Obsessions, Compulsions
and Other Pastimes

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 1998, 1999

The media nowadays periodically treats us to grisly accounts of hooked smokers trying to kick their habits, the poor, smokeless souls writhing in an agony of stabbing desire, longing to lance their lungs in a furnace of flamed tobacco. Experts declare these tobacco tribulations burn like those of any junkie jonesing hard for a fix, every crackhead all a’fever for a pipe. Lots of times, those comparisons can seem like a kind of exaggerated, rhetorical positioning, just for a socially corrective effect. But take that a little closer to home: think of your own cravings, and what lengths you might go to to have them satisfied.

Cravings, obsessions, addictions–everyone’s got ’em; many simply don’t fall under that civil definition where a medical–or penal–stigma is attached to them. But they can still exert a powerful influence on behavior. Take my cravings, for example. I’m a guy that likes a good cup of coffee. Likes a cup so much so that during an El Nino power outage (that made an impossibility of a morning cup in our all-electric home), I calmly waited–for perhaps ten minutes. Then I went out driving the neighborhood looking for an establishment that would sell me a cup. I would have been willing to pay oh, maybe ten dollars, twenty at most.

But nothing was open, no power anywhere, no coffee! As Cervantes said, "There’s no sauce in the world like hunger." I went home and grimly set about my task: I pounded beans with a ball-peen hammer (it took almost 45 minutes to even approximate a Melitta grind) on a brick plate. I got one of those small camping stoves that holds a pot on angled wire braces out of the garage and fired it up. It hadn’t been used in years; it sputtered and spit white gas, sometimes flaming, onto the counter. It took well over an hour, but I ended up with some miserable brew at least related to coffee, enough to quell my tremors.

You see, I knew what would happen if I didn’t get the caffeine. Sure, the headaches and woozled thoughts are all part of the standard package, but the last time I’d tried to quit coffee, I got these unnervingly peculiar tinglings in my kidneys that would last for an hour at a time; it felt as though someone wearing gloves with golf-tee fingertips was behind me squeezing my sides. Acupuncture it was not–I lasted for a few days before I put my coffee grinder back to work.

Of course, it’s got to be coffee with lots of sugar as well. Don’t let those health nuts tell you otherwise: sugar is splendid food, and very powerful. So powerful, that when I was a kid (and I’ll let my wrinkles show–candy bars were either a nickel or a dime), I’d go to the local store with my best friend in a feverish state of anticipation. We probably had a dollar to spend between us, but that was easily enough to undertake one of our cherished rituals: the staging of a celebration. Celebrations had simplicity’s beauty: you buy ten or eleven candy bars, two 16-ounce RC Colas, you bring the booty to your room, close the door and gorge.

How could heroin be any better? Those binges brought about a beatific satiety in me; I was very, very grateful to be alive, surrounded by empty wrappers, humming in sugar’s sweet hammock. See, I thought it was normal behavior (normal, in the sense that I concealed it from my parents) that I drank entire bottles of cherry cough syrup (ah, those innocent days of codeine and sugar, a fine one-two punch), ate boxes of Jello dry because I couldn’t wait for the stuff to get chilled, stole money from my parents’ coin collection to buy donuts. Things have changed a bit now, though. At most I only think of ice cream two or three times when the casserole’s just being served.

And what if you have an unlimited source for your personal poison? Like goldfish, many will gobble till they go under. I worked at the Book Café in the early 80s, and as every seasoned patron knows, it’s always had a café counter lined with sweet delectation. The staff was instructed not to serve crushed or broken cookies, cakes and pies; we were allowed to eat them as our holy own. Naturally, more than a few items seemed to suffer from our surprising clumsiness.

Some days I would leave from work in the evening after having eaten four or five full desserts on a shift, shouldered down with seven or eight cups of coffee. I’d foozle my bike home, seeing things like giant Duke Ellingtons wearing electric purple miniskirts surfing on illuminated cheesecakes in the sky; I felt like I could walk through walls. But as they say, that’s nothing. I greatly admired a fellow Book Café colleague who literally (may the great Java Bean in the sky make me drink decaf for the rest of my life if a fib you find) drank sixteen, seventeen, eighteen cups of coffee per shift, and then would dump any leftovers simmering on the nighttime pots–decaf, caffeinated, pot rot with floating salmon tails–into a big container to take home to drink. The best part is that he was one of the most stoic, unemotional people I’ve even known. Surely a role model for the age of addiction.

It’s not just food or drink that are at compulsion’s center. One of my high school companions (I can’t call him a friend; he was just too odd) was a geeky, somewhat older guy who drove a nice ’65 Mustang. None of us had cars, so we let Larry drive us around, but it was rare after exiting his car that we wouldn’t say "Never again!" It was in his bones, his blood, surely not his brains: Larry had to tailgate. And not just your modest, I-can-read-the-title-of-the-book-in—the-back-seat-of-the-car-ahead, no, I’m talking mad, high-speed, ohmygod how-could-we-get-any-closer? craziness, where all of our curses and pleadings fell on a deaf ear. Even with his strange luck in avoiding accidents, he couldn’t be driving today–surely someone used their glovebox Uzi to make Swiss cheese of his radiator long ago.

