Bathroom (De)Construction 2

It’s been exactly a week since I said I would redo the bathroom and that it would take a week.  So far, I’ve succeeded only in tearing things out and giving myself a back ache.  Here’s one view:

Lovely ten-foot ceiling, right? You may be wondering, how did he get a photo of a 12 square foot bathroom from the floor with the door closed?  Maybe you weren’t, but the reason is the floor is gone:

Yep. Oh, and I discovered the wiring was done horribly, dangerously wrong, so I’ve got to do that too.  I have made the executive decision to call a plumber instead of teaching myself copper pipe soldering and possibly burn down the house in order to move the faucet leads.  That’s new for me.

The vision for all this just appeared in my head, one more thing that I had to do, and now it’s running up against other deadlines. Like they delivered the new windows yesterday for the house, and they’ll start tearing out the old ones tomorrow morning.  It’s good practice to follow through on commitments and compare my idea of how long things take to how long they actually take.


Bathroom (De)Construction

It all starts so innocently: “I bought a new faucet for the guest bath,” Laura said.  And I had vowed to start finishing more projects.

We have the world’s smallest guest bathroom.  It’s off the landing on the way to the basement and it used to be a closet.  It’s 2 1/2 by 5 feet.  Yep, that’s 12 1/2 square feet. It has a ten foot ceiling though.  We need two bathrooms in the house, so we have to keep it.  I call it the punishment bathroom.  It had very strange foil wallpaper, made up of images from antique soap boxes.  I understand antique soap ads in a bathroom, and I’ll even agree that foil wallpaper has its place.  But the two together, well, at least you had the toilet there in case the nausea was overwhelming.

Speaking of the toilet, it was crammed so far in to the wall that you couldn’t clean behind it.  Given that it was there starting ca. 1988 (it had a date stamped in the tank) and given that we have two boys, a certain urinary aroma has lived in there for awhile.

I write this all in the past tense, because it is all gone as of today.  You see, installing a new faucet meant drilling a new hole in the counter.  (The countertop’s color and texture, by the way, could be best described as albino elephant’s ass.)  Sure, why not, I thought.  I don’t start classes for a couple days, I can do a couple of household projects.  It was mother’s day too, so I felt obligated.  Turns out, when I got the hole saw about halfway through the countertop, the entire underside blew out in an avalanche of rotten soggy particle board.

So the next thing I knew, I was headed to Menard’s to find a new countertop to cut.  I’ve had a new toilet sitting in the garage for awhile to install there too, so I thought I would install that as well.

I started thinking of what the result would be on the way home. When I pulled in the driveway, I said no, quite clearly.  I’m not going to start another project only to do a half-ass job and leave it halfway completed, in a “just for now” state for the next five years.  I have a beautiful kitchen that I totally remodeled and only have to finish the trim and paint and that’s been that way for four years.  In our other bathroom, I installed a new toilet and pedestal sink and some stick-on floor tiles (just for now) and the walls are half torn apart and that’s been that way for a couple years.

So I went into the house and told my wife that we’re going to be doing this the right way, start to finish.  And now I’ve torn out just about everything and tomorrow will have to tear out the floor as well: it’s several layers of just-for-now stick on tile that someone else put there and then decided to paint over it with a 1980’s peach color.  After a serious water issue last summer, the subfloor is rotting.

Today I pulled out all the trim, wallpaper, and the toilet.  Tomorrow, the floor.  And I’ve managed to keep up with my work as well.  The bathroom is small enough so jobs don’t get too tedious.  Doing physical work in a focused way is also good brain therapy.  It seems easier to switch to teaching work.  This disgusting bathroom is a blessing.

This is used to pee in the bathroom.

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

shut me off

I’ve been waiting for tomorrow to arrive for awhile. Tomorrow I get the results from my testing last month. I went in for my testing on October 12, twenty-five days ago. It takes awhile to get an appointment at this place, and this is my third. (At the end of my first appointment, the doctor scheduled my testing herself, and then said I could go upstairs to the front desk to schedule the follow-up or call and schedule. Following my typical M.O., I did neither and waited until testing day to schedule it.)

I’m feeling really ambivalent about the coming diagnosis, or possible lack thereof. At my first consultation, I got a strong feeling that the doctor agreed with my idea of myself, that I have ADHD-PI. However, I got such mixed messages during testing that I’ve since doubted my own assessment. With good reason—I’ve had plenty of wrong ideas about myself before. If they decide that I don’t have ADHD, do I have to change the name of my blog? I’m sort of hoping for a clear yes, so I can get on with treatment. And blogging.

