Nonspecific Day

Of the many varied experiences I’ve had as a college professor, I have never been asked to look for explosives.  Until today:

I arrived at work about 9:00 to an empty office suite.  After a couple minutes, I heard someone walking through saying “Hello?  Hello?”  It was the emergency coordinator for our building, and she told me there had been a bomb threat called into the University this morning.  “They didn’t say anything specific in the threat, but we’re supposed to keep an eye out.”  She reminded me of Dwight Schrute.

I thanked her and checked my email. Sure enough, a “non-specific bomb threat” had been called in.    Whatever that means.

Throughout the day, I got text messages and instant-message popups on computer screens in my classrooms.  Now, I’m grateful we have these systems (which came in the wake of the Virgina Tech shootings in 2007), but today’s messages were not all that useful.  Here’s a text message I got:

ALERT–As of 4:30 pm, there is no new information to report on the bomb threat.

A few minutes later, my office phone rang.  It was my department chair.  We talked about the bomb threat.  She said, “anything unusual over there today?” (Most of my department is in a different building, and we’re a little island of eight offices.)

“All quiet on the western front,” I said.  Most everyone else had gone home ahead of the snowstorm.

“Okay, well, they’re asking us to all look around in the public areas, you know, for anything unusual.  Check your mailbox, for example.”

I said I would look around.  So, that’s right, I became part of an ad-hoc bomb detection effort.  I chuckled when I thought about what my union rep might say about it.

But I did my duty, and looked around.  I did get a little nervous opening the cabinet where our mail boxes are.   I’ve been reading a Vietnam War memoir, and the last little bit I read before going to bed was about half of a patrol being wiped out by a booby trap. I kept thinking mail bomb, mail bomb.

It turns out the only unusual things in the mailboxes was an old wristwatch in somebody’s mail box, and a box of Bostich framing nails on someone else’s shelf.  Actually, that wasn’t unusual at all; I think both of those items have been sitting there for going on two years now.  In fact, there’s so much weird stuff sitting around, I don’t know what would be suspicious or not.

Suffice it to say, I did not find anything explosive, and went back to the somewhat less exciting job of answering email before heading home.

The Hurt Locker

Image via Wikipedia



The Shower Strategy

It was hard getting up this morning.  Six a.m. and I had to get myself together so I could get the kids roused for school.  Was up half the night with indigestion.  Sleepy as hell.

After my wife helped me get the kids off to school and the coffee took effect, I faced the last step, getting myself off to work.  It’s a stressful task, my head started to spin with all the things I had to do today.  Getting ready for work means getting an outfit together, showering, getting a lunch together, choosing a coat (I’m in Michigan, 35F this morning), finding my shoes, getting together my cell phone, wallet, watch, keys, sunglasses, watch, iPod Touch, laptop, any books or folders I need for the day. Today is garbage day, so I had to remember to put the trash cans out on the curb too.

Because getting out the door seems such a huge effort, I usually wait until the last minute as well. I’m looking for ways to make hard tasks easier, and I learned awhile ago to have a “pocket pile” by the front door; all my pocket items go in the secretary desk there.

Today, though, I realized that the shower was one of the most stressful parts of the routine, and it doesn’t make sense; that should be relaxing.

I understood today that the stress came from the tasks all circling in my head during the shower.  I plan what to grab for lunch, what I’m going to wear, what I have to remember to do to get out the door.  And then I have to read back that list to myself, saying, okay, you’ve got three main things to remember, lunch, laptop, garbage.  L, L, G.  Three things. And then I worry about the time, if I’m going to make myself late because I didn’t start soon enough. If my mind drifts to phone calls I need to make or emails I need to return, then the list disappears, and I have to struggle to get it back. Okay, three things, what were they?  That stress carries through my whole exit strategy; the worst thing that can happen is for my wife to say, “Oh, can you remember to xyz” as I’m leaving because I usually cannot remember, and my irritability index is at full boil.

I know that it would be easier to get everything ready the night before.  Once in awhile I can do that, especially if I know I won’t be rested, but usually I just feel too tired and put it off.

Today though, it occurred to me to get all my stuff together before my shower. I don’t stress about pocket items, because they are all ready to go.  So I also got together all my clothes, packed my backpack, stuck a note on there to remember to take out the trash, and even got my shoes and coat ready to go, and then headed to the shower.  The result: relaxing shower, calm walk to work, feeling centered now despite tiredness.

I know that the tasks themselves are not always the issue, but the conditions of the task. I was able to take advantage of the urgency of the getting ready to go by getting all my stuff together before the shower, and then the urgency was not overwhelming.

