Friday, June 29, 2012

The Gas Station Inquizition

Since I moved last October I have quit going to the grocery store in the early mornings to pick up carrots for breakfast. What has replaced it has been the daily trip to a gas station to pick a protein bar. Nothing of any relevance has ever happened on these trips because the clerk who has always been there is a quiet one and he runs the store with an almost alarming effenciceny. So yes, nothing ever worth writing has ever happened up until my experience this morning.

This morning there was the same new clerk as yesterday. Yesterday he was on the phone, but today, as I checked out, he right away asked, "You look tired, do you work nights?"
To that I said, "No, just got up."
"Oh" he responded, "Where do you work then?" Whoa! Where do I work? My mind instantly went to DEFCON 1 as every ounce of mental processing went into analyzing what was going on. This has never happened and I was fully taken aback as to why this was being asked.

Several awkward seconds passed and I must have looked like I saw a ghost while also watching pigs flying during a complete solar eclipse. With no deviation in tone from the first time he asked the clerk once again asked, "Okay sir, what do you do?" I was now at a junction. I had to think about what to say and with each possibility I had to estimate what the response would be.

It's moments like this that Asperger Syndrome really shows in me. I may have looked somewhat confused on the outside but on the inside my emotions and thoughts were a contorted mess. What was going through my mind was this, "If I say Autism Ambassador he will have no idea what that means and if he doesn't know what autism is then this will be a much longer conversation than I have time for. But, I am an Autism Ambassador so isn't this the place for that? If I say public speaker then he will ask what it is I speak about and then I have the same problem as before. If I say blogger then we will once again have the same problem. So, what if I say writer?"

So that's what I did, I just flatly said I was a writer to which he said, "The internet is killing you, right?" Once again the response he gave me was nothing that I was expecting in my calculations so I once again had the shocked expression as if I just saw Elvis walk into a building. The thought game of DEFCON 1 once again began anew and I tried to piece together what he could have meant. I wanted to sound intelligent but at the same time the internet is not killing me as, well, you're reading this, right?

Maybe five seconds passed when I had had enough of being torn apart internally so I looked at him and went, "Huh?" to which he said, "Yeah, the internet! Who reads books anymore? They always say movies are made from books but who has read them? That and books on iPhone and the like." I felt it best to say nothing as my estimation skills on what the responses would be had been way off and if I said anything I'm sure another question would pop up and the last thing I wanted was another shot of adreniline to start my morning. Mercifully, he finally checked my items out and I rushed out of the store holding my breath as I prayed he would not ask another random question.

In these moments of random questions I feel at a loss. I so dearly wish I could just plow through the questions as if they're nothing, but my mind has to process and analyze EVERYTHING; what is the intention? What's the purpose? What do they want? Is something bad going to come from this? When I answer will there be a follow up? If so, how many questions can come from this? Am I taking too much time to answer? If so, what do I say? Is the answer I'm thinking of perfect? Do I need to answer with the path of least resistance?

Imagine having all those questions in your brain all at once. I think this is the time to point out that when I'm in Kansas (see my book, Finding Kansas or the glossary on the right hand column under the pages section) and I know the answer instantly this processing game is averted because the information is known instantly.

The end result of today's inquizition at the gas station has left me tired. It was such a slam to my system to wake up with such an anxiety provoking situation and that's the thing; to most people an idle conversation like that would be forgotten as soon as they got back into their car. For me though I am tired, a bit shaky, and fearing the next time a random conversation arises because, after all, will I say the right thing? How long will it last? Why is the person asking...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another Trip From... and a Random Case of Meanness

I'm beginning to wonder if flights are ever smooth and on time because once again yesterday was a day to forget.

After I wrote yesterday's post I sat around the airport watching humanity go by. Several hours passed and finally it was time to board the plane which happened on schedule. Then, as we were just told to turn off our electronic devices the captain said, "Okay folks, I know we have just told you to turn your phones off but you can turn them back on because JFK is closed at the moment, well, backed up at the moment due to wind. We'll get up in the air as soon as ATC allows it."

I wasn't worried as I had plenty of time to get to my next flight, but the single minutes turned into dozens of minutes and as I looked at my phone and did the math I would only have 5 minutes to get from this plane to the next and I was sure the gates would not be in my favor and America's least favorite Olympic event, the 100 gate dash, would ensue.

We finally took flight as I was engrossed in the book Animal Farm and I tried to set my worries aside. "Aaron, there's nothing you can do... Aaron, there's nothing..." kept going through my mind. After each time I told myself that a couple times I then remembered I had an important meeting this morning so not getting back was out of the question. The anxiety circle was in full arc and my heartrate was rapidly increasing.

We landed at JFK and I swear that the taxiing portion of the flight was longer than being in the air as it dragged on forever. When we got to what we thought was the gate another delay as the captain said, "Folks, I don't know what is going on as this usually isn't a tow gate, but they want us to be towed in today so sit back, relax, and enjoy yourselves for the next few minutes."

The plane lurched forward and then stopped which everyone thought was the sign we were at the gate so the mad dash to nowhere began to which the flight attendants in unison, aloud and over the PA system said, "Sir... Ma'am... We are on an active taxi way and not at the gate. Sit down!" The ruckus was loud with people confused as to why they were being told to sit down and some people refused which made the attendants yell louder and all the while this was going on I was staring at my phone's clock ticking away and with it my chance to make it home.

When exiting the plane I had to decide who to ask as to where the next gate was. Out of the jetway I looked around for a monitor and saw none so now this meant I had to ask a person. Asking and speaking up for myself is something I am awful at but then a stroke of luck; the person behind me asked the gate agent where the flight to Saint Louis was. The agent pointed straight across and the 100 gate dash was reduced to the 1 gate stroll. Awesome!

Or was it? We were the last to get on the plane and I was sure my bag would once again not make it with me, but then the captain said, "Folks, we have an issue with the aircraft. It should only be a few minutes and we'll try and make it up but for now enjoy yourselves." That must have been the phrase of the day as once again I was hearing the phrase, "enjoy yourselves." I personally don't find joy when the aircraft and I'm about to entrust my life with is having, "issues."

At this point in time I decided to use the restroom so I got up, noticed that the occupied light wasn't on and proceeded to it. As I pushed on the door and it cracked a little bit a shriek of a starlted person filled the plane. I said to no one particiular, "It said it was open. Now it says it is closed." Awkward? I don't know a word beyond awkward but I wanted to be anywhere but there.

