July 16, 2015

ADHD Type Inattentive: Kafkaesque Inner Lives, Demons of Entropy, and a Life of Diminished Capacity

1. Introduction

I was diagnosed with ADHD (inattentive type) in January of this year and have been pursuing treatment ever since. I'm 26. In the 6 months or so since I've been taking medicine, I've been trying to come to terms with what this disorder has meant for me. In doing so, I've had to come to terms with what it means to be human, in order that I might understand how to live out my remaining decades as a human.

Now, that last bit may seem pretentious or overdramatized, but if we stop and think about it, it's not such a big question.

It's not such a big question when - for twenty-five years, for 300 months - I'd lived more or less in the top of a brain that cannot sit still. A brain that cannot sit still is remarkably fun to inhabit and remarkably exhausting, exhausting not only of energy but of means, fortitude, and identity. And yet... for all the trouble the disorder has always caused me, dealing with this brain is the biggest question (perhaps the only question) that I have to fix in my life. Now, while I can't prove this, I think most people have bigger questions in their lives than the question of how to be human. And I think those questions involve much deeper problems than the problem of how to live with being human. Strip away the veneer of the philosophical and put it in concrete terms of work and time and suffering. Put it all on a scale and strip of the metaphysical its usually-afforded privilege: I don't think it's that big a deal, for me. This is my biggest problem and it is a privilege to have this as my biggest problem. For people with ADHD type inattentive (or any other type) in general? This isn't necessarily true. They may have worse problems with the disorder than I do, or less resources to deal with them, or it may intersect with comorbid conditions like depression and anxiety, or it may intersect in a troublesome way with religion, race, or gender. Others may have more soaring ambitions, or a lower margin of error, or a more troubled family, or have more expectations foisted upon them. Others may have any number of obstacles which make it harder for them to deal with their disorder. I do not. I am a man without a country seeking only asylum and all I have in front of me is to seek.

I am extremely fortunate that my only major problem is largely philosophical and metaphysical in nature. And I do not take that good fortune for granted. I see in this fortune an obligation to seek out and communicate what I can of the challenges I've faced, so another person reading this may find some commonality and may find answers to their larger challenge, for whether for themselves or for a loved one.

2. Stand By Your Manager (Unless Your Company Sucks)

Despite being reasonably intelligent and having all the privileges of personhood that society has to offer, I submit that I have never fully enjoyed the full usage of those privileges until January of this year. My brain may have a normal capacity, but my life has never reflected the full measure of that capacity. My life is limited to the complexity which that brain can manage in a life, and that brain has never been able to manage much at a time. I can listen to Bach pieces I've studied and hear four voices simultaneously and how these voices interact. I can participate in video games or watch sports and "see the whole field" better than most people. I can read a book and solve a theorem pretty well. But these things are games whose rules are largely defined for me. When the prescribed rules go away, so too does my confidence and ability to thrive at the game, because I cannot enforce rules upon myself as most others can, In the sprawling eternity which stretches over every possible life a person can live, I cannot begin to fathom the voices and lights that others are given. I cannot know what calls most people to move one way or the other among their options. I simply lack something. And what I lack can lead people, if not always wisely, to lives far more commensurate with their abilities. For 300 months, I'd never heard such voices and have navigated my space of possible lives alone. What I heard and saw instead were noise and static punctuated incidentally by days and nights and the precious-few obligations I'd created for myself, usually by accident or self-deception.

No amount of habit-forming can make things fundamentally better, because there's a finite complexity my brain can handle. Fixing my ADHD-related problems is a zero-sum game on some level. I used to lose my keys all the time. Then I adapted to that, and now I rarely lose them. But when I was adapting, I would lose other things much more frequently. So I tried to address both. And when I'd adapted to that by carrying things in a central location, I got a lot worse at keeping track of all the things I now kept anchored to my person, best visualized literally as a full backpack with a hundred disparate objects. When I got better at keeping track of that, I started losing my keys again.

Let me talk in a more structured way about what it means to live inside this mind. This is a moderately-long tangent, but it's a tangent that will help premise and clarify what is to follow. Bear with me, if you will.

As I understand the current science, the "deficit" in "attention deficit disorder" is less about attention and more about the executive functions of the brain. As their name suggests, executive functions are sort of like the mind's managers. These managers are responsible for planning our projects, dividing our goals into bite-sized tasks, and generally keeping us motivated. They keep us on task, help us allocate time, manage our resources for us, and tell us where we left the key to the break room. They get rid of the distractions and let us do one thing at a time. These managers are the editors who tell you to be yourself and let them figure the editing out. While we're busy living our lives, our mind's managers help us reason about ourselves and others from past to present to future. They take everything in and use it all to construct narratives. The managers living in our mind bring cohesion to all our thoughts. They manage the managers, even.

In short, the executive functions of your brain manage, govern, and organize your thoughts, which allows you the space to manage, govern, and organize your life.

And just as an unmanaged, ungoverned, and unorganized company is a formless mess to work at, filled with arbitrary requirements and the vague, mostly-unrealised sense that for the salary you've been given, you should be working harder... or smarter... or better... "But what?" Your bosses have no answer. They're too busy directing the entire company to solve 7x7 Rubik's Cubes today. "What profit can that bring the company?" you might ask, but your bosses don't have a good answer. They shrug and say "It's just what we need to do now. My boss told me to do that." And your bosses's bosses, if you should turn to them, don't have an answer either. They seem to feel that the company should apply to a temp agency, but they are also thinking that maybe the company will never have resources to do even that. Conflicted, they do nothing. So today, they tell you, working on the Rubik's Cube it is. Or nothing. Or a vocal arrangement of gospel songs. Whatever. It doesn't matter. Nothing does matter in the company you're at, until there's an emergency or an appointment some jerk in accounting accidentally made. And when your company's CEO must travel to Hong Kong or simply make a trip to the pharmacy and get groceries by the end of the week, your CEO struggles against the bonds of a torpid, Kafkaesque bureaucracy before going out without having showered, in a shirt buttoned hastily. Better than to miss the bus.