And now I’m blogging about showers.

men's shower

Image by aaron schmidt via Flickr


I’ve had a bit of the doldrums lately.  I’ve got lots of work to do, lots of work that I need to make progress on, and I’ve had enormous difficulty getting started.  I read an apt description of my current state of mind in an essay by Tracy Kidder called “Courting the Approval of the Dead.”  He’s recalling his experience researching for Old Friends, his book on nursing homes, and coming to the realization that a fate worse than a painful death would be to spend one’s final days “bored and inert”:

What  meaning could life have, I’d find myself wondering, if the best of the last things people get to do on earth is play Bingo?

I’m certainly far removed from nursing-home existence, but “bored and inert” seems to be the curtain that has been drawn over my window recently.

A couple of weeks back, I hurt my back.  Kneeling on the floor putting my son’s shoes on as he readied for the bus to take him to kindergarten, I felt a strange twinge in my back, just above the crest of my pelvis on the left side.  That’s odd, I thought.  I stood up, felt a little pain,  not too much, and sat on the couch with my son.  We played with Talking Larry on my iPod until the bus came.

When I heard the bus rumbling up the hill, Alec stood up and I bent over him to put on his backpack.  I found, though, that I couldn’t straighten to an upright position, so I limped bent over to the door to let him outside.  I told him goodbye, watched him climb the stairs on the bus, and then collapsed to the floor.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up, I thought.

I stayed on the floor a good twenty minutes.  I didn’t feel pain as long as I laid there, but trying to get to a standing position caused deep pain in my lumbar area; if I tensed my hamstring in any way, my back hurt. I used every yoga trick I knew, rolling, using my hands to assist, to eventually get to a standing position.  Standing was fine; walking was the next trick.  Any forward motion of my leg on the left side caused the pain to return, so in a sort of zombie shuffle, dragging my left leg, I made my way to the couch in the family room.

I knew that getting up would be hard after I sat down again, so I made sure to visit the bathroom and then gather my laptop and the phone and TV remote and a glass of water before I sat down.  I put all the items within reach and then carefully sat down and set about the business of cancelling my classes and conferences for the day.

The pain started to subside in a couple of days, and actually moved to my knee and shoulder blades as I compensated for my back.  Today I feel nearly fixed, more of a tightness in the region than anything else.  But this injury interrupted my practices and I am now feeling the results.

I had been riding my bicycle regularly for exercise, going to a yoga class once a week, and holding conferences with my students to keep up with grading papers.  All of those things got disrupted.  I’m not high energy kind of person (unless it’s something I’m really into like a video game) and all the painkillers I took were sapping my reserves.  Even the over-the-counter stuff I take gives me side effects; I couldn’t imagine doing anything prescription.  Needless to say, the bike and yoga class weren’t happening.

Putting things off is nothing new to me.  The things I am putting off today I put off when I felt better and more energetic.  It’s just now they are ganging up on me.  And even the pleasurable things have started to lose their luster.

Like this blog.  I feel like it’s been successful.  I’ve had as many as 65 hits on a single day, and a number of comments and a few subscribers.  In the two months I’ve been working at it, I’ve made 30 posts, and half of those are considerable, more than 1,000 words.  It’s been a fun project, and I feel like at least someone is reading my work, which makes me feel like some kind of writer.  I’ve felt as though I’ve had a couple of really good moments of discovery in my writing as well.

But now my blogging is starting to feel, for lack of a better word, “tainted.”  A project for me gets tainted when some kind of negativity or problem gets attached for it that I can’t seem to resolve.  When I get going on a novel manuscript, everything is new and shiny and exciting, and I really believe that I might finish it this time.  Then I run into some barrier, such as a scene that I am not happy with that I know needs to be different, but I’m not sure how, and then I stall.  After a couple days, I start to lose the thread of the story, and have to backtrack and re-read in order to refresh my memory.  It’s difficult to come back to and the longer I am away from a manuscript, the stupider the whole enterprise seems to me in the first place.  Similarly, I fall in and out of love with my poems.

This ebb and flow is not unusual, from what I’ve read of writers on their own writing.  Tom Perrotta, for example:

I have to send the kids out to daycare and then drink a pot of coffee and play my guitar until I get so disgusted with myself that I have to write.

But the point for him is that eventually he does write, and has experienced success.

Anyway, this blog project became tainted in several ways.  First, I started out way less than serious about blog writing, but now do take it seriously, and am reading my reference books on memoir, and am now starting to apply a higher standard (and more pressure) to myself.  Second, I started out in a David Sedaris writing mode, having just finished reading a couple of his books, but am now rereading The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, and am feeling more serious and less silly about my condition and don’t want to be pegged as a funny writer anymore (at least today).  I often get seduced by what I read in the sense that if it moves me I want to emulate it.  I read a lot of things and can’t decide who I want to be.  I have a hard time saying, “that’s really great writing, but I’m not that kind of writer,” unless it is something extraordinarily erudite.

