Gate Jockey

The summer I graduated from high school, I worked in a plastics factory before I headed off to college. I spent the first part of the summer on an extended backpacking trip with a school group that was phenomenal.  The remainder I spent in this miserable factory job.

I was a gate jockey.  My job was to take parts out of a plastic injection molding machine and put them into a box. The machine was about the size of a van, and about as hot as a an engine at high RPM. There were often tasks to do between each cycle; if a part needed internal threading, the thread mold, that looked like a heavy bolt without a head on it, had to be inserted into the main mold between each cycle, and the other thread mold removed from the part before it was packed.  The safety gate, a sliding plexiglass door, had to be opened in between each cycle, hence the name “gate jockey.”

The job was easy enough, but the working conditions were awful. I worked through a temp agency, so I could be let go at any minute. The hours were brutal.  We worked a four-and-four shift, which meant we worked for twelve hours a day for four days in a row and then had four days off.  The machines had to run constantly because they had molten plastic flowing through them and would have to go through elaborate shut down and start up procedures in order to work properly, so there was no pause button.  Because of this requirement, we had only a ten minute break every two hours, and no other time off for meals or anything. There were only two shifts: day and night. The floor supervisors staggered our breaks, subbing in for us when we were on break, so the gate jockeys were always alone during breaks. I worked there for more than a month and didn’t get to know anyone.

On one rare occasion when my machine was being changed over, the shop foreman Mike sent me over to another room, “Production,” to work.  This room was filled with folding tables and folding chairs with piles of plastic parts and rows of gossipy older women chatting away, using nippers and box cutters to separate and trim plastic parts.  I thought I would finally get to talk to someone, but although their conversation was continuous and reeling not one of these women said a word to me. They spoke of husbands and children and grandchildren and gall bladder surgeries and I never had a way into that conversation. In fact, at five o’clock, when their shift ended, two hours before mine, they simultaneously all got up and left me sitting there alone.  The last woman out shut off the lights and left me in the dark.

I did get to know the maintenance fellow, Joe, a bit.  When he found out I was going off to college he told me that he had planned to go to Olivett College on a scholarship for music but his paperwork had hit a snag and it didn’t work out.  He seemed interested in my interest in going into engineering and said that he considered that too in high school. I later suspected his life story was a lie because he also told me when he found out my interest in cycling that he was about to go pro as a cyclist until he blew out his knee.  He also said at another time that he was a paratrooper, but wasn’t clear about whether that was before or after the career-ending knee injury and lost paperwork.

So I worked this job; twelve hours at a stretch, almost no interaction with anyone.  In fact, one part of my job for awhile was to watch a newfangled robot do its work to make sure it didn’t mess up. Cruelly, my station faced a clock. Other gate jockeys brought Walkman cassette players to work, but my mother thought that would be too unprofessional of me, so I had nothing but my own thoughts. The trouble was, if my attention drifted, I could really mess things up.

One day I was really tired from staying up too late the night before and ended up leaning too hard on the parts as I put them on the drill to remove the inserts.  Five boxes of parts had to be ground up and re-cast because I ruined too many of the threads.

If my door was open too long, my production rate slowed, and I got a lesson on how to speed up. I clipped open the pad of my thumb with a pair of nippers during one of my stints in production. I have the scar still more than twenty years later. You could burn yourself on the hot parts too if you weren’t careful; we wore thick gloves and green gauze tape on our fingertips to protect us.  One guy dumped a bunch of window handles in the grinder with metal tabs still attached and ruined the grinder.  Mike apparently grew angry at these infractions.  I say apparently, because Joyce, the QC supervisor would tell us and would say “Mike’s pissed and he won’t ask you back if you keep messing up.”  Mike himself seemed a bit harried but otherwise genial. It was like being told “your father is really angry at you” but having no actual emotion from dad in person.

So I messed up here and there, but kept getting asked back.

The hours would drag by, getting slower the more tired I felt.  It was an odd existence during my on days.  I would wake up at six, get to work a few minutes before seven, take the place of the cranky twentysomething at my machine, work twelve hours that seemed like twenty, and then a few seconds before seven at night, Mr. Cranky would show up at my machine.  I’d get home about seven thirty for a couple of hours of downtime, then sleep, and then at seven the next morning I’d take Mr. Cranky’s place again.

What I couldn’t figure out at this job is why I was so tired. It’s true the day was long, but the actual labor wasn’t hard.  Some of the shifts I got to sit down the whole time.  One machine I got put on, for example, had a one minute and twenty second cycle.  I could do my part in about twelve seconds.  That meant that most of the day I actually did nothing.  Mike laughed at me because he caught me falling asleep at that station for about thirty seconds at a time.

