The Grace of A.D.D. Reflections on a dear childhood friend.

DSC_5051_©Skip_McKinstry+RG

String Theory #1, by the author, 2017.

I was eight or nine. 1960. Little Rock, Arkansas. My dad was moving into management in the world of manufacturing and we moved from the south side of Little Rock to a new subdivision on the west side. Our neighbors were doctors, business owners, and teachers, the Arkansas bourgeoisie if you will. They were all successful young families participating in that historic southern exodus of the late 50s and 60s—white flight. But that’s another topic altogether, which I have addressed here. Of course, I didn’t pay attention to the details. I just thought it was cool to live in a split-level house in a neighborhood with lots of kids.

Next door, lived a family with four kids—three boys and a baby girl. Their father was a surgeon. The oldest boy, Buddy, was my age. He and I and his brothers explored the “wild forests” surrounding the neighborhood, built tree houses, climbed on real houses under construction when the workers weren’t around, played Cowboys and Indians, re-enacted Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War I & II battles, and generally shared an idyllic childhood. Pretty typical of the time. Even when the weather kept us indoors we would turn the family room downstairs into a battlefield, playing Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” 45-rpm single on the record player over and over and over. “We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’ / There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago /We fired once more and they began a-runnin’ / On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. …they ran through the briars /And they ran through the brambles /And they ran through the bushes / Where the rabbits couldn’t go / They ran so fast / That the hounds couldn’t catch ‘em / On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.” And so on, ad infinitum. (My mother was truly a patient woman.) We were noble defenders of the New World, acting out the logical consequences of the Declaration of Independence.

It was the kind of kid friendship that we have all experienced. An intensity that could cause us both to erupt in uncontrollable laughter simply looking at each other. And the kind of intensity that could lead to inconsolable anger and sadness over a perceived slight, such as the time Buddy offended me—I have no idea how—and I wrote a long note which I threw from the car window in the general direction of his front yard one afternoon when my Mom was driving me somewhere. I don’t even know if he saw it or read it. Regardless, we reconciled at some point, forgetting petty differences.

I recall one afternoon, walking along a gravel road in the woods with Buddy, when we decided to race. In true “hare” fashion, I sprinted ahead, while he moved faster than the tortoise, but not rushing things. In a couple of minutes I would (“Squirrel!”) lose focus and wander off the road to inspect some unusual rock formation, or interesting tree or flower that presented itself to my field of vision—I had attention deficit disorder (ADD) before it was even a thing. Sure enough, Buddy would catch up and pass me, continuing at his measured pace. Once I got my breath back (I also had asthma) I’d sprint ahead again. We would repeat the process a few times until we both bored of the game. I remember clearly him saying to me, not as a childish taunt, just as a matter-of-fact, “I will always be able to run farther than you. My dad told me to keep a slow but steady pace to win.” His dad was a doctor, so who could argue? Besides, Buddy always won the distance race. It has been a continual battle for me to “go the distance.”

In 1961, as my dad changed jobs, my family moved several times, settling in Hannibal, Missouri, until close to the end of my senior year of high school when we returned to northwest Arkansas. In 1969 I started college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. That was a pretty serious year of cultural upheaval, even in the slow-to-change South. I was attracted (or, perhaps, distracted) by “the Movement” and soon found myself far more interested in extracurricular life than school. True to Timothy Leary’s motto of the time, “I tuned in, turned on, and dropped out,” literally dropping out of school after three semesters.

Coincidentally, Buddy was also in Fayetteville. In fact, much to my envy, he became the lead guitarist in Fayetteville’s most popular and iconic rock and roll band. It seems that part of his “slow and steady” approach had enabled him to become a musician of some merit, while I struggled just to remember a few chords on the guitar. More than that, he was wise enough to recognize, despite his musical success, that long-term goals such as finishing college and cultivating a real career were important. By 1984 he had completed medical school and done a plastic surgery residency at Wake Forest.

