For a leisurely, Sunday afternoon stroll, we set out for Mill Pond Park as the sky richly turned to sherbet shades. It was mid-May and we knew the park would be vibrant and reverberating with song. By this time in the season, the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and red-breasted woodpeckers had returned, noisy neighbors with whom the many mallards, swans, and geese would contend in the reedy marshes and open water. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, a rare sight in my experience, and I marked it as a lucky day. Little did I know what I would find a short while later.
In the springtime, it was always lively at Mill Pond, which hosted a 1.1-mile paved trail loop around a 100+-year-old body of water, plus a few off-shooting, wandering woodland trails. On days like that one, I expected the park to be busy. Long Islanders, especially in the surrounding area, love to stretch their legs on something other than their suburban streets. Mill Pond Park, and the dedicated Adam D. Rand Memorial Trail, offered a brief respite from the daily bustle, and the opportunity to commune with nature.
On this day, visitors were throwing bread crumbs for the chance to bring the geese closer, and I reached out to caution them how unhealthy this practice was. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, just tsk tsk to myself, but I felt truly compelled to inform. Theyhad to know and I had to tell them.
Rather than bread, it would be much safer to throw lettuce, vegetable scraps, wheat, or oats. Bread, aka junk food for fowls, would have minimal nutritious value compared to the vegetation geese and ducks would normally eat. After eating the bread, geese could easily stop foraging from their natural habitat altogether, creating a kind of selective starvation, impotent dependence on humans, and a serious nutrient imbalance. Then, hungry, seeking out human assistance and eating too much sugar, they were at risk for developing angel wing, a debilitating condition rendering geese flightless. The heavy carbohydrate diet could cause their stomachs to heavily stretch and their wings to grow faster than their bones, which would lead to severe, irreversible deformity. A goose with a twisted wing would not be able to migrate, evade predators, or fly to food or shelter. The same could be said for swans and ducks.
If you love feeding the geese, you would be wise to treat them with care, and with the scientific knowledge our human privilege affords us.
I told the couple as succinctly as possible what I knew to be true. My brief word of caution received naught but a head turn, a callous shrug, and an unceremonious dumping of an entire bag of bread into the awaiting feeding frenzy. The unknowing birds clawed and combatted one another for bites of the poisonous lot. It made my heart ache.
We had expected the park to be busy before we arrived, but after the sorrowful interaction, I longed for solitude. We doubled pace and dove for the more isolated paths, the western acreage. In moments, we found ourselves alone on well-marked trails, crossing small creeks and rediscovering an old, brightly colored, graffitied building previously belonging to Brooklyn City Water Works, before the park was acquired by Nassau County in 1967. The pond was known as Jones Pond then, another name from another era. I allowed myself to be transported, pushing the geese endangerers aside.
It has always amazed me to find separation from the bustle of humanity while being in the middle of a densely populated suburb, near the busy Mill Pond path, and at times merely 25 meters from the Wantagh State Parkway. The Long Island developers, intensely flawed (and worse) in their philosophies, gave us all the gift of nature and the presence of so many pocket parks like this one. Everything in balance, the natural world corrects. I breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed back onto the main loop and made our way back to the car.
The day was not to end just yet, however.
As we made our way back to the seating area near the park entrance, where a waterfall kept a steady current flowing, I gazed across the expanse of skunk cabbage for a last look and one final word of gratitude. And I could not believe the sight.
Seven white herons stood distantly across the pond, each on one leg in the hunter’s stance.
It was a rare joy to see even a single heron on Long Island, and as herons prefer hunting in isolation, they were typically sighted alone. (Occasionally, at the height of mating season, they might be seen in pairs.) A handful of herons appeared yearly at various ponds and lakes across the island. Each time, to see one, I could hardly believe my luck. I’ve perched lakeside and watched them hunt while they’ve stood statuesque in shallow waters. Holding still for hours if necessary, on one, skinny leg, they appeared like a twig to an unsuspecting fish. Then, at the perfect moment, they used their free talons to grab and feed.
The experience was magical. They are beautiful, slender, and graceful creatures. They are cautious and clever predators.
From this distance, I couldn’t identify if they were snowy egrets (a type of heron) or great blue herons – only the color of the legs or beaks would have differentiated the species. I was gawking, bumbling, then noticing no other park patrons noticing this unbelievably rare sight. Normally, one heron at this lake would turn a few heads. How was no one seeing this?
I stood in awe, deeply moved by the seven figures.
In the Wildwood, the heron is the King of Vessels, a patient, lone hunter defending knowledge. He symbolizes self-awareness at the early breaking of dawn. Herons guard the Celtic otherworld, and can be interpreted as guardians, guides, teachers, or supporters. They are associated with problem solving and self-control, but also an overbearing rigidness or dependence on structure.
My thoughts went rampant while my body remained still. Should I interpret these herons as a sign of some kind from the grand universe? Support for my confident strength and instructional abilities which challenged me to confront and educate the strangers? Maybe. Acknowledgment of the guardianship over and empathy for the flock? Maybe. Approval of my self-awareness at the compulsion to separate myself when I became too emotional for the community? Maybe. Admonition for my rigidity and self-control, which frequently led me to personalize something random as perhaps nature’s secret communique? Maybe, noted, and with that, I snapped from my reverie. Whenever, wherever, I found myself seeking symbolic associations, I’ve usually overstayed my visit.
Mill Pond Park offered a brief respite from the daily rush and the opportunity to relax in its healing bounds. It had an experience waiting for walkers, hikers, sitters, observers, travelers, and even the birders like me.
When I arrived home, however, I was startled, wrenched back into those symbolic overtones I’d tried to escape. My reflection greeted me in the hall mirror. It was displaying the proud heron tee I’d donned much earlier that morning. At the park, the connection hadn’t occurred to me.
There were actually eight herons at the pond that day. Seven white herons and one creative, confident, self-aware protector.
I really was wearing this shirt:
(I’m a huge supporter of Curbside Clothing, and I literally own near 20 items from their collection. This is not a sponsored post or tall tale by any means, just a true post from a woman who is profoundly moved by nature and the work of these commissioned artists.)
Fact Checked and Supported using the following sites:
My partner and I are busy working professionals, working nine to five while cultivating side hustles, keeping house, landscaping, staying fit, eating healthfully, and raising cats. We’re Busy. And yet, just about every week, we make time to head down to the local pool hall and play a few games. It keeps our relationship strong.
[Skip to the next heading if you’re familiar with the basics. Or read on to read as I summarize a rule book in a couple of paragraphs. ]
If you’ve never played pool before, I’m going to give an amateur description of the game play and rules. One person racks, which means sets up the balls. The rack is a triangle formation of 10 balls, the 8 ball being the most important to keep in the center position. The other person will break using a cue stick, meaning attempt to hit the white cue ball into this formation, hard enough break up the balls, but not so hard the cue ball flies off the table. If the breaker gets one in, they’re entitled to aim the cue ball toward any other ball other than the 8 toward any pocket (that’s the cup or hole where the ball falls.) If the breaker doesn’t get one in on the break, or if they do and miss their second shot, the table is Open.
