Belly of the Whale: One More Bad Habit Nov19

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Belly of the Whale: One More Bad Habit


A blogumn by Howard Leder

A lot of folks have written on here about habits:  habits gained, habits lost.  For myself, I’ve put a lot of work of late into trying to build certain new habits – especially around time & money – but there is an old one I’ve had a lot of trouble shaking…..

Knuckle cracking.  I’ve had no peace from knuckle cracking since I was about 12 years old.

Popping my knuckles started out innocently enough.  It was the early 80’s.  I was the skinny, screeching outsider in my 6th grade class.  Utterly inept at sports and hopelessly disinterested in girls, I was inversely good at stuff that had absolutely no social caché: piano & role playing games.

Fads & fashions would sweep the school: one of the big ones was the “pocket comb” craze of the late 70’s, early 80’s: everyone had these stiff plastic combs in soft pastel colors with a handle that you had to have sticking out of your back pocket.  At opportune moments, you would whip it out & feather your hair back in perfect layers.

Now my hair was cut by mother at home in the kitchen.  To call it unstylish is almost a compliment.  It was a straight, lank, bowl-like cut that was most remiscent of the Beatles in their moptop days, which was the last time I think my mother bothered to check in on what men were doing with their hair.  Worse yet, I had no idea how to comb it into the current looks I’d seen on the boys I idolized at school.  But, I thought, I could at least tackle the wearing of the comb.  I would hide out in the bathroom–my back to the mirror–carefully placing & re-placing the comb in my back pocket, trying to get the casual style all the other kids seemed to have mastered.

So it was with knuckle cracking. I was always looking for a way to bridge the gap of differentness that I felt isolating me from my peers.  I’d seen some kids popping their knuckles in class or on the playground.  They were maybe a year or two older than me.  Not necessarily the coolest of the cool, but kids who at least fit in and weren’t pushed out of every social setting.

I went about it diligently.  I would go home afternoons and sit on the edge of my bed, bending my fingers back one by one, mimicking the moves I had seen the other kids doing. The first day, none of them cracked.  But with patience and practice, one, then another began to give. I have to say, at first it was kind of fascinating.  Mastering the exact amount of tension, the angle of attack, the tricky moment that the finger hitched up to the pop.  And then, there was the variety of cracking sounds that could be had: sometimes it was the bright, tight staccato of a snare drum, other times the soggy, dull whunk of an axe into wood.

Eventually, my knuckles popped reliably enough that I started taking it to the street.  I would do it in class, self-consciously glancing around to see who would notice: Crack.

But, predictably, no one noticed at all.  I’m not really sure what I thought would happen.  Was I thinking someone would suddenly shout out, “Hey!  Look at Howard.  He can crack his knuckles!  That is seriously cool!”

And–also predictably enough–what began as something fun to try out  mutated in only a couple weeks into a habit I’ve wanted desperately to shake my entire adult life.

I have to say that I have managed to shake bad habits before.  When I was about 25, I stopped chewing my fingernails, something I had done since I was four or five years old.  It took a couple of weeks of stopping myself everytime I found my fingertips in my mouth, but one day I noticed I was doing it much, much less, and then it just disappeared altogether.

But cracking your knuckles is a much more pernicious habit.  As nervous tics go, it is wildly difficult to let go.  I’ve tried to stop several times in the past, but it inevitably creeps back in from the edges, mostly I think because your hands are always…just…right there.  I am by nature fidgety & restless, my fingers & feet constantly tapping.  Wherever I am, at work or driving or in the shower in the morning (or typing like now), the hands just unconsciously drift together & voilà: Snap Snap.  Dozens of times a day, the brittle twinge leaving behind an instant kind of private pleasure.

In a year, though, I’m turning 40.  A couple weeks back I looked at myself, looked at my hands & thought:  This is a kid thing.  You need to get rid of it.

So once again, I’ve put myself on guard.  Whenever I feel my hands starting to crawl together–like Thing from the Addams Family…Thing and his evil twin I guess–I stop, pull them apart, put them on some other task.  Sometimes I catch them at the last possible moment, the finger bent back on the very edge of cracking, like a door half latched.

And I can feel the habit starting to budge.  The other day, I had been up and about for several hours when I realized I hadn’t cracked my knuckles at all.  For which I promptly rewarded myself by popping them all in sequence.  It was a cold day, so the snap was particularly sharp and satisfactory.  Will power has never been my strong suit.


Photo Credit: Nicole Makauskas/