My mind is a fast-paced experience, one part intelligence, one part ADHD, and eight parts the natural seasickness of living on a world whose contours and geometry seem to shift and warp without my conscious direction and without my conscious foreknowledge. My room gets messy not because of my thousands of actions but because a demon is messing things up to screw with my head (and misplacing my keys). I have to run to catch the bus not because I dawdled for fifteen minutes but because I sat down and innocuously checked my email when all of a sudden a demon moved the hands of the clock three full notches. I'm not a freelance writer not because I've never had the skills to force myself to sit down and write something without self-deception, but because a demon has decided to curse me with a sensitive intelligence and deny me the peace and quiet I need to write. I'm unemployed not because I can't bring myself to organize my prospects and act upon them systematically in the here and now, but rather because a demon has taken another drop of my potential from me.

And in a way, though they're all obviously ironic, that last part has some truth to it. There is a demon which takes from me - it is entropy, thief of time, scourge of order. I'm not the only one afflicted by entropy (clearly no one is immune), but most people have managers who hire security just to deal with that particular demon. I have no such security. I must fight that demon myself, even when I know I should be working, even when the bosses' bosses get their act together for once and put all resources towards gainful employment or education. And I get seasick and disoriented living in this chaotic world and body of my own unwitting creation. This seasickness manifests not as sickness or migraine but as a deep mental fatigue. Just as it's hard to write and think through a headache, it's hard to put a life together through the thousand lingering wounds, emotional and financial, that a scattered mind's manager unwittingly inflicts upon its employees. And as one of the employees within this madcap company (I am the particular stream of thought you're reading now), I can tell you: My resources are always drained fighting with futility a demon, and the demon cannot be contained by fighting it on any one front or by any one stream of thought. As soon as my attack on it assumes a recognizable order, the demon at once adapts and finds a new angle of attack. And if you give up entirely, it splits itself in twain and pursues a fatal pincer.

And yet, since treatment, and since the all-important awareness of how this disorder affects me, I've begun to see how this demon may at least be rebuffed, if never quite conquered. And that leads me to the question: What does it mean to be a human being? So many aspects of human nature I'd quite lately derided as phony and affected, I now see instead as rational consequences of living in a society of managed minds. In other cases, a more managed mind has perforce pushed me far outside my default expectations for life, which has allowed me to realize that most of humanity functions according to different rules, and that those rules have different strengths and weaknesses.

Here are a couple of examples which hopefully illustrate the depth of the reassessments I've made in the past six months.

3. Appearances as reality and general social signals

How a person chooses to present themselves should not be used as the basis for judgment of that person, and especially not in the context of a workplace. Come on. That's just basic. First of all, they have no choices over many aspects of that appearance, and the parts they do choose, we cannot expect them to choose exactly nor meticulously. We need to judge one another on words, deeds, reactions, and intentions. To do otherwise is to monstrously oversimplify reality, and companies in our ruthlessly capitalistic economy, who worship the altar of efficiency and bring to the table a highly sophisticated and efficient approach to productivity evaluation, will necessarily judge people on the basis of their productivity and general social fit. There is simply no room for inefficiencies like that to remain for long in a major company.

The viewpoint described above (at least the last part) is a precious and naive view of the world that I held until I was about 19 or 20. Yeah, I definitely whiffed on that one. While my current viewpoint is likely only a shade less naive and idealistic, it's more complete: After all, appearances do say something, and can say quite a lot. For me, even after I'd disabused myself of the corporate idealism, the full importance of appearances was always elusive until I started reasoning about it after pursuing ADHD treatment and thereby getting a taste of these executive functions. Something that had always been opaque to me and missing from my mental model of human nature is that most everyone in a society has those little managers in their head telling them how to contextualize the information from their own lives and the information around them, including, most crucially, the social signals that comprise much of our culture. A person builds an appearance in full view of what their mind's managers are telling them to wear after reviewing all the data. Therefore, an appearance is not just a projection made to the world and held to without regard to feedback but is made in full view of continuous feedback. An appearance is a negotiation between a person and the particular culture they're in. Until very recently, I had not been aware any such negotiation was taking and, so, naturally, wagered very poorly.

Though I'd never had the parallax that allowed me to express this or reason coherently about it, I must have known this on an intuitive level. After all, like most young and scared children, I dressed so I wouldn't be embarrassed at school. But then, I suppose also like many young and scared children, I grew my hair long from very early in my life as a form of self-expression. Somehow I felt utterly embarrassed by the possibility of a shirt that looked dorky but was utterly horrified at the possibility of cutting off my unkempt, sprawling, impossibly-dorky hair style to satisfy the mob of classmates. And somehow when a jerk cut half of the long part in high school when my back was turned, I didn't really even care. Everyone else was telling me how significant it was, but I didn't care at all. It was just a bully, and it was just hair. I cut off the rest, went to a place, and didn't regret any of it for a second, and didn't grow it back. But I kept the hair in a binder as a memento, without any sentimentality. I wasn't just repressing my emotions (I did that too from time to time). No: I actually didn't care. Which, considering I thought of it as foundational to my self-expression, is pretty weird. I didn't change. I just didn't have either of those tendencies in me fully, and pivoted without even needing to attempt it. I didn't care because "I" simply did not exist as a coherent, identifiable thing. Somehow "I" was occupied by several different people in the exact same form and circumstance and went between them seamlessly. I didn't have a manager to warn me of the inconsistency and I didn't have a manager who seemed particularly worried about enforcing the inconsistency in identity. The truth is, while I had a personality and thoughts and classes and friends, mostly my childhood involved doing a bunch of random crap arbitrarily, punctuated arbitrarily by some shame and some pride, and none of it made any sense or made me feel anything significant. I apologized audibly and profusely to navigate busy hallways but didn't feel any shame about not talking to someone if I didn't feel it. I felt crushing anxiety over the most indifferent and innocuous masses of people but somehow didn't mind approaching anyone individually. I just made no sense, and that's because I wasn't really there, fully. There was no connection between my intentions and my actions, and my intentions as a youth were already so divided and undefined that it's hard to say they ever really existed.

