Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: a long and winding book review that ends up being mostly about me.

Also see my interview with Kevin and enter a drawing for a free copy.

Short Version:

I like it.  Book is fun.

Long Version:

I was contacted by a promoter about doing a review of this book and I agreed.  I like reading and writing, so why not?  When I got the book, though, I remembered that book recommendations from other people are a complicated business.  You see, being a writer and writing teacher, having degrees in creative writing, I’ve developed a sensitive aesthetic when it comes to books.  Sort of the way my wife, a musician with a highly trained hear cannot stand the blues because of all the note bending, so do I have a sensitive ear for language—the other night at the poetry workshop I go to, for instance, I had to explain at length why I loved a poem except for the word “imaginary” that stuck out like a wrong note and ruined the whole effect for me. Yep.  I’m that guy.

So this business of “oh, here’s a book you might like” is a precarious situation.  I read many many books, but I cannot read every book I start.  If something in the writing puts me off, then I’m done.  It’s like being set up on a date by your parents.  Or when my wife’s uncle and I first met; we’re both English professors, so people assumed we would hit it off (we did, eventually; I can almost get past his specialty in 18th century British literature, when everyone knows the 19th century is where it’s at).

So I received Kevin Roberts’ book Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD with this trepidation.  Roberts is a writer and stand-up comedian and ADHD coach, and I automatically think hmm, too many job titles, a jack of all trades and master of none.  Even though I fancy myself an English professor, blues guitarist, poet, blogger, publisher, woodworker, yoga-meditation-contemplative educator, and, well, okay, maybe three isn’t so many.

I was also wary of the cover.  It seems like the other 1,001 self-help books out there, promising hope that only if you read this book, you will fix everything in our lives.  My Buddha self bristles at that; the only real problem (that voice says) is our own desires, created by the same media-advertising complex that created the self-help industry in the first place, and that little (or great) feeling of unease that we all have is called suffering and the Buddha says through meditation and mindfulness we take on the desire directly, rather than the impediments to fulfilment. Were he alive today, his book would be The Buddha:  How to Eliminate the Self and Achieve Nirvana in Eight Easy Steps.

Anyway, I start reading, and my English professor/literary self starts to get a bit critical.  Too many linking verbs; cut the word count by 5%.   I read a lot of memoir as well and am a humor addict, so I have a high standard there (like, David Sedaris).  So some of the humor’s not working for me at first.

But then I read the most apt description of my own experience with ADHD I’ve ever read:

Procrastination, although an often annoying and self-sabotaging behavior, can serve to increase cerebral arousal. ADHDers often talk about needing intensity in order to get motivated to work.  While it may always seem like an unproductive behavior, leaving things until the last minute creates a crisis, which then creates the level of neurotransmitters and cerebral arousal needed to stimulate the brain enough to focus on the task.  This is why many ADHDers function well in jobs that require crisis and intensity.

This quote puts together what I’ve read about ADHD neurospychlogy with my experience.  If I had this explanation ten years ago then maybe . . . . It also explains that although I started this review a month ago, I only really got going last night.  Okay, early this morning.  Okay, like 10:00 this morning.

This book is, like most ADHDers, a combination of many things: memoir, humor, psychology, and self help.  There are bits of science intertwined with stories of therapies gone well (and wrong) as well as the adventures of growing up with undiagnosed ADHD in a house full of similar minds: “my family made me seem normal, despite a stream of negative messages from the outside world.”

For instance, here’s my favorite joke from the book:

If, when you ask your kid, “How many times do I have to tell you,” she answers, “Forty-five,” she might be ADHD . . . and a smart aleck.  And, by the way, she is actually correct.

I am reminded of the number of times my wife has told me not to leave the freezer lid open downstairs . . . I better go check it now.

I am also frequtenlty reminded of myself reading this book.  For instance, he writes that ADHDers are attracted by get-rich-quick schemes “because we value our independence and bristle at authority . . . . We prefer to be on our own, but often lack the skills that we need to be independently successful.”   This week I am on my own with the kids because my wife is visiting her mom on the East Coast, and I encouraged her to go and looked forward to the opportunity to get some solitude (after the kids go to bed).  I imagined all the things I would get done!