What I know now is that sustained concentration on something that doesn’t have intrinsic interest for me is mentally taxing, and the longer I have to do it, the more taxing it is and the less well I perform.  It’s a downward spiral; I have to try harder and harder to keep focusing, but that makes me more tired and less able to focus.   I know this both from my own cognitive testing and from brain-scan research.  I could sit and read a good book and often have read entire books in one sitting, but if I had to sort pipe fittings for the same amount of time I would make dozens of mistakes and feel like I had just finished a marathon.

I’ve noticed recently that my brain works against me when I have to face a round of tedious work, like grading a bunch of papers by myself. (It’s easy if I’m with someone else, even better if that someone else is the student).  I have an automatic resistance to getting started, and once I do start, my body goes tired.  For most of my life, I could not figure this reaction out, or even notice it.  I would overcome it by bearing down or loading up on caffeine until that became unsustainable, the immediate effect of which was spending hours locked away in a dark room trying to sleep.   I spent many years theorizing these feelings and reactions away in therapy and reading and journals, trying to attach it to some complicated anxiety model, when it turned out the answer is simple:  if I don’t like to do something, then I really don’t like to do it. I just have a stronger resistance than average.  If something is boring or tedious or uninterestingly complicated, or if it requires multitasking or lots of working memory, then I don’t want to do it.   I don’t want to get started, I have trouble keeping with it, and I have trouble finishing it.  If something is novel, engaging, or challenging in a fresh way, if it piques my curiosity in any way at all, then that’s much easier.  I could even pay my bills on time if someone made a video game interface for Quicken.

中文: 射出機

中文: 射出機 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Papers

When I was a teenager and young adult, I had a fear that there would be no kind of job I could tolerate.  Adulthood seemed like one long road of boredom ahead of me.  My experiences having jobs as a kid proved this to me.

My first real job was as a paper boy.  Every day, for two years, I had to deliver papers.  The number of subscribers on my route usually hovered between sixty and seventy, and it was my home neighborhood, so I didn’t have far to travel.  I shared the route with Steve next door, and the papers were delivered to his driveway every day.  On a easy day, I could be done in an hour.  If it was raining or snowing or if the newspapers were thick or I just got unfocused and started wandering it could take close to three hours.  More than once my dad came looking for me when it started getting dark and I hadn’t returned.

There were real benefits to this job.  In the fifth grade, I had more disposable income than anyone I knew at school.  I had a bill to pay each week for my papers.  I collected the fee a month’s worth at time from the subscribers (we were supposed to collect each week—but Steve told me that was stupid and made more work for everyone), and used my metal punch to punch out that month’s row of holes, being careful to punch the cards over my zippered money bag so as not to litter the round discs of paper over the customers’ stoops.

After my bill was paid, I kept the rest, right around a hundred dollars a month. My parents said that as long as I put half of the money in the bank, I could spend the rest how I liked. I started a good tape collection and went through several bicycles—I even constructed one specifically for riding the route, with grocery racks in the back.  I wasn’t allowed across the street from school to go buy candy at Vandy’s Party Store, but I could pay other people to go buy me Nerds. Friends were astonished that I would hand them two dollars to go buy me a dollar’s worth of candy (that’s like, double!).  I felt rich and powerful.

The route also satisfied my curiosity.  I got to peek into most of my neighbors’ houses, or at least in their breezeways.  One of my favorite houses was Mr. Hampton down at the other end of my street. He was retired and ran the unofficial community pool in his back yard.  Any neighborhood kid could come swim as long as they brought parents with them.  I was never allowed there because we had our own pool, though the logic of that seemed foggy to me, but when I went to the side door of Mr. Hampton’s house I saw leather furniture and bookshelves.  He had distinguished looking glasses and often had a cigar, and he owned two small Fiat convertibles both of which he somehow managed to park inside his one-car garage.

Mr. Hampton, like many of the retired residents on my route, took genuine interest in me, and was happy to see me, even when I was there to collect money.

There were assholes too.  One guy insisted I never set foot on his lawn.  He had a paper box out on the street next to the mailbox and the first time I accidentally went to his door to deliver the paper, he came out to lecture me.  “You see that box?” he said, putting his hand on my head to swivel it toward the street. “It’s there for a reason!”  He had a noisy little dirty white dog who bit me more than once.

There was another house on a hill where a very large German shepherd named Thor lived.  He barked at me viciously, and I could only imagine what might happen if he jumped the fence one day, or burst through the storm door.  Once, I was carrying a stick with me, just for the fun of it, and I was tapping it along the iron railing on the steps up to Thor’s door.  Thor’s owner came out and yelled at me for provoking his dog, though it never occurred to me that I might be doing that.

There were kind dogs two.  Kristi, an old, half deaf curly-haired mutt was kind and happy to see me each day, but I had to be careful not to startle her if she sat facing away from me when I came up to the house.  More than once I startled her elderly owner too when I put the paper in the door.

