Strategic Allocation of Attention

It had been thirty-seven months since I’d moved to California and my adjustment had been minimal. I was still overly sensitive to young men’s pants showing the butt crack, extreme cleavage at work, and unsolicited advice from new agers and other difficult types. Despite years of post-graduate work, I could still communicate in plain English but I hadn’t made many friends. Today, however, I was optimistic—I was going to a conference, “Nine Habits for Life and Love.” Nine was a lot to learn but I would try.

As I entered the Lutheran church where the conference was being held, I was shocked to see a Wiccan meeting posted on the bulletin board. In the Midwest, where I grew up, Lutherans had a reputation for austerity. My boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend smiled a lot and had many friends because she went to Wiccan gatherings at night on the Pacific Ocean, something I could never do. Because of her, I had thought Wiccans met on beaches or in the woods but apparently they were everywhere.

An older colleague came through the door and said hello. She craned her neck to look around. I noticed how flexible her neck was.

“There’s Donna.” She pointed. “Have you noticed she puts her fingers in her mouth all the time?”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“You haven’t? She’s constantly pushing around her gums and teeth. It’s odd since she’s a nursing professor.”

I suddenly understood why germs were responsible for so many deaths in hospitals, but Donna was one of my few friends in California.

The colleague who brought Donna’s habit to my attention was eighty-one years old and hard of hearing but still taught German. I had thought not being able to hear would be a problem for teaching but that wasn’t her problem—it was non-stop talking. Some teachers thought it was time she retired, but I hoped when I was eighty-one and white-haired, my energy and voice would be as good as hers, and also my neck. During the overly intimate exercises done in California, such as massaging shoulders as a prelude to a conference or even a church service, my partners invariably said, “Your neck is tight, you must be stressed.” This was something I hadn’t adjusted to—perfect strangers commenting on my stress level. My older colleague’s neck twisted like an owl’s. She didn’t need yoga for her neck as I did, but maybe if she studied yoga she’d pay attention during other people’s lectures instead of talking.

Even though my colleague annoyed me, she was tolerant and had friends while I was often alone. I decided to make her my model for graciousness since I was overly sensitive to many annoying things and now had to add fingers-in-the-mouth to that list.

The next day, Donna sat next to me and rubbed a finger in her mouth as though to confirm that each tooth remained securely attached. When I saw her remove her finger and look, I had to avert my eyes.

A week later, everyone was putting fingers in their mouths: a friend’s otherwise lovely thirty-five-year-old daughter and a forty-five-year-old colleague on a Paleolithic diet—both young with gums in good shape and teeth not spread apart enough to have the problem of food stuck between them. Then a sixty-two-year-old man and a twenty-two-year-old, not to mention the behavior I saw among my own relatives at Thanksgiving. Had the consistency of our food changed? Was it Michael Pollan’s fault? Was eating locally affecting the social fabric? If this continued I would have to spend my days in isolation. When I went about my daily activities, the grocery store, the doctor, the psychiatrist, I would be forced to keep my eyes on the ground. Maybe I could employ methods used forty years ago in the Stanford University study in which each child was given one marshmallow. To get another, the child had to keep from eating the first for fifteen minutes. The successful kids covered their eyes or hid under their desks or kicked each other. Some sang Sesame Street songs. I was taking singing lessons and knew that singing correctly required complete concentration—you made the ribs wide and spine long, let the belly flop and lifted the soft palate, put a smile in the eyes but didn’t raise eyebrows, and much more. Singing would be good but, unlike massaging a colleague’s neck, bursting into song at a conference wasn’t acceptable, which shows how far society has deteriorated when everyone knows that singing should be encouraged at all times because of its many health benefits.

A few weeks later Donna invited me to a play. It might be true that she couldn’t help her habit but neither could I help being disturbed. I decided I would bring toothpicks to the play and offer her one when it was needed. But that night my boyfriend and I were watching television and he took a toothpick from his mouth, then looked at what he found.

“This does not make you more attractive,” I told him, “and neither do the sucking sounds you make with your tongue to remove food from your teeth. Use dental floss.”

“This works better,” he said as he watched a Sherlock Holmes he’d already seen three times. My boyfriend has many unsightly habits, including long hairs on the rims of his ears that are visible when the light shines behind him. Because he’s unaware of these things, I have to tell him.