When the lavatory was free I went in and when I came out the guy in the last seat began yelling at me in a langauge I didn't understand. The look on his face was of supreme anger and I truly have no idea what had happened. I stared at him blankly and walked back toward my seat as the words, possibly insults, were hurled my way. I made it a point not to look back or get up for the remainder of the flight, or the remainder of the time we were on the ground.

Every five minutes we were promised five more minutes. My body was now in a complete and utter emotional freefall. I was coming back to reality as being at the racetrack over the weeked as well as the few days I had to relax afterwards was now over and I began to feel all the anxiety I had from last week's flight. Also, fear of the future and the prospect of my 2nd book being published and just about everything else in life began to hit me at full steam.

100 minutes after the first delay we were finally headed towards the runway. I was angry at the world and just wanted to be tucked away in some dark room all by myself with no one to interrupt my thoughts.

As if my journey hadn't had enough to write about, as we neared Saint Louis we hit a random patch of turbulance which spilled my Coke which we down into my open computer bag and got all over my laptop from work. This was the tipping point and I just gave up. (I did find out today that it is fine as I'm writing on it right now.)

Eventually the world had decided I had gone through enough trials of travels and I made it home and the first thing I saw was my Champions of Mental Health trophy. I stood with my eyes fixed on it and I pondered the events of the previous several days. They were difficult days and at times I told myself I was never traveling again because why would anyone want to subject themself to that type of constant stress? Then, I realized, through it all I made it with nothing more than several bits of severe anxiey. I then felt good about everything; that is until this morning.

Five hours of sleep after such a string of episodes is not good. I woke up bitter wondering why that guy had to yell at me and why the captain of the plane kept promising us "just five minutes more" 20 times. All this emotion made getting out of bed a real chore, but I did so and headed towards my meeting.

On the way when I got to a four lane road the traffic wasn't bad at all and all of a sudden two pedestrians decided to run across the road right in front of me. I didn't change lanes as I felt no need to as they were running but as I got to them one of them stopped and did an about face and made a kicking motion towards my car. I swerved to the right and I angrily blared my horn to which both of these women gave me very inapproriate gestures that I saw in my mirror. I slammed my brakes and just about did a U-turn as I wanted to tell them, "Use the crosswalks at the lights!" as there was one just a couple hundred feet to the East. Or they could've waited until I passed as no one was behind me. I don't really know what they wanted me to do as it wasn't as if I appeared out of oblivion.

This got my day of to a very rotten start and I'm sure my facial expression at this meeting showed it. I mean, why are people so mean? This perhaps goes with yesterday's post, but how can people be so bitter towards a person they don't know? For me, when I have interactions like this, is fully tires my body out as the fear receptors go on full alert. It's as if I am in a constant struggle to protect myself. When random events of meanness occur I fear the next one so I become extra vigilant and the anxiety does not subside.

So, for now I am on alert. When will the next random delay be? When will the next angry person out of nowhere happen? Other people so easily brush that stuff off, but I can't. I may have driven away from those two angry women and they may have disappeared from my physical rear-view mirror, but for right now it's as if they are still right there behind me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Than a Snippet

It's not very often I do a double post in a day, but I got so moved by these feelings I just had to...

I'm at Boston-Logan airport right now awaiting my flights that will take me home. On the way to the airport this morning we stopped at a gas station and I went in to get a drink and as I walked in the two clerks, perhaps a manager and a employee in training, were talking. I thought nothing about these words as they were lost in the sounds of life as well as my hyper-focus on getting my drink and leaving. But then I had an odd feeling; this feeling was of such strength that I quite literally froze in my tracks and I began to listen to what the workers were saying.

I felt as if I was a ghost in the environment because neither knew I was there or that I was listening. The topic they were talking about was regarding inter-personal relations with other employees and what the new employee could expect. I was, at that point in time, a witness to each of these person's stories. Now who were these people? I don't know and will never know as I was just seeing a snippet of their lives. That got me thinking about the autism spectrum and society.

So often society, and when I say society I mean those uninformed or unaffiliated with the autism spectrum, will only see a snippet of life on the spectrum much like I had seen at the gas station. What I saw I could not piece anything together. What those persons' dreams, hopes, challenges, and daily life are like.

Behind each person, spectrm or not, is a story; a story deep and rich with triumphs and defeats. Families who have a person on the autism spectrum are just the same. However, if society as a whole only sees those moments in public where, perhaps, there could be a behavior or maybe even a passing news story the perception of autism can be quite different.

It is a common occurrence for me to hear from parents that they so often get told that they are, "spoling their children" from friends, extended family, or even strangers. This is nothing short of a tragedy because I can almost guarntee tat this is due to those others only seeing part of the story. If one doesn't know the broader picture with a clearer lens then I truly want to know how anyone can pass judgment.

The autism spectrum is not something that pops up and then goes away for families. When society and autism cross paths, for those that are a part of the uninformed society, they are only seeing it at that point in time with no ability to fathom that what they are witnessing is something that is more than that point in time. What they could be seeing could be the norm for that family.

I find it odd I became overwhelmed with these emotions just by being an invisible observer in those worker's story, but even now as I write this I am almost trembling with this deep, profound conviction that society needs to know the broader picture.

For those workers today I was nothing more than a sale that they soon forgot as soon as I left the store. I heard their story and they know nothing of mine. For families that have a person on the spectrum often times those interactions aren't like mine at the gas station. For those families that have told me that they have been called "bad parents" and the like, those words aren't soon forgotten. It's a shame because from from those that made those comments, out of their ignorance, they probably feel as if their words are justified with no idea of the full story. Not that I needed anymore fuel to my passion this has added some because before that experience at the gas station this morning I never thought about the stories of other people. After being a witness to that exchange I realized that when a person only knows 1/10th of the story the context means nothing and this is where ignoranant comments thrive. Sitting here at gate A16 I can feel the buring desire to add that context in any way I can grow and I can feel my voice strengthening. I've always said that I'm in a race to "raise the awareness and understanding of the spectrum" and I feel as if I found a new gear as these minor tragedies of misunderstanding need not happen.

