Why I’m so awesome at the work I do

Does that sound arrogant? Maybe. I live in a culture where being honest about your accomplishments is seen as bragging. And bragging is a deadly sin in the country that admires their royal family for “being so ordinary”.

Thanks to my love for everything English, I have been able to adopt a middle way: being slightly eccentric while also pretending that this is just a harmless, funny thing and not my “normal” behaviour; being honest and direct while using sentence constructions that are similar to English ones with all their woulds and mights; and pretending it’s not a big deal while being completely upfront about my strengths.

  1. I’m an awesome writer
    Yeah, I know. You’re reading this blog so you probably think “Why mention that?”. But it’s worth mentioning. I have done copy writing for websites, rewriting long-winded marketing copy to fit short attention spans on the internet, highlighting strong points and paying attention to search engine stuff. (Which is one of the reasons I never use a link like here). In nearly every job I’ve had, I ended up writing manuals for stuff that people kept asking me about. Because I have a knack for describing things in clear, uncluttered language. I have also taught coworkers how to write better emails, paying attention to what question they’re replying to, acknowledging the other person’s initial issue and only then moving on to describing the solution. (And also making sure that the solution sounds like hard work so we can charge more). Not just telling them “it’s fixed, kthxbai“. And let’s not forget CHECK YOUR SPELLING AND GRAMMAR. I can spot a typo from a mile off. And I firmly believe that if you have a lot of spelling mistakes in an email to a customer, you’re signalling to them that you think they’re not worth the extra time to do a careful check of your writing before hitting “Send”.
  2. I’m good with customers
    You wouldn’t expect that from someone with persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, would you? But I am really good with customers. In both email and phone contact, I mirror their words in several ways, so they feel heard and understood (and also to make sure that I’ve actually understood them). I use clear and non-ambiguous language and don’t make promises I can’t keep. And I also follow through on the promises that I can keep. I’m not as good in face-to-face contact, but if I’m in a meeting as the technical expert, I can concentrate on just adding in the specifics and details, which gives me a way to avoid all the body language and emotional attachment. And the lack of emotional attachment is also why I’m one of the best people to deal with angry customers. I’m calm and professional. I know it’s not about me. The customer just wants to get taken seriously. Doesn’t everyone get angry when they think people aren’t listening? I’ve only had someone hang up on me ONCE, and he dropped by the office the next day to bring cake.

    © Poznyakov – Dreamstime.com

  3. I know something about everything
    No, seriously. I might not be the person who knows the most about a single subject, I might not be a CSS guru or a PHP wizard or a kick-ass sysadmin, but I know about all those things. Show me something I haven’t worked with yet, and I’ll get the hang of its general function and purpose within a week. And then I’ll write a manual about it. And be able to explain it to customers. And create realistic expectations of how much work it will be to implement something. Because I get the technical stuff. I often call myself a translator between customers and programmers, because I have the knowledge but not the baggage. I can think outside the box. And then explain the box to others. But my strength is not just knowing a lot of stuff, I also go in there and get my hands dirty. Image not loading? I’ll have a quick look and fix it. No probs.
  4. I fix things
    I’m a typical first responder. Sometimes my fixes won’t be pretty, but they will be fast and efficient. Because I have incredible focus and pattern recognition. I can see where things are going wrong, I can find those bugs, and then I don’t spend ages trying to figure out why the bug is there in the first place, but I simply think up a solution. (And put a comment in the code explaining the ugliness, because I’m professional like that). I see the nail. Sometimes my quick fixes are only a temporary solution, in which case I write up a short description of the problem and what I’ve done so far, and then send it on to a programmer. This saves the customer from having to explain the problem twice, and it saves the programmer from having to spend time looking for the problem, and listening to non-technical stuff.
  5. I’m detail oriented
    Yeah, people often think of details in relation to “getting bogged down in details”. But it is a strength, and an awesome one at that. It means I don’t overlook a step, no matter how small it is. I don’t fix something and then forget to send an email about it. I remember exactly how much time I spent on the phone so I can do my hours registration or invoicing. I write amazing manuals (there they are again, but seriously, it’s a skill) because I don’t skip a SINGLE step. I describe each click and command. (Which is not something most people do. Like that one time a coworker kept telling me to set up a VPN connection, and I kept going to the Windows Configuration screen and click “Set up a VPN connection” – sounds logical right? – but what he forgot to tell me was that I was supposed to do that by right-clicking a tray icon. Took us HALF AN HOUR before we’d solved that little communication problem. He wasn’t very detail oriented).
  6. I really really enjoy my work
    Dedicated is the word I’d use. Because obsession sounds so… autistic. But in fact, my obsessiveness is my main autistic trait. When I’m working, I’m in the zone. I’m utterly focused. I love writing the perfect email, making a customer happy by simply listening to them on the phone, implementing the perfect fix, making that light bulb go off in other people’s heads. I love beautiful bits of coding and well-structured databases. I love not being afraid of command lines and root privileges (although I did accidentally kill an entire web server once by executing a CHMOD command in the wrong directory. But that’s another strength: I always take responsibility for my mistakes).

