Miss Siles, my second-grade teacher, was a big Barbara Streisand fan. She made us write compositions with themes like “My Funny Valentine,” or “People Who Need People.”

But when she came around to collect our work, my page would be empty.

It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the assignment (nobody did). And I had nothing against Barbara Streisand (loved her work in “Hello Dolly”). It’s just that I’d spent the last 20 minutes staring out the window at a particular tree branch while telling myself stories and I’d forgotten to start writing.

This problem did not go away, no matter how much the nice ladies at P.S. 15 screamed at me. It’s pretty clear to me now that I had (and still have) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a neurological condition that affects how my brain works.

Fast forward 50 years or so, and there is a lot of information that wasn’t available when I was in school. It’s a serious condition, and left untreated it can lead to ruined relationships, drug addiction, depression and suicide. The main thing I’ve learned is, I’m not alone.

In fact, there are times when I think that just living in 21st-century America is a form of ADHD, with its constant distractions, overwhelming load of information and endless opportunities to drift toward distraction. The scarcest commodity right now is our capacity to pay attention, and we face more demands on it than we could ever fill.


This wouldn’t be the first historic period characterized by a mental condition. The Cold War era was labeled the “The Age of Anxiety” with thoughts of nuclear holocaust lurking behind the happy faces. In the ’90s we were “Prozac Nation,” as the American Dream’s unraveling began to show up as a kind of depression.

These days, we’re living in the “U.S. of ADHD” and understanding it can explain a lot.

In my case, it has to do with the part of my brain that directs my focus and delivers rewards. I was never what you’d call hyperactive, or any kind of active, really. I was sort of a space shot unless I was really interested in something, and then I couldn’t shut up.

I can pay attention, sometimes too much attention, but I can’t always direct it where it should go. I’m not easily motivated by things like rewards or consequences — unless they are catastrophic.

Hyperfocus is a common characteristic. So is what’s sometimes described as a “binary sense of time.” Basically there’s “now” and “not now,” and both of them are infinite. There’s never not enough time in the “now” for counting the ceiling tiles, and there’s always going to be enough time in the “not now” to work on a boring math problem.

Take the need to always be interested, combine it with a messed-up sense of time, throw in a car full of fast-food wrappers and coffee cups and you’ve got a newspaper reporter. But take away the garbage, and you’ve got pretty much everyone now.


For one thing, we have a machine called the internet that recreates the ADHD mind for people whose executive function is fully functioning. Read anything online and you will find those blue words that link you to another story and then another and then another. Watch a video on YouTube and the machine will keep ’em coming. There’s always time to check your Twitter feed, even though you should know by now that you may have to wait until your phone battery dies or someone yells your name before you can stop.

The way we consume information is a lot like the way many of us eat. You know what’s good for you and what’s not, but that doesn’t seem to matter when there’s a plate of cookies at work. Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you can.

That plays out in our politics every day. Unpleasant things like climate change and the Social Security trust fund are definitely “not now” items.

Trump’s tweets are a “now.” Stormy Daniels, “definitely now.” Russia scandal? “Right now!”

Pick your cable news outlet, they know you’re not interested in international monetary policy. Depending on your persuasion, they are hyperfocusing on armies of gang members waltzing across our open borders, or the minutiae of Russian troll farming. Meanwhile, the boring but important stuff keeps going on without us.

Is that it? Are we doomed to trade two centuries of self-government for a box full of shiny objects?


The good news is none of us have to suffer. People with ADHD benefit from structure, and so would society.

We can train ourselves to have healthy habits and to limit our intake of distractions. Knowing how our minds work helps us control the drift.

We can even train ourselves to focus on things that are boring but important. Just don’t ask me to write that composition on “My Funny Valentine.” I’d still rather stare out the window.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor at the Portland Press Herald. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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