My Story: Plastic psychology

I realized that I enjoy a personality trait when one of my neighbors caught me rummaging about in a Jerusalem dumpster.

plastic psych 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
plastic psych 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I realized that I enjoy a personality trait which had begun to slide toward becoming a frank disorder when one of my neighbors caught me rummaging about in a Jerusalem dumpster. But to understand my condition, we must head back several decades ago to the famous film The Graduate in which a middle-aged tycoon grabs hold of the young character played by Dustin Hoffman. The elder gent pats him on the shoulder, looks Dustin straight in the eye and declaims one word, "Plastics." At the time, well into the 1960s, the word already had a pejorative ring to it, implying robber-baron capitalism, materialism and yes - a whiff of pollution. The movie scene of course capitalized on our ambivalence to the polymer. (And as a 10-year-old, Toronto, circa 1960, I vividly recall my hardware merchant uncle proudly showing off his new product - unbreakable plastic plates. "Here, Ida, watch this," Uncle Max declared to my mother as he dropped the plate on the floor, expecting it to bounce around harmlessly. As the plate shattered into a thousand fragments, so too my faith in the competence of adults. As such, the benefit side of the equation for plastics, before I began to understand the costs, was undermined early and dramatically.) The perils of plastics (the polymers having been vilified for so long now) have now been somewhat mollified by the partial solution of recycling. No more will plastic containers, bottles and toys take up landfill and/or offend the eye. Rather, via the magic of recycling, this material is meant to be turned back into sturdy friends of the environment: more plastic containers, bottles and toys - ad infinitum. A veritable eternal combustion machine, but with neither smoke nor pollution. I have sometimes wondered whether, via recycling, we may not really be solving anything but merely postponing pollution to another far-off day - saving our children perhaps, but ultimately heaving the final great avalanche of unrecyclable plastic onto the shoulders of our grandchildren. That seditious possibility aside, I was of course delighted when Israel finally enacted a bottle refund and recycling law a few years ago. Evidence of this progress is the strategic placement of cage-like structures in every neighborhood. Like proud sentinels, these containers stand ready and waiting to receive (and presumably forward on to the appropriate bench factory) our plastic refuse. And fill up they do. But as alluded to above, their presence has exposed for all to see a little quirk in my personality. My wife and lately my kids have been aware of this problem for years, but not so the public. I now, for the first time, admit to a mild, obsessive-compulsive trait - wherein I prefer everything to be neat and tidy. You would not know about the problem by looking at my desks - either at home or in my office at Soroka University Medical Center - but the point is I want them to be neat and tidy. My wife, (by the way a senior Hadassah physician) who does not suffer from any such defect, also sports a messy desk - but this fact does not bother her at all. Apparently, according to the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic bible, DSM-IV, the disorder in question is described as involving recurring obsessions or compulsions "severe enough to be time consuming... or cause marked distress or significant impairment." It seems that I am fortunate in that I only suffer from one half of the syndrome: Obsessions don't seem to obsess me, but a certain compulsion does compel me. I find that wherever I go, either by foot or behind the wheel, I have an almost overwhelming desire to collect and rescue stray plastic bottles. To postpone the physical ravages of age I have a route in my south Jerusalem neighborhood over which I quick-walk. But I can't seem to get up any steam as I must stop all the time to rescue bottles. On a typical jaunt, I might find five or six miscreants. But as it is not easy to walk and hold on to a lot of empty plastic containers, I graduated to picking up discarded plastic bags (a double rescue!). As such, I pop bottles into them so as to facilitate my ability to walk without juggling a bunch of empty containers. But it appears that the true obsessive-compulsive cannot be satisfied by such a technique. If for example I can't find a bag on my perambulations, I become noticeably upset. So much so that I now always bring one from home. But when I fill it up and sight more bottles which I cannot hold on to, I wonder why I did not bring a spare bag. I realized, especially after my wife began to accompany me on my walks, that my behavior was beginning to approach the border between a socially laudable Zionist act and one which expressed a severe anal-retentive trait. Like all addicts, I know that I needed help, but could not bring myself to begin to look for it until I was trapped in flagrante bottelo. Ever since the new law was promulgated, whenever I go to toss in a bag of garbage from our house I cannot help but notice the presence in the bin of empty plastic bottles discarded by my less ecologically-minded neighbors. Why couldn't they separate their trash I fumed? Why couldn't they recycle their empty plastic bottles? Didn't they know that with every container buried in a landfill site rather than being resurrected into a plastic bench, we were burying our children ever deeper in a hydrocarbonic morass from which they would never be able to dig themselves out? As I tore into the offending garbage bags, liberating Coke bottles, Pepsi bottles, soda bottles and juice bottles, stuffing the filthy containers into my carrier bag, I did not notice that one of my neighbors had walked up, curious to see exactly what I was doing. Clearly perplexed by my behavior - it is not often that he found a middle-class, middle-aged professor of medicine pursuing such an activity - Yossi asked very tentatively if I was okay and if he could help me with anything. Aroused suddenly from my recycling mania, I could think of only one word. I looked him steadily in the eyes, put my hand on his shoulder and forcefully expostulated, "Yes, Yossi... plastics!" When not occupied with saving Israel's environment, the writer is the chief of geriatrics at the Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba.