Day 152: do you get it now?

The younger has recently learned from her cousin how to play the Pokémon card game and now she is teaching me.

She deals us each six cards.

“OK, you have to pick one of your cards that you think will beat my card and then you put that card down.”

“How can I tell which cards are better?” I ask.

“You just see which one is the best,” she explains.

“Yeah, but what makes one card better than another card? Is it to do with the numbers on the card? Or are certain characters better than others?”

She looks a little vague. “I’ll tell you when you put your card down if it’s better or not,” she says.

I narrow my eyes.

“Do you get it?” she asks.

“Not really,” I say, “but let’s just start playing and I’ll figure it out.”

We both put one card down.

“So whose card is better?” I ask. She examines them carefully. “Mine,” she says. “See how mine is shiny?”

“Oh, so all the shiny cards are better?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says, a little uncertainly.

“OK, let’s try again,” I say. I look at my cards. “None of my cards are shiny,” I say, “so I don’t know how to choose.”

“I can help you,” she says. I show her my cards. I point to one with a plucky looking panda on it. “What about him?”

“Yeah, he’s OK,” she says.

I put him down.

The younger puts her card down. “I win again!” she says.

Her card has some kind of exploding metallic abstract design on it.

“Why?” I say.

“Mine is a mega ex,” she explains.

“And what’s mine?” I ask.

“Yours is just ordinary,” she says. “It isn’t evolved.”

“OK,” I say, “but how am I supposed to tell that from looking at it?”

“Just look at my card!” she exclaims. “Look how much better it is than your card!”

I look at her card again. The design is, I guess, more complex than my card.

“Oh, fine,” I concede.

For the next round, I choose a card with a cute red bird on it. The younger lays down her card, which has some kind of green mollusc on it.

If the game’s logic is evolutionary, I feel pretty confident about this round.

“OK, I think I win this one,” I say.

“No you don’t!” she says, triumphantly. “Look how much better mine is than yours!”

“Yours is not better!” I protest. “Yours is just … just a snail, and mine is this nice bird!”

She looks at me severely. “Mine is a legendary from an ultimate universe.” she says. “And yours is just an ordinary creature that lives in … in the bushes.”

“OK,” I concede, because my bird is in the bushes in the picture. “But why does that make yours better?”

She sighs, exasperated. “Which sounds better to you,” she says, “‘a legendary from an ultimate universe’ or ‘an ordinary creature in the bushes’?”

“Well ‘a legendary from an ultimate universe’ sounds better,” I mutter, rolling my eyes and scowling.

“OK, so I won that round,” she announces. “Do you get how it works now?”

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Day 150: literary pursuits?

I have been obsessively refreshing the “my classes” webpage for the last two days hoping to see something other than 0/10 under the “enrollment” tab for my seminar this quarter. At this point I am actually sitting in the large, empty classroom, at the assigned class time, on my own, and I’m still refreshing the webpage on my laptop. I believe that this is called “denial.”

I feel more perplexed than insulted because of all the classes I’ve ever come up with, this may be the one that would have most appealed to me when I was an undergraduate. It’s called “Literary Pursuits.” Here’s part of the course description: “We will consider pursuit as a theme and plot structure in literary works, and we will also think about literary criticism as itself a form of pursuit: is literary interpretation a form of detection in pursuit of a smoking gun or missing piece of the puzzle? Or is interpretation much more open-ended than these metaphors would imply and therefore, inevitably, unfinished? What kinds of questions can literary critics answer and what sorts of questions are worth asking?”

Each week takes up a particular concept—examples include puzzle, mystery, and maze. The plan was to read literary works that imagine the literary object in these terms: so we would have read Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” for puzzle; and Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” for maze. In the second half of the course, we were going to read two novels—Pale Fire and Possession—that both imagine the literary scholar’s work as a form of pursuit—whether hermeneutic or archival.

Last night I emailed our undergraduate advisor asking if I should show up for class today. She wrote back that I should because “at this stage of the game, some students may be skittish about formally enrolling … but that doesn’t mean they won’t possibly show up today to check it out and make sure it’s ‘real’ before signing up …”

At this point, I’m not sure it’s real.

After about fifteen minutes a guy stopped outside the classroom and stood for some time looking at the number next to the door as if trying to figure out if he was in the right place. I said in my most friendly and real-sounding voice, “Are you looking for literary pursuits by any chance?” He ignored me. I noticed he had earbuds in and so I said again, more loudly, “excuse me, are you looking for literary pursuits?” He continued to ignore me and then walked away.

