The Revenge of the Return

MechDanger

I did everything right.  Which is to say, I did what I was supposed to do.  (I’ve not once in my life done everything right;  this was about as close as I get.)  I took a chance, in spite of trepidation, in a bid to better provide for my family.  Anyone rational would have done the same.  The timing was horrible, and I knew that going in, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.  I’d studied and built experience over the years to do exactly this type of work, and I would’ve been good at it.

To this day, I still have no idea how it went wrong, but it did, and everything since has been a vicious cosmic joke.  I’ve tried to play the good sport, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep laughing it off.  There is a bit more at stake now than simple pride.

Which brings me back to my last pre-lapse post.  It was itself intended as a contrite-but-hopeful return to writing, although my time away had been much shorter (2+ months vs. 2+ years).  I closed it with a bit of rebellious flourish, some inspirational/oppositional window dressing to set the tone for things to come.  Except nothing ever came, not until now.  My current sentiments are similar, but more deeply felt, and I would like to expand a bit on those previous words.  I’m hoping for catharsis.  We’ll see what I actually get.

“…a time-consuming distraction like writing non-professionally is something I should have grown out of by now.  And for a while, I really bought it.”

I no longer think this is what I’m doing.  The last couple of years have been eye-opening for me, if only because I’ve dug more into the ugliness that is modern economic policy and uncovered some truly rotten and disgusting truths that need to be exposed and reversed.  If there is the slightest outside chance that I can help make that happen, I need to act on it.  I’m no longer just doing this for fun, or distraction, or as a learning opportunity.  I’m playing for keeps, and it starts right here.

“My current job pays significantly less and asks significantly more than the temp gig I had as a shipping carpenter back before the crisis really hit high gear, and anything I’ve done in the interim has been worse yet.”  

I used to joke, at one of the many jobs I’ve held in the last few years, that I was waiting to see if the whole “job” thing was going to pay off.  It was a line lifted from “Being John Malkovich”, and it was meant to show the John Cusack character’s disconnection from the average life experience.  Except, now, 17 years later, it doesn’t actually seem that disconnected from reality.

One of those aforementioned disgusting truths just happens to be the fact that re-stabilizing the jobs market at pre-Crisis levels was never part of the plan.  Business leaders, rather, intended to use the Financial Crisis to drastically lower the baseline of what workers could expect from a job, even a good one, and to replace many long-term contracts with small armies of temp workers.  It’s a strategy that has ushered in everything from recent fights over minimum wages and how to differentiate contractors from employees, to the “gig economy,” in which younger workers are forced to cobble together multiple part-time and temp “gigs” into an income on which they can (maybe, sort-of, if they’re really, really lucky) actually survive.

In the past couple of years, I’ve worked two jobs that operate on a kind of independent contractor/on-demand model, though neither was billed as such going in.  I was an employee, officially, and had to be available for a full work week, but with no guarantee that I would actually be utilized.  I was willing to roll with the punches, for a while, but it eventually became clear that the point was basically to have part-time employees while making it impossible for them to plan ahead for days off, the way one would with a more traditional part-time job.  Taking on a second supplemental job was impossible under this model, as was undertaking any kind of large-scale project outside of work.  Effectively, companies can externalize or offload business risk onto employees, which, like most post-Crisis developments, has been great for companies, but ultimately horrible for workers.

Which brings me to my final point…

“I’m sure I’m tempting labels like ‘cynic’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘conspiracy nut,’ but I really can’t avoid the feeling that the aforementioned conventional wisdom is only in place to keep my mouth shut and my mind too busy to notice the patterns of decline…”

I’m no longer worried about courting that kind of terminology.  Hell, I’d wear any one of those labels with pride at this point.  For one, I think, if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, my cynicism should speak for itself (frankly, I tend to see it as one of my draws).  As for socialist?  I guess, compared to what?  I’m no hardline capitalist, but I do believe markets are useful under certain conditions and in certain situations.  (That said, I also believe their efficacy is conditional on creating acceptable outcomes for the broader society, and if that condition can’t be met, as is absolutely the case under the current neoliberal variant, then they need to be restructured.  In other words, a pretty clear textbook socialist.)  And about the conspiracy stuff?  Well, I’ll just have to make sure my sources are solid.  After all, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t coming for you, or at the very least your subversive ideas…

And subversive ideas are the real currency of value here.  When a system is so fucked and unreadable that you can paint yourself into a nigh-unemployable corner making nothing but smart moves, subversion is the only valid course of action.  I’ll keep looking for that paycheck, but my next job will be simply that:  Something I do to keep food in my mouth while I write.  This is my option.  Anything else requires me to rely on a system that has proven, on multiple occasions, that it simply cannot be trusted.  I will not place myself at its mercy again, not with my family and future on the line.