The racking person now has a chance to hit the cue ball into any (not the 8) ball they like. Once either person makes a shot in after the break, they will either be stripes or solids (or high ball/low ball based on the numbers on the ball), depending on which they got in. The players take turns, shooting until they miss, until all of their solids or stripes are in. Once the colored balls are in, the player can shoot on the 8.
If one accidently moves a ball, accidently sinks the cue ball, or does a number of other things, that’s a scratch. Other person can put the cue where ever they want behind the starting line to start their turn. If the 8 ball goes in out of order, as in before all of the solids or all of the stripes are in, game over, that player loses. My partner and I also call our shots, so if the ball goes into a pocket we made by mistake or didn’t announce ahead of time, lose a turn. And if the 8 ball goes into a pocket we didn’t call, game over, that’s losing. And if a player sinks the cue while missing the shot on the 8, that’s ball-in-hand, meaning the other person can set up the cue anywhere they like. If the first player scratches while sinking the 8, that’s game over, and how statistically I beat my partner most nights.
That’s probably good enough for background.
Partners & Competitors
It’s a game you can play alone, but it strengthens the partnership.
One thing we have consistently found is that we are excellent partners in life. We divide the chores. We plan with consideration. He help and trust each other without question. We are able to support one another through nearly every difficulty, and one of us is always able to take the lead in difficult moments to get us to where we need to be.
But we’re also incredibly competitive, and that’s not something that goes well with partnership typically. If we didn’t play pool, we would get overly supportive of one another, sappy, sweet, take each other too seriously, and generally miss out on the fun of competition. We love to compete, and pool gives us a way of doing it in a confined and specific way where no one is taking themselves too seriously.
In the past, we’ve also played in weekly leagues in doubles rounds. This is a different way of channeling both our partnership instinct and our need for competition. We’ve learned how to set each other up while defending against the other pair, how to support one another with the right praise at the right time, and we’re pretty unstoppable in most local doubles matches.
Trash Talk Motivates
On the off chance that either of us decides to trash talk the other in the fun spirit of competition, typically the receiver of the trashing rises to prove the other wrong. I’ve trashed my partner’s play many times with the idea of motivating him to shoot better- and I always regret it because of how quickly he proves me wrong.
Clearing the Mind
Meditation in Precision
No matter what has happened during the work day, we leave it at the door. (We’ve sat in the car outside the hall a number of times to vent before the play.) We have an unspoken agreement that we do not discuss work or other stressors during the game. First, it’s a game best played quietly and in a focused manner. The chatterer could throw either person off. Second, I have no desire to ruin my partner’s mood when I’ve had a bad workday and we’re in a relaxed setting. We need time to decompress away from the stressors, not around them.. Third, the simple act of lining up the cue, focusing the energy, creating a delicate force, and choosing the proper angles is meditative. During our most skilled games, we’re likely not talking much at all. The silence is sweet. We’re meditating in precise movements.
Geometry is Wild
It’s hard to deny how cool math and physics can be.
Those angles I mentioned? At first, as an amateur player, I saw the balls straight on. But I’ve never played a game with a clear straightaway shot on every turn. In the beginning, it was all defense. How can I hide this cue ball or make it more difficult at the very least? Then, as I developed skills, I started to see banks (hitting the ball against the side or rail of the table) and combinations (hitting one ball into another ball to knock it in.) My growing comfort and increasing finesse has led me to learning about how spin (English) on the cue can move the ball in otherwise seemingly impossible ways. My partner is working on Masse’ — curving the cue around something to his what he’s aiming at. The more we play, the more we see see the options, angles, and possibilities. We’re developing a kind of second sight. Geometry (seeing the angles) and physics (understanding force) are undeniably necessary and totally cool in this setting. And often, it is the lightest of touch that is needed- a lesson my partner and I both have absorbed over time.
Progress is Possible
The act of playing is practice enough to get comfortable.
Like with other things, the more we play, the better we get. And even if I’m having an off-night, not able to see straight or find the force I need, e.g., there is still the growing sensation that practice makes progress. Not every hobby has perceivable levels of difficulty on which to measure ability. In this game, the way we play, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about shooting the shot.
Also Winning and Losing
We don’t keep an ongoing record, but it’s nice to win the night.
Despite what I said above, it’s also about winning and losing. Of course it is. My partner and I look at the game one shot at a time, and then a series of games at a time. We give praise freely for the great shots, but we don’t suffer the loss of the individual games. (My first game is always a practice game, unless I win, then it counts.) We play best of 5 or 7, and whoever loses buys dinner or drives home. The reward is irrelevant, but it adds a fun twist to our night. Then the next time we get to the table, usually the one who won will be sure to mention their greatest shot from the previous game. And it makes the one who lost all the more fired up to win this time around.
A Uniquely Individual Sport
How you play is how You play.
My bridge (how I balance the cue on my left hand to aim with my right) is strange. Most people balance their cue in between their thumb and forefinger, but me — I feel more comfortable shooting between my index and middle finger. I have long hands, and I feel I have more stability if I use my spidery fingers to this end. And at the pool hall, no one will ever give me any stress about not doing it “right”, whatever that means. Whether its how you stand, how you approach the table, your hand positions, your aim, the way you see the game, the kinds of shots you take or any other facet of the game — no one is ever going to stop you unless you’re breaking a specific rule. There’s no right or wrong way to play, at least not at this level, and there’s a freedom in developing style and technique in an expectation vacuum. It’s cathartic in a world that is typically full of people telling other people what to do and not to do. (Professionals have thoroughly developed techniques and thoughtfully considered approaches, but we’re just a couple of weeknight players.)
Help is Fine Too
If the game isn’t that serious, ask the question.
How many times have I asked my partner — not as a competitor but as a friend — what do you think I should do here? I respect the way he plays and his eye for the game, and sometimes, if I’m in a pickle between two options, I’ll ask him to step outside the game and look with me, as a teammate. Sometimes he’ll tell me that I don’t have a clear shot, because of how he left the table. Sometimes, he’ll weigh in specifically based on what he sees. And I don’t always take his advice. Sometimes, after he weighs in, I realize (like calling the coin flip in the air) that I’ve already made my decision. And since we play different games, different styles, different techniques — the respect is mutual. I don’t have to take his advice, but I’m free to ask it.
10 Lessons Learned
Always shoot your shot and aim to shoot well.
Respect your opponent as if they were yourself.
Silence is golden.
Meditation can be active.
Try and see all the angles.
A delicate hand beats a heavy hand most of the time.
Practice makes progress.
Mistakes are not setbacks.
Schedule play dates, especially as an adult and leave your troubles at the door.
Respect the rules and earn respect.
Find Your Table
It might not be pool.
