Thursday, February 7, 2008

I walk with a slight lean from the weight of my heat

In these short essays, I reflect on how a lyric from the Wu-Tang Clan album "The W" speaks to my personal experience.

On tics and good beats.

[Further precursor to the essay: according to a quick internet search, astute listeners believe the lyric is, "I walk with a slight lean from the way that the heat..." followed by some non-linear lyrics that make little sense to me. Since I cannot recall the exact lyric from The Wu-Tang Manual, I prefer my own interpretation. In fact, I am uninterested in the correct lyric, as I believe mine is more in the spirit of the song than the one mentioned above. I use the same reasoning in regards to the Coldplay song "Clocks". I believe my heard lyric of "tigers wade in to the Thames" presents stunning imagery far superior to the correct lyric "tigers waiting to be tamed." This is an ongoing debate with my husband, which usually ends with one person proposing that the other is an ass-clown.]

I developed my first tic when I was nine. Compulsively and repeatedly, I bit hard under my bottom lip, which eventually resulted in a sort of scabby soul patch. The blemish lasted for a week, a lifetime for a fifth grader. My fear of sticking out put a quick end to this compulsion; but the scab patch was a harbinger of many tics to come.

When I was eleven I started sniffing as though I had a mild cold. My mother was understandably annoyed by this habit (oddly, I can not recall her reaction to the scab patch). I was unaware of my uncontrollable sniffing, and my mother's reprimands only exacerbated the problem. Seeing no resolution to our struggle, I lied to my mother, telling her I felt sick.

At the doctor's office, I was diagnosed with sinusitis, and my mother became terribly apologetic. What luck! I knew the doctor was a quack, but my mother stopped harassing me, so I was pleased. A few months later, hypochondriac karma had its way when I told my parents I thought my wrist was broken. They waited 48 hours to take me to the doctor. Though I was proven right, there was no guilt this time.

The sniffing did not cease and was soon accompanied by coughing. These were soft dry coughs, not to be confused with compulsive throat clearing, the latter which I have observed as a common habit for others. To this day, the sniffing and coughing persist.

During high school, I expanded my repertoire of tics, none of which I have completely lost. Among others, I added:

1. Blowing out my cheeks: Surprisingly I recall being caught in this act only once, though I am rather sure this occurs daily.
2. Sucking on the inside of my cheeks: This always follows number one. It also follows applying lipstick and brushing my teeth.
3. Tapping my hands in a specific sequence: This habit is borderline obsessive compulsive, as if I do not finish the sequence, I believe that Someone. Might. Die. Predating the scab patch, I recall tapping sequences during car trips as a young child, though I do not believe it was compulsive at the time. When I was young, I also habitually recited powers of two in my head until the number reached too high to remember. I similarly thought of large numbers and divided them by three, but, again, this was not so much compulsive as it was entertaining.

In college, I affectionately received the nickname "Rain Beth" after a friend caught me rocking back and forth repeating some sequence of numbers. Fortunately, I lost this tic almost immediately after being caught. The nickname stuck, though, as it was soon discovered that, like Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man", I was unusually fast in counting objects. [As a child, I often won the 'guess the number of jelly beans in a jar' type game. To this day, I become very anxious when that party game is played, and almost always guess above or below my actual projection, so as not to reveal this ability.] I once told this story to some co-workers, who then found that, without counting, I know the number of characters in long Spanish words.

Today my counting compulsion appears only when I observe ornate detail in architecture. A few years ago, I struggled to count the number of pipes in a church organ. My frustration changed to anxiety, as I feared I had lost this innate aspect of my personality. This was an early indicator of my nearsightedness. Seeing that organ with my new glasses confirmed that I had not lost my gift(?).

Since college, my only new tic is hard squinting. Interestingly, I recognize this as my father's one compulsion, which is especially pronounced when he drives (likewise for me). I wonder if he had many childhood tics, lost in adulthood, and if this might also happen to me. I often suspect that my father and I were very similar children.

Occasionally I will develop an unusual compulsion that I can easily cease, as long as I detect it early. Recently at work, I caught myself unknowingly mouthing and sometimes audibly sounding out consonants I was reading. I stopped this before anyone noticed. Hopefully this has made the way of the rocking tic. My husband once caught me putting my hand in my dog’s mouth while he yawned. Upon asking why I would do such an odd thing, I realized I had been compulsively doing this in secret for days. Since I did not catch this early on, I still struggle with this.

I find great comfort in the presence of other people with tics. At my last job, we hired a woman with a pronounced stutter, and I was immediately endeared to her. My co-workers understood her condition, but occasionally felt uncomfortable or impatient and finished the word she could not. On the contrary, with every stutter, I grew more and more patient and comforted by her presence.

I have the great fortune of living and working in a city full of mentally unstable individuals I encounter daily. Every morning, I find great joy in walking through Boston Common with the man who walks in perfect squares, the woman who jerks her head to the left every four steps, the elderly Chinese man who passers-by think is doing tai chi (he isn't). In no way am I equating my mild compulsions with mental illness; I simply find comfort in a familiar action. I especially feel a bond with the high functioning business suit types who, like me, walk through the park alone hoping to privately let loose the tics they have bottled up over the past few hours. Many times, I have observed looks of shame after accidental eye contact, but no! It's OK! I'm like you!