Finally, and this is the hardest hurdle, is that I feel like I’ve been investing time in this blog at the expense of The Things I’m Supposed To Be Doing, and therefore it is an instrument of avoidance.  That’s the humdinger.  The whole enterprise seems a waste of time, then, a deliberate waste of time, the wost kind.  I developed this kind of Protestant work ethic idea of what a good person ought to be, and though I cannot live up to it, I nevertheless constantly compare myself to it.  Good people are dependent and reliable and productive and hard working, like Boxer in Animal Farm.

“Why are you writing?” you may ask.

I had a good chat with my wife over this state of blah I’m in and mentioned feeling like this blog was a waste of time.  She disagreed.  “If you want to be a writer,” she said, “you have to practice.”  She’s right, as usual.  One makes time for the important work, and finds some way to do the rest.  I am grateful for the insight, and it helped me get started on this post today.

I can almost forgive her for sleeping through my back injury.

The Appointment

It took me awhile to get my forthcoming appointment for an evaluation.  I decided last spring to seek evaluation.  It took me a month to work up courage to call someone.   I called a mental health agency in town, the only one that mentioned ADHD on its web site, and a nice secretary took my information and said the good doctor was on vacation and would get back to me on Monday.  Four weeks later, still no call.

That’s something I would do, not return a phone call, but I was too miffed to give the guy another chance.  Three more weeks went by (and, hey, I was doing well anyway, so what’s hurry?) and I finally called a new place in Grand Rapids, where there were more choices.  The name of the place is the BRAINS Foundation, which is some sort of acronym.

I screwed up my courage to call again, and a lovely recorded voice said “Thank you for calling BRAINS.” I couldn’t help but think about zombies.

Another nice secretary took my information and told me it would be six weeks to get an appointment. The appointment fell when I would be on vacation. We were going just a few miles from home, though, so I took it.

Five and three quarters weeks later, life intruded again.  We started laundry for vacation, and the sewer line clogged.  Not a big deal; it often does, and I fixed it with a blow bag, which attaches to a garden hose, and which I run from the laundry sink.  I cleared the line and took my son out for a haircut.  I got a frantic call from my wife: “Where’s the water shut off valve!?”  Running the blow bag had stressed a kinked faucet lead in the half bath, and water was spraying out of it everywhere.  The main water shut off was broken too.

I wrapped up the haircut and raced home.  By the time the water was off, about twenty minutes had passed.  A surprising amount of water can flow into one’s basement in twenty minutes.  So I cleaned water and packed contractor bags full of stuff that I had meant to throw out or sell at garage sales anyway, arranged for a plumber, and cleaned the basement the rest of the day.  The next day, a Sunday, we packed for vacation, when my wife said she felt she was getting a bladder infection and headed to the walk-in clinic.  The doctor asked if she had experienced any stress lately.

Laura got her prescriptions and started the antibiotics and we continued to pack.  Three hours later, we were in the ER.  She had gotten dizzy and experienced severe neck pain, so, concerned about allergic reaction and/or meningitis, we spent most of the night in the ER getting her some IV antibiotics and fluids.

We went on vacation anyway because we were already packed, but I rescheduled my appointment.  Guess what? Another six week wait.

I am eager to get this evaluation started, but apprehensive as the date draws nearer.  I remember my first meeting with a psychologist back in 2001, just over ten years ago, my first step on this journey to wherever.  I called the APA to get a referral and ended up with an appointment with a local psychologist.  I sat in that waiting room, hyperaware.  Why are they playing this music? I thought, listening to what I was sure was a musak version of “Killing Me Softly.”  Why are these magazines here; what’s the message behind Outside next to Family Circle?  Why did they install fluorescent lights if they’re not going to turn them on?  What’s with this low-rent couch? What’s wrong with that guy sitting in the corner?  My doctor came and introduced herself, and led me down a hallway of doors to her couch under a print of “Christina’s World.”  I sat and took in her office. Books everywhere, muted colors, not messy but not overly organized, a pile of toys next to the couch, well-placed boxes of tissues throughout.  She started the process, and the next appointment took a history, writing furiously on a legal pad as I free associated about my background.  She would stop writing and listen to me more intently and then write even faster every time I mentioned my mother.

We started talk therapy the next week.  The sessions were not highly structured, just free-form conversation that would start with “How are things?”  Our five-year conversation led me out of the depths, but ultimately stalled out.  If I do have ADHD (I don’t think there’s much doubt at this point, but I’m not officially diagnosed yet) then the experience with the psychologist treated the symptoms, not the cause.  I tapered myself off the anti-depressants a couple of years back, and now take vitamins instead.  And changed my diet.  And started yoga. And learned how to work my job.

But root problems still exist (procrastination, clutter, couch potato personality) and I don’t think they are neuroses.   The Appointment? Seventeen days and counting.