Getting Back on the Plane

Okay... Deep breaths... Today is the day I return to Saint Louis and this means another trip through an airport. Last week's "adventure" is something I don't want to endure ever again but I do have the fear that it will. Also, I do have my flags with me this time so the security checkpoint may be of issue.

I don't have too much more to say today except that I am hoping that everything goes smoothly and that I make it back to Saint Louis with no adventures to tell.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bowling... Different

I like sameness. I like routine. I like knowing that things I knew when I was five are still the way they are today. With that being said it was a complete shock to go bowling last night when it wasn't the bowling I'm used to.

Growing up I was a religious watcher of the Professional Bowlers Tour so from an early age I knew what bowling was. I can remember all the Sunday afternoons after church that my dad would take me to Raceway Lanes in Indianapolis. That was bowling. Last night, however, I went to a bowling alley and things sort of felt the same; the alley was the same length, the usual bowling alley smell was there, and at the end of the lane were 10 pins. The balls on the rack though weren't the sizes or weights I remembered and the pins weren't like anything I have ever seen before. I was miles away from what these bowlers call "ten-pin" (or as I kept saying, "real bowling") as I was in a candlepin lane.

Everything I knew about bowling was wrong in this alley. There were no finger holes as the ball is very small. There is no sweep of the lane after each shot so the pins that have fallen remain on the lane, and each frame consists of three shots.

Also different was the expectation of score. My average in real, ahem, ten-pin bowling is just a hair under 200 and I have achieved perfection, a 300, once in league. In candlepin the highest score ever bowled, and it's happened twice, is a 245.

"Okay, so maybe it's more difficult," I thought to myself "but bowling is bowling, right?" In the first frame I walked confidently up the approach and unleashed a shot that looked good... if it was a race to the gutter. My 2nd shot took out the 7 pin and my 3rd shot took out the 10 pin. Ryan's first frame was much better as he left the 7-10 split and proceeded to pick it up using the deadwood that was left because the lane isn't swept. Okay, I'll admit that his spare looked rather awesome.

Frame after agonizing frame happened and no matter how hard I tried the ball just wouldn't find the center of the lane. I'm used to marking each frame, a strike or a spare, but here, over three games, I only had one spare. Of the five of us that went there was only one strike over three games! I don't know if that shows how difficult that this seemingly impossible sport is, or that it proves that candlepin bowling is simply a way to torture one's self.

By the 2nd game I thought I had it, but I lost it instantly and the same thing happened in the 3rd game, which was my highest score at a staggering low score of 72. Well, staggering low because I'm used to high triple digits. I'm used to turkeys, and "ham-bones" not spread eagles and Half Worcesters. I'm used to going into every league night with the hopes and dreams of rolling another 300 and not hoping that my shot at least hits something on the lane.

It was a certainly a different experience and one that I will remember for quite some time. Will I remember this experience of candlepin fondly? Yeah, about as much as one remembers the last time they had the flu as this was the most frustrating sport I ever took part in and I can't wait to go real bowling again!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Another Trip From...

Friday... Wow... If I had one word to describe that day it would be "Worst travel day of all time." What? Not one word? It was such a bad experience that describing that day can break all the rules.

So as I blogged last Friday, I said that I was worried about the security experience. As worried as I was the experience went fine so I made my way to the gate and continued reading the book, "Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood."  An hour or two passed by and with about 30 minutes before the scheduled flight was to depart a lady on the intercom said, "Folks, just got word that we are in a FAA hold right now. All flights are delayed.

That message confused me because when I looked outside there were planes leaving and landing. I looked at the radar on my phone and looked towards New York because that's where my lay over was and I saw that some storms were in the area, but all flights?

The scheduled time came and went and then they said we would leave about 2 hours after the originally posted time, but then the worst words to hear came, "Folks, the FAA has cancelled this flight. That is all."

I hopped into line to see if I was going to be able to get to Boston as I did have the USAC Generation Next race to flag so I was getting highly worried that I wasn't going to make it.

The line I was in moved at a, well, it didn't move. Then James, the director of the Generation Next series, told me to call the 1-800 number. I had thought about doing that but I hate using the phone, but with his encouragement I did so and I was told I was automatically booked onto another flight headed to Memphis and that I needed to report to another gate.

I went to the other gate to find a long line of people at the counter. This flight was headed to JFK and the amount of people trying to get on was long. I sat and I just listened at the humanity going on around me. This was an odd and sometimes depressing thing as typically I love that feeling, but being confined to one gate I just wasn't passing people but rather I was hearing their stories as they figured out what they were going to do. There were three men, all IT guys from the conversation they had, for some major company that was never named, trying to get back to New York. They were all on the phone and somehow they knew exactly what the other wanted, such as where to get a hotel, what type of car to rent, how angry each person's wife was going to be. It was teamwork at its finest and that was something I don't know if I'll ever do. If anything I was sure I was a witness to normal.

Being a witness to normality continued on as a woman was furious she was going to miss a wedding and more and more people called loved ones to tell them that arrival would not be happening on that day. I kept hoping that I was going to make it as the line still hadn't moved so I couldn't confirm if I was actually going to get out.

About 100 minutes before my new departure time I finally made it to the counter and got a "seat request" boarding pass. Now, this wasn't an actual pass, but sometime between 10 and 45 minutes before the flight left I would be given an actual pass. To me, this felt like counterfeit money as what I was holding was essentially worthless in my eyes. So, once again I continued to read and at some point in time I figured a hot chocolate out of season would be a great thing so I went and I got one.

As I got back to the gate I was lost in my book when I heard an announcement that I had to go to another gate and tell them where my bag needed to go. So off to another gate I went and waited, and waited, and waited in line when finally I made it. The asked where my bag looked like (aren't things electronically tracked?) and I said, "um, it's black and it has wheels." to which she said, "that's what they all are, can you tell me anything more?" I then said that I thought it had some red on it and a minutes passed and she said, "okay, they said they got it." So back to my gate I went.

Reading became even more intense and I didn't notice the passage of time nor the fact that the only humanity around me was a lacrosse team. I looked at the clock and it was 20 minutes before the scheduled flight time of my new flight. "Odd" I thought "isn't this when we normally board?" I went to the counter where the lacrosse team captain was arguing some point and I waited. I needed an answer and I needed it right then, but I couldn't simply ask a question, "Is this plane going to Memphis?" and then I looked out the window and saw that there was no plane. I waited, and another few minutes passed, and I waited some more when a person who barely spoke English came up to the counter and said, "Memphis?" to which the lady at the counter said, "Nope, it's over at that gate over there."

