The Journal

My Dad was a quiet man. He seldom raised his voice. He virtually never cursed.

And he was an intensely private man. You would never know who he voted for – you might suspect, but you would not hear it from him. He never, ever, put a bumper sticker on any car we owned.

He shunned the spotlight. His goal was to be both indispensable and invisible, content to do his work well and sure it would shake out in the end. As he told me once, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

He probably had undiagnosed ADHD, I am diagnosed, as is my niece, his granddaughter, and it is hereditary. And he bore lots of the signs, if you knew what to look for. And for many of us who have this diagnosis and yet manage any degree of effectiveness, it is because we have developed coping mechanisms.

And one of Dad’s coping mechanisms was his journal. We didn’t really know it existed. I mean, Mom knew he kept notes of things – sometimes she would come in the room and he would be typing on his phone, and if she asked what he was up to, he would say, “Just writing something down before I forget it.”

It was a simple program he kept on his phone, where most days, he would put anything he wanted to remember later. I found it when he died, when we were going through his cell phone. From July of 2013 until two days before he died, there were notes for nearly every day, and some days had multiple entries. Sometimes there were multiple paragraphs, and other days merited a single sentence.

On July 20, 2013 he changed the oil in the tractor, and there was 695 hours on the engine. On August 25th of 2013 he wrote “Hugh Jr was nearly arrested in Raleigh yesterday for feeding the homeless.” For their 48th wedding anniversary, he noted they ate Chinese food at Hunan’s, and another entry that day mentioned he topped off the freon on the AC. They would rent cars to go on trips out of the state, and I know now that in November of 2017, they rented a 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid that got 43 MPG on the trip to see Mom’s family in Oklahoma.

There were notes related to work – contracts he had signed; purchase agreements he had entered into. The weather figured prominently, as did the grandchildren. We know how much the drill he bought at the pawnshop cost, the interest rate on the truck loan he had been quoted, that Lowes screwed up his order for a new dryer for the house in 2016.

If these seem innocuous, that is largely because I am sharing the non-personal ones, but you get the point. He recorded birthdays and what gifts he bought, where they ate dinner when he and mom went to town, major news events. He noted (without comment) both the election of Trump and the removal of the Confederate emblem on the state flag of Mississippi, the record low temperatures in the winter of 2014, the time my brother’s son was the scripture reader in church, along with the notation that he did a good job.

In short, they were the record of how he spent the last seven years of his life. And it was a tremendous gift to us, even if he had no reason to expect anyone but him would ever see it.

I downloaded the file to my laptop, and the formatting was horrible as a result, but I spent the last six months or so, in odd snatches of time, cleaning it up, and then had it bound for Mom. I gave it to her for Christmas this year.

I don’t know that I really needed to know that Dad had a coupon for Taco Bell that day in 2015, or that the belt for the lawnmower in 2018 cost him $34, or that when the tornado hit our county in 2015 and he worked 3 days straight on virtually no sleep that he kept a record of which reporters he talked to, but I’m glad I know those things now. I feel like I know him in a different way than I did before. There were no revelations, but lots of confirmations. Countless times as I was working on the formatting, I would read an entry and find myself nodding my head, as if I saw that coming.

So, one of the habits I have now is that I put Evernote on my phone, and every morning I open a note with today’s date, and throughout the day I jot down anything I want to remember, in either sense of the word – things I need to have a note of, or memories I don’t want to lose.

We don’t have kids, so I don’t know who will read it, or if anyone ever will. But after seeing Dad’s journal, and the gift it was to us, it just made sense.

When To Buy Cheap Tools

As someone who likes to make things, I read a lot of websites, forums, and Facebook pages that relate to making things. And a really common question that comes up in those places revolves around buying tools.

Can someone recommend a good table saw?

Which brand of chisels should I buy?

Is the Harbor Freight lathe any good?

When this happens, you will get a lot of answers, but not a lot of help, especially if you have an ADHD brain like mine. Instead, people will berate you for trying to save money, or for not buying the absolute top of the line thing.

“Buy once, cry once,” they will say.

