Category: school


So, what is it like to have a girlfriend with Asperger’s?  To put it simply, it’s incredibly awesome!  It’s been a lot of fun sharing stories with Megan about growing up feeling a bit different from everyone else and realizing how much common ground we have.

Like me, Megan was the smart, shy kid in her class and tended to spend a lot of time thinking silently to herself.  She has intense areas of interest (languages, Japanese culture, manga, Biblical word and topic studies, and a host of other creative projects that can occur without warning!) that she pursues with a tireless focus and gleeful joy.  She loves her friends, but being in social situations– even ones she enjoys– can be very draining, and it takes quiet time spent by herself to recharge.  (I can’t count how many times I’ve messaged Megan saying “Sorry I wasn’t online for a while; I was taking a nap,” only for her to respond “Me too!”)

The first time Megan came to visit, we went for a walk around the neighborhood together and talked about all sorts of things.  That’s when I began to notice something interesting.  Ordinarily in this situation, I would be devoting a lot of my energy to coordinating my body language, facial expressions, and trying to maintain some rhythm of eye contact in order to give the correct appearance of being attentive.

But in talking with Megan, I started to lapse back into my more natural habit of letting my focus remain on the path ahead of me, or drift off into the distance as I chose my words.  I would still look over at Megan and smile (how could I not?), but I stopped worrying about how my natural expressionless, unfocused face would look and just talked.  I knew that Megan would understand, because I noticed she was doing the same thing!

The feeling of peace that came over me as I settled into this pattern was amazing.  I had never realized how much energy and worry I had been putting into social interaction all these years in order to appear more “normal.”  I suppose I was finally “being myself.”  When I needed to pause to think of how I wanted to complete a sentence, Megan never interrupted me, always patiently waiting for me to find the words.  It was wonderful!

What makes me even happier, though, is that I thought I saw the same transformation in Megan.  When we first picked her up at the airport and immediately went to lunch, I could sense a little tension in Megan’s voice and mannerisms– she spoke quickly and softly, with the same slightly exaggerated nodding motion that I always use when I’m afraid people will think I’m not paying attention.  But during dinner that night, after we had all had a chance to rest, Megan spoke more slowly and confidently, sharing her knowledge on a lot of fascinating topics while displaying a delightful range of emotions.  I was so happy to see that she felt comfortable with me and my family.

I don’t know if that was how I came across when I was talking to Megan, because the fact is that– for once– I wasn’t paying attention to how I looked or sounded; I was fully focusing on what I was saying and whom I was saying it to.  But I felt at peace.

All of this seemed to point toward a happy possibility– that Megan and I are both made better by the mere fact of being together.

 

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There’s a line in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I always liked.  It’s from the episode “Ensign Ro,” which introduces the character Ro Laren, a young Bajoran Starfleet officer who is a bit of a rebel.  She was serving time in a detention center because of an incident in which she didn’t follow orders and several Starfleet officers died.  Ro is released from detention to help the Enterprise crew with a mission involving the Bajorans.  She’s made to feel less than welcome on the ship, and she’s not thrilled about being there.

Inexplicably, Captain Picard’s old friend, the wise bartender Guinan, decides to become Ro Laren’s friend whether she wants it or not.

Guinan: Am I disturbing you?

Ro:  Yes.

Guinan:  Good. You look like someone who wants to be disturbed.

Ro:  I’d rather be alone.

Guinan:  Oh, no you wouldn’t.

Ro: I beg your pardon?

Guinan: If you wanted to be alone, you would’ve stayed in your quarters. The only reason to come here is to be among people.

Later on, after Ro does hide in her quarters and Guinan still tries to start up another conversation with her, the two women have this exchange:

Ro:  Why is it that every time I tell you something, you tell me I mean the exact opposite?

Guinan: Because you’re one of those people who’s got their poles reversed.

Now, I’m definitely not much like Ensign Ro (I’m pretty far from being a rebel), but I often find Guinan’s assessment of her amusingly fitting for my own life.

