Dear friends, colleagues, students, employers, creditors, family, editors, medical providers, yoga instructors, Facebook friends, WordPress readers, and auto mechanics:

I have ADHD.  It’s a real thing. It’s hard because most of the world doesn’t.  Our society is built on steady, goal-directed effort and my brain does not work that way.  I will be a valuable person to interact with for a time, and then I will probably disappear.  I’m trying to fix that. It’s hard.  I lived for 40 years without knowing what was wrong, and it’s going to take some time to undo my bad habits and poor choices and the negative feelings that have grown up around them.

I am not asking to be excused or pitied.  The life I have now is what I signed up for. No one twisted my arm and said I had to take a teaching job, and I am fully aware, dear creditors, that one has to pay back what one has borrowed. I want to be held accountable for my actions. That actually helps me improve.  Also, don’t tell me I’m brave. I am not. If I were, I would not have this problem in the first place.  Though it is tempting, I do not think martyring myself will be healthy. I want to be praised for my true talents and accomplishments, and bravery is not up there.  False flattery is a short-term fix that I’m trying to wean myself from.

The only thing I want is some way to explain my strangeness.

When I don’t do something I said I would do, I most likely did not forget about it. I do forget about tasks, but usually just minor ones. No, usually something happened to get in the way of my getting started or following through and I couldn’t do it.  I can guarantee it’s on a list or in a pile somewhere close by.

Motivation is tied to desire, but it is a complex interaction.  If you’ve ever tried and failed to quit smoking or stick to a diet you know what I mean.

I want to be the teacher that returns emails within 24 hours, for example. I think that’s an important and reasonable standard for my work. Sometimes I can do it.  Sometimes I can’t.  Even when I can’t, I think about it all the time. It’s not that I’m living this carefree life, trying to get away with doing as little work as possible, laughing all the way to the bank (my bank statement generally makes me want to stick my head under a pillow).  I greatly prefer being able to do my work, and the things I do to avoid it do not make me happy or satisfied.  I imagine my habits are similar to a maintenance alcoholic’s drinking; avoidance is a sort of self-medication.  It might help in the short term but it creates more problems in the long term.

Like every person, my interests and enthusiasm for projects and activities change all the time.  However, unlike the average person, it is really hard for me to work on something that does not have an intrinsic attraction or immediate deadline. When things get difficult or uncertain, my attention moves on to something else.  My waning attention does not mean I don’t value something in the long term. There’s just some minor hurdle that my brain’s turned into a wall.  Whatever hypothetical task we’re talking about now, I was interested and motivated to do it before and I will be again.  I’m just on a down cycle right now.

There are some things that are not going to change.  I have trouble recalling names and numbers, for example.  Can’t help it.    Remembering someone’s name has little to do with how important that person is to me. Sometimes I can’t even remember my own phone number. The hardest thing of all for me to do is sustain regular effort over the long term. I can do that sometimes and it will seem as easy as breathing, but sometimes answering my email is harder than eight hours of digging ditches.

I want you to understand that if I disappear on you, it’s most often not something that you did. When I disappear, something’s going on in my life that’s causing me to get stuck.  It often has nothing to do with you. In fact, sometimes, the more I value a person or a project the harder it is to get over my block. I’m working on changing that, and I am making good progress, but I have setbacks too.

One thing that helps is persistence on your end.  I know, that seems unfair, but kind reminders and contact helps me enormously.  Face time helps too.  If we can work together somehow, I’ll do much better work.  If I have to slog things out alone, I’ll get into trouble.  I think I’m the only person I know who likes long meetings.

And honesty helps too. If you tell me what you like and what you don’t, in the long run I like that better than guessing at what people are thinking. Although it is very difficult for me to hear criticism when I’m in a funk, it proves valuable in the end. (Apologies to my wife in that department.) You have to have an abundance of patience to work with me.  I’m fortunate to have many people around me with such patience.  Especially my wife.

I write all this because it is hard to understand for a person without ADHD to understand. Even people with ADHD have trouble understanding and thus explaining themselves.  I did not understand my habits for nearly 40 years; I’m used to hiding and covering for my deficits. I don’t expect the world to change for me. I’m finding a way to work in the world. Understanding my habits is not yet enough for me to overcome my challenges yet, but I’m on the way.