Mr. Hampton had two kind dogs too.  They liked to bark, but just for fun.  I had dogs growing up and could tell the difference between a threatening bark and a “hey, let’s play!” bark.  One of the dogs, a collie, often played a nasty trick on me, though.  On weekends I had to deliver papers early in the morning when it was still dark.  Mr. Hampton’s yard was especially dark and he did not leave any lights on.  This dog, I swear, would lie in wait, invisible in the dark behind the windowed door, and when I was six inches from the handle, let loose with a volley of barking that scared the bejesus out of me.

I also saw how different people lived, how their personalities were reflected in their homes and yards.  For instance, I had a very proper German couple on my route, and the husband always insisted on paying his six dollar monthly fee in nickels and dimes.  I (no surprise) didn’t collect regularly—I would go out when I needed to get money to pay my weekly bill and go through my book and see who was home and who I was in the mood to deal with and collect accordingly.  Sometimes, I would get a month behind on some subscribers and have to collect two months, or sometimes I would collect at the end of the month and forget and go back to the same house a few days later to collect at the beginning of the next month.  But no matter what time of month I came by, this fellow always had his nickels and dimes laid out on the table for me, in groups of ten or twenty to make it easy for me to count.

Their house and yard were immaculate.  I realized how much thought they put into it when one day I came to deliver the paper and I was carrying a willow branch around for fun, to swat at mailboxes and fenceposts or whatever.  When I came near the door, I saw the wife standing just inside the door and set my stick down in the grass to retrieve on the way out.  She came out the door to grab the paper from me and then looked sternly at my stick  in the yard.  “What’s that?” she asked.  “Oh, it was stuck on my bag or something,” I lied, and grabbed it on the way out.

The job was more fun in the summer, but it wore on me in the winter.  There would be several days in a row of dark, cold, windy, snowy days, and I would have to judge how carefully to dress so as not to be soaked in sweat when I got home and avoid frostbite at the same time.  I could not use the bike to speed things along.  The worst would be a stormy Sunday morning when I had to get up at five thirty and trudge my heavy Sunday editions around the neighborhood and be finished and cleaned up in time for church. My dad would take pity on me and drive me around if I asked him, but I often felt guilty about waking him up and trudged it out on my own.

The absolute monotony of days would start to wear on me.  Winter in Michigan is long and dark, and it affects everyone’s mood.  My customers would be just as grumpy as me and I would have a pile of homework waiting for me when I got home.  If I dragged on too long, some people would grumble “It’s about time!” when I dropped off their paper close to five o’clock.

When the job was good, I was attracted to its solitude. I’ve read that one peculiarity of ADHD-PI folks is that we crave solitude (even though we do much better around other people).  Despite not being happy about getting up early on weekends to deliver papers, there was something attractive about being the only soul out skulking around the neighborhood at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.

That attractiveness, though, is through the long fog of memory of a forty year old.  When I gave up the route, I felt an enormous sense of relief and freedom, though I would soon miss the money.  At the time it seemed like pure drudgery, a constant weight to carry around, the knowledge that when 2:00 rolled around at school and I started to feel sleepy and withdrawn, I couldn’t just go home and rest, but have to do the route.

Some of my other ADHD things manifested there too, though I knew nothing about ADHD then.  I knew some customers were always grumpy, so I only collected every other month.  They grumbled about having to pay two months each time, but that was better than going to their door twice as often.  Not such a big deal, but one new house I let slip by without ever paying.  For some reason, I got put off about this family.  I don’t know why; they were not mean or weird or smelly or anything, and they didn’t have a yappy dog.  But for some reason, after they started getting the paper, I didn’t go collect at their house. Once it got past two months, I gave up on ever collecting from them because I couldn’t fathom going to their door to collect and having to explain to them why I hadn’t collected before because I didn’t know why I hadn’t done it. And I couldn’t decide what to do if I were to go and collect.  Was I going to make them pay for eight or nine months of back papers?  Or would I just forgive the debt and move forward?  Eventually the issue got resolved; another took over the route, and I just marked them as paid in the book I handed over to him.

His father called later and said this boy went to their house and they said they had never paid before, and he wondered why I had marked them as paid.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I guess I just made a mistake.”  He pressed me for awhile, wanting some logical explanation, but I didn’t have one.  When my parents asked me about the call, I just said the new boy had some questions was all.  I was secretly ashamed at my failure, and having no real explanation for it made me want to hide it even more.

For many years, I could not figure out this behavior.  I would have some mundane task like this to take care of, and something would happen to initially put it off, until it grew into major irresponsibility on my part.  I knew I should have collected from them.  I knew I shouldn’t have put it off.  I knew if I went to their door and said I messed up and will start charging them just from this month forward that everything would be fixed, and I knew all these things were the responsible things to do, but still the task was left undone, and it wasn’t like I just forgot about it; I would think about it every day as I passed the house, would hope every day that they would not be home when I dropped off their paper, would hope that they would not come out and say “Hey, do we need to pay you?”  It would be a great secret to carry with me, something with a simple solution, but the more I did not do it, the more I could not do it.

