I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels

Half a lifetime later one wonders. What is it that incites you to do a jig on the Acropolis by the light of the Athenian moon; or the Bailarico down an Istanbul street with a girl named Maria, while trying to beat the curfew in the middle of a military coup?

What excites conduct that runs from unconventional – passing round a bottle of single malt on the southbound Night Rider after a fortnight on the North Sea rigs; or cueing up a tape cassette to play The Weight while pulling into Nazareth, Israel; or arriving in England on a dark and cheerless night as a bona fide tax exile – to perilous – sweating over another gun at your throat, this time up by the Burmese border; or chasing a thief down an alleyway in Rio de Janeiro; or witnessing your own personal good cop/bad cop routine as a murder suspect in Scotland?

Perhaps it’s a  latter day response to the hushed story of your mother’s passing, or to a youth spent wheeling along like the cogs of your father’s career with your siblings and new stepmom, from Ashland, Mass. in ’61 – to Concord, NH in ’62 – to New Bedford, Mass. in ’63 – to Evansville, Indiana in 1965. That might put ants in your pants.

But suppose you unearthed some old report cards and suddenly realized the “ants” were there all along? What revelation a modern lens can bring:  Winslow’s work is very erratic. He becomes easily distracted and loses interest when being helped. He is noisy getting in and out of the room (hall, toilet, etc.) … needs to hear and obey the bell … needs improvement with neatness … puts off doing his seatwork and doesn’t complete it on time … has a “don’t care” attitude…

For the record I did care, truly I did, and for the most part I enjoyed school, especially when getting a laugh from my classmates by making up alternative lyrics to the songs we sang in music class, or by doing something offbeat like showing up with one brown shoe and one black shoe. Some will understand.

My teachers appreciated none of this of course, and though I maintained a positive outlook, the ride grew bumpier by the year. By the dawning of the ‘70s we were in upstate New York and I’d become so well acquainted with failure that I barely made it through the eighth grade. But then from out of the bubbling hormonal chowder of adolescence something WILD occurred when I entered high school back in Massachusetts.

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to  be  saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”   ~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road


While much of who we are is formed at the crossroads of environment and upbringing, it’s our DNA – like a ladder twisting through the mists of time – that is bred into our very bones. And if you too are inclined to “burn like a fabulous yellow roman candle” chances are it was an anomaly to the dopamine receptor gene, DRD4 that ignited the spark.

Dopamine is responsible for sensory stimulation and most people receive a “normal dosage” throughout their daily lives. But about 20 percent of us have the DRD4-7R allele (or variation), which provides a lower, less-gratifying amount of dopamine and, with our tanks running near empty we’re genetically inclined to seek-out stimulation from the world around us.

Popularly referred to as the “explorer” or “restless” gene, various studies have linked the allele to an overabundance of physical and mental energy (i.e. hyperactivity), a willingness to take risks, and an urgent desire to explore new places, foods, libations, relationships, ideas, opportunities, you name it.

Although not everyone who carries it has ADHD – genes have a way of turning on and off, and not all attention deficit disorder is inherited – geneticists really only began to study DRD4-7R because half of those diagnosed with ADHD have the allele as well.

To a Dharma Bum like Kerouac being mad-to-live-mad-to-talk-and-desirous-of-everything-at-the-same-time was (in beatnik-speak) like “everything plus” but what do geneticists themselves think?

Well, a biological trait survives the natural selection process because it offers some sort of adaptive strength and when DRD4-7R first emerged about 40,000 years ago, humanity was in a state of flux.

While a noxious plague or rapid change in climate might wipe out those inclined to hunker down in one place, those with the explorer gene were ever-vigilant, ready to roll, ultra resilient, and willing to adapt come what may. By leading the way, sometimes to other continents, they and their tribe survived.

Thousands of generations later, I find a lineage of restless souls in at least one branch of the family tree. There was my dad, who traveled the globe and moved his family 15 times in a 44-year construction career; and an ancestor who ventured to California on the heels of the gold rush before joining the Kansas Militia and later serving as a ship’s engineer during the New Orleans Campaign of 1862 and … well, he led an interesting life.