If I disappeared on you, all of the above is the real explanation. I can usually conjure a believable excuse which has some basis in reality, such as I was sick, my kids were sick, or the internet was down. Those things happen often enough.

But the real answer: I got into a funk, a freeze, a down cycle.  I’ll be back soon.


Non Linear Writing: Undoing Doogie

The older and more brain-conscious I get, the more I feel that non-linear writing is helpful to my ADHD brain.  Trying to fit my writing process into boxes that someone else created finally ended when I learned to blog. I’ve learned to write my prose piecemeal and fit the parts together later, sort of a collage approach that I’ve been using in poetry for awhile. (Poets have the advantage of being able to work in smaller chunks at the outset.)

Good prose writers create “flow” on the page where one sentence and one idea leads naturally and inevitably to the next.  Having read on the order of 50,000 student papers in my career and churned out a few words of my own, I know that’s not an easy state to achieve.  “Flow” is one of those ideas about writing that is important hard to point to exactly in a piece of writing.

Novice writers usually know two things about flow; it’s good and they don’t have it.  They’ve been told a million times: improve flow.  Us writing teachers sometimes joke over beers about the things we write on papers when we get tired of grading papers:  awkward phrasing, use a stronger main idea, use more detail, use a more logical organization, improve the flow.  (That’s why I started grading papers during conferences; students rightly want to know how to do these things.)

Flow is an illusion, though, a parlor trick that good writers perform which inspires the Doogie Howser theory of writing process.  At the end of every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D., young Dr. Howser would sit at his computer and write in his journal accompanied by melancholy theme music.  He’d turn out perfectly pithy observations of that episode’s events without so much as a typo.  And because good writing seems as though it is produced that way when you are reading it, when it doesn’t happen, a novice writer gets frustrated. When perfectly crafted sentences do not immediately spring forth, they think something’s wrong.

The Doogie Howser theory of writing process is engendered when teachers present writing process in a simplistic way, in any way that suggests the paragraphs are written in the order that they will appear in the final version.

When students in my business and technical writing classes write workplace-style reports, they get hung up on the introduction.  The introduction contains statements of scope and limitations, among other things.  The thing is, you can’t write those statements until you’ve written the report.  You don’t know the precise scope of the report or until it’s at least in a fully rendered draft.

For most students, writing the introduction as a later assignment from the body of the report solves the issue.  But some students have a real hangup about writing any sort of narrative without an introduction. It runs so counter to their instincts and experience that it is nearly impossible.  (I tell them to write a placeholder introduction to delete later. Also a problem for some writers, though subject for another time.) The idea that you write the introduction last, even though it’s the first thing the reader reads, is utterly foreign.

The best advice I got in graduate school was “research is messy.”  Conducting and writing research is supposed to have false starts, backtracking, more material than you can use, etc. That’s not apparent if you only read finished research. I did not learn this lesson when I learned to do research writing in high school and college.

process writing

In high school, I learned to write research this way: we brainstormed a topic, gathered research, wrote a thesis statement, used note cards to organize our research, wrote an outline, then wrote a paper.  These are all things that make sense, but I experienced them in a lockstep fashion. There was no backtracking.

The fatal flaw with this method: the thesis statement is locked in before the research is done.  This is ass-backwards.  I am bemused by college writers who write research proposals for my class that offer the solution to the problem they are planning to research before they have done any actual research.  That kind of research is what political campaigns do.  It’s justification for existing positions.  It’s crap.

I just finished writing an essay (of the memoir variety) about an experience I had backpacking in 1994.  I went out on my first solo trip in Nordhouse Dunes on Lake Michigan and got swarmed with blackflies on the first day and nearly passed out racing back to my tent.  The incident is more of an anecdote, but I thought there was an essay there about expectation and reality.  I had considered becoming a nature writer before that trip, for example, and soon after abandoned that idea. (Though writing an essay about a bad encounter with nature is still technically nature writing, but I digress.)

