Friday, May 18, 2007

Messiness: Moral Weakness or Sign of Genius?

I am a messy person. There is no doubt about it. It must be something genetic, and, as with many of my traits, it seems to have been passed down through my maternal aunt. Or maybe I should blame it on my father. He was a packrat in his own right, and not all that neat. But he was only allowed to mess up small portions of the house when I was growing up, so it wasn't that obvious.

My mother has always been neat; not always that clean, mind you - she may have crumbs around the cat's food dish, or dust behind the chair. But overall, if you look at my mother's living space, it is neat. There are no piles of mail and catalogues, no crumpled sweaters that weren't hung up, no shoes lying around.

When I was a child, my mother tried her best to instill her neatness into me. When I was still a pre-schooler, maybe three or four years old, my mother tried to get me to help clean up my own toys. She tells me she tried to make a game out of it. "Here, honey, let's see how fast you can put your toys back in the toy box!" I wasn't having any of it; I was a child not easily fooled. I knew work when I saw it. I refused and she ended up putting the toys away, her first mistake.

Later on she would try to get me to learn to vacuum. I would give it a half-hearted try, but would perform so abysmally my mother gave up in frustration and did it herself.

I did go through a short phase of obsessive cleanliness when I first moved into an apartment with my friend Ingrid. I decided I had to thoroughly clean the apartment every week, including mopping, cleaning the bathroom, dusting and vacuuming. This phase lasted through the year and a half I lived in that apartment, and through the two years my husband and I lived in our apartment. It was only one bedroom, and he would vacuum and I'd clean the bathroom. So it wasn't much work, and he was neat like my mother, so between the two of us we kept the apartment pretty nice.

That all ended when we moved into our house. It is a large house, with many rooms, rooms just begging to be turned into "junk rooms." We also receive lots of mail, including magazines and catalogues.

Gradually the mess crept up on us. Some of my messiness apparently gradually rubbed off on him; sadly, none of his neatness rubbed off on me.

Neither of us can manage to throw away the unwanted mail that comes. We always think that a catalogue may have something of interest in it if we ever have time to look at it. We keep invitations that we may want to reply to sometime. We leave things out on the kitchen counter to remind ourselves to respond to them. Eventually some of these treasures are put on top of the microwave, when they start cluttering up the counter too much. As a result, the pile on top of the microwave often collapses and spills all over the counter. Instead of sorting through it and discarding any of these paper keepsakes, we just pile them right back up again.

Newspapers are another problem. We get two every day - the Star Ledger and the New York Times. Even though we recycle, there are always several days' worth of newspapers in a heap on the floor in our sunporch where we sit most of the time.

Our living room usually looks acceptable, but other rooms don't fare as well. Any surfaces tend to collect piles of paper or else dishes that are waiting to either go into the dishwasher or be put away. It is seldom that our dining room table is actually visible beneath the piles of stuff. We invite people over for dinner to force ourselves to tidy up.

The bedroom is a hellhole. The floor is covered with the various pairs of shoes I wear most often. (The closet floor has another large pile of those that I don't wear often). The footboard of the bed and top of the hamper have a myriad of clothes that have been worn once and are too clean to throw in the hamper but not clean enough to go back in the piles of clean laundry that are sitting in the baskets. I never actually put clean laundry away; I just use the laundry baskets as bureau drawers and pick things out of the baskets to wear.

Next to my bed are about 25 books and maybe 15 magazines, most waiting to be read, and some in mid-read. If I hear about a book that sounds interesting I immediately order it on so I won't forget about it. Then it sits waiting for me to have enough time to actually read it. It isn't until vacation that I sit for days on end in an orgy of book-reading, and finally catch up.

Once my mother bought me Sandra Felton's The Messies Manual, now available in a new updated version on Felton explains in an entertaining and insightful way what makes us Messies be the way we are, and how to conquer our Messiness. Apparently Messies, as she calls us, tend to be perfectionists, and if they can't clean their house perfectly, they don't want to do it at all. Another tendency that leads to messiness is sentimentality - we tend to want to hold on to the past. That is certainly true. There are three boxes full of memorabilia from the old family house sitting in my living room!

One of the methods that the Manual recommends is to "Mount Vernonize" your house; that is, clean the house the way they clean Mount Vernon. They do it one room at a time until the whole place is done and then start over. But I have to admit I haven't really done that because it wouldn't be satisfying. I like the feeling of saying "There! The whole place is clean!" (Guess that's that perfectionism of mine).

Entertaining though the Messies Manual is, and as good as its advice is, it never actually changed my way of life. I truly think messiness is genetic. And, like any genetic tendency, it is very hard to eradicate.

So imagine how excited I was when I heard about A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place." Here was a book that actually said what I'd suspected all along: That people who are messy are actually on to something. We actually make the world better! What a great concept!

So naturally I immediately bought the book on and it is in the pile by my bed. I haven't finished it yet but so far it is spot on.

The authors' contention is that neatness for its own sake has hidden costs, because it takes time to organize and keep things neat; time that could be spent doing productive work. In addition, the neatness and organization may not even confer an advantage. In business, often moderately disorganized people and businesses are more efficient and creative than those that are obsessively neat.

I can certainly relate to this. If I took the time to organize all the messages in my e-mail inbox, for instance, I'd never have time to do ANY work. And even though I currently have about 1800 items in my inbox, I never have problems finding anything I'm looking for. But if I filed them all neatly in my personal folders, you can bet I wouldn't be able to find a thing!

Now mind you, you can't be like the Collyer Brothers and hope to function in the real world. There is a limit, and luckily I have not reached that limit. I am still at basic First Degree Squalor. Luckily DH, being a bit more of a neatnik than I am, keeps me honest. If I lived alone, doubtless I would never hang up my coat and would leave it lying around the living room. But when DH is home I do as he does, and hang my coat up. And, because of our tendency to fall behind on all of our houseworkly tasks, we do have a cleaning woman who comes in every other week. So we are not in danger of roaches, mice or other vermin taking over the house.

But keeping the house under control is just one more thing with which I must battle. It is part of my endless struggle between what I feel like doing and what I know I should be doing. Like exercising, and losing weight. The Id and the Superego always at war. I guess Freud had it right!