Obsession (Not the Fragrance)

The word “obsession” reminds me of those Calvin Klein TV commercials from the 80’s. You know, the ones featuring a beautiful couple gazing passionately at one another, in the shadows, and ending with the woman whispering something mock-profound, like: “Where do I end and you begin? Obsession.” (If she really doesn’t know, then she’s got some serious identity issues.)

Obsession is a word I know well, and not because of Calvin Klein. I also am familiar with “obsessed” and “obsessive” and “obsessive compulsive.” I know these words well because, well, I become easily obsessed. It’s (only a little) comforting to know it’s a trait I share with other Aspies.

The object of my obsession changes. Not day to day, but more like year to year. I’m not someone who, for example, devotes his life to building model trains. I don’t think I could devote my life to anything. With me, I get deep into a subject, and it’s like I sink my teeth into it and can’t let go. Or a better metaphor would be that my teeth get stuck and I’m forced to chew and chew and chew until I’ve finally devoured the subject, to the point that no one wants to hear anymore about it. Ever. Again.

Over the past year, my obsession has been tennis. (Were you surprised, given my last post?) That includes not just tennis players, but tennis tournaments,  techniques (I’ve spent MONTHS practicing my “kick” serve), strategy, the history of tennis, ranking the greatest players, and perhaps most of all, tennis racquets (or as some prefer, especially those who have a pathological hatred of the French, rackets).

For the uninitiated — and that includes close to seven billion people, I’m guessing — there are hundreds of models of tennis racquets. Thousands, if you include historical racquets (I can tell you about the development from wood to metal to graphite to present day graphite blends, if you’re interested … which you’re probably not).

Different racquets have different characteristics: flex/stiffness, size of the face, how “headlight” or “headheavy,” the size of the beam, the length of the racquet, their swingweight. And then there are the strings, which are as important as the racquet. There’s multifilament and the newer polyester and nylon strings. But the gold standard is still natural gut. (It’s not cat gut, by the way, but cow gut. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, but it smells when it’s wet — ponder that.) Besides the type of string, the tension is important too; pros, and even casual players now, use everything from super loose (45 pounds per square inch), to being so tense the strings frequently break (75 pounds per square inch). If that’s not complicated enough, most players now use a hybrid mix of two types of strings … which often have different tensions!

The only silver lining is the practical application of this knowledge, that is, it helps me choose a racquet, or should in theory anyway. But what it’s done mostly is make me question whether my racquet or strings (or grip, or vibration dampener, or anti-sweat gel or whatever tennis-related thing I’m obsessing over) could be better. I’ve tried out about 40 different racquets over the past several years and only recently did I find what I think might (I cautiously say “might”) be The One. So, to a large extent, it’s knowledge just for knowledge’s sake. It also leads to new obsessions, like the one that is supplanting tennis (but that’s for another post).

Obsession is also distracting. Not distracting to me, but distracting to what I’m supposed to be doing, whether at home or work (or, in the past, at school). I’ve read Asperger’s books pointing out that being obsessive can be a positive, because detail-oriented people who can focus on a single topic for long stretches without interruption are often valued. In other words, obsession is actually less, not more, of a distraction. That view was recently validated when German software company SAP announced it’s actively seeking to hire Aspies. And I find some truth in it: every group, family or enterprise needs different personality types to function effectively. But for me, it’s a perpetual struggle to hold back the obsession demon, to concentrate on all the many work or home tasks I’m supposed to, rather than the particular subject I want to. (Case in point — I’m at work, and yet writing this blog; in the interest of full disclosure, though, I don’t have much work to do today.)

I’m not sure if, on balance, my obsessive nature is a positive or negative, although I’m leaning toward the latter. But I also know that fighting it only makes it worse, and makes me unhappy. So I try to manage my obsession the best I can, to let it run free until it (hopefully) tires itself out. There’s also the pharmacological route. But that too is for another post.

Hmm. Maybe my next obsession should be time management techniques.

(Any thoughts on techniques to manage obsessions are welcome.)

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