I also had a budding sense that it shouldn’t be this way.  This job wasn’t that hard, and there were good benefits for me.  I just thought I was lazy, and that worried me.  I got excellent grades at school, I was becoming accomplished on the piano, but this little job got the better of me.  I couldn’t do this simple thing consistently, and I made dumb mistakes. What kind of a life could I expect if I couldn’t even do a simple paper route?

LA Times

Supplements are not Supplemental

Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started the summer semester in a general funk.  (For my academic year, “summer” starts mid May.  My kids are finishing school this week, but I’m already a quarter of the way in.)  I had blamed a couple of things.  For one, I’m back on a totally online teaching schedule.  Also, there are no meetings or committee work going on.  So I’m not around bodies.  When I’m around other people in a professional context, it energizes me.  Going to the coffee bar to do some work has a similar effect, but I was back to my old self who couldn’t get energized to do anything, not to do the steps that would allow me to do the work.  I also was blaming it on allergies, and the weather, and whatnot.

But the real culprit was that I ran out of some of my supplements, and thought, well, I wasn’t taking it all that often anyway, so I guess I don’t need it.

I’m of two minds about supplements.  First, I’m a skeptic.  There are so many charlatans and snake oil salesmen out there.  Plus there’s the placebo effect, such as when Hank Azaria’s character in The Birdcage gives Nathan Lane’s character “pirin” tablets to calm his nerves, which turn out to be aspirin with the A and S scraped off.  I think one of the strongest forces of human nature is self deception.  In that way, I’m even the anti-placebo.  I don’t want the supplements to work.  They’re expensive, and the ones we need are mail order, so if we screw up and run out, there’s no running to the drug store to get more.  Plus they are pretty much not taken seriously by our doctors.

But they work.  I finally admitted I needed to order my B-12 and after a day I started feeling normal again, meaning only mediocrity instead of raving incompetence.  I use a spray, and have tried other drugstore varieties of B-12 and they don’t work, even though I want them to because they are cheaper.  I also take Megared krill oil. My wife, having done hours of research about our youngest to try to avoid giving him prescription meds, ordered me a new supplement for me, monolaurin.  A whose whatsit? I asked my wife.  “It’s a fatty acid that helps your brain.”  I can never remember the names of things (I had to go get the bottle to write this) so I just call it the fat ass pill.

Now, I’m hesitant to write this, because I strongly believe that we all respond to substances differently and I don’t want to be giving medical advice or anything but this new fat ass pill IS F-ING AWESOME! Again, this is the skeptic saying what is this piece of hogwash you’re giving me about coconuts? But I was wrong.  Very very wrong.

I’ve taken it for two days now, and I’ve had two of the most calmly productive days I can remember.  Way different from too-much-Ritalin mania.  I’ve worked steady and focused for two solid days now, despite having my sleep interrupted by allergy attacks (mine and my family’s) and sinus headaches.  In fact, I went to the office this afternoon and worked steadily on my real work the entire afternoon, without drifting to Facebook or SecondLife or People Of WalMart.  I did the magic productivity trick: I asked what is the most important thing to do now?  Then I did it.

So, here’s my regimen right now (again this works for me, for now):

In the morning: coffee, Concerta 54mg, B-12, krill oil, monolaurin.

Another dose of caffeine in the afternoon: coffee if I’m being good, soda if I’m not.

At dinner, B-12 and monolaurin again.

I eat regular meals and try not to hit the vending machine too much.

I’ve also been going to yoga class twice a week for ninety minutes, and usually do a few minutes each day, just to stretch out my back.  I’m also an amateur Buddhist, and have been reading texts on mindfulness again and meditating.  Those practices are usually the groundwork for good mind/body stuff.

(As an aside, my favorite Buddhist writer is Pema Chodron.  In the recent book I’m reading, she recommends having some sort of reminder to pause and be aware of breath.  I use Google Calendar for everything, and I do hundreds of appointments with students each semester.  For every appointment, Google pops up a reminder for me, which lately has been annoying, until I took her advice.  Every time I get a Google reminder, I pause and stare at the word OK and count three full breaths.  It’s a silly little practice, but it has the effect of centering my mind, a mini-meditation before I talk to a student.)

It’s hard to know what’s essential, what affects mood exactly.  My short list is meds, exercise, food, sunlight, caffeine, alcohol, meditation, allergens, atmospheric pressure, working environment, positive feedback, finances, bodily pain, digestion, writing, reading, relationships, holidays, phone calls, and le Tour de France.  I love July, for example, because it has sunlight, good pay, my birthday, and that bike race with the fancy name.

