Well, it smells like all the new gear of all the Newly Resolute with which your favorite routes, so recently solitary, are suddenly awash.
Time past I would have scoffed, but this last week I’ve found myself wishing them well. So perhaps they smell the underside of new leaves as they trudge past me. Bets are open, though, on what’ll last longer – their resolve or my good cheer.
I know a lot of you haven’t gotten to use your new gear yet, or been able to smugly sneer at others’ new gear in your own road-weary outfit, and so far your new year smells mostly of snow and your own frozen nostril hairs. Sorry for that. It’s times like this that Angelenos shrug their tanned and tank-topped shoulders and say to one another from atop their Rainbows and behind their Ray-Bans, “S’why rent’s so high.”
Hope everyone had a good NYE and Christmas/Kwanzaa/Solstice/whatever else you celebrated. Ours was very relaxed. I took a mini cellphone/social media vacation while in New York, and it was especially fruitful. It’d been a while since I unplugged, and in early December I read this Wired article, “Distracted? How Hyperstimulation Is Making You Smarter” (the dubiousness of that title/idea to be taken up in another post), which related such fun/depressing factoids as the average smart phone user checks his device 150 times a day, or every 6 mins, and I’d really started to notice to my chagrin the compulsiveness, bordering on obsession, with which I was checking facebook not only throughout the day at work, but even after work, even at stoplights on the way home, even in bed before going to sleep.
This is not the kind of person I think of myself as being, so I was long overdue to take a step back from the matrix. The first few days of the break I reached for my phone a lot, but soon I was leaving it at the house when we went places, and after a week I hardly checked it at all, and by the time we were headed back I was thinking, “Ima go back to a landline only screw this thing.”
And then I spent one short day at work on the 30th and kapow!
So, being as it’s the beginning of the year,
Two things about that statement.
I know. That’s how I like my resolutions, especially New Year’s ones. I’ve made them in the past and they’ve lasted anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple hours. They were always things like journaling, or quitting a bad habit, or not cursing so much – things that I thought would “make me a better person” or “fix” me in some way. Like gym memberships and quitting smoking, which are probably the two most popular (and coincident), most NY resolutions are ostensibly well-intentioned, so I don’t want to scoff at them too much, or at least at the spirit in which they’re made.
But there’s something about the expectations that always adhere to them that bothers me. I understand it – we’re all hoping that feeling of renewal will help us have a better year than last year. But it seems they’re usually either too grand and sweeping and massive – “Eat kale salad for lunch every work day all year. Kale life!” – or it’s made in this pocket of isolation, as if one behavior will be the key to your future and to happiness. So I’m going with the hold-on loosely approach. Making an effort. Seeking gradual change.
Or, rather, avoiding it.
Saying you’re OCD about something has become so commonplace that the acronym has replaced the words it stands for and taken on a life of its own. If I were to say, “I’m OCD about my desk,” you’d think, “Oh, Ian’s desk is probably really neat and the pencils are lined up nicely and there’s not a lot of crap everywhere.” You’d be wrong, of course – this is an almost laughable hypothetical. But you probably wouldn’t think, “Ian is being really candid and telling me he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the often crippling anxiety of which is focused primarily on his work space.”
People know this and roll their eyes when you remind them, annoyed that you’re being so literal. We’re a superlative society, we like doing the acronym-as-a-thing thing, I get it, it’s no problem. But when you’re on the brink of feeling like something’s affecting your life, it’s good to pay attention to what you’re saying.
So, to be clear, I’m not talking about OCD here. I’m talking about OCTs – Obsessive Compulsive Tendencies.
I’m no doctor, but it seems to me that a practical way to differentiate between OCD and OCTs would be the issue of dependence. It’s deeply satisfying to me to indulge my OCTs, to roll up rubber bands and twist ties into perfect spirals or to fold and tear pieces of paper into perfect segments. I have a pad of graph paper for the express purpose of coloring-in alternating boxes to create geometric patterns. When these things don’t go perfect, I get this gut-twisting sense of failure and self-disgust. A line jutting even a fraction of a millimeter outside one of those light blue 1/4″ x 1/4″ squares can really send me spiraling.
If watching those things slide into place feels like taking a hit of something, then you’re on my page and welcome to my world.
I love things like this, lovelovelovelove them, but, they don’t control me or interfere with my life. When I said “spiraling” up there, I mean I say, “God damn it!” and crumple the paper up and go do something else. I don’t wait to get an entire sheet of graph paper perfectly Fibonaccied before saying hi to Erin or leaving the apartment or tying my shoe or fixing breakfast. I’ve never been late to something to fulfill an OCT. However good it feels to do them (correctly), I don’t feel empty or incomplete or scared if I don’t. I don’t need them to do the rest of my life. Thankfully.