Over there? But everyone said this gate! Why wasn't I told this? I was waited exactly where everyone had told me and the person working the counter I was standing at knew I was on that flight, but there was no time to wonder why this had happened so I scurried over to that gate and waited in line yet again.

There were three people in front of me and I needed a non-counterfeit boarding pass. I was petrified that I was too late, that this seemingly way overbooked flight was too full and that I would be left in Saint Louis with no chance to make it to the race. I began to physically shake in fear as well as the fact that all I wanted to do was ask if I had a seat. That's really all I needed to know but I couldn't cut in line.

Then, the boarding process began and the lady at the counter stopped talking to us in line and I began to shake even more so. I was fidgety, scared, and becoming angry. Person after person got on the plane as if it was nothing, as if they hadn't spent seven hours in an airport wondering if they were going to make it to a place that they waited all week to get. Okay, maybe that had waited, but they hadn't waited for seven long hours dwelling on the fact that it might not happen.

I decided to break the rules. I cut in line to board the plane and I tried to board with my request slip to which the gate attendant reached over and grabbed an actual one and said "thank you" and that was that; I was on my way.

When in Memphis I learned that a fire in the FAA tower at La Guradia had caused the air travel clog up and when I made it to my gate I was handed a boarding pass and that was that.

I made it to Boston and awaited my bag so Ryan and I could make it to Thompson. I waited, and waited, and waited and no bag. I found my original boarding pass that had my claim ticket so I went to a scanner machine and it said it was en route to Atlanta. Atlanta? Yes, Atlanta.

Confused, tired, and in the process of giving up I stumbled into the bag loss office and they said my bag had never left Saint Louis and that they could deliver it Sunday, or maybe Monday. I gave them Ryan's address and eventually, finally, I was in Ryan's car headed to Thompson anxious to get my 3 or so hours of sleep.

Just to cap off the day; when we stopped at McDonald's at about 1AM and I ordered my burger it was made after a lengthy time, we went on the road, and then I found out they made my order way wrong. So, what was supposed to be an easy, six hour journey turned into 14 hours now with no luggage for the weekend and to finish it off a wrongly made burger. What a day that was!

Friday, June 22, 2012

On My Way to New England

In just a few hours I'll be on a plane headed to Boston and from there Ryan, who has been mentioned in my blogs many times, will be picking me up and we'll make the drive to Connecticut for a USAC .25 Generation Next race. I'll be flagging and Ryan got talked into being the cameraman. How will he do? You can watch the racing action this weekend on USAC's Ustream page barring some sort of techincle difficulty.

So yes, I'm about to fly but as always I am building up my pre-flight anxiety. Well, it isn't pre-flight but rather security checkpoint fear. I wonder if there is a clinical name for this and if there isn't there should be. Don't get me wrong, I do like feeling safe but at the same time I know I always look like a suspicious person due to lack of eye contact and fidgety behavior.

One thing I have going for me is that I am not in my possession of flags. They're in the USAC trailer that went from Hagerstown last week up to Thompson, CT. Why is this a good thing? One time, in Kansas City, my flags went through the scanner and the agent opened up the bag and asked, "What are these?" I responded with a one word answer, "flags" which didn't seem to appease the agent. He then unfurled the checkered flag and asked, "Sir, what does this represent?" Obviously this person had never seen a race in his life but I began to fear the question because I thought he thought that this flag might have been some sort of rebel symbol and that I was part of some uprising. Thank goodness at the time I didn't have this flag with me at the time as this flag does look the part.

Then, of course, there was last year's trip. If you are new to my blog you should really read that post because it is the epitome of what can go wrong while traveling and the emotions I felt. Oddly enough the part of my computer that was cracked from that journey through TSA last year broke off this morning. A sign of things to come today? I certainly hope not!

It's now less than an hour before I will make the shaky journey through security. I keep telling myself, "just act normal" but this just makes me act more unnatural. I feel the most out of place in the security checkpoint line if that makes sense. I don't know how everyone acts so nonchalant about the whole thing; I mean, people are way too close to everyone else, the line moves at a random pace, and sometimes the metal detector will go off despite no metal on a person (Odd fact: as I walk through the scanner I am thinking, "No whammies, no whammies!" due to that random chance. Odd? Yes. Fun? Yes.) And, should I get the extra round of questioning, how will I respond? How will I keep my composure? It is this fear that scares me the most because when a line of questioning I'm not expecting comes my way I usually lock up.

Despite the fears I will tackle this head on. There's a flagstand waiting for me in Thompson and after this incredible week I can't wait to cap it off with a great race weekend.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Trophy and The New Era

Okay, yesterday I showed you the videos from the Champions of Mental Health banquet so there wasn't any personal input so today let me tell you how I felt and still feel.

First, I don't know if my speech showed it, but giving my acceptance speech was the most difficult presenting I have ever done. I knew I had to print out what I wanted to say ahead of time to keep me on track as I would've of spoke for a dozen minutes otherwise. So with that being so I have never read in public since 5th grade so that certainly was difficult. But also, after seeing the video about me, I was 3/4ths the way of being completely overwhelmed and choked up.

So I gave my speech and returned to my table and I stared at trophy and I kept running my fingers over the edges trying to process what this was. How did I get this? I looked around the room and remembered all the sleepless nights of hopelessness. I remembered all the times I wanted to say, "I hurt, I need help, please understand me!" but was unable to say any of that.

Time went on and I still was in a trance reading the words, "Aaron Likens 2012 Mental Health Champion". Champion? How did this happen? My thoughts continued to race and I remembered that first night I had finally reached a breaking point; I either was going to be consumed by my emotions that I wasn't able to express or I was going to find a way to get them out. It was one or the other; to implode or to survive.

Minutes passed and I was still staring at the amazing shades of blue reflecting off this trophy I was given. This was now a harder time than seeing the tribute video or giving my speech because I was recalling all the emotions and the proverbial road I had to travel to be in this moment that I had this amazingly beautiful trophy sitting in front of me.

I began to think of my mission, "To raise the awareness and understanding of the autism spectrum" because there are too many people out there that are in the same spot I was in when I was on the brink of inner destruction. I know I can't fix the world. I know I can't conquer supreme ignorance, but what I can do is, for those willing to listen, open up the door that leads down the path of understanding. Thinking back to where my journey began this was the only thing I wanted; this thing called understanding.

To receive this honor, this label of "champion" has been a tough thing to understand; even more so because I think I'm one of the younger recipients of it as I'm only 29. As I said in my speech though, this is something I will carry with me forever. It was a long road from that first day I started to write to that banquet, but in a way it is a symbolic passage of eras. One could argue that the release of my book would be the end of that era, but I disagree. This award, I believe, is the end of the era from diagnosis, personal discovery, writing, and then becoming a public speaker. Yes, with this award I have made the jump into the next era. Over the past two years here at TouchPoint my voice has become stronger, clearer, and the amount of people reached grows by each month. Now though, moving forward in this new era, I now have a new label; that of "Champion." Society thinks, as I did for the longest of times, that the word champion is used solely for sports. While my journey didn't have a season, didn't have a table with stats, and didn't have a playoff system it had something much more serious. It was sink or swim. It was be consumed and lost within myself or find a way to survive. With this new label it's no longer and surviving but rather thriving and with this award I am sure my voice, as loud as it was, will become louder.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Champions Banquet

Normally I would write about an event such as last night's Champions of Mental Health banquet. Today, however, I have the luxury of showing you the video that was done about me as well as my speech to accept the award.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Day Has Arrived

It's been a long time coming. Okay, about six months, but it's felt like a near eternity. I don't get excited/nervous for too many things anymore, but for tonight's event I am.

I first made reference to what tonight is back in April when I wondered what, exactly, being a champion meant. Well, tonight is the Missouri Department of Mental Health Foundation's Champion of Mental Health banquet where I will receive the honor of being named a "champion of mental health."

I'm still sort of confused as to what I've done to gain that honor. I mean, I didn't set out on my journey with any sort of plan to become a "champion." And to be honest, often times I'm frustrated that I am not doing enough. Then I get even more frustrated trying to figure out what more I can do and I realize I'm doing all that I can.

Tonight is going to be difficult for me. There's going to be a video about each champion (there are three of us) and I'm going to hear what those who were interviewed had to say about me as well as the segments of when I was interviewed. Both are going to be highly difficult because I don't like hearing what people think of me and I TRULY hate hearing my own voice. Both are going to happen and then I go up, receive the award, and give a short speech which I do have written and I might upload that speech if there's video, and if not just the written words, this evening after the banquet.

The minutes are going to tick by slowly today with each minute a reflection. I think back to six years ago and the stagnant life I had; hope wasn't in the vocabulary and each day was just another block of 24 hours that passed without cause, reason, or celebration. Slowly the tides shifted and slowly I found my way and slowly I have built up my speaking resume and have slowly made this blog into a heavily read thing. I think back to nine years ago and the feeling of sheer hopelessness after my diagnosis and I never, never NEVER would have thought I would do 1% of the things I've done. Tonight, I may be the honor receiving the honor but don't let that blind you to the fact that this, really, should be about all those around me that never gave up hope and to all those around me that gave me the support to be who I am now.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Ignorance Met... "Dude!"

Over the course of the weekend flagging the USAC .25 Generation Next race in Hagerstown, Maryland my mind was always going back to the blog post from Thursday and the ignorance of those people. I mean, who are those people that are so mean for no reason?

The racing went long on Sunday so I only got to my sister's house in Indy (arrived just shy of 3AM) and then this morning I headed home. Quickly on the drive I was starting to feel anxious and trapped as I have been in a car for too much time over the past three months so I decided to break up the monotony by playing golf.

I quickly began to find a suitable course and I was getting excited because I love playing golf at small town courses because I believe people are nicer at those type of courses. Big city courses are often hectic, much like a big city, so I do try and play at smaller courses (or big city courses when it's 100 degrees outside and I'm the only fool foolish enough to play in that type of heat).

When I got to the course I instantly thought about last year's dramatic episode on a course in Indy and I was so looking forward to a quick round and then a drive home. Well, as my luck would have it there was an "outing" on the course, a 10 team scramble but the lady at the counter said it'd be no problem.

Quickly I found out that it wasn't a problem at all. Each time I caught up to a team they were more than happy to let me play through. This is why I like small towns! Eventually though I caught up to the majority of teams and there was no getting through and I felt the time ticking away. I wanted to play golf, but I also wanted to be home. When I got to hole 14 I noticed I could skip to 16 and there was nobody there all the way to 18 so I skipped ahead.

Things were going great and I reached hole 18 and I teed the ball up, I looked down the fairway, addressed the ball and swung. As the ball left my club and I looked ahead I noticed a golf cart parking on the left side of the fairway near some trees. I thought nothing of this as I watched my ball sail. It was my best drive of the day although I thought it might have been a bit to the left, but I was proud of the distance.

I drove down the cart path planning this evening's blog post when I got near that parked golf cart. Now, I have no idea where they came from or what hole they were on (they certainly weren't on 18) but as I slowly approached with the inquisitive look on my face as if to say, "where's my ball" the driver of that cart looked at me and said, "Dude!"

Dude. There's a lot of things that can come from dude. Like, "Dude, nice shot." or "Dude, are you lost." and then again maybe he was just saying "Dude." for the sake of saying dude. I was at a loss as to what he was wanting or stating so I stopped the cart and stared at him blankly. "Dude!" he said again and there was a pause as if we were waiting for me to reply, which I didn't, because I didn't know how to.

"Okay" he said with a prolonged voice, "dude, your ball landed right there" and as he said that he pointed to about a foot to the right of his cart and at this point in time the vulgarity began. I will not use those words on here, but every other word had some sort of nasty word preceding it. "See that right there? Your ball landed right there. Right there! Are you hearing me?"

Was I hearing him? I was but my body was in panic mode. I was just as paralyzed then as I was when I was trying to figure out the definition of "dude." I tried to respond but I couldn't because I was processing too many things; one of which was what my escape plan would be because he kept slowly rising as if he were about to head towards me. He then said, "So, are you hearing me?" and I thought to myself and I just about said this, "Well, that's what happens when you drive and then park when someone is hitting, but why are you mad? Yes, why are you mad? What right do you have to be mad? Were you hit? NO! I've nearly been hit today on four separate holes but was I mad? Nope, so why are you mad?"

