Writing Sporks

Despite being a lifelong writer, I have not published often for the same reason that plastic sporks exist: fundamental resistance to difficulty.  A plastic spork says both I do not want to wash silverware and I cannot be bothered to use a separate utensil for solids and liquids.  Publishing involves finishing, correspondence, keeping track of things, and putting yourself out there to be judged.  All things I resist.

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from...

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from U.S. Patent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I blamed this resistance on laziness, but my laziness got a clinical label in my fortieth year: attention deficit disorder.  What I once thought a character flaw I now believe to be a differently-functioning brain. (Among professionals in the field, calling it a “deficit” is so five years ago.)

No doubt that ADD/ADHD is controversial, as many children were casually medicated, but the more I read the research on the condition, I don’t know how I could have anything else. I had an extensive battery of cognitive tests to tell me I have an affinity for words and all the managerial capability of a depressed orangutang.

When it comes to publishing, all that correspondence involved in the submission process, all that finding markets and writing submission text, and tracking submissions seems like a big waste of time to my ADHD brain, like doing my tax returns (note to self: tax returns are overdue again).

I knew early on that I had a knack for writing.  The first paragraph I ever wrote, on the subject of oxygen, was read to the class by my third grade teacher.  I didn’t work that hard on it.  I just did it in a way that made sense, main point first, boring details in the middle, end with a flourish. The same thing happened often throughout school.  In my freshman year of college, I was woefully misguided in my choice for electrical engineering as a major (and in moving away from home to go to college), but my technical writing teacher announced to the class, “I don’t know how Jonathan made fractal geometry understandable in such a short paper, but you all should read it.”

After engineering and I broke up, I decided to major in creative writing. I received praise for my creative work all through school and even into graduate school, but when I finished my MFA in 1996, the praise did not arrive from the source that mattered most: editors of literary journals.  My plan was simple: teach and start my publishing career.  A few key publications and an award or two and I’d be off to the races to make my mark in literary history.

But the awards did not come.  Nor did the acceptance.  I was ignorant about the amount of rejection it takes to publish, or thought I would move to the front of the line because  I was special.  I had an M.F.A., after all.  I was also ignorant about the effort involved in crafting good submissions.  I assumed my degree and my oft-praised work would stand for itself. Didn’t happen.

So, just like my choice in engineering seemed wrong, after a number of rejections, the career as a poet  seemed foolish too.  I had a moment success with a small backpacking article published in a national magazine, but then it got Michigan-winter cold outside and I got tired of the idea of being a nature writer, so I left that behind and focused on trying to manage my teaching, getting tenure, earning a Ph.D., getting married, starting a family.  I thought I would get that teaching career and my finances under control, put aside neatly organized in a mental box and I could be free to write.  Finances and grading papers turned out to be really hard with undiagnosed ADHD, so I could never get a lid on that box, could never get the momentum going in any writing endeavor, and so gave up and started earning a Ph.D. in “Critical Studies in Teaching English,” whatever that means (short version: everyone is oppressed by the hegemony of capitalism and it’s your job as an English teacher to be angry about it for some reason).

But writing always nagged me.  A key turning point several years ago came after a string of career setbacks.  Tired of grading papers after ten years, and worried about my small salary, I had been working on a second Ph.D. degree in educational leadership, specializing in faculty development (it turned out I was only cynical about capitalism and couldn’t finish the first one).  I had been doing an internship of sorts, getting release time from teaching to work in our faculty development center.  That abruptly ended, with some vague explanation that I was not filling some unsaid expectations.  Around the same time I had a run-in with a surly statistics professor who gave me a bad grade.  He thought I did not take him seriously because I did not do the extra credit, when instead I was madly grading papers to finish my own semester of teaching.

Fine, I said to myself, I’ll go back to being a poet. On a whim, I applied for a writing sabbatical.  It was granted.  I applied for travel money to creative writing conferences.  Approved.  I gave up the second Ph.D. and started writing and submitting again.