As a kid who grew up going to church, Christian school, and a Christian college (all of which I’m thankful for), I’ve had the chance to listen to more than my share of sermons, messages, and advice.  Generally, people want to help warn children away from the things that they think are most likely to mess them up.  So you’re much more likely to hear someone talk about the importance of working hard on your schoolwork than you are to hear them talk about how to make friendships and have fun with people your own age.  Because there are plenty of cases of people regretting not taking their studies seriously, but kids automatically know how to have fun with each other, right?

But what if you “have your poles reversed,” and doing schoolwork comes naturally to you, while making friends is hard?  For a while, you’ll probably think you’re doing even better than most of the people around you!  But eventually, you might feel that you missed out on gaining the social skills and experiences that other people take for granted.

Similarly, it’s common to hear a lot of messages warning against thinking too highly of oneself, of becoming prideful.  But what if your wiring is “backwards,” and the way you fall victim to pride is by tearing yourself down, expecting you will mess something up, and keeping track of your mistakes?  Like an undead enemy in an RPG, what’s meant to be healing can actually poison you (and even weirder, what others think is harmful may actually be what you need most!)  Weird analogy, I know.  🙂

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, because I actually think it’s pretty neat to be this way, now that I understand myself a little better.  Sometimes I feel like laughing, because from where I stand now, the process of maturing mentally, socially, and spiritually is almost like a battle against conventional wisdom.  It’s kind of like my “homework” is to spend time making friends with people, and my “chores” are to look for reasons to be positive about who God made me to be and to enjoy the good things he gives.

I have a hard time complaining about homework and chores like those!

(I have heard that conversations about dreams are one of the most boring things you can talk about.  Be warned; I’m going to be testing that idea in this post!  🙂 )

The world in my dreams is much bigger than the real world.  I mean that in a literal sense.  I often dream about places that are familiar to me, but they are almost always larger and more complex than the places were in real life.  That’s one of the few things I think the movie Inception portrayed accurately about dreaming (at least until they decided to skip the maze concept in favor of an action scene– that was too bad).

Houses go on and on, with room after room opening into one another.  My high school building has twice as many floors as in real life, and there are hallways you can only get to by going through a classroom.  My church has back stairways leading to endless dimmed passages.  My rural college becomes a city college, where instead of walking to class I am driving through traffic over hills and through tunnels.  Everywhere I go, I am finding new places I didn’t know about– professors’ offices in the basement of the library, underground shopping malls that are miles across, museums holding everything imaginable.  The journey from home to grad school takes me over huge mountain passes (even Texas has somehow become Alaska).  Sometimes I dream that I have to drive my way through a tangle of overpasses and underpasses or even jump over a river using an incomplete bridge.

Even things like familiar television shows and video games take on an enlarged, alien appearance in my dreams.  I always recognize them, but after I wake up  I realize I was imaging things that never existed– Star Trek didn’t cover a span of 100,000 years (as much as it may seem to some people!) and there was no Super Mario game with a thousand levels.

These dreams aren’t unpleasant– often I enjoy exploring these places.  As in real life, I don’t usually interact much with other people in these dreams; I either just wander or try to make my way to some appointment.  It’s too bad I can’t remember them very well, because they would make pretty neat settings for stories.

If I had to guess about why I dream this way so much, it probably has something to do with the feeling that the real world is always just a bit more complicated than I can understand, requiring a bit more of me than I feel like I can keep up with.  Maybe my overcautious mind magnifies my circumstances, and I get to see that in my dreams.  Or maybe getting to explore a larger world while I’m asleep makes the real world seem like not as daunting a place.

Hello again, readers!  My perfectionism has created a lot of writer’s block recently.  I have about five posts in various stages of incompleteness, but I find myself looking at them and saying “Who wrote that?”  Let’s see if I can get things moving again on the general topic of Asperger’s in adolescence.

A while ago, I posted about how I was worried about becoming a teenager because I thought it meant I would be rebellious and fight with my parents all the time.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

But there were changes in my thinking and behavior that I didn’t expect.  One of the most significant was this:

I became more aware of other people, and of the fact that they were aware of me.

Hopefully I’m not overstating things, but I believe I honestly didn’t care what my classmates thought when I started elementary school.  They were just other kids, after all, and I usually followed the rules about sitting quietly and keeping my hands to myself better than they did.  I took my cues for how to behave from my teachers or whoever was in authority.   I was taught to be polite from an early age, so I hopefully wasn’t rude.  But I saw no reason to be bothered by the fact that I kept mostly to myself at recess, for instance.  Comparing myself to those around me didn’t usually occur to me.