My mild tics and compulsions have had little effect on my life, and have generally been easy to conceal or compensate for. I have one habit, though, that I fear might get me in trouble, so I consciously mitigate it. I do not think this is technically a tic, and I further suspect that it is quite common. When in conversation, I mirror the stance of my partner. If he crosses his legs, I cross my legs. If he has a hand on his hip, I have a hand on my hip. The worst is the hand to the face, because the mimicking is so obvious that it appears to be mocking. To mitigate this habit, while in conversation, I alter my position every 30 seconds, knowing that about every 15 seconds I will have gravitated towards mirroring.

Likewise, I mimic mannerisms and voice inflections of my conversation partners. This almost always appears to be mockery. English accents are especially challenging for me, and the excuse that my father is British goes only so far. Thus, I consciously watch my speech while speaking with anyone with an unusual accent or speech pattern.

Music also affects my mannerisms, especially while walking. I commute by foot two miles to and from work, during which I usually listen to music. My ipod shuffle fits just nine albums, and I usually skip any song that is not emo, R&B or hip-hop. While listening to emo or R&B, my eyes reflect the soulful and earnest tone of the song. When Dashboard Confessional sings “Don’t you see that the charade is over?” my brow is furrowed in anger then raised in a plea for my lover’s return. During Maxwell’s “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever” I sultrily gaze into the distance then earnestly close my eyes when his falsetto hits a climax. But with certain hip-hop songs, I find my whole body transformed.

Wu-Tang Clan’s "One Blood Under W" is one such song. By the time he speaks the lyric "I walk with a slight lean from the weight of my heat," I have become Masta Killa. My pace slows down. I favor one leg over the other. I am keenly observant of my surroundings. I feel generally confident that if necessary, I could seriously fuck someone up (a rather futile attitude as I walk the tree-lined cobblestoned streets of Boston's Back Bay).

It is not solely the lyrics that cause this transformation, though Masta Killa’s description o­­­­f walking through Brooklyn, killing without mercy, fear or remorse does have an effect. In fact, the rhythm is far more influential. Masta Killa slowly, effortlessly rhymes over a simple beat, never changing his rhythm. The repetitive style portrays Masta Killa as callous and authoritative. Every other line is punctuated by a twangy chord I can only compare to the moment in a caper movie following a shocking clue reveal and preceding a quick fade to black. The chord emphasizes the severity of the subject and Masta Killa’s coldness towards it.

Contemporary hip-hop songs often suffer from a complete disconnection between lyric and style. When T-Pain and Akon sing about jail time and drug addiction, the listener asks, ‘How can life be so hard for these men who sound like cartoon dolphins* and rhyme over bubblegum pop beats?’

Even more irritating are songs with lyric and style that just barely miss each other. Fabolous' "You Make Me Better" has an outstanding beat that is part seductive, part sinister, and warrants a similar lyric. Instead, the song falls into the popular category of ‘I’m ready to settle down with one woman.’ This is further aggravating, because by hip-hop standards, Fabolous is too young, too hot, and too thug to settle down.** A proclivity to rhyme slowly does not preclude a love of fast women. And this is the second Fabolous song of this variety (the first being “Trade It All”)! This genre works well for older hip-hop veterans like Puff Daddy ("I Need a Girl Part 2"), LL Cool J (“Love You Better”) and Snoop Dogg (John Legend’s “I Can Change”), not for artists under the age of 30. Furthering the disconnect in "You Make Me Better" is Ne-Yo's performance on the hook, which, to match the song’s message, should be loving, but comes off as pained.

On the other hand, a beat that brilliantly matches the overall intended tone and message of the song can make up for the most pathetic lyric. Examples include 50 Cent's "So Seductive", Baby Bash's "Suga Suga" and Lupe Fiasco's "Sunshine".

Considering together my compulsion of mimicking and my discerning ear, I can only hope that i) I am not provoked while listening to Masta Killa, and ii) I am never in a situation that involves both Akon and tuna nets.

*Apologies to David Thorpe, who I believe was the first to compare Akon to a cartoon dolphin.

**I rather sheepishly admit that I read Fabolous' Wikipedia entry to ensure that he was not in fact married with children, living in the suburbs. For the first time in my life, I felt compelled to edit Wikipedia. His entry reads like a high school freshman book report, full of inconsistent and inappropriate verb tenses and unsubstantiated claims to his personality. It includes such gems as, "Initially, Fabolous was not seriously into rapping." Though not a great fan of Fabolous, I feel his life deserves a bit more of a poetic narrative. This gives me an idea for a screenplay, pitched here: In the inspirational spirit of such films as "Dangerous Minds" and "Stand and Deliver", disengaged inner-city kids develop a love for grammar and writing style by editing Wikipedia entries of their favorite hip-hop artists.

[End note: After writing this essay, I researched Tourette's Syndrome, and it was certainly eye-opening. Like many others, I have a mix of bad habits, occasional obsessive compulsions and mild Tourette's. Some of the more telling factors include bottling up tics until alone, inheriting tics from my father, onset at age nine, coughing, squinting, mimicking, and having no signs of ADHD (some tics are often confused with ADHD habits). What is unusual to me, though, is that I have developed more tics with age. Usually it is the reverse; children have many tics they lose over time.]

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