Then another guy walked into the classroom. “Literary Pursuits?” I said, hopefully. He threw his banana peel into the garbage can, and walked back out again.

Am I actually here?

Another guy comes over, looks at the door doubtfully and then walks away again. I hear him ask someone in the hallway, “Do you know where A26 is?”

“Here!” I yell, a little too loudly. “This is A26! Literary pursuits?” I enquire. He walks into the classroom slowly and scans the room with an anxious expression. I don’t blame him: for some reason the classroom I’ve been assigned for this course is not a normal seminar room, but a large classroom with a podium at the front. It’s hard not to be struck by its … emptiness. He doesn’t look thrilled at the prospect of having a one-on-one class.

“So you’re here for literary pursuits?” I say again.

He kind of squints at me, and I wonder if he’s making an on the spot decision to deny all knowledge of the course.

I start thinking about what my counter-move will be. He’s just skittish, I think to myself. Reel him in slowly. Don’t make any sudden moves.

“Is this … Japanese?” he finally asks.

Well-played, I think to myself. I take a few seconds and think about saying “yes.”

Finally I decide against it. “No,” I admit, sighing.

“It says here my Japanese class is here,” he says.

“Really!” I say, brightening. That would explain it! I think. It’s just a room mix-up! He looks at his notebook. “Let me double-check. Ohhhh, no, it’s A62, not A26!”

At this point an hour has elapsed. It’s kind of peaceful sitting here on my own. Maybe I really don’t need the students, I think to myself. I could just come here every week and sit in this classroom by myself for three hours. It could be a kind of performance art … a willful embrace of the solipsistic sort of literary pursuit that a character like Charles Kinbote embodies. Students wouldn’t be able to participate themselves, but they would be welcome to eat bananas and watch.

I decide to go home.

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Day 149: glam-bam 2017

The younger is helping me to get ready for my conference. She looks through my closet and chooses a dress she thinks I should take. I sigh when I see what she’s chosen. It’s a black jersey dress I bought off the sale rack at Jigsaw a couple of years ago. About every six months I try it on in front of the mirror and gaze at myself with a mixture of fascination and disbelief, wondering what on earth I was thinking when I bought it. Then I take it off again and hang it back in the closet. I have literally only ever worn this dress standing in front of my own bedroom mirror. She insists I try it on so she can give her assessment.

I wriggle into it as best I can and we both survey my reflection in the mirror. It clings to all the places, both right and wrong.

“Whoa!” the younger gasps.

She’s looking at my reflection in the mirror with a scandalized expression.

“You look like … like … like a movie star!” she finally exclaims, with some alarm.

She shakes her head. “You definitely shouldn’t wear that. It’s too …. movie star.”

Although I can’t agree that my appearance in this dress resembles that of any movie star I can recall (no movie star’s publicist would let them wear this dress, onscreen or off, without some heavy-duty torso-trussing undergarment), I do agree that I should not wear the dress.

With some relief I change back into the sweatpants I was wearing before and continue packing.

“OK, let’s practice how you’re going to talk to people,” she announces.

She herself has dressed for the occasion: grey leopard-print leggings, a red sequined party dress, and my gold boots.

She clomps over to me, “So, are you having a wonderful trip?“ she asks.

“Yes, I am, thank you,” I say. “How’s your trip going?”

“Very good, very good,” she says. “Isn’t this just so amazing and glam-bam?” she says, gesturing all around us and referring, I presume, to the fabulous soiree we are apparently attending.

“Yes,” I reply. “Wait, what is glam-bam?”

“Glam-bam is, you know,” she makes a je-ne-sai-quois expression, and tosses her hair, “just glam bam.”

“Have you tried the punch?” she asks.

“Umm, yes. It’s delicious,” I say.

“Wait,” she says, speaking in a stage whisper, momentarily suspending the make-believe: “do you think there will actually be punch at your concert?”

“Conference,” I say. “A concert is different. Hmmm, I don’t know if there’ll be punch. Probably not. But I hope so,” I say, sincerely.

She resumes her making-conversation-at-conference-voice. “Don’t you just love how we’re such beautiful and pretty and cool and stylish ladies?”

“And also smart,” I say, feeling the need to make a Feminist Intervention.

“Yes, and smart,” she echoes, unconcernedly.

“At a conference you might ask people about their work,” I continue, because I always have to ruin everything fun.

She doesn’t miss a beat. “So how is your research on literature and the eighteenth century?” she asks.

My mouth falls open in surprise and then laughter. She is on it. No intervention required. “Er, very well, thank you,” I stammer.

I collect myself. “And how is your research on eighteenth-century literature going?” I ask her, in return.

