Autreat, sponsored by Autism Network
International (ANI, from whose web site I am about to quote), is an annual summertime "retreat-style conference run by autistic people, for autistic people and our friends." What follows is my personal account of my first participation in Autreat. I am posting this account for the benefit of those who have never attended Autreat but are curious about what it would be like to do so. Please keep in mind, however, that everyone who attends Autreat has a different experience. If you had been there, your account would be different from mine. I have tried, with excellent help from J8, to ensure that my account of Autreat does not impinge on anyone's confidentiality. It is for that reason that no names are used other than those of people who "went public" as presenters.
by Jane Meyerding
written July 3, 2004
The Shuttle Express van was supposed to pick me up between 7:15 and 7:45 on Saturday evening for my 10:00 flight to Philadelphia. At 7:14, I was jittering around in the living room, on the lookout for the van, my baggage waiting on the front porch. The van passed by -- just zipped on down the street. It was at the corner by the time I got out there, calling and waving. Later I realized the driver probably went to get a soft drink from a nearby fast-food outlet, since he had the extra time. Fortunately, he returned before I'd had a chance to get too upset and nervous. The driver turned out to be nice, and I was his only passenger. We made good time to the airport, thanks to the expert knowledge that allowed him to do an end run around a messy-looking accident blocking the highway ahead of us.
The curbside check-in man was able to check my bag through to Philadelphia, but his computer would not recognize me as the legitimate holder of my e-ticket. To my surprise, he promptly picked up my bag and carried it for me into the terminal, escorting me directly to the counter where a woman solved the glitch and handed me my boarding pass. I made it through security without incident, and the flight took off on time. My seatmates were an Indian (from India) grandmother and her "Americanized" teenage granddaughter. I was impressed by how much interest the older woman showed in the young woman's account of all the ins and outs of her friendship circle. She (the grandmother) seemed, despite her Indian accent and attire, totally unfazed by the social niceties of what sounded to me like an almost Valley Girl lifestyle. As for me, I warmed up the to girl when she pulled a teddy bear out of her pack. It was an airport toy (wearing a "sleepless in Seattle" shirt), but it was a bear and had a cute profile. Watching it sit on her tray table calmed my nerves, which always vibrate at high pitch when I have to fly. She put the bear away after a while. Even after they stopped talking, I was not able to relax enough to sleep. The flight was shorter than expected, however; we taxied up to the gate at about 5:20 a.m. Philadelphia time.
Not many people were stirring at the Philadelphia airport. I was glad I had good instructions from Autreat, because it would have been hard to find anyone to ask. After I collected my bag and consolidated (Nancy had loaned me her huge duffel bag, which accommodated my carry-on bag also), I headed out the door marked "Septa trains." There was a complicated ticket machine on the train platform, and I had been studying it anxiously for several minutes when a man kindly walked over to tell me not to bother. "I take this train every day," he said, "and that machine hasn't worked for months. There's no penalty for buying your ticket on the train." I was grateful for the information.
Taking the train was fun (I like trains) except that for some reason all the seats faced backwards. The conductor was of the real old-fashioned sort that I thought no longer existed in this increasingly automated, exact-fare-only country of ours. Not only did he walk through the cars taking tickets, he carried a big wad of money with which to make change for those without tickets and also a genuine ticket-punch with which each ticket he sold was duly punched in several places. ("Punch brothers, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenger." Thatís from a Mark Twain story and is a line that can remain stuck in one's mind to the point of madness.) The conductor called out the names of the stations, too, much to my relief, so I didn't have to worry about missing my stop.
There were not many people at station #2, either, and no ticket window was open. This time, I managed to buy my ticket from a machine (after it rejected several bills for being of the new design) and found my way to the platform assigned to the train headed towards the campus. (A helpful ANI member familiar with the train system had warned us about a potentially confusing situation with the train names and directions, so I knew exactly which train was the one I wanted.) As I waited on the platform at this intermediate train station, I got my only glimpse of the Philadelphia that was so familiar to me back in the 1960s: I could see the Art Museum in the distance. I wished I could take off walking and re-visit some of my old haunts, especially the boulevard from the Art Museum to the Logan Circle Fountain. Walking would not be a pleasure, alas, with the huge duffel in tow, even though it has two wheels on one end and can be dragged along by means of a strap on the opposite end. I'd already discovered that dragging it (even half-full as it was) required the use of muscles my body wasnít sure I had. And worse was still to come.