    And most of all, I love being a nerd girl in a nerd world.

> sudo make me a sandwich – xkcd.com

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Job interview advice – Situation

This article was first published with permission on Invisible Autistic.

In my previous post, I discussed personal hygiene and what to do with accessories, like shoes and jewellery. Things that may seem superficial but have the ability to get you rejected for a job before you even open your mouth.

This week we’re going to enter the danger zone: what to do when you arrive at the interview.

Strong currents sign

Arriving on time

“On time” is a terrible phrase when you have a literal mind. If your interview starts at 10:00am, then being “on time” does not mean walking in the door at 10:00am sharp. When planning your journey to the place where you’re having your interview, make sure to be there at least 15 to 20 minutes early. That’s excluding any extra time you may need to navigate traffic, deal with public transport, or making sure you’re not getting lost (tip: I always print out a map with street names of the surrounding area. Having a look around on Google Streetview beforehand is also a good way to familiarise yourself with the area).

The 15 to 20 minutes early is meant as your own private prep time. I’ll explain what you can use that prep time for in a bit.

Arriving too early

If you arrive much earlier than 15 minutes, walk around the neighbourhood for a bit, make note of any interesting features of the area so you’ll have something to use in smalltalk if needed. If the weather isn’t suitable for walking around, you can also go up to the receptionist or office manager (if they have someone like that) and say the following: “I’m sorry, I have an appointment with Ms. Jones and Mr. Smith at 10:00am, but I seem to have arrived a bit too early. Can you please let them know that I’ve arrived, but that I don’t mind waiting somewhere until the start time of the interview?” You can even say that you have brought something to read in the meantime, or things like that. It shows that you are self-sufficient but also take other people’s priorities into account.

Arriving too late

If you’re late: DON’T PANIC! If you’re not at the location 15 minutes before the start of the interview, call the company. This is really important (and also why those 15 minutes are so important to focus on). Tell them that you’re running late and that you’re really sorry. DON’T GIVE REASONS, except when they ask you why. To neurotypical people, reasons sound like excuses, even when you only want to explain. Just say “I’m so sorry, but I’m running late and probably won’t arrive until 10:15am. I know you have other responsibilities as well, so do you want to reschedule the interview to another date?” If you can’t give an estimate (because you’re thoroughly lost, again something you don’t want to say because it will make you seem helpless), simply say that you’re running late and don’t know what time you will arrive, so it’s probably better to reschedule.

Where’s the receptionist?

One of the things I really hate is when I arrive at a company and there’s no clear indication of who to approach. (Actually, I really hated that in my previous job as well, where we didn’t have a receptionist so the managers stationed my desk near the door. Just because I’m the only woman in the company doesn’t mean I want to drop my tasks as HEAD OF MY DEPARTMENT to welcome guests and sign for packages, thanks. Sorry for the digression). If there’s no receptionist or office manager in sight, walk up to the first person you see or knock on the nearest office door, and ask, “I’m sorry, I’m looking for your office manager.” Even if they don’t have one, this question will get you to someone who can guide you and help you settle in. Don’t ask for the person you’re having the interview with. You don’t want to meet them until you’re ready! Still, in very small companies, chances are everyone knows that someone’s coming for an interview, so they might end up getting the person who’s going to interview you. The rule here is to not assume anything, but ASK the next person you see what their name and their job is.