Instead I am reminded how difficult it is to stay on schedule without another grownup around (I just get done with the dishes with the last meal—after stretching out the task taking too many Law and Order breaks—and these kids want to eat again!) and I have wasted my “alone” time playing Bioshock.  Another quote: “I, like many ADHD adults, used to hide in front of my computer screen, playing games, not answering my phone for hours on end, and disengaging from the world.”  HAVE YOU BEEN SECRETLY FOLLOWING ME AROUND, KEVIN ROBERTS???  No, that’s first-person-shooter paranoia.  (Have you seen Bioshock, though?  It’s Art-Deco meets The Fountainhead meets Night of the Living Dead.  Three of my favorite things: aesthetics, overconfident philosophers getting their comeuppance, and zombies.)

So I realize that my initial reaction of, eh, too many things going on in this book was actually rooted in jealousy, in that I wanted more of it to be about me.  He offers advice to parents, spouses, and teachers of children and adults with ADHD.   Some of it seems radically simple, but good.  For instance, he has a chapter titled “Do The Opposite” which begins thusly:

Trying to help an ADHDer create lasting change can be a thankless task, if not an exercise in futility. . . . The first mistake most people make is thinking ADHD folks are just like them.  If ADHDers could conform to accepted behavioral standards, armchair wisdom holds, their troubles would be over.  Many of the choices we ADHDers make seem counter to logic and reason . . . . Often, the more [people] try to help the ADHDer, the more they succeed in pushing that person away.

The result of a long conversation I had last week with my wife—rather, a long argument—was a brilliant solution she came up with.  When she wants me to get something done, rather than ask me to do it, and then reminding me later that I agreed to do it, and then getting fed up with my excuses and further promises, she decided instead that she will “hire” me for jobs, just say “can you work for me from one to three on Saturday,” and she will tell me what to do then.  I actually get a lot done when I can focus on something, such as pulling weeds from the side bed.  I need to get started.  When I go outside I see the weeds, and the brush pile that needs to go to recycling, and the old television antenna that needs to come down, and paint that needs to be repaired, and the driveway that needs to be replaced, and the stump that needs to be pulled, and the garage that needs to be cleaned out, and, and, and.  So although I seem to resist being told what to do, I instead resist piling a job on the could-you-get-this-done-soon stack.  Just having time set aside to focus on a task (with another grownup around) is relief.

I’ve also tried the “do the opposite” strategy with my kindergarten son who shows signs of ADHD.   I realized, after reading this chapter, that no matter how hard I try, I cannot make him hurry, unless I physically move him or get him dressed or whatever.  And, he resists changing activities most of the time; every night, he resists going to bath time, even though he loves to have a bath.  So, this opposite strategy means that in order to make him move, I have to make things a game, a joke, silly fun time.  For the attention-typical world, that would be a delaying strategy, but it makes things go faster and smoother with him.

Furthermore, one of his pieces of advice is to create the sort of intensity ADHDers need to get going.  There are many strategies for this, but they are less crazymaking than the usual procrastination/crisis strategies ADHDers seek.  In order to finish this review, for example, I created all sorts of bad mojo in my life, but here I am cranking it out, getting juiced by the creative energy, the sparking assoications (I have a friend named Mojo and he’s a nice guy), feeling energized and a sort of calm even though I felt raving and stuck last night.  He has strategies for creating that creative intensity without all the self-flagellation and constant disappointment.

So, in order not to risk giving away the whole movie in the preview, I’ll stop there. And I’ll go re-read this book.  In fact, even though I got the free copy, I’m buying it for my Kindle, so I can re-read and re-highlight it.  And stop spying on me, Kevin Roberts!

Come now, Mr. Bubbles. Time to go answer your e-mail.

The Blues Experiment Part 3: Celtic Twilight meets Leadbelly

Today I finished my visit to classrooms at a local elementary school.  I played guitar and sang blues for them, and we listened to blues and spoken-word poetry recordings to learn about poetry and sound.  I had a lot of fun, but had a lot of anxiety leading up to it.

In my previous posts (here and here) I wrote about the premise of this experiment—I’ve never played guitar and sang for an audience.  I’ve played music in some form or another since I was seven, but have always had anxiety about playing for an audience.  Something I’ve practiced over a hundred times can suddenly seem unfamiliar and wrong, and my fingers seem to have a mind of their own.  A forgetful mind.