Whatever the case, I think my school years went pretty well. But given how warped my ADHD-stunted perceptions were in retrospect (even by kid standards) and in many ways still are, I have to think my fond memories of school came in part because I never really had my ability to manage and organize myself tested in a significant way. I was disorganized but that's just who I was. And I never felt a need to organize myself to socially signal anything... well, other than the signal that I didn't want to socially signal anything. I just wanted constant stimuli, conversations, alone time, and a never-ending simultaneity of joking conversation and smirking intellectual effortlessness that I could end totally if I ever got too bored of anything, and a notebook to draw endless crappy drawings and scribbles in that never got any better. I was never too popular and never sought popularity in school, though I wasn't unpopular either and never felt a pressure to differentiate myself (though I conspicuously never stood for the Pledge of Allegiance because public schools shouldn't promote religion nor nationalism and apparently I decided that for myself around 9/11, when I was 12. What a freaking weirdo/dweeb lmao). I made friends in high school by sitting at a table and listening until I was one of the people who sat at that table, and I honestly would not have cared if they had rejected me. I was so self-possessed despite not possessing much of a self, I was so self-confident despite having nothing to confide, and I was so self-assured despite the fact that I physically felt like I was overwhelmed in any crowd of people. I tried a couple other tables and got bored because they just talked about each other and I wasn't interested in them, or anyone. My school days were largely fine - even despite a crumbling family rent by death - largely because my limitations never infringed upon my goals. I never had a problem with high school classes, never had a problem with taking vanishingly few extracurriculars, and my main goal at the end of the day was to get home, take of feed and rid of waste, and go to sleep until 11PM where I could live my real life in my favored hours of cool substance. I could scarcely imagine wearing even a button-down shirt until several years into college; that is, outside of literally presenting myself to the entire town in the form of orchestral concerts.

All this to say that I lived a long time half-unable and half-unwilling to even think about what it means to exist in a culture. It was not forced upon me, it did not seem to align with my goals or my view of things, and the part of our brains that usually demands us to confront these things was running at low capacity in me. And all this to say that for the vast majority of humanity, the choices a person makes before they reach your field of view (in view of your view) can tell you a lot about that person, maybe as much as or more than the stuff they can't control. Are they meticulous? Did they get up in a hurry? Are they conscientious of their appearances enough to spend the 5 minutes per week to keep their hair cut regularly? Do they cut it short? Do they wear it long? Do they wear a buttoned shirt? Do they care if the buttons are right? Do they wear dress pants? Are they trying to impress potential lovers or potential employers? More than anything else, are they a person presenting themselves in a way that aligns with their goals? Or are they ascetic? Are they Bohemian? Are they unaware of the signals they're sending? Are they a wreck whose placidity belies the windstorm they'd clearly just walked out of? Did you remember to shower? Alex Dewey... is Alex here today? I raise my arm in a hurry. "Present!" I say, too quickly.

I realize this stuff is insanely basic to the vast majority of you out there and I did understand it on a visceral, unstated level. But until I'd used medication and consciously began to employ my executive functions to any effect, I could not reason concretely about these things as I did in the previous paragraph, because my default frame of reference has always been a Charlie-Brown-and-Lucy-esque relationship with personal organization, and the few times I kick the football I've also kicked myself in the head and spend the week in recuperation, Lucy mocking and o'er-looking me--smirking with triumph--for ever thinking I could succeed. I didn't have much control over what I did in life and I floated along just existing, and when I had anything at all to say it was in service of an intellectual pursuit or to enforce a terrible sense of humor on all of my friends, with tormentor's glee.

So, anyway, I've never dressed quite right. I've never dressed immaculately or even close. I can hardly reason about myself as a person, after all, and it's that much harder to reason about the intricate details of a non-entity's presentation. Only recently, with some treatment, have I come to recognize on a visceral level that non-entity as myself, and to recognize that I am really that person every day of the week, and that person is pretty much the same whole, integral unit. (Well, except for Two's Days. Ugh.).

Now, for precisely the reasons I've outlined but from a different frame, judging appearances as reality is still total BS and people who do so should seriously examine their underlying assumptions, lest they unwittingly contribute to a world less worth inhabiting (though I can see how you might think that a world with fewer of me in your purview is perforce a better world [please, bring it up next time you see me!]). Far from being superficial, judgment based on appearances is actually deep... and deeply misguided. It privileges received cultural and personal stereotypes over the complexity and substance of real people - especially the real people who don't have that extra half-hour a day to signal their desired place in a hierarchy, whether because of illness or poverty or the demands of a busy life which can be more important than the life of work or leisure. Or, simply, you're dealing with people who have made the simple (and perfectly adult) decision not to value that particular type of social signalling to the same extent. Are those people you want to exclude? Maybe, but it should be a careful decision. Judging appearance as reality is not my cup of tea and I try to challenge it whenever I can, because it reifies the American culture which is fundamentally built on exclusion and homogeneity, and does so invisibly to all participants. A better world is stymied every time we lose an opportunity to connect with someone who will challenge us over someone who will not.

In other words, it's not BS because appearances don't matter much... it's BS, because appearances can and do matter. They just matter in ways that shouldn't exclude us in a pluralistic world from approaching someone with a truly open mind, every time.

I wrote these last couple paragraphs in a bizarrely-neutral American voice in that I'm not explicitly mentioning classical categories like race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and class. Discriminating in a way that perpetuates these underlying power imbalances is so obviously wrong I need hardly mention it. But I always wonder if these categories (with a seasoning of intersectionality) really do cover fully the deep gulfs that exist in our society between people. Sometimes I think we in the US are just exclusionary, close-minded people looking for one more reason to build a moat around our bomb shelters made out of guns, and some people have simply borne the historical weight of that close-mindedness by coincidence alone, and while it's relatively easy to trace ex: the rise and partial ebb of racism, this close-mindedness in our very natures seems to exist in a place that cannot be viewed or even conceived of by us except in moments of transcendence of (or transcendent surrender to) this, our fundamental national evil. 

Happy Thursday!

