How Many Licks Does it Take to Get to the Center of a Neurosis?

One Sunday when I was nine or ten, in between afternoon HBO movies, I unrolled a fruit roll-up and adhered it to the side of a vinyl-laminated cabinet that housed part of our VHS tape collection. My intention was to lick the delicious fruity square until all that remained was the residue of a childhood anomaly. I can’t remember what inspired this undertaking, other than the epic boredom that descended upon many of my childhood weekends. I began licking at the beginning of whatever movie happened to be screening, and the task took almost the entire 2-hour duration. If anyone was home, they either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I considered abandoning the endeavor a couple times, but that seemed more ridiculous than going on, so I stuck it out. In the end, my jaw was sore and my face felt like the lid to the Aunt Jemima bottle, but I was incredibly satisfied.

I have always thought this anecdote was particularly revealing. Initially, it appears to be of the ilk of childhood memories that involve activities only someone who hasn’t yet taken algebra could justify—like pooping in a bucket in the backyard (age 7) or riding your bicycle around for hours in a circle half the size of a cul-de-sac, fantasizing about Dr. Alan Grant being your real father (age 12. and 13). But the fruit roll-up incident doesn’t only encapsulate the unselfconsciousness of life before junior high; it hints at the humble beginnings of a person. Something about this memory screams: That is so Candace!—at least, enough for me to feature some abridged version in the anxiety-provoking About Me sections of various online profiles. The story strikes me as (in order of importance): weird, witty, and subtly sexual (although using it on OKCupid elicited some undesirable responses), a mix of qualities that seem to speak to my personality. I have a history of being weird and I’m not afraid to admit it. I pride myself on my disclosure and my knack for unearthing from the annals of elementary school such a poignant moment.

Despite my relative openness, I have neglected to admit the truly revealing aspect of this episode, which I’m not sure I fully realized until the other day when I was peeling the skins off a can’s worth of chick peas. In an effort to make a creamier batch of homemade hummus, I reluctantly took the advice from at least 18 websites that instructed me to individually remove the slimy outer shells of my garbanzos before dumping them into the Cuisinart (I am still convinced there is a simpler method, but perhaps that only exists in the technological efficiency of a restaurant-grade kitchen). I poured the beans into a colander, rinsed them under the tap, and proceeded to squeeze the first victim between my thumb and forefinger until it slipped out of its suit into something more comfortable—the smallest of my set of Pyrex bowls. I was surprised to discover how easily the skin ejected its innards. Just one little press and the bean flew out of its casing like a birth control pill out of a foil pack. I laughed at my five-mintues-ago self for thinking the operation would be trying and, six to eight beans in, settled into a natural state of bliss.

Turns out I derive an envy-provoking pleasure from the kind of tedium that would drive others into fist-clenching frustration. It took about seven minutes to undress that entire can of beans, but I would have happily tackled a dozen of those cans, pausing only to stretch my fingers or slide the growing pile of translucent skins from the counter into the compost bin.

People who know me will read this and say, “Uh, yeah, I know this about you,” which is what my boyfriend said while I stood over a bowl of naked chickpeas talking about how much joy I found in that repetitive undertaking. I suppose it has become rather obvious that I gravitate toward the painfully intricate. I have been known to enjoy any assignment that involves a ruler or a magnifying glass and often entertained fantasies of growing up to be an archaeological excavator, a piano technician, or a mosaicist. At many of my many jobs, the adjective most often used to describe my performance has been “meticulous.” Some of my fondest on-the-job memories involve hours spent alone with my organization—filing hundreds of spools of thread with names like “champagne” and “tigerlily” into a rainbow at the fabric store or lining delicate miniature tarts into a perfect chevron on the top shelf of the bakery pastry case. My favorite part-time job was a stint working at a slide collection where one of my responsibilities was to remove slide photographs out of their old cardboard frames and snap them into new plastic frames: glorious.

I have always known that I enjoyed things like precision and organization and the mind-numbingness of repetition but was embarrassed to admit it because it’s not cool to be fastidious as a child. The cool kids were careless and easily annoyed with the concept of accuracy. They colored outside the lines while I scrupulously dragged my crayon around some printed black perimeter, aspiring to photo-realism. Exhibiting conscientiousness before the age of twelve was as socially detrimental as crying when you fell hard on you coccyx.

My apprehension easily segued into adulthood, at which point “precise” translates into “neurotic,” and I don’t want to be considered neurotic even though I probably am in the technical sense. In my mind, neurotic equals desperate and fun-less, and I directly connect that concept to one of my childhood friend’s fathers. Let’s call him Martin. Martin was a severe man who wore solid cardigans and perfectly pleated pants. He swept the puddles from his driveway after rainstorms and dustbusted the bottoms of our sneakers before we got into his car. I have a sharp mental image of walking in on him on his hands and knees in the bathroom, scrubbing in between the floor tiles with a toothbrush. He looked up from his chore and asked me, very earnestly, to please use the other bathroom. When I told my mother the story later on that night, she shook her head and said, “That poor man is so neurotic.”

For the record: I am not fun-less and I have never cleaned a sneaker. I may be slightly neurotic, in that I occasionally feel a tinge of anxiety when the results of my efforts are not as exact as an architectural blueprint. But I am not inspired by compulsion as much as repose. The monotonous handiwork and uniform pacing of certain tasks sharpens my focus in a way that I would describe as meditative—perhaps my only vehicle for reaching such a state. I am not one to easily meditate. I have trouble with things like “letting go” and “being in the moment.” When I am told to “focus on my breathing” I turn into Ray Stantz, trying to empty my mind only to think up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Breathing is too abstract, too essential, too endless. A whole lot of pedaling and going nowhere. But put me in front of a ceramic pig and tell me I need to hand-glue individual pink sequins to its entire exoskeleton (age 19), and I am rapt.

The difference between breathing and glamorizing a pig is that the latter obviously shows evidence of progress. I am not only working but working toward an end, which, albeit at a sometimes painfully gradual pace, reveals itself in the foreseeable future. Even though I am light-headed from forgetting to open a window and the skin on my fingertips slightly burns from the cyanoacrylate in the adhesive, I can look at that partially-sequined pig and think: I am halfway there.

The fruit roll-up incident is unique because it is reductive. I plowed away at that dried square of fruit concentrate and corn syrup with no imagined masterpiece toward which I could direct my attention. I would be left with nothing to show for my efforts. There was little precision or accuracy required. My mission was to eliminate by means of controlled patience, driven by the desire to test my dexterity. It is also, without question, the work of a weird and listless child. I couldn’t have imagined I would one day reference that experience to illustrate the intuitive joy I find in certain measured labors, but—not unlike my efforts to affix the contents of my penny collection to the interior walls of a bookshelf (age: last month)—the allegory is almost perfect.

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One thought on “How Many Licks Does it Take to Get to the Center of a Neurosis?

  1. Liz

    Just like the mirror surrounded by hundreds of nails you made as a wedding gift for me (age 25). This is sooo Virgo of you but it’s also soo Candace. Feel pride, my dear, I too gain satisfaction from the tedious and repetitive but my drive lies less in the completion and more in the inmediate gratification of my compulsions. Just look at all of my half finished crochet projects. Next time you’re here I will gladly help you with those beans… BTW did it work?

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