Prep time

Now, if all has went well, you’ve got 15 to 20 minutes to kill until the start of your interview. Use this time to go to the bathroom, make sure your bladder is empty, your palms aren’t too sweaty (use anti-perspirant to make them less so), and your clothing isn’t torn or stained. You can also use this time to swap your shoes in the bathroom if you’re not wearing dress shoes.

But the most valuable use of personal prep time is to make yourself feel confident.

Sound too good to be true? OK, here’s some official research showing that adopting a “power pose” before your interview will make you feel less anxious and more in control. Literally. Your intentional poses can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain (start watching at 10:20 for some examples of power poses). You can do this in the bathroom, or you can adopt some discrete power poses while sitting and waiting. Doing these will also prevent you from slouching too much, something that a receptionist or office manager will mention to others as you appearing uninterested before the interview.

Small talk

The thing so many of us dread. Because a lot of people find it hard, not just autistic people, you can find a lot of resources and information on how to do small talk, like this article on WikiHow or this article with tips from Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute (YES REALLY), but I want to highlight some examples of acceptable small talk in an interview situation. Be prepared to do small talk with the interviewer from the moment you shake hands until a few minutes after you’ve sat down!

Good conversation topics are:

  • the weather (corny but effective, especially if you relate it to your journey getting to the location, which can lead to you asking what kind of weather is the interviewer’s favourite and do they choose their holidays based on the weather)
  • the city the company is located in (do some research on things that make this city interesting if you’re not familiar with it, or mention how long you’ve lived there, which can lead to you asking where the interviewer lives and why they like living there)
  • some features of the exact area or building the company or office is located in (even if it’s an industrial park, say something about the amount of greenery, or the architecture of the building, or ask if there’s any good places to eat, which can lead to you asking what types of food the interviewer likes)
  • the interviewer’s career – this is a good one since it’s far easier to segue into the actual interview from here, and people love talking about themselves! Ask them how they ended up in their current position, what college they attended, what they love about their work. Do some research by seeing if they have a LinkedIn profile or other online presence. Google is your friend. But don’t mention that you already know the things they’re telling you because you looked it up! Let them do most of the talking.

In my next guest post, I will focus on the actual interview and what to say and do to make a good impression.

People giving high marks

Job interview advice – Grooming

This article was first published with permission on Invisible Autistic.

In my previous post, I discussed some of the unspoken rules around the clothes you wear to an interview.

This week, I want to focus on something that I still struggle with myself: personal grooming. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Apparently it’s fairly common for individuals (both children and adults) on the spectrum to have problems with personal hygiene and grooming habits. I seriously have no idea why this is so. It might be related to hyper- or hyposensitivity (not wishing to be covered in artificial scents like soap and shampoo and deodorant, or not being aware of your own body odour), or it could be something more cultural and social in nature. There’s a lot of social pressure to say that you shower every single day (and sometimes twice a day), but I know for a fact that not everyone does so. Yet people won’t ever admit that, because of the stigma attached to lack of personal hygiene. For myself, I feel perfectly comfortable showering every 3 or 4 days at most. I don’t think people have ever noticed.

Pig-tailed macaque at Khao Yai National Park

For a job interview, however, it’s important that you look and smell like other people.

Hair

Wash your hair the day of your interview. You don’t need to worry about styling, this is completely optional. As long as it doesn’t look greasy you’ll be fine. If you are worried about your appearance, you can go to a hairdresser a few days before your interview and get your hair cut and styled. DON’T under any circumstances get a haircut on the same day as the interview. The stray hairs will drive you absolutely bonkers and you will look like a crazy person constantly trying to pick hairs out of your neck. Trust me, I’ve done this.

Clothes

Make sure all your clothes are freshly washed, with no visible stains or tears. Bring one or two safety pins for emergencies. I usually only discover a hole in my jacket 5 minutes before the interview is about to start. Stains are harder. If you discover a stain right before the interview, one option is to go to the receptionist or office manager (if they have someone like that) and say “Excuse me, I’ve just discovered a stain on my jacket / trousers / skirt. Do you have a wet cloth or some wipes so I can try getting it out?” It may sound counter-intuitive but they won’t be at the actual interview and therefore won’t judge you on accidents or not being 100% prepared. In fact, if you thank them (about 3 or 4 times max) and apologise for the inconvenience, they will see you as an approachable, sociable human being with a normal amount of nervousness. Everyone is nervous before a job interview, right? So that’s a good tactic to get the office manager or receptionist on your side. And believe me, that helps.