4. Creative Life and The Voices

I find it hard to talk about myself as a person because I live a hundred different lives every day of my life. I occupy a hundred different voices, adopt a hundred different styles, know a hundred different ways to talk, and feel a hundred different impulses and motivations to do a hundred different things. And none of it fits into a coherent whole. Now, granted, the better part of such sprawling ambition never gets completed, and most of these hundred things are lost to random chance and recursive diversions that I never come back from. But the experience of being so many people - while as exhausting in its own way as living in an unmanaged mind - is a way of performing that gives me insight into the human condition and is the foundation of my creative inner life.

I don't know if this is ADHD or just generally the kind of mind I was born into, but I feel genuinely that I can write in any voice, adopt any mannerism, be any kind of person, write any kind of sentence, and do anything I can fathom doing. I can't do it as well as someone who lives their life as that kind of person, writing those kinds of sentences, and who fathoms with their whole being what it's like to do and be those things. I can't fake what a doctor would say. But I can mimic how they talk and act: I can listen, and listen well, and my brain seems constantly to record, reassemble, and recapitulate the auditory data I've gathered as if calculating the next move in a card game. And thereby I can reason about the nature of my fellow human beings in a comedic, musical language both beyond and immune to actual reason. My creative life has always been the interplay of a hundred Characters and Voices which I slip in and out of. My musical mind has always had a capacity and a compulsion to explore these Voices, and a capacity and a compulsion to switch Voices as soon as one wears out Its welcome.

Most of my favorite pieces on this website and that I've written in general tend to be cases where I've nailed some particular voice. When I nail a voice, the end result is either to bring enlightening illumination to bear on the darkness of the eternal and universal human condition, or else to make someone titter the tiniest bit. Okay, almost always that second one. And it's mostly me who titters. I love Twitter.

And in this vein, getting a good manager for my mind - and having the knowledge that I am entitled to one as a human being - has sometimes felt like a withering of my creative life in this respect. I simply feel much less fluidity in pivoting from one type of person to another. Stephen Colbert, quoting a Second City improv mantra, once said "Wear your character as lightly as a cap." I used to find this so easy, but I've found that part quite a bit harder in the six months I've been medicated. On the other hand, I feel much more energy to pursue the type of character that I really want to hit at that moment. I feel much less able to run rapid-fire dialogues in my head and much more able to run detailed character sketches in my head. And though the speech between the characters feels less musical and less natural, the characters themselves seem to have a richer, more coherent inner life.

In general, when I've written, I've felt more ability to express an idea rigorously and on command when on medication, and less ability to express beautiful-but-nonsensical prose. I'm more able to read poetry but less able to feel poetry on an auditory level. I'm more apt to feel emotion towards literature in general and less able to feel emotion at my own ability to make a distant connection in that literature. The bizarre-but-distant connections are still there but they're less vigorous and immediate. By contrast, while I've always felt an impulse to think and speak rigorously, the demand for rigor in my ideas has never been more vigorous and immediate. I'm less able and less willing to kill a sentence with three metaphors. On the other hand, I'm less able and willing to curry together eight or nine metaphors into an amazing paragraph.

To be clear, I still have the same basic aesthetic and the same love of writing - I still love attempting the dense, silly, impossibly-delicate, ironic-and-satiric prose that aspires poorly to Wodehouse, Chekhov, and Borges, My favorite part of this blog has always been the weird, awkward, dead-on prose. For example:

"If [then-Cavs-coach] Mike Brown lost his glasses and they [Brown and then-Hawks-coach Mike Woodson] were standing together, I would have legitimate trouble handing the glasses to the right one, even if I'd seen from whom it had dropped."

This moderately-long throwaway sentence from 2010 is nevertheless worth far more to me than the many thousands of words I'm writing right now, and the only reason I'm writing these words is to get to those words. My life goal (other than, like, helping people? idk lol) seems to be to write the kind of comedic two-sentence description that all at once 1. says nothing, 2. contradicts its own literal premise, 3. establishes or characterizes a narrator, 4. establishes or characterizes a person to which that narrator refers.

In me, the spirit of playfulness is as strong as ever but for good and for ill it has found more use for rules and structure.

And I'm still just as bad at sitting down and deciding to write something. The "trick" this time was a long bus trip to a doctor's appointment which forced me into people-watching (impossible before treatment/diagnosis) and reading.

Apart from trying to systematize tricking myself into writing (no easy task, as alarm-clock-snoozers everywhere can attest), my goal must be to blend the two impulses - to find creative processes that give me back my fetish for baroque and impossibly-distant constructions even while my mind's hardass, no-BS middle manager keeps me on the path to rigorous expression.

5. Conclusion

To sum up a conclusion that will hopefully finish the sequence of words that the above chain of ideas has started and developed: As a person who lived with massive undiagnosed and untreated ADHD for 25 years, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. I'd maybe give myself a "B minus" (though I did well on the exam today!) and bump it up to an "A" because of the many other things about life I have been blessed with. But as with all unqualified music reviewers, there are extreme, insane nuances to my opinion (and my grading system would take days to explain) that mostly reside in my own limited perspective.

On the other hand, I feel comfortable speaking from my limited perspective today precisely because the last months have seen that perspective become much broader and deeper. The question of what it is to be a human being has become far more apparent to me, even as I sense its development yet lags far behind the average person: In short, to be a human being is not just to live and think and consume and produce, but also to aspire and to plan, to reflect and to reconcile ideas, to exist in four dimensions and to be able to see one's past self and future self as real (or at least real potentialities). To be a human being is to be able to give a command performance of that humanity in speech and song and rejoinder, and not to slink away and regroup whenever something unexpected shatters your ability to process information well enough to address a situation. To be a human being is to have some kind of mental and emotional integrity and stability that persists from moment to moment, and to be able to manage my mind both in the moment and in the long-term. It's to be able to react to a situation in real time and to be able to provoke a situation in real time, and to do both in full view of what is pursued (even if the full causes and implications of that pursuit may yet elude us).