The train to the destination station passes through towns I used to live in and others whose names are so familiar I feel I should recognize them. But in fact I saw nothing familiar other than some boarded-up and abandoned tenements still standing among Philadelphia neighborhoods that otherwise looked to be in not-bad shape. Lack of sleep and lack of food (I did eat an energy bar on the plane, having brought it along for that purpose) combined to make me look forward to the end of the ride (even though I enjoyed being on the train). Surely the town, I thought, would provide a nice little cafe where I could get myself some breakfast before figuring out how to find the Autreat site. It was Sunday morning, after all, and Sunday is the prime breakfasting-out time in Seattle; there are long lines at the door of every neighborhood cafe. In Seattle, that is. Not in this small Philadelphia suburb. Or not in its downtown, anyway. Maybe in the distant shopping mall someone was enjoying a hearty breakfast, but the small downtown was deserted. My train mates who also disembarked at this station disappeared instantly (they were African Americans from the city headed to jobs in the "white" suburbs), and I soon felt like the only living soul in town.
Pulling the awkward duffel bag behind me, I set out to explore the few blocks of storefronts, in the hope of finding someone to ask for directions to the campus where Autreat would be held. Nobody was there, so I kept on walking. Eventually, a young man appeared, walking towards me. He had heard of the college I was looking for, but he wasn't sure where it might be. If I'd go on to the next intersection, he said, somebody there would be sure to know. That sounded encouraging, even though I promptly ran out of sidewalkóat a street whose name sounded so familiar! It ran (mostly uphill) in gentle curves into the distance. With no sidewalk. Fortunately, the traffic was light, so cars were able to det our around me and my duffel as we struggled along on the edge of the pavement. The next intersection (another unfamiliar street with a name familiar from long ago) was about a quarter mile on and boasted a gas station with a "mini mart." Behind the counter was a young man who could tell me approximately where the campus was, wish me good luck, and sell me a bottle of badly-needed water.
The duffel and I returned to the road. It is a pretty area, which I hoped to see more of later on. Some of the houses looked as if they would be interesting if I could have spared any attention from the duffel and my own sweat. Mostly, however, I was focused so exclusively on reaching my destination that I found it hard to entertain any other thought in my mind. (The fact that I could have taken a cab from the station, for example. I'd been told of that possibility. But when I get myself focused so tightly, alternatives have to jump up and hit me in the face before I remember them. Nobody else walked from the town, as I learned later on.)
I had been told it was about two and a half miles from the train station to the campus. It seemed longer with that duffel dragging behind me. At last, I got to the final intersection and turned right. There were occasional bits of sidewalk for the last part of the road from town, and intermittently from the intersection to the campus. Once I got to the general area of the campus (not counting the athletic fields along the road leading up to it), I was confronted with a small flurry of confusing signs. All of them were for the college, but none of them contained the name of the building for which I was headed. I chose one entrance, more or less out of frustration, and headed up a gentle hill. Suddenly a runner appeared. I called to him, and he replied without stopping: "Keep going. All the way back." I suspect I groaned at the "all the way back," but I was glad to know I must be almost to the end of my trek.
Sure enough, I found the residence hall without going more than a short distance out of my way. I walked gratefully through the open door -- and became a big surprise for the guard on duty behind the desk there. (There is a guard on duty 24 hours a day in all the campus residence halls, I later learned. How long has that been going on?) He had no idea what Autreat was, and his list of three people staying in the residence hall (students employed by the college for the summer) made no mention of me. By that point it was almost 9:30 a.m. Philadelphia time (6:30 a.m. Seattle time), and I was exhausted. The guard invited me to take advantage of the soft chairs in the big meeting room where the three wings of the building come together (and where the guard's desk is), showed me where the bathroom was, and went back to watching the big-screen TV on the opposite wall. I read my book, drank water, and woke with a jerk every time I nodded off.