You see, these signals of compulsion bypass the brain entirely. Outside of his car, Larry probably would rationally recognize that driving so that he could smell what the driver ahead had for breakfast wasn’t a sound procedure, but once behind the wheel, it was inexorable magnetism: car ahead, must get closer, closer…. The reptile brain whispers sweet nothings of irrational desire in our inner ear. I guess I don’t want to pay Mr. or Ms. Freud to tell me why–it’s probably best not to know, but hard not to wonder about.

It’s no revelation that we’re all big bags of prejudices, but it’s easy to be taken aback by how puppet-like–whether it’s nature or nurture–our reactions or unpremeditated approaches to situations can be. Some folks like Monster Trucks and some folks like Mantovani, and sometimes you can trace the source, and sometimes not.

One of my oldest friends grew up in a household with four or five TVs, and at any given point, at least two of them were on, no matter if any viewer were there to bask in the screen’s relentless glow. I suppose that kind of thing grows on you: when I go to his house now, it’s not unusual for his TV to be making happy talk to an empty room (and with a nod to the 90s, for a couple of his unattended computers to be contentedly humming away). Hey, I still miss the bed-bound sound of my parent’s old furnace; it’s soft rattling was Morpheus’ lullaby, a sure ticket to a restful night.

Crisis responses are interesting too: I walked home from my office through the chaotic Market Street madness in downtown San Francisco an hour after the ’89 quake, and it was amazing the range of people’s reactions as we wobbled down the street, thick with people, disabled transit vehicles and fear. Some people were weeping, some loudly, some silently. Some people were laughing excitedly. Many were talking at a racehorse clip; others were stone-facedly silent and grim. The basis for those reactions is such a Rosetta stone of inner wiring, subtle settings.

It’s interesting to watch your settings change over time too. I used to be a music scene maven, reading all the magazines, trying to memorize obscure session players’ names on the recordings of my favorite bands. Now I might be six months or longer between buying CDs, and I couldn’t begin to tell you if that was Big Punisher playing the triangle solo on Rancid’s latest offering or not. Maybe I replaced that compulsion with the one that makes me spy on the neighbors.

Or maybe the cleaning thing. I seemingly can’t enter my house without scanning the floor for little nits of dirt, fabric, paper. If the kitchen table were on fire, I’d probably stoop to pick up a piece of thread on the carpet before I headed for the extinguisher. And it’s only gotten worse over the years. I spend an inordinate amount of time scanning for wall-corner webs rather than scanning for words to fill a novel. What brought that on?

Hygiene compulsions are a very individualized syndrome. I worked summers in the apple orchards in central Washington for years, and one of the returning pickers that our group befriended was named Scotty. We were all grimy hairballs in those days, but Scotty was a standout; he was dubbed Scott Rot by a local wag. Orchard work is long, hard and physical; there’s nothing too dainty about it. All of us would agree that a shower after 11 hours in and among the trees was just the ticket. Only Scotty never bought a ticket.

Scotty was the closest voluntary thing to Peanuts’ Pigpen you’ll ever see in human (or semi-human) form. Certainly a nice, intelligent fellow, it was hard not to fixate on the encrustations under his nails when he gestured to make a point. Scotty said that dirt was a part of life, and that you had to learn to live with it. We were still learning, but Scotty was a scholar. Since you could remain on the orchard for weeks at a time without going into town, Scotty didn’t have to answer to more rigid social strictures. He might still be up there, only he’s probably grown roots, and has to be pruned like the trees.

But I can’t cast stones, because they’ll boomerang. That orchard period was preceded by my barefoot phase, heralding the Buddhist adage that "if you wear shoes, the earth is made of shoe leather." For almost two years, I avoided wearing shoes whenever I possibly could, sneaking into restaurants barefoot, bringing shoes to school in my backpack for when the narcs insisted I put them on. I hitchhiked from Seattle to Long Beach barefoot, and was picked up midway by a kindly old gent who insisted that I had to wear his nephew’s extra size 9s on my gunboat 13s. He just couldn’t conceive of traveling unshod.

Toward the end of that period, I’d worked up a callus to be proud of: I’d stride over rocky gravel without a grimace–no street had too much heat; it’s likely that I could have had some horseshoes nailed in without a problem, but I didn’t need them. Then, whatever had convinced me that it was unbeatable to be unbooted left me, and now I cringe when forgetting the slippers, I gingerly walk down the driveway to pick up the Sunday morning paper.

Whatever floats your boat, eh, and the "why" of it will be forever hard to fathom. Whether you go veal or vegan, run to pick up the phone before it rings, or screen every call, whether you crave caviar or chili dogs, it’s easy to think the other guy, and his weird cravings, just aren’t normal. But really, normal just isn’t normal, and just when you get used to that, normal up and changes its clothes once again. So, cherish your quirks–but do take a shower now and then.