“Tell me when you notice hair on my ears or in even worse places,” I said to show I knew I too could improve.

“Why would I want to notice those things?” he asked. “How would it make life better?”

He had a point. However, this was another sign the social fabric was disintegrating. The young showed extreme cleavage at work, drove like maniacs and talked so fast you couldn’t understand them, while the old wore baggy jeans, drove when they couldn’t see and complained in public about the young—and no one even noticed.

I abandoned the toothpick idea for Donna and wracked my brain for something else. I remembered a technique I’d used with my mother. “Why are you on the balcony?” she’d ask when I visited. “What are you doing in the living room?” “Are you in the kitchen?” I couldn’t spend my life saying, “Reading” or “Nothing” or “What? I can’t hear you.” I began to pretend I hadn’t heard her questions. It worked with her so I tried it with my boyfriend when he muttered. For seven years, I’d said “What? What?” until I found this technique. I decided to avoid looking at Donna. I’d pretend she wasn’t there.

Two weeks later when Donna joined me outside the theater, she was putting the last bite of a sandwich in her mouth. I was glad I had a plan because bread is the most offensive food for the finger-in-the-mouth problem. The current taste for healthy, whole grain bread only makes it worse because of the hard debris left behind. This is a case where healthy eating and proper etiquette are at odds. As Donna and I waited for the play to start, I stared straight ahead at the stagehands.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What are you looking at?”

“It’s my stiff neck,” I said. “How I envy our colleague’s rotating neck!”

“She’s too old for teaching and she can’t hear a thing,” Donna said. “When I’m that old I hope to realize I should quit.” The fingers stayed in her lap. If I left the talking to her, she might keep her fingers out of her mouth.

Maybe Donna’s mother had died when she was young and her father hadn’t taught her etiquette. My own mother still gave me etiquette lessons, even though she was eighty-seven years old. Because of her I knew you should call friends, refrain from filing fingernails in public and keep fingers away from the nose. You should smile. If you think someone has bad breath, you check yourself first because it might be yours, although checking is hard to do. It wasn’t right to avoid Donna because of her bad habit. My habits were probably just as bad.

A few weeks later at the monthly faculty meeting, I didn’t sit next to Donna but found a place behind her. In front would have been better but the colleague there had bad coffee breath and didn’t wash his hair and I was also trying to avoid him. I wondered if the marshmallow researcher at Stanford could have helped me. The key, the researcher said, was to trick your mind into forgetting about the marshmallow. Pretend it’s a cloud, he told the children. I had been to the Stanford campus and knew there were often beautiful clouds in a blue sky and that yellow and pink flowers bloomed around the peaceful sandstone buildings. In such an atmosphere, probably even five-year-olds could concentrate. The researcher called the technique “Strategic Allocation of Attention,” but I had never lived in such an atmosphere and couldn’t make wet food particles into a cloud. I wondered, how did women manage who had spouses with appalling habits? I was beginning to understand why some men were murdered by their wives.

After the faculty meeting, I had dinner with a friend who had also read about the marshmallow study.

“Intelligence is not as important as self-control,” he told me. “That’s why I’ll never be a success.” He sounded forlorn, as though the research confirmed a critical failing.

“I understand,” I said. And I did—every time I saw Donna I knew I was a failure although to be honest I thought she was, too.

“We’re old,” he said. “It’s too late for us to learn. Successful people like the kids at that nursery school practiced self-control when they were barely able to walk.”

Neither my parents nor his had the foresight to send us to such a school. They should have known I would grow up to be highly distractible but they hadn’t been thinking about that. They’d been thinking about getting a babysitter on Friday nights and keeping their tempers. I had mastered self-discipline for doing the dishes, straightening the house and avoiding post-modernist speech patterns but not for the important things in life like being tolerant. My dinner companion had more friends than I. He was a good conversationalist, nice looking, and even though we ordered falafel, which sticks between your teeth, he didn’t put his fingers in his mouth. Why didn’t he feel successful? Was it because his partner disapproved of him watching so much television? But all men did that, even ex-Stanford kindergartners. No matter how much of a leg up the nursery school alumni had, the men still watched too much television as adults.

