The Reservoir is a One-Way Path

By Rachel Keranen

I have many strong feelings about small things. Fruits are better eaten individually and always degraded when mixed into a fruit salad. Saunas should be taken only in the evening unless jumping in a lake is involved, in which case they can happen during the day. The path around the reservoir in Central Park would be more enjoyable if everyone observed that it is, in fact, a one-way path. 

My own life, it seems, is a one-way path. The way is my way. I try to be flexible and entertain other ways of doing things, but somehow, I have developed great certainty about the minutiae of life despite having lived just a few decades of it. 

In the packed apartment I share with my significant other, for example, I insist we store nothing beneath the furniture. It is better when your line of sight can travel unobstructed beneath the bookshelf to the wall, when the light can reach the crevices, when there are pockets of space throughout a home. I try to explain this spatial philosophy to C., who shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, and eventually gives in to the version of his life where nothing is stored beneath something else. 

Therapists, with their ranking scales, listen to my detailed explanation of ideal spatial arrangement, which extends to how things are sorted and ordered, and label it mild OCD. Mild, because it does not seem to significantly impede my life, but OCD nonetheless.   

I once tried to enroll in a study offering CBD treatment for OCD. CBD may cure many things or nothing at all, but I was curious to see if it could solve my problems, including my anxiety, which emerges when items are not arranged or conducted in my preferred ways. After completing a two-hour interview, I asked if I qualified for the OCD CBD study. “It’s possible,” the psychologist in charge said. He had asked me many probing emotional questions such as, “Have you ever been abused?” or “Have you ever wanted to die?” and gave no reaction other than making a notation on his clipboard when I responded. Some answers generated branching chains of questions, and though I’d have liked to avoid it, I found myself struggling to explain exactly what I thought might happen if my apples shared fridge space with meat. Germs, I settled on, weakly. 

“As part of the treatment, you’d have to participate in exposure therapy,” the psychologist said. 

That means I would have to purposely do things differently. 

“For example, I’d need to put meat next to my apple?” I asked, just to be sure. He nodded. I hadn’t expected this. I didn’t want to purposely thwart my own inclinations and learn to live with the discomfort, I wanted to not care and thus permit a gentle tumble into new ways of being. I opted out of the study. 

Later, a friend who was trying to make it rich by repackaging and selling a mint-flavored CBD oil sent me a free bottle. It tasted like decomposing grass. I used the entire bottle. It had no impact as far as I can tell. I still cared deeply about separating glass containers from plastic containers in our kitchen cabinets and lining up bottles in order of height in the bathroom.

Some small things provoke a deeper response than others. Upon seeing a fruit salad, I feel disappointed at the wasted opportunity to enjoy a single fruit and a slight spark of culinary superiority because I would never make a fruit salad. But when there are magazines and headphones and socks under the bookshelf, I feel like a thick, black, rubber balloon is expanding in my chest, and if I don’t deflate it, I will explode. The only way to avoid eruption is to restore my unnatural order. 

A morning sauna falls somewhere in between. If someone else is taking one, I can laugh at their peculiarity, their disregard for convention. They might not even know there is a proper way, American as they are. But if it is suggested that I join, and my presence seems expected or highly anticipated, I get a tight feeling as I contemplate the disorder such an act would inflict on my day. Relax now? Before I have accomplished my day? Then I would have to tackle my to-do list afterward, the relaxation would be for naught, and by the end of the day, I’d have to shower again. Just thinking about it, I know I could not relax, could not enjoy the morning sauna, and it is futile to proceed. 

“I sauna in the evenings,” is all I can say on such an occasion, and although centuries of Finnish tradition stand behind me, I feel ashamed that I cannot be so freewheeling as to say yes. 

Conversely, when asked what I think about big things, like weddings or children or buying a house, I have little to offer. “Perhaps,” I say. “Perhaps I will know for certain when I’m older, once my career is further along.” If forced to state a definite opinion, I cannot, and the black balloon begins to inflate again, pressing on my ribcage, pushing up against my tongue and rendering it mute, deadening my brain. I have been saying “perhaps” on these matters for four years now. 

