Use doth breed a habit

I don’t know about you, but I need habits to get me through the day; they put me in a quiet little room where I can actually think. They are not bits of vacuous refugia -raincoats that keep my important clothes dry- but more like CCTVs with alarms that track the world outside and make sure I don’t miss anything important. They drive me on my commute to work and help me home again -all while watching the road, cutting in an out of traffic, making it through on a yellow light, and knowing where and when to turn… oh yes, and letting me listen to podcasts on my phone, while still allowing me to shake my fist at the dimwits in front of me doing the same thing with their less expertly-designed routines. But, as to why mine are so well behaved… Well, if it’s not epigenetics, then I have no idea.

Of course, I suppose there are some habits that are less useful: like smoking, continually licking your teeth, or always interrupting your friend as she is about to tell you something you already know. But other habits are valuable -routinely checking to make sure your shirt still has enough buttons, or that your socks are both the same colour, spring to mind. They’re not exactly mindless, but they come that way from the box and they require an initial prodding and plumping to make them feel comfortable.  

Still, I suspect we don’t spend much time thinking about our helpful habits; it’s the ones that cause us grief that loom large in how our friends judge us. How we judge ourselves. But now that I’m retired, I’m better able to put things into perspective. Of late, for example, I have had occasion to question my habit of getting up each day around 6 A.M. I mean I no longer have to get to work, and there’s scarcely anything open at that time of the morning anyway. Apart from listening to the 8 minute long CBC news on my clock radio, there’s little else to do apart from stumbling into the kitchen for something to eat. Yes, I do spend the morning writing, but it can be a long morning, and I’m hungry again by eleven.

Oh, and I have to confess that I have another unfortunate habit: I have come to assume that the day is divided into pre and post prandial aliquots -Breakfast at 6, lunch at 12, and supper at 6 (all to coincide with the CBC News, of course)- with each allotted their appropriate food groups. Breakfast? Well, a bagel, of course: it’s easy. Lunch requires something more substantial, yet not quite deserving of the respect due for supper. I would not have a pork chop with mashed potatoes for lunch, for example, because it would spoil my supper. My mother told me always to save space for the dinner she had spent all afternoon preparing because if I finished everything on my plate, I would then be allowed to have dessert. Guilt still makes me feel that way, so I only have dessert after my supper. I’m trying to break the evening dessert habit, though: I’ve decided it’s okay to have a few cookies after lunch, as well. Sorry mom…

I suppose a stranger could be forgiven for thinking that both my life and habits seem to revolve around my teeth, but I must rush to assure her that I do not publicize my day like some do on Facebook -I merely talk about food a lot; I do not post it. But retirement is a time for reflection, a time to take stock of one’s life; it’s a time to remember the Sunday School homily from Ecclesiastes about there being a season for everything -including a time to keep and a time to throw away, not to mention a time to tear and a time to mend. I had to look those up, though, because all I could remember from Sunday school was Miss Flower saying something about there being a time to be quiet and a time to speak. Perhaps what I’m saying is that some of my habits embarrass even me.

For example, I have a habit of deciding to read books that I hope might brand me as one of the literati I so admire, but then realizing part way through that I don’t understand it, or find it so uninteresting that I can’t finish it. Of course, if asked if I have read the book, I would say yes, although I would admit that I had forgotten some of the details. I gave up on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake after only making it through the first page. Fortunately nobody has asked me to outline the plot for them.

I am somewhat ashamed to say this conceit started in my younger years -Grade 8 I think. I’d forgotten that Miss Brownleaf had asked each of us in the class to read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers over the Christmas holidays and write an essay on one of the characters in it. I’d received a BB gun for a present that year and naturally I totally forgot about reading the book, not to mention writing the essay. I was pretty sure I recognized the name though, and suddenly remembered it was a Classic Comic book I’d bought last summer. So… no problem. I skimmed through the pages, chose Porthos as the character (I decided there might be too much competition choosing d’Artagnan; everybody would pick him) and, conscience barely twitching, whipped up a credible essay and handed it in.

Brownleaf loved it, as I recall. She said I was probably the only person in the class that had really understood the novel. I told no one, in case she chose another title from my collection, and I certainly didn’t want to divulge my sources. She didn’t however, and I was left with the unenviable reputation of a book-nerd that stuck with me right through high school and into university.

Wearing that reputation still leaves me open to questioning at those few dinner parties to which I still find myself invited. Fortunately I recently discovered a book which has helped me immensely. Unlike Tolstoy’s mammoth ‘War and Peace’, it’s a book I’ve actually read from cover to cover several times now, each time vacuuming up new crumbs: Pierre Bayard’s ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’.

Nobody has ever asked me if I’ve heard about the book, though; I’m not sure what I would say…

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