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

http://amzn.com/161649204X

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.

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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)

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...

Clean Energy

Much of my writing here thus far has been of the lament/angst/ennui/maladaption sort.  When I prepared for my first meeting for evaluation, I had to fill out a long form about my health and personal history.  One of the first questions asked what I hoped to accomplish as a result of my visit.

I’ve been thinking today about what I imagine a more adaptive, less frustrating life must look like.  In my teens and twenties I spent a lot of time thinking about the golden era to come when I would figure everything out, find my thing, get my groove on, and arrive at my real life.  I imagined in order for this to happen, I would need to be married, have a house, have a career, a nice computer, a stylish-yet-practical car.  I have all those things, though not exactly the career I imagined, and don’t feel terribly different.

What I do want is clean energy of the mental sort.

I trust myself most completely in a clean energy state.  This is a state where I think clearly, I do things that at my core feel important and the right thing to do.  I don’t do things because I think my colleagues, my teachers, my parents, liberals, Marxists, students, a cool writer I just read, or poetry editors think I should.  They come from a place of positive energy, not grasping, cover-my-ass, make everyone happy, worrisome place.

I grew up being a people pleaser and often feeling conflicted.  I wanted to make my parents and teachers happy and at the same time have a lot of cool friends.  That’s a fundamental conflict.  To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, you can’t please all the people all of the time.

Conflictedness is a symptom of my “gift” of seeing things from many angles at once.  Thinking about the most basic decision about my teaching, for example, can produce anxiety.  Do I do what students want?  What I think is best for students?  What I think I can do without too much procrastination and worry?  What the promotion committee will find attractive? Some new-fangled idea that’s stimulating my need for novelty?  When you have awareness of other people’s reactions constantly and want to be liked, it is hard to do something unpopular.  When you work in higher education, someone will always criticize you for your work.

I think most of the time, I make such decisions in order to avoid failing and avoid criticism; I am worried about my image.

Likewise, when I write, I often feel that conflictedness.  My students are driven crazy sometimes by the conflicting advice they’ve heard about writing. Writing is so subjective, especially poetry, that I can hardly put a line together without imagining what three different teachers/writers/editors I’ve worked with would say to criticize it.

And the whole idea of creation, that whole Romantic “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” thing that we have Wordsworth to thank for, relies on the welling up of emotion to overcome inhibition of expression that seems a recipe for unhealthy mind, especially if you’re the inhibited sort.  I’ve written from that place many times before, and it is exhausting working myself up into that state in order to write (not exactly “spontaneous” if I have to work at it, right?).

Last night, for example, I got into a state fueled by stress, lack of sleep, and extra caffeine and Excedrin and became convinced that the way forward was to write an epic poem about the holographic principle set in virtual reality.  I still think it’s a pretty cool idea, but yesterday I was ready to devote the next year to writing it.

Better writing, and better thinking, come from a more clear-headed place.  The messy unconscious does have it’s place, but I’m interested in cutting out the vain, self-conscious, and ultimately self-loathing streak from my process.  It’s true that a little bit of self-questioning prevents one from being arrogant, but I’m off balance.

This morning I feel a bit more calm.  I had a relaxing morning.  Sent the kids to school, slept a little bit, and sat for meditation.  I arrived at my clean energy state.  I feel calm and focused, not mind-reeling, gonna spend three hours teaching myself about quantum mechanics while playing chess and drinking three Cokes kind of of energy.  Clean energy allows me to both keep the long view in perspective, not worry needlessly about my classes coming up this afternoon, and just to work on what’s most important, maybe while humming a tune.

It’s an elusive state, however.  It feels great once I’m here, but habit sends me worrying, sets my jaw to clenching, starts me on the path to either working frenetically or frenetically avoiding work, sets the negative self-talk in motion (“you should have done this earlier, why can’t you just do what you’re supposed to do, why can’t you just be a normal grown-up . . .”).

The opposing force of this clean energy, then, is mania, allowing my intellectual cravings and emotional grasping full rein over the day’s events.  It’s not clean energy because I feel somewhat dirty after the fact, somewhat used up and diminished, slightly embarrassed for having let my monkey mind rule the roost. I’m not advocating a sort of repression of that part of the self.  Try to tamp that down and it will find some other outlet.  Instead, when I am in a good state, I practice mindfulness from the Theravada tradition: acknowledge that part of mind, in a slightly bemused way, like “there you are, crazy Jon” and it settles down.  Mindfulness of emotion, for example, is the opposite of denial.  It is full acknowledgement of feelings and cravings and desire that arises seemingly from nowhere.  A meditative state is not an emotion-free state; it’s a place of observing the self.

I am no expert at meditation nor Buddhism.  My experience is just listening to podcasts, reading books, sporadic meditation practice on my own, occasionally attending a meditation session in Second Life (yes, virtual meditation is a real thing) and the five minutes of meditative breathing we do at the beginning and end of the yoga classes I go to.

As I started to wind down on this post, I checked my email, and received my daily dispatch from Tricycle.  It seemed to fit well, as the emails often do.

We Must Grow Weary of Craving

We’re stuck on feeling like a monkey stuck in a tar trap. A glob of tar is placed where a monkey will get its hand stuck and, in trying to pull free, the monkey gets its other hand, both feet, and eventually its mouth stuck, too. Consider this: Whatever we do, we end up stuck right here at feeling and craving. We can’t separate them out. We can’t wash them off. If we don’t grow weary of craving, we’re like the monkey stuck in the glob of tar, getting ourselves more and more trapped all the time.

http://www.tricycle.com/dharma-talk/glob-tar

That’s an awesome quote, but I don’t know why Buddhism is so anti-monkey.