It had been three months since the conference and I was assaulted on busses and in doctors’ offices by people of all genders and gender preferences and age groups and ethnic backgrounds with the same annoying habit. I wondered if I should do a survey on which group was the worst. It could show what foods were implicated in the epidemic and might help the Stanford professor as he furthered his research on successful adults. Maybe if I helped him, he would help me.

I needed to go to the one café where I could think. This meant driving across the park and if I stayed and read the newspaper, an additional loss of one hour in my day of no discipline, all due to my mother sending me to a non-research kindergarten. Furthermore, after dealing with road rage when the traffic light didn’t turn green fast enough and parking scarcity, it was a bad idea to add coffee to my adrenal glands, but I went anyway. At the café, a piece of 70% Lindt chocolate was tempting. Stanford researchers said there were simple tricks to avoid eating the marshmallow, but the only tip the article mentioned was to imagine the marshmallow in a picture frame. I had planned to do this with the 70% chocolate but forgot to try.

When compared with me, Donna was a superior person. She had a clear career path, didn’t procrastinate and never took an extra hour out of her day to drive to a café just because it served the best coffee. Also, she didn’t focus on others’ bad habits. Maybe she’d attended a good nursery school so why didn’t she use strategic allocation of attention to change her bad habit? One of us had to. But who would tell her she needed to? In the past I had often been critical of people who didn’t speak their minds, but I was starting to sympathize.

I needed advice, but besides Donna, I had only two friends—one was always busy, the other worked half the time in Africa. If I locked myself out, no one had a key to my apartment to help me. I called the first friend. She told me to talk to Donna, but what would I say? The second friend was someone who said the right thing at the right time unlike most of us who think of it much later and end up shouting into the bathroom mirror, but she was in Africa. I called my mother who believed in etiquette and prided herself on saying the right thing, especially if she had time to prepare, but all she said was “Make sure you don’t do that.” How did she know?

I needed more friends. I was fun, a pleasant companion, a good listener. Was some habit keeping people away, a habit they were afraid to mention? I did a quick review, biting fingernails in public, scratching my back, interrupting, talking too much when I drank coffee, or one too offensive to mention even to myself. I was good at knowing what someone else should do, but maybe I should have been spending time on my own deportment.

I decided to ask my two friends about my bad habits. I wouldn’t ask them to list all my bad habits—I couldn’t take that. I would ask them to tell me one. I read that the painter Alice Neel got through life by laughing at her own and others’ foibles. Once I knew mine, I could laugh. People frequently said what bothered you in other people was what you yourself did. I’ve never understood, or believed, that. “Forgive yourself and you can forgive others” was another confusing piece of advice that people doled out, always mentioned when you criticized someone. Alas, I could never find the right time to question my friends about my bad habits.

Maybe I could forget about Donna and join a social network to get the thousands of friends and scintillating conversation I’ve always dreamed of. Maybe the Stanford researcher was on Facebook and could help, or maybe the artist Wayne Thibaud, who could teach me to paint marshmallows as luminous as the pies and cakes that appeared on New Yorker covers. I had heard artists weren’t concerned with disgusting habits so mine wouldn’t matter to him. But did the researcher or Thibaud have time for undisciplined people like me? I was angry at the writer of the marshmallow article for not mentioning other self-discipline techniques. If these techniques were so well known, why hadn’t anyone told me?

It was seven months since the conference and I wasn’t going out anymore in the daytime, but on my nightly walk I saw a notice for a lecturette on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Of the eight people at the lecturette, most were over sixty and at that age would have done better to make peace with who they were rather than try to change, but if I made peace with who I was, I would have one less friend and never become a gracious person.

The CBT psychologist wore a sleeveless diaphanous dress. I wondered if it were appropriate for teaching, or for her body. Although I hadn’t worn sleeveless dresses for ten years because of what such attire reveals, I coveted her lavender and black print dress. Maybe it would look no worse on me than on her—we were both 5’5”—although I could see her confidence was greater, possibly because of her CBT skills. Also she was fifteen years younger. Julia Child said always be confident when flipping an omelet, which was also good advice for what one wore.