Could it be that the certainty I feel about small things is so acute that any other reaction dulls in comparison and cannot be trusted? Do I have a distorted sense of a gut reaction? 

It’s easy to be sure that cyclists riding the wrong direction in a bike lane are idiots. The designation exists for a reason, namely longevity of life, though someday, the game of chicken I play on my bike when faced with oncoming delivery men on their e-bikes may not end well for one of us. But if I were to err, to make the wrong choice in having children, a lot becomes permanent, irrevocable. It is frightening to make hard choices on big questions. To compensate, I make firm decisions on small matters.

My strong opinions on small things often manifest in the form of a constant drive for improvement, which I think of as optimization. The word first entered my life when I worked at a healthcare software development company. After installing the software at a new hospital, we entered the “optimization” phase. I was only tangentially involved in the proceedings—which entailed tweaking the software to make doctors and nurses less enraged by the new install—but years in the industry left me obsessed with finding bugs and optimizing the various parameters of any decision. 

After I left the software world for a more creative path, and as the pace and weight of my own life increased, the time I usually allowed for iteration and feedback loops collapsed into the pinpoint of now. Every day became a pass-fail test on the optimization curve. Arrived at the launch party wearing the right dress, shoes, and bag for the occasion? Pass. Accidentally quoted a wildly successful author to said author while misattributing the quote—and getting the quote itself wrong? Fail. 

When I am left to my own devices, it’s easier to control the variables. But I’m not always left to my own devices; there are guests to host and outings to plan—the joy and curse of living in New York. With the additional pressure of fun added, I find myself consumed by finding the best food, loveliest picnic spot, coldest rosé, shortest subway route, most entertaining museum. While on any one excursion, I find myself saying, “What would really be optimal next time…”

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” my niece B. said as we discussed where to watch Fourth of July fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge two summers ago. B. is a middle school teacher and often visits me during her breaks. I had never seen fireworks in New York before, and I didn’t know where the optimal viewing spot was. Compounding matters, I saw tickets priced at $175 to $300 to watch fireworks from fancy riverfront balconies, and I suspected those spots really were optimal. 

We arrived at Brooklyn Bridge Park, changed spots once before the fireworks started, and ended up in a surprisingly good viewing spot. (I noted it for next year.) The trees opened up and framed the riverfront just so, and we could see two of the three barges. Once the fireworks began, the crowd surged toward the river, and I followed, snaking through the crowd all the way to the edge of the East River, where I found an even better vantage point. I reported back: “From by the river, you can see all the barges and the bridge!” B. and C. didn’t want to move; they were content. I skipped back down to the river in my bare feet, having lost track of my shoes in the darkness, and watched alone, because it really was nice by the river where I could see the fireworks falling over the bridge like rain on fire.

This obsession with finding the best way is newer than my conviction in the right way, and it is harder to maintain. I can avoid making fruit salads with ease. C. is unconcerned enough to let me have my empty spaces, though it does annoy him when I make composed stacks of the objects he leaves scattered about, like the balancing rocks some people stack as a meditative practice. But doing everything optimally is exhausting, especially in a city like New York, where very few things run optimally, or even according to schedule. I continually find myself choosing the most efficient time to leave for therapy, only to find the subway is delayed, and I will, in fact, be late. My therapist suggests I leave earlier, and while I can see this is clearly the answer, I am frustrated that the train does not operate according to its posted schedule; in fact, it has no concern for its posted schedule. 

“These problems are all in your head, Rachel,” she says to me, which is true but does not feel like a particularly nice thing to say. 

I didn’t used to be like this. In fact, I’m not always like this. My obsession with peak perfection and ideal arrangements surges whenever life is particularly busy or stressful. It’s quite obvious, really. For lack of control over the big picture, I hyper-control the small picture, etc. etc.   

And I am not, incidentally, obsessed with rules. When a rule goes against my own penchant, such as waiting for a light to change before crossing the street, I am happy to ignore it. But when a rule lends authority to my own preference, I am redoubled.   