The healthiest thing we’ve done as partners is add a competitive outlet to an otherwise supportive set-up. I can’t recommend enough that all partners do the same. Your thing might not be pool (we also love a few challenging board games for similar reasons) but whatever it is, your partnership outlet should be the following things:
A medium where you feel both competitive and supportive of one another
A forum that requires concentration, focus, or the honing of a skill
An activity that can connect to other enjoyable aspects of life
A hobby with delineated progress and achievement levels
A fun, playful, enjoyable, not-too-serious time
An equal balance of procedure and free choice
A place either person can ask for or provide assistance
Something you can laugh about together
Something that can sweep you up in the moment
Something that feels right for you both
How do you and your partner destress as a team and strengthen your skills?
[TLDR: For the Quick Summary, please scroll to the Summary heading.]
Read on for the explanation.
Every parent I’ve ever met wants the best for their kid and parenting is a nonstop job. Parents work long hours, have big hearts, and push their kids to have the very best quality of life they can imagine. While working in-home with autistic kids, I always integrated family members into our sessions — they’d provide support long after I’d gone home for the night. I used my experience and training to give families the building blocks to strengthen their family ties and grow together.
The adage is true; It takes a village.
So now, it is with the best of intentions and my sincerest appreciation for our shared responsibilities that I bring something to your attention:
There is one question we need to stop asking.
I hear The Question so frequently that I honestly wonder about its ubiquity. How did we, as a culture, land on this one question as a means to an end?
It’s a simple and well-intentioned question that steps on its own toes, so to speak. It gets in its own way. Bites its own tongue. Circular reasons itself out of meaningfulness. Causes exactly what it’s attempting to prevent.
In real time, I’m powerless to stop it from being asked. The Question, this one small, well-meant colloquial adult-asks-kid scenario is so annoyingly antithetical to its purpose that I’m dedicating an entire entry to it (one that has been cut down from near-6k words.) It has the opposite effect for which it is meant. It reinforces the behavior intended to be changed.
How is the question raised?
Setting the Scene — Scenario
Jo and I are sitting at their dining room table. Jo is 10 years old, loves to play soccer, use metallic ink pens, and is intensely passionate about narrow interests. They have been diagnosed with co-morbid learning and communication delays. I visit their house several times a week, for a few hours at a time as a “tutor” and I “teach” social skills.
To this end, I use mirroring and modeling techniques, based on the iso-principle, to artificially match their energy and affect for pairing in the relationship. (Over time, I’ll use the technique less.) For now, it helps create a friendly foundation on which to build a learning environment. It also lets me briefly assess and evaluate the appropriate direction for today’s session in particular. There are many potential activities for us, but it’s Jo’s engagement that guides the choice. The session COULD be wacky and wildly energetic, replete with games, songs, and stories. Or, like today, it could be a quiet and reserved approach.
Opening Lines — The Lead Up
Jo is not making eye contact, their hands are down, and their shoulders are drooping. After knowing Jo a few months, I’ve come to expect the ebb and flow (aka dysregulation) of Jo’s emotions and I’ve consistently encouraged them to do what feels comfortable in any given moment.
Jo has unique social and communication needs. They‘re learning how to speak with people (not at them), how to empathize with others, and how to create friendships from incidental connections. They will practice with me, in routine and naturalistic ways, small skills that add up to big strides with me and then slowly generalized to others. My responsibility is to present the complexity of skills into easily manageable, repeatable, and quantifiable behaviors, then guide them to chain the skills together in useful, less mechanistic ways. I don’t expect Jo to learn all of these skills at once. For today, it’s okay if they can’t make eye contact. It’s okay if we sit quietly together for a few minutes without speaking, if they cannot return my greeting, or if they cannot respond to any question I ask. These are the most important skills I’m hoping to model, and we have all of our time together to practice them.
Even if Jo and I have achieved a richly engaging conversation in the past, I don’t anticipate or push for one. Jo is growing their understanding of back-and-forth social exchanges. In the meantime, I know through experience that there’s no sense in forcing them to interact. Over time, I’ll use reinforcement, repetition, role play, singing, game play, and other techniques, to teach this complex task which comes naturally to some, but not so to others.
Enter Mom and the Question of the Ages
Le had greeted me at the door and shown me into the room where Jo waits. She stands in the doorway as Jo and I take our places at the table, hovering expectantly as many moms do. After a beat, she begins shifting her weight uncomfortably as she recognizes what I’ve mentioned: Jo’s disengagement.
Le’s main goal for having me here is to enhance Jo’s communication abilities and the quality of their social interactions. She wants them to make friends more easily. She is very eager to see them communicate with others the way they only seem to communicate with her. Jo CAN talk, after all, but they sometimes struggle to speak genuinely with anyone other than Le. She’s concerned about their daily interactions, especially with adolescence on the horizon. I’ve done my best to educate Le to moderate her expectations. Her relationship with them will always be unique. They are actually very typical for a neurodivergent kid. These skills can take time, and it’s time we must all be ready for.
Let’s Begin — Jo and Me (and apparently, Le)
While I stack my notebooks and pull out my metallic pens, I can sense Le’s discomfort and anticipation. Jo may sense it too. It’s not helping Jo in the slightest.
I model for Le while also seeking Jo’s engagement. I prompt Jo, softly, patiently.
How was your day, Jo?
Good, Jo continues looking at their lap.
What would you like to talk about?
I did something fun today.
Can I tell you about my fun day?
In my head, I’m figuring out the path for this session. I’m using questions to provide opportunities. I’m evaluating the day’s objectives, informed by the overall communication goal and the presenting affect. Given their reserved responses, I’m planning to move to a medium with less conversation, like a worksheet, a music intervention, or a game. It will take the spotlight pressure off.
Jo turns to see Le hovering in the corner by the door. They look up at her, avoiding my gaze completely. (They are nonverbally seeking assistance.) Seeing their head turn, in the way of most well-meaning parents, Le rushes to Jo’s aid and inadvertently asks the most nonfunctional yet somehow pervasive question.
I try and signal Le not to speak, knowing the question is coming, but without rudely cutting her off, there’s nothing I can do. I silently observe Le as she, with the best intentions, reinforces Jo’s communication strife.
The Question that Answers Itself
“Did you tell Lori about … ?” Le prompts.
It’s a common phrasing. Meaningless in this situation, yet we use it regularly. It’s an error that sets my teeth on edge. It does nothing to help the child break out of their shell or learn appropriate interactions. It doesn’t enhance the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t model natural conversation and it doesn’t encourage social exploration. But, as I’ve said, Le’s mistake is a mistake we all make from time to time with kids. Le already knows the answer, and Jo knows she knows.
You Already Know
Whatever follows the question doesn’t matter.
Did you tell Lori about the field trip you went on yesterday?
Did you tell Grandma whathappened over the weekend?
Did you tell your friend where we went after football practice?
Did you tell your teacher about your new shoes?