I tend to think that therapies or interventions work on three different areas: physiology, environment, and psychology.  For example, drugs work on brain chemistry, accommodations work on the environment, and talk therapy or mindfulness works on the thinking.  All these things intertwine to make a person, and none by itself makes a whole person.  I spent many years in talk therapy and put many things to rest, but never addressed the core issues, never understood why I kept doing things counter to my logical self interest. I spent many more years trying to force myself into roles that I thought I should occupy, given the way I read the environment.  The real need was to fit in, instead of making my own way.

Le tour de France 2007 - Waregem

Le tour de France 2007 – Waregem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These last two days I’ve been productive, resilient, positive, and not so worrisome.  I’m also not having those deep existential night fears about dying; that’s my litmus test for good mind.  If I think about mortality and its inevitability, and I get that sort of down-to-my-toes terror, then I’m in a bad way. If I think about it and convince myself it’s not going to happen, then I’m in denial. If I think about it and feel equanimity, then I am in a sane way.

The Birdcage

The Birdcage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Power of One: Coming to terms with my inner T-Paw

Here I am on semester break, the week between the regular school year and my summer teaching.  (Due to my ineptitude at managing money, I always have to reach summers to get by).

It’s, of course, a time of reflection, having decompressed from a semester put to rest and gearing up for a new one starting next week. It’s my first full semester on the ADHD medication, so that’s a further reason to reflect.

One thing that stands out for me is a particularly difficult student I had that thwarted my confidence in my recent teaching innovations. (Some of which, I discovered recently, were not so new after all.)  My biggest breakthrough was the grading conference, where I grade student papers together with the student.  With online students, I do this via web conferencing software.

Using this method, I’ve been able to reach more students than I have otherwise and teaching had become far less of an adversarial endeavor.  But there’s always one.

I had a student I couldn’t reach.  He actually was an exceptional writer.  The difficult students in the online class conference are the ones who don’t give me much effort toward interaction when we talk.  We start the conference, and I say “How are you doing today?”  and the answer is fine.  I ask them how the paper or the class is going, and they say good.  I ask them if there are any questions, and the answer is no.

Usually, I can attribute this to nervousness or personality, but I can usually draw them out.

This student was a hard nut to crack.  His work was very good, but he never wanted to take any of my advice to make them better.  I did not think this was arrogance, but I could never get through to him.

Half way through the semester, he informed me that he no longer was going to do any rough drafts because he could do well without them, and by my syllabus, they weren’t technically mandatory.  He would just take the point reduction.  I tried different strategies to figure out what was going on, first being curious, and then trying to provoke him a bit by saying that it seemed arrogant and unprofessional.  He didn’t return calls and only replied with polite, cursory emails, but never changed his mind.

Of course this made me angry.  I take the approach of giving students a lot of flexibility, and nearly all of them are appreciative and professional.  Some of them are not able to finish the course, but probably would not otherwise.

On rare occasion, a student tries to “game” the syllabus by trying to get maximum points with minimal effort.  I don’t think this student was trying to do that, but it seemed he was deliberately self destructing.  Most students understand that grading writing is subjective and try to remain on good terms with me.  Not only did this student try not to do that, he didn’t see the point of working the whole process to earn the A he could easily obtain.  The assignments for which he did all the steps earned her A’s, and the ones that he did without the steps earned her B’s, and with the penalties for not doing the steps, the overall average slipped into B- or C+ territory.

I looked at her transcript, and saw that despite being the most talented writer I had that semester, he earned a C in her previous writing classes, despite being otherwise an A student.  The most frustrating thing was that I didn’t know what was going on and this student would never tell me.

Some of my colleagues attributed this to that off-campus site, saying, all those students in ——– are jerks. I had other students from there who were fine.  But I never knew what was the case with this student. He was actually not a jerk, which was confusing and enraging by turns.

Now, through the years, teaching thousands of students, I’ve had a hundred kinds of crazy. Usually crazy student behavior is perfectly understandable once I find out what’s going on. For instance, I overheard a colleague talking to a student who was going to file a formal complaint for being marked off three points for printing her final paper on used paper that had other thing printed on the back. Her defense was that it wasn’t in the syllabus and she was a poor student who couldn’t afford six sheets of paper. My colleague told me that she had all sorts of problems in the class and had just fixated on that.

The point of all this is not to bash students.  Usually, as I said, there’s something else going on.  The point is that in past years I would really let one or two badly behaving students get me down.  It would make me want to give up teaching, or redesign my whole course, or something, despite ten times the number of students telling me they like the course and are grateful for my help.

Furthermore, with distance, I can remember that I have subjected my students to my own ten kinds of crazy through the years: my inconsistency, my excuses, my under-performance, my withdrawing. These two things would often feed on one another.  When I would think of difficult students, I would get a sinking/anxious feeling, hot around the ears and neck, but weary at the same time.