I have always been human, and my humanity with ADHD was as real when untreated as it is real when treated. But certain fundamental aspects of being human - and seemingly all of the active, situational components as well as much of the subtler, planning components - had always eluded me until my diagnosis and treatment. Then as now I had certain inalienable rights to live my life. Then as now I - as with every other human being - had certain exceptional capacities that I was able to express.

But only recently have I been able to employ those inalienable rights and my special capacities to anything like the fullest measure. Only now has the fact of being human been known and present and a premise to reason from, finally having stolen a foot of space back from that all-pursuing, all-ruining demon of entropy never to be known, never to be present, and never to cease its unreasoning quest to destroy me.

I still have far to travel to develop my mind and body and habits to reach any semblance of a life fully lived. For now, I am biding my time, trying to contend with the awesome fact that there is, in fact, at least a person in there.

March 31, 2015

Metallica and High School Gymnastics (or: "The Routine And Its Subversion")

Intro - Thursday

Back in 10th grade, I took a gym class. At some point, the class had a gymnastics unit, where we learned a bunch of simple rolls and stretches and cartwheels. Now, the gymnastics unit was about three weeks long. Its capstone was to be a three-minute routine of rolls and stretches and cartwheels that we'd practice (in teams of 3 or 4) over the course of the final week, to a song that we'd chosen. We were to perform this routine on the final day, in front of a video camera and our classmates.

I swear, this is going somewhere.

As a generally-chill-if-somewhat-awkward little high school student (weren't we all?), I found my gymnastics team of 3 or 4 pretty naturally. We were a fun crowd of moderately-ill-proportioned male high school students who were all in the Close-Acquaintance-To-Real-Friend range. I liked them all and I thought they were cool people, not in the "popular" sense but in the "decent and authentic human beings" sense. This story is not really about them, but about every other group, as you'll see.

A slightly ominous note: My group was about as preppy as raw meat (un-prep-erred), and, the favorite musical genre of my group was collectively just a tad closer to Metallica than Yellowcard or, say, The Beatles. More on that later.

Because I was clumsy as hell in addition to being ill-proportioned, I saw it as important to the newly-formed team that I at least bring my musical taste to the table. Music was certainly up my alley, after all: I was a music nerd in high school, and always have been. Though clumsy and shy as a performer at the time, I certainly had a musical family and had inherited a musical ear. And I loved music. I played piano, guitar, and viola in the high school's orchestra and loved playing them all. I was in the midst of my first compositions and listened to plenty of classical music.

And, given that the events of this story take place circa 2005, I was also downloading music all the time, and my poor, terminal Sony Walkman (or whatever they were called back in 2001) was perennially stocked with all sorts of cool music. My tastes were relatively mainstream (except for the Mahler on my mp3 CDs), but I knew even then that I had an ear for quality. I was the designated music guy for our little gymnastics group and, as we were leaving gym class for the weekend, I promised to bring the best CDs I could find for next week.

And so it came to pass that I brought a few CDs to gym class on Monday that would determine the whole course of human history.

Day 1 - Monday 

I think I brought three CDs to gym class on Monday, though no one is really sure. I definitely brought at least two:

#1. The aptly-named-and-numbered "One" by the Beatles filled with all their #1 hits (27 songs, as I recall).
#2. Metallica's "Black Album".
#3. ??????? (no one is really sure)

As noted previously, my group, given this selection of music, certainly would (and did in fact) fall immediately into the "Metallica! Awesome, Dewey!" camp. I was more ambivalent about stylized dancing to Metallica, and most (all?) of the other groups were squarely in the Beatles' camp if I had to bet. So, when a few people asked to borrow the Beatles' CD to check it out, I naturally offered it to them without a thought and went back to helping us come up with the best gymnastics routine we possibly could. We set our routine to "Enter Sandman", as I recall.

It was a fun class. We did some fake wrestling on the mats and eventually came to some consensus on a general structure for our gymnastics routine. Good vibes all around. High school always benefited from a dose of enforced creativity, I found.

Day 2 - Wednesday 

The second day of practice was much like the first. We proceeded to screw around and eventually put together an entire routine, carefully pruning moves for difficulty and potential for embarrassment (we were collectively ill-proportioned enough to find certain moves impossible, and avoided these moves studiously). Again, a couple people from the other groups borrowed my Beatles CD to check out (I was surprised at the sudden interest, but quite happy to contribute to their musical development!).

It was all going fairly well. I was nervous about Friday -- we weren't perfect yet, and it was a little embarrassing to think that the cameras would be rolling. But in the grand scheme of things it was a bunch of high schoolers doing a gymnastics routine. It was just a lot of fun, you know? What could go wrong?

Day 3 - Friday 

On Friday I gainfully packed up my copy of "The Black Album", kept it in the Walkman so it wouldn't risk getting scratched on the bus ride, and for good measure left all my other CDs home. No sense risking those CDs and their jewel cases when I really only needed the one.

After a nervous chuckle with one of my team members in another class, I arrived to gym class in full spirits. It was the final day of practice, and it would culminate in a recording of all our routines. And I was prepared.

As I put the "Black Album" into our group's boombox, a kid from one of the other groups asked where my Beatles album was. I said "Oh, I didn't bring that today, haha, we're just doing Metallica, we decided."

The other kid asked, "What do you mean?"

"Oh, we didn't need the Beatles CD today. My group likes Metallica more, as you might expect, ha."

The kid was stunned. "No, Dewey,... Look, every other group was depending on you to bring the Beatles CD today. We've all built our routines around it and no one has any other CDs."


I didn't and still don't know how to respond to that kid. I apologized profusely to anyone that was feeling down about it. And yes, that was the right response, socially. But there was no right response speaking cosmically. I had sinned against the order of things, and I hadn't even known it. In my heart of hearts I still don't know how to process that information. It was a stunning violation of everything that had ever been possible to be right about that day. I had ruined everything about that gym class in a single moment of thoughtless inattention, and I'd been too oafish to even realize it.

But it's not my place to speak as judge of things. All I can do as a storyteller is recount what I saw and give you the ensuing facts.