That gradually began to change as I got older, though– I began to think about the fact that my classmates had interests, thoughts, and feelings of their own.  I suppose that means I developed my “theory of mind.”

Looking back, I think one reason that I wasn’t caught totally by surprise by this was that I had one good friendship from early on in elementary school– in first grade, I became best friends with a boy named Ryan.  I think it started with something as simple as him choosing me to help him pass out papers to the class for the teacher, but I am very thankful he so easily accepted me as his friend.  We sat together at lunch and talked about our favorite TV shows and video games, and we stayed over at each other’s houses several times.  In addition to being fun, it meant that I actually developed a few social skills.  : )

Social interaction gets much more complex very quickly as you get older, though.  I had learned how to make friendships on a childlike level based on mutual interests, but there began to be a quality to the conversations of my classmates that I found very hard to connect with; they talked about things I understood very little about, like popular music and sports.  They joked about things I didn’t know how to laugh about.  If I tried to participate in the conversation by doing what had worked for me as a child– copying how other people sounded– it felt horribly awkward, as if it wasn’t me speaking.  So I mostly kept quiet and listened.

I eventually realized that I had gone from feeling more mature than most of my classmates (because I was able to handle the rules and schoolwork of elementary school so easily) to feeling like I was much less mature than they were.  I began to think of myself a lot differently.

I’m not sure how much of this discussion is revealing things about Asperger’s syndrome; it very well may be that this is just a part of growing up that everybody goes through– understanding that you have weaknesses as well as strengths.  Whatever the case, I had a lot more to learn about both.

A while ago, I made a few posts about my memories of what I was like as a child, and the ways in which I think having Asperger’s syndrome influenced the sort of child I was.  Lately, I’ve been thinking of how I might continue along the same lines, to talk about being an adolescent with Asperger’s.

In online discussion forums about autism and Asperger’s, I’ve seen a few people relate something like “I could always tell that I was a bit different, but it didn’t start really becoming a struggle until I became a teenager.”  I think I’d have to put myself in that category as well.

For me, I think a lot of it has to do with having a very rule-based mind.  A lot of childhood is about learning to follow rules.  Rules to keep you safe, rules about how to treat people around you, rules that allow you to begin to understand how the world works in subjects like geography, math, and language.

I loved the structure of elementary school, with a subject for each hour and a book for each subject.  I was able to figure out how things worked, and by the measure of my grades and what my teachers said about me, I thought I was doing really well.  I had no idea that my Aspie mind may have had a lot to do with making me take to elementary school like a fish to water.

But as you get older, a lot of areas in life become more complicated, and operating primarily according to rules seems to become gradually less effective and less looked upon as a good thing.  The gradualness of it can catch you off guard.

I’ll try to go into more detail about what I mean in later posts.  Hopefully they will not be too scattered– I’m finding these topics more difficult to write about because I think my memories of adolescence are perhaps more muddled than my memories of childhood, in that they involve thinking in a way contrary to how my mind prefers to work.

At the same time, I’m thinking back a long way from a very different point of view as a thirty-something adult, but I’m also closer to and less objective (?) about these things because I’m still working on that same transition in thinking even all these years later.  Still, I am hopeful that examining them will be helpful to others dealing with the same things.

I think I’ll start by writing about the way I thought about growing up when I was still a child, before it began to happen.

CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

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A lot of what you read about autistic and Asperger’s personalities tends to focus on their typical weaknesses, like social awkwardness and difficulty connecting with other people.  There’s a lot written about how traits like introversion can be a hurdle for autistics trying to fit in to a workplace or to form relationships.

But it’s a huge mistake to dwell only on the negatives.  Let’s ask a different question:  What are the strengths of an Aspie personality?  Can a person with Asperger’s or autism be a good coworker, a good friend?

I believe that the answer is yes, without a doubt!  People with autism, Aspies, shy people– have a lot to offer, especially if others are willing to listen and be patient with them.

I think that the character of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is a great example of some of the strengths of an Aspie personality, and the way her friends accept her is a great example of how to treat others who may seem a bit different.