Body odour

Put a small anti perspirant stick or roller in your bag or in your outer jacket. I know sticks may feel icky but sprays are usually too big to carry around with you. And you’re going to need anti perspirant, not deodorant – because deodorant is usually only perfume and nothing else. Sometimes, when I’m really nervous, I even dab some anti perspirant on my hands about 15 minutes before the interview so my hands won’t feel too sweaty when I’m shaking hands. Don’t do this too shortly before the interview though, because it might feel too dry. 15 minutes is a good time frame and will give you the opportunity to wash your hands if by accident you’ve used too much.

Fingernails

With many thanks to Ben Forshaw

This is something I was not aware of, even though I am a ferocious nail and nail bed biter. Your hands — and nails in particular — are likely to get noticed. I don’t know how the interview people do that if my attention-to-detail, notice-irrelevant-information autistic self doesn’t. But it’s probably one of those uncanny senses that neurotypical people have to immediately notice things that don’t conform to a certain standard.

So, here’s the advice. For men, nails should be short, neatly-trimmed and clean. For women they should be neat and clean, but can be short or long. What does neat mean? No ragged edges, no bleeding. If painted or false then they should have an even finish (I’m also a ferocious nail polish chipper, so I can attest to that one). Best to avoid nail decoration that’s too flashy or trendy, like very bright colours or patterns. If you habitually bite your nails so they appear untidy, Ben recommends getting a manicure close to the interview appointment: within a day if possible. I’ve never had a manicure but I can definitely see that working. My additional advice: avoid doing DIY or anything with sharp knives in the days leading up to the interview. Plasters and bruises are not an attractive look.

I hit my middle finger with a hammer about two months ago

I hit my middle finger with a hammer about two months ago. Don’t do this right before an interview.

Make-up

Here’s where there is a huge difference between men and women. As a man, you’re not supposed to wear any make-up at all, but women are regarded as social misfits when they don’t use any. I hardly ever use make-up myself, but I made an appointment with a make-up artist last year to explain to me how to apply all that stuff properly and what would work with my skin colouring and so on. Because I just couldn’t figure it out. When I wear make-up, I notice that people tend to take me more seriously. It’s silly but it works. So I would definitely advise any women reading this to invest in a (private) make-up tutorial and some products. You don’t have to slather your skin with crap, but some mascara and eyebrow pencil will already make a difference. Take your time to figure out what feels OK on your skin, I find that powders feel less sticky than creams. But even if you have sensory issues, a make-up artist can actually help you find products that don’t feel icky. Still, don’t worry if this is something that you simply don’t feel comfortable with. It helps with a job interview, but it’s not as important as clothes and hygiene.

Jewelry

Again, no jewelry for men. Watches and wedding rings are OK but if you have any other jewelry, take it off. For women, it’s again the exact opposite. I never used to wear jewelry but I have noticed that especially in job interviews with other women, this tends to set me apart as unfashionable and nonconformist. Even men to a certain degree prefer one or two pieces of discreet jewelry to none at all. The easiest option is to invest in a matching necklace and bracelet. You can even use a bracelet to unobtrusively stim a little bit when needed. Silver, gold, and wood coloured necklaces and bracelets work with nearly all outfits. Stay away from big chunky costume jewelry or jewelry with too many gemstones, however, unless you have pretty accurate fashion awareness.

If you have trouble operating a clasp, like I have sometimes, you can try very long necklaces like the white and the green/blue bead necklaces above. You can simply pop those over your head. They’re even fairly easy to make yourself if you don’t have a big budget. Just measure off a long piece of yarn (long enough to wrap around your head at least twice, just experiment a bit), string some beads together, and tie it off with a knot. It doesn’t have to be fancy, as long as you use interesting beads.

Shoes

This is a difficult one. If there’s any industry-specific footwear, like safety shoes for workshops or wellies/rubber boots for farm work, then that’s of course perfect. But overall, I would say leather shoes for men and (moderate) heels for women. However, a lot of autistic people have issues with uncomfortable shoes, especially autistic women and high heels. I personally like them because: toe walking! In public! Without comments! But not everyone does and that’s OK.