Did you tell [person][event/thing/action]?
And so on.
Varying Responses with Only One Result
“Did you tell Lori about the field trip?“
Jo, like most kids, responds by sitting quietly without responding. Jo, in a difficult moment, has successfully passed the communication reins to Le, and will now have Le lead the conversation.
Jo looks self-conscious. The thing they didn’t mention is red ink on the page. Jo hasn’t said anything at all, their mom knows it, and yet, their mom has put them in a situation to either say “no” or not respond at all. The question does not open a line of dialog — it creates an end point.
To incorporate the framing of the question, I turn my body toward her saying something to the effect of, “Jo will tell me when they’re ready,” and then turn back to Jo and ask a direct, potentially related, question. Whatever I ask will be open-ended enough to allow Jo the agency of responding, as Le has already removed the agency of choosing a subject. I might ask something like:
Jo, where did you go on your field trip?
Who was on the field trip with you?
Did you take a bus with your class, or ride in a car?
Unfortunately for Jo, Le feels tired of Jo not responding, and wants to show them what to do. Before I can leave space and ask Jo a direct question, Le jumps in again:
You went to the museum, right? Tell Lori about the museum, and what your teacher said.”
In every case that I’ve seen using the “Did you tell…” framing followed by an additional piece of information, every kid, just like Jo, repeats back whatever was said and falls silent again. Jo:
We went to a museum.
This isn’t a natural conversation, and Jo doesn’t even have a starring role in it. I can ask whatever I want now, Jo will likely only shrug or look back to Le. Over time, Jo and Le have adapted this likely unconscious routine, where Jo has difficulty initiating, Le fills in the blanks, and Jo parrots back a response enough to appease me, or any adult Jo is expected to talk to.
An Easy Mistake with Lasting Consequences
In an effort to persuade Jo to begin talking, Le is fabricatinga situation for them to rely on another person to start talking.
In this instance, Le is not teaching them to speak. She is speaking for Jo in a somewhat condescending way. Perhaps Jo doesn’t want to discuss the field trip with me, or perhaps there’s something else on their mind. Maybe they were waiting on a better time to bring it up, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk at all. Le has removed Jo’s agency, likely in response to their own discomfort with our mutual silence.
It’s completely well-intentioned. It’s also detrimental. Le may be the person who saves her friends from awkward conversations at cocktail parties, but her child is also relying heavily on her to do so every day.
If you’re not sure why “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is bad, here are 4 glaring issues I’ve seen in practice.
1. “You KNOW I didn’t”
“Did you tell…?” No, and you know it! Le knows Jo has not told me this story, she’s been standing there the whole time! In no way does this resemble a natural, conversational style. Issue 1: Modeling Unnatural Interaction
2. Insinuating “You should/could have mentioned…”
“Did you tell…?” In natural conversational style, the way most of us would respond to being asked this question would be to say “No I didn’t tell…” followed by actually telling or giving a reason why we haven’t told yet.
Jo doesn’t have a natural conversational style; it’s why they’re working with me. By asking this, Le is expecting Jo to have mastered this part of dialog we take for granted, insinuating they should have mentioned the thing, and holding Jo to a test they can likely at this stage only fail. Issue 2: Setting the Bar Too High While Simultaneously Acknowledging It’s Unreached
3. “Don’t put me on the spot!”
The self-awareness required to answer the question correctly is almost always accompanied by feelings of shyness, discomfort, or poor self-esteem. Le put Jo on the spot to discuss something they picked, and does so repeatedly on a regular basis. After this interaction with me, Jo typically lashes out in anger, at agreed upon boundaries or at themselves.
“Did you tell…?”
“Man, why didn’t I think of telling them about that?” or “I didn’t want to mention that — but now I guess we have to talk about it.”
Issue 3: Creating Feelings of Inadequacy or Poor Self-Esteem
4. “What do I do now?”
“Did you tell…?” is a prompt that reinforces the dependent relationship, and the more it’s used, the more deeply it’s entrenched in their interactions. Jo will wait to be prompted by Le to speak, and will rely on Le for the appropriate topic in any given moment. What will Jo do when Le is not around? Perhaps, lead the conversation alone, but in my experience, if this is a routine occurrence, Jo will clam up or wait to be directed when Le is not around. And who will Jo take prompts from? Potentially, anyone. Issue 4: Conditioning Unwanted Behavior
Show, Don’t Tell
Every adult who interacts with Jo has a responsibility to model natural conversation, so that Jo is able to begin to implement what they learn in our sessions. If Le feels like she must jump in, she can say to me, “Jo went on a field trip today. Maybe they’ll tell you about that when they’re ready.”
Jo’s responsibility is to communicate to the best of their ability, whatever that may be today. They do not need to make me feel comfortable, to act outside of their nature perform for me. They may or may not be aware that communication is even expected, which is completely and totally okay.
It’s my responsibility to show and not tell how I start conversations, what topics are good jumping-off points, and the mechanisms by which our language is figurative, inferential, casual, and anticipatory.
Recapping the Question Not to Ask
When asking “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you are inadvertently and with the best of intentions:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
An Addendum for Minimally Verbal Children
“Minimally Verbal”, or occasionally “Nonverbal”, is the descriptive term therapists use for those who use functional language minimally (if at all).
The Question is Still Problematic
For the minimally verbal, “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is potentially even more detrimental. For functionally verbal children like Jo, the question is problematic for all the reasons listed above. For minimally verbal children with difficulties processing or understanding language, the question reinforces the wrong idea. In this instance, following
Did you tell Lori we went to the park?
will frequently be answered with either an incorrect answer or an echo.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “Yes.” No, you didn’t. Tell Lori we went to the park.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “the Park.”
The responses are not functional. The child doesn’t understand what is being asked. In most cases, parents then respond positively —
“The park.” “Yes! That’s right! We went to the park!”
Functionally, the child sees a happy parent and hears praise. The child will now be conditioned to respond the same way following each “Did you” question.
Did you eat lunch? “Yes. Eat lunch.”
Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes.”
Did the lunch person help you with your lunchbox? “Lunchbox.”
Did you know you forgot your lunch? “Yes.” But did they know?
It is truly amazing to watch as minimally verbal children begin to process language with more specific intervention. For some, with exposure to more concise and deliberate language patterns, start they begin to parse through sentence structure and notice jokes, inference, etc. Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes………Noooooo….” Their faces light up with an inkling of confidence and a dawning of understanding. Not everyone will get to this point of understanding, however.
If you believe a minimally verbal child is either repeating the last word or responding yes or no without truly understanding to a Did you question, remove the prompt from your vocabulary until the child has more of an understanding of Yes/No, Present/Past, and until “You did, You didn’t” is more readily understood.
Other Suggestions for Avoiding the “Did You” Question
Give the therapist or teacher a head’s up. Prior to the session, email/call/text, out of the child’s earshot, and give the details about the child’s day. A good therapist will hear that a child was excited to buy new shoes and will guide the conversation naturally in that direction to allow the child the opportunity for success — if they want to, are able to, and feel comfortable doing so.