In forty-five minutes I learned that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was research-based, that I could control what I thought, that what I thought controlled what I felt and that I needn’t feel sad. It was the marshmallow technique for grown-ups, and it also worked for weight loss as I found out when the therapist said she ran a weight loss clinic. When I asked if she worked with obese people, she said, “I love obese people,” a remark I have rarely heard. From that I inferred she had once been fat. Taking a closer look, I saw she hadn’t quite achieved her ideal weight. As I watched the presentation, I noticed her PowerPoint contained two errors, both to do with apostrophes, common but easily correctable mistakes. She had written “client’s” when she should have written “clients” and she had done it twice on the same page. I wondered if I should tell her after the lecture. Only a small percentage of the audience would care, but had I been she, I would have wanted to know. She’d been so upbeat about loving obese people—maybe she didn’t concern herself with non-essential details like grammar. I applauded her for that. I would email her the correct information on apostrophes when I got home.

When I left the lecture I felt optimistic about conquering bad habits. I had been trying to wean myself from late night repeats of Criminal Minds because of its debilitating effects on my brain. How many serial murders did I need to see? I mentioned this to the Goth salesperson at my DVD store. His was a frightening style of dress, not possible in previous times, but his friendliness made up for it. “With all the serial killings,” he said, “you’d think there would be no one left in the world.” This was a good point, and funny, something I hadn’t expected from him because of his Goth apparel.

After CBT, I thought I could go home and never watch another episode of Criminal Minds. Maybe I could stop thinking about Donna’s habit. If I practiced CBT, I’d have more friends because I’d see their favorable qualities rather than their bad habits. I would be like Alice Neel and realize, if I wanted to have friends, I had to laugh. This was better advice than “If you want a friend, be one,” which was what my boyfriend said.

If I failed, I’d have to accept being lonely. It was still a mystery to me how anyone managed to put up with anyone else.

Some therapists claimed that if you acted how you wanted to be, you became that way, although the technique is used mainly in Christian churches that promise you unseemly amounts of money. I knew smiling was the answer to many bad situations although Nancy Pelosi took it too far. It might be the structure of her mouth but it made it hard to respond correctly when she talked about global warming. My always-busy friend told me about dental strips for whitening my teeth. I could buy them to get a brilliant smile. The full whitening took two weeks but I could start smiling right away. If the man with bad coffee breath didn’t show up, I could sit in front of Donna at faculty meetings. Maybe I’d make a new friend at the meeting because I was smiling. Maybe Donna would start smiling too, which would be a blessing because you couldn’t smile with fingers in your mouth. We could both join the laughing club, which was located a block from the Lutheran church where the Wiccans met. Maybe if I learned to laugh, I could be happy.

  1. Mardith Louisell on

    In the Julie Hecht style – so glad you recognized it. The stories I used to read you were by Hecht and mine definitely take several points from her.

  2. Monica Heim Asfura on

    Wonderful story Mardi, I enjoyed it! And remembered when you read to me other funny stories, seated on the steps in front of our building at UC Berkeley- So nice memories! Your humor is so special…. great reading.

  3. Jose Skinner on

    Hilarious, and great pacing. I’m gonna get CBT so I can handle people eating juicy fruit, especially grapefruit.

  4. Ann Moroney on

    This story is wonderful from the brilliant title to the Laughing Club conclusion/solution! I could almost hear the narrator’s (oops – should that apostrophe be there?) dry as dust tone as she brought us on a hilarious canter through the many strange foibles of our age from compulsive cleavage showing to cognitive behaviour therapy – perfect material for the laughing club – loved it!

  5. Mardith Louisell on

    Another comment from a reader:
    My reaction to the subject matter took me by surprise. It was like reading a recipe with ingredients that would not be in my pantry, and the end product would not be appealing. Saying that, it was very good. Thought provoking to say the least. For one, who strives to embrace the human condition, I found myself not embracing the “nit picker”.

  6. Christine Dill on

    loved this Mardi….found myself smirking and then immediately noticing my finger in my ear.

  7. vernal on

    “Your neck is tight, you must be stressed.” This was something I hadn’t adjusted to—perfect strangers commenting on my stress level.