I didn’t do myself any favors by picking up an Alice Miller book we had sitting on the bookshelf, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I had forgotten we’d had this book, until reading another essay that mentioned it. Since I’d been reading about gifted adults, I thought I would give Alice another whirl. And oh, she had me going down the path of neurosis as the explanation again, back to the land of anxiety and depression, and long, complicated unraveling as the cure.

Most of the newer ADHD work talks about brain biology: poor pathways for executive function, problems with dopamine levels. Alice Miller, in this book primarily about anxiety and depression, is the other end of the spectrum, a good old fashioned Freudian. I started to get pulled in to Miller’s explanations about why gifted people struggle (people pleasing, weak sense of self, even grandiosity) but totally got turned off by the explanation: the mother screwed everything up, and the only way to set it right is to Rage Against the Mother. Furthermore, the level of certitude in the work is really frightening:

Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.

That’s the first sentence of the book. I am suspicious of anyone who has the “one true way” when it comes to human behavior. It’s something I’ve learned as a teacher: watch out for anyone who has the only way to teach properly—that person has other issues to work out (Miller would say he’s redirecting his maternal rage to students). For me, such certitude is a kind of sales talk right up there with fail-proof diets, guaranteed exercise regimens, and get-rich quick schemes. The One True Way is always a sort of snake oil to me.

After I kept reading, I got the strong feeling I was being drawn in to a conspiracy. Miller sets up a tautology, a circular argument, the same way conspiracy theorists do. Her basic premise is that people suffer depression because they repress and suppress negative events from their childhoods and the only way to gain freedom is to unearth these unsavory events to be rid of their control. To do otherwise is to remain in a state of self-deception.

So, if you argue against this model, (such as the “only way” part) you are, like the movie cliche, caught in the trap of defending your own sanity while stuck in the asylum. According to this line of thinking, people who don’t acknowledge the absolute primacy of childhood trauma in a person’s psyche must be repressing/suppressing their own childhood traumas and therefore prove the argument. She states this pretty clearly, also on the first page:

In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth . . . If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual “wisdom,” we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with unearthing past traumas and facing down your demons. I think that’s quite healthy, in fact. However, this book (which is still popular, still being reprinted, as are most of her books) reinforces a simplistic view of depression, that we’re a blank slate when we’re born and our parents screwed us up. In fact, she states her definition of depression in a single sentence: “Depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions.” That’s it. No hedging, no qualification, it’s just about denial. If you don’t agree you are suffering the same denial.

How could this book be so weird? Well, two things are going on. First, it’s a translation from German, with it’s sturdy, declarative sentences. And second, the first edition of this book appeared in 1979. Think of all the advances we’ve made in understanding genetics, brain biology, and pharmaceuticals in the last 32 years. Prozac, the first of the new, revolutionary SSRI’s didn’t hit the U.S. market until 1987. (At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me.)

Even in “revised and updated” editions, the central thesis remains, and the book isn’t being sold as an historical document. It’s outdated pop psych. Curiously, Miller’s work was first recommended to me by my psychologist.

My objection is my own experience. The therapeutic work she’s talking about? Been there. Done that. Years of talking, uncovering, journaling, raging, accepting, even with the help of modern antidepressants. According to Miller, I should be cured by now.

In this book, there is no allowance for any sort of influence of genetics or brain wiring, not even “predilection.” In fact, she sets up a classic straw-man argument when she writes about another psychiatrist’s book that questioned why some people can endure horrible tragedies without apparent pychological damage whereas others seem to wilt at the slightest inconvenience. This other psychiatrist’s explanation? God’s grace.

She dismisses that outright, as you’d expect, but makes no mention that, God or not, there might be an inherited resilience that doesn’t come from one’s conditioning in childhood. I mean, the word “gifted” is in the title of the book. Where did this “gift” come from, if not God or genetics? If a gift can be independent of experience, something you’re born with, why not depression? Somehow, one’s self-deluded, selfish, and damaging parents managed to create this gift at the same time as screwing up absolutely everything else.

She uses the incident as an opportunity to rail against religious explanations and make a plea for religious leaders to “acknowledge and respect these simple psychological laws.” In my (admittedly layperson’s) reading of psychology, the only law is that there are no simple laws. Again, I’ll use the parallel of teaching; nothing does more damage to students than absolute certitude about how people learn, especially if that involves a simplistic, singular model, even if that model is a good one.