I played for my college classroom last week and had strange mood swings afterwards.  My wife, a cellist who is far more experienced than I at this told me that it’s normal for her to feel strange for a couple days after a big performance.  She recently had a solo with the university chamber orchestra with a guest conductor and they were making changes until the last minute.  It turned out well, but was worrisome, and she experienced “aftershocks” for a day or so.

And that’s what I experienced after my debut: periods of relief and calm followed by sudden waves of anxiety: sweating, elevated heart rate, dizziness. It seemed odd to experience that after the performance.   Anytime, though, that I replayed the moments leading up to my song, I had that automatic response.  Likewise, when I thought about having to go do this for school kids, I got nervous all over again.

On Easter, I subjected my family to my rendition of the blues as well.   I had not sung in front of them at that point either.  In fact, that was the first time I would say I “performed” a song in front of my wife, if you don’t count singing songs to the kids or singing karaoke with the kids.  She said it would be the same for her if she wrote a bunch of poems for me to read.

I sang for and talked to two classrooms of 6th graders yesterday and two classes of 4th graders today, and I had a lot of fun.  It was much easier to sing for them after the practice with my college students and my family, although my pick hand wouldn’t stay in rhythm for some reason on the very last performance.  It was even more fun to talk to them about poetry.  We talked about sound and repetition in poems and in songs, and they had some great ideas about the meanings of lyrics.

For instance, we talked about Leadbelly’s song “Good Morning Blues”—and the 6th graders really liked that name, Leadbelly.  I’m pretty sure that became part of their lexicon later that day.  Hurry up, Leadbelly! Anyway, there’s a verse about the singer not being able to sleep because “the blues was walking’ all ’round my bed.”  We got off on a fun tangent imagining Blue Man Group skulking around the bedroom at night.

Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), half-length por...

But the experience really shined when we got to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Roads Blues.”  The school has “Crossroads” in its name, which got them thinking. There’s a verse:

Standin’ at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride.

Standin’ at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride.

Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.

I led them through a line of questions that had them thinking about what a cross roads represents and why it might be a good name for a school, and how singing the blues about waiting at a cross roads with no one to help might be a metaphor.  (I even had the teachers and administrators nodding at that one!)

The most telling moments for me, though, were the hours before hand.  I expected to be really nervous before my first class.  I had put the dates and times in my calendar for the visits on Wednesday and Thursday.  On Monday night, right before I went to bed, I checked my email one more time, because I couldn’t remember whether the 4th graders or 6th graders were first.  I just about passed out when I realized I had put the wrong dates on my calendar and the first class was the next  morning instead of two days away!  After singing my own blues (okay, cursing at myself repeatedly) I sat down to finalize my plan.

I then got surprisingly calm.  Having less time than I thought to prep forced me to make decisions.  I had, as usual, way more ideas than I could use, but the sudden urgency made the plan coalesce.  The “Cross Roads Blues” occurred to me in a flash and the plan wrote itself.

In the morning, I was nervous about the day, but not about the singing and the talk—I was nervous about finding the right place to park and knowing where to go when I got there.  This morning, I wasn’t really nervous at all, and looked forward to meeting some more kids.  I said to my wife, “I never thought it would be possible to plan to go sing and talk to fourth graders about poetry and not be terrified.”

My last great piece of fun was making a William Butler Yeats poem into a blues song.  Yeats probably didn’t know anything about the blues, but he wrote in English and knew folk songs, so there’s a lot of commonality.  Here the first half his poem, “Down By The Salley Gardens”:

Down by the salley gardens

my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens

with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy,

as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish,

with her would not agree.

Change the order of the lines and add the word “baby,” and you’ve got a blues song:

Down by the salley gardens my baby and I did meet.

Down by the salley gardens my baby and I did meet.

She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.

She told me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.

She told me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.

But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.


Lightnin' Butler Yeats

The Blues Experiment, Part II

I woke up this mornin’ . . .

. . .with a pretty good headache.  An hour later, filled with Concerta and Excedrin, I sat down to ponder what to do for my class today.  We had an assigned reading, but today is the day before Easter break, so I was sure students’ minds would be elsewhere, as mine was.  Being all full of stimulants, I decided to make my singing debut in class today, as part of my plan for next week.

I have never played the guitar for an audience, and neither have I sang and played guitar for an audience.  My performances were always with the rock band in college (keyboards with occasional backing vocals, usually consisting of “Aaaah” or “Oooh.”), or classical piano or trumpet in high school.  I sang a solo in church once in 5th grade and muffed that up pretty well.

