Thursday, January 5, 2012
My husband is a neat freak. Actually, that doesn't even begin to describe it. His need for order seems to surpass that for human conversation, physical warmth…you name it. Now, I'm sure he'll take issue with this (and I'll definitely hear about it later) but the facts speak for themselves. We actually moved from one house to another because he couldn't stand tripping over the toys parked by the front door. Oh, and what a surprise it was to discover that adding 100 sq. meters didn't actually dispense with those toys, it just relocated them a few meters to the right--out of immediate target range.
I've lived with my fair share of "neat freaks," not to name names; all of them teetering somewhere on the border of, gulp, "obsessive compulsive." One lines up pencils and polishes tables, another just can't stand to see "stuff" scattered around the various surfaces of the house. For the record, I actually think that those "surfaces" shout: "bring me stuff"—I mean, what else are they meant for? How ironic that my brother, who constantly needled me to "pick up" during those summers we shared a house, eventually married a woman who is, shall we say, slightly less focused on order. My sister in law proudly claims that she "broke" him. I love that. But I don't know how she did it. Maybe he just loves her that much. I'm envious—despite having quite a lot of "love" in my house, I've been completely unable to "break" my spouse.
The proof of actual OCD lies in its manifestation further down the genetic line. There is simply no neater space in my house than my daughter's room. It's so tidy that any "intruders," items I find elsewhere and haphazardly return to her shelves (folded laundry, a school notebook, or an Ipod) seemingly call out in distress: "We don't belong!" Until she has actually logged each item into its precise location, everything seems out of place. Furthermore, anyone actually caught putting something, for example, on her desk, risks waking the wrath of Khan.
There are definitely benefits to living with what could be called "freaks of nature;" the obvious one being that things are usually "in place" and can, accordingly, be found. And to be sure, there is nothing more stomach-turning than a glance into one of my boys' rooms. Being a "neat freak" is not necessarily a bad thing. However, in the long run, it's probably a good thing that my daughter's the only one, of the three, to have received that "tidy" chromosome. After all, I've seen its ugly side. Indeed, the panic that accompanies disorder, for this obviously "disadvantaged" population, can be frightening to witness.
In order to truly understand what I definitely consider a "disorder," I need to describe the various clothes' closets in our house. My husband's, not surprisingly, boasts neat piles of carefully folded shirts and pants complete with ironed pleats and a uniform profile. Not one obedient soldier is out of place. My sons', on the other hand, represent something closer to M*A*S*H; a result of their nasty tendency to just "pull out" whatever they need (GASP!!) leaving the neighboring items hanging at all angles, for the most part unfolded and in some cases (Oh No!) on the floor!!! I already described my daughter's inclination so one can imagine which closet hers most closely resembles. Mine? My closet is somewhere in the middle. Yep--stuck in the middle as always.
One of my housekeeper's primary duties, determined by my husband, is to "straighten" the closets. What does that mean? That means that she spends a good portion of each week whipping each little "soldier" into order and neatly tucking "him" back into "his" assigned location! Can you imagine? So much to clean and sweep and mop and wipe and scrub and she's wasting valuable energy lining up the folded corners of our gym shorts and button-down shirts! I don't think I have to complete the description of this insanity with a medical diagnosis. The facts speak for themselves.
Despite this frightening situation, I think I've come a long way in increasing my husband's tolerance for "organized mess" and I definitely feel that we've reached some kind of negotiated middle ground. At least, I thought I'd made progress. An incident a few weeks back suggests otherwise. Imagine a sunny Saturday morning. I'm tucked comfortably back into pajamas after returning from a hard morning ride, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news on line. The children are each in their individual caves engaging with whatever virtual world lies beyond their screen of choice. In swoops my husband with a pile of newly-purchased vacuum-packed storage bags and a smile similar to that of the Cheshire Cat—and equally as conniving!
For those not in the know, these bags are outfitted with a large plastic nozzle. The idea is to stuff them with clothes, attach a vacuum and then suck out all of the air. The items inside are shrunken to a fraction of their former size and occupy far less space than if, for example, allowed to sit neatly folded on a shelf. These bags are an excellent solution for those who lack proper storage space. If I still lived in a studio in Manhattan I could understand their role in my life. As it is, lucky enough to have a huge storage room downstairs, one of the fringe benefits of having moved to that bigger house, their purpose is much less obvious. In truth of fact, I think they're basically one more means by which my husband can try to assume complete control of what he obviously feels to be an untenable amount of disorder.
Within one afternoon he literally took everything we could define as "out of use but too emotionally valuable to pitch" as well as "summer clothes" and squeezed them into a surprisingly small number of these bags…sucking the air out of each and every one. At some point during this project the hamster went missing. I panicked. Maybe in his frenzy to compress, my husband had sucked him in as well. I imagined him lost within one of these wrinkled bags--gasping for air. I frantically started to sort through the unbelievably small wrinkly plastic bags (just how many pounds of clothes were crammed into each one??) and then paused. It was so quiet. Everyone was home but there was no noise whatsoever. Where were the kids? How come I couldn't hear them? Was it possible? Had my husband been so hell-bent on sucking up and shrinking everything in sight that he hadn't bothered to discriminate between animate and inanimate? Was it even possible to vacuum our three kids into these bags?
Although he obviously would have done no such thing I acknowledged the appeal of the idea. What a tidy solution to an untidy hitch! These bags could offer a way to finally manage the physical and emotional mess entailed in raising three kids!
Abandoning this fantasy, I started thinking about all of this sucking and stowing. Was life meant to be so easily packaged and controlled? By suffocating one's memories can we effectively tuck away the past? I find the present state of our storage room to be nothing less than depressing. These bags, or rather, "agents of order," have wrecked total havoc with what used to be a clammy space filled with my history: a little bit of Brown University, a race or two, high school youth group, a ski trip to Vermont, winters in Michigan. All of this was still documented in the t-shirts, scarves, gloves and jackets which I absolutely refused to throw out or give away. But where one glance inside the storage room used to reveal an assortment of scrumptious colors and textures, a visual history of my life say, post 1980, it had now become a conglomeration of tortured-looking plastic packs, yearning to be freed; or, at minimum, to breathe.
Maybe it's not that important to keep our sails trim, to pick up the pieces, to tidy the rough edges. I appreciated comedian Jonathan Ames' recent article on what he so cleverly called "kipple". Kipple is basically everything that gets left behind: bottle tops, receipts from the post office, old school tests, a random photograph from a summer long past, a key whose lock can't be identified, a child's art project, a sock whose match is missing in action. While my mess doesn't come anywhere close to the accumulation of detritus described so hysterically by Ames, it is precisely this "kipple" which clutters my house's surfaces and drives my husband crazy. Maybe it's time to raise a protest of the sort being held in Wall Street and downtown Tel Aviv; a kind of "Take back the right to Accumulate" demonstration. After all, a life of skirting around the edges of these neat freaks has left me firmly convinced that a little clutter indicates a lot of character. As Anna Nalick sings, just "Breathe."