Write it down with your child! For children with communication deficits, a small bullet journal of potential conversation topics can go a long way. Each night, have the child think back to what was notable about the day — trips, events, funny moments, fights, whatever they might want to talk about. Write a small reminder for each, or draw a small picture, and then get in the habit of having that book available during the session and beyond. The act of reflecting on a regular basis will help the child to understand what is expected when someone asks “What did you do today?” or “What do you want to talk about?”
If you feel you must prompt, then change up the question. Give a gentle verbal reminder that does not begin with “Did you tell…” There are a lot of ways to do this. Use names and speak plainly so it is clear who is talking to who and ask questions that lead in a specific, but open direction, rather than yes/no.
Lori, yesterday Jo and I went shopping.
Jo, Lori wants to hear about your new shoes.
Lori, you have GOT to hear about this. Jo, tell Lori about our trip to the mall.
Jo, it looks like Lori is wearing new sneakers — you and Lori have that in common. What can you ask her about her sneakers?
These prompts aren’t ideal because they still create boundaries to Jo developing their own natural conversational style, but these prompts are infinitely better than the defeating “did you” prompt.
4. Simply, let it go. That’s right. Just let it go. Let the therapist work. Let the child make progress. Let the moment proceed all on its own. Let everyone sit in what is perceived to be an uncomfortable silence. What made your child excited yesterday, may currently not have the same effect. It was a special moment for the two of you, but not necessarily something to talk about. Perhaps once the session is over, the child will point out that special thing, or wait for the therapist to notice.
If there’s no way to prompt the therapist privately or prompt your child in an open-ended manner, ask yourself — how necessary is my intervention in this moment? Can I let this go? Typically, yes, yes you can.
Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter.
It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills.
By asking the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you may be:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
4. Instead, replace “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” try:
Contact the people the child is going to be talking to ahead of time, so they know what to ask about directly.
Help the child keep a bulleted or pictorial reflection journal as a conversational assistant.
Use a gentle, different verbal reminder, and be open to the child’s answer even if it isn’t on your intended topic.
Let the topic go.
No promises, but…
Jo is a special kid. They’re gifted in their own way. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes very engaging. You may not even know what they are capable of. If you let them develop without prodding, you’ll be amazed at the potential they have. Trust me when I tell you, it will be worth the wait when you hear him learn new skills, gain confidence, and begin to engage others with ease.
I would love to hear your comments, questions, additions, or anecdotes.
Leave a line below or share this post with someone who may benefit.
It was late in the summer season, August 2020. My partner and I just pulled into the parking lot of Blydenburgh County Park (which I’ve written about before, if you’d like more of a description). The air was humid, so thick that we contemplated not even taking our standard 2-mi hike on the lakeside. Eventually, we grabbed our water bottles, left the car, and hit the trail.
After a minute’s walk on the main trail, we began to pass the campsites — elevated wooden platforms, covered by overhangs, each with a picnic table and a nearby fire-safe area. A family (we presume), two women and four children between the ages of four and ten, were all seated on wooden benches, and looked to be having a picnic. While we walked past, the eldest-looking kid in the bunch jumped up from the table, tickled his sibling, and the two set out running into the nearby grassy undergrowth in the surrounding oak forest.
“I hope they know to use tick spray,” I loudly sieved through my gaping, unfiltered mouth. One of the adults turned to me as a third child took off to play, and I nodded and my partner waved slightly, and we continued walking. It hadn’t been until this very moment that I realized — people may not know how important it is to be wary of straying from the marked trails and to be proactive with tick prevention.
The Stats are Serious
In Suffolk County, NY, ticks are more than an arachnid nuisance. Even with the establishment of the Tick Surveillance Program by the Suffolk County Department of Health in 2011, approximately 200 people contract Lyme disease in Suffolk each year. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted through the bite of infected ticks, which typically causes fever, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, a skin rash and, when untreated, can cause arthritis, swollen joints, facial and limb paralysis, and even death. It’s the most common vector borne disease, meaning a disease caused by a pathogen transmitted to humans by a vector, in this case the tick. (Lyme isn’t just an issue here on Long Island. Nationally, there are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme reported to the CDC each year, but it’s estimated to be closer to 300,000, as the system of reporting is largely voluntary and requires health care providers to submit time-consuming records.)
Ticks are also carriers for other diseases, which vary by species. While the Blacklegged Tick, or deer tick, is the “Lymey” culprit in Suffolk County, it may also carry other pathogens of the bacterium, protozoan, or viral variety, which can cause anaplasmosis, babeosiosis, tick-born relapsing fever, and Powassan Virus disease. Other ticks, like the Lone Star tick, causing ehrlichiosis, or the American Dog Tick, causing Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, are less common and less commonly carriers in this county. Suffice it to say, none of these diseases are desirable and tick bites should be avoided, recognized, and treated quickly and by all costs.
It is important to note, the Suffolk County Tick Surveillance program has been largely effective at reducing the yearly average of known tick-born illnesses by half, from an average of approximately 388 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2000 and 2010 to an average of approximately 200 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2012 and 2018. (These statistics derive from the CDC’s confirmed case count, and it is presumed that the total number of Lyme cases could be as high as 10x the confirmed number, as sourced above.)
May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month
A friend of mine contracted Lyme disease on a high school retreat about 15 years ago. He wasn’t aware that he’d been bitten, but he wasn’t what one would call ‘outdoors-y’. It wasn’t until he began to feel his knees aching and back sore that he went to a doctor, weeks later. The doctor found the infection through bloodwork, and only after eliminating other possible causes for alarm. He had no rash, but after being diagnosed, he remembered having had a low-grade fever. He was treated with antibiotics, but by that point, the infectious pathogen had spread to his joints, hidden away from medicinal reach, and his case became chronic. To this day, he still has flare-ups which are debilitating and largely untreatable.
As an avid hiker, tick avoidance is second nature, which is why I was appalled to see children romping through tall grasses, off-trail, in late summer, wearing shorts and tee-shirts. With even the best tick spray around, this was risky at best. Even the most cautious can pick up a tick with relative ease.
What to Do, and What Not to Do
Wear light-colored clothing, tuck in any loose ends, and be as covered as possible, long pants, high socks, closed-toed shoes, and sleeves preferred. Search for “tick wear” or “tick prevention clothing” online for more ideas. The cartoon caricature of the Scientist-Explorer skipping through the forest wearing khaki shorts is mythological.Don’t be the people in the next photo, wearing short shorts, but if you must, check often.