The most important thing is that you can walk on them and that your shoes don’t pinch your feet during the interview because that’s distracting. Leather shoes or brogues can be very stiff, especially if you don’t walk on them often. Suede is a bit more supple. Canvas sneakers, like Converse or Vans in a solid colour, are an acceptable alternative. I would advise against other sport shoes, especially white ones, unless you really can’t walk on anything else. A workaround is to wear your normal shoes to get to the interview and then change into your nice shoes just before. However, that definitely poses the risk of pinching or other uncomfortableness, so only do that if you’re sure the other shoes won’t drive you insane within an hour or less. Try it out while sitting on the sofa at home if you’re unsure.

Two last tips: make sure your shoes are absolutely clean (especially sneakers), and never ever wear open toed shoes or sandals, no matter how hot the weather is.

Too much?

That wraps up my advice on clothes, accessories and grooming. It all sounds very superficial, but it helps to not get rejected before the interviewers even hear what you’re capable of. I had a job once doing data entry at an HR department, and I’ve seriously seen interview reports where a candidate got rejected for wearing the wrong kind of shoes. I would love to hear if you’ve got any similar stories or tips to share!

In the next post, I’ll be looking at what to do when you’re early or late for the interview, how to greet everyone, and other situational pitfalls.

Strong currents sign

Job interview advice – Clothes

This article was first published with permission on Invisible Autistic.

For my first post on job interviews, I would like to tackle something that seems straightforward but actually has a lot of hidden social implications: what to wear to an interview.

There’s a lot of advice on the internet, but I always ended up feeling very frustrated because none of the articles would explain what I needed to wear to this particular interview. And their generalisations sort of seemed to hint at things that I was clueless about.

So I simply muddled along, trying to find what worked. And now, after countless job interviews (literally. I can’t count them anymore. I’ve had a lot) I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned. Autistic style!

Casual Friday?

First of all, there are certain levels of informality / formality that are implied in the clothes you wear. Casual and business attire simply doesn’t cover all the options. So I’ve made a little chart.

Level Men Women
1 Naked Naked
2 Underwear Underwear
3 Swimsuit Swimsuit
4 Shorts Shorts and tank top
5 T-shirt and jeans T-shirt and jeans
6 Shirt and jeans Blouse/top and jeans
7 Jacket and jeans Jacket and slacks/skirt
8 Suit without tie Trouser suit
9 Suit with tie Skirt suit
10 Tuxedo Gala dress

You’ll notice that it’s mostly the same for men and women, although men can get away with jeans for a bit longer and women have a few more styles to choose from. I’ll give you a few examples.

The level 9 guy is wearing the same suit as the level 8 guy, just with the addition of a tie. I thought it would be interesting to see the difference in close up.

A few things to keep in mind: it’s never ok to wear shorts, cut-offs, short skirts, tank tops, or crop tops to a job interview, no matter what the position. Well, unless you’re applying for a job serving drinks at the beach, maybe. But even then it’s not a bad idea to at least keep your thighs covered and most of your chest (a shirt can be open to about armpit level). And always wear something with sleeves. This goes for men as well as women.

Trick the company

For most interviews generally, you’ll want to be aiming for about a level 7-9. A lot depends on the company where you’re applying for a job. But don’t worry! There is actually a magic trick that hardly anybody tells you about.

You can simply ask the person you’re doing the interview what you should wear.

Not literally, of course. I’ll give you two scenarios. You can choose whichever one you feel comfortable with. Phone is quicker but scarier because there’s more interaction needed. Make sure to keep a pen and paper handy so you can make notes!

Phone

“Hi, this is Karen, I’m calling to say that I’m really looking forward to our interview on Monday. I’m doing a bit of prep work on the company and I was wondering if you could tell me what most people wear around the office.”
[Answer]
“Oh, that sounds fun / practical / very professional*. Is that for customer facing / non-customer facing positions** or just in general?”
[Answer]
“Thank you, that gives me a lot of valuable information about your company! Well, thanks for your time and if you have any questions for me, you can always reach me through e-mail or phone. See you on Monday!”

* Choose which of the three works best. Fun is shorts and flip flops. Professional is suits. Practical is everything in between. Yes, this will require some improvisation on your part.
** Choose which of the two YOU are applying for.