So did another ancestor who, with her five children, found safety only after making her way over 200 miles on foot through the northern wilderness in the winter of 1777 after her husband’s brutal murder. Then there were those who spent years before the mast, and those who were first to join whenever there was a war. It was bred in the bone.

Not that the qualities found in so successful an adaptation are advantageous all the time. In the confines of a modern classroom or office cubicle they’re “symptomatic of a clinical disorder,” where an abundance of energy is viewed as an inability to sit still, while a facility for noticing everything is called distractibility, and an aptitude for multitasking and continual deliberation is regarded as lack of focus, and the propensity to act quickly is called impulsiveness. In a topsy-turvy, one-size-fits-all world, the hard-wired predelection for hitting the road makes more sense than ever.

Although neither term existed when I was 17, the DRD4-7R/ADHD tag team had me firmly in its grips. As the very image of restlessness (and a blurry one at that) I chafed against the ordinary and delighted in the rush that resulted from throwing caution to the wind and acting on a flash of insight. But I could also see the big picture (another one of those “tag team” traits) and eventually even managed to earn an advanced degree.

By then I was in the thick of my dustbowl jet setting years, yielding at times to my inner Meatloaf (“all revved up with no place to go”) by taking on low level jobs in hardship posts to allow for the other side of the coin, the Robert Service/Men That Don’t Fit In side, in which you break the hearts of kith and kin (or so I liked to believe) and roam the world at will. And roam I did, leaving a wake of madcap encounters in curious places:

A vodka den in Leningrad; an overnight Baltic ferry; a Belfast pub; a hidden Red Sea inlet; a Barcelona party; a Singapore backstreet; a Ukrainian taxicab; a Tel Aviv beach; a Nogales taco stand; a Shropshire shooting party; the moonless Mojave Desert; a Norwegian diving vessel; a Tangier nightclub; a Pentagon squash court; a corner of the Kremlin; an Amsterdam broom closet; a gasthaus near the Berlin wall; a Bangkok barbershop; a desk in the British Library; a Toronto boardroom; a Venetian café; a South London shed …

It’s a list that goes on and on. If I’d had a theme song (and you who remember can sing along) it would surely be this 1977 release by Jackson Browne:

Running on Empty

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels

Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields

In ‘65 I was seventeen and running up 101

I don’t know where I’m running now; I’m just running on


Running on, running on empty

Running on, running blind

Running on, running into the sun

But I’m running behind


Gotta’ do what you can just to keep your love alive

Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive

In ‘69 I was twenty-one and I called the road my own

I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on


Running on, running on empty

Running on, running blind

Running on, running into the sun

But I’m running behind


Everyone I know, everywhere I go

People need some reason to believe

I don’t know about anyone but me

If it takes all night, that’ll be all right

If I can get you to smile before I leave


Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels

I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels

Look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through

Looking into their eyes I see them running too


Running on, running on empty

Running on, running blind

Running on, running into the sun

But I’m running behind


Honey you really tempt me

You know the way you look so kind

I’d love to stick around but I’m running behind

You know I don’t even know what I’m hoping to find

Running into the sun but I’m running behind


And so I roamed (sometimes on my own, sometimes with another) right into middle age. Now, still chafing against the ordinary, still in love with adventure – with heaven sent resilience to see me through – the restlessness has been quelled somewhat. But the DRD4-7R/ADHD tag team rages on.

With their energy and charisma; their warmth and infectious humor; and especially their passion for movement and adventure I see it in my kids. No apologies. The world may never quite be compatible but I know they’ll make it fit.

Now that I’ve figured it all out, I guess it’s time to write that book.

1 thought on “I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels

  1. Hi, Winslow. You describe the state of being so well! Helps me to understand how it might feel

    I’m sure they’ll be fine, too. :)))

    As for writing and memories, there is a ton of research on the variations of reality depending on who’s talking, the situation, and a plethora of variables. I am taking pen in hand anyway, as a hedge against Terror Management Theory…

    I feel a sense of your city, being in Portland. Very glad to be where things are more fair to all politically and socially. Could never go back to wherever we’ve lived before except for the historic neighborhood in Denver where political attitudes were similar to this.

    All the best to you and the family, N/q

    Sent from my iPhone


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