I had been trying to write about this experience on and off since.  A few poem drafts and a couple of prose pieces have been lingering in my files for nearly twenty years now.  I have a reasonably good poem, I think, and I read it at a local event recently that got me to thinking about trying an essay again.

For the past couple years, I’ve used Scrivener to write. You can go look at it online to see all the features, but the key feature for me is that you can write in chunks and then manage those chunks easily.  In Scrivener, one main file is called a project. To that you add folders and documents and it has several choices for the interface of looking at your work.  It has loads of features for managing the work: tags, status labels, a research database, statistics, color coding, notes.  Far more features than I can use.

Scrivener makes it easy to work on a narrative in piecemeal fashion and then move the pieces around.  When I tried to write essays on the blackfly thing before, I got bogged down with chronology: I started the story at the beginning and worked my way up to the climax of the swarm incident and tried to end (unironically) with a Doogie Howser moment.

This time, I told the story in the first couple paragraphs and then thought about different ways to think about the event.  In fact, the essay is more about different ways I’ve thought about the experience through time as I understand more about myself (or different ways of thinking about myself).

Composing it was fun.  I created a different Scrivener document for each idea I had and banged away. I then read through the results and moved the documents around until I had an order that worked for me. I compiled it and printed it out and then read through to think about transitions.  (Another great feature of Scrivener is that you can quickly export a bunch of its documents to a single Word document. [And no, I am not a paid endorser for Scrivener, but I am saying Scrivener a lot.  Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener.  What a a strange word.])

After a couple re-orders, I went back and smoothed out the jumps between my original sections.  Working on those transitions triggered a couple new ideas and made some other ideas seem irrelevant, so I added and deleted.  After a couple more times through with smoothing and changing and I had finally arrived at a good insight to end with, which made the whole piece cling together, so more work on ordering, transitions and refining happened.

The whole way through I was working on editing language and proofreading, but I did a couple more editing and proofreading passes and then submitted it to a literary journal for publication.  That last step is a breakthrough for me.  My very slow writing career in terms of actual publication is due to this lack of finishing projects.  (A recent change in my meds has made it much easier; the ADHD brain likes all the ideas and possibilities, but you need Mr. Executive Function in order to do anything productive with said ideas and possibilities.)

The end result is an essay about the blackfly thing that has a clear flow and builds up to a final statement.  You would never know that I didn’t set out to achieve the ending by reading it now. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Blogging is similar.  I have a Scrivener project for my blog and I keep a folder of drafts, and bang away here and there at this and that and move around ideas until something feels finished enough to edit and post.  But not always.  “The Umbrella Story” occurred to me as a nearly complete idea and I churned that out in an hour or so during lunch.

I have no idea if this is true, but once someone told me that the novelist Thomas Wolfe used to sit on top of his refrigerator and scrawl out his writing on legal pads and toss the pages onto the kitchen floor and his editor would pick up the pieces and make something out of it. Though I have no editor at present, a more controlled version of this process seems to work for me.  I’m both the refrigerator sitter and the cleaner-upper.

Doogie Howser, M.D.

Gratitude Friday

Five things I’m grateful for:

  1. I remembered to post something on Friday.  I started a trend. Two for two.
  2. We ran out of chicken-and-waffles flavored potato chips.  Too much of a good thing.
  3. Ritalin.
  4. The procrastination police have not yet arrested me and sent me to a productivity retraining camp.
  5. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Specifically that thing about speech.

English: Fried chicken and waffles with maple ...

Dispatch from The Molehill Mountainization Department


TO: Cerebellum in latudine

FROM: Frontal Cortex

RE: Committee for Project Timeline Expansion implementing GO Policy

DATE: February 13, 2013

Given the recent decrease of inflow of methylphenidate and other raw materials re: executive function (i.e. cobalamin, monolaurin, and levels of serotonin/dopamine declining due to excessive couch sitting and absence of sunlight), the Committee for Project Timeline Expansion has implicitly been given leave to convene and begin deliberation regarding the appropriate course of action on necessary tasks.