I lost track of him after Fayetteville. I did manage with fits and starts through the years to complete a BA in philosophy. It wasn’t that I was stupid, I did manage to graduate cum laude. In 2006! I always lacked the kind of focus and consistency that lends itself to “worldly” success. However, in my mid-twenties I was mercifully rescued from trying to measure the worth of my life in terms of worldly success. I became a Christian. My worth is a gift from God. Even as a follower of Christ my life has continued to be just like the race between me and Buddy at 9 years old. In so many ways I have remained the hare, starting strong and fading, only to start strong and fade again, over and over. I became a graphic designer and worked successfully in advertising for most of my career. Thanks to the ever-present deadlines, it is kind of an adrenaline driven industry, and adrenaline is a neurotransmitter craved by people with ADD, so it worked out pretty well. Creative fields reward people for their distractibility, or as it is perhaps euphemistically described, non-linear thinking. And despite not being especially adept at the art of marriage, I do have four wonderful adult sons, a delightful daughter-in-law, and two beautiful granddaughters.

Buddy’s life has not been without struggle or tragedy. I knew that his parents divorced and in 1980, his father, who was also my doctor during the Fayetteville era, committed suicide. In preparation for a class I am facilitating at church on the value of autobiography in spiritual formation, I recently did a Google search to see what my childhood friend had been up to since those heady days in northwest Arkansas. He had become a cosmetic surgeon, settling eventually in toney Asheville, North Carolina, with a successful practice and was by all accounts very popular with his patients. He was still an active and accomplished musician, but had traded his rock and roll roots for something a bit more Appalachian, mastering the violin and the fiddle. He was an artist with a scalpel and on stringed instruments. Unsurprisingly, he had turned from childhood game playing to become a genuine Civil War re-enactor. He had married a beautiful woman who shared at least some of his passion for re-enactment as they regularly attended period balls and antebellum soireés. Though he had no children, it appears that slow and steady served him well.

Naturally, none of that detracted from my unfortunate envy of his success.

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in an essay entitled, “Learning to Live,” wrote the following: “A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled “Success” wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, but to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this, be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

I am not a drunk and am likely not a bastard nor a madman (depending on who you ask), but I have managed, through no great achievement on my part to avoid success in many areas of my life. ADD is the subject of a lot of jokes, and there are many who challenge its very existence as a psychological disorder. Certainly there is a tendency to over-diagnose and over-medicate those who are diagnosed. But I can say from personal experience that it is real and it can wreak varying degrees of havoc in the lives of those who suffer from it and in the lives of those around them. It can be poisonous to relationships. Focus comes and goes in fits and starts. Sometimes flashes of brilliance show up, but more often there is the frustration and self-doubt borne of not being able to stick with something until it is finished, because some infernal shiny object has created an unavoidable diversion. I wrestle with it on a daily basis, in a way similar to the way a person with dyslexia struggles to read. It is hard to call it a handicap, but it is a major annoyance. Still, too much focus on that is just me playing the victim card. (I’ve taught a class on overcoming victimhood, too.) Everyone has their own cross to bear.

In many ways, I am still that somewhat envious 9-year-old, unable to keep up with my measured and steady friend. I have also struggled with a degree of resentment toward God for the differences in our brain chemistry that led Buddy to his successes and me to a life that has been, not without pockets of success, but perhaps a little less than I might have hoped for. Yet I am slowly coming to understand how much I am loved by God unconditionally regardless of my shortcomings. For me not to see that is to remain deeply committed to works-righteousness—to trying to be good enough or succesful enough to please the God who loved me enough to die for me, even before I existed. Romans 8:28 is not a cliché to me. “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All things.

On July 16, 2016, the Asheville, North Carolina police received a heartbreaking 911 emergency call from Buddy’s wife. Someone had shot him in the back of the head during what appeared to be a home invasion while she was upstairs asleep. Although the murder weapon was found in the bushes outside their house, the police did not have sufficient evidence to identify a killer. After the funeral, his wife moved to Memphis. On November 9, 2017, she was arrested for his murder and is now awaiting trial. I hope she is not guilty.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

And may Buddy rest in the arms of the Savior.

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