Today, though, I am nearly in the same situation.  To say I have a trickle of publications would be to exaggerate.  Unless you count blogs (my promotion committee doesn’t) I have mere drops of published output. The difference is that now I have accumulated a much larger pile of rejections.  It reaches that tipping point sometimes: I’m ready to give up.  What other profession requires enduring so much rejection?  Maybe telemarketing. I did that job once too.

So why keep writing? Ah, the artist’s life!  The bohemian lifestyle!  The freedom of the life of the mind!  Nope. My life is difficult.  I have two sons with autism.  My youngest boy, seven years old, has cancer and is in chemotherapy. I have lots of debt.  All those years of indecisive graduate school were not cheap, and compounding interest makes it worse.  Not exactly a Yaddo residency around here.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, maybe excepting the debt, I can deal with all that.  My sons are happy and innocent and young.  I’m married to a wonderful woman.  My son’s cancer is in remission, and the chemotherapy schedule helps keep me focused on things that matter.

However, the inconsistency that ADHD saddles me with is the source of my darker days. Which is why I write.

Even in my furthest orbits away from the idea of a career as a writer, I still write, or at least stay in the writing frame of mind. My greatest thrill is when a project takes off, even though that project is likely to end up shelved, gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.   I’ll read a mediocre novel, and see ways it could be better.  I teach writing and literature, so I’m always connected to the written word.

There are many quirks to the ADHD mind.  One is hyperfocus.  A myth about ADHD is that someone with it cannot focus.  I can focus intensely.  I am a voracious reader.  I read a book a week on average, and I read widely on the internet about whatever topic I am into at the moment (right now: software patent litigation). My mind enjoys being intensely engaged in a rewarding activity.  I just can’t often control what that activity is.  And I can gin up that hyperfocus for a few weeks at a time.  I once wrote a wonderful first draft of a zombie novel during a semester break a dozen years ago.

I’ve learned to trick my mind.  If I have a vague notion about wanting to get some writing done, doing a Google Image search for “writer’s desk” or “writing studio” does wonders. I keep  the Jill Krementz book close at hand. The Yaddo website is pretty.

DSC_9567But the thing I am never good at is tedium: paperwork, paying bills, doing laundry, or submitting work for publication.

Despite all the rejection, despite all the hurdles my mind puts in the way of submitting, despite my inner critic saying you cannot call yourself a writer based on that publication record, and despite the abundance of genetic misfortune in my house, I am still a writer in the sense of “one who writes.”

Putting words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs is akin to meditation. My brain wants to ruminate in several different directions as once, but despite all advances in technology, a person can still only write one word at a time.  When I write I gain nourishment from that focus.  The feeling of the keys moving along under my fingers by itself is enough to lift me out of a funk.  A good writing session is relief from the constant tug of war between should and want and it is fleeting evidence that my mind is capable of channelling chaotic thoughts into linear, executive-functioning form. It is hope that my quirky personality has an ideal home somewhere.

Though it is melodramatic to say so, I write to keep the demons at bay.  There can be no other explanation.  How else could I justify doing something with so few extrinsic rewards?  How else can a person continue in the face of constant messages of sorry, not good enough?  On a day that writing happens, that real, honest work gets done that I feel in my bones, I am more at ease in the world.

The process of publication, though, is more akin to running for public office.  It does not fit my persona. It would be like Socrates running for president; every debate would be a one-sided version of “Questions Only” from Whose Line is it Anyway?  Jim Leherer: “Mr. Socrates, what would be your plan to address the current legal morass concerning immigration law in the United States?”  Socrates: “I’d like to first say that I am honored for being here, Jim, and thanks to NPR for hosting this event.  I’d like to say this, but I can’t because, first of all, what do I mean when I say ‘being here’?”

Death of Socrates, 1875

Death of Socrates, 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently saw a new ADHD specialist to get a second opinion on my medication plan. I talked about the difficulty of submitting and publishing.  He said “there are people in the world who love sales, even cold calling, where you get fifty rejections for every sale, and those people love racking up the rejections because they know that each rejection is one step closer to that next sale.” All right. Good for them.


