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Sunday, June 12, 2005


Our mothers worry that we are too impulsive.
Our psychiatrists say we have A.D.D.
- a mysterious and widespread mental disorder.
Our teachers have rapped our knuckles time and again
because we wouldn't sit still in class.
Still, in spite of everyone's concern
for our disordered mental state,
We keep on staring out the smudgy windows
of our classrooms and offices,
Squirming in our seats,
impatient to be on our way.
We are American to the soles of our feet
- a part of the world's most robust, energetic,
And impatient culture.

The United States of America has A.D.D.. Our citizens have the highest rates of diagnosed A.D.D. of any civilized country in the world. Here are the symptoms according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association:

ADD is a disturbance of at least six months during which at least eight of the following symptoms are present (From the DSM-III R).

1. Often fidget with hands of feet or squirms in seat (in adolescence, may be limited to subjective feelings of restlessness)

America was settled in the beginning by restless young men and women from every civilized country in the world. Unable to cope with the constraints of Old World society, they risked life and limb seeking a place where they might be liberated from the constraints placed on them by well-ordered and ancient cultures. When they landed on America's east coast they quickly fanned out across the countryside and began farming, hunting and building with tremendous energy. Soon, as civilization began to encroach upon the wilds, cities with regular ordered societies sprang up in what was once pristine wilderness. Percolating off from burgeoning well-ordered communities, streams of restless folks flowed westward. "Go West, young man," said Horace Greely. "And get out of our hair," he might have added. This westward movement continued until the human wave of hyperactivity crashed up against the Pacific Ocean and California was born. That the movie industry would spring up in California was inevitable. All these hyper people had no place else to go but off into worlds of fantasy.

2. Has difficulty remaining seated when required to do so.

Patrick Henry leaped from his seat and shouted, "Give me liberty or give me death." He couldn't sit there and wait his turn. In fact, both of the Continental Congresses were a veritable cacophony of folks jumping out of their chairs, shouting objections, suggestions and complaints at one another. The number one reason Americans give for not wearing seatbelts in their cars is that they don't want to be trapped in their seats. When Americans check out chairs, sofas and settees at the furniture store, the majority of us will reject a chair that is too hard to get out of. We even put chairs used in business meetings on quiet little rollers so that if we can't get up and leave without losing our jobs, we can at least roll around a little should we experience subjective feelings of restlessness. We build chairs for the elderly that allow them to push a button that will eject them from their seats (to prevent their being trapped there, unable to rise because their offspring have wandered off in an A.D.D. fog and forgotten to come check on them).

3. Is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.

America the distractible. It took stimuli like the Stamp Act, the impressing of American Seamen by the British Navy, the Alamo, shots fired at Fort Sumter, the sinking of the Maine, the sinking of the Lusitania, the bombing of Pearl Harbor to get Americans focused enough to get a war going. So many other things capture the American notice that it takes something really spectacular to hold the collective attention long enough for us to get organized. The Japanese, prior to World War II, thought we were passive and peace-loving and would accept a little defeat in order to avoid war. Hitler didn't think we had the collective stomach for war. They were wrong. In truth, we just weren't paying attention. Once we did, Americans got hyper all over the Axis Powers, burying them in a flood of American industrial energy. News events like the Lindberg baby kidnapping, the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings or the O.J. trial grab our notice and we rally as a nation around the victims. The next week we are back to squabbling and fighting among ourselves over local issues. One thing after another, the topics changing week after week. We get bored after a relatively short time and we move on to some new distraction. According to the best research by aggressive American advertising agencies, you have exactly 7 seconds to capture our attention before we get up and go fix ourselves a sandwich or scratch something extraneously stimulating. MTV video makers know that's a way too optimistic figure. A good rock video must alter the image, color scheme, tempo of the music or the amount of clothing being worn by the shaggy blonde in the leather skirt at least every 1 or two seconds or young Beavis has drifted off and is fixating on his growing collection of belly button lint.

