A few years ago, my wife Debbie and I were at a dinner party at her parents’ house. I was standing near my favorite spot, a chair in the corner of the living room next to the piano. I had tucked into a plate of hors d’oeuvres, absent-mindedly munching some shrimp while I eavesdropped on the pleasantries being exchanged in the dining room. I hadn’t noticed Debbie’s sister Laura standing next to me when she said, “Oh my God, Matt, look at your plate!”
I looked down at the smeared cocktail sauce and shrimp tail shrapnel and told Laura that I didn’t notice anything strange. “Look at the way you lined up the tails,” she said. “Did you do that on purpose?”
The shrimp tails were arranged around the rim of my paper plate with precision that would make a German automobile engineer proud. The half-dozen pieces were lying together, each one touching the next, turned on their sides in the same direction so that the curves interlocked. The chewed off ends faced the center, lined up in a semicircle matching the rim of the plate. The hard tailfins pointed outward toward the edge of the plate with their flaps dovetailed together. I said I was just playing with my food and pretended to laugh it off, while all Debbie could say was, “You are so strange.” I was embarrassed. I hadn’t realized I was doing it.
Searching for Ken Howell
Some people play video games in their free time; others like to exercise or read. My hobby is organization. I put things away. I’m not one of those poor souls who is paralyzed by the presence of a speck of dust on the floor. I don’t wash my hands until they are raw. I grasp handrails on the El without hesitation. But I sort and I categorize and I de-clutter. I have a platonic idea of where things belong, and spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they stay there. I scarcely talk to Debbie for the first 10 minutes after I come home every day. I’m too busy opening the mail, pushing in chairs, gathering scattered sections of the newspaper, and putting dishes from the sink in the dishwasher. Our home is catalogued, indexed, and filed according to an instinctual plan. I stack clean dishes by size and weight. I separate my shirts by color. I line up my socks by length and usage: three-quarter running socks, full-sized tube socks, blue dress socks, black dress socks, with and without patterns.
On New Year’s Day this year, I spent four hours weeding my file cabinet, alphabetizing papers and subdividing the bulkiest folders chronologically. I made a separate folder for the last two years of each type of utility bill, bank account, and invoice, even though I also have all of the amounts recorded on the computer. “So strange,” I heard Debbie say again from the other room, where she was avoiding the manila whirlwind. I am the model citizen for the IRS. If I need to know how much I paid for electricity in June of 2002, I can find the original paper bill in 30 seconds. These are the mundane details of my life, interesting to no one, not even myself. But being able to conjure two versions of them at a moment’s notice makes me feel in control.
I think this behavior is hereditary. My dad, the high school principal in Poseyville, IN, where I grew up, roamed the school’s common areas after the student lunch hour, collecting candy wrappers that students had wedged between the slats of the benches. If one of the class clowns started doing impressions of the teachers for a few laughs, the easiest way to pull off my dad was to walk around a room, straightening papers and pushing in all the chairs. When he left his job as principal to take a new position as the school district’s assistant superintendent, his colleagues held a roast. They handed him one of his gifts, a wooden mantle clock, and the first thing he did was brush the dust off the top. The crowd, which had just spent the afternoon poking fun at this very same habit, burst into hysterics. I laughed along with them, but thought to myself that I would have done the exact same thing.
My mom is also a stickler for cleanliness and order. She’s a third-grade teacher. Many of her students come from poor, rural families, the products of irresponsible or overworked parents, unemployment, and broken homes. The most she can hope for her students on some days is that they come to school properly dressed and fed. Her goal is to provide the routine and discipline these children lack at home. Like every elementary school teacher, she plans daily lessons down to the minute. But her methods are extraordinarily effective. The principal places the most difficult children in her class because of her reputation as the “structure” teacher. “These kids crave structure because they don’t have it at home,” she says. “If I don’t do the spelling lesson at the same time every day, they complain.” The first time I visited her classroom, I was amazed at the eagerness with which a group of nine-year olds stacked their chairs on their desks and put away supplies at the end of the day.
My mom brought this structure home. She ironed my t-shirts. She vacuumed my bedroom every day. The perfectly symmetrical lines the brushes made in the carpet provided the blueprint for discarded shrimp tails at future cocktail parties. She would have terrorized a normal teenager content to sleep in a bedroom among piles of dirty laundry, but I didn’t mind. She never once had to ask me to clean my room.
I spent countless hours in my room as a kid, collating and counting my baseball cards. I was a set collector. I wanted to have each card printed by each company each year. The final tally for the brand was my yearly goal: Topps sets had 792 cards, Fleer and Donruss 660 each, Upper Deck, 700. I could have gone to the baseball card shop and bought the whole set at once, in a sealed box in mint condition (and considered much more valuable than a rude “hand-made” set). But buying a whole set at once felt like cheating.