Heretofore the committee’s responsibility and attendant area of expertise has been the organization and reorganization of tasks in response to changing inputs from the Working Office of Reprioritization Management.

However, the mixed messages and conflicting instructions from WORM has stymied real task completion and given us no choice but to implement Double Manual Gluteus Maximus Obsfucation (widely known, thanks to the ad hoc Humorous Crudification Defense League as “covering our ass with both hands”; though we are not sure if our organization indeed has a collective singular “ass” and therefore suggest instead we all use the simplified policy term “Gluteal Obsfucation” [or simply “GO” {this is no joke, people!}]).

As a reminder, the CPTE’s GO policy is as follows:

1.  All incoming mail will be marked “Important!” “ASAP!!” or “DO THIS NOW DUMB ASS!!!”  with the number of exclamation marks used in direct proportion to the height of the pile of existing mail.

2. Work hours will be assigned on a sliding bifurcating scale, split (at first) equally between the Panic-Intensive Task Purge Team and the Avoidance Tactics Work Group.

3. The Avoidance Group’s main assignment will be the making of lists and writing of sticky notes in lieu of actual task completion.  In addition, brighter colored notes and larger lettering count double towards task completion substitution.

4. The consumption of caffeine and sugar will immediately double.

5. In the event that policy item #3 proves ineffective for the Avoidance Group, the secondary assignment of neatly organizing mail into thematic piles utilizing binder clips and rubber bands will suffice. This policy step can be repeated as needed (i.e. organizing first by sender and then reorganizing by pay/non pay and then reorganizing the pay pile by days past due and then once again by amount due [lowest to highest and then reverse]). Adding sticky notes to said piles again increases task substitution. This policy is particularly effective for sustaining the Avoidance Group’s work and can continue indefinitely.

6. Upon the occurrence of negative external events (e.g., the flooding of basements, illnesses of children, or turning off of electricity), Avoidance will be given longer shifts, and some hours will be outsourced to the Bureau of Existential Insomnia.  However, the activation of the BEI ensures more overall waking hours are available for our committee, and thus BEI hours do not detract from, and often result in the increased availability of, overall Avoidance hours, as fewer overall resources are available for the Panic Team.

7. Communication with other human beings will be severely restricted, and when required, non-task topics such as the weather, politicians behaving badly, the relative merits of wine/food pairings vs. beer/food pairings, and current postings on Facebook which include cat pictures (or anything from George Takei) will receive highest priority.

This policy will continue until such time our services are no longer needed.

Français : cortex frontal

Français : cortex frontal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where the magic happens

One of my hobbies (distractions) is looking at pictures of writers’ desks.  One of my favorite books is The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz.  See also my last post.

In that vein, I decided to post some photos of my own office.  My home office, tucked away in the basement where pretty much no one but me dares venture.  My work office is public enough for me to keep on display, but not the home office. I was tempted to clean and stage the room, as I imagine at least some of the writers in Krementz’s book did. But in the spirit of honesty and full disclosure I decided to photograph it as-is.

This is my office at its full productive state; this was its condition on the day that I finished my semester grades, which is when I’m the busiest.  (Since I’m teaching only online this summer, I’ve taken to working at home.)

Here ye be:

When I was a kid, my mom tried to motivate me to clean my room with money.  I had a $10 a week allowance, and she took deductions a dime at a time if we talked back or didn’t do something she asked.  My younger brother was on the same plan, but a $5/nickel rate.  Part of this system was daily room  inspections.  After we got home from school, there would be a report card on our desks listing the infractions and deductions.  Yes, my mother was nickel and diming us.

However, after awhile, I found it was easier just to go out and get a job as a paper boy rather than try to keep my room clean.  My brother, on the other hand, is a perfectionist and often got extra money for his extra-good housekeeping.

Probably my office today would wipe out the entire roll of dimes in one day.

Here’s a second view:

Have I mentioned that I have a little reading habit?

So, what do I see when I look here?  First, I like Post-it notes.  Bright colors, the super sticky kind, written on with a Sharpie.  In the first photo are some 4×4 sheets of plywood that were supposed to be kitchen trim that I decided to put up on the wall (the notes don’t stick to the cinder block wall too well).  That act started the room’s devolution; you can see the corner of my lovely Frank Lloyd Wright print sticking out behind one of the sheets of plywood.