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.


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)

Professor Expert Syndrome

I’ve become more involved in the workplace the last two months.  As a professor, I decide my degree of service: which committees I get involved in and what work I do toward administrative work.

I had withdrawn a bit the last two years. Prior to my realization and diagnosis of my AD(H)D, I was very involved in teaching-with-technology work, running training sessions, workshops, and serving on committees that help guide the university’s decisions on software and policies, etc.  I got weary of the work, especially because it seemed ever-more demanding of my time with fewer benefits. On a whim in 2008 I applied for a writing sabbatical and got it.  I took it as a sign to focus on my own writing and let the university take care of itself.

I had also reached my limit of back-biting, grousing, and negativity, so I theorized a condition: Professor Expert syndrome.  I have met Professor Experts on my own campus, but also far and wide at the dozens of conferences I’ve travelled to through the years.

Here’s my theory:

After many years of being in a classroom, on committees, and publishing and presenting research, a professor gets used to being the expert. The entire endeavor of teaching and curriculum is structured to defer to the expertise of the professor. While that is as it should be, there is a certain kind of person who after decades of being the expert most of the time starts to believe that he is the expert all of the time. (Professor Expert syndrome correlates strongly with gender.)  Add to that the fact that people gifted in certain areas (intellect) often have deficits in other areas (understanding social cues) and you have conditions for Professor Expert. Here are the symptoms:

  • Willingness to opine at length untempered by actual working knowledge of the subject at hand
  • Interest in talking, but not conversation
  • A great storehouse of opinions on the administration of everything
  • Little actual interest in helping to improve the administration of anything
  • Stunning lack of audience awareness
  • A tendency to conspiracy theories
  • Low tolerance for frustration

If I had to summarize it in a single phrase it would be recreational bitterness mixed with a strong sense of entitlement. (For a description of recreational bitterness, see http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/rebecca-solnit-liberals-leftists-explaining-things.)

The behavior that astounds me most is the compartmentalized thinking: professors who fight against discrimination, stereotyping, essentializing, and overgeneralization in the classroom and the social sphere but are perfectly willing to rail against coworkers and administrators using the very same logical errors.  In other words, engaging in the sort of behavior they constantly condemn in their students, administrators, and politicians.

This syndrome becomes especially virulent when trying to implement new technology on campus. What Professor Expert especially does not like is being exposed as inexpert.  Since there is a strong correlation between years on campus and syndrome pathology, Professor Experts tend not to be as facile with technology as younger faculty.  Getting Professor Experts to come to training sessions or workshops is like getting Donald Trump to agree to a hair makeover.   In order to walk into a training session, workshop, or help session, one has to admit deficiency.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This kind of behavior is discouraging for other faculty to endure. If you know that for every new project you work on there will be strong voices carping behind your back with little relationship between depth of criticism and possession of the facts, you are understandably hesitant to move forward. So, the irony is that the kind of problems Professor Expert likes to complain about are actually perpetuated by his own behavior.

I used to think if I could fix the problems highlighted by Professor Expert, then I could cure the syndrome. But that does not take into account the deeper workings of the syndrome.  You see, Professor Expert does not actually want most problems to be fixed.  The existence of unsolvable problems, particularly those which highlight the incompetence others, is what gives Professor Expert his entire raison detre.  Just like all serial complainers, the act of complaining gives Professor Expert a sense of control and ownership in an uncertain world.

 *     *     *

Most anyone would be frustrated by the existence of these people.  But I try to be able to work with anyone. I try to go beyond “these people” kind of thinking.  I try to understand the layers of what seems like unreasonable behavior.  I try to be mindful, and understand my own reactions.  Why does this kind of behavior get to me?

This kind of person does two things that push my buttons: unending complaint and unfair criticism. It bugs me when people complain about things when there are simple solutions to the problems or the complaint is made in such a way that it is impossible to resolve. For instance, some technology complainers don’t want technology problems to happen and simultaneously do not want technology to change; the only actual solution to that pair of desires is an alternate timeline in which a technological problem did not happen in the first place.  It also bugs me when people criticize based on wrong information.

