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.

Can I return it?

I remember the Kelly LeBrock Pantene commercial from the 80’s: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”  I was a teenager, so I thought, I could never hate you! I mean, have you seen Weird Science?

Recently, I’ve discovered a new body of research and yet another category I fit into: “gifted.”  A lot of the AD(H)D blogs I’ve been reading point to that area of research, and guess what?  It is another area of contention.  Can you be both gifted and AD(H)D?  It’s a simple question without simple answers, other than “it depends who you talk to.”

So, gifted.   I hadn’t heard that for awhile.  I used to go to these events in the fourth and fifth grade that were some sort of smart fair for “the gifted and talented.”  I remember going in order to lose at chess to a grown up, to play with lasers and holograms, to dissect a sheep’s brain.  The whole thing was weird and uncomfortable, because I didn’t know any of these people and wasn’t there long enough to figure out the social rules.

As I’ve written before, I stopped believing in my fundamental smartness after my first year of college.  But after my recent testing I started poking around the Mensa web site, and found out that I qualify for membership based on my ACT and GRE scores.  (ACT composite of 29 in 1988; GRE composite of 2010 in 1993.)  What caught my attention is that I thought I was getting dumber the longer I was in college, but my GRE scores are, related to IQ,  higher than the ACT score. In other words, I qualify more clearly with my GRE score.  Not exactly scientific, but the opposite of what I thought anyway.

Since then, I’ve been walking around with a spring in my step.  I am smart.  I want to tell strangers on the street: “You know, I qualify for Mensa.”  I don’t think my mailman cares too much about that.  I want to join Mensa so I can buy the t-shirt and the mug, so that people will whisper as I walk by “There goes Jon; he’s a two-percenter, you know.”

But, then I remember that it’s not been terribly useful to be so “smart. ” It further underscores my negative self talk: you are too smart to keep doing these dumb things.

Like what?  Like never finishing projects, not returning email, not paying bills on time, forgetting meetings and commitments, wasting time when there’s urgent work to do.  It’s not like I sit in my den of evil cackling away at the inferiority of the people sending me emails, projects, and bills.  I don’t think it’s any way beneath my intellect to do these things.  It’s quite the opposite.  I feel like I can’t do these mundane tasks that everyone else seems to be able to do just fine, so I must be dumb.  The days when I can be calmly productive seem liberating, so I definitely want to do these things, at least in the abstract.

Going through school was no easy matter as a “gifted” student. Anything less than an A seemed like a failure.  I endured endless teasing in the fifth grade for crying in class when I failed a little five-question quiz, the only such test I had ever failed.  I became competitive, and an annoying watchdog for any hint of unfairness in grading.  (Perhaps this quality is one reason I have trouble giving out grades: I imagine all my students are hovering out there, just waiting to pounce at the first sign of any inequity in my grading.)  Healthy competitiveness is okay, but there’s a streak of pride in me that always wants to win, that never wants to be wrong.  That’s why I continually play chess on the iPod on the easiest level.  It’s more fun for me to see how quickly I can beat it on imbecile setting than to risk losing (and thus be challenged to a better game) on a higher level.

In the fifth grade, my homeroom teacher, Mr. Packer, started giving us essay exams for social studies.  Everyone was terrified of these exams because we were used to multiple choice, objective exams, with maybe a short answer question once in awhile.

We got our first exam back, right before morning recess, no one looked happy, but I got an A.  Shayla, a tall, strong lass, asked me on the sidewalk on the way to the playground: “What did you get?”  When I told her, she looked offended, and starting venting to other people: “Jo-on here got an A!  Goody for Jo-on!”  It turned out I got the only A in the class.

Next, a chase ensued.  It started out as a joke: “Let’s get ‘im!”  Several people chased me around the playground.  But it turned into a Lord of the Flies moment: someone tackled me and I came up pushing and shoving and swung my jacket at someone else and the metal button whacked him in the nose and left a scrape.  The playground aides had to intervene.

The fifth grade established an oft-repeated pattern.  Lots of people despised me for doing well and took pleasure when I didn’t.  In the fifth grade, the playground social structure mattered to me way more than getting A’s.  I wanted to fit in with the dodgeball/football crowd.  Predictably, I got picked last.  One fall day, I actually caught a touchdown pass in the end zone (the fence along McDevitt Ave.).  The ball flew into my hands after a couple deflections, and there I was, winning the game.  However, a raging debate erupted because no one could remember which team I was on.  The bell rang, and everyone but me forgot about the game.

I went through school when “nerd” and “geek” did not have the counterculture hipness, the ironic distance that it does today.  (That was for skaters and stoners.)  I hated being the class nerd, but I was.  All the stigmata appeared: extreme gangliness, glasses, acne, no dating what so ever.  I was only a pocket protector away from being a total social outcast.  Some people called me “Gilbert,” after the Anthony Edwards character.  (By the way, can someone explain to me how the same actor can play Gilbert and Goose?)  I grew out of  my nerdiness a little bit, but had to find girlfriends at different schools or summer camp; everyone knew better in little old Vandercook Lake.

I do understand the human instinct for derision, the jealousy, the schadenfreude.  There are two groups of people I love to hate: dumb rich people and arrogant politicians.  I love this Republican primary season; I scan the news thinking “What dumb thing is Herman Cain going to say next?”  I had to turn off an episode of House Hunters because I resented the ditzy couple who were just suffering trying to pick out their $2 million vacation home.

So, gifted.  What. Does. That. Mean.  I have a gift.  I’m supposed to have gratitude.  A gift is something unearned, given.  A gift is something that’s supposed to be useful, that reflects the giver’s understanding of what the recipient wants or needs, what would give the person joy.  This gift, however, keeps giving me the finger.  I wake up most mornings thinking I have wasted so much time, that I have squandered my gift.  I could be writing great books, solving important problems, giving myself completely to my family and my job, and instead I poke around the internet, play with my iPod, take joy in the misfortune of the arrogant, think about great stories that I never write, totally avoid yardwork, and do a moderately good job teaching at a university few people have heard of.

My gift is incomplete. If my measurable smarts came with anywhere near equal motivation and focus it would be a gift indeed.  Instead I fit in the “gifted underachiever” category: lots of great ideas, lots of skills, lots of potential, little to show for it.  It is maddening.  I’m like a Steve Jobs who never got out of the garage.  My gift came without batteries, but it has a really cool picture on the box.

Please don’t hate me because I’m gifted.  It really is a burden.  I know, that’s like a movie star complaining that you just can’t find good sashimi in Milan any more, but we all have our battles.