About three hours later, Jemilla turned up. (I donít know how she spells her name; it is pronounced Jah-MILL-uh.) She is young -- a first-year student in a program related to the hospitality industry, someone told me later -- and very nice, but nervous. Almost immediately, I found myself reassuring her, despite my own at-a-loss-ness. She felt terrible about not being there when I arrived, even though Autreat wasn't scheduled to begin until 4:00 p.m. the following day, and certainly nobody expected stray Autreat participants to start appearing early on Sunday morning. She took me up to the Summer Program office and checked me in, then showed me to my room.
At first sight, the room appalled me. What helped was remembering that I'd felt the same way initially when my mother and I were shown to our room in a small motel in Cass Lake, Minnesota. All I could see was that nothing was familiar, nothing "fit" me. On that occasion, I was reconciled by the shower (lots of pressure and plenty of hot water), so I decided to have faith that something would appear to reconcile me to this room, too. It had a fan in the window, for example. That was good. There ware two metal-frame single beds, one against each side wall, a plain dresser at the end of each bed, and a wood-plank "desk" across the end of the room, with the window above it. Oh, and two straight chairs, for desk chairs, were pushed under the plank. No desk lamps. No shelves. No decorations of any kind. Jemilla brought me my "linens" (for which I paid a small extra fee): two sheets, a pillowcase, two institutional towels, and a washcloth. Then she went away, leaving me to realize that to Jemilla, unlike to me, "linens," does not include a blanket and a pillow (though I did get a pillow the following day, and apparently I was supposed to get a blanket as well; my tendency not to self-advocate in minor matters can be a pain). Ah well. Nothing to do about it now. I made an effort to get the sheets on the bed (leaving the top one folded, in case I needed the extra cover) and then decided to investigate the bathroom down the hall. It looked okay, so I determined to take a shower.
Taking a shower in a shared institutional setting when one has become used to one's own arrangements takes some thought. What is the minimum I need to take along in order to make this operation a success? There were a few chairs near the several shower cubicles, and that helped a lot (providing a place to put things where they would be within my reach but not at risk of getting wet). I was barely back in my room before there was a knock at the door. It was Jemilla again, along with two of her co-workers. One of them was the guy in charge, Jameel. (Again, I don't know how to spell his name. It sounded like Jah-MEEL.) He turned out to be exactly the person you would choose for the position he held: competent, knowledgeable, inspiring trust with his accepting, matter-of-fact good humor, and just as nice and helpful as he could be. (Later, someone told me Jameel was on the point of graduating with a degree in business, and I hope he finds the rewarding career he fully deserves.) They wanted to welcome me and let me know they were available if I needed anything. Later it occurred to me that perhaps the other two wanted to make sure Jemilla wasn't hallucinating when she told them an Autreat person was already in residence.
I felt better after my shower, so I ate a few almonds I'd brought along and went out to explore the campus, which benefits greatly from the attentions of local experts in landscape design and horticulture. The trees alone would be a treat, but there also are gardens of different kinds, and the gardens and the trees provide a home for many birds. I enjoyed rambling around, exploring, seeing blue jays and mocking birds (neither of which live in Seattle), discovering that the campus is home to ground hogs than look like miniature marmots. And yet, I was tired, hungry, and very much at loose ends. Getting there had been such an over-riding concern that I had totally neglected to consider what it would be like to find myself with more than 18 "free" hours on my own before the beginning of Autreat. That's 18 hours without anything to do other than wander and read my books, 18 hours without (as far as I knew at the time) any prospect of food. My mind got emptier and emptier as the hours passed and I slipped into what seems to be my native non-speaking-ness, where I can respond to cues but not initiate.
Actually, a few Autreat people did show up during the course of the day. And Jameel took three of us out shopping in the college van in lieu of dinner. I got some rice salad, a bagel, and some juice. It made a good meal back in my room.
I think it was that night we had a very satisfying storm. Thunder, lightning, lots and lots of rain. I lay in bed, sleepless, enjoying the storm and being horizontal.
On Monday morning, I needed to do something, to have a specific thing to do, in order to fill up some time. All I could think of was taking a walk, but I needed more of a walk than I could get on campus. My mind returned to the glimpses Iíd managed to get of the route between the train station and the campus. Aha! A known route, known distance, definitely at least some things of interest to look at, and no heavy duffel to drag behind. It sounded perfect. I ate an energy bar for breakfast and set out on my way.
