Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose

Diary 01


Ever since my last piece on Coping with Solastalgia, my life has been in a state of upheaval and transition. It began shortly before I wrote that piece.

First, three members of my wife’s family and two of mine flew into town to celebrate my son’s fourth birthday. My wife’s parents and sister stayed in our guest rooms while my father and grandmother were a few blocks away in a rental. It was the first time both sides had seen each other since our wedding in 2020.

Everybody got along just fine, but family dynamics are always complicated, and there’s no way to get around the fact that coordinating meals and transportation for eight people is much different than three, especially when those eight individuals span three generations of need and capability. It was more wonderful than it was stressful, but it still did not afford me many more opportunities to write than simply getting down my three pages a day of journaling—when I could even manage that.

Meanwhile, at the same location, the paint crew we contracted to remove the asbestos tile siding from the exterior of my house back in April arrived to begin the process of priming and painting the wood that was hidden underneath. At some point in the intervening months, a carpentry crew had come around to repair the half-dozen or so planks that had cracked over the century since the original siding was installed, so the surfaces were already somewhat prepped, but there was still a lot of work involved in getting the house ready to paint before the rainy season.

There were only two painters, but in short order they had completely covered every window with a combination of plastic, paper, and painter’s tape so they could spray the whole exterior with primer. Looking out of the windows was like peering into a level of a video game that had yet to fully render, staring through an impenetrable fog. Once primed, they systematically worked board-by-board with a finishing nailer to countersink all the nails holding the wood siding in place, and the booming of their hammers reverberated throughout the house for days. Following this, they covered the nail heads with wood putty and sanded down the resulting mounds to be flush with the planks.

Since our windows are period-accurate double-hung wooden windows, attached to weights inside the window frame with rope, the gaps between the sashes and the jambs allowed all that fine sanded primer dust to seep through, collecting on the sill and frosting the glass from within. To say it was distracting is to put things very lightly, and they were still working after we returned our guests to the airport. (In fact, the house remains unfinished as of this writing because the company we contracted was called to another site to address some emergency, my complaints about which I’ll save for another time.)

At the same time, I started taking a new medication to treat my previously-undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I don’t enjoy the term. It makes me think of fidgety kids who can’t sit still or pay attention when attention is asked of them, which I don’t associate with my experience.

I never had problems underachieving in school, I love to read (which is an activity that takes prolonged periods of great focus), and I can sit still just as well as the next person. Or so I thought.

One benefit of having cultivated a longterm journaling habit is that I have ready access to my thoughts and struggles over a period of about twenty years. In high school, I detested “busy work” and left most of my papers for the night before they were do, rapidly synthesizing information rather than accumulating knowledge over the course of several weeks of classes. I’ve always been a fast, garrulous talker, and I chose a college whose classes were all discussion-based—no tests—and whose semesterly essay assignments were open-ended, encouraging me to follow my own curiosity and write about my interests. I made good enough grades, but the only time I really excelled in my studies was when I had a steady supply of illicit Adderall and Ritalin from classmates who didn’t want to take their prescriptions.

Then, when I entered the workforce, I performed best in customer service environments where the explicit expectation was that I would solve problems as quickly as I could, spending no more than fifteen minutes with each task before moving on to the next customer. In the early 2010s, I recognized symptoms in myself of Major Depressive Disorder and was subsequently diagnosed with a corresponding General Anxiety Disorder. A doctor prescribed duloxetine to treat these conditions, and it was fairly effective at combatting the more debilitating aspects of those diseases—but it didn’t help with my focus. It seems like all my life, I’ve struggled to choose what I pay attention to, finding myself regularly preoccupied by minutiae, pet peeves, minor discomforts, or mild curiosities that quickly became obsessive and all-consuming. I would come up with great goals for myself and detailed plans to achieve them, only to find myself getting sidetracked within a couple of weeks and becoming engrossed in something completely different.

If my Depression was an outgrowth of my Anxiety (Anxiety cultivates avoidant behaviors, and the accumulation of avoidant behaviors can result in depression,) and Anxiety was a natural response to the subconscious worry that my livelihood and life’s purpose were constantly in jeopardy because of my inability to sustain my attention, then doesn’t Attention Deficit Disorder fit the bill? I got all the confirmation I needed when, late in 2020, I suddenly found myself in a position where I no longer needed to hold down a job to keep a roof over my head. My Anxiety and Depression dissipated within a couple of months—but my inattentiveness remained.

I liked to think I was just interested in everything—that everything is interesting—but I also struggled with cannabis and nicotine dependence, despite my best efforts and full commitment to achieve independence from them. So, I met with a mental health nurse practitioner and explained the situation to him over a couple of sessions. He thought we should try lisdexamphetamine—similar to the stuff I was using in college, but with a much lower likelihood for abuse—and I started taking it at the end of August. There’s always a period of adjustment whenever starting a new medication, and we didn’t land on the right dose until September 15th.

Thankfully, it appears to be exactly what I needed to get my executive function under control—now, I spend my days feverishly trying to accomplish exactly what I set out to, rather than winding up in YouTube rabbit holes or finishing the day with no idea what I did the whole time instead of the few simple things on my to-do list.