These tender spots in my personality belie a deeper desire: to make people happy.  This impulse is not altruism, however.  It’s people pleasing, which results from insecurity.  The people-pleasing inner narrative runs like this: I worry that people will not like me.  I must do everything I can to make them like me. If people don’t like me, that will be terrible.  The corollary here is that if I do everything reasonably possible to make people like me and they don’t, then life is pointless because life will be terrible no matter what.  And that makes me angry.  I’ve had most of my life a nagging feeling that I’m going to fail.  People who are never happy are signs that no amount of work on my part may ever be enough.

 *     *     *

So the reason I understand Professor Expert syndrome so well is that I was at real risk of becoming one. When I became a teacher at age 25, I had real doubts about my ability.  I responded by demanding respect.  When I became a young professor, I had a strong sense of entitlement. I could carp as loudly as anyone about minor grievances. And when I didn’t have the answer to a question I speculated (read: I bullshat).  When my odd work habits started to overtake me, I shut down.  My AD(H)D meant that I grew steadily worse at meeting deadlines and managing classes.  I grew ever more evasive and withdrawn and defensive. When the stress of life grew to great to manage, I looked around and saw that I was a homeowner and a new parent, a Ph.D. candidate and a professor and a long-distance commuter, and that I had thought that piling all these things on myself was the only way to redeem myself.

My saving grace is that I actually failed.  I did not finish my Ph.D. I found my limit.  It took me a decade to recover, but now I have discovered the right combination of therapies and work habits so that I can feel confident. I don’t entirely blame my disorder.  It certainly made my chances of success lower, but not facing certain problems early enough and not learning from failures were equally to blame.  Having failed and learned and changed makes me confident.

 *     *     *

The one antidote to Professor Expert syndrome is confidence. The syndrome is about arrogance, not confidence. True confidence comes not from avoiding mistakes and worry and criticism, but from managing your responses. Arrogance, in some forms, is a cover for a lack of confidence.

Confidence is the social antidote as well to Professor Experts.  They often turn into bullies. They expect people to placate them, to be sympathetic to their vitriol. But I’ve found directness and honesty penetrates the haze.  If someone writes something unfairly negative online or through other indirect channels, providing evidence and writing in a direct but not mean tone, or even meeting directly with the source has a calming effect.

The greatest gift of Professor Experts is my opportunity to practice mindfulness.  As a point of comparison, I meet with my students all the time individually for conferences. In addition to giving them feedback, I’m able to better understand their points of view, and better able to be honest and direct with them. If a paper turns out badly, we’re able to talk about why and try to figure out what to do to make it better.  It doesn’t always turn out better, but they’re better for the experience. Some of my colleagues said they are too scared to grade student papers in person.  I know that student responses to grades are unrelated to how high they are.  I’ve had students thank me for a D and storm out of my office in disgust with a B+.

With my students, then, I’m not afraid of making mistakes anymore.  It’s a good thing; I make them all the time.  I’m able to own my past, and own my weaknesses.  It’s liberating to say at the beginning of a semester: I have ADHD.  I’m really good at helping you with writing, but I can be forgetful and mix up some details.  If I make a mistake, please tell me because that’s helpful. I’m also able to meet students with complaints on their terms and address complaints easily. My belief is that most professor/student conflicts arise out of misunderstanding.

I’ve begun to apply that to my work outside of the classroom.  I’m working on things now that cause conflict with other professors. When the conflict arises, though, I talk to people directly. It’s simple, really.  One of two things results; the conflict is diffused or the other person withdraws further. I used to be angry about the second response, the person who criticizes me indirectly but is not willing to talk to me directly. I realized that sort of person is not actually interested in conversation anyway, so there is nothing I could do to prevent that behavior, and I don’t need to try.

 *     *     *

I discussed this syndrome at length with a friend at another institution who is experiencing the same sort of behavior and is at a similar stage of his career. He agreed with everything I said and at the end offered this sage question: “We’ve got a good twenty five years left in our careers.  How do we not become them?”