Why are you mad? That question kept circling through my brain when everything was derailed when the driver turned to the person in the passenger seat and said, "What's with this guy? Is he stupid? Deaf? I think he's stupid." Instantly my mind went back in time to last August and the complete feeling of being powerless. I now had no idea what to do and my blank staring at him continued which just made him madder and madder.

With that barrage of verbal insults I stepped on the gas and was done. I had been verbally abused long enough and I don't know what that man's problems were but I knew if I stayed there any longer I would be the root of everything wrong in his life. Even as I got to my ball 20 yards away I could still hear him bashing every ounce of my being and my intellect and my awkwardness and the fact that I had slip on dress shoes on and I glanced back and I could see the passenger staring off into space as if he wanted to be anywhere but there. I shared that feeling 100%.

I thought about picking up my ball and leaving, but that would be letting the bully win, right? I hastily made my shot so as to not antagonize the mad man behind me and I hope he saw my shot because it was a beauty that sailed high into the midwestern air and came raining down onto the green about 4 feet from the pin. I turned back to the man with a sly smirk but I did so so fast that I don't know if he saw me or the shot, but I got to the green, made my birdie putt, and quickly vacated the area. Then it hit me and I felt scared, alone, and isolated.

The feelings grew and grew and grew. Why did this happen? How can people be so mean? I then realized I met the type of person that puts those comments I mentioned in Thursday's post. I was now torn internally because I felt belittled, abused, and to be honest I felt somewhat less of a person, but at the same time I know I met the enemy face-to-face. I met intolerance and ignorance. As bad as I felt I quickly came around and realized this person was the type of person that needs to be reached the most. Of course I have no idea how to do so because even if I gave the best presentation in the world and he was there he probably wouldn't take one bit of info away. And this is something I don't understand because, as I asked earlier, how can people be so mean? How can something so accidental set someone off so fast? I wish I knew the answer and I wish people could just be more understanding regardless the situation. If people were this entire world would be a much better place. As for now my memories are filled with the angry golfer on the 18th hole and to that man, wherever he may be, I say, "Dude! I hope you read this someday!"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Saddened at Ignorance

Well, I was all primed to celebrate my drive to Hagerstown and tell you that on my drive I came up with a plot line for a fiction book that I might actually start to write tonight. I also was going to write that tomorrow is the 3 year anniversary of my first work at TouchPoint when I went through their parent training course. However, I found something that disgusted me.

First, the good news. I don't know if you saw this on any of the news outlets, but the New York Mets are are considering a quiet section to cater to the autism crowd. Is it a done deal? No, but they are testing the waters. This may have been spawned by the quiet section at the NASCAR FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover a couple weeks ago. So yes, this is good, but want to know what troubles me? And when I tell you read at your own risk, the comments on the story I have linked to.

I read just a few and my anger pegged. What do people think the autism spectrum is? One person said, "People with autism need schedules so they should never leave the house." Another person said, "I worked with people on the spectrum for years and every person with autism hates baseball, hates sports, and the definition of autism is having no interests!" WHAT?!

To be honest I don't know why any website allows unmoderated comments, well, at least news outlets because I've never read one positive comment. However, many people I know ONLY read websites from the comments and if this is the case then the comments on that story are giving the autism spectrum a poorly painted picture.

I personally applaud the Mets for testing these waters and to every person that left a negative comment, or said that people with autism, "can't have interests" I would just like to say I have come across many people on the spectrum that their sole interest is baseball. I mean, a lot of us on the spectrum loves stats and what better sport is there than baseball for stats. There's so many stats that I can't believe there isn't one for how many times a batter blinks in the batter's box. For those people though that love baseball an environment like the one proposed would be awesome as well as for their families who would be in a section of people that understands if a behavior should arise.

Another comment I read said, "Why should they get any special treatment?" Sadly, this is a mindset I have seen a lot and it's this crowd that needs to get the picture the most. A person, when ignorant about autism, can cause a great deal of long term harm if they have an interaction with a person on the spectrum and do all the wrong things because they think, "That a person with autism should simply "deal with it" as one comment said. And the comment I read the most of was, "Children like that should just stay home." Is that the mentality? If someone is different they should just be kept from the world?

As the title of this blog suggests, I am simply saddened. What will it take? What can we do? And above all us I am asking, "Why are people so mean?" Truly, why are they? An organization is just seeing if something like this would even work and they are called all sorts of names and the autism spectrum gets dragged through the mud, But for what reason?

This right here is why the mission is greater than ever. I don't usually comment on current event/news from other sites but I'm sickened to the core and if you read some of those comments I hope you are too. I was just getting to a point that I thought we were headed towards a society that was tolerable of one's differences and would be there to lend a helping hand, but if those comments are any sign we are still a long way from that destination.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Summer Run Begins

Just like last year at this time this year is going to see a ton of travel with races spread across the country. This is probably a great thing for me right now as the elements from the past two blog posts are still in play.

As I said, the run begins with a race in Hagerstown, Maryland this weekend. I am unfortunately making the drive by myself out there as I was going to fly but next Tuesday is the Champions of Mental Health Banquet in Jefferson City so if I flew and a plane broke down or something I would have been stuck (Hagerstown is not a big town).

To continue telling the schedule I have, next Thursday night I have a big presentation at a Lutheran Educators conference and the next day it's off to Boston once again for a race in Connecticut. Hopefully this year the tropical weather stays away.

I get back on a Wednesday and then it's off to a wedding in Dallas that weekend, then a few weekends later it's off to Utah for a race so yes, if anything, this summer run will provide plenty of things to write about and it all starts with the race in Hagerstown this weekend.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Upslope of Dark Times

Yesterday was a mixed bag in terms of emotions. When I woke up I felt fine, perfect in fact, but soon thereafter the proverbial dam burst and all the emotions from the previous days came flooding in and everything once again felt hopeless.

After breakfast all was good again and my mind was sharp, but then a memory sparked another memory and I was relegated to going back to bed because I was just too dizzy to stand and to weak to support myself. Then, an hour later, all was fine again.

This was the way it's always been for me on the upslope out of these times of, well, I don't know if I have a name for it, let's say "dark times" for now until I think of something better. Anyway, when I am headed back to normal envision like a stock chart that goes up, then down, then a little higher, then down and the process continues until the line of "personal normality" gets reached.