Use Tick Repellents as directed, liberally, and especially around knees and ankles. There are several tick sprays on the market. I prefer to be DEET-free and tend toward the Picardin-based repellents. Read the label carefully for application and reapplication directions, as DEET can be harmful and permethrin is designed for clothing only. Ticks commonly lounge on the tips of tall grasses bordering busy areas, waiting for the perfect animal to brush by for transfer. I focus on whatever parts of my body might brush against foliage and on well-traveled trails, that is usually only the legs. They can absolutely attach to arms, backs, necks, and heads though, so be mindful of using other strategies for avoiding them.
Walk the center of trails, stay in marked areas, and read all of the signage posted and available.Certain areas of your local park may be off-limits during peak tick season, and local park rangers may have suggestions that pertain specifically to your area.
Don’t wander off the trails and don’t stand in one place for too long. Ticks are attracted to carbon dioxide. As we exhale, they sense and move toward the source, knowing they may be near one of their blood meals, necessary for their survival. (Dr. Städele’s work studying tick movement and CO2 is fascinating and worth checking out.) — — Now that humankind is lessening its CO2 dispersal by wearing masks for disease prevention, I’m very curious to know whether the number of tick bites will be less this summer. Masks may very well become a recommended tick-avoidance standard.
Know the seasonal likelihood of ticks in the area.In areas where there are warm and cold seasons, the warmer seasons are cause for attention. In New York, the acceptable standard is March thru the first freeze. Like other bugs, ticks go through a lifecycle, typically hatched in the warming of spring and living as 6-legged larvae, then 8-legged nymphs, and then full-sized adult ticks. To grow from the size of a sesame seed to nearly an inch long in the adult stage, ticks need blood, usually from many different hosts, over the course of three years. The warmer the weather, the larger the ticks, the more likely they are to be pathogen carriers.
Time is of the essence, so do tick checks often and act quickly when one is spotted. Once riding a host, ticks prepare for the feast. They crawl into warm, CO2-rich areas ripe for feeding. They then bite down, cut open the skin, and insert a feeding tube. They may use a sticky substance to stay attached to their host or an anesthetic substance to hide the bitten feeling. Preparing to feed can take 10 mins to 2 hours, then the actual feeding happens slowly over several days. During this period of time, ticks feeding on animals will pick up the pathogens that they will then infect the next host with.
Tick check your animals too! In between paws, in the canine jaw line, and hip and forearm joints in particular are likely areas for tick attachment, but do full scans anyway, and keep your pets up-to-date on their vaccines, heartworm, and ask your vet for more tick tips.
A tick is found! Even the cautious hiker with the most attentive practices can pick up a tick in unlikely ways. Two years ago, my partner, the scientist, found a very small one on his stomach when he got home from a walk in the park. It hadn’t had time to latch yet, so there was no concern about disease transmission. Even so, after finding that tick, we both did full searches on ourselves, our cats, and our clothing.
Do a full tick check after every potential exposure, focusing on warmer areas where the veins may be closer to the surface (e.g. armpits, behind the knees). Dry clothes on high heat in a dryer if concerns about stowaways remain. When my partner found the tick on his stomach, I immediately began to check myself as well. We’d walked together, through the same part of the forest, and the likelihood that I’d also picked up a young tick from the same brood was high.
When a tick is found, take a deep breath. If it hasn’t bitten yet, the disease transmission likelihood is low. If it has already bitten, it is better to have a steady hand and a cool head, then a shaky hand and a panicked head. And a clear mind helps you differentiate between ticks and forgotten freckles, so learn from my crazed error and don’t attempt to remove something a dermatologist should really take a look at.
When a tick is found, use a tweezer or a tick-removal tool, found in tick kits, and attach the tick to a piece of tape. Do not use petroleum jelly, matches, or oil. These are antiquated methods that increase your chances of contracting a disease.
If the tick has already bitten down, grab the tick at its mouthparts and pull straight out, without twisting or squeezing. Disinfect the area and wash your hands. If you’re like me, you’ll also want to take the hottest shower you can stand, and disinfect the area again in an hour or so, just in case.
Watch for the characteristic Bulls-eye rash. Not every bite leads to a rash, but it is a sign that the area has been infected.
Call your healthcare provider if any symptoms occur. A rash, fever, or joint pain following a bite should absolutely be concerning. An itching bite site may only be indicative of the open wound itself, or something more serious. Use your judgment, and read the literature provided by your local parks department. Personally, I’d call for an appointment at the first sign of a bite, because of how prevalent Lyme disease is in my area and how the effectiveness of treating it decreases over time.
I think back to that day in the park a lot, watching these low-to-the-ground, heavy-breathing, barely-covered humans running around in an area where ticks reside. It wasn’t my place to inform a stranger to spray chemicals on their children, especially given the facial expression I was met with when my outburst burst out. Perhaps they knew all about tick bite prevention, tick avoidance, and tick-borne diseases, and my concern was misplaced entirely. But now, as we enter into the next seasonal warming and feeding frenzy, I feel compelled to educate and inform.
Tell your friends about ticks, everything you’ve learned here is general enough that it will apply to nearly every area where ticks are found.
Research your specific area, your local parks and grassy fields, to know where ticks are likely to be.
Read all signage, follow all safety procedures, and be diligent about tick checks.
Be the one to ask the tough questions— Have you used tick spray today? Have you seen the CDC’s estimates for tick-borne disease transmission? Can you stay near the center of the trail, please? Have you always had a huge freckle on your calf?
Carry tick spray in the car, along with the bug spray and sunscreen, for quick application and reapplication for days spent enjoying nature.
Keep going outside! Ours is not to fear nature. Ours is to learn to live within her bounds.
This article has been fact-checked by The Scientist, and used the following source material:
Unfortunately, and with a heavy heart, I need to inform you that we will Not be able to attend today’s event. 💔 Sunshine and the Scientist were both vaccinated and are now both suffering the feverish, aching, fluish effects. We feel it would be irresponsible to try and attend. I cannot stress how upset I am- I am passionate about Autism Awareness, fundraising for community programs like Play4Autism, and always uplifted to meet and provide resources for neurodivergent parents and children alike.
Saying that, however, the resources we prepared will be available online soon for download and we are itching for the next event, whenever that will be.
I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.
On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface.
Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey.
On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)
A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.
It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.
Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers.
The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.
On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor.
As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.
In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.
In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.
While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.
As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.
The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind.
For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds.
I’ve been relatively quiet on the blogosphere this week for a very cool reason – it’s festival season! I thought I’d jump on to let you know where my voice has been.
Last week, I received word that an event originally scheduled for March 2020 was being rescheduled for this coming Saturday. In light of that, I’ve had to shift gears away from my writing and toward festival prep.
This Saturday, April 24th at the Shops at Atlas Park in Richmond Hill, Queens I’ll have a table set up at…
The 3rd Annual Autism Awareness Action Day
Play4Autism is an awesome organization helping to promote social engagement and self-esteem in autistic kids. They teach skills through physical play and activity, and they are focused on creating team-building opportunities for kids to feel like part of the community. Learn more about them here.
