Apr 18, 2007

Nesting Instinct, or Anal Renention?

Larry and I have been settling in to our new home, a real home where we can offer hospitality and build community. That was our prayer for months: a cool, funky place with character and a place to build community. We didn't pray for a house on a flat surface, so we got a place on a hill. But while the climb up to the house presents challenges when you used to buy water by the gallons, the view is worth the hike. And so is the place. two stories, spiral staircase. It's light and bright and airy, a fireplace we never thought we'd get. And the views. This is a place we finally feel proud to bring people over and hang out. We are thrilled and thankful.

In the process of settling in, Larry discovered my anal-retentive side in full sphincter clinch. Or as we ladies call it, "the nesting instinct." Can we help it? Guys may think women are into things, but it's not so much that as a need to make a place feel like it's ours. As our therapist said when we were doing pre-marital counseling, "Guys can live in a cardboard box. Women cannot."

Speaking of cardboard boxes, Larry had lots of them, including a file folder box with a map of the world, which he kept since high school. I appreciate the nostalgia of it. In fact he was finally ready to abandon it our old place, but I rescued it and brought it to our new home. So it was filled with cleaning supplies ... I saved it didn't I?

For the first week, while Larry went to work, I went to work on the nest. I unpacked, sorted, winnowed, cleaned, vacuumed, and dusted. I scrubbed the washing machine of soap residue. I brushed bugs out of the window frames. I didn't need to go to the gym. I was getting an 8-hour aerobic work out five days in a row.

And not that the house was a huge mess. It's a beautiful place, and our owners have taken great care of it. But they moved to Portland a year ago, and for past 12 months the house has been inhabited by renters who didn't really "live" here. They didn't appreciate the big kitchen and the gorgeous views and the deck. The last renter was a clueless 24-year-old guy who never turned on the stove or picked up a broom.

When life feels in control, I don't notice my environment. But when life gets chaotic (as it always does in a move), I take a toothbrush to the tiles. I get out the Scrubbing Bubbles. I organize my sock drawer, my desk drawer. I Q-Tip the dust on the windowsill. For God's sake, who really cleans out a washing machine? I do.

When I was young, our house was chaotic, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I remember our pantry was always mess. There were always three half-opened boxes of every cereal, Weevil moths flying around. I used to come home and clean the pantry, organizing the cans by vegetable, dumping out boxes of Dad's stale raisin bran, mumbling under my breath how haphazard the food was. That was just my way of dealing with the rest of the chaos and neglect in my family. Then I discovered anorexia. And yes, years of therapy showed me the ironic connection between the messy pantry and family neglect and my need to control food. I've gotten through most of it.

And, I've just had to accept the fact that on the Myers Briggs Personality Test, I'm a "J" and I'll never be a "P." (Judging - Perceiving defines how a person implements the information she has processed. Judging means she organizes all her life events and acts strictly according to her plans. Perceiving means that she is inclined to improvise and seek alternatives.) Larry's definitely a P. And I was never more "J" than when we moved.

Our home owners Ted and Lori were there for a few weeks before we moved in: cleaning, prepping, making space for us. And when we did move in, they let us take over, rearranging furniture, moving in our dishes and moving theirs out. Ted spent long hours setting up automatic sprinklers so we wouldn’t have to water. Larry’s not a yard work guy.

Larry’s also an introvert. He deals with change by retreating. So in the midst of the move, he needed a corner of his own. Our bedroom had an alcove that would be perfect for him to work at, with a built-in bookshelf opposite. And Larry saw this as his logistical refuge.

Lori offered Larry the use of her desk downstairs. So while I was in the midst of cleaning (something pertaining to the good of all) Larry asked me to help him move the desk up to the alcove (something pertaining to the good of himself). Larry works 40 hours a week at an office for the good of both of us. So I should gladly do the house work. Nevertheless, I dropped what I was doing to help him, grumbling to myself that he didn’t ask if it were a convenient time for me. So much for the Proverbs 31 wife.

As we got the desk to the bedroom door I stopped him and explained that, while I supported him having a desk in our bedroom, I needed the room to feel peaceful. Ladies can I get a witness? As Elle Décor and Oprah magazines will tell you, the bedroom should be a place of rest and peace. For many of us, that does not include a home office. And for me, visual clutter is a distraction. Sure, a nice row of books, a few well-placed picture frames, maybe a candle ... those are visually peaceful. But a desk with a stack of mismatched papers and a bookcase filled with guy stuff is not.

So, with our homeowners still there, and with Larry craving solitude and me craving order, we were stuck with a desk in the doorway.

"Well I’ll try to keep things clean," Larry replied, "But if it’s not going to work…"

"I want you to have a place, Larry. Let's move the desk in and we can adjust as we go."

"Just do me a favor, Susan. Don't move my things. I want to know where they are. If you don't like something, tell me and I’ll take care of it."

"Of course," I assured him.

I knew what that was about: in our teeny old apartment, Larry’s desk was in the living room. Stacks of papers and receipts accumulated on his desk, the stereo cabinet, the speakers, on any flat surface in proximity to his desk. I brought up a filing cabinet, so he could put the papers inside. But more piles would accumulate. Every once and a while … okay when life felt chaotic … I’d put his papers into the cabinet. And he’d have to guess where they went. So he had a point.