I thought about it, and opined, “Maybe we already have.”

The End of Jobs

Finally, the long awaited (put off) conclusion to my series on work:

Captain Caddie

Gate Jockey

The Papers

The Absent-Minded Professor

All these jobs told me that I was not normal.  A normal person, and normal man, I thought, just does his job, even if he doesn’t like it.  When he doesn’t like it, he works hard to get a job that he does like.

A college professor, a genuine real professional college professor does things on time, answers email, does his grading and feedback in a meaningful and timely way, and does not get hung up on small problems.

A competent man has clear goals and values and picks and chooses his day-to-day actions in line with those goals.

Not so the ADHD man.

Part of this experience of coming to terms with ADHD is finding a way to be in the world. When I asked ADHD coach Kevin Roberts why it is so hard to persist in the world with ADHD, he said:

The non-ADHD world is geared toward the type of brain that 90 percent or so of the population.  They craft a world suited to routine, safety, limiting risk, and predictability.  These are pretty much the exact opposite to what the ADHD brain is suited for.

And that seems true to my experience.  Although I don’t seem to have the disregard for safety that hyperactive people have, I do seem to have trouble fitting in wherever I go.  I feel either not talkative enough, or too talkative.  I hear people talk about their work habits, and I wish I could do that (though I know now, people lie).  I understand the need for certain tasks for being a middle-class American with two kids and a house: paying bills, saving money, having the right insurance, keeping cars and houses maintained, returning phone calls, and, the hardest of all, doing what you don’t want to do in the short term in order to achieve what you want in the long term.

In some ways, my inability to do certain things at certain times seem horribly confusing to me.  Why could I not do some things, which, by comparison to other things I could do, are quite easy tasks.  In some ways, the answer is simple; the things are not fun or interesting, or there’s some ickyness or awkwardness attached to it. I could not collect from that customer on my paper route simply because I had put off doing it for so long that I could not muster the energy to just go face the music.  I cannot pay bills on time because I spent my entire adult life being in debt and feeling guilty about it and I just don’t want to even think about all that mess. This basic resistance to boring or uncomfortable task which everyone has, is particularly difficult for my brain to get around, and requires more mental effort than the average person to both get started on and sustain effort.  I’ve had sessions of grading papers that have had the same amount of tension and anxiety for me as when my wife was giving birth.  It should not be that way, I think it is foolish for it to be that way, but it is that way.

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)

Captain Caddie

(Part 2 of a series on work).

I worked as a caddie at the local country club, a job that probably bordered on illegality.  The way the caddie program worked is that they recruited a whole gaggle of kids at the beginning of summer and gave us shirts and hats to wear and got us all excited about all the money we would make.  On days that we wanted to work, we showed up at the caddie shack in the morning (really the garage for cart storage at night) and the caddie master would put our names into a lottery and that would determine the order of jobs for that day.  You either waited until your number came up to go out on a round or got tired of waiting and went home. It often happened that I would wait five or six hours for a round, then go work a four hour round of golf, and earn nine dollars for my trouble.

There was nothing for us to do while we waited. There weren’t even any benches or anything to sit on.  There was a half falling-apart basketball hoop in the back, but Dave, the caddie master, didn’t want us getting dirty or too sweaty before we went out.  Instead, he sold us snacks at inflated prices and gambled with us, taking more of our money on elaborate penny-pitch games.

The other luck of the draw was the size of the golf bag.  I don’t know much about golf trends now, but back then was the heyday of the super-big-leather-golf-bag-with-73-clubs as status symbol.  Some of these bags weighed more than the youngest caddies.  No carts for us either; we had to schlep them around on our shoulders.  I was very self conscious of my lack of upper body strength then and always worried if I could make it through the round with a huge bag.  People assumed that because I was tall I could carry a heavy bag.