The white table in the foreground was supposed to be “temporary” when I put it there last June.  I needed to sort through weeks of mail and filing and needed more desktop space.  When the Tour de France started, I stuck a TV on there so I could watch while I work.  The Tour was over last month, and there sits the telly.  On the table.

I’m also struck by how orderly my post-its look on the board. I like to see everything when I work.  I like piles, but not disorder.   For example, this:

would drive me crazy, but this:

looks completely awesome to me.

What else is in my office?  I have several guitars, which I have touched exactly twice since the novelty of my “blues experiment” wore off.  In the corner that I didn’t photograph is a work bench and a small portion of my tools, along with a sink and some countertop from the bathroom remodel I insisted I would finish within a week last June and haven’t done any work on since.

But even though it seems cluttered, my office is not disorganized.  The stacks of books are usually on related topics.  There’s a teaching pile, and a writing pile, and a I-started-rereading-but-got-bored-and-haven’t-put-away-yet pile.  My various manuscripts in various stages of unfinshedness are in a box.  When the piles start to overlap, that seems disorganized to me.

Gate Jockey

The summer I graduated from high school, I worked in a plastics factory before I headed off to college. I spent the first part of the summer on an extended backpacking trip with a school group that was phenomenal.  The remainder I spent in this miserable factory job.

I was a gate jockey.  My job was to take parts out of a plastic injection molding machine and put them into a box. The machine was about the size of a van, and about as hot as a an engine at high RPM. There were often tasks to do between each cycle; if a part needed internal threading, the thread mold, that looked like a heavy bolt without a head on it, had to be inserted into the main mold between each cycle, and the other thread mold removed from the part before it was packed.  The safety gate, a sliding plexiglass door, had to be opened in between each cycle, hence the name “gate jockey.”

The job was easy enough, but the working conditions were awful. I worked through a temp agency, so I could be let go at any minute. The hours were brutal.  We worked a four-and-four shift, which meant we worked for twelve hours a day for four days in a row and then had four days off.  The machines had to run constantly because they had molten plastic flowing through them and would have to go through elaborate shut down and start up procedures in order to work properly, so there was no pause button.  Because of this requirement, we had only a ten minute break every two hours, and no other time off for meals or anything. There were only two shifts: day and night. The floor supervisors staggered our breaks, subbing in for us when we were on break, so the gate jockeys were always alone during breaks. I worked there for more than a month and didn’t get to know anyone.

On one rare occasion when my machine was being changed over, the shop foreman Mike sent me over to another room, “Production,” to work.  This room was filled with folding tables and folding chairs with piles of plastic parts and rows of gossipy older women chatting away, using nippers and box cutters to separate and trim plastic parts.  I thought I would finally get to talk to someone, but although their conversation was continuous and reeling not one of these women said a word to me. They spoke of husbands and children and grandchildren and gall bladder surgeries and I never had a way into that conversation. In fact, at five o’clock, when their shift ended, two hours before mine, they simultaneously all got up and left me sitting there alone.  The last woman out shut off the lights and left me in the dark.

I did get to know the maintenance fellow, Joe, a bit.  When he found out I was going off to college he told me that he had planned to go to Olivett College on a scholarship for music but his paperwork had hit a snag and it didn’t work out.  He seemed interested in my interest in going into engineering and said that he considered that too in high school. I later suspected his life story was a lie because he also told me when he found out my interest in cycling that he was about to go pro as a cyclist until he blew out his knee.  He also said at another time that he was a paratrooper, but wasn’t clear about whether that was before or after the career-ending knee injury and lost paperwork.

So I worked this job; twelve hours at a stretch, almost no interaction with anyone.  In fact, one part of my job for awhile was to watch a newfangled robot do its work to make sure it didn’t mess up. Cruelly, my station faced a clock. Other gate jockeys brought Walkman cassette players to work, but my mother thought that would be too unprofessional of me, so I had nothing but my own thoughts. The trouble was, if my attention drifted, I could really mess things up.

