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MY OBSESSIVE BEHAVIOR (2)
Of Mice and Men
The story If You Give a Mouse a Cookie has always appealed to my grandchildren. The mouse eats a cookie, drinks some milk, looks in the mirror to see if he has wiped up his face sufficiently, but then realizes that he needs to trim his mustache. After doing so, the mouse gets a broom to collect the hairs. But he is not done. He launches into every room with a broom, sweeping like mad; and then he washes all of the floors. The mouse just can’t stop his exhausting and exhaustive momentum until he finally takes a nap, wakes up to draw a picture of his family, and returns to put up the drawing on the refrigerator, where he asks for a glass of milk, which entails having a cookie—and the process begins once more.
I can all too well relate to one part of this cause-and-effect story: without premeditation, the mouse obsessively cleans everything around him.
I got caught up in the same cycle yesterday and today. I set out to remove a few tree droppings that had landed on my car. Although my Waikiki condo building prohibits car washing, I am allowed to use any cleansing agents that leave no residue on the floor of the parking garage. I figured by using some Windex and a few paper towels, I’d soon be done eliminating the stains on my Toyota. After rubbing them out, however, I noticed other blemishes: black smears, yellow scars, and streaked layers of embedded dirt below the doors. I could have stopped right there, but like the mouse, I felt compelled to do more. I retrieved stronger detergent and a thick cloth from my condo. I was then able to laboriously expunge all of the black marks etched in between thick black scrapes formed when a motorist had once accidentally gouged the side of my car. After depleting gallon drums of elbow grease, I could have stopped there, but like the mouse, I had to continue. Nearby were the yellow scars. Weary but determined, I scrubbed them away in a few minutes. Galvanized by my success—as persistent as the mouse cleaning up one mess before discovering another one—I tackled the last barrier, the caked-on dirt underneath the doors. It looked like an easy task, but either my arms were failing or the grime was baked into the car’s finish. For over a half hour, I struggled and stewed. Eventually, with a faint flourish, I prevailed; and like the mouse, I was ready for a nap.
Although I presumed that I was done cleaning the Toyota for a while, I did have one more thing to attend to the next day: adding water to the empty window wiper fluid container. Trouble is, when I opened up the hood, I spied a lot of filth on the white areas covering the inside part of the hood and surrounding the engine parts. Instead of ignoring the grit, I, as the scrupulous little mouse in the story would have done, got out a wet rag and spent over 30 minutes squirming as close as I could manage to clean the crud afflicted spots (without banging into the rod that keeps the hood up). Some grungy stuff remained, but the area inside of the hood looked remarkably better.
So was that the end of my car caretaking? Not yet. Today, I surveyed the work I did yesterday. Everything on the outside of the Toyota was pristine—except for those black slashes (some indented, some not) from the accident. Why not cover them up? My grandkids’ mouse friend would certainly approve. So I relied on the old standby that I once used successfully on my white Ford on the mainland: whiteout. This remedy has a few flaws (it gets a little crusty, and it doesn’t completely match the damaged white paint). Nonetheless, the whiteout obscured the worst black swaths.
When I visit my grandkids in North Carolina, I might relate to them a variation of the mouse story, If You Give a Man a Cleaning Rag.
Entitlement Gone Wild
I get annoyed and angry having to wait (often up to fifteen minutes) for some young fierce guys to finish their sets on the weight machines that I use at the fitness center in Waikiki. I wish there were a time limit—say five minutes—enforced perhaps by a severe electric shock. If I am rarely not too intimidated, I ask their permission to let me in for a bit so that I can do my measly 12 reps. Occasionally, they accommodate me. Otherwise, they just stare me down. But looking at it philosophically, at least these hogs are using the machines—except when they take a short bathroom break. To make sure that no one else butts in, they drape a sweaty towel over the machine, just as a cat marks it territory.
Last night, while I was zipping along from one machine to another, I spied an obnoxiously self-satisfied man monopolizing the last machine on my checklist. Finally, he stopped his regimen (without getting up) to talk to one of his stuck-up friends. They chatted for nearly 15 minutes (at least three electric shocks worth) before the man rebooted his extensive work-out on the same machine that I so longingly awaited. How insensitive can you get? The man felt no compunction lording over a machine as if it were his fiefdom. I felt like throttling him, but I just stewed until he had either met his objective or was too exhausted to go on. The moment he left, I took sole possession of the machine. The seat was hot and slimy, so I grabbed my towel and furiously wiped away any trace of the arrogant **bleep**.
But then I realized that in one way, I was worse than he was. He let someone interrupt his regimen for a lengthy period of time, and he didn’t seem to mind. I have never been that indulgent, that gracious. I would have continued to exercise while listening to the intruder and, in turn, would have said little to him or her. In fact, I would have tried to ignore what that person was droning on about so that I could silently count my reps.
Ask not for whom the dumbbell tolls; it tolls for thee.