Okay, my tone today surely is more positive than yesterday, but if history shows me something it's that I am still in a fragile state. Yesterday I spent the down times trying to figure out the core problem and it remained a mystery and each time I headed down it was as if a door to the subconscious was opened and a vile poison was released. So what is the core and what causes the poison? I'm not sure, but slowly I know, because history tells me so that each day should get a little bit better.

So that's where I am at today. I am by no means at 100% but at the same time I am not hating world and hating every thing about myself so that within itself is an improvement. It's hard for me to think that I used to be the way I was yesterday for weeks and months on end with little to no respite. This is why I said yesterday that, "I have no right to feel this way" because I everything I could want and more and yet I still got that same way. Well, as usual after an episode like this my motivation is increasing because I used to be at a point where I couldn't explain any of this and there are others like me out there that their families need to understand this. I did laugh for a moment yesterday when I thought back to one of the first speakers I ever heard about autism, I don't know who they were but their quote was, "We know that people on the autism spectrum have limited to no emotions." Limited? No emotions? REALLY?! I laughed because I wished dearly that it was true, but it isn't. We do have emotions; strong emotions and a lot of times we can't process them or express them and that's why I felt the need to let you know the tempest I was in. My mission is to keep positive but life isn't 100% sunny. Even when the weatherman says there's 100% sun and 0% chance rain it can still rain (I know, it happened to us at a race two weeks ago.) Because it isn't always sunny one needs to know what to look for when it rains and I feared that some might get overly sad reading that I was so sad. I mean, I do feel a certain pressure to stay "perfect" so to speak and to always be on my game, but I'm human and on the spectrum. Emotions happen but sometimes they can confuse us and it is in these times that understanding is of the utmost importance.

I'm sure this past weekend into today won't be the last time that I fall into the, what did I call it, the "dark times" (yes, I did actually scroll up to see what I called it... at least I know my sense of humor is coming back) and the next time it arrives I will write about it. Being on the spectrum I can experience great highs, and deep lows but in the end it is, to plug my own blog name, just another day of life on the other side of the wall.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Waiting, and Praying, That This Will Pass

I feel weak, powerless, and down right awful. The feeling throughout my body is one of extreme uneasiness and anxiety. From all this my mindset is of one of supreme pessimism.

But why? I don't know. I feel as if I am back in the year 2005 the second before I started to right. To be honest, I, the person I am now, was born within this depth of despair. Again though, why do I feel like this? I keep telling myself I have no right to feel this way as I am more than I ever thought I would be but at this moment I don't see that.

I can trace the start of these current feelings and I find something interesting. I've talked about this many times and, coincidentally enough, many parents over the past two months have told me that a single memory or event can trigger a cascade effect, or as I like to call it, an "avalanche" that quickly consumes one's entire being.

Back before I started writing, when my dad would ask me what was wrong, I would always respond with, "everything." This always confused him because, as he would say, "How could everything be wrong?" This is the same thing I've been hearing from other parents at my presentations and the reason why I think it happens like this is because of the way memories are tied as well as the way they are processed. How so? This may seem odd, but I am going to compare this to the way I handle noise in my environment; I can handle a little bit of background noise but once a certain threshold has been reached all noises grow to a level of deafening distraction. When I get to the way I am now, the same principal is in effect that what may have been just a background emotion becomes this crushing weight that is intolerable.

Now why do memories factor into this? To repeat myself, this is yet another thing that I know I'm not alone in because I've heard it from parents, but our memories are too good. In my future books I talk about this quite a bit in that things don't simply pass. Events don't fade away like they seem to do for others because one my my quotes I came up with is, "everything is now." Imagine living your entire life in the past five minutes. That's what it is like for me and when one bit of emotion gets to a high enough level the whole system crashes and everything that was ever wrong becomes wrong, NOW!

How long will this last? This is the question I am asking myself because I want it gone now. It isn't simply that I will BE sad but there is a physical response as well as I have this strange sensation through me as if I was in a car that just went over a crest at a high speed. Also, energy is very low and something that I don't ever remember feeling popped up and that is a sense of dizziness.

I told myself many times yesterday that, "it's all hopeless!" not really even knowing what, exactly, is hopeless. This is the effect of when "everything is wrong!" However, I know that my statement yesterday isn't true because I am writing, aren't I? I would, however, like to put a hopeful spin on this as I do try and keep my blog hopeful, but on this I don't know how to do it so the only thing I can do is what I've already done in explaining how I feel and why I think something like this gets started. This is something I've put up with over time in my life and as I said, I was born within these depths. It was here that first motivated me to express my emotions via writing. Without how I am feeling right now there would be no book, no blog, and my explanations would never have been realized. So perhaps that is the positive in this, at least for me, because all my groundbreaking concepts and chapters have come from here. So I may feel horrible now, but I now feel motivated to start writing my fifth book as I remember what it was like in the depths of misplaced hopelessness.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Why I Wrote Finding Kansas

I now live by the motto, "Understanding is the foundation for hope." It wasn't always that way though...

Being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 20 was confusing. I mean, I had this diagnosis but didn't know what it meant and sadly, neither did my doctor. I was left to find out what it meant by myself so I did an internet search and the first thing I read, the very first thing I read said, "People with Asperger Syndrome will NEVER have a job, NEVER have friends and NEVER be happy."

After reading those lines it was as if my life ended. I instantly believed those words and tuned all other information about Asperger Syndrome out. I didn't believe there was hope and I slowly retreated from the world. I don't think anyone knew just how depressed I was because I never talked about my emotions.

I stayed this way for almost 15 months. I was bitter, hopeless, and angry at everything. Sometimes my dad would say, "I understand." but how could he? Then, 15 months after being diagnosed, I had had enough. I don't know what fuse blew in my mind, but I had to tell my dad who I was and why I was. Of course, I couldn't speak it, but I went to my computer and I started to write it.

There's a line in my book that says, "All I want is for someone to understand and maybe, just maybe, I will be free." That was the motivation for me to write and I never intended on it being a book that got published. All I wanted was for one person to understand who I was. I also didn't intend on creating a new vocabulary to describe the ways of the autism spectrum as I just wanted to describe to my dad in the best way possible the reasons why I do what I do.