It is quite possible - though not particularly likely, in the age of digitization - that there exists a VHS tape from 10 years ago of 24-some high school students doing stilted, awkward, unfamiliar gymnastics routines in groups of 3 or 4. And on this tape, every single one of the groups is performing to a song chosen with little notice from my copy of Metallica's "Black Album".

At least two of the groups separate from ours did "Enter Sandman". Going last, I think we quietly shifted to "Unforgiven" to prevent a farcical scene. At least one group did "Nothing Else Matters", and still another did "Wherever I May Roam". I can still hear the intros to some of those songs, burnt in my memory as an embarrassing reminder of my transgression. I was feeling a little weird about doing a routine to "Enter Sandman" and I hadn't been remotely preppy.  But to their credit, the other groups stuck with it, certainly did a better job with the gymnastics than I did, and 40 minutes later, we had all survived the onslaught of Metallica that I had unwittingly unleashed.

I tried to have some empathy. I really tried. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a popular girl whose routine now climaxed in James Hetfield sadistically growling "KEEP YOU FREE FROM SIN, TIL THE SANDMAN COMES" instead of a key change in "Penny Lane". But she saw me and told me those were her shoes, not mine. Yours are over there, I think. Oh. Yeah. Honest mistake. Sorry. And sorry you had to do "Enter Sandman" instead of "Penny Lane", also. I really screwed that one up, haha. Dewey, you're smart but you're such a spaz. I know.

Every day I pray to whatever gods may be that this film didn't survive the age of digitization.

All the stoicism the other groups showed in the face of adversity made an already-senselessly-funny thing all the more hysterical. Funny on a level that I couldn't process. So funny you couldn't even laugh if you'd wanted to at times, because true humor probably needs some kind of ironic distance and we were all right in front of one another as we performed the grave, interpretive gymnastic routines to heavy drums, bass, and James Hetfield's delivery of pontificating snarls.

All this to say that there were plenty of opportunities for laughter. Unfortunately, I couldn't openly take advantage, because such mirth might just be mistaken for ill-intent and malice aforethought. By that point, I had established sincerely that I Am Really Sorry Guys For Causing All These Problems, and therefore declined to laugh so as not to blow my cover, even though it had been an honest mistake from start to close.

Surprisingly, there wasn't much laughter among the other groups, all considering. Everyone was too embarrassed at their dilemma and seething at the kid who had let it happen. I think my group --being the same ones who had fatally chosen Metallica to start with-- really enjoyed it, though they didn't show it openly; there's a chance that they moderated their response to spare my feelings. Would that they could know how much I just wanted the scene to break down into collective, hysterical, relieving laughter. But it was not to be. I definitely couldn't laugh in those circumstances, though, if you're reading this, there's a good chance that you might see why - to me - it's right up there among the funniest things I'd ever seen, and the humor far outweighed the embarrassment from the first heavy-stepping routine I saw.

But I didn't laugh at the time, true to the form I'd chosen. Stone-faced, apologetic, and without any irony, I silently applauded the adaptability of the others' routines.

Alex Explains Some Jokes

Let's talk about this Andy Samberg roast of James Franco.

I love the concept and I love the brutal honesty (assuming it WAS partially-honest and not pure fiction), but I'm just not crazy about the execution. It all felt like needy, high-school-level self-deprecation. So I'm going to talk about it for several hundred words and at the end you're going to wish I hadn't.

First of all, anytime you diss some kind of abstract, indie, ironic, whatever comedy, you always have to add this disclaimer:

I get it. I actually get the joke.

I'm a huge Harris Wittels fan (RIP) and a huge fan of Paul Rust, Scott Aukerman, etc. This Andy Daly set is really, really funny to me, and the only thing I don't find funny is the audience rubbing it in that they immediately get it (settle down, man, they get it). I'm a freak for weird comedy (okay, that's probably overstating it). I'm a total comedy hipster (no, that's definitely too far, man). I love people who take conventions and completely overturn them (okay, fair), to the extent that they completely bend your expectations for all other sets going forward. So, to be perfectly clear, I get that Andy Samberg was doing an ironic roast here. While Samberg's set is original in its own right, it immediately evokes Norm MacDonald's infamous Saget roast (a seminal bit of comedy for me!). And Samberg's set is obviously in a similar vein as Norm's, being both mockeries of the stilted conventions of the comedy roast. It's the kind of set where people who don't find it funny get "roasted" by people that do for liking Dane Cook and Larry the Cable Guy, etc.

But I don't find it that funny, and I would like to explain why I'm such a boring person. Please indulge me.

What killed the bit for me is that not only was Samberg being ironic, but the character Samberg was playing was also being ironic, in-character, and so it made it more uncomfortable and awkward than funny. The character himself wasn't someone you could crack jokes at/with, or even smile at: Like most self-deprecating people, the character Samberg played wasn't really self-deprecating so much as neurotically self-absorbed and transparently desperate for respect and compliments. Great example: With Aziz, Samberg's character saying he had a "unique perspective" in lieu of a racist joke was likable and cute, but it was the kind of likable and cute compliment that desperately-lacking-in-self-confidence white 14-yr-olds offer up to a minority classmate to show they're cool & not racist like all the other roaster 8th-graders.

Which is alright. That's a real, authentic person he's wormed his way into, and that's cool. I may have been that guy a little bit. And don't get me wrong: I think Samberg NAILED that low-self-confidence, self-deprecating character exceptionally well. But for me, it just isn't comically fertile. It sort of felt like a "neat idea, I'll pass on the 15-minute version though" improv character from Comedy Bang Bang. Also, Samberg's set was surely unconventional, but in my view it was unconventional to a fault. To wit: There wasn't 
any convention, to the point where there wasn't any context, to the point where there was never even enough structure to serve as set-up. And without a good set-up it's hard to deliver punchlines. Yin and yang, figure and ground, etc. It's hard to fault the late-night-and-CBS-sitcom viewer who doesn't get what he's trying to do. And, if I do say so myself, it's hard for you to fault me for not finding it funny, at least if you're me, which you're not, unless you're me writing or proofreading this, but then you're not my intended audience and I shouldn't address you specifically, but I did, because I'm self-absorbed... well, not really self-absorbed; it's more like I'm self-aware and prone to lapses in self-control whose product (this sentence) I will later defend in a much more lucid and sober state.

