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Normal in an abnormal way
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You know you’re getting old when you start getting picked for health studies.

Years ago -- gosh, it might have been more than two decades, now that I think about it -- I received a letter from some cardiac researchers at the University of North Carolina. They were undertaking a study and had randomly picked a number of alumni to take part.

The plan was to distribute a questionnaire at the beginning, and to follow up every year with another questionnaire. It wasn’t difficult to determine that the study was attempting to link mental attitudes to the condition of the heart. That first questionnaire had lots of questions like this:

• “Do you think people are plotting behind your back?”

• “Is there a conspiracy among your co-workers to get you fired?”

• “Do you hear people whispering about you on a regular basis?”

• “Do you often feel hopeless?”

I answered honestly, of course, telling the researchers about those voices in my head and about the way the devil tries to talk to me when I lie down to sleep at night. Also, about the urge to push people off cliffs and tall buildings.

Anyway, I’ve faithfully answered the dopey questionnaire every year, and all of them have contained the same type queries. Paranoia seems to be the dominant theme each year.

Of course, there’s always a spot to list all the heart trouble you’ve had since the previous year, and I’m sure the researchers get all jolly trying to figure whether it was the co-worker conspiracy or the whispering that led to cardiac problems among the participants. Fortunately, I’ve stayed away from that section.

The latest survey -- I can count on a big, thick envelope arriving every year or so -- asks for more information than any of the others.

In addition to the standard questions about my heart and all the people who are plotting against me, it asks me to list in detail three negative events in my life -- for example, “being beaten up by a stranger” or “being stalked” or “witnessing a stranger or an acquaintance attack someone and injure or kill them.”

Such incidents are to be described in detail, and then there’s a long series of questions to see how those incidents have affected my life and, I guess, the condition of my heart.

Like everyone, I’ve had negative events in my life, but I’ve not been able to come up with three of them that have haunted me for decades.

I’ve never been beaten up by a stranger, though Billy Smith whacked the heck out of the side of my head back in the eighth grade for stealing his girlfriend, Brenda Sue Boone.

 (She later dumped me when I threw up on her shoes after riding the Ferris wheel at the county fair, so I got a licking for nothing, but it hasn’t had a lasting impact on my life.)

Some of my other negative experiences have involved speeding tickets, missed three-foot putts on the 18th hole, stocks that took a nosedive and a kidney stone that left me writhing in agony on the floor.

I don’t think those are the type things the researchers are looking for, though, as none of them involve hearing voices or wanting to stab a stranger.

Oddly enough, last year’s letter said that over the years, as time passes, “There should be small decreases in neuroticism and small increases in agreeableness.” What the heck does that mean?

After all, if you can’t be neurotic as you grow older, what are the privileges of old age?