The most interesting stop on my walk to and from town was the small remnant of the original cemetery, containing the graves of the town's founders. Not only did I ramble around reading the stones there on my way towards town, I returned there (with some orange juice) for a quiet interlude on my return trip.
Back at the residence hall, more folks were showing up all the time. I had the strange experience of having email friends appear before my eyes in bodily form. For a while, about all I could do was listen, since my speaking ability had gone into hiding. We were given our program books (which were collated on the spot by Autreat volunteers) during the time allotted for "orientation" in the central meeting space of the residence hall. The program books contain a schedule of events and also an article by each presenter on the topic of his or her workshop. We each also got a name tag (to be worn at all times) and a color badge cleverly constructed so that it can show red, yellow, or green. If you wish to be left alone, wear it red. If you want contact with people you know but do not want to be approached by strangers, wear it yellow. And if you hope people will initiate conversations with you, then green is your color. I never wore my color badge because I never felt I had enough brain-room available for deciding what color I should show. But I appreciate the help given by the badges worn by other people. It is relaxing to know instantly (without words or even much attention) that person X will be relieved rather than upset if you pass by without speaking, and that person Y, just entering the dining room with his tray, will be happy to be invited to join your table.
And then it was time for dinner (finally!) at the dining hall right across the way. Cafeteria style, all vegetarian. I ate more vegetables during those few days than I ordinarily do in three months (because, although I am a vegetarian, I am not a cook). After dinner, I attended an informal discussion in the residence hall on the topic of "things a local autism society can do to promote socialization among autistic adults." It was interesting to hear what people had to suggest out of their own experiences and what they thought they would like to participate in themselves.
On Tuesday morning, the first full day of Autreat, after another night of little sleep (and muscles sore from duffel pulling) for me, the program began with Jean Kearns Miller's workshop on "Brain Power: Uncovering the Possibilities of an Autistic Public Presence." (Oh, I should mention that all the workshops were held in a meeting room in a building that also houses various student organizations and the book store. The ladies' room there has a poster saying, "Don't let your date decide," and also a vending machine that offers tampons, Tylenol, panty shields, lip gloss, and condoms. Things have changed since I went to college nearby a couple of decades ago.) Jean presented information about cultural attitudes towards a variety of disabilities, how those attitudes have shaped the lives of disabled people, the resulting cost to society, and how disabled people have protected themselves against prejudice and begun to insist on redefining their place in society.
The morning's second presentation was Phil Schwarz's talk on "Identifying, Educating, and Empowering Allies." Last year he did a workshop on why we (autistics) need allies from outside our community, and in this year's continuation of that topic he explored specific ways allies could be useful, as well as identifying characteristics by which useful allies (and pseudo-allies) can be recognized. Later this year, Phil's thoughts on the subject will be available to all in his chapter "Building Alliances: Community Identity and the Role of Allies in Autistic Self-Advocacy" in Ask and Tell: Self-Advice and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum (edited by Stephen Shore), coming out from Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Then lunch. And I should insert somewhere (might as well be here) a reference to the fact that Autreat as an experience is not just the workshops. It's being in the majority for once. Almost everyone is autistic. And you can be autistic, too. I mean, you don't have to devote energy (the way you usually do) to appearing non-autistic. You don't have to be anxious that your autisticness will be stigmatized by those who hear you speaking (or not speaking) or see you ticcing or stimming. It's amazingly comfortable, even for someone like me who also spent much of the time dealing with my need to know what I will be doing ahead of time, to have something assigned to each time slot, and to get anxious as soon as something seems likely not to occur as expected. If I have the luxury of attending more Autreats, I hope I will be able to talk myself into a more "laid back" attitude, rather than marching from item to item on the schedule and feeling suspended and awkward in between. I did learn already that I can use in-between times for walking circles around trees or looking for ground hogs.
Tuesday afternoon started with Heta Pukki's workshop on "Autistic Culture Isolated by Language." Heta is from Finland, where the language is very different from those of surrounding countries. (Someone who knows about such things said that Finnish is more different from English than Hebrew is.) As Heta wrote in her program article, she is concerned that "we miss an opportunity to learn about autism itself if we do not observe how autistic communities developing in different cultural contexts might differ from each other." A fascinating insight. Heta has been involved in creating autistic community in Finland since 1997, and it was interesting to hear her account of how the community has developed. She also raised useful questions about how organizations like ANI might be able to generate more communication among autistics in different parts of the world.