This student was one out of eighty that I had.  Letting him get to me is emblematic of my larger problem with perfectionism and taking criticism. I am the polar opposite from someone like Scott Walker or Rod Blagojevich, who, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, believe they are both right and popular.  I’m more of the Tim Pawlenty presidential primary candidate: oh, one state doesn’t like me?  I’ll just quit, then.

However, I am not ready to quit, now armed with pharmaceuticals and strategies.  I dare say I have elevated my attitude to mildly confident.  This whole past six months has been about learning and finally accepting what I am good at and what I am not.  I am slowly remaking my life to play to my strengths.

On the positive side, I had three students this semester self-identify as ADHD, and all three successfully completed the course, in one manner or another.  Interestingly, all of them sought out extra help, and none of them asked for special consideration or accommodation.  Each required patience, though.  Two students had trouble remembering appointments.  One student’s strategy was to take the first available appointment and often show up on the wrong day—a day or two early.   In fact, he knew he had trouble remembering to turn in assignments and so he would turn them in early and often.  I would often get three copies of each assignment: one on the course web page, and one to each of my two email addresses!  All three of them finished the course through extraordinary effort, just not always at the right time.

Official photo of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN).

Official photo of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Busy, Busy, Busy

I have lately been blessed by the ADHD diety with hyperfocus on a relevant task.  I am in charge of our campus writing contest, and last year the person who did the layout for our annual print journal moved on to a new job.  Last summer, then, I took it upon myself to learn about layout and typography.  Besides being fun to learn something new and a creative endeavor to boot, it had practical purposes.  I had started teaching more sections of technical writing and so needed to learn more about design.

The new layout looks fantastic, and I am proud of the work.  I’ve been able over the last two weeks to invest many hours in the editing of the journal as we near publication (though, by all rights, it should have been done last fall . . .).  I realized, as I spent at least fifteen hours over the weekend working on it, that I was in hyperfocus/new toy/slightly obsessive realm.  The work gave me a strong sense of calm engagement, though, and I came out of the weekend feeling renewed and refreshed. In fact, Monday was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time.

While that’s great, it shows me that my inner values say to me that I must have worked to my full potential before I am allowed to relax.  This semester has been enormously busy with extra committee work (which I agreed to).  I’ve had more than a few fifteen-hour days since January.  If I can fill up a day with meetings (conferences with students, classes, and long committee meetings) the day is actually pretty exhilarating. I also give myself permission to stoke up on caffeine and sugar to keep going.  On those days, I have a lot of face-time, which is stimulating as well (along the same lines as the body double strategy for getting work done).

At the end of a day like that, I am exhausted, but not depressed.  Usually, tiredness gives me a creeping sense of doom.  I feel my own mortality most deeply right before bed after a day of bad procrastination.  After a full day of meetings, I am in happy exhaustion mode, sort of like after finishing a long run.

There’s another word for this habit: workaholism. It stands to reason that if a brain gets a certain kind of stimulation from filling up a day like this, that a person would continue to fill days up like this.  I need accomplishment (at least I think I do).  That became part of my identity early in school.  I have enormous difficulty doing something in a mediocre fashion (and that perfectionism ironically creates mediocrity).

For a short period, right before I had children, I managed to live the workaholic life.  I taught full time in one city, lived in a second, and was doing Ph.D. coursework in a third.  I often got up at 5:00 in the morning and would spend ten hours a week on the road.  It was the only time in my life prior to using ADHD strategies that I could keep up with grading papers.  I felt fully engaged.

It was, however, enormously unhealthy.  I had a serious lack of sleep.  I often ate two drive-thru meals a day in the car. My caffeine consumption was record high.  I never exercised. I gained weight.  I’m sure, if I had bothered to go to the doctor, that my blood-pressure was too high.   The strangest thing, though, was that it all felt so normal.  I got praise for the hard work I was doing, and eventually a tenure-line job, the job I hold today.  And I never thought about my own mortality.

It turned out not to be sustainable, thankfully.  We decided to have children and buy a house, and the added pressure made this shaky artifice crumble.  Soon after, I sought therapy for the first time.

It is so very easy to get caught up in the busyness and drama of a professor’s job, at least here.  Someone is always outraged at something.  The rumor mill is worse than middle school.  At some point, I cross over from the instinct of wanting to do good, meaningful work into a competitive, perfectionistic mode where I want to be the best at anything I do, which means insulating myself from criticism.  That’s not good.  When I’m at my best, I am focused, principled, and open.  When I’m at the other pole, I’m that overly ambitious child who gets caught up in all that mess.