One day I was really tired from staying up too late the night before and ended up leaning too hard on the parts as I put them on the drill to remove the inserts.  Five boxes of parts had to be ground up and re-cast because I ruined too many of the threads.

If my door was open too long, my production rate slowed, and I got a lesson on how to speed up. I clipped open the pad of my thumb with a pair of nippers during one of my stints in production. I have the scar still more than twenty years later. You could burn yourself on the hot parts too if you weren’t careful; we wore thick gloves and green gauze tape on our fingertips to protect us.  One guy dumped a bunch of window handles in the grinder with metal tabs still attached and ruined the grinder.  Mike apparently grew angry at these infractions.  I say apparently, because Joyce, the QC supervisor would tell us and would say “Mike’s pissed and he won’t ask you back if you keep messing up.”  Mike himself seemed a bit harried but otherwise genial. It was like being told “your father is really angry at you” but having no actual emotion from dad in person.

So I messed up here and there, but kept getting asked back.

The hours would drag by, getting slower the more tired I felt.  It was an odd existence during my on days.  I would wake up at six, get to work a few minutes before seven, take the place of the cranky twentysomething at my machine, work twelve hours that seemed like twenty, and then a few seconds before seven at night, Mr. Cranky would show up at my machine.  I’d get home about seven thirty for a couple of hours of downtime, then sleep, and then at seven the next morning I’d take Mr. Cranky’s place again.

What I couldn’t figure out at this job is why I was so tired. It’s true the day was long, but the actual labor wasn’t hard.  Some of the shifts I got to sit down the whole time.  One machine I got put on, for example, had a one minute and twenty second cycle.  I could do my part in about twelve seconds.  That meant that most of the day I actually did nothing.  Mike laughed at me because he caught me falling asleep at that station for about thirty seconds at a time.

What I know now is that sustained concentration on something that doesn’t have intrinsic interest for me is mentally taxing, and the longer I have to do it, the more taxing it is and the less well I perform.  It’s a downward spiral; I have to try harder and harder to keep focusing, but that makes me more tired and less able to focus.   I know this both from my own cognitive testing and from brain-scan research.  I could sit and read a good book and often have read entire books in one sitting, but if I had to sort pipe fittings for the same amount of time I would make dozens of mistakes and feel like I had just finished a marathon.

I’ve noticed recently that my brain works against me when I have to face a round of tedious work, like grading a bunch of papers by myself. (It’s easy if I’m with someone else, even better if that someone else is the student).  I have an automatic resistance to getting started, and once I do start, my body goes tired.  For most of my life, I could not figure this reaction out, or even notice it.  I would overcome it by bearing down or loading up on caffeine until that became unsustainable, the immediate effect of which was spending hours locked away in a dark room trying to sleep.   I spent many years theorizing these feelings and reactions away in therapy and reading and journals, trying to attach it to some complicated anxiety model, when it turned out the answer is simple:  if I don’t like to do something, then I really don’t like to do it. I just have a stronger resistance than average.  If something is boring or tedious or uninterestingly complicated, or if it requires multitasking or lots of working memory, then I don’t want to do it.   I don’t want to get started, I have trouble keeping with it, and I have trouble finishing it.  If something is novel, engaging, or challenging in a fresh way, if it piques my curiosity in any way at all, then that’s much easier.  I could even pay my bills on time if someone made a video game interface for Quicken.

中文: 射出機

中文: 射出機 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Papers

When I was a teenager and young adult, I had a fear that there would be no kind of job I could tolerate.  Adulthood seemed like one long road of boredom ahead of me.  My experiences having jobs as a kid proved this to me.

My first real job was as a paper boy.  Every day, for two years, I had to deliver papers.  The number of subscribers on my route usually hovered between sixty and seventy, and it was my home neighborhood, so I didn’t have far to travel.  I shared the route with Steve next door, and the papers were delivered to his driveway every day.  On a easy day, I could be done in an hour.  If it was raining or snowing or if the newspapers were thick or I just got unfocused and started wandering it could take close to three hours.  More than once my dad came looking for me when it started getting dark and I hadn’t returned.