So I’ve begun to reconsider the years of work I did with my psychologist. It was enormously helpful, but eventually I plateaued. Since 2005 or so, I’ve been working on my own, making steady progress. She was wonderfully supportive, but I have to question her recommending Alice Miller (it was The Truth Will Set You Free, I think).

I’d have to say Miller is stuck looking at the mind from the story of psychoanalysis. Freudian stuff is fun to read. Writers and English majors love it, because it presents a compelling story, a never-ending source of conflict. Good stories are about conflict. But it is just one way to understand the mind.

Ultimately, Miller’s whole enterprise seems like when dentists tell you they can detect all your health problems by looking at your teeth, and optometrists say the same thing about the eyes, and chiropractors, the back. Seriously, my former chiropractor believed you could cure allergies by aligning the back. I went along with his story, just because I wanted to be able to get out of a chair without wincing. That, and he liked to call me “Professor,” with serious respect, even though I was only twenty five.

The human body is a greatly interconnected thing. Someone who oversimplifies it isn’t doing us any favors. The best book that looks at the whole landscape of depression is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. I say “landscape” because he calls his book, aptly, “an atlas of depression.” Surprisingly, Miller and Solomon come to the same conclusion:

The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. —Solomon

The true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality. —Miller

So Miller gets one end of the argument right.

Well, that turned into a rant. I guess I wanted some distraction until bedtime, so I could stop ruminating about tomorrow and do something productive. I gave myself an hour to write, and it’s turned into two, so now I’ll finish with one last thought.

Another piece of evidence in favor of the ADHD diagnosis: I have to pay the water bill tomorrow, or else they’ll turn off our water on Tuesday. I know this for a fact; our water’s been turned off three times before. The best thing about it is they leave a little blue flag of shame in the front yard where the shutoff valve is to be able to find it in the afternoon after you’ve trudged down to City Hall with the rest of the delinquents. If you drive around Big Rapids on the second Tuesday of the month between 10:00 and 3:00, you can always see who hasn’t paid their water bill in three months. At least this month it won’t be me; I’ll have paid mine in two months and 29 days.


Reading on the go

I read voraciously.  I read as if I need it to get through the day.  Because of my reading habits, I never thought that I had an attention problem, until I learned about hyperfocus.  If anything, I have attention to spare,  at least when it comes to reading. (Being able to direct focus is a different story.)

In any given day, I’ll read political blogs, surf Wikipedia, read poems,  work through one of the three or four books I’m usually reading, and none of that includes the reading I have to do for my job.  I estimate that I read and comment on about 2,500 student papers a year.  (Grading is my scourge.)

I didn’t always love reading in and of itself.  In middle school and high school, English was my least favorite subject. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, what was the point of all that nonsense?  To me, reading was instrumental, something I did to learn something useful or satisfy curiosity, and it only seemed, based on the way many of my teachers taught, that the point of reading dusty old literary stuff was to answer questions on quizzes, like this:

Ophelia is to Hamlet as
A) Peanut butter is to jelly
B) Peanut butter is to tuna
C) Peanut butter is to anaphylaxis
D) MacGyver is to bubble gum

That kind of read reading you did to get the right answer from a poem or whatever so you could learn something that somehow was supposed to be good for you.  I’ve written more poems than anything else since high school, but did not learn to love them until later.

The reading I liked then was the JC Penny Christmas catalog, model railroading magazines, computer magazines, photography books, and strange tales/science fiction writing.  For example, when I visited my grandmother in her drafty old farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, I would terrify myself by reading a book she had,  Haunted Wisconsin.  I would stay up all night hearing all the creaks in the house and the animals outside and imagining the worst.  I’d hear the twang of the frogs in the marsh and the clunk of cowbells and imagine whatever the rural Wisconsin version of the ghost of Christmas yet to come might be.  It didn’t help that my great uncle kept a pelt from his favorite deceased goat in my room, stuffed head and all.

I read that book every time I visited and would not sleep and go back home exhausted.  I couldn’t help myself.  I loved getting freaked out by the book during the day.  If I had some sort of interest in something, I could read it all day, damn the consequences.

I had always read easily.  Like my sons have today, I taught myself to read even before kindergarten.  In the first grade, a teacher thought I was just looking at pictures because I would page through the books so fast, but she quizzed me and found out that I indeed read them.  Through most of my primary and secondary education, I breezed through anything, unless I thought it wasn’t all that important, in which case I just listened to the class lecture.

