Civilization Versus The Full-Body For-Keepsies Panty Raid… and The Survival Value of ADD

When I was a kid and my family lived on the western tundra of Alaska, my dad took me hunting and fishing with him. We were bringing in food for the table in a place where agriculture was impossible.

I loved tagging along and helping out. I was nine, so for hunting I was just a pair of extra hands carrying stuff home. I actually got to participate in fishing, and was pretty good at it. In later years, in Ohio, I fished in a nearby lake for bass and bluegills, right up until I turned sixteen and would have needed a license.

I inherited certain traits that made me a good hunting and fishing companion, the primary one being the ability to sit still and quiet for long periods of time without falling asleep — a survival skill that with fishing requires you to keep a tiny portion of your attention on a single spot of undercut at the outward bend in a river or stream under which a big bass is probably waiting, watching for food to drop into the little corner of the waterway he’s staked out for himself. (Or to sit utterly still in a boat over crystal clear water while waiting for one of the shadows moving beneath it to hit your bait.)

To maintain this necessary stillness, you have to set the bigger part of your mind adrift, letting it wander wherever it will and entertain itself as best it can, while you keep just the tiniest bit of your awareness hooked through your fingertips to the rod and reel, and your vision aimed at the tip of the rod, so that when you see the twitch and feel the first tentative nibble, you bring your awareness back to what you’re doing. If you’re quick enough, when your prey takes the bait, you can set the hook and reel it in.

(I’ll note that if you’re sitting in a kayak, and you pull in a Northern pike, see two rows of dagger teeth coming at you, and flail your fish and all those teeth straight at your dad, the danger of the kayak tipping and dumping both of you into permafrost-chilled water is extreme. We did NOT tip the kayak, so we also not freeze to death and drown the day I did that. However, it was a near enough miss that I also did not get to go fishing in the kayak again.)

Hunting for your dinner (at least the kind of hunting you can do with a nine-year-old in tow) is the same process. Both of you mark the point in the sky where the ducks or geese will come from. And then you sit utterly still and silent behind the cover of overgrowth, set most of your mind adrift while staying awake, and keep the pinpoint of your attention on the direction from which you expect incoming motion.

Hunting (or at least being a good hunting companion) and fishing and the fact that even at the age of nine, I was good at these: That’s Exhibit One.

* * *

Exhibit Two is civilization as embodied by five hundred years of representative government in the Roman Republic (and the additional two hundred years of the increasingly awful Caesars of the Roman Empire). These are the origins of my husband’s people. Germans and Romans, the rule of law, a long and impressive representative government that deteriorated into god-kings and debauchery, as republics tend to do when people forget why representative government has to actually BE representative.

My husband’s ancestors were Germans and Romans. They had a civilization that was agriculture-and-domesticated-livestock-based, so that food grew on patches of ground that folks owned and tended, and it didn’t try to get away from you (or kill you), or in the case of livestock, could at least could be herded by shepherds and dogs. There was no need for the hunter mind, for the long stillness and the utter silence of waiting, for the need to set a tight focus on the single point of your objective while letting the rest of your mind float around, entertaining itself with amusing thoughts and daydreams.

My ancestry is Scots and Vikings.

The Scots are descendants of the blue-painted Celts who were so terrifying the Romans ceased their northern expansion and built Hadrian’s Wall so they could sleep nights behind something sturdy…

My ancestors are also the inventors of haggis. You win some. You lose some.

The Vikings were poets, explorers, and inventors of the full-body, for-keepsies panty raid, in which they went viking for wealth and replacement women. Some bits of it might have been heroic. Some bits were horrific.

Down at the baseline, though, it was a necessary population replacement maneuver essential to their continued existence.

Childbirth is a deadly bitch for mother and child alike in pre-medical cultures, and when you throw in the long winter darkness of high-latitude Scots and Viking terrain, inevitable food shortages, and brutal vitamin D deficiencies, you’re going to need to get replacements for the women and children who don’t survive.

My ancestry, and that adaptation for grabbing all possible Vitamin D during the short sun season has left me with practically transparent skin, and a tendency to burn, blister, and peel even in even relatively moderate latitudes. I sunburn in OHIO.

* * *

But my forebears also gave me the hunter adaptation. The ability to focus long… to set a tiny attention flag on the object of my interest, and then to disappear into stillness while waiting for my future meal to trigger the flag I set to bring me back.

Which was great when I was in a world that needed hunter skills.

When I came back to civilization— to riding a school bus and sitting still in a box for a bunch of hours a day, and being talked at by people who insisted that I not fidget, not talk, and not get up and run around, the adaptive stillness of the hunter kicked in, my mind set its tight focus on the object of my captivity (the teacher in charge of the class) and the rest of me went Viking through the realms of my imagination. When I got the inevitable sigh, the “Earth to Holly” remark from the teacher, and came back, I’d answer the question (after it was repeated, anyway)… and then vanish again back into my own much more interesting world.

THAT is ADD. It is an adaptive survival mechanism that does not mesh well with “Everybody stand, everybody sit, everybody watch this board, everybody pay attention to these boring-ass numbers…”

It is not a disorder.

It is not a fucking disease.

It does not mean you’re broken, damaged, or an object to be pitied.

It is just Hunter Brain, and it means that if you’re in an everybody-stand-up, everybody-sit-down, everybody-be-the-same situation, you’re in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing — that you need to change the kind of work you do, the kind of play you do, the kind of life you’re leading to give yourself things that you can focus on in stillness, in quiet, away from the constant low-level chaos that is “Multitasking, Bells, Stand-Up, Sit-Down, Everybody Do Everything All at the Same Damn Time in the Same Damn Way Because We Said So” bullshit that is most of education, and most of life outside of education.