Speaking as an Aspie, it tends to be hard for us to talk about our strengths because we are so constantly aware of our weaknesses, but I think it’s a little easier to point out the strengths of a fictional character like Luna.

With that in mind, here are five positive character traits I see in Luna that I think she shares with a lot of Aspies:

1. The fruit of time spent alone in thought.

Aspies tend to need a lot of time alone to sort out our thoughts.  It’s not that we are smarter or deeper thinkers than anyone else, but we are more easily distracted by all of the sensory data bombarding us from every angle and the conscious effort it takes to participate in the give-and-take of interacting with other people.

In some ways, the magical world of Hogwarts seems like it could be a nightmare for someone who is prone to sensory overload.  It has all of the noise and busyness of a school, with people headed every direction all the time.  But I think the most annoying thing would be the pictures.

All of the paintings on the walls at Hogwarts are enchanted, so the people and things in them can move and talk.  So you can be walking down the hall by yourself, and one of the pictures might try to start a conversation with you.  If have a light on late at night, they’ll all start complaining that they’re trying to sleep.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but I think it would get annoying feeling like you’re always being watched.  (And then even if you get away from the pictures, you still have to deal with the ghosts!)

Luna grew up in this sort of magical world, so maybe it doesn’t bother her that much.  On the other hand, it’s not that different from having to contend with blaring advertisements in a crowded mall or airport in the real world.

But she does seem to appreciate time alone.  In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter finds her in the forest feeding thestrals, the silent winged creatures that are invisible to most people.  When Harry asks why no one else seems to see them, Luna explains that she and Harry can see the thestrals because they have seen death– Luna lost her mother at the age of nine in an accident, and Harry was orphaned when he was just a baby.  Just months ago, Harry also witnessed a friend and classmate being murdered by the killer of his parents, the dark lord Voldemort.

At this point in the story, Harry is feeling isolated from his friends and ignored by his mentors.  He knows that Voldemort is about to strike openly and try to seize power, but the authorities are in denial.  They refuse to even speak Voldemort’s name and have published stories in the “respectable” papers portraying Harry as a liar.  Some of the people that Harry thought were his friends are avoiding him, and he has started to avoid them.

Luna quietly observes that perhaps Voldemort wants Harry to feel isolated.  “If I were You-Know-Who,” she says, “I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.

This isn’t the sort of insight that occurs to someone without the benefit of a lot of time spent sorting out her thoughts.  Who would expect a shy little girl to have spent time considering the strategy of a ruthless enemy?  It’s an insight she has arrived at only after a great deal of thinking quietly by herself.  Luna, too, has felt isolated, because of the teasing of the other students and the fact that she has experienced a loss that most children her age can’t relate to.

It turns out to be the insight that Harry most needed at that point in his life.

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My family recently finished watching through the Harry Potter movie series, and I thought I’d write a bit about my favorite character in the story, Luna Lovegood.  As far as I’m concerned, Luna steals every scene she’s in.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, Luna Lovegood is a wizarding student attending Hogwarts one year behind Harry Potter’s class.  She isn’t introduced until the fifth story in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It’s not difficult to believe that we never saw her before year 5, though, because she mostly keeps to herself, and no one wants to talk to her because she seems very strange.

Luna’s mother died when she was nine, and her father, Xenophilius (literally “lover of strangers/strange things”), is the editor of a paper called the Daily Quibbler, which is the magical equivalent of those tabloids they used to have in supermarket checkouts with front-page stories about Bigfoot being kidnapped by flying saucers.

No one takes such things seriously, except apparently Luna, who is always talking about magical creatures that no one (not even wizards!) has ever heard of and making other observations that seem to come from nowhere.  She tends to speak in a soft monotone and stare with a distant, almost expressionless gaze.

Luna (Evanna Lynch) introduces Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to a thestral.

Does it surprise you when I say that a lot of Harry Potter fans with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can see a bit of themselves in Luna?  She is often mentioned in discussions online about fictional characters who may be “Aspies.”

Such discussions almost always become quite tricky.  Even moreso than with a real person, a fictional character is shaped by the reader’s own perspective– he or she originally exists in the author’s imagination, but then each reader’s imagination “fills in the blanks” in its own way when picturing a character.

