There’s a warmth I can feel through my closed eyelids; a moving painting, a kaleidoscope of pinks and yellows. I don’t remember where I am at first; the hot sun pops the dust that hangs in the air like popcorn: the only faint sound that reverberates in the surrounding empty space. I realize my arms are folded beneath my head, and my neck, twisted to one side, has begun to ache, which is what wrenched me from my stillness. There is a flat surface beneath me, but raised and lowered in unspecific ways: they are the wooden piano keys, gilded in plastic, of the black Baldwin upright at which I’ve fallen asleep. Has it been ten minutes, or has it been an hour?
I am in the walled alcove between the side entrance and the far northern wing of Marcus High School, where for the past year, my 12th and final, I’ve spent a good two hours each day sitting at this old Baldwin, learning new songs and then writing my own. This piano was once in some dusty old storeroom beneath the auditorium stage. I came here for the majority of my lunch period and the following quarter of the day (that otherwise would’ve been spent in classes I tested out of that year), before my final period that barred me from leaving the campus early. Sometimes students would file past my hallway, not even noticing me in the bustle; others would give me a passing glance, confused and off-put by my ghost-like presence in this obscure hallway of my enormous school.
I learned rock, and jazz, and played the songs I heard off of my ipod for which I could find tabs on the internet. I workshopped my originals, attempting to flesh them out into full-fledged compositions for playing with my band. Life this year was without boundaries, and yet the limitlessness came bounding towards me in all directions, oppressively.
I hate my stupid eyelids as I sit in my calculus class. They refuse to cooperate, as much as I plead silently with them to stay open. At this moment in my high school career, I’ve never in my life had a drop of coffee. Yet oh how I stare longingly at the jumbo thermos steaming on top of the goth kid’s desk, which is situated in the far back corner of the classroom. Even if I had some of his coffee, I know for sure, at this point I’m too far gone to be helped.
As I feel my head dipping down, then bobbing up like a dancing fishing lure, I’m already scheduling my early morning strategy for the following day. There’s no way I will be able to prepare my homework for tomorrow, I think to myself. I imagine if I can just catch my next door neighbor on campus before school lets out, he can help me to understand the lesson. If not, I’ll be up by 5am, and combing the hallways at Marcus to find someone better at math than me.
At 18, I knew enough about myself to acknowledge that if I wasn’t able to learn something in the moment, it was because my brain had done too many donuts and had effectively spun itself out. This would happen nearly every day.
About ten years ago from the present day, I was diagnosed and medicated for an anxiety-driven form of ADHD. A symptom of this, as it was explained to me, was my tendency to hyper-focus on a task so intently that it would fatigue my cognition and my brain would essentially go into sleep mode. As my dad still tells me from time to time: “The harder you try [to a certain extent], the worse you do.” This saying, while not for all, is right on the money for Allie Farris. Sometimes I can try so hard at something, I can fry my own personal CPU.
No time was this ever more apparent than reading school books. Growing up in Texas with springs and summers so invasively hot that my parents would be livid to come home and discover I had opened all the blinds in the house, sunlight streaming into our large, difficult-to-keep-cool front room. I would get home earlier than most of my family during the week, and spend the majority of these quiet moments in our house either at the piano, or lounging on the carpet in a sun patch, like a cat. I would sit there with my World History, or Beginner Psychology textbooks, trying to make it to the end of just one of the 20 required homework pages before nodding off yet again and waking up sweating, my neck stiff, like a vagrant with amnesia waking up on a moving train, momentarily unsure of my whereabouts.
College came a year later, and with it an exciting wave of music-centered curriculum, which could finally satisfy enough of my brain to keep it awake for most of the day. Soon after I met a man who, after great coaxing, agreed to teach me how to tune pianos. With that, my ADHD had met its match.
I remember one specific tuning which, by chance, taught me how I could combat my mental roadblocks in the moment, rather than just calling it a day and trying again tomorrow. I had to find a solution to my stress-induced narcolepsy, otherwise I would be forced to split tunings up into two-hour increments over several days, to which no prospective client in their right mind would agree.
I was somewhere around the bottom third of the piano; I was listening as closely as I could to the bass strings, which cast off slower and slower patterns the lower I traveled down the keyboard, making it more difficult to hear where the booming strings could be correctly aligned. I was an assistant teacher at a jazz camp in Tulsa Oklahoma at the time, and had decided to tune one of their practice room pianos after hours to further hone my skills and reduce my tuning time. As the hours passed, my energy dipped steadily lower. When I reached the bass section and attempted to follow the molasses-like arc of the waves, I felt my head nod so low, I almost dropped my heavy tuning lever directly onto the strings (which would have ruined the tuning) and knocked my forehead on the sharp front edge.
Instead of giving into my fatigue completely, I defensively stood up, walked out of the practice room, and sat down on the deserted steps outside. I’ll give myself ten minutes, I thought. I set a timer on my phone and pulled up a New York Times crossword puzzle, decompressing until I heard a series of beeps streaming from my phone.
As soon as I stood up and returned to the practice room, I felt energized, and I worked for another 45 minutes until the tuning was completed. This was thirty minutes faster than my last attempt. And still, it had been over four hours. Through taking a series of short breaks during each of the next year’s worth of tunings, I never fell asleep, and got my time down to three, then eventually two, hours.
I used this strategy over the next eight years, off and on, until I became trained to need less and less of a lifesaver to retrieve me from my intellectual whirlpool. I eventually came to feel my brain twisting and straining with the hyperfocusing, and at some point there was nothing I could do but turn my back to the piano, taking three long, deep breaths. If I stubbornly tried to push myself through, just like back in my senior year, I’d be face flat on the keyboard.
Three long breaths was all I needed, once I felt the stress setting in. Until the worry finally abated altogether, the more I saw it coming. But there were still times I consciously took a step away from the endless loop, before casually straying into a new spiral.
The first things I notice are the softness of my wool sweater on the side of my cheek; I’ve never needed to wear sweaters like this on a sunny day. Through my thin, closed eyelids, I see shades of blue and lavender, swimming in cream. Beneath my arms and my head which rests upon them is a smooth wooden desk, somewhat cool to the touch, save for the laptop exhaust lightly heating the surface directly beneath it; it’s been running Pro Tools (the music recording software that’s like boot camp for your hard drive) for a few hours now; a session still remains open on the screen.
I blink my eyes and pick up my head, the snowy mountain range outside my office window comes back into focus. Beside Pro Tools, there is an open internet browser including several tabs of internet how to’s, wikipedia pages of well-known producers, and my email (in case I might need to phone a friend for mixing tips).
It’s just like I’m back in school again; I’m learning something new, sitting in that empty hallway, starting completely from scratch. I have everything ahead of me; all that exists between me and my goals now is persistence, patience, and the willingness to stand up and let it go, for just a few minutes, or three long, unfettered breaths. This stuff is so technically confusing, and the bridge between what’s inside my head and what comes out of someone’s iPhone speakers is a schematic built one byte at a time. So I guess I need to re-learn how to snap out of it, and not grind the gears until I flood my gates. I love this, I’ve always loved it, and that’s why I must find a way to stay awake, by caring a tiny bit less. Otherwise, I’ll again sleep through class; but this time, the only morning hallway drudge will be down my own, coffee in hand, my fiance in our bedroom asleep. The lights of the rising morning will reflect off the lake, signaling another new day, and once more a chance to teach myself this lesson.