compulsion
n.
1c./1d. An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation. / An act or acts performed in response to such an impulse.

I, a full-tilt Virgo, have been inclined since the tender age of five, back when my chore of choice was folding laundry, keen (hell-bent?) on matching corner to corner, edge to edge, of The Wonderfully Right-Angled Bath Towel, to observe an indulgent amount of order in the course of a day. I’ve never really seen this as an impediment, however, considering the routine straightening of pictures, aligning of chairs, and, yes, still the fastidious towel folding, have never, like, axed friendships or lost me jobs or sent lovers fleeing in abject horror. At most/worst, these and other related behaviors have brought about the conspicuous rearranging of my office desk fixtures at the hand(s) of knowing coworkers. And that’s just kinda funny, you know? (Not that said fixtures aren’t promptly and vigorously returned to their rightful homes. Heh.)

Anyway, yeah: I’m scrupulously neat and I’m okay with it. It evens me out.

My friend Jenn has similar inclinations when it comes to linin’ shit up.

“My office/desk must be in order when I leave for the night. For example, when I worked in a law firm and had an entire room to myself, I could not leave at night unless the guest chair was angled just right and the pillow on top was fluffed and perfectly centered. Stacks of paper on my desk or side tables had to be so that all of the edges lined up exactly.”

Like me, Jenn covets the tension-relieving powers of a color-coded bookca—wha? Ur…

“It’s totally satisfying. When things in my spaces, especially my work spaces, become momentarily the opposite (i.e., disordered), I am physically tense and emotionally cranky. When things get back to order, I am at peace.”

And even though “things in order” doesn’t always equate with straight-up efficiency—“sometimes it makes me lose track of items because I order them for the sake of order itself and not for the purpose of later finding things”—Jenn says that chasing down “one clean line of papers’ edges” isn’t a bother. She doesn’t mind it at all.

“It makes me feel like I have control.”

Which I totally get. And as long as behaviors such as these outlie the parameters of certain diagnostic criteria, I say so be it: Let the wild ordering rumpus continue!

My friend Sandy has a thing of a different nature—definitely irrational, somewhat irresistible, and freakin’ adorable—a thing she has no name for but can logically be termed “crack jumping.” In her words:

“When I’m riding in a car and there are seams or cracks in the road, or if there aren’t any but there are driveways and intersections and crosswalks, I think of the ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’ thing. And since I can’t ‘step’ over the crack, I instead shift my body weight so as to mimic jumping over it. I also like to think of it as some weird sort of rhythmic exercise: up and down, up and down.”

Asked if this is a behavior she’s ever consciously tried to reign in, the woman’s emphatic.

“When I decide to do it or notice that I’m doing it, I just don’t stop. I’ve never even thought about it—it’s too fun. Actually, I think I may have tried stopping before, but it’s kind of hard to so I don’t bother. Anyway, it’s such a little thing. And I can carry on complete conversations while doing it, no problem.”

The word “quirk” dawns on me, and I’m surprised it didn’t occur off the bat. A logical descriptor—“a peculiarity of action, behavior, or personality”—and with an easy cuteness about it.  Yet I miss the specificity of, the appeal to mechanics in “an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of rationality.” It seems so… human. Especially if amended slightly to read “an irresistible impulse to act or think, regardless of rationality.”

Another friend, Matt, wrote me about his “number thing”: irrational and irresistible and (potentially) satisfying as hell.

“I am the proud owner of a Zenith DVD-2200 model DVD player—gift from my parents, Christmas 1999. In what I guess is kind of a throwback nod to the previous generation’s dominant home video technology, the VCR features an extremely large and absurdly bright digital display on its face, showing DVD chapter, time expired, and a small, rather unconvincing two-frame animation of a disc, spinning. That’s neither here nor there, except for the fact that its size and brightness make it kind of distracting, in the dark, when I’m trying to catch a flick. The point, really, is that I often become mesmerized looking for patterns in the display’s numbers. Sequences are good; the most basic is also one of the most satisfying—1:23:45. Sadly, our silly base-60 clock makes a long Fibonacci string impossible; 0:11:23 is there, but I’m sure that a decimal clock would provide a real adrenaline-loaded, fight-or-flight-type thrill.”

