Fully blacked out yet only half-nude at a bachelor party last year, I sidled up to the bachelor and flirtatiously told him I was “Drunky Bear” and he had to take care of me. It was probably a bit unnerving for him to hear without context.
You see, I commonly append the word “Bear” to random words when conversing with my wife. Instead of asking if she’s tired, I’ll ask if she’s Sleepy Bear. There’s also Horny Bear, Sexy Bear, Silly Bear, Poopy Bear, Gassy Bear, Beauty Bear, Playful Bear, Hungry Bear, Dance Bear, Namaste Bear, I Love You Bear, Naughty Bear.
I hate getting called Grumpy Bear, which I amend to Pissed Off Bear. I think of grumpiness as a sign of weakness, an inability to handle the ebb and flow of daily life, and therefore a need to displace trivial stress onto innocents. I would rather be called angry than grumpy any day because it implies having a more legitimate reason.
The goal of course is for neither bear to be needed. I’ve come to realize I can improve the quality of our married life with active work on a sort of psychological issue resembling obsessive-compulsive disorder. My wife has been convinced I’m on the spectrum since we started dating.
Something is going on for sure. When people casually talk about their OCD and how their beds need to be made a certain way, I roll my eyes so hard they face my tortured brain. You don’t have OCD, bro.
That’s like when girls talk about how they eat or drink so much. Stop it. If you met the creature I become during a binge, you would adjust your scale of measurement. On a random Monday at work, I ate 18 servings of cheese, including six before 10 a.m. Eight of them were string cheese, and the other 10 were cheddar rectangles for a total of 1,540 calories.
I am maddeningly compulsive and neurotic, expending energy on irrational rationality in quantities few people seem to understand:
Although I was a child prodigy at Tetris, loading a dishwasher in a configuration that maximizes both space and cleaning efficiency takes me asinine amounts of time. My wife has gotten used to alternating stretches of silence (as I stare at the dishes in deep thought) and clinking (as I arrange and rearrange). I usually start forming strategy days in advance because clearly this is an impactful use of human cognitive abilities.
One of the last straws preceding the realization I have a problem was when I became mildly but genuinely annoyed with my wife for using three bowls in a day. Our dishwasher accommodates more plates than bowls. We also have more plates than bowls, meaning usage of the latter often dictates when we have to run a wash cycle. It is therefore indisputably more efficient to use plates for solid food.
But my wife prefers bowls. Even when she uses plates, she also requires these little circular plastic bowls to exclusively hold her ranch dressing or mayonnaise. First of all, I understand people have different tastes, but I simply cannot picture an intelligent person who likes mayonnaise. Second, the condiment does not merit its own dish. Unless she’s eating mayonnaise by itself as a side — in which case we wouldn’t be living together — she should leave those stupid dwarf bowls in the back of the cupboard where I purposely place them to hinder retrieval and maybe spark just a little bit of a deterrent. I hate those bowls so much. The bottoms have ridges that accumulate water in the dishwasher and negate the drying process.
Also, anyone over age 30 has enough life experience to estimate condiment-to-food ratios within a reasonable margin of error. My wife is predisposed to substantially overestimate and leave globs of condiments: steak sauce, ranch, mayonnaise. I don’t want to saturate the sponge with evidence of her inability to extrapolate. I want the leftover condiments to be sparse enough that the water cascading from washing a pot or vegetable above it in the sink will be enough to pre-rinse for the dishwasher, thereby creating a satisfying double-use efficiency. If it’s so hard to guess how much you need, I would suggest a) pouring the condiment on the same plate so you can see its volume juxtaposed with the amount of food or b) pouring the condiment in smaller increments.
She does the same thing with wine and has to either waste what’s left in the glass or force herself to finish it without enjoying the same utility. I don’t understand the irrational fear of letting something run out when the option to refill is within arm’s reach. And I take my rationality to irrational levels that strain our marital interactions. I’m sorry for it.
But just one more thing about the wine. I hate when the glasses are left out with a splash of wine at the bottom. Those need to be soaked with some water. I don’t trust the dishwasher to clean that out completely. Also, it makes no sense to leave those wine-stained glasses on the counter while placing water glasses in the sink. If a glass was used only for water, it can go straight into the dishwasher or on the counter ready to go into the dishwasher. It will not get any cleaner in the sink as things are washed over it. The limited space underneath the faucet should be reserved for the dirtiest dishes.
I’m trying my best here to convey there is a real anxiety behind the laughable manifestations of my neurosis. I notice my breath shortening and chest tightening during mad crescendos of trying to solve perceived problems or push them out of my consciousness.
The other day I scooped hair gel onto my index finger while walking out of the bathroom because the mirrors were fogged up. I somehow got paranoid that I dropped some gel and spent an indeterminate amount of time sweeping the kitchen floor with my hand, desperate to find the translucent paste. Every time I thought I had satisfied whatever compulsion this was, I stooped back down and started pressing my hand on the floor again like a kindergartner making handprints. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more stressed about being late to work but couldn’t let it go. I put on some clothes and checked the floor. I got my lunch out of the fridge and checked the floor. I took out my sunglasses from their case and checked the floor.