I think this is bullshit, actually. But often well intentioned bullshit. This happens because people forget what it feels like to be a beginner. So they make recommendations based on what they, with lots of experience, would do, not what you, with none, should do.

When you are just beginning a hobby, you don’t know enough to make smart choices. Woodworking is, for example, a huge category that encompasses cabinet making, turning, jointing, carpentry, carving, whittling, and box making, among others. And all of those categories have sub categories: Turning has spindle turning and bowl turning and chuck turning and faceplate turning and… well, you get the point.

And they all require different tools, and often the work area you would need for them is all different.

This is worse for ADHD brains, because we will fall into rabbit holes of hyper-focus, where we want to know everything about a thing. And the temptation to buy the things you are learning about can be overwhelming. But if your focus changes, you are out a lot of money.

As an example: I got into wood working thinking I wanted to make furniture – but found out along the way that I suck at making square things, but I love carving. So I don’t need a table saw, ever, but a band saw is really important. Were I a cabinet maker, those priorities would be reversed. So, it’s a good thing I bought a used, sorta crappy table saw, used, for like $50, instead of a new, top of the line SawStop saw for $3500.

On the other hand, I own some carving chisels that are $75 apiece. A furniture maker would never need these. He will be fine with some $10 a piece Buck Brothers chisels from Home Depot (which, by the way, are actually really nice chisels for the price). Lathe’s are pretty inexpensive, but the accessories can break you.

The idea is to lay out as little cash as possible until you decide what part of this hobby you want to pursue, or even if you do, in fact, want to pursue it.

I have a long list of forsaken hobbies.

I flirted with wanting to learn to play the ukulele. But I know me, so I bought the $30 ukulele, which was good, as it has been sitting in the corner for the last 5 years, untouched. I have a really nice high end point and shoot camera sitting in a bag on my bookshelf. I went through a bookbinding phase. The list goes on.

My strategy is to buy the cheapest thing I can get away with in the beginning, to see if this will stick. A good idea is to search Google for “Best budget X”, where X is the thing you need. Best budget harmonica. Best budget wood burning kit. Best budget table saw. Another strategy is to see if you can borrow the thing from someone else, to see if you like it.

A surprising number of times, the “Best budget X” is all you need. The Harbor Freight thickness planer gets amazing reviews – much better than pricy planers costing twice as much. The Casio Duro watch is less than $40, but tons of professional divers wear them (as does, weirdly enough, Bill Gates). The Morakniv Companion is an outstanding sheath knife for under $20.

And even if it isn’t, as you use the free or cheap thing, you will learn if you like doing this activity, you will learn what options your thing lacks, and whether it would be worth it to upgrade or not. And then, you can upgrade smart.

Or, maybe you decide that what you really want to do is basket weaving.

On Goals

It’s a strange time of year.

Not a bad time, just… strange. It’s a sort of liminal space, where pretty much everyone that can be is done with 2021, and yet 2022 hasn’t started yet.

I try to hold this week as free of commitments as I can, so I can do reflecting on the year that was, and set some intentions for the year to come. But one thing I don’t do is set goals – for New Year’s, or ever.

There are several reasons for this. One is that I spent some time working in a toxic sales environment, and goals were super manipulative ways to get us to produce more. And I hate being manipulated. So when I finally quit that job, I decided I could quit goals, too.

But they weren’t hard to give up, because the reality is, my brain doesn’t work that way. As someone with ADHD, I have an interest-based nervous system. If I’m not interested in the project, no amount of external goals will get me there. And if I am interested, then you can’t make me ignore it. This is both my superpower and my kryptonite – I am not externally motivated.

Goals prey on your dissatisfaction. But I’m not dissatisfied.

Don’t get me wrong – I have things I would like to do. For example, I want to go to both Europe, and Puerto Rico. But if I end up not being able to do that, I will be OK. I work hard to make sure we have enough income to maintain our quality of life, but I am old enough to know that if I made 50% more, I would not be 50% more happy than I am now. Our car is 10 years old, and it makes me just as happy as the 3-month old car I rented a few weeks ago to go on a road trip.