My book is a journey through my thoughts and is at times sad, at times funny, at times hopeful, and most times emotional. As I was writing, I heard a speaker say that, "People on the autism spectrum don't have emotions," and that too was a big motivator for me to continue to write because I knew that I had never heard a bigger lie in my life. We have emotions, maybe more emotions than someone that is "normal," but we have the hardest of times processing it and then expressing it. I was like that my entire life until I discovered writing.

As I said, when I was writing Finding Kansas I never thought it would be something that would bring hope and understanding. From where I am now, I believe that we can have the highest autism awareness level possible and that still won't be enough because without understanding how can society know what it is? Without understanding how can parents make the right choices? This was the sole reason why I wrote. Nobody understood me and I couldn't speak what I thought or what I needed so I wrote to be understood and words can't express what it means to be when I hear from parents that, "through your book I now understand my son."

Finding Kansas available at and other book sellers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Day Off?

For the first time in well over two months I have a day off. It feels weird to be honest as there is no 14 hour drive, no audience to speak to, and no office to move into (well, there is but that happens tomorrow.) So with the day to myself I am giving my step-brother the birthday gift of a round of golf.

Is today really a day off for me though? The past two days was the Saint Louis Autism Conference and on the first day Dr. John Constintino presented and he said something that I've felt and probably mentioned on here is some blog post at some time, but he said something like this that, "no matter how much we do it just never really feels like we do enough."

Those words haunted me because that is exactly how I feel. Someone once asked me, "What more could you do Aaron?" and to that I had no answer. I thought that maybe my presentation could be better, maybe I could figure out new concepts to describe the spectrum, maybe I could... could... I don't know.

As Dr. Constintino was leaving he came over to get his book signed and it was only a two minute or so conversation but we discussed quite a bit. I felt honored to have a researcher of his status ask me a question.

After yesterday, if I ever get a chance for a conversation with him again, I have some new questions as I'm starting to piece all my concepts together. After hearing Dr. Constintino's research as well as the many other great speakers that spoke I feel as if my "Film Theory" concept I put forth in "Finding Kansas" is far more important that I ever thought along with the increased importance in my "Cement Theory."

Now I say they are more important and that I am piecing them together because I'm beginning to feel as if there is one or two other concept/pieces that I know are there but I don't know how to describe it and this is where that part of, "not doing enough" comes in. This may be my day off and I may be somewhere on the 13th fairway later... okay... the 13th rough later today but my mind surely will be on how to piece it all together and to come up with the concept that does truly piece all my concepts together.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Live from the Saint Louis Autism Conference

Today is the start of the 2nd and final day of the Saint Louis Autism Cobference. I am actually writing this on my phone at my table there so this won't be the longest of posts but I did want to say that it has been great to see so many turn out for this. I present at the end of today and I'm excited to do so.

Tomorrows blog should be longer as writing on a phone isn't the most efficient, and comfortable, ways to write.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I Could Never Write Fiction

The main person of my story, he walks into a house and into a room upstairs and starts a conversation with the antagonist...

If I were to write fiction the sentence above is about as much detail as I could provide. Right now reading is a big Kansas for me and I am scouring Amazon and other sites for what books I should read. When reading I am amazed at how much detail is written into it because, as shown above, detail is something I overlook.

Is it that I overlook it or is it that I have a different priority? In my book Finding Kansas I believe I give great detail, much like a great fiction writer, but instead of describing the rancid smells or describing the aqua blue from the crimson red I put my detail into the way the mind works and why.

For me, when I write, I have to force myself to put external detail. I can remember on occasion doing that on here or in my book and each time I want you to realize that putting detail just doesn't come naturally. Since it isn't important to me I know it isn't to you (another case of my concept, "I think therefore you should know") therefore why should I waste my energy and describe it.

Now that I'm thinking about this I wonder how much detail I have left out and if any of my stories would be deeper if I described the surroundings a bit more. I don't know if it would, but would it then detract from my natural form of writing or take away the importance of what I do normally write? I think back to my grocery store experiences way early on in my blog and I wonder if I added detail would it add to my story or would it minimize the internal strife I was feeling? I'm going to have to think about this more but I might just try and challenge myself to add some descriptors to my stories.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Weekend

I just now made it back to Saint Louis. I wanted to be back yesterday but the race event took longer than I expected so I stayed at my sister's last night in Indy. It was a great weekend though as on Friday we had our USAC .25 practice then afterwards I got to flag the main for the USAC Ignite Fuels Midget race at Kil-Kare Speedway.

Other than that the weekend was a normal race weekend and once again I have a busy week in front of me as the TouchPoint Autism conference is tomorrow and Wednesday then it's time to move into my new office and on Friday I'm off to Quincy, Illinois for a presentation.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Seeing Normal With a "How Are You?"

Yesterday I was at the Tan Tar A resort in Osage Beach to give a presentation to Missouri's DMH Spring Training Institute. It was one my largest audiences ever with 300 people there to hear me speak. However, it isn't the presentation I am going to remember the most but rather an event that happened at breakfast.

I missed the free breakfast so I went to the restaurant and I sat down. It was a buffet style breakfast so I got my food and while I was eating a younger brother and sister, maybe 10 and 14 years old, came in through the side door. The waitress sat them down and asked the question, "How are you?"

How are you? there isn't a scarier into to a conversation than that. I've struggled with it a long time, and one of my first blog posts talked about it. To hear it said from others to others makes me cringe because I'm like a spectator at a sporting event knowing that a player is about to totally screw up in the most shameful of ways. I thought this was going to happen, but the sister responded to the waitress, "Just fine, and how are you this morning?"

I thought, "What just happened?" It took me a moment of thinking before I realized that I was just a ringside witness to normality. I can count on one hand... okay, I don't need any hands to count the times I have actually returned a "how are you?" I've never done it but it isn't because that I don't care (okay, sometimes I might not) but it just doesn't come naturally to ask. Also, being asked that question creates such a downpour of thoughts that it takes a while for me to actually know how I am doing.

In my presentations I poke fun at myself for the couple times I have fully failed the how are you line of questioning. Yesterday though it was an eerie feeling to witness a how are you exchange that was fully natural without and forcing or over processing. I was a tad bit envious actually on just how smooth it went.

For those that know me, and those that saw me present yesterday, you know that when I'm presenting I'm confident and quite talkative and most people say, "Oh, I could never present to a group like that." While that may be true and while presenting is now easy for me the #1 thing I am going to remember about that trip, and it will probably haunt me for a long time, is just how easy socializing come to others.