An equally illustrative example of self-generated tension is when I cooked pasta in a big pot recently. I had it in my mind from the outset not to overcook. When I determined we were in the al dente zone, it was showtime. The pot was too big to be poured with one hand while holding the strainer in the other. I easily could have asked my wife to hold the strainer over the sink while I poured, but I had already set a game plan of scooping the pasta out and depositing in a big bowl.
What I didn’t anticipate was the discomfort I felt grazing the metal-tipped strainer against the pot. I cannot stand when people scratch nonstick surfaces with metal utensils. So I tried my best to take shallow dips with the strainer while avoiding contact with the edges of the pot, but this really slowed the process.
There was so much pasta, and it would only continue to soften in the hot water even though the burner was turned off. Simultaneously worried about exceeding the al dente zone and touching the pot with the strainer, I worked myself into a frantic pace shoveling pasta one small batch at a time. An imaginary shot clock was freaking me out. My heart rate spiked. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was close to a nervous breakdown.
I have a bizarre relationship with plastic bags from stores and packaging. I physically cannot bring myself to throw them away after their initial single use. It feels so good to reuse them. We don’t even buy garbage bags for our small trashcan. I might use a bag that originally transported dry cleaning, takeout or a J.Crew shirt. To supplement the thickness of the bag, I position smaller ones inside, such as packaging for pistachios or potato chips or grocery produce. It’s like a two-layer Russian doll for garbage. Sometimes I’ll go three layers if one of the bags has perforated holes in it.
The restriction in this system is you can’t throw away stuff mindlessly. You have to choose a spot and place the trash while keeping the bag upright with flaps open. I will admit to rearranging my wife’s trash from time to time.
We use paper bags as recycling bins, which is not uncommon. I don’t, however, know many people who dig into a bag of hodgepodge recyclables and stack containers that fit inside of each other (again, Russian nesting doll) to preserve space in the bag.
Lately I’ve been using a Madewell paper bag to carry my tennis clothes when I play at lunch. I am aware Madewell is a female apparel brand, but have no qualms slinging this bag over my shoulder like Federer would his Nike bag. The reason why I don’t use a proper gym or duffel bag, of which I have plenty, is because I put my dirty shoes and clothes in the bag after tennis. I don’t wash gym bags. It makes more sense to use a paper bag a couple of times, dirty up the inside, retire it as a recyclables bin, and then use a new paper bag.
These are the things I think about rather than focus on being successful in life.
In a different application of the same principle, I can’t waste what comes in the bags either. A disproportionate amount of my existence is spent chopping broccoli. I wish I could just lop off the stalks and proceed with living, but I found out they contain as much nutritional value as the treetops. So I skin the stalks and cut the interior into assorted prisms for consumption. This takes especially long at the branches, as decisions have to made on how small of a segment is too small to be worth shaving.
The dumbest thing I can’t stop myself from doing is turning the plastic bag that carried the broccoli inside out to ensure I got it all. These bags are clear. I can see plain as day there is no more broccoli inside, but for some tormenting reason, I need a mechanical confirmation to supplement the visual. I do the same thing with open-faced packages of chicken breasts. There is clearly nothing left in the container, but I have to sweep my fingers across the slimy plastic edges as if I were blind.
You can imagine how stressful it is for me with opaque vessels, like when I’m trying to squeeze out the final bits of toothpaste or sunscreen. With toothpaste, I’ll flatten the tube repeatedly with a straight edge and then press at the top until my fingers change color. With sunscreen, I’ll jam my pinkie into the opening, swirl it around, dab whatever I get onto my skin, and repeat a frightening amount of times until I am on the verge of going crazy. With a jar of red pepper, I use a butter knife to pry off the plastic top and break up the solidified pepper at the bottom to pour it out.
All of these rituals simply boil down to a lot of effort for imaginary payoff. It’s agonizing because I just want to get rid of the containers and be free, but I can’t do it until I reach an arbitrary state of closure.
Symmetry, or at least the appearance of it, drives a lot of my compulsion. I brush my teeth with my dominant right hand at night, when a deeper cleaning is needed. Because I only have sugarless oatmeal before brushing again in the morning, I feel OK using my less coordinated left hand. I also rotate which areas I start brushing and flossing first, reasoning that my thoroughness naturally declines during the process so I should try to even it out.
At the gym, I alternate which hand or foot leads in every stretch and exercise, both between sets and weeks. This gets as granular as the foot I step up to the squat bar with, even though they are aligned during the actual exercise. And because I do an odd number of sets, I have to remember to take that inconsequential step with the opposite foot the next week to keep the total even on both sides. This is how I utilize my above-average memory.