In 2022, I want to be a good husband, want to learn skills I do not currently have, want to have enough income to maintain our quality of life, want to meet interesting people, want to make the world better than I found it. I don’t know what any of that will look like. In fact, there are dozens of ways any of that could look that I would be happy with. But that’s what I want.

A concrete example: Right now, we are looking into renovating our kitchen in the next 18 months or so – like, a down to the studs, new appliances, new cabinets, new floor renovation. I’m interested in it, so I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how it can happen. I read articles, watch videos, research appliances, make lists and budgets, and try to figure out ways to make more money to pay for it all. So I guess you could say that is a goal. But I would never say, “By April 15th of 2023, we will renovate our kitchen.” It will happen when it happens, which is fine, because I enjoy this process. And should our priorities change, and we decide to keep the existing kitchen, that’s fine too. And in the meantime, I’m learning things I did not know, doing work I enjoy, and keeping busy with something that interests me.

As I look back over a career of counseling people who were dissatisfied with their life, their dissatisfaction could often be traced back to their having picked a goal they wanted to accomplish, rather than asking if the work was worth doing.

In the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, Nick says that Gatsby paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. For Gatsby, success could only look one way. The big house, the public acclaim, and crucially, the girl. If any of that did not happen (and, it didn’t), then he processed that as failure. Never mind the fact that he was rich, was acclaimed, was living in a literal mansion and had rose from nothing to prominence. Because he didn’t meet his goal, he wasn’t, to his mind, a success.

So, goals. I don’t set them. Instead, I commit to pay attention, to find out what I’m interested in, and do more of that. I try new things. I give myself permission to fail. And above all, I ask myself if this work is worth doing.

Because for most of us, life isn’t victory or defeat, but the slog of the daily routine. Most of life is process. And if you hate the process, if you don’t think the work is valuable in and of itself, then no amount of success will make up for it.

Reflecting on 30 Days of Gratitude

“Twenty Twenty One hasn’t been so bad,” she said. “It just feels like… Groundhog Day, maybe. Every day is the same. Lots of uncertainty. We are both home pretty much all the time. Going out feels unsafe, but you see lots of people acting like 10,000 Mississippians didn’t die in the 18 months.”

It was the end of October, and Renee and I were sitting at our kitchen table, having just eaten one of perhaps a dozen meals that we have in rotation right now – meals we can fix with little mess and fuss, that don’t require much creativity or fresh produce. We think of it almost as a pandemic playlist, but for meals.

And that is what so much of my life is like these days – hoping for a time beyond this current uncertainty, and yet realizing we are going to be here for a really long time. If I still drank, a drinking game where I take a shot every time someone says “the new normal” would wreck my liver in short order.

I just happened to be on Facebook on November the 1st when someone posted their first post of “30 days of Gratitude”, a popular Facebook meme where you post a thing each day for which you are thankful.

Honestly? These things suck me in. My ADHD brain loves structure – but my executive function is such that my brain can’t manufacture it. So, 30 days where I don’t have to think about what to write about is a gift. So I decided to use it as a prompt.

I made some rules.

Other than Renee, I couldn’t write about being thankful for a living person. That was mostly to avoid leaving people out.

I had to have an original picture I took or owned to illustrate or accompany the post. In other words, no stock photos. The only time I broke that was the Doctor Jabbour post.

I have a complicated relationship with my past – I know a lot of us feel that way. But I also have come to recognize that the things for which I am grateful have come out of my past – that I am really the product of my stories. So each post needs to have a story in it.

I had to write it every day. I broke that rule once, writing Thanksgiving’s the day before, but I was on the road 10 hours out of 36 during that time, so if I didn’t do it the day before, it wouldn’t have happened.

And it needed to be at least 500 words. To put that in perspective, this post you are reading now is at 450 words at the end of this sentence.

And after a year of writing about Dad, I decided that no single post would be about him.

There were days I had no idea what I was going to write about. Some days I wouldn’t know until I was halfway through the post. Some days I thought it was going to be about X, and it ended up being about Y. Sometimes I narrowed it down while writing: The post about Heather started as a blanket post about my LGBT friends, the same way I wrote about my atheist friends. The post about friends who disagree with me started about a particular person, but he was still alive, and the more I wrote I realized he was one of several in that position.