E-mail

“Hi,
Thank you again for scheduling an interview with me next Monday. In preparing for the interview it would help me immensely to get a copy of your company’s dress code, or a general idea of what other employees in a customer facing / non-customer facing position*** usually wear from day to day. Could you let me know before Friday? Thank you and I look forward to discussing other aspects of the job with you on Monday!”

*** Choose which of the two YOU are applying for.

The beauty of this setup is that you are being honest about what you need (instructions on what to wear), and they get the feeling that you are genuinely interested and want to get to know the people as well as the company. They LIKE it when you ask them what you should wear! Isn’t it awesome?

Uncertainty and colours

If you’re not sure where on the scale their answer falls (especially in IT this happens a lot – IT people don’t pay that much attention to clothes so they can’t or won’t give you a straight answer), err on the side of caution and overdress a little bit, or choose a similar outfit as what they describe other people wearing but with more conservative colours. For levels 5, 6 and 7 conservative basically means no patterns or prints, only solid colours with a preference for muted blues, reds, and greens. Purple is also an option for women. You can do blacks and greys but in those levels you run a risk of being seen as boring. So some colour is better than none. For levels 8 and 9, stick to dark to light blues or greys. Dark to light brown is possible but risky. Black makes you seem like an undertaker.

Comfort level

One important part that I haven’t mentioned so far is your own comfort level.

For a lot of autistic people, clothes can cause a major sensory overload. If this is the case with you, DON’T force yourself to wear something you’re uncomfortable in. It will do you more harm than good. If you think you can make it through an interview in uncomfortable clothing, then by all means do so, but test it out first. Put on your interview clothes inside your own home and do random stuff for an hour or so. If that’s already overloading you, then no way are you going to make it through a stressful interview.

Two options: turn down the interview and look for a job that expects a lower formality of clothing, or disclose to the people doing the interview that you have sensory issues. You don’t need to mention autism if you’re not comfortable doing so, but it’s better to tell people beforehand why you won’t be wearing appropriate clothing. Otherwise they will be surprised and they will hold that against you because interviewers don’t like to be taken by surprise, because that diminishes their power and control over the interview.

If you have some clothing that you feel comfortable in, that fits your body well (not too tight or too baggy), and that still conforms to the expected level of formality, then you’re all set. You won’t have to worry about sending the wrong messages and it will enable you to appear more confident and self-assured. And that’s what half the interview is about.

Final tip

If you feel up to it, ask a trusted and honest friend how you look. Or take a picture of you in your interview clothes and post it in an online community where you can expect honest feedback. I still do this for every interview I have. It really helps to have someone look at your clothes with a fresh eye, and it has nothing to do with being autistic or not! Everyone can make clothing mistakes sometimes.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about accessories, make-up, and grooming. Not the monkey kind.

Pig-tailed macaque at Khao Yai National Park

What nobody tells you about cooking

When my mother taught me how to make pancakes at the age of 12, it was mostly because she hated making pancakes in summer when the evening sun was shining right into the kitchen. It would get incredibly hot in there with the sun and two heavy pancake pans constantly in use. And I wanted to learn. Especially how to do the bit with the two pans. Like how do you make sure that one doesn’t burn while you’re busy with the other? My mother is not very good at explaining but she is very good at showing how to do things. So I watched and paid attention and figured it out. (The trick was to keep the flame under the pan not too high, so you’d have more time before burning started to happen).

As I grew older I kept begging my mother to teach me how to cook other things, but she always replied “Read the package, dear.” But what about potatoes? Or green beans? They don’t have packages. “Everything that doesn’t have a package, boil for 20 minutes.” Oh. Right. Does that really work?

As it turns out, it doesn’t. My mum is a great cook but she hates cooking. I have never asked why. It’s probably to do with having three kids and a husband who was never home on time and not having a lot of money when we were growing up. So I had to figure things out on my own. And there was a lot of figuring out to do, because there’s a lot that nobody explains to you.

Salt

“Add salt and seasoning to taste.” How can I tell if it’s to taste when it’s not done yet? I can only taste it after it’s done and then it’ll be too late! And how much is “a pinch of salt”?

My solution: Screw that. I don’t add salt and seasoning until the food is on the plate and ready to be eaten.

White rice

I didn’t manage to properly cook rice until I was 28. It was always soggy or burnt. And I followed the instructions on the package!