“Very good, very good,” she says. “Would you like more punch?”

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Day 148: stab!

“What are those?” The younger asks, spying a packet of pads in the newly organized bathroom cabinet.

We’ve had a version of this conversation dozens of times. But she always acts as though she’s asking for the first time.

“They’re for when you have your period.”

“What’s a period?”

“It’s when you have bleeding, when you’re a wo—” I stop and revise mid-sentence, feeling pressure to be precise, “starting when you’re an older girl, once a month.”

I have a longer answer to this question, about the uterus and the lining blah blah blah, but my approach to explaining periods to the younger is similar to the way I approached telling people about my dissertation when I was applying for academic jobs. My answer exists in interlocking sections; I’ve got my one-sentence version, and I don’t offer elaboration until prompted.

“Once a month!” she exclaims, in a tone of outrage, as if I’ve told her she can expect a monthly beating starting in a few years.

“Is it a tradition,” she enunciates the word carefully, and I wonder if it’s one they’ve been using in kindergarten this week, “or does it just happen?”

“A tradition? Uh, no, it’s not a, a tradition.” [1]

“Dang it, if it was a tradition I wouldn’t have to do it!” she exclaims.

I am just thinking to myself that I love this conception of what tradition means (a thing you don’t have to do) when I observe that she is now (in illustration of the counterfactual “it” she wouldn’t have to do if periods were a tradition? In illustration of what it is that “just happens”?) gleefully plucking an invisible knife out of the air and miming stabbing herself in her crotch.

“Stab!” she yells, jubilantly, as she plunges the invisible knife into her groin.

I give an involuntary yelp.

“Yikes, no. Jesus.” I am actually wincing. “No. No. There’s no stabbing.”

As she turns away I find myself wondering if she will perform this mime in front of other people and if it will somehow be traced back to my explanation of what periods are.

“There’s no stabbing!” I call after her, as she walks away, and I think to myself that this is what is called losing control of the narrative.

 

Notes

[1] Although it kind of is, isn’t it? Which is to say, a menstrual period is both something that “just happens” (or, sometimes, sometimes momentously, doesn’t happen) and a “tradition.” I remember when I was on the pill how weird I thought it was when I realized that some of the pills were placebos so as to create an artificial period. And that the reason for this was because the inventors of the pill “believed that women would find the continuation of their monthly bleeding reassuring” (quoting from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 New Yorker article, “John Rock’s Error.”)

 

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Day 147: Ode to Adderall

If you ask me, it’s not that I have a problem paying attention. It’s that I have a problem paying attention to things that are boring. I excel, if I may say so, at paying attention to many things, including television shows, cocktail menus, long, drawn-out dinners, stern admonitions, shoes, dancing (whether as spectator or participant), well-wrapped parcels, my children’s verbal articulations,* shells on the beach, a head of hair that I have permission to brush or braid, conversations (face to face or at a distance), and sex.

*except when these involve any of the following: Minecraft, Shopkins, the characteristics of various forms of weaponry, Beanie-boos, or anything they need right now, Mom, etc.

I am middling when it comes to attending to academic talks, essays, or monographs (rather unfortunate, this), art exhibitions, wine or beer lists, movies that lack a plot, pre-1750 American literature (the truly terrifying sermons of Jonathan Edwards excepted), and long disquisitions on unfamiliar subjects (note: the latter often masquerade as one side in a conversation; I am not fooled one bit).

I am abominable at attending to sealed envelopes addressed to me (unless they are adorned with an intriguing, hand-written script or promise to contain either book royalties or an invitation to a fancy party), dirty dishes, plants (indoor or outdoor), anything in the back of the refrigerator, laundry (clean or dirty), bills, and overdue notices of all kinds.

I’ve had trouble paying attention to boring things so long as I can recall. And it’s been part of my identity at least since my maths teacher called me out for being “lazy” (“I see you looking out the window, lost in your own little world!”), when I was about eleven.

But I was coddled enough (by family, university), that it didn’t really present a life-interfering problem until grad school.

“I can’t deal with paperwork,” I confessed to the therapist I sought out at the university’s mental health services, “or any other ‘little things’ that need to get done, so then they pile up and pile up and become overwhelming. I would rather write my dissertation. That’s how much I can’t bear tackling mundane tasks.”

“And are you actually writing your dissertation?” she asked me.

“Oh, yes!” I replied. “Writing is so much easier then dealing with all that other stuff.” (“all that other stuff” referred to any kind of task related to financial aid, immigration documentation, banking, bills, etc.)