The second Tuesday afternoon workshop was Amanda Baggs and Debra Kahrs on "When Autism and Institutions Collide -- and the Aftermaths." Both Amanda and Debra have been institutionalized in "hospitals" for those with psychiatric labels; now, Debra works for Amanda as a supported-living worker. Everyone was impressed by their presentation, which drew on their own experiences and many other sources to describe the effects of institutionalization on people in general and autistics in particular. Besides the content, the structure of the workshop was remarkably good, I thought. The presenters took turns speaking, and the result was like a powerful choreography. Their workshop was the best of the whole Autreat, I think, in terms of how it was delivered to us. (This is not to knock the efforts of the other presenters, who also worked hard, but I think Amanda and Debra deserve commendation for all the care and attention they put into crafting the workshop to make it as effective as it could be in getting across their material.)
After dinner on Tuesday there was an informal discussion on the topic of "Theory and Research." I got there late, though I donít remember why (talking to someone, probably), which I came to regret. This discussion was included in the program partly for the benefit of two non-autistics who had come to give a presentation (the next day) on their research into autism and empathy. It was thought to be a good idea to give them some idea ahead of time of what kind of autistics they would have in their audience, and this discussion was meant to serve that purpose, as well as exploring the topic for the benefit of all participants. When I got there, things were already in full swing. The discussion leader/facilitator, whose name escapes me though she herself is clear in my memory, was posing questions for the group ab out different modes of perception (e.g., is it easier to learn information from a spoken sentence or a written sentence). With great patience and perseveration, she weaved her way through all the prickly responses and tempting side-issues offered by the individuals participating in the discussion, some of whom (including me, at times) were sure she was on a wrong track or otherwise confused. She would re-phrase, re-state, remind, reiterate, but she always kept herself on the path invisible to the rest of us. And by time I had to leave (due to exhaustion), she had refined and collated all the responses (from what had seemed wildly differing autistics) into an evidence-supported illustration of how autistic cognition differs from non-autistic cognition in ways likely to confound the most well-intentioned non-autistic researcher. It was an amazing thing to watch. I just hope the two non-autistic researchers present will remember the lesson she created for them.
Wednesday's first workshop was Joel Smith's "Making Employment Fit: Accommodations and Other Dirty Words." Joel gave a useful and example-filled talk on what makes getting and keeping jobs hard for many autistics and some of the things we can do to avoid or alter the things that cause these problems for us. One example Joel included in his contribution to the program book was his own request for accommodation at work: He asked for (and was granted) permission to use assistive technologies as a substitute for speaking when speaking is hard for him. It is encouraging to hear about a success like that.
Next came Sola Shelly's workshop on "Women from another planet? Some relations between feminism and AC awareness," based on her research into how feminist and disability activists have observed gender interacting with social perceptions of women and disabled people. That may sound general or even self-evident, but it becomes specifically/newly illuminating when it is presented by someone who has thought through the history in a detailed way and lays out the connections on overheads while she is describing them. One of Sola's conclusions is that, although "life experiences of autistic women differ from those of autistic men because of different biology and different societal expectations," we also "have a lot in common with autistic males."
Wednesday afternoon began with Heta Pukki's "Issues of creative writing and sexuality in the light of mainstream research and autistic culture -- the need to resist attitudes disguised as science." As the long title indicates, this workshop had enough content for two. Heta has been studying autism theory and educational practice at the University of Birmingham, which has allowed her to observe the "huge gap" between the academic world and autistic culture. As she notes, some of the "experts" have begun to admit that we can, in fact, be creative. And they may soon get to the point of noticing that sexuality is an important part of many autistic lives. Heta wants us to be part of making sure non-autistics who study autism cannot continue to do so without taking into account what we know about ourselves.
The next workshop was the one by the two non-autistic researchers, Isabel Dziobek (psychologist) and Kim Rogers (forensic psychologist): "Who cares? Or: the truth about empathy in individuals of the autism spectrum." Although the perky NT sociality of both women was a bit jarring, no one doubted their good intentions. It was fun to hear members of the (autistic) audience pick apart most of their assumptions, tests, and "logical" conclusions, but I wasnít keen enough on it to skip dinner. The main conclusion of their research is that autistics have empathy. From my point of view, it is unfortunate that they can't seem to see how demeaning it is to want to "rescue" autistics from opprobrium by "proving" how "NT" we are in this regard. Not to mention the fact that I disagree about NT empathy being the end all and be all of "human-ness." But I found some interest in their distinction between "cognitive empathy" and "affective empathy."