Every spring and summer from age seven until I learned to drive, whenever I got a few dollars, I rode my bike to Lockwood’s general store and bought packs of cards from Jean, the store clerk who always saved extras for me. Sometimes I had the $10 or $15 to buy a whole box of 36 packs. I’d take the box home, close the door to my bedroom and set to work. The cards were numbered, so I had to put them in order. I opened each pack of 15 cards, chomped the stale pink gum, and shuffled them into my sorting box, a white corrugated cardboard contraption with 10 separate compartments made specifically for neurotic kids like me. I dropped each card into a separate compartment based on the number printed on its back. First I separated them by the hundreds—100s, 200s, 300s, and so on piling into separate slots. Then I split each of those stacks into teens, 20s, 30s, and so on until I had a small enough stack to order by hand. I cross-referenced these against the list of cards I needed to complete the set, then I filled the gaps in the polyvinyl display book pages where I kept the work in progress.
By the end of the summer I usually needed a handful of cards, which I acquired through trades with friends or else scavenged from bins at collector shows held by other hobbyists at local schools and VFWs. When I was 13, my friend Chris knew that I was desperate for a Ken Howell to finish my 1990 Fleer set. He had one. He demanded a whole dollar for it. I was indignant, because Howell was a mediocre pitcher for the Phillies and his card was worthless to anyone but me. But Chris, a burgeoning businessman, knew about supply and demand and stuck to the price. I forked over the 99-cent markup to satisfy my completion urge. The set was complete, and so was my summer.
Sorting the cards and assembling the sets gave me the sense of control I craved, a concrete feeling of being finished with each task before moving on to the next. I knew there would be a Ken Howell for every baseball season, but I also knew that I would find him, put him in his proper place, point to that box of cards and say, “Done.” This state of Done became a physical constant, the state to which all tasks should gravitate in my world. As I grew older, adult trappings like file cabinets replaced paper images of my heroes, but the weight of Done, and its corollary, Order, hasn’t changed. My cards are still sitting in a closet at my parents’ house, and I haven’t touched them in years. Yet I’m certain I could find Ken Howell in less than five minutes.
During my freshman year at Indiana University, I shared a dorm room with Chris. He knew full well about my freakish sense of order, and occasionally decided to have fun at my expense. He and the rest of my friends took turns moving around the stapler, the pencil cup, the tape dispenser, and the computer widgets on my desk while I was out of the room. When I came back to the room they kept quiet, acting like nothing happened, then would burst out laughing while I unconsciously started putting my things back in their “proper” places. They pulled this off three times before I caught myself. “Even your trash is neat,” one of them told me at lunch one day, after he watched me crumple a sandwich wrapper inside an empty bag of chips, then stuff that into a soda bottle.
I make a conscious effort not to let this obsession with Done and Order wreak havoc on my marriage. Debbie swears she finds my habits endearing, but I can tell she has subtly adapted to my tics. “You’re so strange,” she always says, like when she watches me put the dishes away from the dishwasher. I rotate them to make sure each plate gets equal playing time, stacking clean ones on the bottom and moving up the “fresh” ones. I empty the utensil drawer before I put away the clean pieces. This way I can put the unused silverware on top, like I’m afraid I might hurt a spoon’s feelings if I don’t use it as many times as the others. I don’t insist that Debbie put away the dishes the same way, but I notice that she only empties the dishwasher if I’m out of the room.
It helps that she has her own strain of compulsion that complements mine. Where I am the organizer, Debbie is the cleaner. She leaves dishes in the sink and drops her dirty clothes wherever she happens to take them off. But she also gets on her hands and knees to scrub the kitchen floor with a rag (the mop doesn’t do a good enough job she says). I can’t stand to see one stray section of newspaper sitting on the coffee table. But when I pick it up I ignore the dust and black smudges on the table’s surface. I used to badger her about the clutter when we first moved in together in a creaky Lincoln Park brownstone. She countered by pointing to crumbs that I left on the counter and the dinner table and the couch. This never became a problem, however, because we soon developed a nice division of labor to keep the house in order. Debbie agrees to clean as long as I keep everything out of her way.
We maintain separate work areas at home, mine a Spartan arrangement of a small laptop and accessories on the kitchen table, hers a dedicated computer desk stacked deep with papers from her real estate business. I don’t question the tidiness her workspace, but it helps that it’s in a separate room. She insists that she works well this way, so I don’t interfere. I don’t think of her desk as shared space; it’s part of her environment and thus I don’t try to control it. I have to treat it this way to avoid feeling distressed at its messiness, and to keep from interfering by imposing my systems on her work.
