On attention sp... hey, look, a beaver!

Speed is important to me in a really troubling way. Basically I mean efficiency, as in "requiring little time to work," but I would be wrong not to mention the dextroamphetamine salts in the generic Adderall I get from my psychiatrist who looks like a skeleton. Mentally, I am a rat-race addled working man. I just happen to have the schedule of a bum. I want to do things as efficiently as possible, with as little effort as possible, and glean maximum results with minimum expenditure. I don’t like spending a lot of time on anything except trying to absorb things – recently, it’s been podcasts about things I half-care about.

I listen to hours of podcasts every day or two. Semi-professional production values meshed with semi-articulate talkers all served over a bed of self-serving unselfconscious hypocrisy and convenient position-taking. It doesn't really matter what they take themselves to be about; that's what they all consist of. Every podcast I listen to is basically terrible, but they’re all comforting. I don’t learn very much, except by a sort of osmosis – I’m only half paying attention, and I’m not paying attention to learn so much as I’m paying attention so I don’t feel so alone. This is one of the amazing things about all new media, to me – especially new media that captures the voice or movement of another human being. I’m pretty sure we haven’t entirely learned to parse the fact that they’re not really there – it’s a presence that feels good, that takes a certain burden of solitude away. Radio, at its best, is like being told a bedtime story all day.

There is this sense of absorption – of learning without trying, of doing or being able to do without trying. This was what I was trying to do by getting lots of audiobooks and mp3 lectures about my field. I wanted to replace reading and learning via elbow grease with the facility of absorption. But it hasn’t worked for me, and it won’t. And that’s partly because I’ve come to identify literature – particularly American literature from the 19th century, the subject of the aforesaid audiobooks – with work. And work is something that I believe you should only do on the clock.

I have a more or less evil, capitalistic sense of time. I’m entering my fourth year of grad school – my writing year, in which I’m supposed to produce on my own time and with my own schedule – so I don’t have a clock. Nobody watches me, or makes me do anything, so I always have the sense that I’m shirking responsibility to do something fun at the expense of some Scrooge-ish overseer who, for once, isn’t paying attention. It's like, the only way I can make my dalliance with irrelevancy significant is by making it a romanticized "fuck you" to the powers that be -- which, make no mistake, actually exist, but also don't give a fuck what I do with my day to day. I think deep down I feel I’m cheating my employers out of something by getting paid not to do any work, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about that – I am exploiting them right back for exploiting me, the bastards.

But there’s also something absurd and pathetic about it all. It’s just such a waste, such an orgy of resentful feelings and bad faith. I don’t do anything because doing stuff is hard, and doing stuff is hard because it’s work, and it’s work because it’s what I do. It’s who I am. It structures my identity and my reality. But I hate my reality and I hate my identity and I want to escape it. How can I use literature or theory as an escape from my identity or my reality – which is WHAT LITERATURE AND THEORY TELL ME I’M SUPPOSED TO USE THEM FOR – if they’re the very things that structure my identity and my reality? I want to escape from these things, not use them to escape something else.

So I do.

I play Red Dead Redemption, which I bought for my new Playstation 3. It’s an incredibly immersive experience. It will never yield anything. But it's awful fun, though.

Yesterday I took a legally-procured Adderall. I have a medical condition, you see, called attention deficit disorder, the symptoms of which only rear their heads when there's something I am supposed to be doing but cannot do because I lack the willpower and ability to care and gumption and tenacity and sticktoitiveness. It's in the DSM-IV, look it up. I fully intended to do some work after taking said psychostimulant, but my new HDMI cables came and I just had to see how Red Dead Redemption would look on my new LCD TV without decades-antiquated component cables.

I ended up playing for 9 and a half hours or so. Finally forced myself to stop out of disgust when I couldn’t find any cougars – I’m supposed to kill two cougars with my hunting knife to become a “master hunter” – and I kept getting mauled by grizzly bears, which are entirely too stealthy and entirely too aggressive to be plausible in this fucking game.

I stopped to go to Target to buy a wrench so I could finally put together the Ikea kitchen shelf unit that’s been obstructing some pathway or other since I moved into this new apartment some weeks ago. The cheapest adjustable wrench at Target was $20, so I bought a $5 pair of non-needle nose pliers and stripped the shit out of the bolts tightening them up. So I hope I don’t ever have to take it apart, but at least I put it together, and now it stands there, monolithic, holding up my microwave, my Foreman grill, my coffee maker, and my toaster oven. A true monument to convenience. Except I accidentally installed one of the shelves in such a way as to block the outlet, and I haven’t the gumption to take it out and put it back in. I blame my ADD.

But the point of this story is that, when I drove to Target, I felt simultaneously like I was sleepwalking and like I was still playing a video game – everything felt consequenceless, and everything seemed at a remove, as if through a screen, projected onto my windshield instead of existing on the other side of it. I knew I was driving recklessly and dangerously, but I couldn’t make myself care enough to correct it. I fiddled with the radio, flipping until I found a song, not that I wanted to listen to, but that I wanted to soundtrack my experience. When I got to Target, I stared at the wall of tools long after I’d discovered that the kind of wrench I wanted wasn’t to be had, as if it was a problem I could solve if only I scoured the terrain long and concentratedly enough.