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The Blog RETURNS!!

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Scene from “The Blob” (1988 Columbia TriStar)

 

 

At this juncture, I think it’s fair to call my first attempt at “regular” blogging a complete and irrevocable failure.

Which is OK, really.  I never expected to get it right on the first shot, and I did manage a couple of solid months of fairly frequent and substantial entries.  I got to try some things, get some less-than-stellar ideas out of my system, and start to re-hone my surprisingly dull skills on some unsurprisingly dull subject matter.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  I’m not going to beat myself up (any more) over this.

My only job now is to glean any possible lessons from the ultimate collapse…

Lesson One:  Any distraction, no matter how helpful or pressing it may seem, is still a distraction and is still keeping me from something I had intended to be doing.  Yes, the dishes need to get done, and the garage needs reorganizing, and I need to keep up on the news and do a fair amount of research, but those things will still be there waiting for me after I’ve finished my planned writing.  The other things generally feel more pressing most of the time, but doing the unintuitive seems to be the key to making this work.  On a related note:

Lesson Two:  Taking steps to separate the time I spend writing from other parts of my life appears to make focusing on it much easier.  As odd as it sounds, simple physical changes can do a lot more to channel my psychological processes than I’m happy to admit.  Having a variety of locations and situations reserved for writing has been immensely helpful in keeping myself on task, but getting out of the house isn’t always an option.  In those cases, I’ve found something like a simple change of clothes can be almost as good.  I couldn’t really believe it at first, but just swapping my usual t-shirt and jeans for a nice, fitted button-down can adjust my intellectual framework enough to make an absolute chore of an article practically write itself.  Very strange, but also very effective, and worth remembering.

Lesson 3:  Externalize the expectations.  This is a weird concept to put succinctly into words, but I’ll do my best. Basically, I can’t just write things for myself or my own satisfaction, because I’ve learned to deal far too well with failure and the compromised self-image that comes with it.  However, if I pretend (or acknowledge?) that someone else in the universe is expecting/hoping to read more, and try to imagine their disappointment when new posts don’t materialize frequently enough, it has the motivational effect I need.  It feels a bit childish, and a bit conceited, but it’s what works.  I’ve disappointed myself so often and so completely over the years, I’ve basically lost the ability to expect anything but failure.  Letting other people down, on the other hand, I’ve never really gotten used to, if only because they’ve never gotten good at accepting it from me.

You know, on reflection,  I’m enjoying how many of these “lessons” are just excuses for rote self-deception.  I’ve always thought there was a certain virtue in being totally honest with yourself (which, astute readers will note, is not the same as successfully being honest with myself), but now I’m starting to question whether such a thing is possible at all.  Total honesty seems to imply both perfect knowledge and perfect objectivity, two things humanity has never exactly been associated with.  In that harsh light, total honesty, with yourself of anyone else, becomes an idyllic fantasy, and the best you can ever hope for is probably just a bit of conscious control over the matter on which you will allow yourself to be deceived, by whom, and to what purpose.

The conventional wisdom in most political/financial circles is that someone my age and in my position needs to be working and saving as much as possible, and that a time-consuming distraction like writing non-professionally is something I should have grown out of by now.  And for a while, I really bought it.  That said, I’m here, 33 years old, I’m married, we own our home and have a (psychotic) dog.  I’ve spent the better part of the last decade working my ass off at various jobs, going to school, racking up student loan debt and logging thousands of miles on my car and bike, and for what?  My current job pays significantly less and asks significantly more than the temp gig I had as a shipping carpenter back before the crisis really hit high gear, and anything I’ve done in the interim has been worse yet.

I’m sure I’m tempting labels like ‘cynic’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘conspiracy nut,’ but I really can’t avoid the feeling that the aforementioned conventional wisdom is only in place to keep my mouth shut and my mind too busy to notice the patterns of decline in terms of real (inflation-adjusted) wages and benefits, middle- and lower-class living standards, and workers’ share of productivity growth.  The stock markets may have missed a couple of beats, but those at the top of the food chain stopped feeling the effects of the crisis a couple of years ago, at least.  When, exactly, is that condition supposed to start trickling down, again?  If the people benefiting from across-the-board cuts to wages and benefits are the same ones who make that call, I’m pretty sure I already know the answer.  You’re not going to like it.

So, maybe I do feel a bit stupid, or childish, or irresponsible for spending as much time as I need to on writing this blog, and maybe there are things in my life that feel like a better use of my time.  So the fuck what?  I’m sure most people feel this way about something they do, something that is important to them.  But I’m almost equally sure those feelings are the result of a barrage of political and social messaging designed and deployed to put them there, in service of groups with something other than the interests of the public at heart.

