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A Yankee Notebook

May 28, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I got home after church and started to change into work clothes. Walking into the closet, I pulled off my belt and turned to the left to hang it with the other belts on the hook beside the door.

The hook wasn’t there. It was six feet away, on the end wall. I’d turned toward where the hook used to be, for twenty years, beginning in 1986. “Whoa!” I thought. “Is this it? – the beginning of the final decline?” Or was it just a momentary brain blip – like a dead spot in a starter motor – that revived the long-ago habit to the point of action? I knew it wasn’t political; I turn automatically to the left whether I’m in the closet or not. I finally chalked it up to unconsciousness: While my brain thought ahead to the next thing I had to do, my body, without conscious direction, went into autopilot. This happens to many people while they’re driving; you may have noticed.

All God’s children are, to some extent, creatures of habit. For many it’s a matter of weather or changing climate – as with mountain sheep and goats descending with the snow in the fall. Predators (including nomadic human beings) follow game animals; Mongolians and Lapps follow their herds. Very predictable.

Many Novembers ago, determined to hang a buck on the local buck pole (a symbol of social adequacy in that small village, where every able-bodied man hunted), I wandered up an unfamiliar valley and halfway through the afternoon was rewarded with an eight-point buck that secured – along with a winter’s worth of meat – my entrance into local society. One old-timer, beyond his hunting days, asked me where I’d gotten it. When I described the place, he said, “Oh, yes, that’s the old Hemlock Runway. They use it all the time to cross from the Johns Brook Valley to the Porter Ledges.” Armed with this affirmation of the Slide Brook herd’s habits, I went back every year and was rarely disappointed. One year I got a 215-pound buck that fed me and my new bride all winter (we got very sick of venison by April) and also won the buck pool, producing enough cash, when we lived on eight dollars a week for groceries, to last us all winter, as well. It was a great lesson in learning the habits of others to my own advantage.

But it’s human habits that are most interesting, and to me the habitual behaviors of different ethnic groups. The English, for example, tend to be more tradition-bound than most, and the Germans even more so. There’s a great story about a small British port during the Second World War. The Germans had mined it to prevent shipping from getting in or out. So the British navy sent a small minesweeper commanded by a bright young lieutenant. Every morning the sweeper steamed out of the harbor and cleared a lane through the mines; every afternoon the Germans mined it again.

Then one morning the lieutenant said, “Let’s not sweep today.” They didn’t. That evening the Germans returned and sank themselves.

There are healthy habits, and then there are habits that border on pathology. The healthy ones are the ones we have ourselves – like always putting on the left sock first or smoothing the toothpaste tube up from the bottom with the toothbrush handle. Some football teams pray before going out to attempt to beat their opponents into mulch; some of us, when we spill salt, toss a shot of it over our shoulder; public speakers often check their trouser flies before walking onstage.

Samuel Johnson, who single-handedly wrote the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, was utterly a creature of habit. A few of us know people who need to touch every parking meter as they walk. There were no such meters in 18th-century London, so Johnson touched every lamp post as he passed. If, deep in a conversation, he discovered he’d missed one, he returned as much as a block to be sure to touch it.

Members of minority groups are especially perceptive regarding the habits of the majority, much as a child growing up in an occasionally violent household needs to have acute antennae to warn her of impending problems. I’ve found their comments insightful. I asked a Cree elder once what the average size of a native family was. “Oh,” he responded, “usually a mother and a father, between two and three kids, and an anthropologist trying to be invisible in the corner.” And the Inuit have an observation that I’ve tested dozens of times without being disappointed: “If you want to make a kabluna look at his watch, ask him if he’s hungry.”

I’ve found as I’ve grown older that habits and consistency have become more important then they ever were in youth and middle age. The old adage, “A place for everything and everything in its place,” makes life a lot easier when conscious thought processes begin to slow down. This can be carried too far – witness the retiree whose workshop wall is decorated with painted outlines of his tools – but knowing where your shoes are definitely beats feeling around on the floor in the cold dark of a winter morning. The habits that our parents drummed into us – personal hygiene, order, eating vegetables, saving some money, driving carefully – are largely lost upon us during pubescence, and may seem written on the wind; but in later years they emerge as surely as the arthritis we’ve also inherited. It’s amazing how well you take care of your teeth, for example, when you realize you’re on your own, and how compelling is the suspicion that to change the order of putting on your socks might bring bad luck. I can only imagine how peaceful life will be if, when I’m sure my wife is wrong, I can get over the habit of saying so.

Photo by Willem lange