The 3rd Annual Autism Awareness Action Day is sure to be a fun-filled day of music, games, carnival activities, food and drink, raffles, and vendors – vendors like me! The event will be held at the Shops at Atlas Park in Richmond Hill, Queens from 12-5pm.
What’s there to prepare?
Even though I had a year to prepare for festival season, there’s something about the week before that always sparks fresh ideas. The creativity soars – especially on deadline!
Maddie is a girl on a mission who is not afraid to get messy and make mistakes. When an invitation arrives, Maddie dreams up a new outfit to wear – but she’s never made anything like that before! Follow Maddie in this 32p. illustrated, rhyming picture book as she designs the dress of her dreams.
Based on the author’s time working with autistic girls, Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer is really a story of persevering and accepting imperfection as part of the process. It was inspired by clothes-loving girls who worked really hard and struggled to see the value in their work if something was not quite how they imagined it. Hand-drawn illustrations by Aaron Hover, engineer, add fun and jokes that hopefully make you want to read it again and again. (Not a long read, but recommended ages 8-12. $9.99)
2. I’m creating resources, resources, resources! At the Autism Awareness Event, I’ll be giving away a sampling of worksheets designed to assist in developing basic pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, and communication skills. After the event, all of the worksheets (and more!) will be available for sale (with free samples) on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers store site.
3. I’m putting the finishing touches on some homemade Ribbon Dancers for sale at the festival as well! They’re sure to be a hit with the movers and shakers attending the festival! ($5)
All proceeds from the sale of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer, resource pages and ribbon dancers will be used to fund the next book in the Maddie Steiner universe: Maddie’s School Reboot (title may change.)
4. I’m preparing for our Ribbon of Reading, where festival-goers will add a unique, decorated link to the Chain of Hope, answering the question: What do you love to read about in books?
5. I’m making my signs and packing my bag! Excited to debut my spring table layout, with some finishing touches that are made to be eye-catching.
Will I See You There?
Sunshine and the Scientist will be representing Kid Lit Motivates and are excited to meet everyone who stops by. It’s been so long since we’ve been out and about – we can’t wait for this festival energy!
This is an introduction to who we are, which will continue evolving each day just as we do, from the perspective of Sunshine.
The Scientist has been working at ‘doing the thing’. Therefore, Sunshine’s voice has been thus dominant on the blog. Not so forever.
Who are Sunshine and the Scientist?
We’re a matched set, a team, partners in thought.
We’re a pair of thinkers who enjoy the written word.
We’re real people with real ideas, struggles, and abilities.
We love nature, travel, cooking/baking, gardening, carpentry, playing pool, lighting actual and metaphorical fires, and promoting kindness, truth, justice, empathy, integrity, scientific method, and education.
What do you hope to accomplish by blogging?
We aim to be a beacon of truth, practical optimism, and integrity for any who appreciate our Words.
We are always looking for collaborative partners who have similar goals.
What topics will you blog on?
Sunshine is a logical extremist with a penchant for emotional framing.
The Scientist is an emotional centrist with a penchant for structured, direct framing.
Together we’ll consider our thoughts.
We’ll address those thoughts individually, independently, contrastingly, or as a unified team.
We’ll place those thoughts in greater contexts concerning relationships, personal development, scientific rigor, universal truth, etc.
We’ll always seek to make the entries accessible and open up dialog opportunities with our readers.
Who do you think will be interested in reading?
It is hard to say who might be interested. Are you?
When we talk to people, we often find that we have more to say on any given topic than anyone is interested to hear.
Additionally, the forums and venues open to us are not always appropriate for meandering ponderings.
If you enjoy our work or feel provoked by it – there it is – our audience.
What do you hope to accomplish with your blog?
Sunshine and the Scientist have often been told that we should write books. We believe with the focus aid of an online public forum, we’ll be able to narrow down exactly which book(s) we should be writing.
On a sunny day in June, I heard my mother yelping loudly from the garage. I knew this instantly as a cry for help, involving an insect or arachnid. Had a bee flown into the house? Was a colony of ants exploring a shelving unit? When I reached her, I was stunned at the sight.
In a shaded corner near the garage door, where dust and leaves had accumulated, a mantid writhed in a thick, cotton-like web. From the coloration- a leafy, uneven and camouflaging brown, and size- approximately 6 inches, I assumed it was female. (This was not necessarily true, I’d learn later.) Her forelegs were wrapped tightly together and her abdomen had been spun several times over amid the gray death trap. Her head pivoted wildly as she jerked, fruitlessly, to free herself.
My heart broke at the sight. As a naturalist, I’m ordinarily contented allowing nature to follow her course, intentionally interceding minimally. The harsh natural landscape consists of predators and prey, and our sentimental human values are infrequently doubled in nonhuman life. This mantid had fallen (or flown or walked) into a well-laid snare by an assuredly large and hungry spider. She may have been trying to eat the spider, the spider’s eggs, or the spider’s webbed victims. Human intervention aside, the mantid would likely not survive very long in this sticky and vulnerable state.
Nature, however, does not build garages, which meant human intervention was already a factor. Insects who found themselves inside this garage were also routinely subject to intervention. I’ve been known to relocate indoor spiders elsewhere out-of-doors or to release my indoor cat to playfully dismantle the errant cricket. Besides, I reasoned, there was no sense in allowing one of nature’s most incredible predators to be taken out by a lucky, mostly unwelcomed, well-placed arachnid.
At my childhood Long Island suburban home, a family of mantids inhabited the arborvitae directly outside my front door. I believed, was told, mantids were endangered, a common misconception caused by their general rarity and low numbers. I relished in the mantis’ ability to keep flies and other insects away from our porch, silent bug zappers, and I felt privileged whenever I saw them clinging to the railing or resting on a shaded needle. I hadn’t seen one in the 15 years since we’d moved.
To find a mantis, struggling against bindings, was so peculiar and incredibly sad to my mother and me. Her yelping was entirely understandable. I needed to save the mantis! I rushed to action.
I retrieved a few twigs and a postcard of junk mail. Bending down over the mantid, I used the twigs to slowly detach her from the wall and carefully transferred her to the card. She froze, no longer moving her head or limbs at all. Was this fear? Instinctual protection? I had no idea how sturdy or fragile her limbs were and hoped that any damage was impermanent. I moved to a nearby patch of grass and knelt down, placing her still-webbed body gently on the ground. Only her back two legs were untangled. Her face turned to mine as if sizing me up. Friend or foe? Her mantid eyes were mesmerizing and I lost a few seconds to the awe of being so close to such a magnificent, alien-looking creature.
Shaking quickly from the reverie, I began the arduous process of removing the spider silk from her body and forearms, one sticky strand or clump at a time. I spoke in soothing soft tones as I would an injured animal, not knowing what mantis hearing was like. (Later, I’d learn that mantids have a single ear in the center of their chest, which they use to help them hunt flies, cicadas, and even *gasp* bats.) During the field procedure, she meditated continually on my face, her head in a upturned angle in my direction. I expected that at any moment, once free, she would flee if her wings were still in tact. Instead, she remained, lifting each newly freed limb and flapping each wing as it became unstuck.
