one… and the next one… and the next one.

To say that my parents were horrified by my… meandering “career path” would be an understatement. I can’t even count the times they openly despaired of my future — usually in front of other people, so they could vindicate themselves and avoid public shaming.

But you know what? It worked for me. And although my future is far from guaranteed, I am a heck of a lot happier than most people I know, I have a life that really, truly works for little ol’ Autistic me, and I have the things I value most in life — Books, books, and more books… and the leisure time to read them, write, and truly enjoy myself.

Because I kept working. When one job didn’t work out (and there have been lots of them), I moved on. I cut my losses, learned my lessons, learned to portray it to others in a light that made me look like an opportunity-seeking winner, not a loser fleeing my last failure in a long string of screw-ups. I learned how to work the system and find exactly what worked for me. I didn’t hang around longer than I had to, if things got sour. And I never shed a tear about moving on. As a matter of fact, I’ve been actively interviewing for other jobs, so I can keep my hand in the game. I actually turned down a really great offer at the end of last year (because I could), and I have another interview on Monday, which I’ll probably ace, but plan to turn down, because their schedule requirements already look like they suck, compared to what I’m doing now.

Most people I know would get a little green around the gills, if they followed my path. It’s not for everyone. The point is, it works for me. And it’s paid off in some very big ways.

It boils down to the following set of non-negotiable rules I have for myself:

Always work. Never don’t have a job. Keep the income coming in. If possible, get more income coming in. If your day job doesn’t fulfill you, pursue your passion on the side and let that fill in the blanks of your spirit.

Never, ever talk disparagingly about past work experiences, but emphasize the positives. Always look for the benefits and things that other people value, and emphasize them.

And whatever you do, always, always, always work. I don’t care if it’s a crappy temp job shuffling papers for personal injury attorney — I did that for a while, and it was horrible, every single day, but I still showed up and did my best. Even if it’s a seasonal gig selling Christmas trees or lemonade on the corner… even if it’s delivering newpapers or putting flyers on people’s windshields at the mall… always, always, always work. Even if it doesn’t suit you. Even if it’s exhausting. Even if it’s demeaning. Doing shitty work is required, if there’s no other work to be found.

That’s been my secret. Tolerating awfulness and learning from it. Turning it into something better, on down the line. Not getting stuck in lost causes or beating myself up because things didn’t work out. I experience, I learn, I transform, I move on. And I move up. Because I can. And lots of other people can, too.

These days, it seems like everybody has such high expectations from the workplace. Careers. Professions. And so forth. You get out of college, and it’s all supposed to be set up for you (Pro Tip: it’s not, by the way). On the other hand, some of us have to work our way up in the world. And I’ve observed tha those of us who do, who have all those rough experiences we learn from, are worlds ahead of the rest of the entitled set-up crowd, when it comes to long-term prospects… not to mention general happiness and satisfaction with our work and life situation.

When you’ve slogged through the muck, you appreciate and value the clean, well-lighted places like they’re your ever-renewing lease on life life.

Because they are.

So, that’s my riff on working while Autistic. There’s plenty more to say, but I’ve gotta go get some things done in my own clean, well-lighted sanctuary.

Peace, all.

Something must be up in the world… but I wouldn’t know.

man in a boat on a lake with mountains in the backgroundWow – people are on a tear tonight.

All kinds of feisty, racing around, slamming into each other… the cops are out en force, and I’ve seen plenty of people pulled over, sometimes with lots of extra emergency vehicles around them.

Traffic on the way home was crazy tonight, with people flying all up in each others’ tail-lights, beeping, roaring… you name it. And this is even more than usual.

Something must be up in the world.

But you know what? It’s been 2 days since I looked at the news, and I have no idea what bees might be in their bonnets. Nor do I care. I mean, I care, but not so much that I’m willing to sacrifice my own well-being for others.

And I realize, that’s what I’ve been doing, lo, these many years that I’ve been paying attention to what other people do in the public arena. What a poor use of time. It’s useful to keep in touch with who votes in my favor, and it’s a good idea to participate in positive change. But all this other… crap that’s all over the news… yeah, it just doesn’t make sense to follow any of it.

Especially when nothing really seems to change much, even after all the upheaval and drama. There are so many other more constructive uses for my time and energy, than “following” the antics of people who are all into the drama for drama’s sake.

Me? I want to actually accomplish something.

So, I do. I’ve been reading a lot, lately. Spending far less time online. Chillin’. And it’s good.

Have a lovely evening — or day, if you’re reading this in the morning.