The trick: add one fingertip of water on top of the rice. It doesn’t matter how much rice you have. Or how big the pot is. Or how big your fingers are. This does not make sense mathematically or physically. It just works. One fingertip up to the first joint, as long as it’s not a huge pot with only a scattering of rice at the bottom. In that case, find a smaller pot. Bring to a boil on a medium to high heat, then turn the heat low and put the lid on. If you lift the lid after 15 minutes of boiling, you shouldn’t see any water, at most bubbles coming up between the rice. Replace the lid and turn off the heat, then let it sit for at least 10 minutes. You can also let it sit longer (especially if you wrap it in a towel or blanket) and prepare the rest of the meal in the meantime. Perfectly dry white rice.

Risotto (short grain rice)

© Vít Luštinec – Wikipedia

This sounds like a lot of work. Glaze the rice, add a little bit of stock, stir until it’s soaked up, add a little bit more…

My solution: Risotto tastes exactly the same when you dump the entire amount of stock into the pot in one go. It’s simply rice that soaks up a lot of moisture so you add a lot of moisture to keep it moist and creamy. That’s it. How you add it is completely beside the point (although stirring does help). Follow the recipe with regards to glazing the rice in some olive oil, and adding the other ingredients, but ignore the whole “add and stir until soaked up” thing.

This is true for a lot of recipes, actually. Don’t be afraid to try out different ways of preparing things, as long as you’re not cooking for others. People get annoyed when they have to go hungry. For yourself, you can simply make a sandwich if it all goes wrong. And it will go wrong often. Very very often. That’s OK.

Fish and meat

How can you tell if it’s done? If you cut it open and it’s not done yet, you can’t put it back in the pan because then all the juices run out and the butter or oil starts sputtering.

The fish trick: you can simply fry on one side only. That saves the trouble of trying to turn it over without the fish falling apart, as well. Keep the heat low and wait until the topside doesn’t look raw anymore. Done!

The meat trick: this works best with beef and other red meats, but also with poultry and pork. Push slightly on the top of the meat and feel how springy it is. You can use either your finger or a fork.

Is it as springy as the meat of your thumb when you gently touch the tips of your thumb and index finger together? Then it’s still raw inside.
Is it as springy as the meat of your thumb when you gently touch the tips of your thumb and middle finger together? Still pink inside, but not bloody anymore.
Is it as springy as the meat of your thumb when you gently touch the tips of your thumb and ring finger together? Well done.

Veggies

I used to loathe – ABSOLUTELY LOATHE – nearly every cooked vegetable. Except fava beans and spinach, for some strange reason. But when I moved out I figured out something really shocking:

I don’t need to eat things I don’t like and still eat healthy meals.

In fact, there’s been some research done that shows that if you enjoy what you eat, you eat more slowly which helps digestion and enables your body to derive more nutrients from your food. Besides the obvious fact that enjoying stuff is pretty awesome in its own right.

I still detest boiled carrots

I still detest boiled carrots ( © Bill – Fotolia.com )

My solution: try out everything raw first. It turns out that a lot of vegetables don’t need to be cooked and have a FAR more pleasant texture when they’re raw. You need to be careful and only do this in small amounts, since some plants have toxins in their skins or leaves to keep away insects, like potatoes and beans. But you can usually find information on that online. Just make sure to check your sources. And remember: one bite won’t kill you. Plants that are that toxic are not for sale in supermarkets. So give it a try and see if you find something you like. Just because recipes say you need to prepare a vegetable a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Cook the scientific way

In closing, check out the site below, Cooking for Engineers. It takes cooking to an entire new level and doesn’t assume anything is true until tested. For example the Kitchen Notes section, where he looks at how food actually becomes brown through different methods of adding heat, and the Cooking Tests section where he sees if the Beer Can Chicken idea actually works and tries out different ways of cooking bacon. The recipes in the Recipe File all have clear pictures of each step and very handy charts at the bottom with ingredients and preparation steps.

© Michael Chu - Cookingforengineers.com

© Michael Chu – Cookingforengineers.com

Absolutely brilliant.

What is my face doing?

That dreaded moment has arrived again. Time to renew my passport. Of course my passport expired a couple of weeks ago already (yay executive function!) so I really need to get it done SOON. In the Netherlands you are required to have a valid ID document with you at all times, and that means a passport or an official ID card. Driving licenses aren’t always valid ID, and besides, I don’t have a driving license. So passport it is.