With the last of the webbing removed, she turned her head away. I placed my hand near her forearms, wondering if, cinematically, she might crawl upon my arm. Sharply, she turned to look at me and rocked back and forth on her back legs. Then, she ceased swaying and gently placed her forearms around my pointer finger for three or four seconds. It was a brief handshake between humble predators. My heart swelled up and a lump caught in my throat. I’d received gratitude from a queen of the insect kingdom.
She moved her hands to the recognizable mantid prayer position and began again to sway, a common mantid hunting technique. It occurred to me that she might be incredibly hungry after her ordeal — mantids will often skip meals and then hunt for bigger and better prey to compensate — especially if she had been searching for a meal when she was ensnared. I left her to her devices, walked slowly away, and watched her from a distance, until she flew off about 20 minutes later.
I expected it would be the last I saw of her. I was wrong.
About a month later, she clung to my front door, hunting moths attracted to my porch light. I watched from inside the glass pane as her head turned, her legs bent, and she snatched an unsuspecting meal from the air.
Not long after that, a green mantis, whom I assumed to be male, appeared on my parked car tire at the far end of my driveway, and then the next day on the deck railing. From a crouch, I watched him hunt a large horsefly from 3ft away. It was truly a sight to see. Giving him distance, I observed his prayer-like dance, his calculation of wind speed, direction, distance, and time, before he flew (more accurately, leapt) toward the fly, and the two disappeared from view underneath the deck. (I can only assume the fly was ended that day, but not alone. It is unlikely the male mantis lived much longer, either, as female mantids are known to devour the heads of their mates shortly after breeding.)
I learned through later research that mantids will often choose to live and breed in decaying wooden structures. They are not relegated to shaded shrubbery, as I had mistakenly presumed. Unknowingly, I had been cultivating the ideal mantid habitat right outside my front door. Plenty of prey, food, and crumbling, unsealed decking had likely attracted the mantids in the first place.
It was a month after that, the first of several babies, nearly translucent and an inch long each, appeared on the front door’s frame.
My connection with the female mantid from that fateful day forward was palpable. Even if the webbing was uninhabited, she would have surely starved in a futile effort to escape. I had only intended to save her from imminent peril, but her wide eyes trusted me, the giant in her microbiome. Did her countenance really change from fear to gratitude? I could never have expected a ‘hand’ shake, nor did I anticipate that she had chosen my home as her own.
Has my house become a stopover from the mantids of the neighborhood? A place to rest, hunt, and nest? Will this summer bring a new generation of neighborly mantids, for whom I’ll imagine wildly unrealistic personalities and magnanimous friendships? Only time will tell. The only thing I can say for certain is that the intervention was a success and my humanity errs closer to nature than I knew.
On a frigid Sunday in March, I set out to explore the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. Donning an unseasonable spring jacket under a pair of binoculars and shivering into my coffee cup, I chose the longest path to make the most of nature’s offerings.
The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is a 2550-acre preserve, part of the 6500-acre Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge is located on the south shore of Long Island and is bisected by the Carmans River, historically the Connecticut River, a 10-mile long stretch with four dams, which begins as 8 miles of freshwater and becomes more brackish as it leads into the Great South Bay. The habitat supports numerous waterfowl, box turtles, and osprey, as well as providing haven to other native Long Island species, like white-tailed deer, foxes, frogs, and fish.
My walk began upon a wide and well-marked trail, running briefly parallel to and in shadow of the railroad. The path was easily navigable, as signs were posted at all intersections and benches were accessible throughout for the comfort of even the most amateur hikers. Near the trailhead, passing trains were cause for great excitement to several young, novice walkers, who temporarily ceased collecting sticks and kicking mulch to point and wave at the railcars.
I chose the White Oak trail, which began in the Northeastern span of the refuge, a minutes’ walk from the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center. The trail continued in a southwesterly direction, before looping back on itself, staying entirely to the north side of the brackish marsh. The trail provided scenic views of the wetlands as well as a fairly isolated walk through the Pine Barrens, another mainstay in the pride of Long Island naturalist.
With my unusually long stride, I quickly found myself isolated along the waterfront and able to view the estuary in full. I noted a few geese paired off, while some seagulls and mallards were going about their topside fowl duties. Soon, the signs directed me into the pine barrens, to a more forested area on a narrower, yet also well-marked, trail. I was comforted to note the excellent upkeep by park employees.
For an afternoon in early March, the forest felt desolate and abandoned. It could have been January by the look of the land. No budding groundcover or greenery could be seen along the White Oak trail, aside from the distant pine canopy and an occasional English Ivy. Were I in a more depressed mood, I would have found the forest to be equally so, its continued hibernation rife with symbolism. Fortunately, rather than letting the gloom become me, I set my senses to seek out forest dwellers— ground rodents, birds, deer— to no avail. Finding none for the greatest duration of the trip, I marveled instead at the wild logistical adaptations which pine tree trunks and limbs will maneuver to ensure the most amount of sun exposure in a crowded canopy space. Their twisting branches and steeply angled trunks were truly fascinating to behold, especially as the trail looped northeast, back toward the marshlands and the scenic overlooks. I delighted at a brown sign with its depiction of binoculars, which led me to an accommodating wooden perch.
The sea of reeds sprawled between the river and the bay expansively. From the dock, acres of long-stemmed phragmites, a non-native invasive genus, were thriving in the brackish transitional waters. With the tide low, the waving reeds freely caught the breeze. It was truly a feast for the senses. I imagined the ospreys and hawks enjoying their predatory turns above this expanse, but, disappointingly, saw none circling overhead.
At the close of the walk, after 2 miles of observational vigilance for animal life, a solitary bird whistled into the late afternoon sun. Startled at my luck, I fumbled with binoculars as the bird jumped and resettled five times on five separate branches. I couldn’t help laughing as I realized how rusty I’d become over a cold, birdless, binocularless winter. It was a tufted titmouse, a somewhat common songbird to Long Island’s habitats, but not one I have personally seen often. His proud grey crest appeared tall and sure, and as he confidently hopped closer, he looked down on me as I looked up to him. I thought how strange or how delightful it must be for a songbird in a preserve, to have a parade of humanity pass so closely by his home regularly. After a few moments’ observation and not wanting to encroach on his territory, I moved on and made my way back to the car to head home.
The walk was an easy, solitary one, which promised burgeoning animal and budding plant life as the weather warmed to spring. The paths were well marked with signage more readily apparent than in most places I’ve visited, and important information was posted prominently. It was a walk I would recommend for the beginning hiker or the newly curious natural adventurer, and one I will likely return to once the seasons change. If you go, be sure to bring tick spray! You might spot raptors, songbirds, or the declining black ducks, all of whom make their home at the Wertheim Refuge.