An interesting question, to me, is whether or not video games and the like are actually going to destroy the attention spans of generations to come. I guess I’m in one of the first generation of kids who never knew what it was like to write without having a word processing equivalent on a personal computer at home, and I never knew what it was like not to have recourse to, say, Microsoft Solitaire when I got bored. I have played Microsoft Solitaire for entire days, before, honing technique, subconsciously learning probability, adjusting the way I move the mouse for speed and precision. I have dreamt in solitaire. I have lived life seeing things and people as if they were solitaire cards, and as if what I was supposed to do with them was turn them over in the proper order.

The first time I took Adderall, I looked at porn for eight hours.

Adderall is a wicked drug. Some new users, yours truly tragically included, enter a state called "hyperfocus." Hyperfocus is about what it sounds like -- at the expense of everything else, you sink into the Fire Swamp quicksand of whatever subject happens to be at hand, and you don't leave until the subject or the drug is exhausted. It's a race for last place.

Adderall also makes you incredibly, preposterously, Pepe Le Peu-ishly horny.

But mainly what Adderall does is suck all the non-essential blood out of your body and send it to your brain. The effect of this is more or less what you'd expect: In the end it's something like being a late-career Philip Roth character -- desperately wanting, prurient, desiring, wanting, needing, lusting, craving. But there's just not a lot going on down there.

On the other hand, you can concentrate forever. On anything. But you don't want to concentrate on anything, because this hotshot of speed to your brain has made you into a quasi-impotent sexual dynamo -- you're like one of those Greek statues of a fertility god with the dick broke off. Pornwatching, in this state, makes you a kind of ultramodern Tantalus, reaching for grapes but not having long enough arms. There's a terrible pun to be had in there in there somewhere.

So anyway, the first time I took Adderall, I sat there looking at gallery after gallery of still shots. I decided to play a game. With most Thumbnail Gallery Post sites, certain thumbnails will redirect you to an entirely new TGP site with entirely new thumbnails of entirely new and promising galleries, which in turn direct you to new TGP yadda yadda yadda. The game I made up was to click on every thumbnail that -- at the time -- struck me as "undeniable," and only stop when I had managed to close every single gallery and every single TGP array.

I completed this mission. It is possible. It is horrible, horrible, and it takes eight hours, but it's possible. When I stopped, I started seeing porn in my life the same way I had seen solitaire years before. Everything took on a certain positional or appendagial significance that was wholly unwanted and thoroughly unsettling. When I finally went to bed, 36 hours after my first dose of the drug, I dreamt about porn. But not porn as in porn -- porn as in everything in life is porn. I was able to focus for eight hours on this thing that I really did not want to be focusing on, and for hours and hours after that it wouldn't leave my subconscious -- it provided a kind of organizing principle for my entire life.

Yet, I have trouble sitting down to read a single page, or to think about – much less write down – what’s been on my mind. The idea of paying attention to something at the expense of everything else is an almost crippling affliction to me.

When I was a kid, I had a paper route. Every morning, I would deliver 40 or 60 newspaper, and at the end of the month, I would get 40 or 60 dollars. It was a pretty shitty gig, but it gave me exactly enough money to spend exactly one entire day at the arcade. My mom would drop me off in the morning and pick me up a workday or so later. I would be drenched in sweat, almost post-coitally spent. And in those eight, ten, twelve hours, I would have participated with full focus in a fantasy world built out of pixels by other people. I would have a near-obsessive drive to correct mistakes I’d made, to approximate the goal of perfection that videogames, so much more than life, render approachable and plausible – even if, like life, they leave it lingering past the horizon of your limited capabilities. It was a state of deep concentration, totally oblivious to time or space, only interested in Street Fighter 2 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons or even – and most agonizingly – that fucking machine with the tub full of cheap toys and The Claw.

I spent hundreds of dollars on that Claw, always winning an armful of stuffed creatures and cheap watches before my money was up, never feeling like I got my money’s worth, and always returning to it with a sense of indignation, as if THIS TIME would be the time I wouldn’t let the machine beat me – I’d come away on the upper hand. This is, I imagine, what it feels like to gamble – to develop an animistic relationship to “the house” that makes you resent your own (probabilistically pre-ordained) failings as the sinister machinations of some imposing but faraway intelligence. Winning becomes personal, but it’s personal against no one – it’s nothing but a measly point of pride, and your triumph wins you no plaudits and tarnishes no rival's honor.

Later, as a young teen, I punched holes in my bedroom's plaster walls – perhaps a dozen holes. Some of them were because I was growing up in small-town Iowa and the small-town Iowa girls I thought at the time were hot but have gone on to learn were on the threshold between gross and average didn't like me like I liked them; but most of the holes were punched over Mortal Kombat II for the Sega Genesis. I would come home from school, where I had been bullied and shamed in a million disparate, and always somehow novel, ways, where I'd been marginalized and made to feel insignificant – and, what’s more, like I was playing a game for which everybody else knew the rules, but they were so baroquely complex that I’d never be able to make sense of them without a crib sheet I’d never be given. And I’d come home to this box, which I’d play for hours every day, until my parents told me to stop – that is, until I realized I could just keep playing after they told me to stop and they’d eventually stop trying to get me to stop.

