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.

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.

Image via Wikipedia

Inert

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.