Surely. He continues, to dazzling effect—

“I also dig snagging a set of three primes, like 1:17:05 or 1:03:13. The good shit, though, is palindromes—1:00:01, 0:47:40. Every palindrome I catch is tasty, but my favorites are palindromes that are visual, not numeric. What I mean: on your everyday digital alarm clock/DVD player/whatever, each digit is rendered by selective illumination of an array of seven little bars, which means all the numbers look sort of boxy. One consequence of the boxy digits is that 2 and 5 are mirror images of each other: when that fucker hits 1:21:51 I experience a little symmetry-gasm that is approximately as satisfying as getting the perfect ratio of buttery crunchy sugary blueberry-crumb muffin and hot black coffee in one mouthful, while receiving oral sex and scratching the hell out of a fresh mosquito bite, damn the consequences. Anyway.”

Although even in the wake of an analogy like that, Matt notes that “visual palindromes” isn’t all blueberry-crumb muffins and blowjobs. It can also be downright distracting, leaving him “unable to give a film a fair shake because of it.”

My boyfriend Ray has anything but love for his own “making triplicates,” viewing the practice with utter contempt.

“I hate it. It’s only enjoyable in the sense that I’m completely used to it. It’s sometimes satisfying, I guess, but it’s like an addiction—not ultimately satisfying.”

Explained: “Nearly everything I take in (read, hear) undergoes a rapid metric scan, and that which fails to conform to a trisyllabic pattern I manipulate with additional words or sounds until it does. ‘Buy it tomorrow’ might become ‘buy it tomorrow yeah.’ Slightly less pressing is adherence to the typical beat emphasis of Western musical notation. So while ‘President Obama’ is good, ‘walking the dog today,’ with its front-loaded ‘measures,’ is great.”

Yikes. Problematic no doubt, but intriguing, foreign.

Me, I have this “looped thing,” which lies somewhere between neutral and positive on the experience continuum. It’s dropped off considerably in recent years, and in fact, I can’t recall the last time it surfaced. But man, back when it did routinely, it would really take hold. Strange and suggestive.

Basically, the only condition that had to be met in order for it to appear was some degree of out-of-it-ness, whether due to being drunk, stoned, sleepy, or otherwise impaired. In these scenarios, I would potentially encounter the following mental image: a small and slightly asymmetrical looping figure, which, some time after and no longer impaired, I came to associate with a whimsical bow like the one shown in the final illustrated square of a shoelace-tying tutorial, laces’ ends winking upwards. There was also a sortof “handshake” quality about the image, although this could’ve had more to do with the incredibly tactile nature of the thing as it presented in my brain (my “grip” on it was exquisite and complete and extremely satisfying) than with anything aesthetic.

Especially interesting personally was the implication of “something sought.” I would see the loop—see it and really scrutinize it—and always I would feel so close to figuring “it” out, to identifying and consequently deciphering the meaning behind this peculiar mental piece. It was an attempt to unlock something very familiar (and not simply due to past mental “sightings” of it), and I always came up just short. In the aftermath of the experience I would dig around more, though not being able to see the loop in the moment, the pursuit was for naught. At some point I convinced myself—or began playing with the thrilling and romantic notion—that if I could just get to the bottom of it, some profound self-discovery awaited me. I still like this idea.

Anyhow, it’s not really like crack jumping or visual palindromes or making triplicates; it’s hazier and less applied. But it has in common the recurrent and compelling nature of these behaviors and segues nicely into my friend Alex’s “spinning cube”: a persistent and poetic dream sequence.

