Attention! One Morning with a Roving Mind

Friends deny that I "have" ADHD—but my wife knows better. Folks tend not to notice because, though I remain "uncured," I've had 80 years to learn how to manage it.


Scene: A small farm in the mountains of western Panama.

For a man with attention deficit disorder, today was perfect. I arose when I awoke
and performed what my dad used to call his “ablutions.” These for me are stereotyped:
brush teeth, then floss, then a fine, stiff brush at the gum line. Nothing distracts me from
this routine. Then equally stereotyped granola, half banana with milk and coffee—
outdoors where my wife has set out breakfast for the birds—but it’s early, so don’t sit too
close or talk to her!

Second, coffee at my computer to check mail and UPenn’s daily report. An hour
working on a talk, some time reading aloud from a Spanish novel. Then, donning my
head-kerchief to keep sweat from my eyes and my broad-brimmed hat, I head out.
Started by looking for a bit of truck inner tube that I’d sequestered somewhere a
year or so back to use as a washer for our kitchen faucet that is dripping badly and
driving Sally mad. Have looked everywhere except in our large trash can out back which,
missing its lid, is now storage for scrap wire, bits of bamboo, walking sticks, expired
license plates, worn out machete files, and broken pruners.

I’d started to clear this stuff out in November but never finished, so now I do—finding some nice feed sacks to put the junk in and some saucers for planters—which I set under some pots that needed them. This led me to notice that the pots with sweet potato vines were dry, so I went to water them—and remembered that in my search for the inner tube, I’d found a hose washer—so I fixed the hose connection and watered the potatoes—noticing all the weeds springing up in the cracks between our pavers. So I pulled the weeds, setting them aside for the compost pile. With the hose in hand, I proceeded to a small seed-starting section and watered some containers—and the little pepper vine that a friend gave us two months ago but hasn’t yet thrown a single leaf.

There I noticed lots of pruned branches from Sally’s verbena and flor de Jamaica—so I delivered them to my compost pile below our back flower garden. That was where I
left off yesterday with a four foot diameter plastic screen that I’d roped together and was
waiting to be filled with compost. The basic materials were there: yard and kitchen waste
plus some horse manure personally bagged for me by Ann Vandenberg. But I lacked
wood ash, bagged down at our organic fertilizer/worm bin area. So I returned to the
house for a barrow to fetch the ash.

On the way back I notice some avocados in full flower—stopped to check their progress—and found them beginning to form fruit. I check the little fruits for tiny red thrips, which do serious damage at this stage, but find none. I do, however, notice some matapalo (tree killer, a parasitic plant) and whip out a pruner from my back pocket and snip it off. I notice that the large lower limb on this tree, which last year failed to bloom and I considered amputating, this year has some flowers that justify my patience.

There are other avocado trees in this area, so I check them out, pruning, while I
am there, a young navel orange tree that is competing with a coffee tree (in full glistening
white flower).

Now back on the trail with the wheel barrow—heading for the bags of ash, I pass
a whole bunch of young orange trees that I pruned last year and need only touch-up now—so I do them—noticing their large fruit nearly ripe. And a few spots where my
employee, Mariano, has planted native avocado for future grafting. His strategy is
revealed: to shift the composition of the orchard from oranges toward avocados, which
makes sense given that an orange sells for $0.05 and an avocado for $1.50. Collecting
fallen oranges as I go in the barrow—some for juice; some for the birds (especially the
ones with dime-size woodpecker holes).

To reach the ash bags and select one has taken me an hour, and as I push it back
up the hill, stopping for breath and to prune here and there, takes another half hour to
cover less than 100 yards. Ah, one young orange tree has a nice fresh leaf with a bug the
size of my thumb sucking the life out of it. The bug is richly colored: rust with tiny red
speckles. I pick the leaf without disturbing the bug, stuff in my left shirt pocket to show

By now it’s nearly 1pm and Sally has returned from town hungry, so we eat. Didn’t
manage to build my compost pile before lunch—but after a nip at my novel and a nap,
and another nip at my talk, I return and nearly finish the pile. Surely tomorrow—when I
must also attend to my vegetable garden, which needs weeding.

Then, must restart my lactobacillus culture (fungicide) which I began 3 weeks ago
but was interrupted by visitors. Also cut up a piece of the old license plate to reinforce a
broken chair slat that I glued yesterday. Was going to go to town for a piece of wood but
the found material—stiff bit of aluminum will do I think. Sally clearly disapproved but
held her tongue, perhaps grasping that it’s best not to discourage my enterprise.
Unfortunately fine screws are needed that will require a trip to the ferreteria.

Today I allowed myself to attend to essentially every distraction—to follow every
twist of my wandering mind. But within each moment I attended fully to a goal.
Each young tree, orange or avocado, received my full attention. There were no instant
messages or grandiose thoughts, no anxiety about whether I should really be doing
something else. There was only, should I remove this particular sucker? or cut away this
particular sprout of matapalo?

The day was one long meditation—doing what the mind ordered with no effort to control it. This is the Zen state that monks seek—as in Zen in the Art of Archery—but that physicians consider a mental disorder to be treated by amphetamines.

Photo by Peter Sterling.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Great article Peter.
    So you have Attention “Deficit” “Hyper”-activity “Dis-order”.
    Your “spouse knows this better than anyone.”
    This happens in relationships, one spouse starts to “Hyper”-focus on the other partner’s “annoying” habits, rituals, daily grind. Often after divorce, the descriptors are much worse and the spouses tell all about how “disordered” their exes were 🙂
    The language of spouses is borrowed, and rarely applied to self. Every day we go about the grind, living with people in close quarters, where we can receive a thousand and one labels. Goodness, we get exposed. Ohh and how there is always one spouse with a disorder.

    I’m rather curious, as a neuroscientist, and using a label to describe your “neurodiverse world”, of which we are all blessed with….what label do we give to kids who become hyperfocused on behaviours of others? And go on to make a nasty biz of it? How “obsessed” we get with labels and judging, watching. Even paying close attention to ourselves.

    It’s rather amazing that your interest is in the retina. Is this in relation to behaviour? How perception is involved in development?

    Anyway, my mind is wandering and is now still thinking back of your day, which beyond the boring toothcare, sounds absolutely calm and amazing and I have found days like that tend to get shattered by the naggings of those we tied a knot with.

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  2. How do you know the thumb sized bug with speckles was of this world? I’ve had one looking just like the guy “Cana-duh” from Peter Pan movie, with Levi Miller. It snuck right back into the drainage pipes of a bathroom, though. Wiggling, just wiggling wiggling its watoosi that looked like it had been stuffed full to the brim with degrees from Harvard, Spam, Oxford and the rest of those Ivy Leagues!

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