There were real benefits to this job.  In the fifth grade, I had more disposable income than anyone I knew at school.  I had a bill to pay each week for my papers.  I collected the fee a month’s worth at time from the subscribers (we were supposed to collect each week—but Steve told me that was stupid and made more work for everyone), and used my metal punch to punch out that month’s row of holes, being careful to punch the cards over my zippered money bag so as not to litter the round discs of paper over the customers’ stoops.

After my bill was paid, I kept the rest, right around a hundred dollars a month. My parents said that as long as I put half of the money in the bank, I could spend the rest how I liked. I started a good tape collection and went through several bicycles—I even constructed one specifically for riding the route, with grocery racks in the back.  I wasn’t allowed across the street from school to go buy candy at Vandy’s Party Store, but I could pay other people to go buy me Nerds. Friends were astonished that I would hand them two dollars to go buy me a dollar’s worth of candy (that’s like, double!).  I felt rich and powerful.

The route also satisfied my curiosity.  I got to peek into most of my neighbors’ houses, or at least in their breezeways.  One of my favorite houses was Mr. Hampton down at the other end of my street. He was retired and ran the unofficial community pool in his back yard.  Any neighborhood kid could come swim as long as they brought parents with them.  I was never allowed there because we had our own pool, though the logic of that seemed foggy to me, but when I went to the side door of Mr. Hampton’s house I saw leather furniture and bookshelves.  He had distinguished looking glasses and often had a cigar, and he owned two small Fiat convertibles both of which he somehow managed to park inside his one-car garage.

Mr. Hampton, like many of the retired residents on my route, took genuine interest in me, and was happy to see me, even when I was there to collect money.

There were assholes too.  One guy insisted I never set foot on his lawn.  He had a paper box out on the street next to the mailbox and the first time I accidentally went to his door to deliver the paper, he came out to lecture me.  “You see that box?” he said, putting his hand on my head to swivel it toward the street. “It’s there for a reason!”  He had a noisy little dirty white dog who bit me more than once.

There was another house on a hill where a very large German shepherd named Thor lived.  He barked at me viciously, and I could only imagine what might happen if he jumped the fence one day, or burst through the storm door.  Once, I was carrying a stick with me, just for the fun of it, and I was tapping it along the iron railing on the steps up to Thor’s door.  Thor’s owner came out and yelled at me for provoking his dog, though it never occurred to me that I might be doing that.

There were kind dogs two.  Kristi, an old, half deaf curly-haired mutt was kind and happy to see me each day, but I had to be careful not to startle her if she sat facing away from me when I came up to the house.  More than once I startled her elderly owner too when I put the paper in the door.

Mr. Hampton had two kind dogs too.  They liked to bark, but just for fun.  I had dogs growing up and could tell the difference between a threatening bark and a “hey, let’s play!” bark.  One of the dogs, a collie, often played a nasty trick on me, though.  On weekends I had to deliver papers early in the morning when it was still dark.  Mr. Hampton’s yard was especially dark and he did not leave any lights on.  This dog, I swear, would lie in wait, invisible in the dark behind the windowed door, and when I was six inches from the handle, let loose with a volley of barking that scared the bejesus out of me.

I also saw how different people lived, how their personalities were reflected in their homes and yards.  For instance, I had a very proper German couple on my route, and the husband always insisted on paying his six dollar monthly fee in nickels and dimes.  I (no surprise) didn’t collect regularly—I would go out when I needed to get money to pay my weekly bill and go through my book and see who was home and who I was in the mood to deal with and collect accordingly.  Sometimes, I would get a month behind on some subscribers and have to collect two months, or sometimes I would collect at the end of the month and forget and go back to the same house a few days later to collect at the beginning of the next month.  But no matter what time of month I came by, this fellow always had his nickels and dimes laid out on the table for me, in groups of ten or twenty to make it easy for me to count.