On one really hot day, I waited around for hours and finally got my round.  I had only eaten an overpriced candy bar for lunch.  When I arrived at the tee, my golf bag was a white leather PING monstrosity.  Our group teed off and I hoisted my bag on my shoulder and got about ten feet from the tee and suddenly saw grass, as if a green wall had sprung up in front of me. I had fainted and now looked around and saw only dim images and sound as if through a tunnel for a few minutes. The kid from the golf pro shop shoveled me onto a bench, gave me a Coke, got another caddie for my bag and then called my parents to come pick me up.  I did not see a medical professional that day.

Some of the members could act like real, well, members.  We were supposed to track our player’s ball and walk along and set up next to it, walking ahead to be ready for the member when he got there.  One guy realized that I kept losing track of the ball and was following him to try to anticipate where it was and rush ahead when I finally spotted it. He started to walk in a zig zag pattern and got the rest of the foursome to laugh at me.  He also threw his putter at me in a high arc  to see if I could catch or if I was paying attention.

There was another guy with a fiery temper.  He always got mad at himself, and cursed a blue streak.  Some of the younger kids were afraid of him, but he actually was good to caddie for because he often would get so mad that he would cut his round short and storm off to his Porsche but give the caddie the full fee with a good tip and a good rating.  Ratings were important; we started off as B Caddies and then as we grew experienced, progressed to A Caddie and then Captain Caddie (yes, really).  When you had a higher rating, your base fee was higher.  Eventually, if you were enough of a sycophant, you could get promoted to working in the pro shop inside the main building where it was air conditioned.

You could be nearly guaranteed to go out quickly on Mondays, which was Ladies’ Day; no one wanted to go out then because (according to the caddie lore) the ladies never tipped well, if at all, and they took much longer to finish their round.

I also worked some unique events.  One foursome did a charity event and they were trying to break some sort of record for the number of rounds played in a single day.  They got permission to use a whole fleet of carts, at least ten.  I was thirteen and somehow got in charge of driving a cart. I hit more than one garbage can on my driving debut. I ended up with a sunburn and a severe nose bleed; a player’s wife took care of my nose until it stopped enough to go home.

We also worked the MIS 500 event.  The country club was only a few miles from Michigan International Speedway where they used to run an Indy Car race (today it’s just NASCAR). I worked a foursome that included Bobby Rahal.  The other big event was Greg Norman arriving at the course in Roger Penske’s helicopter. That same guy who scooped me off the course that day got to be Norman’s caddie.  I remember seeing him walk around like Greg Norman’s little blond flunky, basking in all the attention. Norman pretty much ignored him as he played to the crowd.

Some of the kids really took to the job.  They saw themselves as members some day.  They liked the exclusivity, the “club” in the name “country club.”  I never took to it.

There were good members—they would tip well and talk to us instead of treating us like scenery.  At the concession stands out on the course they would buy us Cokes and burgers.  If we made a mistake, such as walking across the putting line, or letting your shadow fall across the hole when you were standing and holding the pin, they would gently correct us. They were actually out there to have fun, I realized, and some members were out there to cause grief.

But they were not the norm.  Waiting forever to make a few bucks from half-drunk wealthy men was the norm.

I finally got fed up and stopped going back.  A few weeks later, Dave gave me a call.  It seemed his management style had worn on too many kids and he was coming up short with caddies. “We have a lot of rounds scheduled this week, maybe you could come in and work?”  I told him no, I was done with that job. “But you just made Captain,” he said. I was pretty sure that was a lie, but I said maybe I could come by a day or two, just to get him off the line.  I never went back.

Later on in my teen years I did odd jobs doing yard work, which I thought was the worst job ever.  I worked on the church music director’s yard.  He paid me well and worked along side me to make it go faster, but I hated it.  I also did yard work for my English teacher.  Her husband was also a good employer, and helped me sometimes, but doing those tedious jobs out in the sun, like digging up sod for a new driveway, or pulling stumps, seemed like slave labor to my teenage self.  I started to feel guilty about having such strong resistance to this kind of work; I began to worry that I was lazy.

I often did these jobs alongside other teenagers I knew, and although they complained and seemed by what they said to dislike it as much as I did, they didn’t have trouble just bearing down and getting through it like I did.

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