And I think that is the thing I liked most about it – in fact, it’s one of the things I like about writing: The discovery. That you learn something you did not know before as you write.

Having grown up evangelical, every time someone mentions the word accountability, I think it means somebody got caught with porn. But the accountability of knowing that people were expecting me to publish something each day mattered, even if nothing would happen if I had missed a day. The truth is, I am more afraid of letting you down than I am letting me down.

The last 20 months or so have been horrible. But this month I learned that I have much to be grateful for, that there are things in the midst of a pandemic for which to be grateful, and that the common thread that runs through all of the things for which I am grateful is the relationships that have, formed me, held me, and given my life shape and meaning.

I’m not sure what to do next. I don’t really want to break a now 31-day streak, but I don’t know what I can write about tomorrow. But hey, I’ve been there before.

Regardless, thank you for reading my stuff, for sharing it, for commenting and interacting with it. It’s good to be known.

Dr. Jabbour

On the tenth day, I am grateful to Doctor Jabbour.

When I was 18 months old, I had viral spinal meningitis. It was bad – I was in a coma for two weeks. The doctors really didn’t have any good news for my parents, and at one point told Mom to expect the worst. They had done everything they knew to do.

There was one doctor, a specialist they had called in, who said he had an experimental treatment option – mom and dad had to sign papers. The end result was that I came out of the coma, but not before my hearty stopped and I quit breathing for several minutes and sustained some brain damage.

I had to learn to talk again. I was way behind on everything, and my motor skills were crap. I had seizures pretty regularly until I was 10 or so. My hand and eye stuff didn’t sort itself out fully until I hit puberty.

In fact, up until puberty, I was sorta a sickly kid. My last seizure was at 13.

The bright side of all of this, however, was Dr. Jabbour.

Dr. Jabbour was a Pediatric Neurologist, and what’s more, he was MY Pediatric Neurologist. I saw him every three months or so until I was 13, and regularly after that until I graduated high school.

Because I had a neurologist, my ADHD was diagnosed and treated at a time when that diagnosis was rare. Because I had THIS neurologist, however, I learned coping mechanisms and he refused to let me use my diagnosis as an excuse.

By the time I hit puberty, most of the seizures were gone, and my EEG scans were near normal, so we spent most of our time working on the ADHD stuff. Mom would take me to the appointment, and then we would talk with her in the room, and then she would leave and he would just talk to me. When the door closed behind her, he would open the top drawer of his desk and pull out a bowl of Peanut M&Ms, a “secret” treat we would both eat while we talked.

The biggest gift Doctor Jabbour gave me was how he reframed my conditions for me. He insisted that I understand that I had a brain that was not broken, but different. I was different, he said, the way left-handed people were different. And just like being left-handed in a world designed for right-handed people was harder, it was going to be harder for me as someone who had a different brain than it would be for everyone else because this world wasn’t built for people who had brains like me.

The key, he told me, was to understand it wouldn’t always be like this.

“Because one day, you will get to make your own world. You can hire someone to do the things that are hard for brains like yours. You will be able to carry a calculator. You will marry someone who likes brains like yours. You will live in a house that works for people with brains like yours. You will be able to organize your work in a way that makes sense to you. And if they won’t let you, you can start your own company and then do it.”

“But before that can happen, you have to get through school. My job is to help you get through school so you can do all of that. Right now, you have to figure out how to live in their world so one day you can build your own world.”

He did. And I did.

A few years ago, it occurred to me what a huge gift Dr. Jabbour had been to me. The more neuro-divergent folks I met, the more I realized just how rare it was for kids with issues to be told they were special, that they could thrive, that they had the ability to create a world that worked for them. So I googled his name, hoping I could find an address or something so I could tell him how much it meant to me. But it turned out he had died the previous year after a long and distinguished career of helping kids like me.

So I never got to tell him. But I really wish I had. But the next best thing is telling every neuro-divergent kid I meet what he told me: You aren’t broken – you’re different. Like being left-handed is different. This world wasn’t built for you. But if you can figure out how to survive long enough to build a world that works for you, everything is possible.