I’m usually late when checking out of a hotel and exacerbate the stress with my routine of combing the room for any items left behind. The bed has become a monstrosity in my warped mind. I check underneath the pillows, in the creases, between the sheets, and of course I always feel compelled to look under it.
I go through similar inspections when leaving any public place, from restaurants to waiting rooms to airports. Before exiting an airplane, I rifle through the contents of the seat pocket in front of me even if I know I didn’t put anything in there. This can be neither sanitary nor sane.
Another worthless compulsion is reading every bit of text on a page, often multiple times to verify comprehension. This includes bills and statements. I read my own address and the disclaimers. I cross-reference every charge with a stack of receipts and mark the ones with online receipts to pull up in my email afterwards and file in a folder named “Financial”. I track down the receipt even if it’s a recurring monthly charge of the same amount. I do the same thing with the deposits and withdrawals on my checking account statement. There are never any mistakes, but I just can’t stop.
I read junk mail. I even turn the envelopes of junk mail upside down and run my fingers through them to confirm nothing is stuck in there. Magazines strain me because of all the sidebars and pictures and captions. I’m unsure whether to read the main story continuously and jump back for the other stuff, or follow a visual chronology and try to remember the main train of thought.
I read all emails including the worthless ones. To combat the urge to check my Gmail too often, I set a rule that I must delete at least one email every time I open my inbox. If I check too frequently, there won’t be any new emails and I have to read an old one likely shelved because it was too long or boring to read at the time. So that screws me over because all I really wanted was a momentary distraction, and instead I’m stressing myself reading as fast as possible so I can move on with my life.
In sunny Los Angeles, on some of the most congested roads in the country, I have set myself up to never be at peace driving. My definition of a good driver is one who hits the brakes minimally. This means you’re timing acceleration, lights, hills, lane changes, spacing and all other components most efficiently for gas mileage and ride smoothness. It also means every other car on the road is an obstacle to your happiness. Every 30 seconds, I am annoyed by something or someone that made me touch the brake pedal.
I also overthink route planning when trying to make multiple stops. The act of retracing even a minor distance hurts my soul to the point where I might just skip the grocery store if it doesn’t line up perfectly en route with the gas station. This is logic taken to irrational and impractical extremes.
This is how I think and live, and it can be painful if not miserable. I have no doubt people take pills for lesser psychological ailments, not that I agree with it. Ejaculation, exercise and sleep (which somehow comes easily, maybe due to exhaustion) are my medications. They do a pretty good job on the symptoms but are far from being a cure.
I’m working on a solution right now by coaching myself with questions like what’s the worst that can happen, why am I living like I’m poor, and is this really worth the stress or effort. A friendly reminder that death is approaching always helps too.
On my own, I could continue to indulge my obsessive behavior. This might be the No. 1 thing I miss about being single, the happiness of creating my own world and shutting everybody else out. Sharing my space and identity with a partner is profoundly difficult for me. It’s not the stupid dishes or condiments or bags; my wife probably accommodates and enables my idiosyncrasies too much.
There is bigger stuff more important to me. Creative outlets. Hobbies. How to spend your time. The content you consume. The crutch of a smartphone crushing any free moment or opportunity or energy to be a real person. Appetite for learning. Lack of habits where there’s inspiration, and lack of inspiration where there’s poor habits. Intellectual rigor. Financial responsibility. Setting goals. Improving. Relationship between wants and effort. Relationship between inputs and production. How to deal with discomfort at work. Self-discipline and motivation. How to treat your body and mind. How to be interesting and not blah.
Five quarters into marriage, I find it loving, comfortable, secure, easy and wholly uninspiring. Most of the time, I bite my tongue and fight off the angst under the guise of Happy Bear. Some of the time, I’m pissed off and Distant Bear. I wish I weren’t this way, and I could just be normal and go-with-the-flow like my wife. Especially when we talk about having children, I think of the heartrending scene in Forrest Gump, when Forrest learns he has a son and asks Jenny through choked-back tears whether the kid is smart or like him.
It’s enough to make me occasionally daydream about going off to live on a mountain with some good books and a pull-up bar. But I won’t. Because I need a Vons, and I love my wife. She’s why the bear is my most-used emoji, even though the elephant remains my favorite animal overall. I still don’t know how the bear thing started, just like I don’t know why I care to load dishes a certain way, or question the way my wife wants to live, or make all the subheadings in this post start with the letter B.
My compulsions are a bear to deal with, and they feel unique to my personality. What doesn’t feel unique is the need to put work into a marriage. I mean an active, purposeful, gritty effort to make it better. I’m trying really hard and have my lapses and malaise. It probably comes much easier or even unwittingly for some couples.
I invoke Denzel here, when he addressed the locker room in Remember the Titans about how the other team didn’t have to deal with race, but they did, implying a stronger bond through struggle. I am a freak of human nature, and my wife is normal. Maybe working through this makes what we have more special or meaningful. I certainly won’t back down from the challenge, and I owe it to my wife. (Wife Bear)
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