J.K. Rowling did not explicitly write the character of Luna Lovegood as a person with Asperger’s.  But because she is a good writer, she created a character with a distinct personality that is also familiar in many ways.  It’s an interesting balance– Luna seems like someone you might meet in real life, in large part because she is entirely different from any specific person– just as every individual is unique.  (I told you it was tricky.)

The nature of Asperger’s syndrome itself makes the prospect of “diagnosing” a fictional character even more nebulous.  Asperger’s itself is just a label for a set of traits that are often observed together– actually, not unlike a story.  It defines a rather blurry category, but the traits themselves do not describe any person exactly.  Nor does every person with Asperger’s look, think, or behave the same.

All of this is meant to explain that I’m not trying to argue that Luna Lovegood has Asperger’s syndrome.  I think that people in a lot of different situations can identify with her.  What I’m more interested in is describing the aspects of Luna’s personality and behavior in the movies that I identify with as a person with Asperger’s (and perhaps also a fairly quiet/shy person).

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The class had completed our trip around Europe, and I knew I’d remember the places I’d seen for a long time.  I had enjoyed being able to help out my professors in a behind-the-scenes way by keeping track of the digital photos.  (A big bonus for me was the fact that I didn’t have to write a report about the trip!)

I had a few souvenirs– some tea from England, postcards from France, a little plaque with an anchor on it from the catacombs.  (Nothing against Germany; I just didn’t have time to pick anything up there!  Instead, I left my umbrella there by accident.)  And I had a handful of coins, maps, and brochures from each country.

I had been worried that people would be annoyed with us because we were Americans, but almost everyone I interacted with was patient and friendly.  I thought it was touching to hear the expressions of sympathy from all of these countries for the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks.  I saw on the news that the guards at Buckingham Palace in London even performed the Star-Spangled Banner!

Of course, the U.S. had grounded all flights the day of the attacks.  By our departure date on Saturday, the planes were in the air again, but the airports were having to work through a backlog of postponed flights and treat every flight with increased caution under a lot of stress.

We got our things packed and went to the airport early, ready for a long day of waiting.  We prayed that God would help us to get home safely.  Dr. B. warned us that no one should mention anything about bombs, terrorism, the Middle East, or New York, or even think of joking about anything related to them.  (Probably good advice, but being obsessive-compulsive, I’m always afraid I’m going to be the one to blurt out something inappropriate in a situation like that even though I don’t think I ever have.)

We listened to music, played cards, talked quietly.  Some of my classmates worked on writing their reports.  The flight before ours took off for the U.S. but was directed to turn around and come back to Italy after a couple of hours.  We boarded our flight, not knowing if we were going to get to take off.

I am so thankful– our plane did take off, and we were allowed to make the entire flight.  The flight before ours had been sent back, and we later learned that the flight after ours was as well.  But ours wasn’t– we arrived at the Newark airport on time.  I looked out the window and could see the site of the World Trade Center, smoke still rising from it.  Once we had landed safely, the passengers applauded.

Getting off the plane and through customs was a slow process, but everyone seemed willing to be patient.  The airport workers looked tired– I’m sure the last week had been awful for them.  I wondered if any of them had lost someone they knew in the attack.

We waited at the airport from afternoon until late evening.  Our flight from Newark to Ohio ended up being postponed, then canceled.  Finally, Cedarville arranged for a bus to drive us home from New Jersey.  Exhausted, we piled onto the bus for the last leg of our journey.

We were driving through the countryside of Ohio as the sun came up, and I could see American flags on most of the houses and mailboxes as we passed.  We got home in time to go to church on Sunday and sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

I was so relieved to be back home and able to tell my family about everything we’d done.  The trip had been full of memories that I would always keep with me.  And the next time I had to cross the street in Cedarville, it didn’t seem as scary.

Well, it’s about time I got on with my story!

I slept very soundly that night on the train as it took us over the mountains to Italy.  When we arrived in Rome the next morning, I saw newspapers with pictures of the World Trade Center and headlines with the words GUERRA and AMERICA.