An Exercise in Mobility
On a Sabbath afternoon yesterday in Jerusalem, I decided to walk vigorously on the new extra wide bike/pedestrian path nearby, an area that is sparsely populated during the week. At first, there was lots of room as I took my strides. But soon the place got dangerously crowded with little kids erratically riding trikes, older kids zipping around on bikes, spastic dogs given free rein on long leashes, parents pushing super-wide baby strollers between lanes, other parents running after supercharged toddlers. In order to keep my balance and avoid collisions, I had to dodge, dart, duck, squirm, and swivel for most of my walk. I remained intact but continued to be on edge until I saw some empty space near the end of my last lap. But my relief was interrupted. An old man who had been sitting with three women on a bench got up to urinate against a wall just as I passed by. I just missed the splash. Maybe next Saturday, I’ll take a sabbatical from walking the gauntlet.
Too Much Input
Recently, I have joined the AARP on-line forum, where I belong to many groups ranging from classical music to politics. I get up to 50 postings a day, and attached to those messages are anywhere from one to 75 replies. I tell myself that I am obligated to read each comment and, when appropriate, respond. Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus, straining to get through every posting before other ones pop up on my computer screen. I frantically try to sort out which ones I agree or disagree with and then which ones I need to address. The more elaborate my response, the less time I have to spend on reading and evaluating other postings. And when I do reply to someone’s viewpoint, I sometimes get so enraged that my heart pumps overtime in confronting anything from grammatically flawed ramblings to vicious, anti-Zionist rants. I unleash my indignation with histrionics and sarcasm. In my arsenal of epithets, I’ve called some people inane babblers, unredeemable guttersnipes, and moral degenerates. Boy, can I get wound up. Even though all comments are anonymous, I sometimes fear that one of my adversaries could track me down from the incriminating information on my public profile. The AARP forums too often consume me, even though I have sworn to diminish the stress in my life. So what am I to do? I have resolved to take a Sabbatical from all my on-line groups –one day a week (routinely the same day every week), I will not click on AARP. At least that way, I can regroup and regenerate.
Two of my Idols
I have fallen prey to greed (my obsession to amass an unparalleled collection of classical music) and vanity (my monomania to prolong my life through strenuous exercise). Being devoted to both idols has left me with indelible scars—physically and psychologically—scars that are nonetheless ever-so-gradually healing as I have rearranged my priorities.
About my greed. I have always had an insatiable desire to collect classical music—whether it be medieval or post-modernist, orchestral, choral, tonal or atonal. At one point, I’d frantically drive home after class in order to be in time to tape a cd on WTEB. Luckily, I didn’t run over someone in the process.
But the most harrowing (and humbling) experience I have ever had at the altar of classical music occurred when I first began teaching at Craven Community College. I found out that one of the instructors there, Pete Townsend, a fanatic mathematician, had an extensive collection of rare classical records—from Albinoni to Zwilich, each one in flawless condition—no pops, scratches, or crackles. Boy, did I salivate. Maybe, if I played my cards right, he would let me tape some of them!
I soon got my chance. Once when we listened to music at his house, I innocently asked him if I could borrow a few of his less cherished records. No problem, he said. I taped them that night, returned them the next day, and hoped that he would let me borrow more and more and more of these treasures from the holy grail. He complied, until only his most favorite records were left, ones he said he’d never part with. I accepted his position, but I still fantasized that one day he would relent.
A week later, while we were hearing one of his special recordings, he seemed unusually downcast. Lo and behold, he said that I could tape those prized records. Did I ask him why he changed his mind? No. Did I ask him why he seemed so glum, so resigned? No. I was flushed with the rush I got when he lent me those longed-for records. The next day, the police called me. Pete had committed suicide, and since I was the last person to see him alive, they wanted to interrogate me. I felt so much guilt—I had been oblivious to his depression: all I cared about was getting my hands on those last few records. Perhaps if I had talked to Pete, he might have shared his distress with me, he might have felt less miserable, less alone, less hopeless. I was beating myself up with remorse.
But it got even worse. When Pete’s mother came to New Bern, she recalled that Pete had been so fond of me that she decided to give me his complete record collection!! What bitter irony. All that taping was unnecessary. All he had to do was die. Yes, there is a downside to worshipping idols—you can lose your soul in the process—I now realize that thou shalt not covet is more than abstract moralizing: it can hit home, brutally. I still collect classical music—now, of course, it’s CDs. I have more than 700 of them, stacked up to the ceiling. When I have a chance to purchase a new CD at a bargain price, I feel my heart flutter; but it no longer pounds. Thanks to what I learned from my experience with Pete Townsend, collecting CDs is more of a pastime than an addiction.
But I have to admit that I replaced one idol for another as I entered mid-life: I worshipped at the fountain of youth. Hoping to live at least as long as my wife would, I decided to exercise vigorously—until it hurt, and, oh vey, did it hurt. First I tried swimming. I didn’t just swim; I swam as if my life depended on it, kicking my feet ferociously to get an extra edge, craning my neck at the clock to see if I could cover a half mile in less and less time. I wasn’t very fast or graceful, but I was competitive, always trying to out-swim anyone else, especially women and children. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but never did I let up. One day, a man 80 years old told me that he regularly swam a mile, twice my distance. I was astounded and ashamed. Not to be undone, I tried to go that far. Why if I did that, maybe I too could live to be 80 and be in such good shape to boot.