Anyway, so: Also, Samberg hams it up to the extent that anyone who doesn't "get it" has never paid attention to comedy seriously (even as a novice). He says "Who's my next VICTIM?" so obviously and on-the-nose that anyone with any experience with auditoriums or lectures! knows exactly where he's going to the point where the rest of his set becomes obvious. So much for the subversive angle, YouTube commenters - this is no more subversive than a talk-show host acknowledging writers! 

And from a delivery angle, Samberg's set works as solid improv, and he's a capable comic actor. But this set doesn't work as self-contained improv, and shows why great improv usually has a straight man/woman/child/sentient-humorless-computer to play off of. Compare (again, they're different sets, but) with Norm's subtle, perfectly-sincere delivery of old chestnuts that would've been tame in the 1920s. It doesn't require a straight man because the absurdity is front and center, and so is the context! The figure and the ground are given and so we can adjust our focus properly.

Even if comedy is simply about refocusing our mind's eyes in absurd, impossible, or otherwise just-plain-clever ways, there ought to be something sharp in sight by the end, after we've been squinting for a few minutes. Otherwise, whether the comedy is funny becomes bound up in faith, mysticism, and, above all, the social guard rails of a million hipsters lined up along Highway 1 to prevent anyone's opinions from going too far out of bounds. Nah. For me, there has to be a "there" there, as they say. Otherwise we're all the Jimmys Fallon of our particular circle of favored entertainers and humor becomes simply the tautological province of assumed-funny people. Sets have to bomb sometimes so we can rebuild them. Well, then, shouldn't it be "sets have to be bombed so we can rebuild them"? Why isn't it "that set really was bombed [by the audience]"? And why do we park in driveways, anyway? And above all, sets need to be grounded in a clear vision, even if the vision is quite inconsistent, screwy, and even kinda stupid. Samberg's vision was smart but it was out-of-focus, blurry, and never fully communicated a great comedic image to the audience.

I loved "Hot Rod" and some Lonely Island stuff and generally I've seen stuff by Samberg that's great, but this set just bugs me, and I had to say something, something which is even less entertaining than I find the original set. I get it, but I can't get into it. Different strokes for different folks. And the dark roast/barista joke was solid, Andy.

Anyway, I'm off to unsuccessfully vivisect some frogs by explaining jokes to them until they die. It's my party trick. I'm not great at parties.

March 14, 2015

Boy, How About That Ronald Reagan?

Whenever I meet someone old enough to have lived through the Reagan years, I always say to them (before saying anything else), "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" I say this in a perfectly neutral tone which allows them to expound on what they liked (or, more likely, disliked) about the 40th American president.

Then I say "But that's a little before my time, I suppose," and skip into a mist of ether. That's when the hallucinations begin.

Here's where I have to admit: Most of the hallucinations are about Ronald Reagan, silhouetted at a distant podium both far and high away from me, speaking his words to an audience, saying nothing I can hear but saying it all with folksy cadence and apparently good intent.

I can't hear but a couple words every fifty, but I see the people responding to it, some protesting, some happy, some indifferent but otherwise moved. In strong cadences they talk among themselves, each in their own groups, saying "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?"

I wake up bounding through the unlimited forests of the night, apparently as a deer. I bound and bound ceaselessly, in a pattern which lulls even the mighty deer to sleep. I feel the rhythms of the deer I am and the pace I'm walking at much like an expecting mother feels its soon-to-be brood jabbing hypnotically in a rhythm with no thought of escape and only serenity. I drift into sleep before being jolted awake by the car, which slams into my left side.

Barely alive, I can see out of my left eye into the driver's side. Inside the car is a young Ronald Reagan c. 1960. Ronald Reagan has killed the deer I was. Saying a prayer to Satan, Ronald Reagan takes my soul, packs up my body with some bungee chords, and prepares to bring a feast home for his family, or Hollywood buddies, or political sponsors (no one is really sure). My view switches to Reagan's. I am Ronald Reagan. I mutter, "Better a deer than some damn drifter again. This is the third time this week..."

At the bar or diner or giant log cabin where young Reagan ends up after this dust-up, he is hoisting a large chunk of venison for everyone to see. Ronald Reagan addresses the crowd:

"Better a deer than some damn drifter again! This is the third time this week!"

Everyone laughs and shouts back, "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" I notice an affective pattern over the weeks spent as young Ronald Reagan. Every time he kills a drifter with his car he spins it into a believable, sincerely-felt one-liner he can use for days. No one takes the death seriously except as the wit of a clever actor-turned-statesman. Eventually, as the weeks and months pass, he is no longer young. I try to escape but I'm sealed inside his body which acts without my ability to counteract. Every month the crowds grow larger. And he's running for president now.

I've avoided looking out there when he looks into the crowd all these years (although I can't stop his eyes from looking, I can choose to focus in or out), but as he makes his bid for the presidency, I start to notice something: Among the aged hippies who find themselves concerned about their children's futures and square, button-down professionals enforcing orthodoxy is a new strain of faces.

The drifters he'd killed on the road are accumulating among the faces in the crowd, forming a small-but-not-insignificant portion of the audience. Their flesh has rotted (and often rotted off) and their hearts have stopped. But they still show up. And every day there are more drifters dead at the hands of the manic campaigner Reagan.

During one speech, I happen to spot the deer I'd been in 1960, so many years ago, and now it's just a big old skeleton staring dumbly because as a deer it doesn't know why it's here, and wouldn't even if it were alive. A dumb deer in the dumb headlights. It seems to know when to clap but not much else. Some of the more-skeletal drifters climb aboard the deer and ride it like a horse. Pathetic. I start to be glad that they are dead or just ghosts and not really alive. I start to see the victims of the drug wars, of random foreign incursions, and the many victims of Reagan's policies that accumulate after he leaves office. And I feel nothing, or less than nothing. Every day more and more of the victims appear. They're probably not all even technically his fault -- I don't think God or whatever is using some sophisticated algorithm here. But the ghosts of deer and drifter alike just keep haunting him, even as he retires into his post-presidency and dementia and finally to his death. They just bound and stumble into his room and says nothing. I think I'm the only one who can see them or know that they're there. Maybe Reagan can somehow ignore them without breaking a sweat. I know if I saw a skeleton of a deer in my bedroom without having asked for one, I would at least acknowledge the transgression and feel a measure of fear. But I'm not a great man, I suppose.