When you can’t do the thing.

The city I live in now is notorious for its poor street maintenance, and sure enough, our first year here, we lost a tire on the hatchback when I hit a huge pothole. At the tire shop, I asked them to change the oil while it was up on the rack.

The mechanic told me that when I had hit the pothole, I had also dented the oil pan in such a way he couldn’t get the bolt out to drain the oil.

“You’re gonna have to get that oil pan replaced,” he told me.

Money was, at that particular moment, tight, and the tire was already an unexpected expense, and we were in the process of moving into our new home, and it wasn’t leaking, so I said thanks, and drove it home with no oil change, intending to replace the oil pan myself later when I had time.

For the next few months, I drive as normal. The oil in the car was synthetic, which can go much longer between changes than conventional oil, and it was hot outside, and honestly, my ADHD object impermanence kicked in and since I couldn’t see it, I more or less forgot about it.

Then we got foster kids, and started driving the SUV almost everywhere, and I started working from home more, and instead of driving the hatchback every day, it was only a couple of times a week, a few miles at a time.

Somewhere in there, I went to the parts store to buy a new oil pan for the car, but they didn’t carry it – I would have to order one from the dealer or off the internet, they told me. I thanked them and then promptly forgot about it again for a few more months.

Then in a fit of ambition, I ordered the part and the gasket off the internet, and bought the oil and oil filter – everything I would need to fix it once and for all. I put it all in the cargo compartment of the car and forgot about it again.

And then a global pandemic happened. Neither car moved for two weeks. Then I went for six months without driving in the dark. I began working almost exclusively at home. In that first year, we put less than 5,000 miles on our SUV. I put less than 1,000 on the hatchback. For the last six months, it never left the carport. I would crank it every month or so and let it run for a while, but that’s it. It got covered in dust and ick.

It just sat there, and since it was more than two and a half years since the last oil change, I didn’t want to drive it anywhere serious, and I couldn’t change the oil (which is something I can do practically in my sleep) without changing the pan, and so it became a “thing.” My car I loved, just sitting there, covered in ick, because the emotional investment in doing the thing was too heavy.

For us ADHD types, sometimes extremely simple things become overwhelming. The thing itself isn’t hard, but the energy and investment to do it is, so it becomes a “thing”. A thing that just taunts us with our inability to do it. Changing the oil pan had become a thing.

To be clear: I had the tools. I had the parts. It wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do – there are maybe 10 bolts, all easy to get to. It would probably take 2 hours to do if I wasn’t hurrying, including clean up. And during the time all this is happening, I had enough free time to built a huge deck for our house and a 10×16 workshop in my backyard. But I couldn’t do this.

But lately, I am working on a new project that will dramatically increase my time in the car, and so it would be good if both our cars were back to fully functional. Because I scheduled this week lightly, yesterday I had a free morning and decided to do the thing: I would replace the oil pan and change the oil on the car.

I got everything ready. I drove the car up the ramps. I crawled under the car.

There was nothing wrong with the oil pan. I mean, nothing. So I changed the oil like normal and was done in 20 minutes.

I don’t know if the original guy who told me it was dented was lying to get out of doing the oil change, or confused my car with another when he was telling me about it, or what. But I have been carrying around the emotional weight of this task I couldn’t make myself do for more than 2 years when it didn’t even exist.

This is a perfect example of what life with Adult ADHD is like. The object impermanence, the sense of overwhelm at a complex, multi-step operation that just looms larger the longer you put it off, the sense of shame you feel for not being able to do the thing, even though you know you can do the thing, the inevitable doing of the thing and then the sense of shame because it took you so long to do the thing when it was so simple to do.

I will, of course, learn nothing from this. Because “this” isn’t about my laziness, but about my brain, and how it functions. It really doesn’t matter how much I want to do something. It doesn’t matter how much I need to do something. There are things that just overwhelm my brain, and no amount of self-talk changes that.

And when that does happen, sometimes you can hack your way out of it – such as paying someone to do it for you, if you have the resources. And other times, all you can do is be as gentle with yourself as possible afterwards.