When I first got to college, however, I had trouble reading.  I would have trouble sitting down long enough to focus to get through a chapter of a textbook.  There was so much fun to be had instead.  If I had to read something difficult, I would read the words much faster than I would comprehend them.  The reading was markedly more difficult than high school, and I couldn’t just skim stuff and retain it like before, and I didn’t have the patience or focus to slog through it.

After a couple of years of struggling, I learned to read with a highlighter or pencil in my hand.  I underline important concepts, sometimes write questions and comments in the margin.  I still do that for difficult reading.  The pen in my hand sliding across the page helps me slow down and stick with something difficult.  I focus, temporarily, on making really straight lines when I mark, and then the words stay clear to me.  That’s why I love the Kindle today, you can highlight as you read, and it stores all the highlights together.  And the lines are perfectly straight!

I got serious about reading after my first year of college.  After a disastrous start at the university, I took a writing class at a community college, having changed my major to English.  I told the professor, a calm fellow with small glasses and a big beard, that I wanted to be a writer.  He asked me what I read.  Mostly I read a lot of Reader’s Digest, because they were lying around my parents’ house as I was lying around my parents’ house at the time.  He told me I needed to get more serious about reading if I was serious about writing.

From then on, I’ve always read like a writer, focusing on how something is written in addition to what it says.  I can’t separate the two.  And always I read for comparison: could I write like this?  Should I?

This habit has led to some difficulties.  First, if I read a novel or something that’s in an genre that I might be interested in writing, I get angry if I feel it’s not written well.  Second, I often get seduced by what I read.  I read a science fiction novel; I want to write science fiction novels. I read a good poem, then I want to write poems.  I read Edward Abbey; I want to go live in the woods.  It’s frustrating that I know I could write a similar book only if I could sustain the interest long enough.

I often don’t have a strong sense of self and lose perspective once I’m “in” to some new book (the same goes for new hobbies).  There’s an overall pattern of inconsistency in my life.  That pattern appears in the piles of papers, tools, boxes, and other stuff I leave sitting around to take care of later.  That pattern is in my whims and fancies: Pen turning! Kayak building! Photography! Kitchen remodeling! Seventeen different writing projects! Or in scholarship: Literacy studies! Critical pedagogy! Faculty development! Contemplative education!

I’m always molding myself to the present, seeing how I can fit in to what’s going on around me.  It’s only very recently I’ve learned to start saying “no” at work to new projects and committee invitations unless they are core to my vision of what I do.  Only recently I am able to stick to that original vision of my professional self: I teach and write.

As I said above, reading is seductive.  Great writers create a new state of mind and they take me along for the ride.  Even merely good writers draw me in.  And when I’m reading something great, I dwell in possibility.  A portion of experience opens up to me, even a new way of seeing myself and the world, which is exhilarating and uplifting.  Until I find the new best thing next week.

I have been reading like a writer for a long time now.  It’s been twenty years since that teacher told me to read more like a professional.  And, for that long, I have been living mostly in possibility.  That is, reading and thinking like a writer, but not so much writing as one.  Missing is the important step: publishing!

*   *   *

That seemed like a tidy place to end the post, but there is one more, um, experience I did not yet include.  I am a bathroom reader, and I don’t mean while soaking in the tub.

Upon the throne is a great place to read.  One is not supposed to be doing anything, uh, productive with one’s time. So there’s no I should be paying bills thinking going on.  I can’t quite remember when I started taking reading into the W.C., but I remember taking in magazines and catalogs when I was a kid. My parents keep stacks of Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker in their bathrooms.

I read somewhere (probably in the same room) that reading helps one, ah, relax in that situation, stimulates the limbic system or some such system.

It’s gotten to the point where I feel I have to read to go.  Yes, I take books or a newspaper with me into the men’s room at work.  If, for some reason, I have no reading when I need it, I’ll even read a shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube and analyze the sentence structure.  (Shampoo bottles love active voice and imperative mood: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)   I’ll admit to hiding out in the bathroom once in awhile just for some reading.  And while my discovery that I’m gluten intolerant has made my digestion and overall health much better, I find that it seriously cuts into my reading time.

The other issue there is the safety of my Kindle.  I’ve had to try hard not to drop it in the toilet.  And while this piece of technology is wonderful, I have also admit that, yes, I have purchased a book wirelessly from the bathroom and yes, that does seem a little strange.

Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...

Image via Wikipedia

toilet wc

Image via Wikipedia

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.