Well, I got repaid for my chutzpah. Instead of slowly increasing my distance, I tried to swim a mile much too quickly. The result was a torn rotary cuff that got reinjured every time I ventured to swim again, and those times dwindled considerably, despite physical therapy and injections. Ten years later, my left shoulder still plagues me when I bother to swim at all.
Ah, the fountain of youth. If swimming wasn’t to be my forte, why not the bio-climber? Three days a week, I attacked the machine with a vengeance, leaving pools of sweat in my wake. In fact, when I finished, I hyperventilated so much that the guys at Courts Plus joked about calling 911. I was so proud of my endurance and histrionics. Who needs strong shoulders to increase cardiovascular health? I’d be happy to settle for strong legs. When one of the staff pointed out that I was putting too much stress on my lower body, I ignored such advice. I was hooked on endorphins. No one could topple my idol. Well, the euphoria soon ended. My bio-climbing pyrotechnics led to irreparably torn cartilage in my now arthritic right knee, periodic injections, and probable knee replacement surgery in a few years.
How quixotic was my foray (my last hurrah) into transforming my body so that I could significantly extend my life span. Oh, I still go to the gym, but I have mellowed. In moderation, I lift a few weights and pedal on the stationary bike, methodically, not maniacally.
Hebrew University to the Rescue
The last stop on our tour of Hebrew University at Givrat Ram was the bookstore/general store. At first, there was little to interest either my wife or me. All of the books were written in Hebrew, and we did not need any more cosmetics or household products before leaving for North Carolina at the end of next week.
But I made an astounding discovery. I saw bunches of packaged wooden Q-tips. Because of their danger to infants and toddlers, this type of cotton swab is no longer sold in the United States. Nor have I ever seen them when I have traveled in Europe—at least not in France or Italy. For too many years, I have had to suffer using the limp flexible replacements—although the Wal-Mart generic ones aren’t too bad. I have even thought of going on EBay to procure the banned sturdy swabs that had done yeoman work for me throughout my life. But now in front of me were eight packages, each with eighty precious, authentic Q-tips. I crammed all of these containers into my arms and bought every one of them.
I was so enthralled with my catch (quite a cache) that I told my wife that if I had my druthers, I’d like her to place one wooden Q-Tip with me in my coffin.
Not Spooked by a Rebuke
Cigarette smoke nauseates me. So I try to avoid inhaling it when I pass by any smokers. To show my distaste for having to endure second-hand smoke, I either hold or blow out my breath in front of these polluters. None of them have ever said anything to me about my symbolic protest—until yesterday. I had to walk through a gauntlet of smokers standing on the street. I was wearing my exercise outfit. They ignored me as I blatantly blew out a huge breath. Next to them, a young guy was lying down on the pavement while he profusely smoked. When he saw me, he snarled: “Go get ‘em, champ.” Although I was taken aback, I will not be deterred. Smokers beware. I will continue to show my displeasure, despite any blowback.
Maneuvering outside the Lines
Last week at Food Lion, as the cashier was ringing up a heap of my groceries, a scruffy man suddenly appeared beside me. Without saying anything, he handed me a crumpled five-dollar coupon that I could use on the spot. Just as I was about to thank him, he scurried off. I had already bought enough merchandise to warrant an eight-dollar discount. Now I had amassed five more dollars, courtesy of the random kindness of a stranger.
After leaving the store, I realized that my car was located in the same area where not long ago, I had neglectfully parked it a bit outside the white lines, prompting someone to put a scurrilous note on my windshield. But this time, as I approached my car, I saw that I had parked it correctly. Then I had a fanciful thought. Perhaps the man who offered me the five-dollar coupon was the same one who had written that nasty message. But now he decided to reward me because I had properly positioned my car.
I tend to stray outside the boundaries in other areas besides parking lots. The house where I babysat as a teenager was chronically filthy; without getting permission, I would clean it thoroughly after the children went to bed. The drunken couple never complained. Years ago, my wife and I frequently visited her parents’ coal-heated farm house in Ohio. One day after my in-laws had left for the afternoon, I decided to rid the kitchen of loose-leaf and encrusted layers of coal dust. I scrubbed scrupulously for a few hours. My mother-in-law was initially outraged; my father-in-law was amused.
Today, I violate boundaries with my trusty lawn and tree limb clippers. If I see that the off-the-beaten path to the beach is cluttered with branches, I behead them. If dead wood and thorns from my neighbors’ yards are encroaching upon my property, I vigorously bushwhack them.
Sometimes I’m not sure whether I am a good citizen or a vigilante— whether someone will give me a coupon or clip my wings.
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