ADHD Stories

Great post on growing up with ADHD:

Another myth says that eye contact means you’re paying attention. We all know that’s a bold-faced lie. How many times have you been at a meeting staring at your boss, and not hearing a thing he’s saying? Why do I have to look at someone to understand what he or she says? If Mrs. C. had ever paused to ask me what she had just said, I could have repeated it verbatim — plus the five things she had said before, plus what Bobby and Janie were doing to my left, plus describe the stain on the carpet to the right, plus voice my opinion about the ugly yellow dress a girl in the back of the room was wearing.

ADHD isn’t a deficit. I pay attention to too much.

It won’t be different this time

A comment from ellisinwonderland on a previous post got me to thinking.

‘When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.’

Ah, how familiar this whole process (culminating in the above) is to me.

I always hold out for it being ‘different this time’ but it never is.

One of my symptoms (or habits, depending on how you think about it) is my cyclical interests.  I have several hobbies or interests (again, depending on whether I get paid for them or not).

My hobbies include guitar, woodworking, photography, computers, blogging, yoga, meditation, bicycling, running, hiking.  My (professional) interests include teaching with technology, poetry, contemplative pedagogy, faculty development.  I would include Buddhism as a hobby too, because I fall in and out of practice.

Within each hobby or interest, I have cyclical motivation.  When it comes to creative writing, for example, I move between working on poetry, blogging, creative non-fiction, and a novel.  Even within poetry, I vacillate from writing to criticism and book reviewing.

Unfortunately, one of my habits is not finishing what I start.  I don’t publish much poetry, for example, because I don’t often enough get my act together and submit my work.  Likewise, I renovated the kitchen myself and only have to finish the trim, but I haven’t finished the trim, and I haven’t worked on finishing the trim in about four years, even though most days when I go into the kitchen I think “I need to finish the trim.”

To live in modern society, you have to finish things, unless you have someone to finish them for you.  It was a big step for me to admit that I can’t keep up with the mowing and snow shoveling and that we have to hire someone to do it.  It was also a big relief.

So, finishing things, following through, is definitely something I need to work on.

However, I wonder if there is a way to live in the world I live in and make this cyclical interest work for me?

In many ways, my job as a professor caters to this cyclical interest.  I work at a teaching institution, so publishing is not a required part of my job (but it helps me get promoted).  Also, publishing is broadly defined, so I’m free to pursue my interests.  If I chose to become a hard-core scholar, publishing only heavy-duty peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books, that would be recognized (although some might question how much time I’m investing in teaching).

So, I can do quick little works here and there (I’m doing a presentation at a local conference on Friday for example). I can also change my teaching from semester to semester.  I can change readings, assignments, textbooks, etc.  If you follow my blog, you know that I’m cyclical.  I’ll have a super productive period for a few weeks, and think this is my thing, it will be different this time.  And then, my interest takes a new track, and suddenly I’m really into playing the guitar and blogging seems like the old me.

The question is whether to fight it or work with it?  Buddhists who practice mindfulness say to accept it.  From that perspective, a sudden compelling interest, a minor obsession, is a way of distracting oneself from the present moment.  A hobby can be seen as a form of clinging, either to a future image of oneself (as a star blogger, for example) or to objects (such as a guitar or a set of bookshelves that I might build).  Both cases are a sort of fantasy, and a fantasy is about the future, not the here and now.

A more mundane interpretation is that I don’t want to do things that aren’t fun, so I absorb myself with things that are fun.  One thing that’s fun is this fantasy world where I am a novelist, an accomplished musician, or a star teacher.  It a long journey to get to this realization.  I spent years in talk therapy trying to figure out why I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, like pay bills and grade papers and answer email, why there is a fundamental resistance in my soul to doing some simple things sometimes.  I spent years exploring what these things represent, and how my experiences contributed to this resistance.  I never found a truly satisfying answer then.  My diagnosis was Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  That explained the results of this fundamental problem, but never satisfactorily explained the underlying cause.

The cause is much simpler.  I have AD(H)D.  One of my symptoms, simply because of my brain wiring, is that I have trouble getting motivated to do things that I don’t want to do, more so than the average person.  Sitting down alone and grading papers isn’t fun, so I don’t do it.  Anxiety enters the picture.  I have to grade papers. It’s my job.  The whole thing gets complicated then, by my long history of anxiety over grading papers (I’ve had to grade more than 23,000 in my life).  The longer I put off something, the harder it is to get started.  And so on.

My short experience with medication, just since last November, underscores this model of my experience.  With the right Ritalin level in my system, I can just do things that were terribly difficult before.  It has been tricky trying to get it right, and I’m still not there, and it’s not medication alone, but medication in combination with good body habits and working conditions, but when it’s on, the experience shows me what’s possible.  For example, going to professional gatherings is much easier now, as is talking to people I don’t know that well.