Or, to put it another way:  If a terminal fuckface like Jamie Dimon can guiltlessly call private audience with the Attorney General to negotiate his way out of criminal charges on the company dime, and if Lloyd Blankfein can maintain his signature turd-sandwich smirk while pretending cuts in Social Security benefits are any kind of good for anyone other than himself and his hyperwealthy ilk, then I can definitely disregard some of the engineered guilt I’m supposed to be feeling over spending any fraction of my own time or thought on activity that doesn’t generate sufficient Wall Street profits.

In fact, that might be all the motivation I need…

The Clutch

"Redline" by Brendon Bradley

“Redline” by Brendon Bradley

 

The engine is about to explode, but the car hasn’t moved an inch…

J here.  Sorry this sucker took so long, I was about 3/4 done with it when the whole Edward Snowden/NSA Leak thing dropped, and I’ve been dedicating way too much time to following that for the last few weeks.  I’ve been a fan of Glenn Greenwald for years, and seeing him vindicated like this is equal parts phenomenally exciting and existentially terrifying.  That goes for Dan Carlin and double for the late Michael Hastings as well.  Basically, this flips the whole national debate about everything on it’s head.

That is to say, it should, I guess.  You can bet your entire ass I’ve got something coming on this, hopefully sooner rather than later.  Just keeping up with the scope of the story is practically a full time job, but damn it, I’m going find a way…

In the meantime, meet “The Clutch” (sorry, the name similarity was too screwball to resist):

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One of the biggest things to learn in dealing with AD/HD is the ridiculous number of pitfalls that one can fall victim to, often for days or weeks at a time, and often without even noticing.  These conditions tend to be self-reinforcing, and the fact that you’re not terribly good at being cognizant of your own behavior or state of mind in the moment can make recognition and escape that much harder.  Each affected person has different mental traps that they struggle with, depending on how the condition has manifested in the individual case.  I want this to be the first in an ongoing series exploring the worst (at least for me) of these black holes of time and effort and positive self-regard, and (hopefully) some strategies to avoid or escape the problems when they come up.

And yes, I’ve taken to giving them bizarre pet names, in a pathetic and transparent attempt to render them small and non-threatening in my head.  Can’t quite decide if it’s working or not;  maybe this will make it more clear.  So, without further delay and in no particular order, allow me to present:

Pitfall #1:  The Clutch

This guy is, for lack of a better term, a motherfucker.  This cycle doesn’t spring up too often, but when it does, I have a hell of a time getting out.  Let me (try to) explain…

Usually, I start with some moderately complicated task to undertake.  Not a chemistry experiment by any means, but some sort of semi-complex plan with several points or steps I need to hit to be successful.  Now, for an average person, it would be fairly easy to keep track of where you are and move quickly from step to step.  I, however, am not a normal person…  When I come to, several hours have passed.  Maybe I’m halfway through my project, or maybe I never got started at all, but either way, I’m out of time now and unlikely ever to find my way back to it to finish.

So, what the fuck happened?

Well, this is where things start to get weird…

The most helpful thing I’ve learned about AD/HD in the last couple of years is that the term “AD/HD” is a horrible and counterproductive misnomer.  This is especially true in my case (little to no hyperactive component), but even if you leave that bit out, calling it “Attention Deficit Disorder” is still incredibly misleading.  The central problem in AD/HD isn’t an inability to focus or pay attention, it’s a reduced ability to consciously control and direct that focus.  Your brain can focus just fine, you just don’t get to pick when or on what it does so.

Modern research has pinpointed both chemical and structural deficiencies in the parts of the brain responsible for something called “Executive Function.”  I won’t go into the neuroscience of it here, but your executive function is pretty much exactly what it sounds like:  It coordinates and controls what various parts of your brain are working on.  If you have AD/HD, your brain and its myriad parts may work fantastically well, they’re just rarely all on the same page, and the barrage of conflicting signals demolishes concentration interferes with any productive or desirable thoughts.

So, is that inability to sync up what ate my 3-4 hours?  Not even close, but we are getting there, I promise.

While an uncoordinated cognitive clusterfuck may be the usual state of mind for people with AD/HD, it isn’t the only state that is possible.  Every once in a while, for any variety of reasons, things line up perfectly, and every part of your brain is working together on the same task.  This state is generally referred to as “hyperfocus,” and it feels, to be as clinical and professional as possible, fucking amazing.  Tasks that are difficult (or downright impossible) under normal circumstances suddenly become easy, even natural, as though they’re happening on their own and you’re just along for the ride.  I tend to hyperfocus when I do woodworking or play the guitar, and occasionally when reading or writing.  I’ll use reading as a prime example, because the difference between results is particularly dramatic.