So while Larry got his desk into the alcove, and I went back to rearranging coffee mugs or office electronics, or whatever else I was doing. I think I stayed up until 2am. I recently read an interview with Kristen Chenoweth. When they asked what she did for relaxation, she replied, “I clean my house.” Amen, sister. I may have been putting in a lot of aerobic exercise, but frankly it calmed me. So with Larry fast asleep at 2am, I snuck in and slept soundly.

The next morning I woke up and in the light of day, got a look at how he'd arranged things in his alcove. The desk looked nice. Computer, speakers, cell phone. A wad of electrical cords out in the open, but we could fix that. And then I saw what he'd put in the bookcase. A stack of blank cassette tapes and a recorder, several cardboard boxes in varying stages of decay, a stack of vinyl legal pad holders, three ties he had vowed to burn, a lamp with no shade, and some Austin Powers fake teeth. Items had hitherto been stuffed in a drawer in our garage.

I gritted my teeth and breathed. Maybe he just took them out of the old drawer to make room for his socks, and he’s going to fix this up later. But later came and went. Two days passed. Now the cassette tapes and ties had been joined by a 2005 Dilbert desk calendar and a bicycle pump. This would not make the cover of Architectural Digest. So I asked him about the bookcase.

“What I’ve got set up here works for me,” Larry replied.

“Well it doesn’t work for me,” I countered, and reiterated my dissertation on visual clutter, and offered a solution. "How about I go to IKEA and look for some boxes?"

The next day I headed out to IKEA and got a few sets of brown leatherette boxes from their NOSTALGIK line, and brought them home.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"Um, it's hard to tell," Larry replied. They were still in the packaging, unassembled.

So that evening Larry played music through his iPod, assembled the NOSTALGIK boxes, and placed Larry’s ties and legal pads and Austin powers teeth into tasteful storage.

All except one of Larry’s decaying cardboard boxes, which housed an assortment of Larry's childhood memorabilia.

"Why don’t we switch that out?" I suggested.

"But it fits so nicely in this box," Larry said.

"This IKEA box is the same shape. And look, it has an oval window so you can see what’s inside."

Larry relented. So the old decaying cardboard box, addressed to Dave Andrews at World Vision, went into the garbage.

Two days later, Larry received his new supply of fish oil. In a cardboard box. The box sat on the bookcase for 48 hours. I couldn’t handle it. I placed the cardboard box into the empty IKEA box. Without asking.

"Have you seen my box of fish oil?" Larry asked a few days later.

"I put it in the IKEA box."

Larry didn't complain or remind me that I'd promised to tell him. He just went up and found his fish oil. I'm a Jerk. Maybe the J in the Myers Briggs test stands for "Jerk." Or maybe I can't help it, I'm a nester, in full sphincter clinch.

Meanwhile I organized all of our boxes in the downstairs bedroom. I spent Friday night repainting it from a dark maroon to a pale pale “Peacetime Blue,” and set up my office. It’ll eventually have a day bed, where my mom can stay when she comes to visit. But for now it’s a clean well lighted place for me to write.

And Larry’s nowhere to be seen or heard.

At our teeny old apartment, Larry was set up the living room and I in the bedroom, but we were only 20 feet from each other, with no door between us. Now I was downstairs and Larry upstairs. It felt like we were living and working apart. It was lonely.

When our house owners left and the place was finally our own, Larry checked out the office across the hall from m Peacetime Blue room.

“This desk is big,” he commented.
“And close to me,” I added.

Now Larry is set up in the dark green downstairs office, just a feet away from me. We do have doors to close when I'm on the phone or Larry's listening the Dodger game. But we can blog and write and do whatever, and we’re close.

As for Larry’s alcove space upstairs ... On the desk sit a set of detached computer speakers and a wrist pad. The bookshelves boast a row of tasteful IKEA boxes, but not much else. I think it needs a little visual interest to break up the monotony of brown leatherette. Maybe a picture frame or a candle. But not a bike pump.


Madley said...

So glad to hear about your moving in... I've been here 12 years and STILL can't get myself "nested." Maybe I need a fellow "nester" help with that?

BTW, I used to live on Escarpa in Eagle Rock -- 104 steps up! Fortunately there was FLAT back driveway -- and I always waited until nightfall so Oxy campus security could give me a ride! hehehe

YAY Eagle Rock!

Stephanie said...

sigh .... you two are living our dream ...!

Every time we imagine remodels around here (which we do a lot), the first thing that goes into the "plan" is our dual set of office spaces.

I'm quite jealous!

Anonymous said...

Eric is very clean and very organized. It has only taken me 27 years to make it so.

Larry really did try to keep a good house when he first moved into his little apartment. He even considered putting black and white photos on the wall. Four years later, the walls were still bare. But hey, getting his stuff out of boxes, in just under a year...you're doing swell!

Funny story!

Anonymous said...

Good job Susan! (this said by a woman who lives with a traffic signal in her livingroom...)
Them menfolk got some funny ideers, no? :-)

Anonymous said...

It is SUCH a small world. Just 3 years ago I was having a bridal shower for MY matron of honor and Ted's old roomate Dave who was getting married at that house and now look, my other best friends are now living there. It IS definitely a GREAT place for a party.


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