Consequently, I have spent much more time reading and annotating than I have doing any sort of writing outside of my daily journaling practice. I was reading How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan when I started taking my new medication, since I had seen it in Ted Lasso’s hands during that show’s series finale. I wanted to see if I could start taking meaningful reading notes on the books I read so I could retain and recall more of the information I came across, as it seemed relevant to my needs. How to Change Your Mind is written for an audience with less informal independent education in psychopharmaceuticals and hallucinogens than I possess, but it was a good exercise in learning to really read again. I have not yet typed up and cross-referenced these notes. It’s on my to-do list, but so is a lot of other reading.

Next, I read The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers by Elizabeth Pantley in the hope that my family might enjoy a more consistent and predictable bedtime routine. Results have been variable because of a family trip out of state, but I took extensive notes, synthesized them into a customized guidebook for our family’s needs, and sent the resulting summary to my wife so we could start implementing the new strategy once things were back to normal. Right now, my son’s bedtime routine sticker chart only has three stars (we returned from our trip on the twenty-ninth,) but given the week we’ve had, I still consider that a victory.

My prescriber recommended Breakfast With Seneca by David Fideler to help me cope with my complicated feelings about death, so I read that next. I can see why he might think it was valuable—and it did help me reframe my mortality anxiety as more of an anticipatory grief over my death and the deaths of others—but it was ultimately a disappointing read. Stoicism has a lot to offer the Ancient Greek or Roman noble, but its premises conflict with our more modern understanding of evolution, psychology, and sociology. I’ll give Seneca a break because he was writing in a completely different epoch, but the author does not have that excuse.

I’d had High Conflict by Amanda Ripley on my reading list for a while, hoping it would help overcome obstacles pertaining to climate-related conversations and also help me understand why people whose values and intelligence I respect nonetheless get embroiled in senseless bad-faith arguments (partly in anticipation of our visit to see my family in Alabama). After I finished Breakfast with Seneca, when it became available on my library holds list, I scooped it up and devoured it in two days while my son was at daycare, taking some seventeen pages of notes that I also have yet to type up and synthesize.

I’d also been waiting for A Paradise Built in Hell to inform my forthcoming zombie novel rewrite. In it, Rebecca Solnit, who joins Annie Dillard in my pantheon of influential essayists, explores the immediate local responses to five major disasters in the past century: the 1906 San Francisco earthquakethe 1917 Halifax explosionthe 1985 Mexico City earthquakethe 2001 September 11th attack in New York, and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout the book, she draws on the work of disaster scientists and personal interviews to understand the altruism, resilience, and post traumatic growth that people often experience in the aftermath of such disasters.

She also has a lot of criticism to levy against established hierarchical institutions and the way their panic about the anticipated public panic in reaction to disaster can often exacerbate the situation by introducing a secondary, social disaster on top of what’s already happening. The material was fascinating, surprising, and alternately heartening and heart-wrenching at times, resulting in twice as many pages in my notebook as I took on High Conflict.

In between, I also read several books on which I took no notes, including White Noise by Don DeLillo, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, How to Enjoy Writing by Janet and Isaac Asimov (a gift from my sister), and Duck, Death, and the Tulip, a children’s picture book recommended to me by my uncle and late aunt.

So that’s about nine books in September, give or take a couple of days. How does this compare with my pre-medicated reading habits? Well, in the year leading up to September, I had read What’s Our Problem? A Self-Help Book for Societies by Tim Urban, The World According to Mr. Rogers by Fred Rogers, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts, and Upgrade by Blake Crouch. That’s half the books in eight times the time. Two of those are novels, and I only took serious reading notes for Everything is Obvious. While some of the particulars of my condition may be up for debate, I cannot argue with those results.

Despite not having posted anything several weeks, I have not been idle. And I have moderate plans for the future. Once I’ve processed my notes from this most recent round of reading, I hope to write up an exploration of my thoughts about Everything is Obvious Once You Know the AnswerHigh Conflict, and A Paradise Built in Hell, dedicating a full-length post to each of them. I doubt I’ll share my experience with Breakfast With Seneca, as I didn’t find much value in it and it wouldn’t be a surprise to most people that some millennia-old philosophy is out of touch with modern understanding.

With those out of the way, I hope to share a little bit about a side project I’ve been engaged with, trying to solidify a structure for managing my digital files, notes, and records to clear my backlog of imports and get everything under the same roof. My digital record of my journals is pretty robust, going back to 2003 and covering all of my paper notebooks (besides one composition notebook from 1998), weblogs, and digital journal entries, but my computer is nevertheless completely overloaded with other files I have accumulated over the decades. Scattered across my hard drive and iCloud are all of my old school papers, reading notes, primary and secondary sources, and an unruly litany of other files comprising duplicates upon duplicates. I’m starting with just the plaintext files in my Obsidian vault, but if the filename conversion goes smoothly, I’ll be looking to expand it to my filesystem as a whole, and I’ll be happy to share those results.

Expect more frequent postings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the past several weeks of travel, reading, and family visits, it’s that my diary will quickly swell to an unmanageable size if I don’t relieve the pressure a little more regularly.

P.S. Also, I just tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday, so that’s a big ol’ wrench in my spokes.

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes
Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose