Are habits comforting rituals or are we enslaved in compulsive patterns? Probably both but either way, how weird. My dad was “Mr. Habit.” Where to start? When he took his change out of his pocket, he would stack coins of like denominations on his bureau in little Leaning Towers of Pisa. “Mr. Stacker” was a smoker, too, and after he tapped off an ash in his ashtray, he used the lit tip of the cigarette to sweep them into a tiny mound. After he extinguished the fag, he neatly piled the butts on the opposite side of the ashtray like fire wood. And, if you happened to jiggle the ashtray or somehow knock his stack over, he would blow his. (Smokers have a corner on habit and I don’t mean their addiction. As a bartender in New York City during the day I saw a lot of smokers. One regular insisted I not clean out his ashtray, for like the fictional detective Nero Wolfe who kept the bottle tops from his beers on the side of his desk to track how many he drank, my customer wanted to know how much he was smoking.) Dad had a way he parked our car and trucks and we all had to park them in that particular way. His method of barbequing, the whole set up resembling a great white hunter’s encampment, was a never varied ritual. The way he drank his beer, replacing it slowly, precisely back on its coaster, giving it an infinitesimal turn in order to bring the label of the Miller High Life bottle into the exact position his fixation asserted. You could tell when he was feeling no pain (which was the point, I guess) because he would make this noise by sucking air between his lips and teeth, like every two minutes. That really bugged me. When he was making the sucking noise you never knew what might happen.
Crippling. Not just for the habitual, but those nailed down around them.
I didn’t always have an easy relationship with my father, not for lack of love, but as a result of his long struggles with depression and alcoholism. I was riding in our pickup with him one brand-new summer morning. He was in his early fifties and I would have been ten or eleven. As he drove he used his right hand to pluck a cigarette from a neatly opened pack kept in his right breast shirt pocket. Gently, he would pinch the end of the filterless, short Camel between his thumb and forefinger, pull it from its pack, and place the opposite end between his lips. It was a movement I’d seen him make thousands of times. As I watched it occurred to me the motion looked awkward, especially as he was getting heavier and not as flexible. Without thinking too much about it (with my dad, spontaneity was not always welcome), I said, “Why not put your cigarettes in your left shirt pocket?” All his shirts, mostly from the 40’s and 50’s, had two pockets. “Be easier to take the cigarette out if you reached across your chest.” He wasn’t used to my piping up about stuff. I caught him off-guard. On another day, he might have gotten angry but I could see he was pondering the image. Then, the brain wave brightened his face. He sputtered and chuckled and said, “You’re right. I’ll be damned! I’ll try that out”, and moved the pack to his left pocket. From then on he carried his cigarettes that way until, some six years later, he died of a massive heart attack.
As a young actor, I was in a theater company for some years with a now very famous actress. On stage you only watched her, so compelling she could be. Beautiful and sexy, and all that, she was one hell of an actor. However, she had these mannerisms that always appeared in whatever role she was working on; facial tics, gestures, movements, completely unique to her, though not necessarily organic to the character. Many actors and stars bank on these personal idiosyncrasies which can be captivating. But, our director, a mentor to us all, was concerned she would handicap herself as an actor, as well as the development of the character. If we were doing two or three plays in repertory, alternating from one to the other each night, the audiences would see Joan of Arc move and behave in the same way as Laura Wingfield, and Cecily Cardew. Well, as any crafty actor would do in the face of a director’s criticism, she said yes, yes, and continued to do as she pleased and go on to win Academy and Tony awards. Not so bad, those habits.
I am trying to think what I do that is habitual. Maybe that is part of the dilemma: you can’t really see it in yourself. Well, there is one harmless proclivity. When I eat, I have a tendency to portion out my meals as I am eating so when I am at the end I have one bite of each item, say a forkful of eggs, bacon, and potato...a bite of toast…two sips of coffee. I get really annoyed if Kid or Darling decides to sample my repast beyond the point of no return, when it would be hard for me to make it all come out even. I have my fussy way of drinking lapsang souchung tea in the morning, or the pouring and drinking of wine, but those are ritual based, rather than chronic. The truth be told, I am naturally lazy and too unreliable to form serious fixations requiring even unconscious efforts. Much of this behavior is in the nature of living things. Butterflies migrate along the same route, cows wear a narrow path through the grass of pastures, olive or a twist. It’s a comfort, one less thing that needs to be thought about or decided upon. We’re married to our manner, for better or worse.
Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a habit out of my hat!