At the time she was like, “well, maybe writing your dissertation is more important right now.” And I remember leaving feeling rather pleased with myself, re-imagining my inability to attend to the little things as evidence that I had my priorities straight, was simply dedicated to the execution of grander tasks altogether.

And yet …

Over the years my inattention to little things nearly landed me, more than once, in serious trouble. I let my green card expire and left the country. I only noticed when I was back in the U.S. I guess the immigration officer hadn’t been paying attention. (I actually only became a U.S. citizen in order to avoid the hassle of having to renew my green card every ten years for the rest of my life.) I twice racked up library bills amounting to tens of thousands of dollars and both times managed to persuade the long-suffering librarians to cancel the fines.

It led, inevitably, to problems in my marriage. Apart from the problem of my chronic inability to complete mundane tasks in a timely manner, which was naturally considerably irritating to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved, his difficulty understanding why I couldn’t. Just. Get. Things. Done created a gulf between us.

I remember on more than one occasion having a conversation that went something like this.

DUCK-RABBIT: You know what I hate?

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: No, what?

DUCK-RABBIT: When you decide that you want to do something in the long-term but in the moment you just can’t stick to it.

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: Like what?

DUCK-RABBIT: Oh, you know, like when I decided [as I do, periodically] that it was definitely unethical to eat meat and I was fully convinced, and I made a plan even down to what I would order next time at Bagel Nosh instead of my usual but then two hours later we went out and I thought, fuck it I need a burger. Or when I resolve I’m going to exercise regularly and I even do that thing where I put all my running stuff out so it’s ready in the morning but then the next morning the prospect of actually going running is just too awful to contemplate. Or when you know you’ll feel better if you just clean up your desk but the piles of paper are just way too overwhelming.

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: I …. I don’t really have that.

DUCK-RABBIT: What do you mean?

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: If I decide I want to do something then I just do it.

DUCK-RABBIT: But what if it’s something that takes a lot of will-power?

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: [a little nervously, realizing that his answer is not what I want to hear] Then I summon up the will-power?

DUCK-RABBIT: [increasingly agitated] But what if you don’t have the will-power?

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: If it’s something I’m sure I want to do then I’ll have the willpower.

DUCK-RABBIT: [confounded] What, so you don’t have a rich, internal struggle every time you have to do anything that’s not flop on the sofa and watch telly?

HE-WHO-MUST-BE-PRESERVED: Nope.

At this point I would proceed to flop on the sofa and sulk while muttering to myself that he must be lying because it is a known fact that wrestling with yourself about whether you can bear to do anything other than lie on the sofa is part of the universal struggle of humankind.

These days I’m not so sure.

The catalyst for my recent doubts about whether overcoming indolence is indeed a universal struggle was another crisis caused by yet another situation in which I had avoided completing a relatively simple bureaucratic task which then ballooned into an overwhelming series of bureaucratic tasks due to my inertia.

This task was submitting my psychiatry bills to my insurance company so that I could be reimbursed for part of the (exorbitant) cost. I had allowed a full year’s worth of bills to pile up without submitting any of them. When this finally came to light (and by “came to light” I mean “was forced to confess to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved due to our still intertwined tax returns”) I felt a pit in my stomach in which the shame of having deferred this simple task of responsible adulthood for so long mingled with the dread of realizing that I now actually had to submit the bills and complete multiple copies of the odious CMS-1500 health insurance claim form, each copy of which only has the space to itemize three weeks worth of appointments, which meant, since I had a full year’s worth of appointments to itemize, that I had to fill out, um, 17 and a half copies of the form. And not only that but then find an envelope. Or possibly multiple envelopes. And stamps. And a mailbox, for God’s sake.

I finally confessed that I’d been hoarding my superbills in therapy, after actually lying on previous occasions to my psychiatrist when she asked if I’d been submitting them. Given all the intimate and embarrassing things I have told my psychiatrist over the years, it is telling that this of all things is the thing I withheld. As I explained I added, almost idly, “this has been a problem my whole life.” When she asked what I meant I mentioned the preposterously large library fines, the other problems with completing necessary mundane paperwork, issues that have come up tangentially in therapy before which but we’d never discussed at much length before now.

I thought, because this is generally what we do in therapy, that she might ask me to dredge up my earliest memory of experiencing this kind of paralysis around completing mundane tasks, or something like that.

Instead, what she said next took me totally by surprise.

“Have you ever thought about taking a stimulant?” she asked. “A stimulant?” I repeated.“It’s used to treat ADHD,” she said, and went on to explain that it might help me concentrate upon and complete tasks.

