SAN DIEGO — For years, I've been resolutely messy. Now, however, I'm finding out that time is money, and when it takes me longer to locate the notes for an article than it does to write the piece, I see that a change is needed. I'm a compulsive clutterer, but I'm also abnormally sensitive in my pocketbook, so I'm strongly motivated to reform.
But in considering changing, I wonder how I got this way. I remember starting a history notebook at the beginning of the sixth grade. Would I keep it impeccably ordered like my Marine father kept his files, or in genteel disarray like my mother's letter drawer? I opted for mother, or rather I slid into the habit of never knowing exactly where anything was. There was something thrilling about having potentially lost something, that pit-of-the-stomach feeling one gets on a roller coaster, and then the pleasurable relief of finding whatever is misplaced. A drugless high.
My untidiness appears to be a genetic fluke, however. My mother was disorganized, but she kept an immaculate house. It just took her a little longer to clean than most people. Even my grandmother, a primo pack rat, accumulated junk neatly.
My mother recently asked me why I thought she and her sister never had their children pick up around the house. In my aunt's case, I don't know. In my case, I was the adored only child who never had to lift a finger. I didn't learn to make my bed until boarding school, and even then the housemother said it looked more like a nest than a bed--no hospital corners for me.
Boarding school was the equivalent of basic training. I cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes and waited tables. While in school, whenever I went out for a weekend with friends, my gift to the hostess was to do the dishes after every meal. However, I continued my general messiness. At one point, my roommates were so sick of the clutter that they quarantined me by separating me from the rest of the room with a standing wardrobe closet.
So I grew to adulthood with the magic touch. Give me five minutes alone in any room, and you have to wade through it. I have a friend who says papers breed beneath her bed, and I swear the same thing goes on in my car's back seat. Magazines and manuscripts reproduce spontaneously. No one riding with me ever has to worry about reading material. As a matter of fact, anyone sitting in the back seat is up to her knees in it.
My disorder has a long history. When I was in college, my father made surprise raids on my apartment armed with disinfectant and a vacuum cleaner. On Saturdays, he turned into a domestic Rambo. But the more he lectured and cleaned, the more I entrenched myself in clutter. No doubt some of his vigilance and ire was left over from commanding Marines on an aircraft carrier. The Navy chaplain sold popcorn during movies, and my father's Marines, whose job it was to maintain helicopters, had to sweep up afterward. I don't think Dad ever completely recovered.
Please don't mistake me. I'm not dirty, just disorganized. I bathe regularly. The fact is, however, that I've become accustomed to clutter, and I'm not really comfortable without it. I appreciate clean rooms. In some cases, I even think cleaning is an art form. But when I stay in a clean room for too long, I get antsy, like a gunslinger who can't sit with his back to the barroom door. I'm out of my element. For me, there is something cozy about a messy room. It's the psychological equivalent of a fire in the fireplace on a cold winter night.
However, there are some rules a prudent person should follow when dealing with a "messer." Though well-intentioned, messers aren't completely trustworthy. Never have one keep airline or theater tickets for you. By the time the messer manages to find the tickets, the show will be over and the plane will have flown.
Book Lenders Beware
And never, never loan a "messer" a book. Recently, two friends tactfully inquired after a year whether I was finished with their books. I couldn't even remember borrowing them. To save the friendships, I tore the house apart. The books weren't crammed into bookshelves, buried under beds or stuffed into drawers. As a last resort, I climbed into the attic and ransacked boxes. Eureka!
A well-intentioned relative trying to keep the clutter level down to reasonable limits had shifted a lot of the onimum-gatherum upstairs. This kind of help is disastrous, particularly when a library book is involved. I have paid fines almost the size of the national debt as the result of such thoughtfulness.
But trust works two ways. I mean, would anyone completely trust a woman who has a totally organized purse without even so much as sales slip littering the bottom? What kind of mind is capable of such neatness?