I gathered up all my stuff (acoustic guitar, laptop with backing tracks) and headed to work.  I had conferences all morning with the class at noon.  I sneaked into my office suite with my guitar so no one would notice.  I didn’t want to say that I was going to sing today because I wasn’t sure I was going to go through with it.  During breaks in the conferences, I listened to the song on headphones.  But I still wasn’t sure if I was going to go through with it.  I tuned my guitar as quietly as possible with my door shut so no one would hear it.

Ten minutes before class my hands were shaking. I did some diaphragmatic breathing and calmed down and headed out to class.  I met my office neighbor in the hall who said “Where are you off to?” meaning why did I have a guitar with me.  It was in the case so I said very  noncommittally, “to teach” and marched down the hall.  I still wasn’t sure if I was going through with it.  I still had a backup story (well, I’m headed out to play with a friend after class, so I’ve got to carry this with me . . . .)  I tried to hide the guitar behind the instructor’s station when I walked in, but a student spotted it and said, “Are we getting a lesson by song today?”  I smiled and said “maybe.”  That was the truth; I was still wavering.

We did our reading discussion.  I was distracted and disorganized.   I told myself that at 12:30 I was going to either do it or not.  At 12:25 I still wasn’t sure.

When my watch said 12:29, there was a lull in the conversation, an obvious stopping point.  I said this is it and explained that I was doing a workshop with elementary kids next week about blues and poetry and I needed to practice singing.  I also explained that this was an historic moment:  I had never done this before.

I set up my laptop and hit play for the backing track.  It turns out the plug for the room’s PA doesn’t work.  So I just used my laptop’s tinny speakers and started the backing loop.  I started to plink along on the guitar and after the first turnaround, I started to sing . . .

It was pinched and forced at first, but eventually I loosened up.  I got through the whole song but was too nervous to try the guitar solo section.

Oh, and I recorded it.  It has all sorts of problems.  My guitar’s a little out of tune.  I messed up the lyric on the second verse, then missed a chord change.  But I got through it, and they applauded.  They teased me about putting it on YouTube, but I don’t know if they were serious.  I figured I would beat them to the punch and put the recording out myself.

So, world, here’s my guitar/singing debut.  If you have some stray dogs to scare off, I recommend playing this:

Music guitar

The Blues Experiment, Part I

Oh what a mess I created!

I’ve been working on being more present in the world and less closed off.  I love music and playing the guitar.  Some of my fondest memories from college were playing rock bands.  I played keyboards and sang in a prog-rock cover band and summers played in a classic rock cover band.

Since then, I have never played in public. Only in basements with friends.  I’ve switched instruments too, and taught myself guitar over the last fifteen years or so.  I would love to be able to play and sing in public, but the prospect terrifies me.

AND SO, a friend got me hooked up to do a poetry workshop later next week in an elementary school.  When he asked me, my first thought was no way.  Elementary kids are out of my comfort zone.  With my own son being autistic, I don’t have much practice relating to that age of kids (though I did do a summer as a camp counsellor for five to seven year olds, but that was twenty years ago).  But my friend asked me at our poetry group meeting, and said meeting takes place at Szot’s Bar, and I was on my second beverage, so I said sure!

I’ve been racking my brain for a couple of weeks trying to figure out what to do.  Everything I imagine saying or doing comes out aimed at college students; they’ve been my audience for the last seventeen years.  Suddenly, I had a vision: I imagined plopping down and playing the guitar for them, and that would get some attention.  And then the connections sprang: I could do poetry and the blues as the workshop!  AND THEN, I got the bright idea to not only play, but sing.

These things are way outside my comfort zone.  I have never played guitar for an audience, just with friends in the basement.  I have not sung for an audience since college, and then only as little backup lines.  But I want to get over it.  The idea of performing excites me.  We’ll see.

I went back and forth a couple of times (you can do this/you’re awful and this is a bad idea).  What made me decide for sure yesterday was my six-year-old son.  He kept looking at me funny when I was singing, and then suddenly improvised his own blues song, “Baby, baby, baby, cry, cry, cry, la, la, la . . .  blues.”  Then he got overwhelmed and insisted I stop.  When I didn’t listen, he stole my iPod and made this picture for me:

He even took the picture. Despite all this resistance, it brought out his creative side, so I’m going forward. GAHHHH!