I was a little incredulous at first. I didn’t fit my image of the kind of person who might have ADHD (my image was of a hyperactive kid (OK, a boy) who plays a lot of video games and has trouble sitting still in class. Whereas I am amazing at sitting still.)

Still, we talked about it for some time and I decided, cautiously, that I might be interested in trying it. She gave me a questionnaire to fill out and I began to feel increasingly excited as I read the first four questions:

  1. How often do you have trouble wrapping up the final details of a project, once the challenging parts have been done?
  2. How often do you have difficulty getting things in order when you have to do a task that requires organization?
  3. How often do you have problems remembering appointments or obligations?
  4. When you have a task that requires a lot of thought, how often do you avoid or delay getting started?

The answer to all four of these questions, for me, is: often. Not always, but often.

Not all of the questions spoke to me. For example: “How often do you have difficulty unwinding and relaxing when you have time to yourself?” Um, never (see: flopping on sofa, above).

But enough of the questions resonated with me that I started to wonder, a bit giddily, whether it was actually possible that a behavior I had always thought of as being a character trait that could only possibly be overcome by mustering Benjamin-Franklin-level reserves of determination that I was quite sure I didn’t possess might actually be a chemical imbalance that could be altered by taking a drug.

Reader, I write to you now as someone who is now taking a daily stimulant. It’s been a week and the change I’ve observed is pretty remarkable. Things I’ve accomplished this week include: submitting all the bills and the bloody forms in a satisfyingly hefty envelope. (Oh yeah, and I even mailed it.) Yard work. I’ll just repeat that for the benefit of those who know me well: I did yard work. Or gardening as we call it in England. Voluntarily. I even enjoyed myself. Cleaned out the overflowing shelving unit in the bathroom that was so tightly stuffed with miscellaneous bathroom products that retrieving a tube of toothpaste from it was like a game of Jenga. Killed two daddy-long-legs. (Actually that might just be a coincidence.) Wrote a full draft of a talk I have to give a clear two weeks before said talk is due to be delivered. Even finished making the PowerPoint. The most momentous accomplishment might seem the least impressive to those of you have a more normal ability to complete boring tasks: never until now have I been able to completely wash all of the dirty dishes in the sink. I always run out of steam about three quarters of the way through and leave a couple of plates, or a few knives and forks in the sink. That hasn’t been happening. Basically, I can now, much more easily focus on completing a task I’ve decided I want to complete. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

The strangest part is not the individual tasks that now seem doable. The strangest part is that this chemical experiment has shaken my previous belief that fighting inertia was not just my problem but rather one that afflicted most people to an equal degree. Honestly, have the rest of you just been merrily doing your dishes and filing your insurance claims forms with no great angst all these years? I just thought all of you people who got things done had this superhuman tolerance for mental pain! Why did nobody tell me!?

If I let myself start thinking about what my life might have looked like if I’d started taking Adderall earlier, it’s easy to get a little glum. Would that book have been written twice as fast? Would conflicts over domestic labor simply never occurred because I too would have cleaned the kitchen properly in the first place rather than in my typical half-arsed fashion?

I worry that this post (at the very least its title) might seem to trivialize the experiences of people who have more severe problems with attention deficit (or more severe problems, period); that isn’t my intention at all and I know that my attentional “disorder” (if we want to call it that, and I’m not sure that I do) is mild. I also know Adderall isn’t a panacea; it has side-effects, like any drug, and can be addictive when taken in high doses. And I’m in no way dismissing the idea that my (or anybody else’s) trouble completing tasks might stem from underlying beliefs or fears that might profitably be explored in therapy as well as treated with drugs.

I can imagine that someone (probably someone British) might observe, kindly, upon reading this post, “but the problem isn’t with you, dear duck-rabbit, it’s with this ghastly society with its information economy and ubiquitous social media that has addled your brain”; or, “but the problem isn’t with you, dear duck-rabbit, it’s with this ghastly society with its demand that one be constantly productive that has distorted your expectations of what a human can be expected to accomplish in one day.”

To which I would reply, this is probably true. But since this is the society I live in, I have to find a way to make it livable; and this is one way that is proving helpful, at least right now.

Finally (last bit of hand-wringing, this), I worry that my zeal for this new drug may cause you to worry that this dreamy duck-rabbit has turned feverish and frantic; so I hasten to assure you that I’m on an extremely low dosage under close supervision, and I don’t think there’s much discernible change in the way I interact with the world; I haven’t suddenly become a fast talker or someone who stays up all night alphabetizing her book collection.

And I still love flopping on the sofa. Odds are, I’m there right now.

 

 

 

 

 

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