Then, finally, as Reagan dies, my dream ends, I wake up in the present day - just an hour after going to sleep. Yes, it's me; I'm back: Your humble 20-year-old narrator with smirks and snark to bring the whole house down. I'm cheeky and charismatic and the Internet loves me and my friends think me an ethical man. Neither deer nor drifter haunts me, I live my life in peace, avoid the road, avoid politics, avoid at all costs making the kinds of choices that may haunt me when I'm older.

And fifty years later the only dead man haunting me is myself in the mirror, alive in name and heartbeat alone, looking always back at the life I could've lived. A man of seventy with no purpose nor legacy. And the few I meet still old enough to have met Reagan and still lucid enough to describe him still have strong opinions, albeit now tinged with nostalgia for the man himself or the people they used to be. I still say "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" to everyone I meet, to increasingly mystified stares. They think me insane. They think me senile. They think me demented. But it's not true. The man could give a speech, and the man could take another's life without hesitation. How about that? Isn't that worth a conversation, at least? I genuinely want to have that conversation, but no one knows the first thing about me nor cares about any of my Ronald Reagan theories. Well, respectfully, they can go to hell. And, "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?" is the one thing I leave behind as a pitiful substitute for a legacy, and yet I'm still quite proud of it. You know, it is a damn good catchphrase if I do say so myself: neutral, objective, non-judgmental, witty, clever, ironic, deconstructive of the whole concept of a catchphrase, the whole shebang. A perfect catchphrase encapsulating everything Reagan never could stand for and everything I could not but stand for, I look at the mirror again: Could I take the endless hauntings if I ever had the opportunity to seize greatness? I decided not to answer. My cheekiness a product of my youth, I comport myself now with great dignity and understated cleverness.

In a rare act of impulse, I guess I buy myself a car later that day. At the age of seventy this is no hardship for me. I've been cautious and meticulous with my savings and built a considerable fortune from several industries I'd monitored and seized upon not days before they hit their strides. I drove down Coastal California's famous Highway 1. You've probably seen it in movies, but those to whom I'm writing probably haven't seen or even heard of the hyper-car tollbooths and self-driven comfort stations. yet. I personally take the self-driven approach, on account of I drive myself! Just an old man, driving along the highway's iconic curves overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And I'm looking for drifters. And when I find them, I pick them up and ask them questions about the last 25 presidents. If they fail to answer enough questions, I give them a copy of my book about the topic. If they answer enough questions, I offer them a beautiful place to live and everything they could ever need, no questions asked. Now I see them on the road quizzing one another about the Eisenhower administration, desperately vying for a lottery ticket only I can provide. And while this is nice it isn't a real solution. So I build academies for them, I build roads for them. I build everything they'll ever need to succeed. And many of them take full advantage and, in fact, do succeed in life. I use my fortune to to help pass legislation to give the poor and the downtrodden and the ill they help they need to succeed. Reaganomics is out; people are in. That's my slogan, and I - backing down from the responsibility at every step! - become President at a stately and respectable age and serve for 6 years before stepping down at the height of my respect and power for reasons of health, handing my power to a trusted assistant, formerly a drifter, now an expert at the Presidency and its powers.

I prepare to die in bed, inside the skeleton of the deer I'd hit when I was 19 and had never gotten over. Even in death I won't get over it. Oh, don't worry, dear reader, I haven't lied to you; I'd only hit it because Reagan - in his final years, we now know - had done that poor deer in first, demanding that his personal driver do it. By coincidence, I'd been right behind Reagan when he did it, had cried out desperately and futilely for him to stop, had pulled over, and had tried to help the wounded doe to no avail as Reagan's limo was speeding back onto the highway. Once Reagan'd left, I ran over the flailing deer and its two remaining limbs, out of mercy, and lived my life in quiet mercy, and though I had to start a war and couldn't feed all the poor in my tenure at the top, I doubt these things will ever haunt me. These doe-eyed angels - dead of my war and fickle neglect - will still sing me to sleep on my own death bed from afar. The skeleton of that deer is cold and dead but I find comfort and warmth and a final vitality inside the skeleton, an ethical prison which paradoxically frees me. No one ever says my name in poignant cleverness. No one of me can ever say anything like, "Boy, how about that Ronald Reagan?"

By my command, the sections about having been a deer and Ronald Reagan are added to my obituary as plain fact and the world mourns my loss doubly, though on this point, here writing from the comforts of the afterlife, I have only to presume.

July 27, 2014

Alt. Title: "Gawker? I 'ardly knew 'er!"

June 26, 2014

Van Gundy Power Rankings

T-1. Stan
T-1. Jeff
3. Albus
4. Argus
5. Gundy
6. "Dutchie" (Bill)
7. Magic
8. Dandy
9. Arbus
10. Fun
11. Gund
12. Ludwig
13. Rolf
14. Harrison
15. Engelbert
16. (unintelligible)
17. (blank first name)
18. BreakingBad
19. DepartmentOfTransportation
20. Ghostface von Wu-Tang
T-800. Paul
T-800. Jimmy

June 23, 2014

Viral Content

I'm going to teach you how to write, and everyone in the world is going to be hit by a plague in 72 hours. The lede* is my favorite 'graf*. This is my favorite lede* of all time.

When writing blogs, the second 'graf* is just as important as the lede*, which actually means "first paragraph" in Greek. This second 'graf* is especially important to fleshing out your outline: The second 'graf* is where you really begin to elaborate on the points you made in the lede*. The plague, thought by virologists to be the "end of days," is spreading as we speak, and there's little any of us can do to stop it. More after the jump*.