The Human Condition:

The Trials of Vishnu – December 3, 2017

Tower of Pisa

In the Hindu pantheon, three major gods form a trinity:1 Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer, and Vishnu the Preserver. Although I constantly try to emulate Brahma in my writing, creating imaginary worlds, people, and situations as if they were real, I find that in everyday life my patron deity is actually Vishnu.

I tend to hold on to things, sometimes cherishing them for sentimental value and sometimes simply because they might, one day, under the right circumstances, become useful again. For example, I have an old and now somewhat tattered bath mat that my paternal grandmother once crocheted. That’s from sentiment. I have in storage books that I decided years ago I wasn’t going to read right away but that I might need again. And in my closet I think I have the dress shoes I wore to my high-school prom, now fifty years ago. And at the back of my closet … even Vishnu doesn’t want to look there.

A lot of this preservation deals not so much with just keeping things as keeping them in their proper, pretty, pristine, and like-new state. This is a manifestation of my own particular form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. For many people with this disorder, the compulsive task is repeatedly washing their hands, or checking for their car keys, or reconfirming that the stove is indeed turned off. Performed enough times, especially under conditions of stress, the disorder can be crippling to a normal life. My form of OCD deals primarily with the two S’s: surfaces—which includes scratches—and straightness.

If an object in my possession has a shiny surface, I am constantly checking it and cleaning it of dust and smudges: the screens of my iPhone, iPad, and computer monitor; the cases of any of these devices; and the shiny bits of my motorcycles such as gas tank, fenders, windscreen, and dial lenses.

Before I go for a ride, I use a wet paper towel to float off the dust, followed by a microfiber towel to wick off the water without leaving droplet marks or fine scratches. After I ride, I use the still-damp towel to clean off any bug carcasses and dust I’ve picked up along the way. If I find a scratch—however minute, no matter that it only shows up in direct sunlight and from certain angles—I bring out the wax or the plastic polish to address the defect. When I wash the motorcycle, I immediately follow it with a coat of wax or acrylic sealant to preserve the surface. If there’s a deeper scratch, visible under any light conditions, I bring out the polishing compound and work it to oblivion, hoping that the mar doesn’t go through the clear coat and into the paint. And if there’s a stone chip, I go after it with touchup paint, followed by compounding and sealant.

You might think that the solution here would be the new matte finishes that motorcycle manufacturers have introduced over the past several years. But they can’t be touched up for visible scratches. And then I worry about wear, especially the sides of the tank where my knees grip the surface and the fabric of my trousers would leave—horrors!—a shiny spot. There’s just no way to win this game.

This is why my favorite material is glass. It wipes down easily, and usually it will break—and thereby have to be thrown away—before it will scratch. For this reason I like tempered glass for my eyeglasses instead of the new plastic lenses. (I’ve had enough polycarbonate motorcycle windshields to know that, while they might take a bullet, they also scratch fairly easily.) I also favor polished titanium and stainless steel for my watches because of their wear resistance. I’m just picky that way.

If an object has a scratch or wear mark that I can’t polish out, I agonize over it. I see that point of infinitesimal damage more than the whole bright surface or the shape, design, and purpose that brought me to admire and desire to obtain the object in the first place. Is this a crippling affliction? To my daily round of activities—such as incessant hand washing would be—then no. But to my emotional stability—when I have actually considered selling a motorcycle because of a deep and unfillable stone chip in its lustrous black paint—well, yes.

The other aspect of my disorder is the alignment and straightening of things. Part of this was my upbringing as the son of a landscape architect. My mother had an innate sense of design—my father had it, too, but not to her degree—backed up by her training as a meticulous draftsman and landscape gardener. Even though her courses taught her to “avoid straight lines” when laying out a flowerbed, she appreciated things that were square and even. And she wanted everything to have its own place and its own space. So if I, as a youngster, pushed my desk into a corner of my bedroom—so that its edges were touching both walls—she would gently advise me to pull it out, at least an inch from the back wall and six or seven inches from the side wall, so that the desk “owned” its space in the room. Crowding furniture side by side and pushing area rugs up against the baseboard were a violation of her own particular feng shui.

So I practice straightness in my environment. Pictures hang level. Wall clocks have their twelve and six aligned vertically. Rugs are square with the room. When we bought the condominium, we had a hardwood floor installed instead of the usual wall-to-wall carpet. The pattern of the parquetry is a series of small wood oblongs arranged in larger squares. Thank God the installers aligned the sides of these squares with the walls of the room—although the plasterboard itself is none too straight in some places. Otherwise, I would live in a nightmare of constantly trying to square up the floor and walls in my mind, or squint until they almost aligned. But I do keep pushing the area rugs—which are all rectangles, no ovals or circles here—to align with the edges of the floor squares. And I judge the position of a table or chair by counting the wood blocks in the floor pattern at each leg. On my daily path through the apartment, I am constantly straightening a rug with my toe, squaring up the hang of a picture, pushing at a table edge, aligning a place mat, adjusting the spacing between items on a shelf. It’s an endless job.

Some of this compulsion has made me a better writer and editor. I see grammatical looseness as a violation of alignment. I see unfinished thoughts as incongruent with the shape of an argument. The nits of spelling and punctuation are minute scratches—some of which only I can see, and then only in certain lights—that must be polished or repaired. Of course, when it comes to laying out a newsletter page or a book cover, I try to give pictures and other graphic elements their own space and not crowd them. And I have an eye that is calibrated—or used to be—to a printer’s point, or a seventy-second of an inch, about a third of a millimeter.

For example, in choosing the photo of the Tower of Pisa, above, to accompany this article I selected the best image for its lighting and background. But then, in Photoshop, I had to rotate the image two-point-five degrees counterclockwise because, while the tower was leaning most dramatically, the buildings, the light pole in the background, and the implied horizon were also tilted. I notice these things. They bother me.

So, is this an affliction or a source of strength? I don’t know. It is quirks like this, if anything, that define me. But I do know that, when I am in my grave, my ghost will be haunting my last dwelling place, nudging ineffectually at a crooked rug and scrabbling with ectoplasmic fingers to straighten a tilted picture.

1. What is it with religion and triads? First, there’s the familiar Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—which never made much sense to me, because of the “ghost” part. And then, in the ancient Celtic religion, things usually came in threes and their bards were expected to declaim in rhyming triplets. And finally, the Scandinavians had the Norns, three old women, one to spin the thread of life, one to measure it, and one to cut it off. I find that in my writing, which generally comes from the subconscious, I sometimes feel the work is incomplete unless an argument is supported by three examples, a list includes three members, or an object is tagged with three distinct adjectives. I guess I take after the bards in that way.