And that means getting my picture taken.

That’s what I hate about renewing my passport. The rest is fairly standard, scripted stuff, nothing much that might throw me off. But photos? Argh.

Because I have no idea what my face is doing.

With all the rules about “no smiling, no visible teeth, face has to be completely visible, neutral expression”, having my picture taken becomes a task of gigantic proportions. Especially the neutral expression bit. In my current passport picture I look like a particularly depressed heroin junkie. And that took about 25 minutes of non-stop instructions by the photographer. “Tilt your head a little bit to the left. No, LEFT, not right. Raise your chin. Don’t smile. Open your eyes wider. Stop tilting your head to the right. You’re smiling again. Don’t frown.” And so on and so on. It’s really stressful because I have no idea how I look. Am I smiling? Is this ok? WHAT IS MY FACE DOING?

I used to practice at home for hours, trying to see in the mirror what the “right” position is to put my face in, and trying to remember which muscles I’m tensing and which I’m relaxing and what facial configuration does that result in and can I reproduce it? But usually as soon as I get to the photographer, I forget everything I’ve practiced and simply adopt my standard “deer in headlights” look. Or inappropriate smiling.

But that was before I knew about autism and maybe it’s not just me who gets confused by all the facial expression stuff. So this time I was determined to do it differently.

I took a mirror with me.

At the photographer’s, I tried to explain that I have trouble knowing what expression I have on my face and would it be OK if I kept the mirror in my hand so I could check? He just looked at me and asked me why on earth did I need to do that for? OK, fail. He then started explaining all about the requirements which I KNOW BY HEART so really that’s not the problem here. Fail again. Just take the damn picture already.

And then I went to a second photographer.

Yes, it’s an expensive solution. But I figured, if I just get as many passport photos taken as possible, at least one should fit the requirements. I can’t deal with the stress of not knowing whether my photo will be accepted or not. And if it doesn’t get accepted, I’ll have to do the entire thing ALL OVER AGAIN. So I’d rather have some extra expenses than all that added stress. I’m learning to accommodate myself. Which rocks, by the way.

When I explained to the second photographer, he turned the computer screen so I could watch and see each picture he took and adjust my face in whatever way I felt comfortable doing. And he helped me get my errant left incisor under control as well (it has a tendency to slip over my lower lip). And it took about 15 tries but I didn’t feel as self-conscious as at the first photographer’s.

Maybe I should go to a third photographer as well, but I’m sort of out of spoons and I think the second set is probably going to fit the requirements. Although I look cuter in the first set, I think. Oh well. I’ll take both of them with me when I go to the passport office.

Cognitive love

My baby nephew is celebrating his 1st birthday tomorrow. He’s my youngest brother’s first child and so very adorable. But my brother and his wife are both adorable too so I guess it’s a genetic thing. 😉

Anyway. Because I’ve been so fixated on the birthday party being tomorrow (notes in my Google Calendar and everything), I completely forgot that his actual birthday is today. Until my sister-in-law posted a picture on Facebook showing my nephew with a party hat.

Oops. My mind immediately went into social panic mode. Keep in mind that this is my brother, who knows better than anyone how awkward I can be and who loves me regardless. He’s the only person in the family who isn’t socially awkward in one way or another (my father’s pretty good with people as well, but he admits it’s still not entirely effortless and he doesn’t really start enjoying it until after one or two drinks). None of us are diagnosed but my youngest brother is very obviously the only neurotypical person.

I had no idea what was expected of me.

I’m going to the birthday party tomorrow. My brother knows this because he invited me. So should I congratulate them tomorrow? When I’m supposed to be there? Or is the posting of this picture some kind of clue that they’d like to be congratulated today as well? Will they be upset if I wait until tomorrow? Or will they say I’m silly for calling to congratulate them when I’m already coming by tomorrow anyway?

OK. Hold on. Take a deep breath. YOUR BROTHER LOVES YOU. Nothing you can do will make him think you’re any more of a fruitcake than you already are.

And so I arrived at the easiest solution. I called my brother and asked him if he wanted to be congratulated. He laughed and said yes. And also that he liked me calling to ask. And that he was looking forward to seeing me tomorrow.

I love my family. Even if I have to reason it out sometimes.