Hunter Brain is really, really useful for writing fiction. Total body stillness, focus on that one pinpoint of attention (the plot, the character, the conflict — whichever one is at the forefront at the moment), the patience to let let that idea come, like the shadow of a fish under the water moving toward the lure, like the shadow of a V of ducks coming in over a lake, with the one that will keep you from starving for another couple of days somewhere in that aerodynamic formation swinging around to land.

It’s a good brain for folks who like to work alone. Forestry, Fish and Wildlife Management, or exploring.

It was pretty good for nursing when I was working ER (it was great for emergency situations), and not too bad for Med-Surg while having a single set of patients who were mine for twelve hours.

It’s not so great for office jobs, for water-coolers, for constant interruptions, for multitasking.

It’s not, in other words, the best brain for most modern-life jobs.

But for sitting in silence plotting fiction, for finding the story, for spotting that shadow beneath the water that is your plot, and luring it in, being still, being patient, letting it come to you…

Fucking awesome for that. For that, it is a significant advantage, and not a deficit, and not a disorder. It is, in fact, a damned useful tool.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and indie-publish my new ones.


11 comments… add one
  • James, F.E. Sep 21, 2022 @ 16:01

    When I was in the corporate world, I pushed for working remotely one day a week, mainly because it was an hour and 20 minutes commute in the mornings to work and almost two hours home at night. On Fridays I was the only one in my carpool who had to go in to work. The place I was working even kept saying ‘We think more people should work remotely.’
    Yet, did they let me work remotely? NO!
    Madness, I tell you.

    • Holly Sep 22, 2022 @ 7:32

      I’m coming to the conclusion that corporatism and publicly-held companies run by boards (as opposed to privately owned companies run by the company’s builders) are going to be the downfall of civilization.

  • Stephanie Sep 21, 2022 @ 10:50

    Gotta say, your description of school sounds just like my school days back in the day. At least until I discovered books, and would pull the set attention thing, and then sit and read.

    That started in around third or fourth grade and hasn’t ever stopped…

    • Holly Sep 22, 2022 @ 8:01

      I spent a lot of time in class being a million miles away.

      Fortunately, it turns out there’s work you can do where you get paid for that.

  • David Larson Sep 20, 2022 @ 10:36

    I would guess you know who Howard Tayler is. The “Schlock Mercenary” comic guy? His take on ADD is “No. I’m Fine.” by Howard Tayler. https://howardtayler.com/no-im-fine/

    His frustration and lack of impulse control mirror what my wife and kids experienced. They love me but we all have stories about “Dad before pills.”

    I was not diagnosed until I was in my forties. I did poorly in school, work and driving. That last one nearly killed me. I have lost memories. Events where I was physically present but my mind was chasing its own tail. I was not a great hunter, either. I was a good long-range shooter and I could hyperfocus, but I’d start a dialogue and set a scene in my head…I should have been a writer.

    I know people with ADD and average or lower intelligence. Great Berserkers, not stalker/hunters. At least I was supposed to be bright. I qualified for Mensa, so there is that. However, the Mensa sign up was a hundred and fifty miles away. I got there late, like really late and I couldn’t figure out why. During the dissapointed ride home, I realized I had crossed the time zone and lost an hour. At that point I told myself I didn’t deserve to call myself “genius” if I could make such a stupid mistake.

    There are times when the hyperfocus of ADD is a bonus. The methylphenidate isn’t a cure, I still have an attention deficit. Still, I make fewer stupid mistakes, have better impulse control and live with less frustration.

    Results may vary, I guess?

    • Holly Sep 30, 2022 @ 10:39

      “Results may vary, I guess?”

      That is the description of humanity. My father was classic for the syndrome, back before anyone had heard of it. Distractible, poor impulse control, treated his issues with alcohol (not well, I’ll add).

      As for Howard Taylor, never heard of him until I used your link. I rather imagine he’s never heard of me, either.

      Meanwhile, I was an RN for ten years, and quit when I got my first three-book deal… BUT I am not a fan of the medical/pharmaceutical complex. I’m not impressed by what passes for testing in the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve seen things.

      But, YEAH. Results vary.

  • TC Dale Sep 19, 2022 @ 12:13

    Thanks for the update, and the story of ancestors.. and how you evolved, and deal with ADD. Very interesting read, and something I always enjoy when you post.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Holly Sep 22, 2022 @ 7:59

      I know its an individual thing, and affects folks differently. I thought folks might find something of use in my experience with it.

  • Vanessa Sep 19, 2022 @ 11:14

    My grandmother always said ‘some to mend and some to make’. It’s interesting when you world build a society and you realize how many TYPES of people it takes to keep one running.

    There’s also been a shift in office workers since so many people went home and styed there. Yes, some of them are total messes without the eye of management physically being on them – but a surprising number (at least it was surprising to management) actually get more done. They don’t wait for tech support to tell them to reboot. They just do it and get on with their day. In the office, you feel like a cog in a machine. When you work remote, you are still part of the group, but you have a lot of autonomy and it cascades into everything you do. It’s changing my coworkers.

    It’s like watching people wake up, and I’m fascinated by it.

    • Holly Sep 19, 2022 @ 12:01

      Yeah. Pretty glorious, isn’t it, to see people discovering that they are not cogs after all, but individuals with individual skills and strengths that they OWN.

      • Vanessa Sep 19, 2022 @ 15:19

        It is! It’s another reminder that change is the only constant.

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