4. Has difficulty waiting his turn in games or group situations.

The 1849 California Gold Rush, the Oklahoma Land Rush, rush hour in any American city, Rush Limbaugh with his finger on the cutoff button if you try to talk over him. American business rushes products to the market in order to be first. American news people rush to get the big scoop. The only way you can get people to stand in line, as the folks at Disney have discovered, is to provide some extraneous stimulus along the way to get their minds off the fact that they are standing in a line waiting their turn. Something unusual like a man rushing at you dressed as an enormous black rodent. Eastern Europeans often have difficulty identifying American grocery stores due to the lack of lines. Americans, on the other hand, would likely starve to death in Eastern Europe rushing around looking for a store with a short line.

5. Often blurts out answers to questions before they have been completed.

The American television game show industry makes millions each year as people compete to see which person can answer the questions before they have been completed. Millions of Americans, out of work because their bosses considered them rude and impulsive, watch these shows hoping to bolster their sagging self-images by blurting out the answers to the questions asked by the host and doing it faster than either the aerobics instructor from San Diego or the sales manager from Dayton.

6. Has difficulty following through on instructions from others.

Americans have an intense, collective dislike for being told what to do. They get mad if you boss them, they ignore instructions and run stop signs that they don't personally feel are appropriately placed. When the British told us we had to pay for and put a stamp on all tea imported to the American colonies, we got mad long enough to dump all the tea in Boston harbor (using the occasion to dress up in colorful Indian costumes so that we could blame the whole thing on someone else). Who even reads the instruction book that comes with your income tax forms or the tidy numbered sheet that comes inside the box containing your newest modern appliance on which is printed "some assembly required"?

7. Has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities.

The clearest evidence of this symptom occurs in American sports. Popular games in the U.S. characteristically take place in spurts of intense action, followed by a period of reorganization after which the action starts all over again. Soccer never has caught on widely in The States. The action is too fluid requiring too sustained an attention span. You can sit at a soccer match for an hour, run to the bathroom for 5 minutes and miss the only score of the game. Americans would never stand for that. American football on the other hand, is a series of short violent melees followed by a cooling off period, during which the fans can go buy hot dogs, don funny hats or gawk at the cheerleaders through binoculars without fear of missing much of anything. Baseball, the quintessential American game allows brief respites between batters or innings during which fans can get pizza or buy big foam fingers. In Los Angeles, Dodger Fans check into their seats every 10 minutes or so to find out how the game is going. The rest of the time is spent wandering around the stadium in fog, purchasing supplies of the aforementioned items. This is California, after all, and one could hardly expect them to remain in their seats. The essential thing is that the action is broken up into a series of relatively short segments. Hockey, which is similar to soccer has only developed a strong following because the fans expect an occasional bloody fight to break up the monotony of the game. Basketball has seized national attention because, although also like soccer in that the action is continuous, there is more frequent scoring (with the relatively recent innovation of the flashy slam dunk which plays to the American fascination with the spectacular. American basketball fans can duck out for a hot dog and still not miss much. If they do miss a particularly nifty dunk, there is always the instant replay monitors which repeat the climactic moment over and over until they are sure no one has failed to catch it if they were out buying foam fingers or hot dogs.

8. Often shifts from one uncompleted activity to another.

Americans are constant innovators, creating a veritable flood of new ideas, products and technologies. Then we lose interest, sell these ideas to the Japanese, Koreans or Germans who turn them into products to sell back to us. Meanwhile, American industry is already hot for some new idea that has caught the collective capitalist fancy. Economic pundits have, for instance, been pointing out the necessity of finding a common standard for the U.S. computer industry. Neither Apple nor IBM was willing to sit down at the table and discuss it. Both giant corporations were entirely enamored of their own ideas and unwilling to consider a compromise (compromise is not an ADD strong suit). The techno-dweebs driving the computer wars were too busy jockeying to be the first to develop major new technologies. No one wanted to lock themselves into a common computer architecture when something more exciting might be developed next year. Only an ADD culture would create an industry based on the premise that the $3,000 worth of stuff you buy from them this year will be obsolete next year (and everybody is excited about how fast their equipment is becoming antiquated). It is likely that had everyone managed to agree upon a common operating system, chip architecture or hardware parameters, the strictures would only have served to stifle everyone's creative juices and limited progress. Computers would have become boring and we'd have sold the whole mess to the Japanese and taken up something else.