“Every Christmas Eve from when I was a young child up through high school, I had the same dream—sometimes multiple times in the same evening as the adrenaline of anticipation coursing through my veins would dispel sleep as only it can in the mind of an only-child aware of the imminent prospect of tearing open presents! It was the simplest thing—gradations of gray, geometric, atmospheric—a cube of indeterminate size rotating top-like, spinning on one corner. It was if this cube had everything: untapped power and yet irresistible force, hypnotic slowness yet palpable menace, perfect smoothness of surface and yet a sense that it’d be made of the softest fabric if I could just touch it.

“If anything it seemed a simple monochromatic representation of desire. If my breath accelerated on account of impatience, frustration, I have a feeling it started spinning faster and approaching, but there was something in me that knew that if I let it get out of control, my self-preservation-drive would kick in and I would have to wake myself up, thus sabotaging the distorted dream time speeding me towards presents. I think it was those moments of subconscious and rational sides battling, that I could feel myself either encompassing or being encapsulated by the figure. It was another type of heartbeat almost.”

Asked about his feelings toward the spinning cube years later, Alex recalls a marked anxiety.

“I’d say it was more distressing than anything else. … On these nights of heightened anticipation, I was demanding something, trying to bend my subconscious to my greedy little will and most of the time I was simply toyed with.”

About a year ago, I came across this exhilarating little wonder. I’ve read it again and again since, and have feverishly passed it on a handful of times, eager to share its magic with people who won’t just think it’s weird and/or pointless. Because to me, it’s anything but that. To me, it’s sweet, funny, odd. Painstaking, lovely, painstakingly lovely. It’s terribly intimate. At least, that’s the way I receive it. And I think that’s what it boils down to: as much about the author’s willingness to put it out there—to give it language—as it is the thing/act/quirk itself. And although this Shya alludes to conversations about it among friends, it’s still no “what’s new in politics/the economy/my relationship/etc.” It’s not usual.

I don’t know—it’s sort of like reading a Lorrie Moore story, how I relate to these things. If you’ve read Moore, you know her knack for slipping in inner-monologue stuff that on initial read takes you aback, because it seems to come out of nowhere. Left field. But then, seconds later, you realize, wait, this is how it works. Nothing’s ever completely linear in my head, at least not for very long stretches at a time, so why shouldn’t these made-up people skip and trip through the day any differently? And, come to think, why don’t we see this more often in literature? Isn’t it sort of, like, the truest thing there is? Big beating (and small pulsing) thoughts that sprawl and skid and meander? Anyway, bit of a tangent there maybe, but what I’m getting at is the beauty of these non-sequiturs—the sharing of them—be them one-offs or more persistent, compulsion-type behaviors as those graciously offered up by a few of my friends.

It’s what prompted me to reach out in the first place, to pose the question, “What do you do that’s like this? And although I initially got caught up in the semantics stuff (the “what the hell are they?”), ultimately I was just touched. Deeply. Touched in a similar way to how I was on hearing my retiring boss’s speech at last week’s in-office party, all of us gathered in a drab conference room as David took a chance on a story about, several months prior, standing in a room on the top floor of the building, staring out at a series of water towers—strong and steely, wood-braced—and having this dawn on him: I want to be out there with them. Maybe it’s time to be out there with them.

Perhaps that sounds unrelated, but it’s very much not. It was, like the other shared experiences herein, something not easily described in a way likely to make perfect sense, maybe in part because it’s not all that sensible to the person expressing it. But it can still be understood—by you the expresser, and by others, vis-à-vis a shared humanity.

That, then, seems to be the connecting piece: that we’re all prey to this less-than-rational part of ourselves, and it can bring us closer.

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KRISTEN ELDE, an editor by trade, lives and writes in Brooklyn. Her words have appeared in the Web publications McSweeneys, The Northville Review, Pindeldyboz, and Word Riot, in addition to such magazines as BUST, Health, Runner's World, Running Times, Shape, The Writer, and Writer's Digest. She's also one half of the team behind a wildly unpopular parody food blog, to which she loves contributing.

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