    This is your voice… bringing home the difficulty of social intimacy; the aversion to the snorts and twitchings of our species…..all the while longing and looking for a good friend in this community of social liabilities….

  8. Mardith Louisell on

    Thank you, all, for reading SAA and laughing. The comments are great. And I’m adding a few here that have been emailed to me.

    From DT: “Unfortunately, I see a lot of myself in the narrator. I have a coworker who has a habit of loudly snorting mucous up her nose. It’s really hard to tune out. I mentioned it to another coworker who responded, ‘Oh, I hadn’t noticed.'”

    From Ginny May: “It was so funny to get it because after just spending two months noticing how few things bother my boyfriend (mostly because he doesn’t observe a lot of things) I have come to the conclusion I would be much happier if I just didn’t observe much either such as the woman across the aisle in the plane reading Fifty Shades of Gray in enormous font on her reader and then fondling her boyfriend who visited every few minutes from first class. I found myself wondering if they were so madly in love why he didn’t give her the first class seat.”

  9. Norman on

    I really enjoyed reading this, except that I now need CBT to stop obsessing about all the nasty habits that I may have been offending people with.
    I think I shouldn’t have ended that sentence with a preposition. Maybe, I’ve said that “with” is a preposition, when it is not. Maybe I use commas inappropriately. Perhaps I use “maybe” too much.

  10. sudie sides on

    Mardie, I loved the story and I laughed a lot. I recently had company who kept saying, as we walked, “Are you limping?” “No,” I kept saying, “That’s how I walk.” She also asked me whether there was sulphur in our water. “Why?” I asked. “On nothing, I just thought that might be why your front tooth is turning orange.” She would fit right into your story, don’t you think?

  11. Judith on

    Laugh out loud hilarious! I’ll bet you have more friends that you think.

  12. Dorothy on

    Very funny! Reminds me of a friend who can’t stand when someone blows their nose and then touches her mah jong tiles.

  13. Susan Blank on

    Very fun. So many sly little observations and I really like the way they’re woven together — themes appear and reappear in ways that make it all fit together. A few moments of many that I liked — the wicans, the mother asking why are you on the balcony, the California massaging even at church. I also liked the formal word “deportment” popping up after graphic descriptions of bad habits.

  14. Sarah on

    I enjoyed readying your story. So funny and true the way one can get obsessed and annoyed by something they never really noticed before.

  15. Jordan on

    This was very clever. Your approach was critical but open minded. Very funny!

  16. Elizabeth Butrick on

    Totally fun. Don’t know what I loved most – possibly that you are applying Julia Child’s omelet flipping advice to fashion. Will have to get you to tell me which of my annoying habits bugs you most someday. Keep writing! Terrific voice.

  17. Kay T. on

    As someone who sometimes (how often?) puts my fingers in my mouth, this wonderful essay made me self conscious – at least for awhile. I don’t much notice, or get upset, by other’s foibles, but friends get upset by mine. When someone reminds me nicely or with humor, I can usually take notice and change (at least a little), but if someone criticizes me in a hostile manner, I close up and don’t try to change. However, I love essays that deal with foibles, the author’s as well as others. Thanks Mardi

  18. bridget sienna on

    This is so original and funny. Reminds me a bit of the observations of Nora Ephron, only better thought out and your longer length allows the reader to see the implications of all this stuff to our culture. Hearing your mother talk to you reminds me that I may sound like that to my daughters right now.

  19. Pat Sakai on

    Glad I’m not the only one irritated by the incorrect use of apostrophes. Gotta go get dental strips now that I know what my problem is…You are just too funny! I loved this piece and marvel at the curves and bumps you throw at your readers. More, please!

  20. Rebecca on

    I’m impressed you worked Nancy Pelosi and global warming into this piece! Laughed out loud at the Wiccans being “everywhere”, having been sent to a “non-research” nursery school, and the goth response. Definitely can relate.

  21. Ginny May on

    Great story!! Especially good for an overly observant person.

  22. Oscar Pelta on

    laughter tears were rolling down, you knocked me out and my dentures flew across the room! How exhilirating!(sp?)

  23. Marty Allen on

    I loved this piece. Perhaps because it reminded me of my own foibles as well as my over attention to foibles of others. Great sardonic humor.

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