9. Has difficulty playing quietly.

Worldwide, people think Americans are loud. Our music is loud, our sports are loud, and our children are loud. Deafness is a major health problem in this country. Vacuum cleaner manufacturers have discovered that if they make their machines quieter, people think they don't work as well and won't buy them. Our movies are loud. There is a huge American industry devoted to placing speakers in every corner of human society. You can hardly go into an elevator without being serenaded. Silence is anathema. Some operator puts you on hold and some electronic huckster comes on the line to sell you something. If you want silence, you can buy CD's that offer the peaceful sounds of nature (with piano and flute accompaniment). Even Mother Nature requires a soundtrack in America.

10. Often talks excessively.

Talk shows. Enough said.

11. Often interrupts or intrudes on others

The answering machine is a gift from God. A lot of people in this country hate answering machines. This is a symptom of the disease. It is monumentally frustrating for them not to be able to reach me when I am bathing and to force me from my nice warm tub to take another message for one of my teenagers to call Mandy or Julio or Spud. I love answering machines. These wonderful devices let you choose whether or not you want to pick up the phone. No longer do you have to interrupt love-making, a good movie or an interesting book to deal with a jangling telephone. The phone takes the message and you can return it at your leisure (if you even want to return it at all). Recently some unhappy American who couldn't dial fast enough to intrude on as many other Americans as he felt he should in the average hour, came up with the idea of having a machine call you on behalf of a real person. Thanks to my answering machine, his machine tells mine to "Please hold the line for an important message". My answering machine is far more patient than I and will do this cheerfully. This angers this type of person, so to counteract this threatened resurgence of privacy, the forces of intrusiveness came up with the cellular phone and convinced everyone they needed one in their car (where people used to be alone with their thoughts and some nice music). Then, someone made them fully portable, so that now you find yourself fishing around in your pants pocket down on the floor of some toilet stall in which you have taken refuge, trying to stop the damn thing's happy electronic chirping.

12. Often does not seem to listen to what is being said to him or her.

Examples: The surgeon general has determined that cigarette smoking can be hazardous to your health. If you drink, don't drive. Buckle up for safety. Just say no to drugs.

13. Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities at school or at home.

The U.S. computer industry lost the microchip industry to Japan. Our computers won't run without them. Televisions, invented and developed in the U.S. are now made elsewhere. We need televisions to see the programs our entertainment industry produces.

14. Often engages in physically dangerous activities without considering possible consequences.

The Nuclear Arms race. Hang gliding. 50,000 paralyzing neck injuries each year from diving into shallow water without looking. Tens of thousands of people killed each year while speeding on highways.

One of the things you learn about ADD from your therapist is that you can't make it go away. It's a part of your makeup. You have to learn to play to your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. You look for jobs that require quick thinking, adaptability and energy. You avoid jobs that are repetitive, require sustained attention to detail and a restrained social persona.

In the same way, America must play to its strengths, its energy, creativity and rugged individualism. Many economists, political commentators and management mavins would like to find ways to control the American economy or at least to reduce it to predictability. Elaborate economic theories and computer models can describe what is happening, but do not predict well. Picking trends is still pretty much a crapshoot and it should be. The American economy's strength is its adaptability, its energy and its healthy respect for the independence of the components of that economy. Government attempts to manage and regularize industry and business often only result in the loss of the very characteristics that make America the richest, most vibrant, resilient economy in the world. It is possible to be hyperactive with a short attention span and still come out well.

Just one man’s opinion…
Tom King
(c) 2005

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