What You Do Can Be Great, Or Grating

ALICE STEINBACH

March 08, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

The way you wear your hat. The way you sip your tea. The way you hold your knife. The way you sing off-key. The way you crack your knuckles. The way you move your lips when you read. The way you scratch your knee.

The memory of all that. Oh, please -- puh-leeze -- take that away from me.

Habits. The good, the bad, the eccentric. The kind of habits that lead to love. And the kind that lead to divorce.

Habits. You can't live with them and you can't live without them.

And don't kid yourself that you are free of habits. That your custom of chewing gum with your mouth open doesn't qualify as a habit. Nor does your practice of saying "OK?" at the end of every sentence.

Let's face it: A habit by any other name would irritate as much. OK?

Which reminds me: Is anyone else bothered as much as I am by Gov. Bill Clinton's habit of biting his lower lip between sentences?

Although, come to think of it, a lot of habits with the potential to annoy are connected with the mouth: whistling, eating, humming, speech patterns, lip-licking, loud swallowing and all manner of recognizable -- and unrecognizable -- noises, to name a few.

And speaking of the potential to annoy, is there anyone out there besides me who squirms at the way Pat Buchanan crinkles his nose every time he bares his teeth in a smile?

Of course, it's a scientific fact, although one posited by not very reliable scientists, that all habits -- even the most obnoxious -- are considered charming if encountered in one very specific sphere of influence: the love zone.

Yes, it's a truth universally acknowledged that when one is drowning in the sea of love there is no such thing as a bad habit. All habits simply make your Beloved more, well, beloved.

It's only when you split up or divorce that you look back and see that your Beloved's custom of snorting when he laughed did, in retrospect, annoy you slightly. Although not as much as his practice of methodically ripping up matchbook covers into 2,982 pieces. Which, now that it comes up, was far less obnoxious than the way he read out loud every exit sign on I-95 -- and its destination -- between Baltimore and Boston.

Who was it who said that habits are first cobwebs, then cables?

And speaking of saying things, is it just me or have you had it, too, with the way George Bush affects the Everyman style of droppin' his g's when he talks?

By now, you're probably wondering: "Well, she mentioned good habits at the top of the column, too. But so far she hasn't said a word in their praise."

All right, I admit it. I've been putting off getting to the good habits section of this column for two reasons. One, because it is my custom to procrastinate a teeny, tiny bit on very, very rare -- almost non-existent -- occasions. And, two, it is my firm belief there are no such things as "good" habits. OK?

When it comes to habits, I am of the opinion that because a habit is automatic -- which is to say, thoughtless -- it is by definition negative. And usually unalterable. Which brings up the question: Can you change your habits?

Or put another way: Can a leopard change his -- or her -- spots?

Which leads -- in my associative process, anyway -- to the interesting question: Do animals, particularly of the pet persuasion, have habits?

I say yes. For instance, my cat, Max, has acquired the habit of forgetting to retract his tongue after bathing himself. Which means he just sits there looking silly, his tongue still sticking out of his mouth, for about a half-hour. Or till snack time. Whichever comes first.

I hate when that happens. Don't you?

And before I forget, have you noticed how often Paul Tsongas licks his lips when he's giving a speech? Or is it just me who's keeping count of his ratio of lip-licks to completed sentences?

Of course, as Mark Twain pointed out, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits." And although it annoys me -- Twain's annoying habit of pointing out annoying things -- he was right.

It's easy to see the habits of others, but difficult to see your own. A thought which made me wonder what my own worst bad habit is.

Let's see: Perhaps it's the habit of eating cereal out of the box. No, wait a minute, it's the habit of writing remarks in the margins of books. No, more than that I think it's . . . Oh, all right. It's the habit of indecision.

OK?

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