Someone asked me if I would read a bit from Women From Another Planet? (the book) during the informal reading session scheduled for Wednesday evening. I said I would, on the understanding that the reading event would be over in time for me to attend the informal discussion session on "Middle age the autly way." Several people read prose or poems (I donít want to comment specifically, because I'm not sure how "public" this was), and I was enjoying myself there. But then I saw that the "middle age" discussion had started up in the lounge across the way, and I felt compelled to switch. Bad choice. For me, anyway. The discussion was sort of a "coming out" session directed mostly towards sharing how it feels to realize at a fairly advanced age that one is autistic. That is a useful and necessary conversation, but it's not what I wanted to talk about that evening. What I wanted was to talk about how one's autism (and one's being autistic in an uncomprehending society) changes as one ages. So I sat there feeling tired, trying to listen with proper care, nostalgic for the laughter I could hear consuming the group I had just left. Thatís another thing I can work on for next time: Although it is good, generally speaking, to follow through on one's commitments, perhaps I could be less rigid about it sometimes. I had deserted an interesting dinner-table discussion in order to race off to the reading group simply because I had told someone I would be there. And then, because I had said beforehand that I wanted the "middle aged" discussion to exist and that I would be part of it, I felt compelled to abandon the reading group and stick with the discussion. Nobody forced me to make those choices, and chances are nobody would have noticed if I'd changed my mind. Learning to tell the difference between times when I must follow the plan and times when I don't need to... That's an on-going project.
I'm not sure I slept at all that night. (Autreat is arranged so that those who want to go to sleep at night have the quiet they need. Unfortunately, besides needing quiet I also need at least one hour to "decompress" from even the slightest social contact before I can relax enough for sleep. And yet I was so avid for contact with the people and activities at Autreat that I virtually condemned myself to insomnia as effects of the sustained contact accumulated day after day. Next time, I should try to take along a small, earphone-equipped music-player of some kind; music sometimes helps.) Early Thursday morning I got myself ready for a walk. I had been sitting for hours every day (which is something I do not do at home) and totally neglecting my PT exercises. As a result, my back was giving painful warning signals of what might lie in store for me if I didn't alter my bad behavior. The minimum therapy would be a 40-minute walk before breakfast. That's how I know that the Catholic school near the campus claims to save the state's taxpayers $10,341 for each child who attends the school. Presumably that figure was rounded to the nearest dollar.
Autreat was to end at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, following two morning workshops and then lunch. The first workshop was "Understanding how plants can facilitate connections in autistic children and adults" by George Salamunec and Susan Golubock. Both the presenters (a Registered Horticultural Therapist and an occupational therapist, respectively) work at the Children's Center for Neurodevelopmental Studies in Mesa, Arizona. I enjoyed their talk very much, and it gave me some unexpected insights into occupational therapy. George and Susan can figure out ways that interacting with plants can provide very specific kinds of movement therapy for autistic children. And at the same time, working with the plants can be the basis for learning things about social interactions in general. It's good to know there is at least one place where this kind of creative, happy, useful therapy is availab le to autistic children.
The final workshop, Jim Sinclair's "The nature and functions of boundaries, rules, and social conventions," offered a way to analyze specific interpersonal conflicts according to an understanding of the boundaries that define levels of social interaction. It's one of those things I can't figure out how to convey in a short summary, but I like the ideas very much (and I think I could use the ideas in specific situations as long as I remember to do so). It's all about balancing the priorities of the individuals within a structure of importance-levels, where violation of the core level ("mental life") is an act of oppression but where individuals can -- and often need to -- negotiate trade-offs in many of the further-out layers (e.g., shared private territory or shared public territory). Jim also addressed the difference between "fault" (as in "It's your fault") and responsibility, another useful thing to keep in mind when evaluating the rights and wrongs of a situation. I think I will try pulling out Jim's method next time I find myself trying to negotiate a difference with a non-autistic whose emotional investment in her side of the argument overwhelms my attempts to explain my view of things.
