Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 14, 2012

Neatniks vs. the clutter-bugs

There can be little question that, as a country, we are divided.

I'm not talking about politics here, but neatness ... there is a neatness divide.

I thought about this as Thanksgiving approached. In fact, I always think about it when I expect others to be in my home. You see, I'm not the neatest person. I'm not the least-neat either, but I don't give much thought to stacking a few papers on the chair beside the dining room table or letting things accumulate next to my recliner.

This doesn't bother husband Art in the slightest. In fact, he has told me repeatedly that if he had to choose between having a neater house or having more time to spend with me, he would choose the latter every time.

Of course, Art is NOT the most orderly person in the world either. When he reads the newspaper, he throws the pages on the floor where they lie until I pick them up. When he eats a bowl of ice cream, he often sets the empty bowl on the floor.

Neatness is something people don't say much about, but some will definitely judge you on it. I admit my feelings about it are conflicted. While I'm impressed when I enter someone's perfectly tidy abode or office and wish I could be more as they are, the neatness factor quickly becomes invisible to me. How they are as a person is the thing that has the greatest impact on how I later remember them.

A former colleague of Art's was about the neatest person he ever met. He said a visit to the fellow's office revealed even the pencils on his desk were rectangularly aligned to the desk's edges. And during meetings, the man frequently removed a bottle of glass cleaner from a drawer and wiped-down his computer screen and keyboard.

My late mother-in-law Rita kept a tidy and spotless home and it seemed so effortless for her. I always admired the way she could carry on a meaningful conversation while sweeping the floor or cleaning the counter-tops.

In contrast, two students who rented an apartment from us were on the most-cluttered end of the spectrum. When Art had to enter to repair something, there was literally no place to step as every square inch of the floor was covered with clothes, old assignments, greeting cards, towels, dirty dishes and anything else you might imagine.

But unlike the political divide in our country, the middle ground between neatnik and clutter-bug is still heavily populated. Most of us are more like my Mom who is selectively neat. Her living room always looks nice. Her bedroom does as well. But the dining room is a bit less so and her computer room ... well, let's just say that sometimes I'm afraid she'll trip in there and hurt herself.

Art's Mom Donna looked at housekeeping as a necessary evil and used a slightly different method than Mom does to reduce her work. Rather than having neat rooms and messy ones, she had neat areas within a room. End tables were always in use for newspapers or a cup of coffee, but the top of the television cabinet and her bedroom dresser were rarely touched.

Donna and I always got along well and maybe one of the reasons we did was we shared certain neatness traits. While her home was reasonably tidy, she always had a pile of papers near her chair in the kitchen, just as I do in the living room. Occasionally I'll get after Art about his work bench just as she did when he was at home. "I'm sure you can't find anything in that mess," she'd say to back up her urgings. Art said what was so funny about this was she never used that bench for anything and it was in the basement, so why did she care?

And that business about not being able to find anything? Well, many folks with cluttered lives seem to know where everything is. Art likes to tell the story about a famous professor he had whose stacks of papers in his office started at the floor and terminated near the ceiling. He kept a stepladder handy to retrieve items near the top of the stacks. Art said some of the most legendary figures in his profession were almost equally well known for their cluttered work areas. One thing Art learned while taking business trips to various companies was if the laboratory areas were quite neat, they probably weren't doing anything of much value.

Many of us are situationally neat. My office at the university is better ordered than our home. Younger daughter Katie's room at home was often a mess, but when she moved to her own apartment, her neater side emerged. Older daughter Mariya will let things go until she can't stand it any more.

In the end, I take comfort in the words of author Jennifer Wilson, who has written for "National Geographic Traveler," "Midwest Living" and "Better Homes and Gardens."

"A messy house is a must - it separates your true friends from other friends," she said. "Real friends are there to visit you, not your house!"

Amen to that!

Robert Pease was a legendary electronics designer, but also well known for his desk, a photo of which from his monthly column appears above. Pease shared the following story:

"One time I was working on a Saturday after being at National (Semiconductor Corporation) just a few months. My desk was already stacked up pretty high. Another guy was at his desk, which had just a few dozen things on it. He was picking them up, one by one, studying them, and then throwing most of them in the wastebasket. I commented, 'You sure do keep your desk neat.'

"He said, 'Yeah, if I find something I don't need, I throw it out.'

"I said, 'Doesn't your wife ever get nervous?'

"He replied, 'She's my third wife.'"

NOTE: As I think I have mentioned before, hubby Art handles all of the web details of my column. This week's column appeared a day LATE because he ran into a technical problem at the high school where he was helping with the Christmas program. It kept him occupied at the school until after the show last night. This is the first time he's been late posting the column and being the Christmas season and all, I may forgive him.

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