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  • It's Sunday morning, and Aaron and I are about to make our weekly trip to Uncommon Grounds in Albany for bagels. We've made this trip hundreds of times; we still go even though I don't even eat the bagels there any more, having gotten off of them in an effort to further reduce my bit too bagely midsection. But even for Aaron, it's not about the bagels, or even the Sprite, whose sugary guzzling I have also lately been working to help him restrain. They don't even bother repairing the broken Sprite jet at the soda fountain behind the counter any more, even though our regular Sunday morning order of two Sprites can be counted on like clockwork, and they are always prepared and waiting for us when we finally reach the end of the long counter, having filled two large cups for us at the mere sight of us waiting in line. They make them out of lemon and lime Italian syrups and seltzer these days, and it tastes even worse that the Sprite did, especially to Aaron, whose palate is so sensitive that the slightest change in fizz or sweetness or lemonlimininess is usually enough for him to push something away because it's not the way it usually is, the way he can count on. No, Aaron soldiers on, because it's not about the Sprite either, or the imitation version they whip up for us at Uncommon Grounds. It's about the straws.

    Ever since he was 4 or 5 and his autism diagnosis was as new and fresh as the hurt inside of my late wife and I as we commenced the lifetime of calculations that all parents of children with autism do every day in thinking and rethinking what the rest of his or her life will be like for their child, Aaron has had a thing for straws. Plastic drinking straws, specifically. It has been nearly 16 years since this started, and I am no closer to understanding what the attraction is than I was then. Maybe there is a constant feeling of upset and nervousness in his particular brand of autism that fingering the straws, bending them until they developing fault lines and eventually crack, squeezing them and feeling their cushy plastic resilience as he manipulates them, helps calm. Maybe it's operant conditioning, at some point a value we gave to straws to help Aaron learn the thousand or two of words that he has learned over time, methodically, one by one at first, and now faster from among other things a steady torrent of favored YouTube videos, Maybe it's like smoking a cigarette, or twirling your hair. Maybe it's like the tapping my girlfriend has been trying to teach me to calm down and focus when things get to be a little too much. Maybe he just like straws.
  • And so, we collect them. We get them at Starbucks (deep green short and long), Aunt Annie's Pretzels (bright blue), DiBello's (red), Dunkin Donuts (orange and pink stripes); at Cheesecake Factory, where they have coveted big fat black ones at the side of the bar, and most of the bartenders (though not all) are too busy to make a fuss about us cutting into their supply; we get three white ones every each time we eat at the '76 Diner, where they know our routine, and always have them waiting for Aaron after Saturday morning breakfast, no questions asked. We entangle friends and relatives and loved ones in our straw-harvesting schemes, once notoriously almost getting Aaron's grandma arrested down in Florida for grabbing so many rare pink straws from the bins at her local Baskin and Robbins ahead of her next trip to New York (all the franchises seem to have closed near us). I learn to ask politely at new fast food restaurants and food courts and concession stands if it would be OK if they gave us a few straws, sometimes even when I am not buying a drink. Unless we can make a fast getaway, I usually buy something, always before asking for the straws, to make it virtually impossible for the person behind the counter or at the drive through window to say no. Sometimes I even buy things I don't even want: a coffee to go after having just had coffee, a bottle of water when I'm not really thirsty, a scone when I just ate and shouldn't be eating the scone even if I hadn't just had breakfast. The strange glances, the momentary hesitations, the puzzled clerk looks betraying failed attempts to find logic where there is no logic to be found, all these don't bother me any more, I am toughened to them, I have my repertoire of reliable responses, and I pull them out like card tricks or revolvers or hands full of cash: my son just likes straws, I say matter of factly, and smile. There are usually people behind me in line. I am allowed to pass and in a moment it is over.

    Straws are in fact nature's perfect object, or as near to it as a 6 inch long colored piece of thin plastic tubing could ever be. They are free. They are harmless, at least as far as I know. They are small and portable. They are everywhere, and can be used to entice Aaron to meet virtually any demand I or his teachers want or need to place on him for him to learn or cooperate. Let's go for a haircut and then we'll go across the street and get some straws. Or first we have to buy some clothes, and then go to the coop (where the deli has straws). Or finish eating dinner and then you can play with the straws. Just last night I used them at a neighbor's holiday party Aaron and I were invited to, but with no activities I could contrive to get him interested in. They seem at times to be the one thing that violates the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility that I learned back in Mr. Ergang's economics class--there is in fact no number of straws that is too many as far as Aaron is concerned, and there has never been a sign that his appetite for them will ever be satisfied.
  • And so they accumulate each weekend, in the embroidered red drawstring bags left over as party favors from the 18th birthday party my wife and I made for him the year before she died, until Aaron and I turn them in at school each Monday to be used by teaching hands far more skillful than mine as reinforcers to teach Aaron ever more, and we begin again. I think about days of toddlerhood when we were warned he would never speak. I brace myself against the likelihood of the things he does not look like he will achieve, most of them things, like friendship, and independence, that others take for granted, even, from time to guilty time, me. I think about the future caregivers I will never get to meet. I fantasize about completing the perfect set of instructions, to enable them to know what always to do. I dream of a land of straws.
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