I usually read at a fairly slow pace.  I’ve never really tried to measure it or compare it to other people, but I’d guess I read at roughly half the speed of an average person.  There are a variety of causes for this, but the most prevalent one seems to be the weird mental tangents the subject matter can send my brain on, eating a minute here and a minute there, usually without my realization.  While a boring text will merely be difficult to focus on, even an interesting one can be a problem because of the sheer number of those mental rabbit holes certain concepts or ideas will inevitably trigger for me.

However, when that perfect mix of luck, interest, and circumstance creates a hyperfocused state, and lines up all my mental functions on the same activity, I’ve been known to tear through a 400 page novel in just a few hours.  Both the inner and outer distractions that would normally derail me go unnoticed and ignored.  I’ll miss phone calls, space off meals, and often even a direct question from my wife or a friend will require a couple of tries and several extra seconds to elicit a response.  The ability to hyperfocus is one of the few advantages that can (sometimes) come with AD/HD affliction, but it can also bring a whole new set of challenges to overcome.

And that, finally, gets us back to our central question…

What the hell is this so-called “Clutch,” and what can be done to avoid it?

As I’ve mentioned, AD/HD is effectively a problem of regulating and directing brain activity.  While hyperfocused states can be incredibly advantageous when they coincide with particularly interesting or demanding activity, those aren’t the only times they happen.  Sometimes, your hyperfocus will kick in for some mundane task, or sometimes for no task at all.  You’ll end up over-thinking every angle of how and why you tie your shoes, or if you could do it better some other way.  I have a particular problem losing myself into completely unproductive thought loops on the nature of destructive trading cycles that seem to spring up for almost no reason in modern equity markets.  It’s usually very interesting, and I occasionally come to mind-blowing epiphanies while engaged in this sort of thinking, but the fact that the time had been set aside or needed for something else more than counteracts any good that might come of them.  (Also, unless you’re immediately able to somehow record said brilliant new insights, the chances of you remembering them later are basically zero.)

So, there it is (at least in my experience and estimation):  The dreaded “Clutch” is basically just a misdirected period of hyperfocused thought or activity.  You’re brain is running at full throttle, but much like in a car with a stuck clutch, it’s totally disengaged from any practical purpose.  It’s a massive waste of time and energy, and the wear on your morale is tough to quantify and even harder to repair.  The Clutch can kick in at almost any time, and can last for hours when uninterrupted.  Also, unlike a lot of other AD/HD symptoms, the usual pharmaceutical subjects have an annoying tendency to make this problem worse rather than better.  Luckily, there are a couple of steps you can take to avoid losing your entire day to these errant periods of pointless mental activity.

First, always have at least a rough outline of what you want to be doing.  You can break it down according to time in a calendar program or a day planner if you want, but just a basic sequence of activities should do the trick.  “I want/intend to do this, then this, then this…”  Having a rough sequence of tasks allows you to both check off accomplished ones (Hello, reward center stimuli!) and to be able to easily remind yourself of what’s up next.  In my experience, that space between finishing one activity and starting the next is a serious danger zone for unhelpful distraction.  Building a habit of checking your list anytime you finish an activity allows you to avoid getting sucked up into a “Clutch”-type situation.

(Also, don’t be afraid to get granular when writing your activity sequence.  In addition to making big jobs seem easier to start, breaking larger tasks down into individual steps can make this strategy easier to adopt.  Repetition is how actions become automatic, and giving yourself more opportunities per task to practice your process means you’ll pick up the habit much more quickly.)

The other big one that I’ve identified is setting a timer to go off at regular intervals throughout the day.  You can use an alarm clock, an oven timer, or set an alert on your phone or other portable device.  It seems to work best if you don’t have to actively think about setting and resetting it throughout the day, so a more automated solution is probably best.  This method actually gives you two advantages:  It makes tracking the passage of time easier, and the alarm works to interrupt pointless thought loops and allow you to periodically refocus your efforts and attention.

Finally, there are supposedly methods to sort of “fool” your focus centers into turning on and off when you need them.  I’ve never been able to make any of these work for me, but AD/HD is a notoriously unpredictable condition, and things that don’t work for one person may be a revelation to another.  Unfortunately, it’s basically just trial and error to find a good combination of medication, therapy, and planning techniques that will work best for you.

Effectively treating AD/HD symptoms is an ongoing process, and there are many places to look to for ideas.  Books like “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy” and “Your Life Can Be Better” are excellent sources of broad-based info and ideas from authors with personal experience battling AD/HD in their own lives.  I’m always looking for good new sources of AD/HD info, so please feel free to put any personal favorites in the comments below.

I’ll be back at some point in time with another one of these “personal pitfall” accounts.  Until then, good luck, and stay resilient!  If you’re anything like me, you’ll need a lot of both.