But the need to do things my way has interfered with my professional career. I worked in the information technology industry for six years, just long enough for me to fully appreciate how much I need to indulge my habits to be happy. I was drawn to computers by the same instinct that led me to sort baseball cards for hours as a kid. Computers provide the ultimate outlet for an order-obsessed tinker like me. They allow me to spend hours tweaking configurations, massaging data, and perfecting efficiency. And the file structure of a computer doesn’t warp or bulge out of its drawers every time I stuff it with more minutiae.
Despite this affinity with computers, my IT career was frustrating and disappointing. My last workplace, a gargantuan bank, is the high temple of standard procedures, an orgy of budgets, templates, and project plans. We spent more time talking about the documentation format for a user manual than it actually took to write the system’s code. One would think that working amidst institutionalized micromanagement like this, where words like methodology and framework roll off tongues as effortlessly as dollar figures from an auctioneer, I would have bolted out of bed every morning in a cold sweat because I had been away from work too long. But in fact, I hated my job for this very reason. I was too “fiercely independent,” as one manager called me. It was someone else’s system, not mine. I didn’t design it; thousands of HR drones and management consultants did, and the results never satisfied me. Projects were delayed. Deadlines slipped. Only a handful of proposed systems were actually pressed into production use. The rest, aborted because of budget cuts or endlessly changing requirements. I could never cross a task off my list and move on to the next because even the “stable” systems required constant care and feeding. Nothing was ever Done. That made it intolerable.
People tease me about my habits. They call me anal retentive, or say I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. I doubt I would be clinically diagnosed with OCD, but if some doctor officially tagged me with this label I wouldn’t take medicine or talk to a therapist. I have my quirks, but I refuse to see the fault in doing things that make me happy. I indulge my habits because I want to. They make me feel normal.
The Mess That Never Goes Away
While writing this, I believed I had reached an epiphany about what makes me tick. The act of writing burned off the haze of frustration with my job, and I realized that I actually enjoy compulsively organizing my life. I just needed to find ways to spend more time within the order of my own creation. At the time, Debbie and I were expecting our first child, a boy. We often talked about me quitting my job to help manage her real estate business, and decided that once we grew accustomed to parenthood, this is exactly what I would do. No more toiling away on corporate initiatives in which I held no personal stake, rendered meaningless by the filter of bureaucratic newspeak. No more pulling down the same salary, week after week, as a nameless cog in a corporate machine. I could define my own system. I could set my own schedule. And I could work on projects that actually produced tangible results, instead of rolling deadlines and endless bug fixes. We settled on a date the next summer and started dreaming about our new life. Then our son was born.
When Debbie and I brought Carter home from Northwestern Hospital, we walked into an apartment that trumpeted the arrival of a newborn, full of gifts and supplies left by grandparents who let themselves in while we were at the hospital. Debbie’s office, now the makeshift nursery, was crowded with a new changing table, dresser, and crib. The bassinet in which Carter would spend his first nights sat in our bedroom, not so much because we wanted to be near him, but because we lack a better space. Bags of tiny clothes and cartons of formula occupied every open counter space. I stepped over a stack of newspapers at the doorway and dumped a week’s worth of unopened mail on the kitchen table. The mess made my skin crawl.
I didn’t have time to clean up as all the newly minted grandparents, aunts, and uncles visited for the rest of the day. In the afternoon, I excused myself to dig my car out from the snow and burn some nervous energy. I hacked at the dirty sludge, piled up past the wheel wells by the city plows that cleared Morgan Street two days before Carter was born. I thought about the baby supplies we still had to buy. I remembered I needed to call the insurance company to add Carter to our coverage. I planned my chores for the week before I went back to work. And I realized I wasn’t thinking about the mess in our apartment.
I accepted the fact that the clutter in our home now would only get worse. The piles of toys and hampers full of dirty baby clothes would multiply and never go away. The mess in my home assumed the concrete inevitability of lake effect snow or the Cubs collapsing in September; I couldn’t make it go away, I could only learn to live with it. Until just a few days before, I was able to sort everything into neat cardboard boxes, put them away for posterity, and move on to the next task. But Carter won’t ever be “Done.” And, try as I might, I told myself I could never completely tame the disorder that was now shaped by a new being of my own creation.
I drove my thawed car to the store to pick up more diapers. When I came home, everyone else had left. Debbie was sitting on the bed trying to feed Carter. She asked me to bring her an extra blanket. I dug through his new dresser and found one in a drawer next to unmatched pairs of socks, piles of baby t-shirts, scattered fresh diapers, and a tiny stocking cap. I carried the blanket back to the bedroom. Debbie held Carter close to her body, stroking his head and gently blowing on his face to calm him. He struggled to feed in fits and starts, but eventually he relaxed and nursed peacefully. I watched them with absolutely nothing else on my mind. Six weeks later, I quit my job.