This made sense to me. I knew that if I honed my reflexes, learned very specific and recognizable patterns, adapted my idiosyncratic way of understanding the problem to the fully intelligible problem itself, I would end up solving it. I could win, which was a sensation I was promised nowhere else in life. Not in art or literature, not in social interaction, not in organized athletics – and I was a good athlete, goddamnit, but I was mercilessly bullied off the soccer team by a kid who was bullied so much he finally had to transfer. The big wheel keeps on turning.

I certainly couldn't hope for this kind of promised success academically. I couldn’t win at school. I couldn’t escape the sense that no matter what I did I was a disappointment to someone, that I couldn’t delegate my time in a way that would make my efforts satisfactory to everyone looming over me in judgment – a half-dozen teachers in wildly disparate subjects and two parents who only showed genuine interest when something was wildly wrong, and who brought me up to think I was at my best when I didn’t cause trouble but didn’t do anything that warranted special attention, so exhausted were they from dealing with my terrorist of a criminal of a sister.

It’s not that I particularly wanted to underachieve in school. I didn’t much care either way. But my teachers so thoroughly drilled it into my head that I was underachieving so prodigiously that my young, stupid mind only took away that I was young and stupid, and that I couldn’t really do any of the things they wanted me to do, so I should only do what I want to do. I can only assume that their attempts to shame me for putting zero scholarly effort in were intended as motivational, intended to stoke the fire of passion for knowledge they suspected burned just under the surface ashes of my cartoonishly morose persona. You should have seen my shock when I saw that my history teacher, who I’d only given the form to that morning in spite of the fact that we were supposed to give at least 2 weeks notice, gave me all 1s on a scholarship recommendation. But I didn’t catch any of these subtle signals. I thought he was just fucking with me. It was all part of the game I so stupendously misunderstood at the time, which I now take such delight in trying to decipher. I’m not sure if it’s across-the-board difficult to hint kids in the right direction, but I do know that it was impossible to hint me into doing what they wanted me to do. I wanted to be told, and no one ever told me shit -- the nudged and finessed and cajoled, and if there's one thing I've learned from my romantic life it's that I'm entirely too thick to take hints. So I did what I wanted to do.

And I wanted to play Mortal Kombat.

And when that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, I wanted to punch holes in my wall.

This seems off the beaten track of concentration and attention span. But consider what people bemoan when they talk about the intellectual decline they see in the youth today. Great Books. Epic Poems. Ethics. Fucking Opera. Intellectual issues considered broadly, apart from soundbites or blurbs.

Youth’s inabilities are painted as a decline in the faculty to pay attention to shit we don’t care about, and have no reason to care about (or at least, are given no incentive to care about). And, what’s more to the point – these things are unpleasant. And nobody makes bones about this. Reading a Henry James novel, for the mass of men, is awful. Sure, there’s the odd odd duck who does enjoy it – and these are generally the people who try to make everybody else feel guilty for not enjoying it – but enjoyment isn’t really the game, here. Rather, it’s about tradition or heritage or genius or greatness or fucking human dignity (which I’ve always found to be a remarkably curious concept for a species whose coping strategy for dying appears to consist of forcing the aged to become senile and shit themselves and move very slowly and take very seriously things nobody else takes seriously at all.) It's about doing what people have always done, because that's just the way people do it, and it would just be a shame to lose that.

With videogames, the rewards are immediate and visceral.

They’re not, on the other hand, metaphysically satisfying. At least not when they’re your primary means of subsistence, the thing upon which your life is predicated.

But here’s the thing. NOTHING that you predicate your life upon is satisfying to the least degree. Literature is not satisfying unless it’s an escape from the horrors of your own life. Work is not a solace unless it blocks out the horrors of home. Alcohol isn’t any fun if you drink it all day, every day -- then it's just another fucking job. Vocations are miserable. But most of the people who tell us we should be doing more things that are intellectually rigorous – that require more attention, that force us to concentrate – seem to have no idea that we can immerse ourselves, life and mind and body and all, into Madden ’06 for 18 hours straight without eating or drinking anything. They have no idea that when they tell us we’re failing when we don’t learn this shit they think we should learn for the betterment of our souls even though none of us believe in souls anymore, we want to fail because what did THEY ever succeed at? I would love to be shown the generation who excelled at mathematics and concentrated on things that aren’t fun and really hunkered down to read long works of literature who didn’t, at the end of the day, feel as empty as we do, and who didn’t, at the end of the day, engage in wars and crimes and rape fantasies and wicked thoughts and petty thefts just as callow and horrifying as our own. It would give me something to shoot for.

The only problem now is, I hate all of my peers.

The end.