Nibbled to death by small geese
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
--from The Wasteland (Eliot)
Monday, on Monday the gods were working against me….
Atop their mountain they said, let’s put a graduate student in your lab, a graduate student who never did you any harm, who just wants to borrow the computer, and as a test to you, he’s going to have a jumpy leg. A tremendously, tremendously jumpy leg. The jackhammer thing that you see in restless people, especially guys. Tap tap tap. Taptaptaptaptap. Tap tap tap. I say to myself, I say, It’s OK, just write your lab report, just think about impedance cardiography, fascinating impedance cardiography…tap tap tap. Pause. Oh, thank God. Then again: Tappity tap tap. Tap. Ok, deep breath, momentarily close the eyes. It’s OK. Tap. If I could only sever his foot off. Chainsaw.Taptaptap. That would be unpleasant what if I could just temporarily detach it, like he’s a little man made of Legos? No, don’t let the foot take precedence over the paper. The paper. Impedance cardiography. “Behavioral stressors have been associated with more heterogenous responses than…” tap tap tap. Failing the test. I start fidgeting. Do something Zen-like. There is no foot. What is the sound of one foot clapping. I know what the sound of one foot clapping is! Tap tap tap tap tap.
And then, he leaves. I wonder, how crazy did I look, did I appropriately conceal my inner turmoil? And the gods say, they say from atop their mountain, You’ve got a long way to go, kiddo.
I mean, I can’t blame the guy, everyone does the foot thing. I do the foot thing, amongst the whole twitchy repetoire I perform on a given day.
And what’s worse, it’s not just the foot thing. The most horrible one, the one that ate at my mind, was the Diet Coke Sip. Oh, God. Every time I went to Theoretical Neuroscience class, a psychology grad student, God bless her, a good comrade in the psychological arts, she sat a few rows in front of me. Everyday, she had a bottle of Diet Coke. She would nurse her soda (5 years in Minnesota and I’ve still resisted the word ‘pop’!) such that it would last the duration of the class. And every sip looked like this most controlled piece of choreography, probably designed to minimize class disruption. Every single time, she would grasp that bottle slowly, twist her wrist at a 35 degree angle, and ever so gradually that bottle approached her mouth and deposited a droplet of carbonated aspartame into her mouth, without the least slurping or sucking sound. She would then return the bottle to rest with such gentleness that she didn’t disturb a dust mote on the table.
Maybe 20 times per class, the ritual of the Coke. How did I ever learn anything.
All this is the mere symptomology of something much deeper. I think, how did these things gain a foothold in my consciousness, why do I even attend to them, and how can they needle me so? Trying to remember my mental state as a child, I cannot think of any real pet peeves that I ever had. In fact, I think I found it difficult to understand the concept of a ‘pet peeve’ altogether. Come to think of it, do kids ever describe anything as ‘annoying?’ I mean, I suppose there are some pretty blatant things you could do to annoy a kid. You could, for example, put gum in her hair. Or steal her crayons. But these are all very active forms of annoyance. Consider that with all the collective squirming that transpires in a first-grade classroom, you don’t see kids complaining, “Bobby’s knee won’t stop jumping up and down!”
Not to romanticize childhood, thank God it’s over. Maybe my irritability is the side effect of the adult luxury of not having to tolerate more egregious attacks on my peace of mind. Maybe childhood comes with an incredible sense of perspective: Don’t sweat the small stuff, at least Bobby is not putting gum in your hair.
You could also argue that the unique burdens of adulthood contribute to my angst. Eight-year-olds aren’t generally asked to exert the same degree of concentration on helplessly dry topics (“Today, kids, we’re going to write a ‘power paragraph’ on impedance cardiography…”) Kids won’t be bothered by potential distractors (jumpy leg) if they can safely indulge in distraction anyway.
But even after considering all the situational factors that may explain kids’ and adults’ discrepant behavior, I still think that there is a fundamental change, somewhere around puberty, that enhances our ability to pick out some completely innocuous stimulus and say “No! Stop it! No no no!” When I look back on this transition in my life, I think, was it all inevitable? Did these fingernails-down-the-chalkboard spring up on their own, or did I explicity adopt them? Was it all preventable?
Because as with any disease, prevention is so much more effective than intervention. I suspect that there was some conscious mediation going on when these phenomena gained the power to drive me mad. For each of the Jumpy Knees of the world, there must have been a time when I only saw only a hint of the nuisance that they would eventually become. And I decided to blame the Jumpy Knees, rather than my own wandering mind, for unsettling my equilibrium. And once surrendered, I was their slave.
So, what to do. I think I’m going to get a hacky sack, or a koosh ball, or something of that sort, something to squeeze the holy bejezzus out of, next time the gods come ‘round to tempt me. Because at the core of annoyance is that continual inhibition of some very strong impulses to act. Annoyance could be more or less the feeling of having to slap ourselves on the hand everytime our brain tells us to do what we really, really want to do (“Off with his leg!”) But again, this all begins with the fact that we blame the Jumpy Knee, which we cannot control, rather than our own consciousness, which we (sort of, but don’t push me on this issue) can control. But that kind of control, that executive control, it is really tough, and I’d be happy to provide a bunch of wimp-out neurological excuses upon request. As I said, it’s all much harder to stop once it’s already started. Better to go buy a hacky sack…