No one knows whether OCD’s genetic, congenital, developed after trauma, a purely psychological issue or partly biological. But if things were little different, if I let certain things go unchecked, I’m pretty sure my OCTs could develop into a full-blown Disorder. I’m no stranger to fear and anxiety, which are the two main ingredients in OCD. Plus, I was a distance swimmer, and that kind of over-commitment can spawn some odd behaviors and temperaments indeed. And it (OCD or distance swimming? which do I mean?) has parallels to addiction, making me a pretty decent horse to bet on.
Another example. Since I’m a kid I’ve gotten these facial tics. They come out of the blue and last a few weeks at a time. I’m not talking about those stress/fatigue corner-eye twitches. I get those, too, but those are completely uncontrollable. What I’m talking about are very obvious facial movements that are right on the line of voluntary/involuntary. When I was 11 or 12, my mom mimicked me whenever she saw me doing this particularly unattractive snarl thing, and her mimicry drove me so crazy I focused and focused and quit snarling. My experience of these tics reminds me of what I’ve heard people describe of Tourette’s Syndrome (I’m definitely not saying I have Tourette’s) — that is, I’m compelled to do the thing, and it does something for me when it happens/I do it, and it goes away when I’m completely absorbed in a task – when I’m in flow — and otherwise, if I’m really concentrating on not doing it, the not-doing-it builds and builds and builds and then releases when I get alone and can let it happen, and the whole process of having these tics and trying not to do them starts to drive me up the effing wall and I feel like it’s going to make me come completely undone and then before I know it it’s gone and I haven’t snarled or double-blinked or whatever in weeks.
This probably has no biological basis, but I look at it like I generate a certain quantity of neurotic energy that needs to get out of my brain, and those tics are one of the myriad outlets my mind comes up with for that. Maybe the amount of neurotic energy ebbs and flows with the time of year or how busy I am or how stressed or how much exercise/sun/surf I’m getting or if I’m acting out or maybe it’s the moon phase for all I know, I don’t know, but it does seem to fluctuate and it does seem like it can be stemmed by and directed to other things. And it doesn’t always come out in tics, thank heavens. Sometimes it’s rearranging books on a shelf, or sorting the clothes in their drawers. Sometimes it is organizing and lining up pencils on my desk.
I also feel like for the most part it’s bridled, but that it could become unbridled relatively easily.
Which is why I’m resolving to not indulge these unproductive OCTs
immediately forever as much as possible.
Emphasis on unproductive.
For, as we all know, some things in life call for and reward compulsive behavior. As several of you have pointed out, a little more OCion in the proofreading department might help cut down on ATW’s typos. A transferable benefit, of course, as, it pains me to say, I found a third-grade misspelling on page one of this story I’ve been shopping around for months (obviously unsuccessfully). I’ve been applying my OCTs towards learning French (not consciously, until someone pointed out that I’m “being a little OCD about it”), et je pense qu’il est payant. And there’s the novel, which I’m writing all the time right now, in multiple files, in separate notebooks, on random pieces of paper. Now that I know what I’m doing and where I’m going and how close I am to the end, I just want it out out out, and the whole world actually feels a lot calmer and a lot less crappy the instant I start revising sentences or scribbling new ones.
I’m sure there are things in my life I could/should be applying my OCTs to instead of French and writing – like, oh, that big party in May – and this is one of the things I’m planning on practicing: how to direct OCT energy towards and create rewards for productive undertakings that aren’t inherently satisfying. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, has an interesting take on this: expose the reward mechanism and provide your brain through a process of trial and error with an effectively motivating reward on which you can depend to perpetuate a plan through to your goal.
His whole process diagram thing strikes me as grossly and limply trendy and lame and pathetic – a reaction I’ve had to “self-help” anythings since I can remember. But it’s pretty obvious that I need some help in this regard and Erin needs some help planning this wedding, and if being self-helpy about stuff is the price I gotta pay to do that, well then self-help me up. Plus, getting over that bias against “self-help” would probably be a not-so-bad thing. Especially since that’s probably how about half of ATW’s posts could be categorized. I mean, from an outside perspective, maybe some of the drivel I go on about isn’t really all that different from Eckhart Toole’s drivel. Which I’m not gonna lie makes me vomit in my mouth a little and question my entire existence.
Anyway, back on point – I’m not saying my ten-day social media mini-vacay in December rescued me from ever turning into Monk, but it did remind me that at some level I have a choice about how my neuroses manifest, and that I’d do well to a) admit my brain is in the neurosis-producing business and b) spend some time figuring out positive ways to capture and direct that OCT energy instead of uselessly expending it on the Series of Tubes.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say on that.
Hope your 2014 is off to a good start. As always, I’m glad you came by. Come back!
Copyright 2013 - Ian Prichard