After B.’s visit that summer, a brief interlude of entertainment, I resumed my regular routine, including running in Central Park several days a week. After trying so hard to optimize every minute of her stay, and only exhausting myself in the process, I wanted to be better at letting things be as they are. Aware that the reservoir is a hot point for my right-way, wrong-way mind, I resisted the reservoir on the first few runs. I ran the park’s outer loop. I ran the inner loop. I ran the bridle path that surrounds the reservoir. But the reservoir path, that perfectly flat, smoothly graveled 1.58-mile loop with views of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side architecture called to me like a siren. I ran nearer and nearer to it. The beauty of the water and surrounding scenery grew greater and greater in my mind; the possibility of a soft surface sang in my knees. Eventually, faced with a long run requiring multiple loops in the park, I succumbed to the allure of the reservoir. 

For the first few minutes, traffic on the narrow track blissfully followed the direction indicated on the abundantly posted signage. Then I encountered one, then two, and then more people walking clockwise against traffic. 

“The reservoir is a one-way path,” I muttered as I passed, at first to myself and then more loudly, as if to offer a helpful tidbit of information to an unknowing tourist. 

“It’s a one-way path.”

“It’s a one-way path.” 

The words fell out in rhythm with my pounding feet. It became almost mechanical, the repetition and the slap of my feet on the ground. “It’s a one-way path.” 

I received zero flickers of acknowledgment as I was speaking. It would be too easy to keep going, letting the words echo in cadence with my body, and, horrified at this image, I booted myself from the reservoir path back down to the two-way bridle path.

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself muttering at people going the wrong direction around the reservoir. I have dreamed up t-shirt designs that would do the job for me, including a design with an enormous arrow indicating the proper direction and another with the words: “If you can read this, you’re going the wrong way.” When I’m in a bad mood, the latter gains an expletive at the end. Fucker. And then I start to wonder just who I have become.

It gave me great relief when I came across a New Yorker cartoon depicting a happy couple at a party. The woman tells a cluster of people, “We met when I yelled at him for running clockwise around the Reservoir.”

My heart swelled. I was not alone in my angst about the one-way nature of the path, and perhaps I was not even alone in muttering at people who went the wrong direction. Clearly, someone out there yells at offenders or at the very least thinks about yelling. I tucked the happy knowledge away, a nugget of solidarity and assurance that I could retrieve and gaze upon when upset with myself for my own curmudgeonly behavior.  

I began to wonder who else might be in the one-way camp. The vaguest Google search, “reservoir one-way path,” led to a New York Times “Complaint Box” letter from 2012 titled “Wrong-Way Runners.” 

“Is it really so difficult to heed the signs? It may be possible to miss sighting one of them. It takes some effort, or sheer indifference to the world and other people around you, to miss all of them,” the letter writer lamented. 

In the comment section, Sharon from New York noted that running on the reservoir path makes her “become so irritated it entirely negates the calming effects of the run,” which several other commenters (and I) agreed with. JC from New York disagreed: “I knew there had to be judgmental, rigid, petty people out there who would be upset at me. I think it is sad that you are so upset by such a minor infraction that you were inspired to actually write this complaint in the NYT.”

Ouch. Rigid we may be, but the column is titled “Complaint Box,” and who would shy away from an invitation to have their grievance aired in such an authoritative forum? 

It seems that I am not alone on my one-way path, as tenuously tied to reality as it may be. But unlike in the park, I don’t have a broader, more accommodating bridle path to foist myself onto. Still, I suppose, since I have created an arbitrary perfect way, I could take the time to slap together an imperfect wobble around it. 

But what would that look like? Therein lies the rub. It’s easier to envision perfection than to define an acceptable level of mediocrity, and it’s easier to envision perfection than to attain it. 

As I pass a stray item left in the wrong place, I try to tell myself that it will be fine to wait until it eventually finds its way home, or at least elsewhere. I take a breath, try to redirect. The next thing I know, I’m lining up watches in a straight row on the cabinet again and stacking a baseball cap on top of an iPad on top of a coffee thermos on the side table, and I’m finishing the stack with a rubber charity fundraiser bracelet. Perfection can be achieved!

About the author

Rachel Keranen lives in New York City where she is a Columbia University Creative Writing Teaching Fellow. She is still trying to avoid running the reservoir path (and sometimes succeeds).

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