I think the news had the effect of making strangers more likely to talk to each other.  Seeing that we were from America, native Italians and fellow travelers alike expressed their sorrow over the lives lost and asked if the situation was likely to delay our return home.  We had to tell them that we didn’t know.

In the meantime, there was a lot to see in Rome.  The other cities we had visited were old, but Rome was ancient!  We didn’t have to go to a museum to see artifacts from Biblical times.

I don’t remember the exact order we took in touring Rome; the days are a bit blurred together.  But here’s a list of some of the highlights:

— We visited the Colosseum, site of the Roman Empire’s bloody games.  Even though the ancient Romans didn’t have access to the building materials and technology we have today, it’s my understanding that we still make use of many of the same construction principles they used in building our stadiums and arenas.

One thing I found particularly interesting about the Colosseum was the versatility of its design.  The floor of the arena itself is gone, and you can see the maze of passageways and rooms underneath, but originally, they could have used platforms to lift people and animals from the tunnels up into the arena for a grand entrance.  And apparently, the arena could be flooded in order to stage miniature naval battles.  That’s something even a multipurpose stadium like Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh never did.  (Thankfully, they never had fights to the death there either, though.)

— We stopped at a rather nondescript grassy field with a large, dusty oval track.  I wouldn’t have noticed much about it if Dr. B. hadn’t stopped to explain that this was once the site of the Circus Maximus, where the Romans held chariot races and other public events.  He also said that while you usually hear about Christians fed to the lions in the Colosseum, it was likely that far more Christians had been martyred here.

— We visited some ruins thought to be the remains of a prison where the apostle Paul was held.  He wrote some of the epistles while he was imprisoned in Rome.  I tried to imagine what the place might have looked like as a dark, cramped cell.  Some arches, columns, and walls were still standing, and I could see the outlines of the rooms, but now the place was open and full of sunlight, more like a courtyard than a prison.

— A guide took us through some catacombs, the system of tunnels and tombs that the early Christians used to meet in secret and hide from Roman persecution.  (If I remember correctly, the tunnels and burial chambers were around long before the Christians began to use them, but they came in handy.)  The walls were marked with symbols like the cross, the fish (which became a Christian symbol because the letters in the Greek word for fish, ichthus, are an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”), and the anchor (which may refer to a verse in the book of Hebrews).  I remember specifically keeping an eye out for the anchor, because the Christian musician Michael Card had recently released an album about the book of Hebrews, “Soul Anchor,” and in the album notes he mentioned that the anchor was at least as prevalent as the cross among early Christian symbols.

— So far, I had visited England, France, Germany, and Italy.  But I also got to visit a fifth country– a country so small that’s it’s inside a city, and most maps of it include all of its buildings!  Vatican City, the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, is the smallest country in the world.

The most memorable thing I saw there was the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo’s amazing painting covering the ceiling.  In the middle is the famous depiction of God’s creation of Adam, their hands just a few inches from touching.

Almost everyone has seen photos of this painting, but what isn’t easy to see without being there is that the chapel ceiling is arched, not flat.  That had to make painting it a lot harder, but Michelangelo actually used the three-dimensional shape of the ceiling to his advantage.  Some of the architecture from the walls continues seamlessly into the painting, making it look like the room is taller than it really is.  At the top, it looks like you are looking up into heaven.  Pretty clever!  Michelangelo made a painting with perspective effects for people on the floor even though his view of it was from a couple of feet away, with paint dripping in his face.

— The climate in Rome was a huge change from cold and rainy Berlin.  It actually got very hot, and it was tiring to be out in the sun.  The remedy for that was to buy gelato from a street vendor.  Gelato is a bit like ice cream, but more flavorful, like fruit sherbet.  It is really, really good!

— The hotel we stayed at was just across from a little pizza place.  Pizza originated in Italy, but American pizza is actually quite a bit different, from what I understand.  This was an American-themed pizzeria, so it was like a taste of home!  There was even a picture of the New York skyline on the wall.

The pizza there was flatbread, cooked on a griddle in a big rectangle.  You could ask for a piece of any size, and you paid for it by weight.  The proprietor was happy to see us come back each night– we told him that we might be eating there for a while, since no one knew when we were going to be able to get a flight back into the United States.

I’m almost done with this story– one more post should do it!