My wife asked me Sunday if I knew where the power cord to the portable DVD player was, and what followed was remarkable. I knew where it was!
“It’s in the top drawer of my dresser!” I exclaimed excitedly. “Right next to the underwear I never use! On top of the socks I can’t find matches for!”
The reason for my exhilaration had little to do with the fact that Beth wanted to watch the movie “Hanna” and I didn’t. (I have a longstanding policy against watching anything starring actors whose names contain three consecutive vowels, disqualifying “Hanna” star Saoirse Ronan). The reason I was so happy was that I actually knew where something in my house was.
Our home is, to put it kindly, cluttered. We’ve lived in the same house now for almost 18 years, and some of the stuff we stashed in corners when we first moved in is still there. In addition, there’s almost two decades worth of other stuff accumulated in the interim.
We have crates of record albums, boxes of cassette tapes, and shelves of CDs. We have an entire table devoted to Beth’s knitting projects and an old sewing machine cart where I collect my bank statements. On the bar are all our medicines and medical bills, most of our photos and a lava lamp.
In the corner next to the piano is all of my son’s schoolwork, 12 years of crafts projects and term papers that come to about chest-high. On top of the piano is our jigsaw puzzle collection. Inside the piano bench is sheet music and other paperwork.
And of course there’s the piano itself — unplayed since my son stopped taking lessons in 1998.
Both Beth and I come from ancestors who grew up during the Depression when possessions were few, and who came of age during the unprecedented materialism of the late twentieth century. They held onto everything, and taught their children to do the same.
My mother carpeted our entire house in Miami with sample squares she collected from a nearby rug store. We had a utility room we could barely open without toppling stacks of junk.
When I first met Beth’s parents before we were married, I was shown to their guest room upstairs. To get there, I walked past her father’s life-long compilation of mementoes from his career in the Air Force, and enough carved monkeywood statuettes from his overseas travels to deplete the Philippine rain forest.
And there were stacks and stacks of his National Geographics going back to the Fifties. (He had wisely put the lifetime subscription in Beth’s name since she was the youngest family member; now that legacy piles up on our coffee table).
So, if we ever need any item that occupies space in the physical universe, we probably have it. Finding it, though, is another matter.
That’s not to say that we don’t have a “system.” We turned to ancient Mesoamericans and their famous burial mounds for a model of how we would store a lifetime of belongings. Each of our mounds has a theme that allows us to retrieve approximately what we need, approximately when we need it.
The closet in our office, for example, contains the gift-wrap mound, the office supplies mound and the outdated computer equipment mound. We use very precise archaeological methods to locate what we’re looking for. Near the top of each pile are recent additions to the collection, with older exhibits closer to the bottom. At the base of the computer pile, for example, is an ancient Underwood typewriter, last used by the Incas.
I love our house but it was not built with a lot of good storage space. Aside from the closets, there’s only a crude attic where we’ve stashed Christmas decorations and the crawlspace that’s taken up with all my murder victims. We did buy an outdoor shed shortly after we moved in, primarily so I wouldn’t have to keep the lawnmower in the bathtub.
I think it’s important at this point to note that we are not pathological hoarders, like you might see on certain reality TV shows. We can and do throw stuff away frequently. Just this morning, before leaving for work, I threw a bunch of food scraps and used cat litter in the garbage bin outside.
We participate in our city’s recycling program, discarding old bottles and plastics and newspapers on a weekly basis. (I’d hoped for a long time that municipal officials would add human waste to the list of acceptable recyclables. When my calls to our councilman promoting this initiative failed, I stopped collecting my urine in Mason jars).
But we are not hoarders. We have all our teeth, we occasionally comb our hair, and we’re careful not to wear sleeveless t-shirts and muumuus when television cameras are around.
I keep telling myself that one of these days, I’m going to get everything organized and cataloged. I’ve already started on the pile of household records in our office, putting them in a file cabinet of tabbed folders reading “phone bills” and “vet” and “restraining orders.”
After I’ve retired, I plan to take this on as a full-time job. I’ll go through the various mounds of junk and apply radio-frequency identification tags to every item. This mix of high-tech and low-tech solutions will then allow me to wave a scanner over each of the mounds and be able to tell exactly what’s in there and where.
Who knows what bounty I’ll discover when I go through this effort? Maybe we’ve got the Holy Grail in there somewhere. Perhaps I’ll stumble across a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or maybe that ultra-rare Ty Cobb baseball card, or — who knows? — the Great Emancipator’s rookie card from when he was a young catcher with the Cubs.
Maybe I’ll even find the DVD player that goes with the power cord I found Sunday.