By 2:00 on Thursday, Autreat had become my world. All encompassing. Increasingly familiar and comfortable. And then, of course, it suddenly ceased to exist. I did have a chance to meet the therapy cat after I turned in my key and linens. And to say good-bye to just a few people. But mostly it all just vanished. A friend gave me a ride to the town train station. And then I was on my own again. Cut off and alone (at least until I could get back home to my internet connection).
It was hot. The train took me to the intermediate train station, whence another train took me (again sitting backwards) to hell in the form of the Philadelphia airport. When I arrived there on my way to Autreat, I had no idea how much more bearable the airport is when deserted. I had an ample chance to find out, between 4:30 and my 8:00 flight, how much worse things could be with a crowd. First I stood (as directed by an airline employee) in the wrong line that inched its way for about six city blocks toward the man who informed me that I needed to get my boarding pass from a different location before returning to that line. I was wearing a tank top but carrying a t-shirt that I had assumed I would need to put on as soon as I entered the air conditioned terminal building. Wrong. With all the masses of humanity in place, the heat remained oppressive. (In fact, I didn't put that t-shirt on until I got to Seattle. The packed airplane was hot, too.) I waited in the next line for half an hour or so until another airline employee came along and told us that those with electronic tickets could go to the self-help check-in locations over there. Over there, however, the computer terminal refused to recognize me. I was almost in tears when I threw myself on the mercy of the women behind a nearby counter. She was busy doing something else, but as soon as she finished she took care of it for me very graciously. I am thankful for her existence.
Boarding pass in hand, I was directed not back to my original line but to a fourth location. That line took me through Security without incident -- unless you count almost losing my driver's license (it fell out of my ticket folder into one of the property bins as I was juggling my shoes). There were too many people on the other side of Security for any of us to be comfortable. On the other hand, I had a delicious soft pretzel, fresh out of the oven (no salt) and initially too hot to touch. I wish Seattle had that kind of soft pretzels.
Sense and Sensibility took me through the extended wait for the plane (which arrived half an hour late), though I created a trauma for myself by leaving my back pillow on the toilet paper dispenser in the ladies' room. When I noticed it was gone and figured out where it must be, I dashed back, already trying to reconcile myself to its loss. Someone would have taken it, I was sure. When I got there, the stall was in use. And continued to be in use. I stood there for what seemed like forever, watching the feet I could see under the door. At one point, a hand reached down and picked at the toenails. She sighed a lot. And I gave up. "Excuse me," I said as I tapped on the door; "I left a back pillow in there --" Before I could complete the sentence, the door of the stall opened just enough for the pillow to emerge, closing as soon as I took it. I declared my gratitude and returned to the gate.
It was a full flight, every seat taken. My rowmates were quiet, but we were entertained by a group of young people who occupied both sides of the aisle in the row ahead. A few minutes after the captain had told us departure was imminent, we were informed that the passenger-load tube had gotten stuck to the side of the plane. While people worked on un-sticking it, the "engineer" who helps the plane back up (the pilot said "engineer," I'm almost sure, but I assume he was referring to the man who holds sticks in the air) went to help another plane. We had to wait for him to come back. By the time he returned, there were about 20 planes ahead of us in line for take-off. We were an hour and a half late leaving Philadelphia.
Aside from a bumpy patch towards the end, the flight was uneventful. My legs were so "restless" (twitching and spasming painfully) I thought I'd go out of my mind. But other than that mental torture, it was fine. The entire set-up for "ground transpiration" has changed at SeaTac since the last time I'd flown, but I managed to get myself (thanks to those who advised me) out to the proper place to get the Shuttle Express van home. It was a full van by the time it left the airport, with a cheerful, talkative driver named Bob. Although I might have preferred silence by that point in my long sleep deprivation, I am indebted to Bob for getting me home and then returning to bring me my back pillow, which I had left in the van after he dropped me off at home.
It was 1:30 a.m. and I still had to give Harold his allergy shot. What with one thing and another (being "wired," for example), I didn't get to bed until 3:00. Friday was spent doing laundry and recovering enough to write this account. And now it is time to feed the cats again.
I am very glad I decided to go to Autreat, and I hope I'll be brave enough (and able) to go again.