With every interest, every hobby, something happens to complicate it, and I move on.  With the kitchen, for example, I don’t know how some of the trim is going to work, so I put it off.  Now the garage is full of stuff, and I can’t get to my table saw and miter saw, so the kitchen project is now a clean-the-garge and work on the kitchen project.  More often than not, though, the complicating factor is guilt.  I have trouble putting down the new toy to do my work.  Last night, for example, I worked on my guitar instead of doing email that I felt I should be doing, so this morning I feel guilty about the time I invested in that hobby. Add up enough of those experiences in a row, and the new toy doesn’t feel fun anymore.  In fact I rarely feel when I’m doing something fun, that I should be doing it.  I almost always feel as though I should be doing something else, my “real” work.  That’s why I like work that involves meetings.  After a long meeting, I feel focused, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing for  a good stretch of time.

Anyway, back to the question at hand.  How to work with this changing interest?

I think there are a more poets with AD(H)D than any other genre.  Poetry lends itself more to short bursts of creative effort.  Writing novels, not so much.  Each time I work on a new poem, its a new world.  I’m reinventing my idea of a poem, and my idea of what one of my poems is.  With the novel, you’re stuck with what you’ve already built, unless you’re starting over.  There has to be regular work.  You have to write through the dreadful periods.  With poetry, you can go silent and come back much more easily.

I’ve read a number of books that say one has to either make peace with the impulse toward silence (make it an active silence) or find a way to work through it anyway.  Both of those are laudable goals.  The third option, berating oneself for once again being a screw up is crazy making.

I don’t know the answer.  If I did, I would be more at peace.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

So. What’s. Happening.

Hello blogosphere.

I have been neglectful.  I’m so textbook ADD it’s boring.  With my blog here, I met with some success—readers, commenters, followers—and then dropped out.  My former therapist might have said that I am afraid of success, but I think it is the typical ebb and flow of ADD interest instead.

Here’s what happens from my side.  I start out on something (my blog, in this case), and I don’t have high expectations for it.  It is fresh and new and fun.  Then I get some positive feedback and suddenly the floodgates are open.  In a prose or fiction project, I usually can get 30,000 or 40,000 words.  Then I stall out.

Stalling happens when ambition strikes.  For the blog, I suddenly have readers who are interested.  Then I start to think book, best seller, interviewed by Oprah.  I even have fantasies about what I might say in an interview It all started with a little blog and a few readers, I would say, stroking my beard profoundly.  I don’t have a beard, but it would be part of my genius author makeover.  I would be rich and famous, pay off all my student loans, and Ralph Fiennes will play me in the movie version.  I’ll give self-deprecating readings to packed audiences like David Sedaris.

That mess gets so big, I put off doing any new writing for a few days.  Then, I feel as if I have to explain my absence in some way, which makes me put it off even more.  Suddenly, a new idea comes along and I’m off in a new (or back to an old) hobby.

My hobby with renewed interest is music.  I have a long history as an amateur musician starting with piano lessons at age 7.  My music background includes a stint as a keyboardist in a prog-rock cover band in the early 90’s (Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth/ that the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth) and a job as head rock-and-roll guy at a performing arts summer camp.  Most recently, I learned my guitar chops playing in a basement for several years with a band of similarly off-balance personalities, including a recovered drug addict, an agoraphobic, and a male-to-female transgender,  all of whom held respectable jobs as teachers.

Half the band moved away, and the house with the basement in it had to be sold, and the remaining band member got carpal-tunnel syndrome and sold all the equipment, so I had gone back to plinking alone in my basement.  I had gotten to the point of not even touching a guitar in six months.

Well, the university got me a new MacBook and it had GarageBand on it, and lo and behold I was hooked on music again.  My music partner got her wrists back in shape and is playing and recording again, and lookout, I’m back in music again.  At the expense of writing.

(If you will indulge me, here’s a song I’m working on: Somber Song)

But even the music is not entirely fulfilling. I get the nagging feeling I’m wasting my time, I’m getting distracted, this is a foolish endeavor that I’m spending too much time and money on (just ordered parts to completely rewire my main guitar).

What I find hard in any endeavor is to find the middle ground.  Creativity and ambition fight each other.  If I can be good I can be great, the thinking goes, and that thought changes to I must be great and then I’m not great, so I’m not even very good and then hey, look, there’s my fancy camera that I haven’t touched in six months; where are my photography books?  When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.

Put another way, the small successes and the fantasy of the big success are far more stimulating than the hard work of following through to the end of meeting ambition’s goal.  Setbacks and boredom aren’t part of the big success fantasy, so it must be the wrong fantasy.  I’m on to a new fantasy (such as my music partner and I playing on SNL).

So today’s Sunday, and it’s a very special Sunday, because it’s the end of my spring break from the university.  Had a whole week with no classes or meetings, with the kids in school.  I had such grand plans . . .

The GarageBand application icon.

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