I’ve been neurotic for a long time, at least since I was four, when my mother had to cut the feet off my pajamas because they were worn down to bits of thin, rubbery fabric hanging on by threads. I nearly lost my mind. It wasn’t so much an issue of fashion, but safety. A family of invisible alligators was living in my room, and now they’d be able to get me whenever I walked across the floor. Worst of all, no one seemed to believe me. Months before I turned five, I’d already matched the modern-day Olympic long-jump record, leaping from the doorway onto the bed in the far corner. No one believed that, either.
The word neurosis, as defined by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, is “a functional disorder of the central nervous system usually manifested by anxiety, phobias, obsessions, or compulsions, but frequently displaying signs of somatic disorder involving any of the bodily systems with or without other subjective or behavioral manifestations and having its probable etiology in intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict.” I agree with the first half of that, but have no idea what the second half means, and worry that it’s the more serious part. I do know that as early as the third grade, I found myself getting fidgety in my chair when the teacher, having erased the blackboard, would leave a small, random smudge of chalk untouched. The board had been filled with her writing — the entire alphabet in cursive, for example, or a bunch of addition and subtraction problems. She’d grab the eraser and with wide, swooping motions, wipe out almost everything she’d written. Almost. For some inexplicable reason, she’d leave a piece of an uppercase Q, or the bottom half of a six, or just a plus sign. And that’s what I’d focus on, and the maddening realization that she was going to let it stay there.
The following year our class held a spelling bee, an unfamiliar kind of contest that required the boys and girls to line up in two separate rows along the front wall. During the previous week, Sister Agnes had devoted hours to drilling the I-before-E guideline into our dense skulls. I had put in an equal measure of effort to master the rule, because my teammates were counting on me to do well. It wasn’t that I was some kind of genius, but rather a reflection of the fact that most of the other boys couldn’t spell dog if they were holding a can of Alpo. In the very first round, I was given the word their, which I quickly and incorrectly spelled T-H-I-E-R. Before I knew it I was back at my desk, the only one sitting, with a clear view of several of the bigger guys staring at me and punching their right fists into their left palms. Had Sister trapped me on purpose? Was it a conspiracy to help the girls win? The experience taught me a valuable lesson: Trust nobody. It also taught me that there were probably exceptions to the lesson about trusting nobody, but that I would never be able to remember what they were. So I sat, miserably listening as my classmates struggled with words I could’ve spelled while under anesthesia. My heart raced with humiliation.
There’s a doctor in Florida named Michael Greenberg who’s been studying clams since 1955. In other words, since I was born. From the little I understand, his work has focused on the chemicals that affect the clams’ heart rate. I didn’t even know clams had hearts, and can’t imagine why someone would spend a lifetime fiddling around with them. I’m also trying to fathom what kinds of experiences would naturally cause a clam’s pulse to change — besides being pried open with the handle of a spoon, I mean.
My heart rate is about eighty beats per minute. This is within the average range, and I should probably leave it at that, but I can’t, because the neurotic area of my brain needs to identify the disturbing mathematical implications. And here they are: eighty beats per minute is 4,800 per hour — and 115,000 per day. I triple-checked that last figure, and when I got the same result all three times, I suddenly felt light-headed. My heart beats forty-two million times a year. Multiplied by my age, that comes out to almost two and a half billion, so far. It doesn’t seem possible. What keeps it pumping, and realistically, how many more beats could I have left? This reminds me of how I feel about my refrigerator, running constantly for years. It isn’t really a big deal, until I think about it, and then I’m sure it’s going to stop any second. The difference is, if my refrigerator breaks down I can go to Sears and get a new one, with adjustable shelves and built-in ice dispenser. If my heart gives out, the options are much more limited.
Last week, I had an EKG done. This test measures the rate and regularity of the heart’s activity. I don’t know what the outcome was, because my doctor gets that information and generally treats it as though it’s none of my business. What bothered me, however, was that the technologist — a woman considerably shorter than me — told me to take off my shirt and then began to shave my chest with no warning whatsoever. I found this unsettling. Everywhere else in public, people apologize if they brush up against me in the slightest way. And here’s this woman running an electric shaver across my upper body without a hint of acknowledgment. I’ve never shaved my own chest. I guess that’s what made it noteworthy.
Speaking of shaving, whenever I’m in the bathroom and have the water running, I think I hear the phone ringing. It must be the acoustics in there, because the phone actually rings only about three times a month, and usually it’s the car dealership wanting to know how I enjoyed that last oil change. When I’m outside cutting the grass, I always hear sirens. It’s a small lawn but it takes me forever because I turn the mower off every five minutes to see if my house is on fire. And then I notice the bull terrier in a wild rage across the street. He’s barking at me, while I’m standing on my own property. It’s hard to express how irritating this is. As I finish mowing, I prepare a well-reasoned lecture that I plan to deliver to the dog at some future date.
None of this is to say that I’m not aware of how neurotic it all sounds. I am. Most telling, I think, is the fact that I’ve been lugging around that massive dictionary since 1978. Although the online services are much faster, I continue to flip through this enormous volume, hoping to locate the desired definition without becoming distracted by others along the way. Frequently, I’ll get lured in by an odd noun with four consonants in a row or an illustration of the human skeletal system, and forget what I was trying to find in the first place. Once in a great while, I’ll somehow open it right to the exact page I needed, interpreting this to mean that, however briefly, I’m in harmony with the universe.
I’ve kept the dictionary all these years, I guess, because I feel a strong attachment to its sheer bulk and delicate texture, the thankless work that went into its thousands of thoroughly-researched explanations, and the knowledge that even if the power goes out I can light a candle and look up somatic, etiology, and intrapsychic. Most comforting is the thought that I could lift that book, which weighs as much as a bushel of peaches, and drop it onto the head of the obnoxious dog across the street. Not to mention those invisible alligators that still patrol my bedroom floor.