Their house and yard were immaculate.  I realized how much thought they put into it when one day I came to deliver the paper and I was carrying a willow branch around for fun, to swat at mailboxes and fenceposts or whatever.  When I came near the door, I saw the wife standing just inside the door and set my stick down in the grass to retrieve on the way out.  She came out the door to grab the paper from me and then looked sternly at my stick  in the yard.  “What’s that?” she asked.  “Oh, it was stuck on my bag or something,” I lied, and grabbed it on the way out.

The job was more fun in the summer, but it wore on me in the winter.  There would be several days in a row of dark, cold, windy, snowy days, and I would have to judge how carefully to dress so as not to be soaked in sweat when I got home and avoid frostbite at the same time.  I could not use the bike to speed things along.  The worst would be a stormy Sunday morning when I had to get up at five thirty and trudge my heavy Sunday editions around the neighborhood and be finished and cleaned up in time for church. My dad would take pity on me and drive me around if I asked him, but I often felt guilty about waking him up and trudged it out on my own.

The absolute monotony of days would start to wear on me.  Winter in Michigan is long and dark, and it affects everyone’s mood.  My customers would be just as grumpy as me and I would have a pile of homework waiting for me when I got home.  If I dragged on too long, some people would grumble “It’s about time!” when I dropped off their paper close to five o’clock.

When the job was good, I was attracted to its solitude. I’ve read that one peculiarity of ADHD-PI folks is that we crave solitude (even though we do much better around other people).  Despite not being happy about getting up early on weekends to deliver papers, there was something attractive about being the only soul out skulking around the neighborhood at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.

That attractiveness, though, is through the long fog of memory of a forty year old.  When I gave up the route, I felt an enormous sense of relief and freedom, though I would soon miss the money.  At the time it seemed like pure drudgery, a constant weight to carry around, the knowledge that when 2:00 rolled around at school and I started to feel sleepy and withdrawn, I couldn’t just go home and rest, but have to do the route.

Some of my other ADHD things manifested there too, though I knew nothing about ADHD then.  I knew some customers were always grumpy, so I only collected every other month.  They grumbled about having to pay two months each time, but that was better than going to their door twice as often.  Not such a big deal, but one new house I let slip by without ever paying.  For some reason, I got put off about this family.  I don’t know why; they were not mean or weird or smelly or anything, and they didn’t have a yappy dog.  But for some reason, after they started getting the paper, I didn’t go collect at their house. Once it got past two months, I gave up on ever collecting from them because I couldn’t fathom going to their door to collect and having to explain to them why I hadn’t collected before because I didn’t know why I hadn’t done it. And I couldn’t decide what to do if I were to go and collect.  Was I going to make them pay for eight or nine months of back papers?  Or would I just forgive the debt and move forward?  Eventually the issue got resolved; another took over the route, and I just marked them as paid in the book I handed over to him.

His father called later and said this boy went to their house and they said they had never paid before, and he wondered why I had marked them as paid.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I guess I just made a mistake.”  He pressed me for awhile, wanting some logical explanation, but I didn’t have one.  When my parents asked me about the call, I just said the new boy had some questions was all.  I was secretly ashamed at my failure, and having no real explanation for it made me want to hide it even more.

For many years, I could not figure out this behavior.  I would have some mundane task like this to take care of, and something would happen to initially put it off, until it grew into major irresponsibility on my part.  I knew I should have collected from them.  I knew I shouldn’t have put it off.  I knew if I went to their door and said I messed up and will start charging them just from this month forward that everything would be fixed, and I knew all these things were the responsible things to do, but still the task was left undone, and it wasn’t like I just forgot about it; I would think about it every day as I passed the house, would hope every day that they would not be home when I dropped off their paper, would hope that they would not come out and say “Hey, do we need to pay you?”  It would be a great secret to carry with me, something with a simple solution, but the more I did not do it, the more I could not do it.

I also had a budding sense that it shouldn’t be this way.  This job wasn’t that hard, and there were good benefits for me.  I just thought I was lazy, and that worried me.  I got excellent grades at school, I was becoming accomplished on the piano, but this little job got the better of me.  I couldn’t do this simple thing consistently, and I made dumb mistakes. What kind of a life could I expect if I couldn’t even do a simple paper route?

LA Times

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


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.

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)